Archive for the ‘Chile’ Category

The final 1000km

February 12, 2011

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..

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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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