Saturday, 21 June 2014

The Patagonian Pampas

Jeinemeni National Park behind Chile Chicos

The road from Chile Chico to Los Antiguos
Chile Chico is less than 10 km from the Argentinian border so it did not take long to cross back into Argentina. Los Antiguos is the next town almost immediately over the border. You certainly could not mistake being back in Argentina with their national flag on practically every street corner. I initially thought this was possibly because it was a border town that they like to show their colours but I found out a few days later that the 25th of May is a big Argentinian national holiday. Premier Gobierno Patrio (First Patriot Goverment or Revolution of May) was the week in 1810 when people from the Rio de la Plata region set up the first government without the Spanish Viceroy. I always find it interesting on this trip to observe the similarities and differences once I cross a border. Even if there were no flags in either town a quick trip to the bakery would confirm which side of the border you were on. Obviously I celebrated my border crossing with a quality Argentinian sticky bun. My excitement at being back to fantastic bakeries was soon tempered by the stupid speeds they drive at on these long straight roads in Patagonia.

The long and not so winding road
That evening I arrived at the town of Perito Moreno. It was a complete boy racer town and while I was out for a stroll that evening I saw a fight break between a few young lads at the traffic lights. As far as I knew Perito Moreno was going to be the last town of any significance that I would be passing until I got to El Calafate, over six hundred kilometres further south. I knew from a while back that this long isolated stretch was coming up and it felt all too reminicent of the very start of my trip back up in Alaska when I had 800 km to get to the first town of Fairbanks. That initial isolated stretch was in the summer but I was now in the patagonian winter so while I wouldn't say that I was dreading it, I was certainly conscious of the fact that I had to be careful. I had a large supply of food with me leaving town. The girl in the bakery gave me a few looks when I  bought 30 bread rolls and several buns. I was going to be following the famous Ruta 40 almost all the way. This stretch used to be mostly gravel but over recent years they have been paving lots of it. 

The guanaco is related to the llama. It has shorter fur.
Same same but different.
Initially they look kind of clumsy but as you can see they
are in fact quite agile to be able to spring over  all the
barbed wire fences along the road side. Sometimes
the younger ones might run along ahead of me
for literally kilometres looking for a gap in the fence.
They don't always clear the fence.
Once out of town I had a paved road and strong tail wind for the whole day which helped to get a decent distance done. I would only really notice the wind whenever I stopped because while I was cycling in the same direction and around the same speed it was almost silent and certainly quite peaceful cycling this open Patagonian expanse... bar the occasional speeding van attempting take off.
It is difficult coming from Ireland to comprehend just how desolate and unpopulated this part of the world is. I wasn't counting but I probably passed less than ten buildings that day once out of Perito Moreno. Nearly all the land is owned by vast Estancias which are a kind of large estate or ranch. Although you may pass a few entrances to these various estancias in a day, many of them could have another 20 or 30 kilometres down a dirt path to get to the main house. They are extremely isolated and particularly in winter once the snow arrives. This is very much frontier territory.

Late in the afternoon with some dark ominous clouds approaching I decided to keep an eye out for shelter. Thankfully after not too long I spotted a house about a kilometre off the road. The gate was locked so I had to take all my panniers off, throw them and the bike over the gate, repack and cycle down the long drive way. Being as isolated as it is around these parts many home owners would have some sort of gun so I was certainly making sure to shout hola very regularly so as not to startle anyone! As I got closer to the house it looked like nobody was living there. This was confirmed when I went around knocking on all the doors and did a tour of the buildings. All I was looking for was some sort of shelter in case of a downpour and thankfully I found some. Around the back there was an old garage type of building with no gate. There was a slight smell of dead animal and there were a few too many animal bones than I cared for but this shelter was going to have to do. Obviously I was not the only one to have made the most of this cover from the elements with a puma probably using it occasionally. Thankfully (I suppose) the only cats I saw were two annoying little black domestic cats who pestered me for the evening sniffing and scratching at my food bags!

The following afternoon I arrived at what I would hardly even call the village of Bajo Caracoles. I thought that this was going to be my last opportunity to stock up on water for a few hundred kilometres. I approached the first man I saw who was out in his front garden area. He was whistling away to himself. I asked him if he knew where the next place I could get water was. He kept whistling. I repeated myself, slower and louder in the best spanish I could muster. I think he repeated my question. I said thanks and decided to look for somebody else as he got back to his whistling. Mad. I approached a shut up looking guest house that appeared to have the only petrol pump in town in front of it. On the third door I knocked at a woman half opened a panel in the door and squinted out at me suspiciously. I asked her was there somewhere to fill my water bottles. She curtly told me there was an outside tap by the petrol pump and shut the door panel. Ah it is great to have a conversation when your sole communication in the previous twenty four hours has been telling two cats off.

Water supplies
I proceeded to fill my bike bottle, three other large bottles and a water bladder which I hadn't used since northern Canada. I probably had a bit over 10 litres of water which would probably do me for about 3 days. Water is heavy so with all the food I was also carrying I was now very heavily loaded. I didn't really have any choice if I wasn't going to be passing much in the coming days. Before leaving town I decided to pop into the small police station to try and establish possible water points or places that I might be able to stay over the next few days. Thankfully the police man was not only sane and friendly but also knowledgeable about the road ahead of me. He gave me plenty of valuable information including the fact that while upgrading the Rute 40 it had been altered slightly to lead people into a town called Gogernador Gregores which I should hit within two days. He gave me a local map which highlighted the road side maintenance stations where workers are based to keep the roads clear in the winter. The fact that I was indeed going to be hitting a town in a day or so was vital information, something that the tourist info back in Perito Moreno didn't seem aware of. I thanked the guy and dumped half the water. It would seem that the water bladder that had laid at the bottom of one of my panniers for over a year was not essential kit afterall!

The rest of the day continued on a paved road with a healthy tailwind. That evening I made it to some shut up prefabricated buildings where there was just one man keeping an eye on the place. He welcomed me, seemed happy for the company and cooked a hearty stew. The buildings had been used to house workers while the road was being paved the year previous. Later that evening his supervisor happened to call by for the evening and we shared a mate together. Mate is an Argentinian obsession which is a bitter tasting finely chopped herb packed into a special cup and drunk out of a metal straw. You top the mate cup up with hot water after the few sips and pass the same cup and straw around. The only heating in the place was from the gas stove which he left burning and as there was no electricity we were using candle light. All very romantic.

Dips in the landscape provide shelter for plenty
 of animals. I think this guanaco may have
met a puma because it wasn't road kill.
The following day I had another handy tailwind but the wind was noticeably chillier. I had to use a dip in the landscape beside a road embankment to shelter from the chilly wind for my lunch break. That evening I timed it perfectly so that I arrived at a road maintenance station just as night was falling. David and Miguel were two lovely lads who welcomed me in and cooked up another lovely meal. I stayed up a bit later than usual that evening playing Fussball with the lads and it turns out that David was a bit of a Maradona when it came to the little game. The following day with the aid of another decent tailwind I made it to the town of Gobernador Gregores where I did a stock up. I was having a lucky time of it with the winds. Lots of cyclists had been warning me about the strong winds in Patagonia but thankfully for me the prevailing winds are north westerly so I was getting pushed along nicely for the most part.
David y Miguel, campeones de metegol!
The gentleman Hector Ricardo Garcia
I was on gravel for a day or so after leaving Gregores but managed to get indoors or get some proper cover every night. One of the evenings after not seeing any settlements all day I happened to spot one down behind a hill so despite it being a bit earlier than I would usually stop I decided to check it out. Hector Ricardo Garcia was a lovely old man who was being employed to look after Estancia La Lucia. He was full of the chat, which is probably not all that surprising if you spend so much time on your own. He was single, in his late fifties and it sounded from what I could understand that he was a bit down on his luck. He was not earning very much minding the estancia. He was wearing an eye patch which he explained was from when he went out for a night in his home town of El Calafate and got attacked. He said he never goes out but that his niece had convinced him to come out with her one evening when someone glassed him in the face. He said it was the only night he had been out that year. He lost the use of his eye. Despite having had a tough time of it Hector told me that the most important that we all need is to have hope. He also told me before leaving the following morning after breakfast that it had been minus 17 degrees celsius on the estancia the previous week. This piece of information sent a shiver down my spine. I have a good sleeping bag, air mattress and cold weather clothes but whatever about having to camp out in minus five or eight if I really had to I certainly wouldn't fancy anything past minus ten.
The aptly named Estancia La Siberia
Setting of in the snow from Tres Lagos
I stayed in the back of a police station the following night in the small village of Tres Lagos. One of the friendly police guys told me that there was a dump of snow due that night and surely enough there it was the next morning. So I had finally caught the snow or it had finally caught me! Things were starting to get interesting. Thankfully the paved road stated back shortly after Tres Lagos and the amount of snow was absolutely fine for cycling in. It was more of a novelty than anything. I got plenty of thumbs up and honks of encouragement from drivers amused to see the cyclist touring Patagonia in late May. The weather worked against my initial target of trying to make the entire 160 km to El Calafate that day. I was pleasantly surprised to run into another cycling tourer heading north. He was an Argentinian guy from Ushuaia cycling to Alaska! He was a month into his trip. It was entertaining for me and reminded me of my first day leaving Prudhoe Bay when I met the three French touring cyclists ( who had cycled from Ushuaia. The roles were reversed and somehow I was now the old hand!

Alaska bound. Great photos on his Facebook page EcosistemaAmerica

The day I finally cycled into El Calafate I was more wrapped up than I have ever been on this trip.. two pairs of thick merino wool socks, my water proof cycling shoes, neoprene shoe covers, cycling leggings, water proof trousers over that, several tops, rain coat, two hats, buff, hood and two pairs of glooves. My hands and feet were still a bit cold! Before I could ring Lucas, my couch surfing host in El Calafate, I needed to visit the local mobil phone shop to try and fix my phone. I had to take a step back from the counter when I realised that I wasn't quite smelling of roses. That is one of the problems with all the layering is that it can be tricky to regulate the temperature. It was definitely time for a shower and a clothes wash!
I didn't want to seem rude when I arrived into Lucas house but I couldn't help but laugh a little at the absolute state I made of the front of Lucas apartment when I wheeled my bike and gear in. The muck and sleet combination went everywhere. - Disculpe por el caos Lucas!

Perito Moreno glacier

El Calafate is a popular tourist destination in southern Patagonia primarily due to it's proximity to UNESCO world heritage site of Perito Moreno Glacier. Taking a break from the bike I got a tourist bus out to the national park to view it. The bus dumped you out there for a few hours and I was initially wondering what I would do to pass the time waiting for the bus to return. As it turned out I was quite glad to have hours to mostly just stand there and stare at this massive wonder.

50 metres high and stretching back 14 kilometres
Lucas trying out the bike before I finally hit the road
After a fun time hanging out with Lucas in Calafate it was time to hit the road fully recharged, with a bag of clean clothes and smelling of roses again. There are two main ways to get to Ushuaia from El Calafate. One way is heading slightly west via Puerto Natales and Punta Arenas and the other is heading east via Rio Gallegos. I had been kind of undecided about my route but any of the road maintenance crew I was talking to were all telling me to head via Rio Gallegos as there was less snow and probably slightly milder temperatures that way. The roads were all more likely to be open via Rio Gallegos they told me. On my second night out of El Calafate I was staying in another large complex of prefabs that had been used to build a nearby electricity station. It was empty except for the caretaker (and some little kid going around on a tricycle whispering something about RedruM Redrum) Anyway it was kinda spooky with so many empty rooms and a huge kitchen that was hardly used. In the morning on my way to the kitchen I almost slipped due to the ice. Decision made. I decided to go the "safer" or less severe and snowy way to Ushuaia via Rio Gallegos.
Slip sliding away
The truck for de-icing the road had skidded off in the ice!
I had 140 km from La Esperanza to Rio Gallegos so I was hoping for some of those favorable headwinds and some decent road conditions. Leaving the camp the police man at the gate told me that there had been rain during the night so to watch out for the ice. After a cautious start the road seemed okay as it appeared to have been treated to melt the ice. The traffic was driving significantly slower than usual so it was obviously quite easy to skid. After about 20 km suddenly the road became very icy and slippery. I skidded and fell off my bike. Thankfully it was a relatively slow motion fall so I was fine. All around me was extremely slippery. It was difficult to get cycling again along this particular stretch of road as it was so slippery. It was hard to get a speed up and I almost felt the slower you go the more likely you are to fall. While walking the bike back onto the road a few times I had to take baby steps of literally a few inches at a time. I decided to cycle along the gravel at the side of the road and even that was icy but better than the road. There was no way I was going to get close to Rio Gallegos if these conditions continued. After around three kilometres I came upon a truck that had skidded off the road. It turned out that this was the truck for treating the ice on the road but it had had to swerve off the road to avoid another lorry that was sliding into it's path. I talked to the guy who was minding the truck and he said he was fine. The road had been treated from this point on so I was able to cycle properly again. It was incredible the difference between where the road had been treated and where it was still just ice. 
My first sighting of a sign for Ushuaia on my way into Rio Gallegos
An asado in Federico's place
It was a long monotonous stretch for the most part and I made sure to keep an eye out for any icy patches. That evening I arrived into Rio Gallegos at about 7.30 pm shortly after Argentina had kicked off in their first match of the world cup. The place was like a ghost town. Federico, my couch surfing friend met me at his house and after a quick shower I was off to his friends house to catch the second half of the match. Argentina is well know for it's meat and grills but with the nature of this trip and had not really had much of a chance to experience this. I certainly made up for that during the time I spent in Rio Gallegos with Federico consuming several meat feasts. He also introduced me to another Argentinian institution which is Fernet Branca which I briefly grew to like while in Gallegos but it was a short lived love affair!

Another fantastic asado with the lads


Monday, 26 May 2014

The Carretera Austral

I was excited to cross back into Chile despite having already spent plenty of time in the country further north. For the next week or so I was going to be cycling part of the "Carretera Austral" which is probably the most famous bicycle route on the continent stretching for more than a thousand kilometres from Puerto Montt to Villa O`Higgins at it`s most southerly point. It was built during the time of the Pinochet regime to link some of the isolated rural communities in the south of the country and passes some spectacular landscape. I was only cycling part of the Carretera Austral as there is a ferry near the end that only runs up to the end of March.

I crossed into Chile just after dark but I still had a bit to go to my first town. Although it was after nightfall with a cloudless sky and a full moon I could still clearly make out the beautiful mountainous landscape around me. There was almost complete silence with no wind and no traffic so the mostly downhill ride from the border crossing to the first town of Futalefu felt like something from a surreal dream. After being asked to call back twice at the local fire station, finally said they wouldn´t be able to put me up due to lack of space. But the initially surprised local priest that I asked saved the day and let me stay in an unoccupied house beside the church. The following morning after having used up most of the Chilean pesos I had left on the usual bread and banana staple I was slightly perturbed to find that my bank card did not work at the only atm in the town. I was also informed that this would be the last atm I would pass until I reached Coyhaique a bigger town a few hundred kilometres down the Carretera Austral. Thankfully I had stocked up well in the last supermarket before leaving Argentina.

Back into Chile heading from Futlafu to the Carretera Austral

As it was starting to get chillier in the evenings and this part of Chile is known for its rain fall I was trying to either find places to camp that had a bit of shelter or stay indoors. The following night when I was camping in a kind of a barn I managed to explode a bag of pasta sauce all over myself. This would all be great fun if I wasn´t camping out and supposedly trying to avoid rodents instead of attracting them. Just as well it somehow managed to explode mostly over my trousers, shoes and socks. I managed to do it a few times so the choice language I screamed on each occasion probably scared away any curious wildlife. .

Elaborate map of the Carretera Austral painted
onto a wooden bus shelter

I finally hit the Carretera Austral proper the following day and was not initially bowled over by the landscape.

It seemed to get gradually more impressive the further south I got. I bumped into Jos, an Australian touring cyclist heading north who I had been tipped off about by Stefano the motor biker I met back in Bariloche. We exchanged notes on the route ahead but didn´t hang around for too long as it was chilly and starting to drizzle. He warned me about an abandoned house infested with mice to avoid and also had had a bit of a nightmare camping in a snowstorm further south by the massive Lago Buenos Aires. Jos mouse storey played on my mind a bit and so for the next few nights I made sure that my stove was well washed and packed away as well as all my food. I didn´t want another pasta sauce incident attracting animals. Despite preparing for the potential of getting rained on every day on the Carratera Austral I was lucky to get some dry days despite some suspiciously dark low lying clouds at times. I think prolonged downpour is the thing I dread the most on this trip which I have been lucky enough to avoid for the most part. So far..

A few days into the Carratera Austral I made it to Queulat National Park. It was after dark when I passed the main entrance and Jos had said there was nobody around so a good place to camp for the night was in the information centre. As per his instructions I stealthily made my way through the park and past all the empty camp spots to the info centre at the end of the main path. My other touring pals Simon and Olivia had also mentioned this natinonal park but had warned me that it was around the equivalent of USD 14 when they passed in March. Being on a long journey and a tight budget where I spend the majority of nights camping out in my tent I usually avoid official campsites where you have to pay. I will pay for a bed and a shower from time to time if needs be but why pay in a campsite if I can usually pedal a few kilometres down the road and camp in the bushes! Being keen to avoid any park rangers I kept the lights low that night. I was up early the following morning as I had erected my tent on the main table in the centre. Coming into winter and being quite far south it wasn`t bright until around 9 am. I was keen to check out the hanging glacier that the park was famous for before I hit the road. I put my bike around the back of the info centre and went for a stroll. There were two paths and after coming back from the short 300 metre path with nobody around I got greedy and decided to do the bigger hike up closer to the glacier that took two and a half hours to do. Of course I bumped into two park rangers half way into the second hike. They told me I could pay on my way out of the park. Ah great. Later on after collecting my bike and on my way out of the park I stopped at the ranger station at the front gate. I was honest, I was only after crossing into Chile a few days previous and my bank card at Futalefu didn´t work. I wouldn´t have any cash until I got to Coyhaique. He seemed to be more of a decent lad then the other guy I had met earlier and said that was fine. Gracias! The ranger also advised that I had a climb ahead but the paved road started after about 30 km.

Well worth the two hour hike to check out "Ventisquero Colgante"  the
hanging glacier
 I arrived at the top of the summit of all of 500 metres (which had still managed to take me ages... a far cry from the Peruvian climbs) just as it was getting dark. Terrible timing because not only was it chillier higher up but what I could make out of the landscape appeared to be stunning. I kept pushing on in the dark not having a clue as to where I was going to stay that night as the next town was still another 30 or so kilometres away. At the bottom of the descent on the far side and about a kilometre along the paved stretch I passed some pre-fab buildings and the first sign of lights on. Knock, knock. Who´s there? Can you not tell from the smell.... it´s a touring cyclist! It was a base for the guys working at paving the road. Thankfully they welcomed me in, fed me a stack of rice, bread and tuna. I even got a bunk bed for the night.

This guy was walking the length of Chile and left Punta Arenas about two months previous.
He expected it to take him a year.. I`ve heard that one before
Don´t forget the rules of following your dream, always wear
a high-viz vest
A quiet Casa de Ciclista in Villa Manihuales
By the following evening I had made it to the small town of Villa Manihuales. This is a well know pit stop for the many cyclists that do the Carretera Austral every year. The lovely Jorge who runs the Casa informed me that I was possibly going to be the last cyclist to pass through this institution because in June he was moving to Puerto Aisen which is nearby but not on the main Carretera Austral. Despite spending a lot of this trip on my own I thankfully very rarely feel lonely but it was slightly weird being in the Casa on my own having heard from Jorge that the record number of cyclists staying in the place in one night was 18! That and reading all the messages in the guest book of tourers I knew who had passed earlier. Seems like March was the time to be there.

The following day there were two route options for the days ride to Coyhaique, a 90 km mainly on a hilly dirt road or the 10 km longer paved road that would involve heavier traffic with not much of a shoulder nearer Coyhaique. I opted for the dirt road. By 9 pm that night, exhausted and having been cycling in the dark for the previous few hours I was starting to think I should have gone for the more straight forward paved route. Thankfully Marcello, my couchsurfing host in Coyhaique didn´t seem to mind my late arrival and even gave me a nice meal. That evening I had a great chat with Marcello and a some of his friends over a few glasses of wine.

After leaving Coyhaique a few days later I was planning on turning off the Carretera Austral and heading for a ferry across Lago Buenos Aires to Chile Chico which is a small town on the border. Before I got to the boat I had the biggest climb of my stint on the Carretera Austral at over a thousand metres. I found it easier than my days ride into Coyhaique as it was all paved. It was probably the coldest I had been on the trip so far when I was up at the summit just as it was getting dark. There was plenty of snow on either side of the road but the road itself was clear. I descended on the far side until the snow disappeared happy that I had made most of distance as the only boat crossing the next day was at midday.

I caught the ferry without any hassle and had a beautiful sunny day for the two hour crossing. I hadn´t arrived long in Chile Chico when I met up with Angela who was my couchsurfing host. I had a very relaxing day off hanging out with Angela and her flatmate Maria. They taught me how to make a delicious vegeterian Charquicán which is a local Mapuche speciality. The following morning I headed for the nearby border back into Argentina.
Couch Surfing!