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 luxury 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)