Windy. One word I think all cycle-tourists would use when asked to describe Patagonia east of the Andes. The wind pretty much started as soon as we crossed over from Chile into Argentina. The crossing itself was quite an adventure. We had to take a boat across Lago Villa O'Higgins where we joined up with a small, rough road for 15kms of riding (and a lot of pushing uphill to a pass), through the Chilean/Argentinian border. On the Argentinian side of the border there is a small horse track, which with loaded bikes is no easy feat. The track involved almost 7kms of pushing past rocks and bushes, lifting the bike over fallen trees, crossing streams and getting stuck in deep ruts. And to add to the adventure a little bit of snow and hail on the way. Once we finally got down to the small Argentinean borderpost on the shores of Lago del Desierto we then took a boat across the lake to reach a rideable (joy!) gravel road.
This crossing is famously hard in the lore of South America cycle tourists, but we actually enjoyed it as we ended up doing it the same day as some other cycle tourists, Chris and Jaco, and Andy and Anita, and it ended up being a real team-building exercise!
We helped each other with the bikes in the tough parts, in the stream crossings, or when we got ourselves into awkward positions. We gained ourselves a new cycling family, which was expanded when we reached the touristy town of El Chalten and met up with more cyclists, John and Cathy, Ping and Alex, and Bernard. The All-you-can-eat pizza place didn't know what had hit them. We spent some time hanging in El Chalten and with all the cyclists we went for what was possibly the world's slowest hike (with far more time spent chatting than walking) up to a glacier, Lake Toro and Cero Torro.
Leaving El Chalten we entered the Patagonia of my imagination – the land of endless pampas grass, wind and desolation. The wind cannot be believed until it has been experienced. When we first left El Chalten and experienced the famous Patagonian wind, it was strongly in our backs and we zoomed along at almost unimaginable cycling speeds. I tried a number of different experiments to test out the wind's force. At one point I started from deadstill and tried to see how long I could go without pedalling. I went 10km before I got bored from sitting on the bike and not doing anything and started pedalling just for the fun of it – but during the time that I hadn't been pedalling I reached 45 km/hr, and probably averaged around 35-40km/hr. Did I mention that this was Without peddling!!!
The wind is all well and good when it is in your back, and for most of our time through Patagonia the wind was kind to us. But the wind also swung around, and the road snaked, and we often ended up fighting the wind, riding with our bikes on a serious lean and (don't read this bit mum) struggling to stop being blown into the middle of the road. This was possibly the only time that I was happy that our loaded bikes are so heavy as anything lighter would have been picked up and blown away! And then there was the times that we ended up with a headwind and were slowed down to a crawl, fighting our way through a wall of wind. The wind sometimes dictated our route as well, like the time we tried to go into El Calafate but after about 100m of pushing into a galeforce we gave up and turned around. Hmm never wanted to see that big glacier anyway..
Very few people live in the area of Southern Patagonia that we cycled through. In our three-ish weeks in this area we passed through a few larger towns, such as Puerto Natales and Punta Arenas but most of the time we were passing through unpopulated steppe, with only the occasional estancia (huge farm, like a station or a ranch) or police post. There were dots on our map – which in other areas would be towns, but in these remote areas could turn out to be abandonded bus-stops, or ancient cemeteries – or in best case scenario an estancia. We enjoyed the quiet riding, and the lack of cars, though of course sometimes it meant carrying extra supplies. We decided to take the more ripio (gravel) road through Tierra del Fuego, avoiding the main road for as long as possible and this turned out to be one of our favourite sections of the trip.
We camped at one estancia with picturesque old farm buildings surrounded by lupins -Estancia Cameron on Tierra del Fuego. We assumed it was a town, as we had read a blog about some cyclists that brought bread and beer there, but it was actually just a very large farm, which housed many worker families.. It was a great old place, well-kept and it felt like we were back in the Patagonia that we had read about. In a wonderful example of Chilean hospitality the owners of the estancia let us camp in the church yard, surrounded by old farming machinery, and brought us bread, salami, cheese, beer and the most delicious empanadas we had ever tasted – plus, some interesting stories about life out on the estancia.
The Patagonian pampas was great for wildlife spotting. We saw lots of guanacos (in the camelid family), nandus/rheas (like an emu), foxes, condors, skunks (one at the entrance to our tent one morning – ek!), an armadillo and lots more . On Tierra del Fuego we visited a King Penguin colony, which are usually only found in Antarctica and the Southern islands, and we also spent lots of times watching the very tame guanacos, who spent a lot of time watching us right back. One was very intrigued, came very close to me and Jaco and then charged us. Someone had told us that when guanacos fight they attack each other between the legs, so as the guanaco was charging me I had Jules yelling from a safe distance “watch out for your crotch” - helpful advice from afar, thanks honey. Guanacos make the strangest noise – best approximated as a laughing alien – which sounds very creepy floating across the wide-open, empty pampas...especially when you know they are standing back there planning an attack on your nether-regions.
As we approached the bottom of Tierra del Fuego the open pampas gave way to stunted forests of Northofagus. We crossed back into Argentina at our quietest border crossing yet – it was so very small that they haven't even built a bridge over the river to connect the two countries. We had to push our bikes through shin-deep, freezing water to cross the river and enter Argentina for the last time. In Argentina we rejoined the main highway for our last couple of days to the end of road, Ushuaia and even more importantly to our real aim.. the Bakery “La Union”, about a day's ride before Ushuaia. Not only is this bakery everything you could dream up for baked goodness, it is run by a cycling enthusiast who gives cycle-tourists a shower, a feed and a bed in the bakery's warehouse (hello fantasy world). Chris and Jaco and Jules and I were in heaven. And here we met Alain, who we had first met on our second day out of Anchorage, a year and a half before!
Our last few days on the bike, as we were running out of room for cycling, I was a bit glum as I wasn't quite ready to finish up our trip. We really dragged out the last few days of cycling as long as possible by camping about 10km before Ushuaia, and then actually passing straight through Ushuaia out to the final final end of the road at Lapataia in the Tierra del Fuego National Park – where we camped and enjoyed all our “lasts” - the last time we would both eat out of the same saucepan using only spoons, the last time to pack up the bikes, the last time for second breaky etcetc.
I wasn't ready to finish up as it has been such an amazing trip, meeting so many people, seeing so many amazing places and travelling in the best way that we could imagine.. by bicycle. Though, on one of our last cycling days into Ushuaia, when we got caught in heavy rainshower, got soaked through and freezing cold – and ended up seeking refuge in a dog kennel, where all we could smell was wet dog... we did look around and admit that maybe there would be some things that we wouldn't miss about the cycle touring. But even though we were stuck in a dog kennel we were still with our good cycling friends, Chris and Jaco, we still managed to make each other laugh, we made a cup of tea, and half an hour later the weather cleared revealing fantastic views down the valley and we found a magic little free camp next to a picturesque river. Dog kennels aside we are really going to miss the cycle-touring!
This is our last cycling blog.. but stay tuned for one more as we get our head around finishing up, the packing away of the bicycles and our adventures to make it back home.