Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Tierra del Fuego



On one of my days off in Rio Gallegos my friend Federico had brought me out to see Laguna Azul, a small picturesque lake in the crater of an old volcano. It was a bit over 60 km from Rio Grande and close to the border with Chile. The day I was visiting with Federico one of the things that struck me was how well protected from the wind it was once you headed down into the crater close to the lake. So the day I eventually rolled out of Rio Gallegos after midday I decided that if it didn´t rain that I would aim for Laguna Azul and make sure to get one last night of camping in. Although I have spent most nights of this trip sleeping in my tent, over the last two months my camping had been severely restricted due to the cold but I was missing my tent and keen to have one last night of camping. The weather for the previous few days had been relatively mild considering I was in southern Patagonia in winter. It was dark by the time I reached the turn off for Laguna Azul. I turned my bike lights off for the first few hundred metres of cycling down the side road so as not to be noticed by any passing traffic. I was relieved when I reached the car park 4 km down the side road to see that there were no cars.

Windy at the top of the crator
I wheeled my bike through the entrance gate. There was not much wind and as it was pitch dark and a steep slippery climb down closer to the lake I decided to put up my tent near the top of the crater. School boy error. I was woken up with a jolt at about half past three in the morning with howling winds having a good go at my tent. It appeared as though a hipopotamus was trying to lie on one side of the tent. Yep, the wind had picked up significantly and I was hoping not to get blown into the lake. I got up to check all the flapping noises and was relieved to see no hippo and that my tent pegs were still in, probably thanks to the large rocks I had also used just in case. The tarp covering my bike was also somehow still intact so I put some more stones over it to reduce some of the flapping noise. I crawled back into my tent for a patchy nights sleep. The winds in Patagonia can be difficult to predict picking up and fading at any time of the day or night. This was in contrast to southern Bolivia where I was almost always guaranteed a stong wind in the afternoon which would die down later and nearly always a calm morning.
I was tired and slow getting up the next morning and of course just when it came to dismantling the tent the wind really picked up again. As I dismantled the tent I had to weigh it down with a few of my stuffed panniers still inside so that it wouldn't blow away.
My tent poles were getting twisted in all directions and the previous ten hours had certainly been the most rigorous test of my tent´s durability of the entire trip but thankfully it held up.
Even though it had been dark arriving the previous night I had some impressive views of the laguna in the morning.
View from the tent
Back into Chile, this time in the 12th region.
After less than 10 kilometres of riding I made it to the border with Chile. Chilean customs are extremely strict about food produce and you can't bring any fresh fruit or dairy over the border. All my panniers were put through an x-ray machine and I had to eat my four bananas there and then. After I topped up my water bottles I was on the road and into Chile. The road on the Chilean side seemed to be made of smoother concrete and I was glad the temperatures were above zero as it would not have been possible to cycle on if it was icy. As there was little in the way of settlements marked on the map for this stretch I was relieved to arrive at a small village shortly before dusk. Pretty sure that this was going to be the last town until I crossed over onto the island of Tierra del Fuego I decided to play it safe and look for somewhere to stay in the town. I got talking to a garage owner who suggested I ask at the local estancia (ranch/ estate) but then he decided to come and check with me. Like with so many Chileans I had previously met he was extremely friendly and was full of chat as we drove a kilometre up the road to get the go ahead from the estate manager. My new friend enthusastically did all the talking for me and I provided the friendly smile. I heard him mentioning "loco irlandes" and "Corazon Valiente" which translates as BraveHeart. "Si, si Corazon Valiente" I confirmed. This wasn't the first time that I had heard the film BraveHeart mentioned... it counts if some of it was filmed in Ireland doesn´t it?! That night I got my own bed and room in one of the buildings that hosted some of the workers on the estancia. The guys even brought me over to their canteen where I was treated to a chicken soup and large portion of rice, fish and bread.
I didn't leave too early the next morning, as per the advice of one of the other guys staying there because it didn´t get bright until after 9 am and the roads can be quite icy before sunrise. I reluctantly left the estancia as the pre match hype for Chile's big second round match in the world cup against Brazil was starting. Most of the footage was of Chile's team bus parked outside their hotel.. the tension..! Much and all as I was keen to see the match I also knew that I had to make the most of the unseasonably mild weather that I had.

Lots of natural resources in Patagonia

I was less than an hour on the road when I got to a sign for the turn off for the ferry crossing to Tierra del Fuego. Tierra del Fuego is a large island divided between Argentina and Chile. That morning cycling towards the sign for the ferry crossing I started to reflect on my cycling journey as I knew once I left the South American mainland and crossed over to Tierra del Fuego that I would be on the last stretch of the journey. On the one hand I could remember vividly my first day on the bike cycling out of Prudhoe Bay as if it was only a week ago. On the other hand when I thought back on how much I have seen on the bike since then and all the different experiences that I have had in the mean time it seemed like an age away.
All eyes on the world cup match on the ferry crossing over to Tierra del Fuego


I made the ferry without a second to spare, as soon as my wheels touched the boat ramp they closed over the barrier and started to pull out of port. The ferry crossing is at one of the narrowest points on the Straights of Magallen and took less than 20 minutes. This ferry crossing can be very rough at times due to the high winds and adverse weather around these parts but I was lucky to have a very calm day. There were very few vehicles and peole on this crossing and the few that were on the boat were all indoors glued to the television for the Chile Brazil world cup match that had finally kicked off. One all after 50 minutes.. Vamos Chile! When I cycled off on the far side I was greeted with long line of trucks all standing around listening to the match on the their radios. I was less than ten minutes cycling on the island of Tierra del Fuego when I was hit with a freezing fog that I had seen approaching, so much for the land of fire I thought to myself as I layered up. To my pleasant surprise the road was fully paved for the forty kilometres to Cerro Sombrero, one of the few small towns on the Chilean side of Tierra del Fuego. It was after dark when I went into a solitary restaurant a few kilometres from the town to see if I could find somewhere to stay the night. I had just missed the end of the Colombia Uruguay match, 2-1... vamos Colombia! I got talking to two guys who appeared as if they had been drinking since before kick off in the Chile Brazil match. They still had their Chilean flag with them but unfortunatly Chile's run in the World Cup had come to an end at the hands of Brazil. The two guys were carpenters who were building a restaurant about a kilometre back up the road. They offered to put me up and I accepted their offer. I had a good chat with them that evening around the wood stove, "Corazon Valiente" got another mention, and again I was lucky to get my own bed and room in the almost finished building.
Chilly in Chile
Art work at the port in Tierra del Fuego


I hit the road the following morning after a few photos and was almost immediately onto the unpaved dirt roads that I had been warned about. The going was slow and the days are very short being this far south in winter. That evening I made it to a camp that appeared to be some type of natural gas extraction facility. There is a lot of natural gas in southern Patagonia. I was pretty filthy arriving into the office to see it they could help me out and was thrilled when they showed me to my very own spotless portocabin. Considering the poor camping options I had been weighing up I may as well have been handed the keys to the penthouse of a luxuery hotel. It was no harm either that I was invited to eat in their impressive canteen that evening. The next day the mud seemed to get progressively worse. I made it to the Chilean customs at dusk. They told me that the Argentine customs was not for another 14 km and that the road was in a bad way. I didn´t think it could have been much worse than what I had just ridden to get to the border crossing but I was wrong.


Even though it was now dark I decided to push to the far side of no mans land to get to the Argentine border control as my friend (and fellow PanAm cyclist) Nico had told me there was a place to stay there. Wow, I am not sure whether it was a good thing or a bad thing that I was doing this last stretch in the dark because I may have turned back if I had seen what I was getting myself into. One might think that with only about 300 km to go to Ushuaia that I had experienced all the main challenges of the trip a long time back but the 14 km of "road" between the Chilean and Argentine border controls turned out to be by far and away the muckiest stretch of road of the entire trip. I was not able to cycle the bike at stages becuase there was so much muck embeded in the chain and the teeth of my casette were no longer catching the chain. By the time I dragged my bike up to the border control I had tennis ball sized pieces of muck lodged around the chain. It was probably worth the effort however as I got a place indoors at the border control, a type of a waiting room. Many's the cyclist that has spent the night here as there was a bike rack outside the room and a sign on the entrance door saying not to bring your bike inside the building! Despite the cosy room to sleep in I got very little sleep as the *$&#/* of a police man on night duty insisted on playing regaton music at full volume for the whole night. Aaaarrgh.
A bit of dirt on my chain

I took over an  hour in the morning attempting to get the bulk of the muck off the chain and gears. It had been worth getting through all the muck the previous night as I was now back onto paved roads on the Argentinian side.
Rio Grande is the largest city on Tierra del Fuego about 80 km down the road from the border crossing with the road stretching mostly along the Atlantic. It had been a while since I had seen the atlantic, last time being when I looked out the window of the plane flying from Ireland to America! I stopped off at a garage on the outskirts of Rio Grande where a guy kindly powerhosed down the bike. Considering a short while before the bike had never looked so dirty the strength of the hose meant that my bike now looked about as clean as the first day of the trip. I hardly recognised it! The Bomberos (firestation) referred me to a local community centre where I was put up for the night for free. That evening I headed out for a bite. I had a beer with my Milanesa sandwich. I practically never have a beer on my own on this trip. I hadn't got to Ushuaia yet but I was already slipping into holiday mode! Not far to go now..!
Brand new bike or so it looked after a good power hose to remove all the muck.
Rio Grande is said to be the world trout fishing capital
Argentinian supporters in Rio Grande
It was after noon by the time I hit the road with no bananas, some pretty substandard scraps of bread but another handy tailwind. My target that evening was Tolhuin, or more specifically Panaderia La Union, a famous bakery in Tolhuin. I had been hearing about this bakery from touring cyclist as far back as Peru! The bakery puts cyclists up for free although I am pretty sure this is a wise move by the bakery if the hunger I had arriving into the bakery was anything to go by. Argentina has the best bakeries of all the countries I passed (the States and Mexico being close seconds) and Panaderia La Union in Tolhuin was the most impressive I had seen in Argentina so far. Muy rico! I was cycling for over an hour in the dark to get to Tolhuin but there was no way I was going to miss the opportunity to sleep in the bakery I had heard so much about. To my complete shock there were two other cyclists being put up in the bakery also.... and they were headed for Ushuaia. I hadn´t come accross another cyclist heading in the same direction as me in months. Charles and Marcus from Miami in sunny Florida were my new buddies for the evening as we gorged on all that the bakery had to offer. "Autra sticky bun por favor.."


Leaving Panaderia La Union for last full day on the bike
Marcus & Charles cyclists and highway robbers.  
Well stocked after our night in the panaderia

We hit the icy road in the direction of Ushuaia at about 10.30 the next morning. It was great to be cycling with a few other cyclists for a change even if it was so close to the end. We had to cross one last big mountain pass where I had been warned that the weather can be pretty bad at any time of the year. It was okay for us, no snow storms and no heavy fog. A local man taking our photo at Paso Girabaldi told us that we were very lucky with the unseasonally warm winter, that most winters that it would not have been possible to make it all the way to Ushuaia by bike. Julio, a friend of Federico's who I stayed with in Rio Gallegos, works for the National roads (Vialidad) and had organised a place for me to possibly stay at a small intersection called Rancho Hambre where they had a road maintenance centre. We had done about 70 kilometres by the time we reached Rancho Hambre. For the previous ten kilometres I had been weighing up whether I was going to bid farewell to my two new cycling buddies and spend the night here or continue on to Ushuaia with the lads who were determined to get to Ushuaia that day. I was weighing up in my head after traveling for so long on this bike journey solo whether I wanted to arrive into Ushuaia on my own or with the lads. I may have spent the majority of this trip cycling solo but it had not changed me so much that I didn´t still enjoy other peoples company! Thankfully! I took a quick look at a chilly looking Rancho Hambre.  Not much of a decison to be made, on we go lads. I may have spent plenty of days alone in the saddle but I was going to have some good company to celebrate our arrival into Ushuaia.  We still had over thirty kilometres to do to Ushuaia with a little over an hour of sunlight left. Pressue was on to make the entrance to Ushuaia for the all important photo shot before nightfall. I thought once we crossed paso Girabaldi that the rest would be easy but the rolling hills kept us going. One might think being essentially on the last day of a long bike journey that I would take my time and savor every last minute of it taking in my surroundings but we had to belt it to get to Ushuaia before dark and I had some decent pace setters!

Heading towards Paso Girabaldi

At the top of Paso Girabaldi where the guy taking our photo told us we would not normally
be able to cross in July.
The two pillars on either side of the road marking
the entrance into Ushuaia.
Shortly before dark we hit the massive pillars on either side of the road that mark the entrance to Ushuaia in dramatic fashion. Free wheeling the last hundred metres through the gates there was no over the top hollaring or bike stunts but with a lot of satisfaction I just threw one fist in the air... "Yes" On Friday 3rd of July 2014, twenty three months after cycling out of northern Alaska I had finally cycled all the way to Ushuaia! Big huge smiley face!

Happy Camper!
After way too many photos at the entrance pillars to Ushuaia it was time to cycle into the city to find somewhere to stay. It was bigger than I expected and the three of us had to have our wits about us cycling towards the centre in the dark during evening rush hour. Ushuaia is a hilly place, particularly around the centre. It was on my mind that it would be just my luck to have made it all the way to Ushuaia only to have an accident cycling down the steep incline against the traffic on the one way streets in the ice. This didn't seem to bother Charles as much even though his brakes were no longer working properly. Once we had found a hostel we dumped our bikes, had a quick shower and out we went on the town. Although I always tried to approach this journey by focusing on the day or week that was in it, I would be lying if I said that the thought of the celebratory steak that I would have upon arriving in Ushuaia hadn't crossed my mind as early back as Alaska! On some of the tougher days I had also fantasized about the good steak meal that I would have upon making the finish. Now, after all those months it was finally time for that steak! Federico had recommended a good all you can eat meat grill restaurant in the centre of town so off the three of us marched. La Estancia restaurant did not disappoint and I lost count of the amount of times I was back and forth to the grill for another slab of meat. It certainly beat the usual pasta on my camp stove.  After we rolled out of La Estancia it was off to the pub...."Dublin Pub irlandes"! I don't usually seek out Irish pubs when I am abroad but I had been assured by a few people that this was one of the main places to go out in Ushuaia. Judging by the decent crowd this seemed to be the case. We didn't last very long between the days exertions and the meat coma and headed for bed at a respectable hour.
The following day was Friday 4th of July so my two new American friends were keen to celebrate their national day. I obviously didn't need much arm twisting. We headed over to friends of theirs, Matias and Natty who had moved from Rio Grande to Ushuaia a few months previous. Later it was on to a certain pub for a burger and papas Dublin?! It was great to have arrived into town with two fellow cyclists and to have a few evenings out together.

The main Ushuaia sign down by the port near the centre of town.
So how did I feel on reaching Ushuaia?... tired, happy, sad.. I was tired from the cycling and the several celebratory nights that followed. Happy to have made it. Sad that my bike trip, which at times had almost felt like it would never end had in fact come to an end! A sense of achievement to have accomplished something epic that I had dreamt about doing for a very long time. But to be honest I think it will take a while before it all settles in. For the first few days in Ushuaia it felt as if I was still on the journey and simply on another stop over. Yep, it is going to take a while to settle in alright!

(Although most of the cycling is finished for the moment I will not be rushing home. I plan to stay in Argentina for the next few months... so more to follow on the blog! It is certainly not too late either to make a donation to my Trocaire fundraising page. All donations go directly to projects improving food security of poor indigenous communities and to victims of domestic violence in Central America. Thanks)


CLICK HERE TO DONATE NOW TO BILLY'S TROCAIRE FUNDRAISING PAGE

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 (www.solidream.net) 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


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