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Ushuaia

February 17, 2011

Martin

Sometimes a picture doesn’t quite tell the whole story. We arrived in Ushuaia last Tuesday, 15th February. The southernmost city in the world at the very end of the Latin continent. We turned a corner at the end of a beautiful valley and there it was, the sign  that marked the end of our journey. How are you supposed to feel at the end of a sixteen thousand kilometer journey through fifteen countries in thirteen months?

We have been living a nomadic life for quite a while now, travelling from place to place by day, carrying all our possessions and moving under our own steam. Life has become very simple and, in ways, crazy. Things that seemed strange when we started out are now accepted as daily occurrences. The few days from Rio Grande to Ushuaia capture this perfectly. Rio Grande marks the end of the pampa landscape we had been used to since crossing the Andes. The mountains swing around to the right and suddenly you find yourself cycling by the coast with snow covered peaks and trees coming into view.

 

We had heard of the panaderia in Tolhuin that was also a casa de ciclista, in other words, a bakery that welcomed touring cyclists and gave then a free bed for the night. What could be better. Panaderias are a cyclists best friend. And a panaderia that offers a free nights accommodation in a sparsely populated part of the world where you need to find good shelter from the wind is….well….just a bit strange but absolutely welcome. Thanks to Emilio and to La Union panaderia, to people who believe in giving something where nothing is expected (and in most cases impossible to give) in return. We pitched up in the storeroom of what turned out to be one of the greatest and most popular bakeries we had ever come across. 

Bienvenidos – Welcome to the house of friendship

We even had a wi-fi connection and so could see that the winds were not favourable the next day. We decided we would wait out the morning and then cycle and see what happened. It is hard to sit still though and so we set off. The wind was pretty strong as can be seen by the meter high waves on this lake.

Still, we had a bag of pasteries to keep us going and we were cycling the final 100 kilometers. Good reasons to push on. We finally got away from the lakeside and found some protection in the trees and with the oncoming evening. A final pass to go, another crossing of the Andes but this time only 400 meters of climbing, easy. We could camp at the base, it was late and it was Valentines Day. To stay or to push on. We tossed a coin and it said stay, but we decided to go. Up we went. There is no greater feeling than to climb over a mountain pass. The last pass of the Andes. The end all becoming a bit too real.

The evening cold began to hit once we crossed over, night wouldn’t be long coming and we needed to find a wild camping spot. Yet again the national road works came to the rescue!  We spotted a depot, cycled across a river and knocked on a door. Juan answered. Yes, he said, we could stay the night. This was the third depot we had come across and slept in since El Chalten, but the first we were invited inside of. Juan was typical of the inhabitants of Tierra del Fuego. He moved here 30 years ago from somewhere up north. A huge range heated the place. Juan chopped up a few kilos of lamb, added a bowl of scallions and shallots, handfuls of herbs and spices and, the secret ingredient, two liters of beer and let the whole thing simmer for an hour. It was beautiful. We slept soundly and were gone by 7am. Normality has never been as simple as this.

7am, our last day, it was freezing, we had only 35km to go. We cycled up a long and very beautiful valley and turned a corner and there we were. Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world, tucked into a fold in the coastline, protected from the winds, surrounded by mountains and the sea, el fin del mundo, the end of the earth.

We have had a few days here in Ushuaia before catching a flight to Buenos Aires tomorrow. Our bikes are in boxes now, ready for a long trip home. It hasn’t really sunk in that life won’t revolve around getting up, eating breakfast and cycling. Ushuaia has a few things to offer to the visitor such as a boat trip into the Beagle Channel to see the local sealife, a hike up to the Martial glacier behind the town or a few days hiking around the local national park. We decided to check out the Beagle Channel and the glacier.

the famous Les Eclairs lighthouse

Ushuaia and the Beagle Channel stretching out below us and the glacier stretching up above us

We fly out tomorrow. I felt a weight of sadness while descending from the glacier a few hours ago. We have been nomads for 13 months.We have travelled a road through myriad cultures and landscapes, we have led a very simple life, and we have had an incredible time. I have cycled thousands of kilometers and I have emptied my mind of everything and have lived in each and every moment. I have lived through a dream that has become its own reality, that has taken its own unpredictable shape. And I have shared this adventure with a wonderful woman whose qualities are too numerous to even begin to describe. I have met inspiring people and I have seen that the world really is the same wherever you go, beautiful and crazy in equal measure but never less than deserving of our attention. We may get one last blog out but for now I want to thank everyone who has followed our trip on this blog, for all the kind words and encouragements that made it a real pleasure to keep the story up to date, to Simon, Derek, Hannah and Jamie for joining us for a part of the journey and making it into so much more for us, to the cyclists we have met on the way, criss-crossing over a continent with Geoff and Rosemary, Seth and Parker, Dave, Belinda and Roland and all the rest. And to Juan Carlos, to Frederic, and to Maite who took in perfect strangers and became good friends. And to old friends, Noel and Carmen, for sharing their house and lives for a week in Nicaragua and of course the legendary Dominguez family in Buenos Aires and Carolina and Tiago who have done more for us than words could say and provided a real home away from home. And Niamh in Rio who provided us with 24-hours entertainment and some unforgettable memories.

I guess that going back to no jobs and no house and a new start in a new country is as good a way as any to continue the adventure together.

Nessa:

 .. and of course .. there is the small matter of a wedding 🙂

That was then ..

outside Tracey and Yvonne’s in London before we left on the trip 13 months ago now ..

Martin leaving Newcastle for London with his shiny new bike!

Martin and Kevin in Cancun upon our arrival

It has long been said that travel broadens the mind but thankfully in our case has had the opposite effect on the body! A bike touring trip such as our camino latino stretches and bends you, sometimes breaks you, grounds, entralls and overwhelms you. Overall, words cannot describe this amazing adventure. It was a leap into the unknown when we started out. From the beginning our mindsets have very much been on taking it day by day .. for both of us it has always been about the journey and not the destination. I remember the penny dropped on the plane from London of the magnitude of what we were doing .. this is it I thought .. is this normal .. is this doable … am I crazy .. and then I focussed my mind and thought what is the worst that can happen? Chunk it down and it will be manageable.

My observations and learnings from the trip ..

Fashion .. We have committed numerous fashion errors some of which am sure certain friends will never forgive or forget..the famous sock and sandals combo and the like! Never to be repeated but it served its purpose and kept me warm. We used to be relatively stylish people in a former life:

But now ..

I was clearly under the influence of something when I decided to get dressed on this particular evening! This ensemble includes Martin’s tea cosy hat, Tiago’s cardigan and floral dress is model’s own! Yvonne, you have a lot to teach me when I get back.

The machines .. We are very proud of our bikes .. they have been through the mill and they have behaved themselves and served us well as our main mode of transfer through Latin America! We have had very few repair jobs to do. I would like to take this opportunity to thank Martin for fixing almost all of my road side punctures as I am too slow. We have had moments where we loved our bikes and moments where we wanted to throw them on the ground and kick them when faced with some of the extreme challenges of what I call the 3H’s – Hills, Heat and Hunger as well as the more recent challenges of extreme winds and ripio roads. But during this trip at the end of a particularly tough day, we are ALWAYS compensated with a beautiful vista that soon dissolves all the pain it took to get there and makes us realise why we are doing this and that we love our bikes and cycling after all, otherwise we would not or could not get up everyday and do it all again and still be smiling 🙂

A few of our favourite things ..

Everyday has been different .. filled with new experiences, characters and enlightenment. People often ask us what our favourite places, highlights, best things to do, see, experience have been ..we have always found it hard to answer this question .. it is because there is no answer as there are too many to mention. Cliched perhaps but the truth. I will however add some of my favourite photos below:

Passion  ..
There are no limits to what can be done .. take your passion and make it happen. The formula is a simple one.

Human Nature ..

We have met people from all walks of life, ages and cultures on this trip. What we have usually observed is the people with nothing have always offered us the most in terms of their hospitality. It is a given in this part of the world and it is very humbling. There will always be moments of sickness and vulnerability on a trip of this magnitude and the people we have met have always made the difference, like the woman who offered us mangos while we struggled up hills, dehydrated in Colombia and Marcia in Brazil who we randomly got chatting to on a beach and invited us to eat with her and her family that evening. Brazil and Colombia are the two countries which have been unforgettable for us for the warmth of the people.

These are some of the people who have made our trip:

Ramiro, the baker in Colombia 

 Marcia and her family in Cassino in Brazil

Carolina’s amazing family in Buenos Aires

Noel and Carmen in Nicaragua

Juan Carlos in Cusco Peru

Frederic in Panama

Niamh in Rio

Our parents and family have also been amazing in their support and encouragement and we thank them for that..

Food

We can now do the perfect BBQ!

Martino y Nessa

It all began on the dance floor.. with much help and encouragement from Christine and Tom over the years it has to be said! This trip has been like speed dating x1000 million in terms of getting to know each other and it is certainly a good test for spending a life with each other. What I have learned .. Martin is my soulmate.

 

The next chapter awaits and we are excited for new adventures.  

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The Carretera Austral

February 4, 2011

It is three weeks since Jamie arrived, so much has happened since, we have cycled on 18 of those days, we have finished the Austral and we have made it through the notorious O’Higgins – Chalten border crossing. We are on or own again, Jamie’s flying visit and Hannah’s two months came to an end last week, we are tired, exhausted maybe, and enjoying some time off here in El Calafate. And yesterday we did something quite momentous, we booked a ticket from Ushuaia to Buenos Aires, we have two weeks to reach the end of the continent and the end of this trip.

The Carretera Austral is a 1200km long road that cuts through Chilean Patagonia and comes to a dead end at Villa O’Higgins. It is mainly unpaved and traverses several micro climates but leaves you feeling wet and cold in general! We came across these two maps, from different eras for sure but both somehow still accurate.

The Carretera is wild, it is beautiful, you need to carry several days of food supplies with you as centers of civilisation are few and far between, you really do feel like you are on the edge of the world, in some frontier space, the land of gaucho horsemen and amongst some of the most incredible scenery we have come across.


After saying our goodbyes to Jamie and Hannah we headed south to Villa O’Higgins. This lonely outpost sits close to Lago O’Higgins and was only connected to the rest of Chile 20 years ago. It is the end of the road for some but those with bikes can continue on, crossing from Chile to Argentina by way of two lakes and a 23km trek over a pass. A trek that involves a lot of pushing and pulling and carrying and sometimes cycling your bike, somehow managing 35 kilos of luggage at the same time. We were planning to do it in a day and it turned out to be epic. Luckily we were joined by Matej, a Slovenian cyclist and the three of us helped to turn this into an unforgettable day, but certainly one that we wouldn’t want to repeat too often.

Nessa actually fell in as the bridge gave way, just as I was about to take a photo!!!

Finally into warm clothes as we prepare for the final 40km on gravel and the end of a 16 hour crossing.

We are back in Argentina and the end is in sight, we hope to cover the last 1000km in 10 days and arrive in Ushuaia on the 14th February. It is best not to think about the end though, just bask in the memories of the last year and of what has turned out to be one of the trips of a lifetime.

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Guest blog – Hannah and Jamie

January 22, 2011

El Bolson to Coyhaique

J: Well hello blogland.  I’m Jamie.

H: And I’m Hannah.

J: We are going to attempt (and probably fail) to match the exquisite story telling abilities of Martino and Nessa and guest edit this week’s edition of the blogette.  Featuring thoughts, pictures and reflections from Dr Hannah Davies Diary (soon to be a major motion picture) and videos, photos and musings of Dr Jamie Strachan, alongside some O’Gorman photographic contributions.

H: Before Jamie starts his soliloquy, a few days prior to his arrival we traversed the lush Los Alerces National Park.  Coco/Coralie joined us en route – the fact she was there at all was impressive.  She started her transcontinental adventure in Colombia – in Bogota her bike and all of her possessions (bar passport) were promptly stolen.  I think most people would have flown home directly, but no not Coco.  Within a few days she had bought a new (albeit less expensive) bike and all the trimmings, and set off as intended.  Understated stoicism has to be up there in my Top 3 Favourite Traits.  Perhaps a "No problems only solutions" mentality and "Keep it Simple" mindset completes the list.  Anyway, enough of my musings over to you Jamie.

J: Thanks Hannah – Thannah. So, where to begin. Well I was incredibly excited to be coming on this trip.  Like the rest of the you I had followed M & N (via this very blog) for the last year with envious eyes, and following a flurry of emails and with only a couple of weeks to prepare, I was suddenly at Heathrow terminal 5 bidding farewell to my beautiful loving wife and beginning a crazy journey to meet this lot in Trevelin, Argentina, highlights of which included sunny Buenos Aires, Spanish lessons from a 14 year old boy on a bus, sitting behind a fruit farmers’ strike in the desert (see tractors below!), finally squeezing onto the last bus to El Bolson and getting a taxi 300km at 100km/h through the night (seeing a PUMA!) arriving at a pretty campsite at 0130 and hearing Martin’s voice, before some lovely asado meat.  I had arrived!

The next day after constructing my bike and marveling at the various ways and means the trio I had joined had of living from a bike (see sauces in a box photo…) we set off for Chile! Trevelin was important in the Welsh settlement of Chubut region – it means "Mill Town" in Welsh, and there were a few Welsh place names around.  The sheer scale of the region was amazing, with its towering snow-capped peaks and fertile farms stretching for miles.  Not dissimilar to the Canterbury plains of New Zealand.

What a gorgeous first day in the saddle.  We were searched at the border by the Chilean authorities in case we were smuggling any bees across (we weren’t), and escaped with our canned peaches intact. An insight into the way of life of a ciclista is that there is no better dessert (AKA pudding) than tinned peaches with dulche de leche (like toffee with condensed milk) on top. Mmmmmmmmm delicious AND nutritious…  (H: Delicious BUT nutritious???)

Once you get past Futaleufu – border town in Chile –  the scenery begins to change and Patagonia reveals the glorious, green, mystical and untouched wilderness for which it renowned.

We found places for roadside mirror maintenance, emergency replacement of pannier rack bolt (gulp), brake pad replacement, amusing stances and pointing (?), farms with (instant!) coffee, hat wearing and singing traditional songs with the locals.

 

More lounging for long lunches, hauling ourselves up hellish hills, capturing Chile by camera…

The rain is on a different scale around here – it often feels like people are throwing buckets of water at you.  But the sun breaks through to warm the soul and show you glimpses of the snow on the not so far away mountain tops.  It strikes you just how much the region is defined by water. Waterfalls, rain, rivers, swamps, lakes, puddles and huge green plants everywhere. Incredible.

Tragedy yesterday! My cassette stopped working – no power!.  We were in the middle of nowhere.  Martin took the cassette to pieces in a matter of seconds, tightened what he could and declared it beyond roadside repair.  I stuck my thumb out and travelled down the road in the back of a horse truck!  The little "maestro" at Figon cycles in Coyhaique found the problem, mud had caused the cassette hub spring to snap, and he replaced it with ease.

Coming on this trip has been incredible – even for the short time I have been here.  It is a real privilege to be with great people in such mind-blowing surroundings.  It’s a bit like coming to stay with Martin and Nessa – the bike is their home for the year after all – and they are the most incredible hosts and made for one another.  Martin’s hilarious "lets see what happens" complimenting Nessa’s planning and organization, both sharing a beautiful outlook on life.  I think Hannah – who is also very kind – would agree.  Their world is a big open happy one.

We’re having an asado tonight, playing some Scrabble Lite and looking forward to some more dramatic climbs over the next few days down to Chile Chico where I turn left for Argentina and leave the others on their quest ever southwards… See you soon Blogland. J

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Mountains, Forests, Lakes

January 8, 2011

Patagonia has long been a fascination of mine, a place I have always wanted to visit, inspired by Chatwin’s classic "In Patagonia", by Darwin’s evolutionary travels, by tales of  big mountains and glaciers and epic adventures, a land of pristine nature, of rivers and mountains, it is the Alps and the Rockies and New Zealands backbone of mountains rolled into one, beautiful, remote, inspiring, and the place I really wanted to finish our bike trip.

We arrived in San Martin de los Andes after a 24-hour bus journey from Buenos Aires, a trip across the deserted pampas of central Argentina, back to the Andes and anxious to push on. We are on the last leg of our trip, a few thousand kilometers through what promises to be one of the harder but more beautiful parts of our journey. Jamie is joining us for a couple of weeks and to pass the time between San Martin and his arrival in Esquel, we have been meandering down the Seven Lakes route, relaxing in Bariloche and El Bolson, camping out and meeting with the many Argentineans who are taking their summer holidays. We are back to climbs and unpaved roads, on the legendary Ruta 40 and heading for the equally famous Carretera Austral in Chile.

Ruta 40 is the Route 66 of Argentina, stretching from the border with Bolivia to the tip of the southern mainland, over 5000 km in length. We have already been on the northern part around Salta and will get back onto the southern part once we finish in Chile. In this part of Argentina the Ruta 40 passes though what must be some of the most beautiful places imaginable.

In Bariloche we found ourselves in the same campsite as Alexis and Coralie, a French couple we had met in La Paz. Coralie is cycling and Alexis is climbing, and asked me if I wanted to join him and some Brasilian friends for a day out on the rock. Of course I did. Any chance to have a go at one of the activities I love more than most others. These guys were brilliant climbers and  I hadn’t been climbing for over a year, so it was great to get on the end of a rope and feel the rock again

We will leave El Bolson tomorrow and head through  Los Alerces National park, trying to get used to the unpaved roads again in preparation for the Carretera, more wonderful cycling no doubt, free camping and meeting up with Jamie in a few days.

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Happy Christmas

December 25, 2010

We would like to take the opportunity to thank everyone who has followed our blog during the year and wish you a happy Christmas and New Year. Writing the blog has been a great experience, I don’t now how else we could have recorded our trip, at least in such a memorable way. We are getting ready for the traditional Christmas day asado here, a great big bbq, chilling out by the back garden pool at our friends place in Buenos Aires, trying to stay out of the 40C heat.We are going to be back in the Andes next week and will continue south toward Ushuaia. And really looking forward to cycling through Patagonia!

Martin y Nessa

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The Uruguayan coastline

December 22, 2010

Some countries seem like stepping stones on the way to more exciting and more exotic adventure. We knew little about Uruguay, a small country sandwiched between Brasil and Argentina, a provincial backwater according to some. In ways the Panama of South America,  at least in our minds, another stepping stone, we were leaving Brasil behind with so many great memories and heading to Buenos Aires, the city that never sleeps and in between we would ride down the coastline of Uruguay.

After the long beach ride in Brasil to the border at Chui, we were glad to be back on pavement, making some progress despite a headwind which forced us to stop at a small seaside village. On asking about campsites we were told there were none but we could pitch our tents by the river, a spot with some picnic benches. This attitude sums up Uruguay, a fantastic little country, easy going people with no pretensions and with 5 times as many cattle as people, a country where carne and asado are national pastimes.

We were still high on the adrenaline of Brasilian back route navigation and Uruguay, with its quiet country roads, was the perfect place to continue, your only compass being a sense of curiosity and a desire to lose your way in the essence of a place. I think this section has been the most relaxed of the trip so far, floating along on a bike.

The is something about cycling by the sea, especially on a rugged coastline, maybe it is the dynamics of the infinite, never ending, the unchanging waves crashing in and rolling out and pedals turning, returning, turning, endlessly. Physically moving into a mental equilibrium.

We had a pattern to our days now and had an idea of stopping in a few places, enjoying the sea as much as possible and ending up in Colonia where we would sail across the Rio Plata to Buenos Aires. La Paloma was our first stop, an understated seaside town, staying meters from the beach and attempting our first Uruguayan style asado.

We decided to take the back road to Montevideo, Ruta 10, unpaved in parts and interrupted in others, involving more pushing of bikes and a little ferry. A gem of a route.

We met a Danish cyclist en-route who convinced us to check out Montevideo  and we arrived in time to celebrate Hannah’s birthday sucio style, bars with sawdust floors and back street pizzerias. The city, in keeping with the rest of the country, is laid back and was certainly worth the visit.

And so our detour was coming to an end, almost 3500km from Salta to Buenos Aires, the road less travelled by cyclists for sure but a really special part of our trip. We were heading to Colonia, further up the coast, only two days ride. When you get into a groove unusual things can happen. And so we found ourselves in Colonia Suiza after clocking up 120km in 6 hours, a strong wind on our backs. The luxurious Suiza hotel allowed us to "camp" in their grounds, well, we were given mattresses in their pool house, unused in the pre-christmas slow season, all for a few dollars each. Kudos to the manager. It’s not every morning you can enjoy breakfast by the pool in perfectly tended gardens.

Colonia del Sacramento is one of the most visited places in Uruguay. It is an hour boat ride from Buenos Aires and a world heritage colonial town, very pretty indeed.

It was to mark the end of our bike ride with Derek who has to return to work in the New Year. Both myself and Nessa are really touched that some of our friends would even consider joining us, it is such a long way to come for a short holiday. Thanks doesn’t even come close to expressing how we feel. And we have just heard from Jamie that he is coming out for two weeks of cycling in Patagonia – unbelievable. So, Christmas in Buenos Aires, we have been here a week already but that story is for another day. Suffice to say that Carolina’s family have already made us feel right at home.

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The longest beach in the world

December 6, 2010

The art of travel is to let go, to follow your feelings, to allow decisions to make themselves, let time expand and it fills with the spirit of adventure, no boundaries. Although we are used to our own space, our own way of doing things, traveling in our own groove and at our own pace we were excited at the thought of two old friends, Hannah (from Wales) and Derek (from Ireland), joining us. We knew they wouldn’t upset the rhythm, would slot right in, both are so easy going and great characters. And true to form, the last few weeks have been up there with the best of the trip, cycling down the coastline from Porto Alegre in Brasil and into Uruguay.

This part of South America is beautiful but more than that it is the people who have made it so special, it is hard to keep track of just how many people have gone out of their way to help us. We have been left speechless by the generosity, the kindness, the warmth shown by strangers to four bike tourists. And it is so natural, so genuine, it restores your faith in people, sometimes all you can say is “wow”, is this really happening. And so this blog is a big thanks to those people.

the ferryman drawing directions in the sand

The stretch from Porto Alegre to Buenos Aires is about 1300km and for once we are not under any pressure to clock up big distances. We planned to take it easy for the first few days and see how things would go. This part of the coastline is subject to storms from the Atlantic and so on the second day we had to sit out torrential rain and strong winds. We planned to camp but the campsite owner offered us two cabins for the price of camping, out of the cold and wet, the first of the generous gestures that we were to encounter, an auspicious start.

The following evening we arrived at Camaqua with no idea where we would be staying, until we bumped into Marcos, a local cyclist. He brought us to the local bike shop and rang around until he had found us a spot for the night in the local sports center, a spare room we could use for free, with hot showers and a kitchen. It never ceases to amaze us how much people want to know about our trip and the fascination with touring bikes and the people who ride them. These experiences leave us feeling lucky and happy, a good frame of mind when you are on the road. And everybody wants to pose for photos with us…or sometimes just the two girls!

check out the grins on their faces

The route south is busy and we wanted to get off the main road and let Derek and Hannah experience the unpaved roads connecting some out of the way villages and the inspiring countryside which surround them. We are so used to this that we would have simply stuck to the main road. And missed out on what was turning into a bit of an adventure. The bonus of having two fresh travellers becoming clear as the days went on, fresh ideas, a different way of looking at things, a new dynamic. In the tiny village of Pacheca we had to ask for directions and a local informed us that there was a river but no bridge but told us to follow him on his motorbike, bringing us to the river crossing and finding the ferryman. They thought we were loco!

We knew why once we had crossed, the road turning to mud. But we were having fun.

We covered 414km in five days, arriving at the town of Cassino by the sea. On the way into town a car stopped and a guy got out and gave us his number in case we needed any help or information while we were there. Fifteen minutes later he turned up and said he had found a place for us to stay on the beach front, a bargain, the perfect place for a couple of days chilling out, early morning and late evening swimming in the wild ocean at the start of the longest beach in the world!

another two guys going out of their way to help us

The domino effect was in progress. We were on a beach that stretching over 200km south and drivable to some extent. We wondered about cycling on some of it, but needed more information. After a pre-breakfast swim I spotted a cyclist on the beach and stopped her, thinking I would get some idea of how possible cycling was, and how far we could go. And so we met Marcia, a woman in her fifties who cycled 40km a day on the beach, spoke great English and loved Ireland. After some minutes chatting she invited us to join her and Mauro, her husband, for a barbeque that evening. And in between she brought us on a tour of the local city, Rio Grande.


Marcia and Mauro treated us to a night we won’t forget, opening their house to us, cooking us an incredible bbq, and when Marcia’s sister and her husband joined us we caught a real slice of Brasilian life, laughed all night and drank a seemingly endless supply of beer. It turned out that their son had played a gig in the Cobblestone, a bar I used to frequent in Dublin, what a small world.

We have talked about food a lot recently but to be honest, you have to try a real Brasilian bbq at least once in your life.

We had met a rare family, that is for sure. On leaving we were given a small present each. But most of all the night itself was the real present. In a trip of memorable experiences that will come high on the list of the best.

Things were going so well that we decided to ride our luck and chance the beach, planning to cycle 50kms or so and then try to find a way back to the main road. Adrian, the pousada owner warned us that although we could ride down the beach, it would be next to impossible to find the exit road and even if we did then we wouldn’t be able to bring the bikes through the sand dunes. Our thoughts were simple: what is the worst that could happen.

At the place where we supposed the exit was we met a guy in a jeep who told us that it just wouldn’t be possible to get back out to the main road through 8km of soft sand, and anyway, he was meeting some friends further down the beach for a spot of fishing and another bbq. And there was a sheltered spot to camp for the night. So we decided to stick to the beach, another 150km, it was an easy decision to make. Our only problem was the lack of water but several people helped us out and we manage to get an extra 13 liters, absolutely necessary. Marcia had even sent some down the beach with a truck driver in the off chance that we might need some!

the truck driver handing over 7 liters of much needed water

its a stingray!

a sheltered camping spot behind the dunes

We ended up cycling 207km along the longest beach in the world. It was epic and the end of the second day was tough, pushing bikes through soft sand as we sought out a route. But we made it, arriving in Balneario Hermenegildo, just short of the border with Uruguay.


And so onto another country, Uruguay. One we knew nothing about but the first few days here have left a great impression, riding down the rugged coast and quite country roads and now staying in La Paloma, a quirky town, on the beach front again, in a chilled hostel, several days ride from Buenos Aires and a break for Christmas.

I spotted this graffiti the other day and I guess it sums life up at the moment.

“La Vida es como andar en bici, ne se puede parar – Life is like travelling by bike, you can’t stop!”

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Crossing Argentina

October 27, 2010

Leaving Salta, leaving the west and heading east. That was our plan, unusual for cyclists heading to Ushuaia with south being the more usual direction. But we had promised Carolina and Tiago that we would visit them in Brasil. And so on October 14th we began a 2000km detour that would bring us across the north of Argentina, through Misiones to the Iguazu Falls and then down through the south of Brasil to Porto Alegre. It has been a great opportunity to discover small town Argentina in the springtime.

As usual we have had to adapt to a new country. Argentina can be expensive and so to keep to our small budget we have been camping a lot more and cooking again. Gone are the cheap lodgings and food of the Andes. And so we have settled into a new routine in the last two weeks. Camping is very popular here, so much so that you can pitch your tent for free in a variety of places; service stations have hot showers and picnic tables, local municipal parks often have a part set aside for tents, people are not surprised if you knock on their door and ask to pitch your tent for the night in their backyard and we have even camped on the lawn of a police station in a small village.

We spent one evening in a municipal park, observing the local power walkers as we cooked up our dinner and the following morning as we took our time over  breakfast.

The route across the north of Argentina takes you through the Chaco, a vast area that stretches into Paraguay and Bolivia. It is dry and desolate in the west and turns into a natural wonder of wetlands towards the east. Much of western Chaco consisted of long straight boring stretches of road through scrubland but it also gave us a chance to discover small town Argentinean life up close.

Villages here remind me a lot of those in New Zealand. The people are very friendly and helpful and as usual, two touring bikes always seem to arouse curiosity and start conversations. We were informed in one village that we were the first “tourists” ever to spend the night there! The way of life is slow and seems to revolve around mate, food and afternoon siestas. Bikes are common too, the locals using them wander slowly through their small town slow lives, all adding to the sense of tranquility.

We found ourselves putting in long days and managed a record distance of 163km on one of the days.  In all we managed 900km in 7 days and that brought us to the lovely city of Corrientes and a well deserved day off.

Corrientes is situated by the Rio Parana, one of several big rivers that flows through the east of Argentina. The landscape changes dramatically once across the river, becoming more tropical, vivid green, a land of citrus fruits and yerba mate plantations. The roadside takes on a new life and it is hard to pass the stalls of oranges and honey without stopping to buy something. Honey and porridge, yum! We have even bought a squeezer for fresh orange juice.

It seems that our journey has taken on a new dimension. We haven’t experienced springtime for quite a while and the warm days, balmy camping evenings, cooking and eating outdoors, the green, the flowers, the birds, there is a sense of the richness of nature and of life permeating our days, the friendliness of the people, the tranquility of the small towns, all this was unexpected as we left the cold and windy highlands and we are really loving it.

This corner of Argentina is famous for the Iguazu Falls, amongst the most famous in the world and our destination before we cross the border into Brasil. The falls are situated at the border of three countries and in the province of Misiones in Argentina, a region that is similar to a tropical Scandinavia with lots of forests and water amidst the more native palm trees and deep red soils.

This area has an interesting history and is so called due to the many Jesuit missionary sites dating from the 16th and 17th centuries. One such site is at San Ignacio de Misiones. The Jesuits are one piece of a fascinating jigsaw that pieces together much of what we have seen and felt throughout our trip. I have recently started to read a book by Eduardo Galeano called “Open Veins of Latin America – Five centuries of pillage of a continent”. It is one of the most insightful, thoughtful and heartbreaking books I have read for a long time. I can highly recommend it to anyone with a sense of justice, humanity and desire to understand how Latin America got to where it is today, “after 35 years … it remains a crucial text in understanding the dynamics of exploitation and resistance”.

We hung out at a little hostel in San Ignacio for a couple of nights, camping in the little garden and took some time to visit the ruins. It was also a chance to to try the parrilla, a typical outdoor grill found everywhere in Argentina. And we met up with Jason, a Canadian photographer and ethnomusicologist currently working on a project with the local Guarani people who were the original inhabitants of this area. These evenings of warm sunshine, meat slow cooking on the parrilla and listening to the stories of interesting people over a shared bottle of wine kind of sum up our time here in Argentina. It is certainly uplifting.

We are close to Paraguay here and since arriving in Misiones and learning more of the history of this place we are sorry we won’t be spending some time there. We have heard many times of the friendliness of the people and in the little town of Puerto Rico we sat one morning over breakfast looking across the river at Paraguay on the opposite bank. So close but still out of reach.

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Boat to Bolivia

October 6, 2010

According to Martin Stephenson, you can’t catch a Boat to Bolivia. We cycled through the land border on a peninsula jutting out into the beautiful and serene Lake Titicaca. Our last days on the bike for a while. We had decided to take a break from cycling, we had criss-crossed the Andes for almost 4 months and had a lot planned before Christmas. To enjoy these last months of the year it made sense to take a bus through Bolivia, but not before taking a boat to the mainland, a boat to Bolivia.

Copacabana was our last stop on two wheels. Simon met up with us there, as did the cycling brothers Seth and Parker and Belinda and Roland, a lovely couple making their way south on a tandem (http://www.cyclingwithsally.com/) and volunteering for the Salvation Army on the way. Our plan was to celebrate birthdays, Nessa’s in La Paz and Seth’s in Copacabana, visit the Salar d’Uyuni, Bolivia’s incredible salt desert and the region south to the Chilean border and finally get back on our bikes on the border with Argentina. Simon planned to leave us after La Paz and explore the mountains closer to Cusco. It felt good to have a break.

Copacabana was a great first experience of Bolivia. It sits on the shore of Lake Titicaca and is a stepping off point for Isla del Sol, the birthplace of the world according to Inca legend. A good spot to begin our holidays and share some beers with friends we had met on the road. Six cyclists, two friends and a couple of crates of beer ensured that Seth had a birthday to remember,

It was a bit strange to be getting a bus, checking out the road as we went along and realizing that we were missing a really beautiful cycle. Still though, we arrived in La Paz the day before Nessa’s birthday and had a chance to enjoy this hectic city with people endlessly milling about the streets. Birthdays are to be celebrated and enjoyed to the fullest. We did just that. An afternoon of champagne and strawberries followed by dinner at one of La Paz’s best restaurants and a jazz club to finish. Nessa was smiling all day!

La Paz was a city where a lot of cyclists congregated before heading off at different times and different routes. We have only met a handful along the way before this  but ended up having a last dinner with nine cyclists around the table and a farewell to Simon.

Thanks Simon, it was so special for us that you came out for a few weeks, so good to connect with home again, what a great time we had. And between now and Christmas we will be meeting many more friends, Niamh in Rio, Carolina and Tiago in Brazil and Carolina’s family in Buenas Aires, Derek for 5 weeks on a bike and Hannah cycling too. You started it all, safe trip home my friend.

The highlight of our time in Bolivia has to be the Uyuni Salt desert and the national park further south. It is hard to imagine a more beautiful place, salt deserts, colourful mountains, geysers, hot  springs, flamingos in deep blue, red and green salt encrusted lakes. And a train cemetery!

We were on the gringo trail. This involves buses and hopping from place to place, transient and not feeling, not touching, not living a country and knowing its ways. We have no idea how people do this all the time. A 12 hour overnight bus from La Paz brought us to Uyuni, the starting point of the salt desert and multi-day tours that bring you through this beautiful corner of the world. Cycling certainly makes you independent and the thought of 3 days on a guided tour was a bit daunting. There would be 7 people and we hoped we would all get on. There are so many companies offering what is essentially the same tour, 2 nights in the deserts, sand and salt, and three days in a 4WD covering a lot of ground through incredible scenery. On the morning of the tour we got a pleasant surprise. Ella, an English girl we had met back in Copacabana had booked the same trip.And four Israeli  lads made up the seven.

Covering 10000 square kms, the salt desert is blindingly white, flat as a pancake and is all that remains of what was once a vast lake. Now tourists brave freezing night time temperatures and fierce daytime gales as they make there way through this land of vivid colour. Once off the desert the tour continues south west towards the Chilean border. Although we spent a lot of time in the jeep, it was never boring. Such landscapes inspire dreams. As a group we bonded and had a lot of laughs during the few days.

On the last morning we were had an early start, a cold breakfast and got to an area of geysers and hot springs by 7am. A perfect way to enjoy the early morning sun and soak up some heat. The deserts are as inhospitable as they are beautiful. I even had to wear a hat in the thermal waters! We arrived at the Chilean border and said goodbye to Ella who was heading towards Atacama and then settled in for a long drive back to Uyuni.

Bolivia has been great, a well deserved rest for us and a chance to experience another way of journeying through this vast continent. We really couldn’t wait to get back on our bikes though, and with just another bus to the border we were getting excited. Argentina was so close, we had been looking forward to getting there for such a long time.

Argentina is the country we will finish in. At Ushuaia, the southernmost town of South America. But before that happens we will travel across the continent and through the south of Brazil, then Uruguay’s Atlantic coast before Buenos Aires for Christmas and New year.

 

There is a helpful sign at the border letting you know how far Ushuaia is. It is the same as the distance from Amsterdam to Afganistan. And that’s the direct route! It is great to have made it this far and to think of the great times we still have ahead.

First days in Cusco

September 4, 2010

Cusco,  the name conjures up images of Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley, Inca trails through the birthplace of the Inca people. This beautiful city, 3400m above sea level, is on almost every travel itinerary in Peru and possibly a destination for all those travelling through South America. There are many ways to get here and we took what is possibly the toughest route of all, 25 days cycling across the Andes from Huaraz. The sheer joy of cycling over the last pass and seeing the city spread out in a valley below us was overwhelming. We had endured long days and short days, sick days and rest days, mountain passes and the grassy plains of the high puna and the desert like landscapes in deep valleys. And finally we arrived, worn out and in need of a break. And feeling very proud. We had made it through the notorious section from Huancayo to Cusco, 844km of which about 550km is unpaved, 6 passes above 3600 meters and several descents of up to two thousand meters and more in between. Thanks to a couple of Swiss cyclists, there are online elevation profiles that we were aware of for a while and had put to the back of our minds. It just can’t be healthy to be reminded of the following too often.

We left Ayacucho two weeks ago not knowing what to expect. We were hardly out of the city center when the concrete pavement abruptly ended. And then the climbing began.

Unpaved roads are tough going. Everything rattles and jolts and full concentration is required at all times. It is so much slower, weaving your way through a gravel and sand surface, or where some pavement from long ago has resulted in a horrible  potholed cobblestone like surface

Still, this has been an unforgettable part of the journey. There is very little traffic and the route brings you through some of the most inspiring scenery you can imagine. The high passes cut through the grassy puno and after long descents you find yourself back in a desert like landscape, usually crossing a river before starting back up on the other side of yet another high valley.

This is really as remote as it can get in Peru. There are a handful of villages and towns, usually spaced out enough to be able to get lunch and dinner and a two dollar room for the night. But not always.

Cycling though the puna has been one of the great experiences of Peru. These grassy highlands are home to Llama herders living in conditions many of us would not survive more than a few days in. Extreme night time cold, no electricity or running water and in solitary high altitudes where a bitter wind can numb your body in seconds. The silence up there is as immense as the blue sky on a day of sunshine, it is a very special place to cycle through.

 

Downhills are always the reward for a long struggle up to a high pass. However, on these unpaved roads it is not quite as simple as that. One wrong move, one lapse of concentration and you will come crashing to the ground. But being a lover of high speed, steep off-piste snowboarding descents, I couldn’t resist. This is prime downhill mountain biking terrain. Ok, we were carrying a lot of weight on steel framed bikes with no suspension but I didn’t care. Eyes focused on a spot out ahead, piecing together a route, calculating the odds, fingers on the brakes, pedals unclipped, the adrenaline rush of high speed on the edge…..fun. It couldn’t last. The roads just got too bad on the very last unpaved section and I limped out onto pavement for the first time in several days with multiple punctures and a ripped front tyre. It was on the way out anyway, having lasted me since the start of the trip 7 months ago in Mexico.

Back on pavement, only a couple of days from Cusco, we had been dreaming of this moment for weeks, only a couple of more passes to go and we would have completed a memorable trip through the Andes which began three months earlier in the north of Colombia, many thousands of kilometers away. The pavement was so easy now and so enjoyable. The weather had also turned, we felt the first rain in 6 weeks. Dark brooding clouds over terraced hillsides.

 

On the road from Abancay there is a somber reminder to how precious life is. We have all heard reports of a bus somewhere or other going off the road. Tragic stories we quickly forget. This memorial to the bus full of people who died on a sharp bend will stay with me for a long time though. Memories of my great friend Al came flooding back in a wave of tears. He had planned to join us on this part of the trip, with his pure cycling spirit and sense of fun. He would have made a great trip even better. Yeah, it was time for us to get to Cusco, time to wind down for a while.

And so here we are, we have landed on our feet. We are Couchsurfing with Juan Carlos, an easy going Peruvian who is sharing his house with several like-minded travellers. Easy going and chilled out, just what we needed. We even had a chance to visit one of the projects he works on, a center for women (and their children) who suffer from domestic violence. I brought my bike, complete with all the panniers and we entertained the kids for the afternoon. We got them to colour in a map of our route from Mexico and generally had a lot of fun. The 4 days since we arrived have felt like a home from home and as well as the cycling, this is what the trip is all about too, making friends, learning about a new culture, exchanging ideas and above all, appreciating life, and the simple things in life.

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