We left the Argentinian border post at San Sebastián, Tierra del Fuego early in the AM on the 14 km stretch of ‘ripio’ (dirt road) for the distant Chilean border post. We departed in a stiff breeze that was gusting to 50 or 60 by the time we reached the border. A brief rest and we pushed on, along a new concrete surface still not open to traffic. It was a good thing as we wove down the road drunkenly, heads down, at a blistering 3 kms/hr, basically a walking pace. Ten kms on and we were bagged! Stuck in the middle of the lonely pampas with nothing but sheep for company and not a tree in sight. I-Overlander (one of the apps we use for alternative travel in isolated regions) listed a forlorn, bus shelter some 30 kms distant as the only place to get out of the wind. To make a long story short and after some heated discussion, we opted to hitchhike. Two hours later a bus stopped and next thing we knew we were on our way to Punta Arenas thereby avoiding 2-3 days riding directly into 50+ km/hr winds with absolutely nothing but pampas all the way to Porvenir. Clearly, we are getting soft (or smarter would Claire say)
The bus headed north to cross the Straights of Magellan at the narrow, eastern most entrance to the Straight . The ferry landing was a simple, wave washed ramp on a desolate stretch of coast. Somehow the smallish ferry remained in place while loading. I don’t know if it was the 80 km/hr winds, the long westerly fetch or the constricted passage but, yikes, that was a rough crossing, the roughest I’ve experienced. The crew tells me they shut it down when winds are over 110 km/hr. I can’t imagine what that’s like. One can’t help but think of Magellan setting off in 1519 with 5 ships and 270 men to find a route around the Americas. He might have discovered the straight that bears his name and led the expedition that first circumnavigated the globe but only one ship and 19 men limped into port three years later. Their perseverance under such adversity into the unknown is truly hard to fathom. (They should have taken the bus says Claire).
Our return to speaking Spanish has been a joy. We are constantly being told what good ‘Castellano’ we speak after which the speaker will rattle along at a mile a minute of which we catch 25%. We have a long way to go to regain better fluency. The difference between Chilean and Argentinian pronunciation is quite pronounced which complicates matters.
We’ve already had a few ‘mechanicals’. My rear view mirror popped off and by the time I returned to pick it up a car had run over it so I now have a somewhat functional, jury rigged affair with a shattered mirror. A strong gust of wind folded my bike over on its kickstand which, bent beyond repair, I threw in the trash. I now either lie my bike down or have to find something to prop it against. Otherwise the bikes are performing well. Our bodies maybe a little less so.
A pleasant two day break in Punta Arenas at the home of Ivette, the partner of an old friend of my sisters was just what we needed, as the following days ride north got progressively more difficult as once again we were headed into the wind. We managed to struggle up to a ‘refugio’ that I-Overlander indicated provided some break from the wind. These refuges are dotted throughout the pampas and were originally intended as rudimentary shelter for gauchos working the vast estancias (ranches). Dirt floored, 10×10, tin shacks with some sort of homemade wood stove to get a fire going and in this particular case a dilapidated bed fit for a mangy dog. We set up the tent in the lee of the shack, got a fire going, made dinner and had a comfy evening reading in our new light weight chairs. The next day the winds were worse. We pushed on to Villa Telhueche, (and barely made it says Claire) tiny village but Claire was done in, so once more we stuck out our thumbs and landed an awesome ride in the truck of the most congenial road crew worker. We chatted away for the 80 km ride into Puerto Natales, the home base for trips into the famous Torres del Paine National Park. We spent two nights in PN waiting for the northerly winds to lessen and then they suddenly changed to out of the southwest, so despite the late start we jumped on the bikes for a glorious wind-driven ride to the tiny hamlet of Cerro Castillo where we set up our tent in Maritza’s backyard.
There followed three days of what makes bike touring so rewarding. Maritza was the most easy going, warm hearted host imaginable. Her husband Raul was a colourful gaucho who competed in Chilean style rodeo and sheepdog trials. We, a Swiss couple on a yearlong round the world trip, a Brit with her polyglot partner on a six month South American trip and Oliver from Slovenia pushing his heavily laden 3-wheeled stroller all the way to Alaska (what a character, we think he will make it, olythewalker.com), all around the table in Maritza’s kitchen, cooking on her wood stove and telling traveling tales. The wind never ceased howling. At night they were even stronger and roared like a jet plane as we tried to sleep. We worried our tent, despite being tucked in behind a hedgerow wouldn’t survive the battering. When the winds wouldn’t abate we jumped on a bus into the Park and did the 20 km hike up to the base of the Torres del Paine. Despite the crowds (reminiscent of Joffrey Lakes), the cold and the clouds obscuring the towers it was a great hike.!
Despite some aching quads the favourable winds encouraged us to keep riding, on the next leg to El Calafate…..until the road turns to the North.
PS – Much to our delight Claire’s computer has mysteriously emerged out of the bureaucratic maze that is the Newark airport lost and found department. We had indeed lost it while passing security most likely while the security guard harassed us about our dehydrated peanut butter.
PPS – Putting together this blog with limited Wi-Fi on an IPad is proving quite a challenge. Uploading photos from our camera is now not working just another challenge along the way.