05 May 2015

Punta Arenas to Ushuaia: Riding to the end of the road

We had a restful couple of days in Punta Arenas with our very kind couchsurfing hosts Jaime and Claudio, but with the Patagonian winter drawing ever closer we knew we couldn´t wait for too long. Punta Arenas marked the end of our journey on mainland South America, Finally we would be riding in Tierra del Fuego, a place which evoked in us ideas of remoteness, and discovery. We had been told that the scenery was not exactly stunning, but actually were pleasantly surprised by its open beauty. It reminded us of that favorite cycling destination of ours in the Northern Hemisphere, Scotland. 

Crossing Tierra del Fuego from Porvenir was a rewarding and beautiful experience,  which we appreciated more fully once we crossed into Argentina and found the busy route 3 which many cyclists take all the way from Rio Gallegos, if they don´t fancy the ripio of the Chilean side. We were so grateful for those final days in the ´wilderness´ before hitting ´civilization´again. On the other hand, civilization has its perks, as we learned during our rest in the famous Panaderia La Union in Tolhuin. 

Our arrival into Ushuaia was different to how we had pictured it. Poor weather forecasts prompted us to ride the final stretch from Tolhuin in one day instead of two, meaning that we had to watch the clock a little bit on our final day, and take our arrival pictures quickly while there was still some light remaining. Nevertheless, it was a day to be savored and one that we´ll remember for a while. It´s true that this trip has always been about the journey rather than the destination, but it´s also true that we´ve spent the last 16 months answering "Ushuaia" when people ask where we are headed. Regardless of our plans moving on from here (which will be revealed in a future blog post of course), arriving into Ushuaia represents the end of a chapter.

We catch the early morning ferry from Punta Arenas to Porvenir, on Tierra del Fuego, joined by Christophe who we had been riding with since El Chalten. Christohpe is a firefighter in France, and thanks to a complicated web of connections we were able to take the boat for free!

Leaving Porvenir we are delighted to discover that, unlike many of the ´coastal´roads in Chile, this one actually does follow the coast, giving us stunning views in the chilly sunshine (this one taken looking back on the hill we have climbed).

We had heard that drinkable water was hard to come by on this section of the ride, but soon learned that the presence of a dwelling meant there was a source of fresh water nearby.
We stop to ask for water at an Estancia, and are told we can camp on the dueño´s property by the sea. 

After a beautiful, if chilly, night by the ocean we pack up camp in the sunshine again.
Passing a few more fishermen´s homes as we go.

We spot something in the water that first we think is a whale, and then think is some penguins on a rock. We head to the shore for a closer look but can see nothing once we arrive. 
Reaching the crossroads for Cameron, we are delighted to find a refugio out of the wind, and decide to end the day early and sleep there. We collect some useful pieces of kit like this drink bottle that Christophe uses to store his condensed milk -- Spanish cafe bombon having become a favourite treat.
A sheltered spot to cook means we can be more ambitious with dinner, here making delicious flatbread to go along with our lentils and rice.

In the morning, we get some good news. We had left Punta Arenas believing that only the main border crossing on Tierra del Fuego was open, but some municipal workers who stop by the refugio in the morning are able to call and confirm that our preferred crossing, Paso Bellavista, is indeed still open. In great spirits we turn right towards Cameron. This does, however, mean a half day of riding into the wind.
Soon we pass the infamous King Penguin colony of tierra del fuego, which up until two years ago was free to visit but now charges a whopping 12,000 pesos ($20 US) for a few minutes´visit. We ask for water at the front desk and can hear the penguins in the distance and even see some black and white blobs in the grass far away. With the help of the camera zoom we can confirm that there are indeed some pretty impressive penguins there!

Later that evening we find an unused gaucho´s refuge, perfect for a night protected from the wind and chill.
Deceptively small from the outside, inside there are four beds and a small kitchen!

It´s a chilly start the next morning, and we start to understand why locals will seemingly find a way to make use of any kind of shelter available to them, including a broken down bus.

The final kilometers to the border are beautiful, passing through thick autumnal forest.

We arrive at Paso Bellavista in the late afternoon. We had been worrying a little bit about the river crossing we had heard was too high to ride through. Luck is on our side though, and as we are unloading the bikes to prepare for several portage trips, two Argentinian tourists show up in a pickup truck and offer to ferry our stuff across! We´ve never been so grateful for the presense of a car!

Finally, we´re in Argentina, having crossed our last border on this journey South.

We ask at the Argentinian border about where we can stay and are offered a quincho (covered camping area)...

... complete with parrilla!

Strong tailwinds the next day blow us all the way to the Ruta 3. Without much shelter around we don´t even stop for a proper lunch. The wind is much more pleasant when you´re moving with it!

We reach the main road in late afternoon but can find no where to camp. We are rejected from a police station and an estancia, resulting in pedalling almost until sunset. The road is busy, we are tired, and we just want to find a place to put the tent!

Finally, just as the sun is getting ready to set, we arrive to the Atlantic coast and find a perfect beachside campspot. It's visible from the road but the good news is there's not much light left in the day for drivers to see us.

In the morning we eagerly ride on to Tolhuin, where we know we will be taking a few days off in the legendary Panaderia La Union, which is known to host passing cyclists for a strategic rest before the push to Ushuaia.

It feels great to arrive to a warm place to sleep after so many chilly days and nights. Even in the absence of Emilio, the owner, we are still welcome to stay.

Cyclists are permitted to help out in the bakery, but perhaps it would have been better not to know how much butter goes into those delicious Argentine facturas. Yes, those yellow slabs are butter, on top of the butter that is already in the dough.

Time off in the Panaderia also gives Alberto and Christophe time to practice their beer-can stove making abilities. Spain won.

As always, the presence of other cyclists, particularly from France, Spain or Italy, in these spots leads to great culinary feats. Here the frenchies make apple tart.
Tolhuin is the kind of place where if you're not careful you can stay for a long, long time. But a look at the weather forecast suggests that we should take advantage of a clear day and make it to Ushuaia before a storm rolls through.
We often thought that Ushuaia was a rather arbitrary place for so many people to finish their rides, but in fact it means you get to finish by riding through some of the most stunning scenery for a long time. Riding in the autumn also offers some pretty cool colors.
The clouds intensify a bit as we make our way up Paso Garibaldi and over to another valley.

We're glad to be riding on a dry day, as it's clear that precipitation in this area takes the form of snow.
We arrive to the top of the pass, which to be honest wasn't much of a pass, at 450m above sea level and a gradient so gentle we barely noticed it. But we were in good spirits about our arrival Ushuaia so celebrated anyway.
But just because it wasn't as high as some other climbs in the Andes doesn't mean it didn't offer spectacular scenery!

Although temperatures were very rarely uncomfortably cold for us (with all our layers on), signs of winter were all around.
Argentinian Tierra del Fuego was full of signs about this missing girl.

Finally, in the fading light, the big city comes into view.

The epicenter of the 'Malvinas son Argentinas' campaign.

The money shot!

Route notes:

- Punta Arenas to Paso Bellavista: We were told there was no water on this stretch but in fact there are two or three freshwater streams and a fair number of estancias. We tried to make sure we were always carrying a full day's load. There is a bus shelter at the junction of the coastal road (Y-71) with the interior Y-635. At the crossroads with the junction to Cameron there is an excellent refugio (no water nearby). Be sure to ask about the status of Paso Bellavista in Porvenir (rather than Punta Arenas). Navigation is easy and signposted. There are no shops along this route after Porvenir. Camping is possible with both Chilean and Argentian aduanas.

Paso Bellavista to Ushuaia: There are three estancias spread out roughly evenly along the road towards Ruta 3, for water purposes. You join Ruta 3 about 12km south of Rio Grande. More traffic than we are comfortable with but there is a good soft shoulder basically the whole way to Ushuaia. No shops til Tolhuin.

28 April 2015

El Chalten to Punta Arenas: Proper Patagonia, pura pampa

Upon leaving El Chalten we knew what  to expect: pura pampa. And lots of wind. Luckily though, Flor´s Casa de Ciclistas is a paradise that also supplies riding companions, which in turn can be exactly what you need for the leg to the South. As much as we love each others company, neither of us makes a good windshield. So, we teamed up with some strong, hairy and a bit smelly chicos to ride into the Pampa...

But then, as we learnt further along the way, the famous Patagonian winds are (mostly) a thing of the summer, and not so strong in the autumn. Despite that, our route South was somehow carefully planned to sleep at the well-known wind shelters that Patagonian-bound cyclists have been using for years. Long gone are those days where fancy hotels and estancias sprung up all over Patagonia...but do they make good shelters once they are abandoned!

And of course, despite some fellow cyclists complaining at the boredom of the Pampa, we learnt to love it and, in fact, it was a section we always looked forward to riding. It´s another right of passage for those going to Ushuaia or the other way. It is scenery that has to be seen also, and also experience passing through. The nothingness of the place feels good (ok, perhaps not for too many days in a row) and makes you notice how privileged we are to be able to live in "populated" places such as Europe. Imagine seeing the isolated pampa and experiencing the roughness of its weather all year round...

After several days of howling winds and torrential vertical rain (which left a few broken tents), we leave El Chaltén before it goes to hibernation for winter
And when one leaves El Chaltén in clear weather and turns around, that´s what you get. Cerro Torre is the highest on the left, and then the mighty Fitz Roy standing in the middle

Glaciar Viedma (of the Perito Moreno type) appears on your right as you speed out of town propelled by 60 km/h plus winds
The strong team of cyclists with Christophe (France-Basque Country) in the front, machaca Lucy, Rodrigo (Santiago, Chile) and Samuel (Valparaiso, Chile)
Eventually, and having cruised at more than 30 km/h average, we reached the Ruta 40, turn right sharply, and face some Patagonian crosswinds. Then, somewhere along the road, a woman gets out of car and shouts "Soy Flor soy Flor!". Indeed, she was the legendary Flor, who had been absent but left her house open to us smelly cyclists. We did not have enough words to thank her and wished we had stayed one more day to meet her properly. We all were touched when we saw her in tears as she headed back to El Chaltén - what a woman! Flor, si nos lees, mil gracias por todo y suerte con tu futuro viaje!

Our target for the day, the Casa Rosada. A well-known abandoned building that passing cyclists use to shelter from the elements

As we were cooking dinner, a cyclist shouts from across the fence asking if there was anybody in the house. It turns out it was Venezuelan Lesther, on his way North to cycle and surf. What a different setup and trip from ours...that surely inspired more than one of us. Maybe Bikeagliding next (cycling and paragliding?)

On top of our cycling buddies, we had plenty of guanacos for company

The following day we pressed on...and past the famous wind signs. Even though there was no wind, we still pretended...

On and on we rolled on the smooth pavement of the 40

5 km before the turnoff to  El Calafate (access town to the Perito Moreno glacier) we know of another abandoned building. We make ourselves comfortable in the only clean roofed room and relaxed... By this point we had already decided not to go to the glacier

Having lost Rodrigo due to a mechanical issue, the following morning we kept going onto a dirt road shortcut. A sign read "don´t do like me and leave a tip" at the entrance?

Only four left 

Knowing that there was a river 20 km into the dirt, we made progress and got there at almost sunset. There was also a handy police station that we used as a shelter.
A frosty night and a much appreciated morning invitation to come inside the station by the policía-gaucho 
Leaving the station we hit more pampa, which nows has turned into rolling pampa, with some mountains visible to our right 

As we eat up the kms I shout "joder, is that Torres del Paine?". Christophe, who had already been, confirmed. 

To the left of the Torres, some other peaks, with the odd flamenco thrown in

Late that evening we left Argentina once again, via Villa Cerro Castillo. The friendly border agents let us sleep in an abandoned house until the following morning.
After clearing Chilean immigration, we head for a dirt road that goes along Lago Toro, avoiding the hefty fee required to enter Torres del Paine national park
The dirt road felt like almost pavement, but without the traffic and with great views. That evening we camped early to enjoy an incredible wild camp, with a view of the Torres del Paine in the distance.
A lonely tree on the beach indicates the prevailing winds in our campsite. Yet, once again, another windless night!
And surely it was one of the best camp spots of the entire trip

We had a bit of rain overnight and so when it stopped in the morning, we quickly set off to cover the remaining 40 km to Puerto Natales...
Which, despite its touristy reputation being the access town to Torres del Paine, was very pleasant
Being relatively isolated from the rest of Chile, it Puerto Natales has all the facilities and a real small town feel - at least in the low season!
And some pretty cool fjord views

El Rey de la Bicicleta - no visit to Puerto Natales is complete without one to this legendary place, which has been serving the Puerto Natales cyclists for more than 40 years!
Having forgotten about riding a dirt road stretch out of Natales due to mud and flooded river crossings, we set off on the main road to Punta Arenas, again fearing the crazy Patagonian winds...that never materialised. These bus shelters have been known to be used as shelters, but do watch out for mice/human shit and other delicacies!

Arguably, the route wasn´t the most scenic, but with some music pounding out of Christophe´s speaker, we were all in good spriits!

Came mid afternoon and we had already reached our target for the day. Another shelter where cyclists are allowed to camp. Luxury - it even comes with a bench!

The following morning we ride another 100 km until a wonderful estancia, where owner Juan and gaucho Amadeo welcome us with loads of tea and a wood-fire kitchen. We are in heaven! That night it rained cats and dogs, and we were so grateful to be indoors - we need so little to be happy, really
Unfortunately, the rain does not abate and we ride the entire 70 km left in less than optimal conditions. We arrived wet and cold, but we had a wonderful host waiting for so nothing to worry about. This photo is therefore from the following day

Punta Arenas is a large town (for Southern Patagonian standards) that serves as a gateway to Antarctica. But it also has some cool sights, including an impressive cemetery. 
 Route notes:

We only had a strong tailwind out of El Chaltén, the rest of the ride was pretty windless.

- We followed the usual route South, stayed the night at the Casa Rosada (120 km out of El Chaltén) and then the other abandoned building by the river, 5 km before the turnoff to El Calafate. We loaded enough food in El Chalten to get us to Puerto Natales (6 days).

- The border crossing at Villa Cerro Castillo is quiet and rather scenic, plus you can ask to stay inside the abandoned station on the Argentinian side. Villa Cerro Castillo has a small shop.

. We followed a dirt road that goes along the shore of Lago Toro after leaving Villa Cerro Castillo and avoided entering Torres del Paine National Park. It adds about 40 km to the otherwise straightforward route to Natales. There´s fences everywhere, but Chilean law allows access to all waters, so we did just that. We know of a few others who have managed not to pay the hefty 18.000 chilean pesos fee to enter the Park on the road heading North from Villa Cerro Castillo (less if you are Chileno). We just don´t agree with neither the Chilean policy of overcharging visitors  nor sneaking in.

- Puerto Natales to Punta Arenas: we took the main road, as locals said the dirt roads to the South would be almost impassable at this time of the year, following heavy rain. There´s plenty of estancias on all the route, and some rivers/streams, and so we never needed to carry water for more than one overnight.