Thursday, February 9, 2012

The Land of Wind and the Land of Fire: Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego (11th -30th Jan '12)

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.

Tips for Cyclists
Be prepared for the wind!! Riding north to south is definitely easiest in this area, as the winds are predominantley westerlys in summer and the N-S route gets more of these as tailwinds.. though you will still have lots of head and side winds too.. its still not “easy”.
There is quite a bit of info the Pan-Am Riders Google Group about this section if you do a search on here you will bring up some good distances, campsites etc.  Here is the website for info on the ferries from Villa O'Higgins across Lago O'Higgins After the ferry ride it is 15kms on a dirt track and about 7kms of tough work on a horse track to Lago Desierto.  Then you can camp for free near the Argintinean immigration post on the north side of Lago Desierto as you wait for the ferry to take you across.  The cost of the ferry across Lago Desierto had gone up to 110 pesos, and they tried to charge us for the bikes (20pesos) - though we managed to bargain them down a bit as we had never heard of anyone being charged for the bikes before and it was pretty expensive already.
We found that after El Chalten we had to plan our campspots a little more carefully as on the days that the wind is really strong (as it was often) then it was not possible to just wildcamp anywhere, we really needed to find shelter out of the wind. Luckily there are a few police posts, vialidads (road-machine warehouse/storage places), rivers and other areas to camp.. here are a few that we either stayed at or noted as potentials (distances heading north to south):
  •  La Leona river: 114 kms from El Chalten, there is a hotel where you can camp for US$10 per person – super expensive but if the wind was the galeforce that we had the shelter was worth every penny!!
  • There were a couple of buildings about 10 and 30kms from La Leona but not sure if they could offer shelter or not
  • 87km from La Leona Hotel (east of the turnoff to El Calafate) is “Rio Bote” which is an ambulance and roadworks station – we camped down by the river which was nice and sheltered from the wind, a good spot
  • El Cerrito: about 60-ish km from the turnoff to El Calafate, at the intersection of the cut-off road to Tapi Ake: is a vialidad and buildings, and supposedly the man is very nice and will provide you with shelter (we didn't stay there)
  • Rio ?Tero: 20kms from El Cerrito on the ripio road to Tapi Aki - it is a police station and the officer's house on a small river.  We met him on the road and he told us to camp at his house, out of the wind, even though he wasn't at home that night.
  • Tapi Ake: About 45kms from Rio Tero where the cut-off road joined back up the main highway - another police post and a VERY small store (that wasn't open when we passed through but we think it had hardly any food), the policeman was very nice and said that cyclists can camp in their yard.
  • Cancha Carrera border:  The Chilean border guards were very nice and would probably let you stay there (tho' we went on to Cerro Castillo)
  • In Cerro Castillo we camped in the children's park in town, great campsite – a grassy spot for the tent, great big wall for a wind shelter, picnic tables (if a little minature) and toilets half a block down the street. We asked the police for permission first but everyone in town was fine with us camping there.
  • Morro Chico: 100km from Puerto Natales - a police post where they will let you either camp in a shed over the road or in a building out the back if the weather is very bad
  • Gobernador Phillipi: about 100km from Morro Chico - an intersection with a few houses and a service station.  They let us camp in an empty donga (transportable building) that was small and dirty but out of the wind.  The servo also sold the Best Hot Chocolates!
Ferry from Punta Arenas to Porvenir details at: 
From Porvenir the road is ripio, but in pretty good condition and we really enjoyed this section. After about 100kms we went an alternative route, instead of continuing on to the border crossing at San Sebastian we turned off at the intersection that was about 100km east of Porvenir and followed the ripio. We ended up taking 7 days from Punta Arenas to Ushuaia, so this way is a little longer, on more ripio and a lot more remote but we really enjoyed it – hardly any cars, and you don't have to spend so long on the main highway.  The ripio is in fairly good condition for almost the whole of the Chilean side. However, once you turn off the main road to go the ~13km to the border Paso Bella Vista, then the road gets a little rougher and then on the Argentinean side of the border the road is a lot worst. Some sections with lots of corrugations/washboard and loose ripio. 
Our camping spots on this section: On the road out of Porvenir there were a few potential spots within the first 30kms but we continued on to 80 kms out of Porvenir where there is a stand of trees that offered limited protection from the wind. The next day we camped at Estancia Cameron (a few kms off the road). Then at about 40kms past Cameron we started getting into some patches of forest which offered good protection from the wind and potential campsites. The night after Cameron we camped at the borderpost (Paso Bella Vista), and the following at an Estancia starting with V off the main highway (about 70kms before Tolhuin) – where they very kindly put us up in one of the old houses. Then the next day at the bakery (joy!).
If you go this way (or even if you go through San Sebastian but want to take a detour then you can go and visit the newly established King Penguin colony about 14km south of the intersection that is 100km east of Porvenir.  We had read about in some blogs from the year before, where it was possible to visit the penguins by jumping over a fence.  However, by the time we got there the area had been made into a private park and was VERY expensive to get in to . $25 per person.  But the family running it were very sweet and seemed to be doing a good job of protecting the colony (they said that they had had problems with impacts on the penguins due to the increase of visitors which is why they established the park), they very kindly let us in at a reduced price as we had to scrounge together money to pay.
Just before Ushuaia: If like us you are trying to drag out the end of your trip, then about 10kms before Ushuaia there are some good campspots on the river. We went down a small track at about 100m before the 3045 km marker and found a sheltered spot.
We cycled the last 25-ish kms out of Ushuaia to the end of the road in the Tierra del Fuego National Park, which is a cool little park, and with a great free campsite (although it costs 85 pesos to get into the park you can camp for two nights in the very pretty Laguna Verde campsite).
In Ushuaia we stayed at the campsite (La Pista del Andino) which is about 3km up and out of town. Super-friendly and helpful people running the campground, and in a nice, quiet, wooded location.  They let us sleep upstairs in the cafe the night before we flew out so we didn't have to pack the tent up wet, and provided a taxi-service to the airport with our bikes. Very friendly.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The Sublime Carretera Austral: Chaiten to Villa O'Higgins (23rd Dec '11 - 10th Jan '12)

The Carretera Austral is a 1200km+ stretch of mostly gravel road that runs through northwest Chilean Patagonia, past fiords, forest, glaciers, lakes and mountains. The road was only opened in 1988, and before then the area was primarily connected by sea access and small tracks. So it is a pretty special place, large parts of which still remain untouched. We had had an interesting introduction to the Carretera Austral further north in Chile when we met a Chilean who had worked on the (tough, dangerous, long drawn-out) construction of the road, and who got out his personal photo albums to give us a history lesson.
We had originally planned to meet back up with a bunch of cycling friends in Santiago for Christmas, but unfortunately the ferry that we had planned to take to connect up with the Carretera Austral broke down (the road is still not connected to Chile by land, only through ferry connections, or coming through Argentina in the east). We didn't have so much time left to complete our trip as we have a deadline to get home for a friends wedding... and Patagonia was calling. So, with sadness, we missed the cyclists party and instead caught a ferry from Puerto Montt to Chaiten and the start of the Carretera Austral. While we were sad not to be able to see our friends we were pretty excited about heading into Patagonia, an area that we have been dreaming of cycling for a very long time.
The Carretera Austral area is pretty wild, with often wild weather extremes - we had heard stories of cyclists battling the wind, rain, storms, etc, and we prepared ourselves for nasty weather, and in particular the rain that this area is famed for. This of course meant that we had perfect weather, with blue skies our whole time on the Carretera! Instead of the problem of having to find shelter to camp in and ways to dry all our wet gear, we ended up having the problem of warm days and not enough sun-cream to get us through!
One of Jules' little superstitions (she has many) meant that we couldn't buy new sunscreen while the sun was shining as if we did it was sure to make it rain. So we had to start rationing our sunscreen as we peddled for more than two weeks under the most extraordinarily good weather! We were starting to think it never rained in this area, until on our last day on the Carretera into Villa O'Higgins, where the road ends, we had about an hour of drizzle – not too bad at all! Though the next day, which was a rest day for us as we waited for the boat to take us across Lago Villa O'Higgins, the weather gods decided to show us what we had avoided so far during our time on the Carretera. It was miserable and wet all day - ahha that was more like what we were expecting! God-forbid that our tent should get wet, so we got a hostal to get all cozy and listen to the rain on the roof.
When we started off on the Carretera Austral it reminded us a lot of our first experiences cycling in Alaska. Arriving on the ferry in Chaiten, into a green land of mountains and forest and wilderness reminded us of when we first arrived into Anchorage on the ferry. The main difference on starting the Carretera was that Jules didn't spend the entire time being terrified of bears and envisaging us being torn alive by a grizzly. Thankfully in Patagonia there are less wild animals to be scared of. However, in Patagonia because of all the warning signs and information on the dangers of the Hanta Virus (a virus spread by mice faeces and urine) Jules is now terrified of mice wee. And instead of always asking me if there might be any bears around, in Patagonia she is always asking if there is a chance that a mouse might have wee-ed in our camping spot.
We had days of sublime riding, past scenery as beautiful as I have ever seen. Wild rivers and lakes, forest, snow-capped volcanoes, glaciers. Every day was a scene from a tourism brochure. And we could wonder through this land, finding fantastic free camps and lakes and rivers to “fish” in.
I use the word “fish” loosely as our apparatus consisted of a handline and a fishing pole macgyvered up by Jules from some bamboo she had found on the side of the road. We did look quite ridiculous and when we met Christian (a very helpful Swiss cyclist) he told us that with the hooks we were using we were likely to “catch a whale”. So with a little help from him we rejigged our lines. We still weren't very serious fishers though and only had gone “fishing” a couple of times as an excuse to chill out next to a beautiful river or lake. Jules would throw her line in a few times, then get bored and declare that there were no fish in the river. So it gave us the shock of our life when we actually caught a fish. We had stopped for lunch at a lake and Jules decided to throw the line in a few times (as an excuse to get out of making lunch I think). She suddenly squealed and said in a high-pitched voice “There's a fish on my line”, she then promptly tripped over and landed in the water. However, somehow in all the confusion she still managed to land the fish, which was very decent-sized and which tasted amazing cooked up on our camp stove that night!
In the northern stretches of the Carretera Austral we passed through lush forests and past snow-capped volcanoes. We had Christmas by the picturesque Yelcho Lake and camped in the very pretty Queulat Nature Reserve where we hiked up to the hanging glacier. The north was very impressive and wild, but we were even more stunned by the area south of Cohaique, where the Carretera went through the Cerro Castillo nature reserve with its rocky mountains and the granite needles rising up to create a fortress-looking rock feature overlooking the road. We spent New Years in this park – we had thought we would be wild camping and I had bought chocolate with almonds in it to celebrate New Years (woohhoo- really living it up) but we ended up stumbling on an offical campsite in the national park where we stayed and saw in 2012 with new friends, wine and an interesting Chilean-German-Swiss-Australian celebration.
Around every turn of the Carretera the scenery just appeared to get more stunning. Following Cerro Castillo we passed through an area with amazing coloured rivers and lakes – Lago General Carrera, Lago Bertrand and the River Baker. We cycled through lush Gondwanian forest of Northofagus (Southern Beech) dripping in lichens, roads lined with the giant-leaved Nalcas and the colourful Fuschias and we had views of waterfalls falling from ice-fields and glaciers to form streams and rivers, so sublimely unpolluted.
In the southern section of the Carretera there were more moorlands, with swampy lands and stunted vegetation. We visited the interesting little town of Tortel which had no roads to it until 2003 and where the whole town is built around a collection of boardwalks. After Tortel we caught the ferry which connects the last little scrap of Carretera - the road from Puerto Yungay, which was only opened in 2000, connects to the end of the Carretera Austral at Villa O'Higgins. From here, as cyclists, it is possible to catch a ferry, cycle/push your bike up 21kms of 4wd tracks and horse trails, catch another ferry and arrive into Argentina. Which is the next adventure in store for us...
The Carretera Austral was one of the highlights of our trip so far, it is such a magical place, with so much beauty – and we were so lucky with the weather that accompanied us! We were also very happy to be able to see this area as it is now, as there are controversial plans to dam a number of the rivers for hydroelectric power. It is a big topic of discussion in the area at the moment - check out “Patagonia Sin Represas” for more information.
And last but not least... The Carretera Austral was fabulous for meeting lots of other cycle tourists!  There are many people cycling this route, and Jules and I were pretty excited about meeting other cyclists for the first time in a very long time.  Unfortunately, sometimes the other cyclists weren't as excited about meeting us!  Our first few days meeting other people we would get overly excited and jump up and down while exchanging the general cycling pleasantries.  We couldn't work out why they weren't as excited as us - until we also started meeting so many other cyclists, and realised there were lots out there!  But we made some great friends, and had some great laughs, and met a couple of super-nice people heading north to Alaska - which made us so excited to think of their amazing trip they have ahead of us.. I tried to convince Jules to turn around and head north back to Alaska, but she wasn't convinced.  So for now we continue south, about to cross into Argentina, and the Patagonian pampas of legend!