We replaced the tent in Puerto Natales and tested it out in Torres del Paine, home of Patagonia´s other famous rock spires and the now familiar wind. The mountains were similarly stunning, but the new tent failed to live up to our old one and we might never get over the loss. That portable shelter housed us for three months through all kinds of conditions and pathetic as it may seem, we became quite attached to the little yellow nylon bubble. Sometimes after a hard day on the road, all we had was the Half Dome with her multiple interior pockets and two roomy vestibules…
Anyways, back to more interesting descriptions. Torres del Paine is one of the premier trekking destination in South America and initially we had grand plans to hike the full 10 day circuit. But three easy day hikes in El Chalten made us reconsider (my legs were so sore I could barely walk). We opted for the shorter route known as the ´W´ and the snowstorm we encountered the day after we arrived in Puerto Natales confirmed that this was probably a wise choice. In five days, we had glaciers, granite spires, the standard insanity of Patagonian weather, pill popping (my usually robust knees did not like suddenly being saddled with loaded packs on steep rocky terrain), and some wildlife encounters.
Looking out over Glacier Grey, with its giant chunks of blue ice floating in the lake and deep crevasses, we imagined looked a bit like looking at Antarctica – or the last ice age. A huge sheet of thick white glacier spreading out into distant snowy mountains half covered in mist. On the second day we hiked up the French Valley to a lookout over a cirque of towering summits. Needless to say, the views were spectacular and pain free thanks to the six advil I consumed throughout the day. Highlight of day three was the freshly steaming mystery poop we came across in the middle of the trail. It looked suspiciously like puma scat and we spent a tense few minutes wondering if there was a predator stalking us from some unseen vantage point. Alejandro had his knife out and was ready to defend us, but no puma materialized. In fact, the most dangerous wildlife encounter occurred on the second morning when I opened my pack and a very fat mouse (it may have been a rat…) scurried out after a night spent gorging on our granola. Even worse than our diminished food supply was my embarrassingly girly scream. Luckily we were the only people left in camp so no one heard (we always seemed to be the last to leave and the last to get into camp at night).
We arrived at our final campsite near the trail to the Torres lookout, a famous viewpoint at the base of the three granite spires surrounding a glacial lake, but decided to wait until morning for a sunrise view of the peaks. At 6:45 AM we crawled out of our tents to a light rain and headed up in darkness hoping for a weather miracle. By the time we got to the lookout, it was pelting rain and windy. We huddled under a rock, made coffee, and ate the last of our food still hoping for a miracle. When, at 8:45, the towers were not lit up electric red and orange like the postcards, but shrouded in clouds, we gave up and ran down the trail in increasingly the obscene weather.
We rode out of Puerto Natales ridiculously happy to be back on the bikes because walking was too painful. This is ´Ultima Esperanza´or ´Last Hope´ province, a place where a long arm of the sea comes inland to meet the mountains and between Puerto Natales and our next stop, Punta Arenas, it was 250 km of flat windswept plains. Now, the smallest dots on the maps aren´t even towns, just large sheep farms called Estancias. But as the weather and landscape get harsher, the people make up it with their hospitality. At Estancia Irene, we escape the wind and the cold in the sheep shearers´quarters and get to watch spanish soap operas in the kitchen at dinner.
Now we´re in Punta Arenas, a sprawling metropolis at the end of continental South America, preparing for our final leg of the trip across Tierra del Fuego to Ushuaia. We finally bested our biggest mileage day of the trip two days ago and it was about time given that our previous best was set on day two. 136 km almost felt effortless. We´re back to desert riding – but without the scorching heat. Flat roads in straight lines to the horizon, wind (thankfully at our backs), and limitless skies. But now that we´re almost at the end of the world – even the locals refer to this place in those extremes – the desert feels tame in comparison. Here, the few trees that can survive are permanently bent in the direction the wind blows, weather is as mercurial as ever, and the hardest part of our day is trying to get the right combination of layers so that we can bike without sweating or freezing. In the morning it´s easy. We put on every item of clothing we have and start pedaling as fast as possible to accelerate the warming process, trying not to think about our perpetually numb feet. Fall temperatures have finally caught up to us as we wipe frost off our bike seats and spot cracked ice covering pools of water by the side of the road. Daylight is scarcer too. The sun sets at 8 pm and doesn´t rise until 8 am which means twelve hours of sleep and the rest of the time spent moving as much as possible – both to get somewhere and to stave off the cold.
Tomorrow we take the ferry across the Magellan Strait to Porvenir and from there it´s a little over 500km to Ushuaia. Sorry for the lack of pictures. We´ll get some up eventually.