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Patagonia can be a lonesome place. While there are tons of awesome spots to find cool people and enjoy excellent company, there’s also a whole lot of open space. From the seemingly infinite rolling plains of the pampas, to the wind-carved peaks of the cordillera, the opportunities for isolation are endless. No wonder we all ended up travelling by ourselves for the last leg of the trip. It was almost as if the place requested that we come and go in groups of one.
Since we all finished solo, I (Kanaan) thought it would be best to tell all of the final stories, not just my own. So, without further ado, here are four different ways to do ATripSouth from El Chalten to Ushuaia.
By the time I finally got out of El Chalten, I had a pretty good idea of what the road ahead looked like. All the others had sent me notes from the road: what to look for and what to avoid. Chris cruised through Chalten in November, noting that it would be a great place for some hiking. Max also noted the potential and found the gem of Chalten, Flor’s Casa de Ciclistas, which he described as “super buena onda” (really good vibes). When Andy and I arrived it was easy to see what the other two had been so excited about. I think that of all the places in South America, El Chalten was by far my favorite town.
The town is surrounded by Los Glaciares Parque Nacional, separated only by an unbelievable range of peaks from the Southern Patagonia Ice Field. It’s a rock climbers paradise, with everything from world renowned mountaineering routes to fun backyard boulder problems and everything in between, all easily accessible. The village is laid-back, with a solid population of active citizens (great subjects for the film project) who are keeping a close eye on the development as it attracts adventurers from all over the world. On top of all this we had an amazing home at Flors to celebrate with friends new and old and share some awesome communal feasts.
When Andy was ready to move on after a week and a half, I still had a pile of things to do on the list. He took off the day after my half birthday, just to prove that he was a better friend than Chris, who left us in Cuzco on my 25th. Andy tried to take the advice of Max, who said that leaving Chalten on a windy day gave him the fastest ride he had ever had on flats, but it was a rare windless week in Chalten and no breezes were in the forecast.
I also had a surprisingly calm and quite cold day when I finally left after three weeks. Another surprise was that I was not alone on the first day of my solo mission. Somehow, after living in her small house with her family for nearly a month, Flor still wasn’t sick of me, and asked if she could come along for the ride to El Calafate. With the promise to “ir con tranquilidad” (go with tranquility), we took four days to do the trip that most ciclists do in two.
On our second night we stopped at an abandoned pink house halfway between Chalten and Calafate that has become a popular refugio for ciclists. It was a cool stop for Flor because she got to see the names of many of the travelers who have stayed at her house over the years written on the walls. Andy from ATripSouth was one of those names. After a good nights rest there Andrew sent it straight for the pampa towards Puerto Natales, not even stopping for the detour to Calafate.
Chris went to the town but decided against the “big attraction”, Perito Moreno Glaciar, when he found out how far away and expensive it was. For this reason, Max tried to wake up early to sneak into the park after five hours of pedaling against the wind the day before. Well he didn’t wake up early enough and met a park guard at the entrance and was made to wait 3 hours until opening. Max reported an impressive glacier with a unique viewpoint, but said it wasn’t really worth it for all the effort it took to get there. He quoted our friend Owen from when we kayaked through Tracy Arm at the beginning of the trip, “it’s like what you’ve never seen a glacier before?”
With those words in mind I almost didn’t make it out to Perito Moreno myself, despite spending a week hanging out in El Calafate. Staying with Matias, a friend that I met at Flors place in Chalten, I had excellent company for walks to Cerro Calafate and Laguna Nimez, jam sessions with the flute and drum I’ve been carrying around, guanaco (the Patagonian llama) asados from the neighbor’s recent hunt, and learning the art of FLO, which Matias described as, “a bodily expression with geometric forms and movements.”
The day that I left the house, I wasn’t quite sure where to go. But the wind was blowing from the abnormal direction of the north, so I decided that I might as well check that glacier out. Unprepared as I was, the fact that the park entrance was 30 kms from the actual glacier came as a complete discovery to me. A spur of the moment decision left me camping just below the ridgeline of the closest mountain, with hopes to see the glacier from above the next day.
The following morning I made it to the top of a nice tall pointy peak, where I realized that I was still three or four mountains away from the glacier, but had a great view of the Torres del Paine about80 kmaway. The descent along the less direct scenic route took the rest of the day, and just after nightfall I was riding silently and stealthily past the park entrance to go camp in front of the glacier.
I had a great morning session with Perito Moreno, and definitely understood what Max meant about the unique viewpoint. It was like checking the tonsils of the ice field, looking straight into its mouth and down its cold blue throat.
Thoroughly exhausted from the night before, I hitched a ride back to Calafate, pedalled to the other side of town, and hitched another to the emerald flowing Rio Santa Cruz, where Flor and I had camped a week prior. It was the beginning of a large stretch of hitchhiking for me, not too interested in riding my bike through what Chris called “basically nothing, completely desolate and really windy,” Max described as “not that bad but better ways to spend your time,” and Andrew advised “not all that fun, probably better to hitch if you can.” Sometimes it pays to be the last in line.
Although I did end up missing out on Andrews experiences with the drunk police captain and the gas station with free coffee. And by hitching straight to Rio Turbio, I missed Cerro Castillo, the border crossing that Chris recommended. I got dropped off right at the edge of Argentina, and after answering correctly the interrogations of the border patrol officer (“which city in Argentina has the most beautiful women?” Luckily he was from Salta), I got invited to stay the night and have sandwiches and drink mate while watching the NBA playoffs. The next day I crossed into Chile and it was all downhill into Puerto Natales.
Natales had been a big destination on the list for a while after hearing our buddy Billy talk about it in Valparaiso. Chris also pumped it up after his experience in Torres del Paine Parque Nacional. He told us where to camp and what to check out, noting the amazing scenary and interesting vibe that he found camping with people from all over the world each night. “I definitely recommend going, even though it was a bit of a circus, it was well worth it.” So naturally none of us went.
Max blasted through Natales en route to go hang with Benjamin, our friend from Punta Arenas who was an exchange student in Juneau in highschool. Andrew hooked up with the “couchsurfing family”, a great place full of travelers, delicious food, and a wacky ma, pa, two kids, and a dog. I got to experience it myself for two days that included a Patagonian curanto and a gigantic pizza. He stayed there for four days relaxing in Natales, and couldn’t be bothered to throw the heavy cash at the price tag of the park. I was also a bit turned off by the cost, and after Benja (who used to be a park ranger at Torres del Paine) told me about some hikes near Punta Arenas of equal cool value, I pointed my tires in that direction.
Again, the diligent, experiential research of my compadres gave me an excuse not to ride my bike. Andy had recommended self mutilation as a coping mechanism for the boredom of the pampas between Natales and Arenas.While I didn’t get the wind that he suffered through after a day of riding out of Natales, one cold morning in the pampa was enough for me, so I stuck the old thumb out again and was at Benja’s house for lunch.
But Benja wasn’t there. Our plans to hike out to Cape Froward fell through when he realized he had to stay in Valdivia for another couple weeks to do his graduation ceremony. Luckily Andrew came to keep me company, already back from Tierra del Fuego, Ushuaia, the full tour. He was no longer going south, but instead back north to Santiago and then home. It was his second stay at the Murrié-Cacéres residence, a place that has recently been dubbed Hotel Juneau, especially since the ATripSouth bomb dropped.
Chris didn’t make it to Hotel Juneau on his breif pass through Punta Arenas. But Max did the double pit stop on his before and after to Tierra del Fuego, using the base camp before flying out of Arenas. Max hit the timing perfectly, arriving to the house when the whole family was present, Angela, Patricio, and all four of the sons. They had a hoot of a time enjoying each other’s company after seven years since Benja was in Alaska.
By the time Andrew arrived all the brothers were gone, either at school or working in other places to the north. Luckily similar-aged friends are not necessary to enjoy Hotel Juneau. Angela and Pato are incredible people, both bearers of the good sense of humor and compassionate sharer genes that made their son Benjamin such a good friend to so many in Alaska. Both are also excellent chefs and as if that isn’t enough, Angela is a professional baker, constantly pumping out cakes from the kitchen for a living.
It took Andrew a lot of motivation to leave the house the first time and he was quite relieved to be back when I met him for his second visit. After packing up Andrew’s life as a cyclist and sending him off on a plane for Santiago, I spent a few days preparing myself for the Island meanwhile exploring the local running trails around the city. Eventually I was ready to leave and unlike Max (who tried to leave the continent on the one day of the week that the ferry doesn’t run and had to come back to the house for another night) or Andrew (who left the house in a rain storm, freezing his bits off for his introduction to Tierra del Fuego), I made it to the ferry for an easy windless morning and cruised comfortably across the Straight of Magallanes.
But, in true form, Tierra del Fuego lived up to the legends and by the time I arrived in Porvenir, the sky was clouding over and the rain was starting to fall. Hoping to send off one last email before embarking on a few days of isolation in the pampa, I asked a worker at the salmon protein processing plant if there was an internet cafe in town. Juan informed me that like everything else in town, the ciber was closed on Sunday, but invited me over to the company house to use his computer. As the cold rain came down outside, we decided that it would be best for me to stay the night at the house.
This turned out to be a pretty good call because the next day was a full on blizzard. I can’t say for sure but I think that the gale force winds and fatty wet snowflakes were more enjoyable from the window of the warm house than the bike seat. The next day I got a good early start and was able to send it100 kmon the relatively smooth dirt road along Bahia Inutil (Useless Bay). Among the attractions for the introductory ride of Tierra del Fuego were the abandoned fisherman shack on the beach were Andy spent his first night after his shifter cable broke, and a year-old whale carcass that the guys at the salmon protein plant had tipped me off about. But the short days got the best of me and it was already dark by the time I arrived at the pleasant enclosed shelter that Max, Andrew, and our buddy Nico had all recommended.
Another windless early start convinced me that I might as well go check out the pinguinero15 km in the wrong direction, and maybe stop in for lunch at the estancia of John George, a friend of Benja. I had heard that the penguinero was super expensive so I decided to avoid paying by entering at the river and then running along the beach. This was a cool way to go because as I approached the waddling mass of penguins I got to see a variety of other bird gangs thriving off the shoreline ecosystem, as well as a fox scavenging eggs. I didn’t want to disturb the penguins, so I sat down on the beach once I had a good view of them to observe from a distance. I was surprised when a group of about 15 swam over and emerged to sun bathe on the beach right in front of me. It was pretty awesome.
When I finally left the beach I found that the estancia that I was looking for, Tres Hermanos, was about five minutes from the river. Julio, the caretaker of the ciervos (european red deer) informed me that John George was out in the field, but invited me in for lunch. When John George came home he asked me if I wanted to go rock climbing, and I knew that I would have to stay for the night. When we went climbing, and he showed me the amazing fields of boulders that he owns on his property, I knew that I would have to stay for a few days. I tried to leave after a couple days on the estancia, but then John George offered to pay me to stay and help out with the big annual project of giving the sheep their winter hair cuts over the eyes and between the legs. With the good food (lamb chops for every meal), great company (John George is hilarious), potential for a film segment (localized material production), and opportunity to make a bit of cash for winter (preparing to be a ski bum), I knew that I had to stay for another week.
Seven days of sprinting back and forth sweeping up bits of wool left me sufficiently satisfied with my experience on the estancia. Another night in the roadside shelter got me back on the travel train, but I awoke with a shiver as the hut was surrounded in a chilling ice fog. Attempts to bicycle my body to a comfortable temperature failed when I hit a patch of black ice on the road and the bike slipped out from under me. I cleaned the bits of frozen mud off my bike while waiting for the sun to burn off the fog and thaw and dry the road.
By the time I crossed the border to Argentina the sun had set and it was time to retire the tires for the night. And who could have guessed that in late May in Tierra del Fuego I would spend the following four nights trying to keep from overheating while sleeping next to powerful space heaters? The first night in a waiting room at the border customs, complete with sink and stove for cooking, the second night with couchsurf hosts Ana and Diego after they treated me to homemade pizza de la piedra, the third night in the guesthouse of Estancia Viamonte with a pumping woodstove, and the fourth in the cyclists’ room at Panaderia La Union in Tolhuin, another treasure chest of cyclist culture. I have the noble fearless leader of the G-Boyz Nico Provenzani to thank for tipping me off on three of those four locations. And Andy actually laid the groundwork for the other one, the couchsurf host in Rio Grande, although he didn’t even get to stay there after his 140 km day inspired by expectations for a warm bed. Andy also stayed at the Panaderia in Tolhuin but it was Max that told us about it in the first place. It’s a popular spot for many ciclists’ final night of their journeys.
But, like Chris, I wasn’t going to let my final night be a non-campout. After a two year camping trip I had to make sure to finish it off right, in the tent. A frantic 50 km push from Tolhuin showed me the gorgeous Lago Fagnano and Rio Indio where Chris spent his last night before I made it to Lago Escondido. It was frantic because I was worried that I was going to get snowed on and wanted to at least make it to the police station that Andy had noted before I called it a day. But as I sipped coffee and dried out my sweaty clothes at the Civil Defense Corps station at Lago Escondido, the sun popped out and those ominous looking clouds I was scared of started to burn off. My last big climb through Paso Garibaldi to the other side of the Tierra del Fuego mountain range was spectacular, and completely surpassed my expectations from the rest of the ATripSouth reports, which all described as “real nice”.
Slowly working up the mellow grade, surrounded by fresh sparkling snow and the sun on my back, the mountains that I hoped to call home for the next couple months welcomed me in with bright shining smiles. Between compulsive photo snapping of potential ski lines I laughed my way to the top of the pass and dropped south into the shadows of the Valle Tierra Mayor. I arrived at the base of Cerro Castor, the local ski resort, as the evening light took over and found a nice patch of grass that hadn’t gotten covered in snow yet because of the small roof built to protect the welcoming sign. It seemed like a fitting place to finish the camping trip.
That night I got rocked by some intense westerly warm winds and was a bit sad when I emerged from the tent to see that all the fluffy snow of the day before had become icy slush pits. But I am an Eaglecrest kid so it didn’t faze me too hard. I took the last 25 km of the trip super chilled out, enjoying the new perspectives that each turn in the road gave of the epic mountains and stopping frequently to meet the neighbors and ask about work opportunities. Eventually I made it to the pearly gates of Ushuaia and plunged into the city to find Ariana, my couchsurfing host.
And that was that. ATripSouth was done. I mean, I could have kept going south if I really wanted to. I’ve heard that Puerto Williams, on the other side of the Beagle Canal, has some good roads for bicycling. And I could kayak to Cape Horn if I was feeling extreme. Or sail to Antarctica. But Ushuaia seemed like a good place to stop. After all that’s what all the other dudes did. Chris arrived in spring with the first wave of southbound cyclists of the season and met some friendly locals to party with. Max rode into town in summer and got to go snorkeling with some wild Ushuaians. Andrew crossed the finish line in autumn just in time to celebrate with some of our greatest travel companions from the road, amigos that we all hope to share future adventures with. And I made it in exactly one month after Andrew, right as winter seemed to be closing the door on the cycling season. I’ve already made a handful of local friends that I am pumped to share a few months with down here, and if you count the mountains as friends then its way more than a handful.
Yep, the four of us each finished in our own way, at our own time. There is absolutely no way that any of us could have done the majority of the journey without the others; it was a group effort (that was mostly effortless) for almost the entirety. But in the end we were the same essential ingredients that we started as, four different kids that just wanted to see what the south was like. We saw what we wanted to see and learned how to keep ourselves content. And found the roads south that lead back home.
Thi-dibbity-dibbity-dabbity-dab-tha-that´s all folks! (como el Porky Pig entiendes?)
Thanks so much to everyone who helped make this journey happen! This one goes out to all of our friends and family that supported us along the way.
The Carretera Austral was like our kayak trip through the Inside Passage, but on bikes. Mountains, glaciers, rivers, and forests in all directions, easy campsites with all the amenities, and the peace of mind that only great wilderness can bring. Riding through Patagonia brought back pleasant memories from the early days of ATripSouth, reminding us to thank Seaward Kayaks, whose support we could not have left home without.