The final 1000km

by

The countdown to Ushuaia begins  ..

During the past two months we have been cycling through Patagonia, a sparsely populated wilderness with dramatic scenery where the distances between towns are large. It is a rewarding place to cycle but is not without its challenges. Chilean and Argentine Patagonia are very different. On the Argentine side the road runs east of the Andes and is dry and stark, while the Chile route is exposed to the Pacific fronts and is wet and for the most part can be more challenging. To date we have enjoyed a combination of the two extremes of this vast area.

Towns and villages become more scarce as you get further south so this means we often have to carry food for days on our bikes which requires planning.

View of the famous Cerro Torre and Fitz Roy in El Chalten

Upon leaving El Chalten on our journey south, we decided to make the 32km detour to El Calafate for a number of reasons – we needed to stock up on supplies, required some serious rest and we also wanted to visit the Perito Moreno Glaciar, a huge fast advancing glaciar (2 metres a day) at 5km wide and 40-60 metres in height, it was impressive.

A constant cracking and rumbling sound emanated from within it and every once and a while massive boulders of ice would crash into the water just below us. Apparently major ruptures occur every 4 years and everyone wants that picture when it does. We spent a nice day observing yet another of nature’s wonders in this amazing continent. . 

Polarised blue colours coming through in the afternoon sunshine

The road ahead ..

We knew what we had to do and our minds were now set on getting to Ushuaia and achieving our goal.

We were still debating the route to take to Ushuaia as there are two possible routes. Our decision was based on the line of least resistance. We knew we had reached the wind-whipped tip, the cone of South America. We took a chance and decided to take the road less travelled by cyclists and continue south in Argentina towards Rio Gallegos (via La Esperanza) instead of crossing back itno mainland Chile which is the route favoured by most cyclists.

Initially our decision paid off as we enjoyed tailwinds and were cruising at between 25-30km an hour. Different story in the latter half of the day where we had severe cross winds and were just about managing 8-10km an hour which left us feeling completely drained at the end of the day. We knew we would make it to Rio Gallegos at a reasonable time the following day though where we planned a half day’s rest.

The outskirts of Rio Gallegos as below .. not much to report.  Handy to stock up on food and rest but that was about it!

First road sign for Ushuaia since the border with Bolivia (when it was over 5,000km) ..

A note on ‘those winds’ ..

We were full of enthusiasm the next day and knew that only the Strait of Magellan and 580km were separating us from our ultimate destination. It wasn’t long before we were being thrown from side to side on our bikes from vicious cross winds coupled with head winds. It was gale force and we were pedaling at no more than 6km an hour. At times the wind was so strong it was hard to stand up, let alone cycle. 

Winds can be a cyclist’s best friend or worst enemy … on this particular day it very quickly became our worst enemy. We sat by the roadside and waited to see if it would ease off. No chance .. disillusioned but in the interest of sanity, we decided to turn back to Rio Gallegos and try again the following day. This part of the world is known for fierce winds. Trees and vegetation grow horizontally, road signs are distorted from the force of the wind, spirals of dust rising from the road like mini tornados is a common sight while cycling. They even have a road sign dedicated to the wind!

Martin demonstrating the strength of the winds below

We decided to get up at 5am the next morning to get a head start on the winds and were on the road enjoying a beautiful sunrise by 6am.

We made good headway and clocked up 70km in a short time, cleared border controls back into Chile and made the boat to Tierra del Fuego.

Wildlife on the road …

Although the day was long we had plenty to keep us occupied on the road. It was like cycling through a wildlife park and on the planet’s "edge" we experienced nature in its wildest form. Most of these animals are native to Patagonia.

A guanaca crossing the road ..

Aguara Guazu (maned wolf)

Rhea (ostrich like bird) doing a roadrunner impression

Dolphins during our crossing of the Magellan Straits

It was an epic cycling day and we covered 154km in 9 hours travelling on dirt roads and with winds in pockets. We felt we had certainly made up for our false start the day before. I have come to the conclusion that ‘zero wind’ is my preference. We meet a lot of cyclists coming from Ushuaia starting out on their own journey. They are easy to spot as they have shiny new bikes and gear and are already worn out from the headwinds. We do not understand why people travel from South to North .. it makes little sense and they quickly realise that they will be cycling head first into the prevailing winds.

A side note on Chile ..

I first visited Chile a number of years ago with two friends Ciaragh and Aoife and it has changed very little in ten years. It rained almost non stop as was also the case this time round! We were there for 5 weeks and everything that could possibly have gone wrong went wrong but we still had lots of fun! For me it is a land of extremes and the landscape is on a continuum from staggeringly beautiful to bleak and dull. The jury is still out on my feelings towards Chile. 

The shops here are also another source of wonder. In a number of towns or rather hamlets on the Carreterra Austral the shops were sparsely stocked (understandably so due to the remoteness) but then we spotted some imported Irish Kerrygold butter in their empty shelves! In another seaside town it was impossible to purchase fish so we ventured to the butchers in search of meat, we were told there was no meat until Friday. It was Monday!  

Martin having a celebratory picnic consisting of beer, biscuits and jam while waiting for the ferry to cross the Magellan Straits to Tierra del Fuego, leaving the mainland of South America.

 

Until recently Tierra del Fuego (The Land of Fire) in the far south of South America was a byword for remoteness, the uttermost ends of the Earth. It is a loosely defined region shared by two countries, Chile and Argentina. They have a complicated system whereby Argentineans living in Tierra Del Fuego need to pass through Chile in order to reach the Argentine mainland and Chilean residents need to travel through Argentina.

Road scenes ..

Ripio roads ..

We set off on our journey to Rio Grande which is 200km from Ushuaia and where we intended to take a day off. The road was a very harsh ripio road for 110km which involved us being battered about on our bike for most of the day. It was tough going but we made it to the border to head back into Argentina. The next day into Rio Grande we were greeted with very strong tailwinds and made the 96km ride to Rio Grande in 4 hours.

The road from El Chalten to Rio Grande has been a road of wide open spaces, strong winds in all directions, huge skies. It is a place where you feel incredibly small. The roads varied between ripio (gravel) and paved. As the population of the region is so tiny most of your interaction is with each other, the odd cyclist but predominantly the flat Patagonian steppe. I have sometimes been tempted to wave at the cows and sheep! 

Reference to the Falklands Islands upon are arrival in Rio Grande

Martin cooked an amazing meal of burger and chips which we had been fantasising about for weeks! Success .. a day of rest before we embark on our final 200km to Ushuaia tomorrow. We hope to arrive there on Tuesday as the winds are not looking too good. Our next blog will be from the end of the road…literally and figuratively. We will not doubt be celebrating and reflected on what has been a momentous year for both of us. Watch this space..

Powered by Qumana

Advertisements

%d bloggers like this: