Friday, Jan. 23, 2004 Ushuaia, Argentina
Nearly a week after touching down in Ushuaia, Argentina, the southernmost city in the world, Atravesando Fronteras is underway. The first several days were spent bumming around the city, which is alot larger and more modern than I´d imagined. I also had to get a repair done to a damaged front rack, which broke en route. Hopefully the new version will hold up under some strain.
I met up with Gwendal Castellan and Damien McCombs, who are embarking on their own cycling expedition called the Antipodes Expedition, and I´ve been hanging out with them ever since. We´ve hiked up to a nearby glacier and gone on a boat tour of the Beagle Canal, which included a stop at a penguin colony. They´re just as cute in real life, and I want one of my very own!
After cycling to Tierra del Fuego National Park, about 12 km west of Ushuaia, we camped for the night and set out the next morning for the start of Argentina´s No. 3 highway (or I suppose it´s the end), which is the official start of the expedition. After ceremonially dipping our bikes in the frigid waters of Lapataia Bay and sharing a bottle of champagne, we set off. Smooth sailing so far, although we´ve only gone about 24 km. back to Ushuaia.
Unfortunately, I didn´t compress any of my digital images and so they´re all too big to put on the site, but I´ll try to get some up sooner rather than later.
Wednesday, Jan. 28 Rio Grande, Argentina
Things are goig fairly well and we´re now in the surprisingly unnatractive city of Rio Grande, partway up the northewast coast of Tierra del Fuego.
The second day after leaving Ushuaia we crossed a tough, switchbacked pass leading towards Lago Nagnano, then fought a headwind and a rocky road towards the town of Tolhuin, where we enjoyed a feast of empanandas in the town bakery, which seemed to be the big hangout for young and old.
We spent the night and a rest day at Estancia Tepi, 20 km or so up the AR-3 from Tolhuin. From Tolhuin the road became thankfully paved. Estancia Tepi was a haven of luxury for three tired cyclists, if a bit over out budget. Whiule there we befriended Cacho and Elina, the two caretakers, and Filipe, their adopted two month year old guanaco.
From Estancia Tepi we were continued north into the winds that this area is famous for. we cycled nearly 50 kilometres, at times only going 6 kilometres per hour into a headwind the likes of which I´ve never experienced. We spent the night at Estancia Punta Maria, about 30 km south of Rio Grande. The estancia used to have a resataurant, and we were teased with signs promising chocolates and tea, but the place has fallen into disrepair, and the only one left was a surly old caretaker who, despite his apparent dislike of communication, allowed us to sleep in his woodshed, and even sold us some of his delicious fresh-baked bread.
We rose early to beat the wind for the home stretch to Rio Grande and were rewarded. It was teh smoothest ride yet, past estancias teeming with cows, sheep and guanacos. The mountains that are so prominant around Ushuaia have completely disappeared, and the trees have almost as well. All that left along the highway are a few gnarled, lichen-draped atrocities that wouldn´t look out of place in one of Tim Burton´s surreal nightmares.
We´ve checked into the Club Nautico here in Rio Grande, where we will sleep in a second floor gym'type room, and will enjoy a fish dinner for 6 pesos (about $3 Canadian).
We´re excited to get moving on north and then west into Chilean Tierra del Fuego, but are terrified about heading into more of the winds we faced two days ago, which we almost surely will. Nonetheless, spirits are presently quite high.
Thursday, Feb. 5 Punta Arenas, Chile
As I´ve mentioned before, this part f the world is famous for its winds, and for several days weve been fighting them nearly every inch of the way.
From Rio Grande, the AR-3 took us north along the coast to San Sebastian, a tiny outpost on the Chilean border. We pedalled into the wind past a landscape that reminded me of southern Alberta, mainly flat and boring, dotted with the occasional oil derek.
From San Sebastian, it´s a 145-kilometre slog to Porvenir, the only town in Chilean Tierra del Fuego of any significance. Into winds gusting 50 to 60 km. per hour (we guessed) we plodded along past barren yellow/greens fields, occasionaly dotted with an estancia or a wandering guanaco. Such scenery may be considerd beautiful in its own minimalist way by a speeding motorist, but under the present circumstances it passed with all the speed and enjoyment of a kidney stone.
The one moment of drama occurred about 30 km ast the Chilean border, when I was hit by one of only about 6 cars to pass us from behind each day. Gwendal and Damien were cycling on the left side of the road, which is where we did much of our riding since for some reason the dirt road seemed to be less rocky there, and I was on the right. With the wind howling in our ears it´s impossible to hear vehicles coming up behind us, and when I heard Damien yell "car" I was just in time to turn around and see one directly behind me, coming with decent enough speed. My first instinct was to swerve right, which unfortunately was also what the driver did, and he clipped my rear pannier. Luckily I escaped completely unscathed, but my rear wheel took a beating and, although it´s still techinically rideable, I´ll have to replace it before we leave Punta Arenas. On the up side, as Damien pointed out, its the first taco weve seen since we´ve been in South America.
As we reached the northern shore of Bahia Inutil (Useless Bay) the water´s bold blue stod in stark contrast with the drab countryside of the past two days, but the wind was just as ruthless so we didn´t really care. We stopped one evening to watch some dolphins frolicking just offshore, and camped near the beach the day before cycling the home stretch to Porvenir.
Porvenir itself is a cute little town with colourful, tin-sided homes and a frustrating dearth of signage. It was established as a base for miners during a brief gold rush in the late 1800s, but the rush never lived up to expectations, and I suppose neither did Porvenir. Nnetheless, it´s a nice lace to chill for a few days, which is what we had to do since we missed the ferry to the mainland on Tuesday and had to wait until this morning.
Now we´re in the "big" city of Punta Arenas, which at first glance seems like a nice city. Were going to spend another few days here taking care of business (new wheels, sewing, emailing, etc...) and then we´ll continue north towards Torres del Paine National Park and the Carretera Austral.
Wednesday, Feb. 11 Puerto Natales, Chile
The ride to Puerto Natales was much easier than we´d expected, and made even easier by a beautifully paved road. We made it in three days after allowing ourselves four.
The wind was only a factor on the second day, as we were forced to bunker down next to a fence with a tarp set up as a shield for about eight hours. No big deal though since we´d started out early (to beat the wind) and got in 50 km. before we stopped. When the wind died down around 8:00 PM we did another 20 km to Morro Chico, a tiny outpost next to a beautiful, massive chunk of rock rising out of the Pampas like Australia´s Ayers Rock. A carabinero (police officer) in town said we could sleep in a shed across from the station, and after stashing our gear we climbed around on the rock for a while before it got too dark.
We did 105 km yesterday, out longest day yet, and arrived in Puerto Natales, a little town teeming with tourists due to its proximity to Torres del Paine National Park, which is where we´ll head tomorrow for four to six days of hiking.
Wednesday, Feb. 18 Puerto Natales, Chile
We´ve just arrived back in Puerto Natales after six days of wonderfu and exhausting hiking in Torres del Paine National Park. We arrived at the park late and hiked a couple hours to our first campsite on the banks of the swift-flowing Rio Grey just before sundown.
On day two we hiked up alongside the river, which eventually widened into Lago Grey, which flows south from the stunning Grey Glacier and is speckled with the icebergs that have calved off this enormous ice sheet. It was a beautiful sunny day without a cloud in the sky, save for a couple that shrouded the mountain tops, making them look like they belonged on teh cover of a fantasy novel. After a refreshing dip in a smaller, warmer lake, we los the trail a bit and had to scramble up the rocky, glacier-scarred shore to get to our second camp, which had the distinction of having the worst toilet I´ve ever seen anywhere).
Over breakfast the next morning we watched the glacier, it´s jagged seracs shimmering in the sunlight and it freshly calved bergs a shade of blue I´d thought impossible in nature, the colour of 7-11´s Brainfreeze Slurpees. We continued hiking to our next camp, whose toilet facilities were actually worse since there were none, and the place was littered with discarded toilet paper in various degrees of filth. At night though we were entertained with one of the most starry night skies I´ve ever seen, traversed by the lazy wisps of the Milky Way, and we slept to the occasional roar of the nearby Glacier de Frances calving and falling like thunder onto the scree slope below.
We cut the next day a bit short and hung out at another campsite drinking wine and playing dice for push-ups. We´ve been trying to incorporate push-ups into our non-cycling days since we figure our upper bodies are in need of a bit of a workout.
The next day we hiked under our first sprikling of rain and a mighty wind to our final campsite, which generally serves as the base camp for day hikes to the magnificant Torres del Paine, the three giant spires that reach for the sky like a granite Empire State Building, and which are the park´s namesake. We awoke at 4:45 the next morning to witness sunrise on the torres, famous for producing a brilliant red hue on their surfaces. The light show was a bit underwhelming, only throwing a splash of orange onto the central spire a couple of times, but the towers themselves were impressive in their own right, and we braved the frigid wind and drizzle for an hour or so in awe of these granite goliaths. After returning to camp we had a brief siesta before hiking the rest of the way down and out of the park.
Now we´re back in Puerto Natales and plan to head out by bike tomorrow back into the park, where we´ll pick up some food we stashed, and north towards El Calafate, Argentina. We´ve heard mixed reports about the pass between the park and Calafate, and are anxious to hear from a couple American cyclist we´ve met who were about to attempt it as we began our hike. If all goes well, we´ll be in Calafate for Carnival!
Sunday, Feb. 29 El Calafate, Argentina
We left Puerto Natales bright and early at about 6 PM and headed north towards the Cueva del Milodon, a giant cave etched into conglomorate rock about 25 km. north of town. After camping for the night nearly in the shadow of a huge rock known as "La Silla del DIablo" (the Devil's Chair) we hiked in ho explore the cave, which is cool in the sense that all caves are pretty cool, but a bit underwhelming all the same.
n the way up, Gwendal and Damien had a catastrophic breakdown, when their rear cogset actually sheared in two. While they returned humbled to Puerto Natales I pressed on solo fr El Calafate.
The three days that followed were the best of times and the worst of times. I crossed back into Argentina on a crappy road with the wind at my back before hitting a beautifully paved section where I could go 33 km/hr without even trying. It's amazing how beautiful teh pampas can be with a tailwind, a huge blue/grey sky with lenticular clouds hanging like UFOs over the golden grasslands below. The pavement unfortunately lasted only 15 km. or so, and then I had to turn off onto the worst road I'd seen yet this trip. It began with consistent washboard (ribbed for my displeasure), which devolved into a rocky mess for the rest of the 50 km. or so to the highway. After my longest day of riding EVER, 121 km, I spent the night with a crazy lonely guy named Lazo at some sort of truck stop place.
The following day I rode another 98 km. into El Calafate, against the wind the whole way, and mostly uphill save for a great 10-km downhill stretch which would have been better without the wind slowing me down.
After a couple days in El Calafate I reunited with Damien and Gwendal, who had more bike troubles along the rocky road, and we biked out to the Moreno Glaciar. The glacieris massive and entertaining to watch in that it's constantly groaning and calving off chunks of ice into the lake, but it's very touristy and silent moments are hard to find. We all preferred the smaller Grey Glacier for its serenity.
El Calafate itself is a well-maintained tourist town with a pretty main avenue. I strayed four blocks off this main drag, however, and discovered a dingy playground surrounded by barbed wire, with a severed horse leg lying in front of the jungle gym. A tale of Two Cities indeed! We'll soon be off for El Chaltan, where we'd like to do some more hiking around Mt. Fitz Roy.
Monday, Mar. 15, 2004 Perito Moreno, Argentina
We just barely made it from El Calafate to El Chalten, along a terrible stretch where it seemed the road conditions and the weather conspired to see which could slow us down the most. We had to spend a few hours huddled under a tarp near a detour in the rocky road at one point because it was impossible to continue in the wind and rain. Fun times! It ended up taking four days to do what we we expected to take three days max, and so on our last day we had to ride about 40 km into the wind with only a few cookies and crackers to eat. But we made it, and then gorged ourselves on pizza and empanandas. Mmmm, empanadas....
El Chalten is a super cool little climbing town, super laid back, and everyone is so fit looking. As luck would have it, our first full day in town was their annual "Fiesta del Trekking" and there were all sorts of events going on. We somehow ended up entered in a mountain bike race through town, and surprised ourselves by finishing second and third behind a fellow cycle tourist from Barcelona. Bike tourers rule!
We celebrated that evening at a rocking party with way too many people crowded into the tiny favourite local watering hole, El Puesto. Well, we got pretty puestoed ourselves, and danced until the wee hours to a cool local ska band.
El Chalten lies in the shadow of Fitz Roy and some stellar mountain scenery, so we did a three-day hike through the Parque Nacional Los Glaciares, in which the town lies, and got awesome weather, apparently somewhat of an anomoly for the area.
After another peaceful rest day at our free camp site nestled between a swift river and one of the massive rock walls that envelope the town, we headed off to Lago del Desierto, where we were to catch a ferry that would take us to another ferry that would take us to the Carretera Austral in Chile. Unfortunately, trying to figure out Chilean ferry schedules is like trying to find a full set of teeth at a Dwight Yoakam concert. Long story short, the second ferry was broken and not running. We retreated back to El Chalten, and endured the worst luck on the road back. I got something like four flats, and Gwendal and Damien got one and then busted their trailer, and then their front rack. All told, it took 8.5 hours to do 35 km, which must be some sort of record. In hindsight, we had committed a mild blasphemy by posing for a photo next to a wooden Jesus at a roadside alter, and so we figured we were being smitten.
Not liking the idea of battling the headwinds through another 700 km of pampas, which would have been our detour to the Carretera, we hopped onto a bus and suffered instead through 13 hours of stuffy backpacker travel. Now we´re in Perito Moreno, a fairly unremarkable town, and tomorrow we´ll head to the border and connect with the Carretera from the town of Chile Chico.
Gwendal and Damien were both sick for a bit, I think from some fancy cheese they ate, but they´re doing well now and I seem to have avoided it...for now.
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