With the 2 1/2 hour ferry ride across the Strait of Magellan, I am now officially off the island of Tierra del Fuego.
Despite what might first come to mind, Tierra del Fuego (translated to Land of Fire) does not get its name due to large amounts of volcanic or hot spring activity. The name actually derives from the fires made by the aboriginal natives that were seen by Magellan himself while sailing around the area. To ease any confusion on the subject I have been re-creating a more traditional ´Tierra del Fuego´ in my sleeping bag every morning to compensate for the lack of volcanic natural wonders. With my stomach slowly adjusting to various Argentine meats and campsite food, I´m not far from a geothermal plant at this point.
During the ferry ride I sat next to a rather interesting bunch of older South African guys who were just starting a 6 month trip from Argentina to Alaska on BMW offroad motorbikes. They seemed like a group with a great sense of humor and the desire to enjoy life after retirement. Meeting and chatting with them only backed up my saying ´I have never met a South African I didn´t like´.
However there are more South Africans to meet and at the end of the water crossing I quickly came to the realization that their bikes move about 10x faster as mine, so we were forced to say our goodbyes.
Another goodbye I had to say at that point was to my riding companion thus far, the infamous Swiss named Nedo. He had some mechanical problems on his bike that he needed to sort out in Punta Arenas and was also planning a fast smoothly-paved route into the Torres del Paine national park.
Still doing my best to hold onto my mountain biking roots, I desired the opposite route in a slower mountainous dirt approach with great views and was willing to sacrifice a few days of hiking in the park to do it. With all these facts combined, we decided it was best to split paths after about 400kms of cycling. There was no need to shed tears at that moment as the likelihood of running into him again in the future is pretty high.
Now on my own, I headed out on some obligatory pavement to the town of Puerto Natales to resupply food/water before heading onwards into the park.
I’m still having some epic wind battles, but have slowly learned to accept it. Basically I decided that while bitching and swearing is fun, the wind monster I have named Jorge doesn´t seem care. Besides, whenever I think Jorge has gone one step too far, I´m provided some spectacular scenery to ease my mind.
As expected, the lesser traveled dirt road was worth it and I eventually rode into the park with a huge smile knowing I made the right decision. Not only the landscapes but the wildlife and all the rural farms I passed by were amazing.
The Torres del Paine park itself is breath taking and a must see for any traveler in the area. It seems that the Chilean government has figured this out and has decided to charge Manhattan prices and would charge you for breathing the fresh air if they could only find a way to track consumption.
I spent the next 5 days hiking, biking, camping and enjoying the scenery of the park. I think you could spend 10-15 days in the area without taking the same path twice but, despite how many pictures I now have of them, there are only so many days I can spend looking at pointy rocks for top dollar and it was time to head north again.
Moving away from the park I was quick to meet up with another Swiss rider named Stefan with some similar destinations in his future. Although they do have their share, I don´t want you to get that impression that the Swiss are the only ones with two self-propelled wheels on the road – I have met and shared stories with bikers of many other nationalities to this point (Canadian, Colombian, Australian, New Zealanders, English, Scottish, French, German…) with more sure to come. However, to this point, it seems like the Swiss are at the right place, at the right time and moving in the right direction.
I´m starting to think that these Swiss guys might actually be my old Swiss Army Knifes I lost as a boy, reincarnated and now slowly finding their way back to me. This is fine with me because I find the general stereotypes of the Swiss to be accurate – smart, precise and safe.
These traits are more than welcome at my side as they act as a common medication for my recurring ´Lets do something dumb´ infection. ´Lets do something dumb´ has plagued me since childhood and has resulted in numerous broken bones, a bad shoulder and countless morning-time headaches. However to be fair, ‘Lets do something dumb’ has also added some very memorable nights to my life – so its not all bad.
Unfortunately this particular Swiss encounter was even shorter than the last. After a border crossing back to Argentina and 110kms of dirt road mixed with multiple rain & hail storms, Stefan´s gear system fell victim to the mud. Wet, cold and with only one gear this use, he decided to abort the remaining 120km to the next town and hitched a ride in a 4×4 pick-up truck. He passed by me with a can of Coca-Cola and a big smile. Add ‘soft’ the stereotype list (just kidding Stefan).
Once again proving the real Swiss stereotypes to be true, this turned out to be a smart move as the next 120km had some of the most impressive headwinds since I slept underneath the road. Coming to my rescue on the last and hardest 20km into town, helping out both my mental well-being and my tired legs, was an Australian cyclist named Bryan.
Bryan is actually heading South but we met when our two roads came together for a shared 20kms of westerly riding into the town of El Calafate. A jump off point to the famous Perito Moreno Glacier (turns out I can´t spell, thanks Guadalupe) inside the Los Glaciares National Park, El Calafate also houses an extremely cheap hostel which cyclists seem to converge on from all directions. Drafting each other into town, sharing our time as a sacrificial wind block, we slowly rolled in and celebrated with a liter of heavy chocolate milk each.
Although El Calafate is a tourist town that is only one expensive restaurant away from being called Aspen, it does have all the amenities needed to unwind after more than 1,000kms of cycling. Even though Bryan has broken my streak of Swiss safety and precision, the opposite traits he possesses have settled into the mix quite nicely. We have spent the last 3 days in town being lazy and cramming in some ´Lets do something dumb´ to offset the past 2 weeks on a saddle.
The much deserved rest days have been packed with sleeping in, some relaxing beverages and an all-you-can-eat Argentine buffet performance that rivals the time we found that Prime Rib place on Breckenridge spring break. Oh yeah, I did find some time to see the glacier as well….. (OK, I know this is weak – maybe I´ll tell more about the huge Glacier another time)
Fun is fun, but you need to know when you out stayed your welcome. So with a short stop over in the town of El Chalten at the base of Mt. Fitz Roy, I´m on to cycle the famous Carretera Austral. The Carretera Austral is a Chilean mountainous dirt road constructed during the Pinochet era in an attempt to connect some very rural communities to their surrounding regions. Although this project has failed and re-started many times, it is now about 1,200kms long and considered one of top bicycle tours you can do in the world. This will take me about 3 or 4 weeks through dramatically changing landscapes, so I wouldn´t expect another update or a proper cleaning for a month or so.
After the Carretera, it will be time for an old-time Colorado reunion with Steve and Andy to tour the Chilean lake districts for a few weeks. This time period is guaranteed to lack Swiss precision.
To close this one off, I´ll leave you with ´odd places I have slept in´ numbers 3 and 4. #3 being a rather nice road-side shack I found at 10pm after a long day of riding and #4 a big highway garage that made a perfect wind block from the 70k per hour winds that night.