Monday, January 18, 2016

Blowing in the Wind--Ushuaia to El Chalten (November-December 2015)

Gaucho horse-riding skills start young!
After the excitement of Antarctica, it took us a few days to get going on the next stage of our travels, cycling through Patagonia.  November 14th was spent walking around Ushuaia (running into a gaucho parade en route), napping and having beers with fellow passengers.  On November 15th we got up from our first night of deep, deep sleep in three weeks and headed out of Ushuaia to walk in Tierra del Fuego National Park.  Like everything in Ushuaia, it’s overpriced (300 pesos for a return bus ticket to go 12 km?  230 pesos admission?) but we had gotten back an extra US$50 that we weren’t expecting in our Antarctic refund and decided that it was mad money that needed to be spent.
On the shore of the Beagle Channel, Tierra del Fuego National Park

It was mad money well spent.  We walked for four hours along the shore of the Beagle Channel and then inland to Lago Roca, spotting birds and savouring wonderful views over beaches and distant mountains.  The dense beech forests were dark and mysterious, draped in old man’s beard moss and sporting bright orange spherical fungi.  Steamer ducks and upland geese bobbed offshore in the crystalline waters.  
Flightless steamer ducks, TdF National Park
Most of all it was such a relief to walk after three weeks of being cooped up on the ship.  I was enormously relieved that three weeks of doing my stretching exercises on board meant that my sciatica was almost completely gone and I could swing my left leg freely without pain, striding rather than hobbling along.
Ashy-headed geese, TdF National Park
The next day we dragged ourselves down to the bus stop at an ungodly early hour for the long bus ride to Punta Arenas.  We were almost 13 hours on the road, partly because it took absolutely forever to cross the Argentina-Chile border, partly because the ripio (gravel) sections of the road were awful, and partly because it’s a long, long way from Ushuaia to anywhere.  The scenery, once we’d gotten over the coastal mountains, is a monotonous plain, part of the Patagonian steppe.  We amused ourselves looking for guanacos and rheas amidst the endless cattle estancias.  On the ferry across the Straits of Magellan, Terri spotted Magellanic penguins swimming beside the boat, probably the highlight of the day.  At 7 pm we staggered off the bus and made it to our hotel and were reunited with our bicycles, which we had mailed to the hotel from Switzerland.  It was a brilliant solution for getting the bikes to South America, but we hadn’t reckoned with Chilean customs, who charged us US$300 in customs duties to bring the bikes into the country.

After a very, very, very windy day in Punta Arenas, we decided that we could do without the hassle of cycling north to Puerto Natales through incessant headwinds and bought bus tickets for the next 240 km stretch.  We made it to our hotel, booked ahead of time on, and checked into one of the most disastrously shambolic hotels I had stayed in for a long time.  We nearly died of exposure in our room, and we stored our bicycles in a backyard that compared unfavourably with a junkyard.  It was a relief to get on the bikes the next morning (November 19th), buy some groceries and start pedalling north towards Torres del Paine, finally underway on our cycling tour.

The centrepiece of our cycling was planned to be the Carretera Austral, but to reach the southern end of the Carretera, we needed to get to El Chalten, Argentina, and on the way we would stop off at the tourist hotspots of Torres del Paine and El Calafate to do some hiking and take in the breathtaking scenery.  I had been to these three spots back in 2000, but it was all a first for Terri and I was keen to revisit places I had loved the first time around.  We rode north out of town under grey skies and into a very cold headwind.  After 15 long kilometres, we turned west off the main road towards the Cave of the Milodon and a back road into the southern part of Torres del Paine park.  It was slow going with the wind and a bit of a rollercoaster road, and Terri in particular found it a shock to the system.  We passed by the Cave of the Milodon without going inside (it’s the site of an important natural history find, but the present-day site looks pretty Disneyfied), the pavement turned to rough gravel (slowing progress yet further) and we ended up camping in a farmer’s field beside a beautiful stream, still 40 km south of the park gates.
Paine Massif seen from Lago Serrano
The next day we set off early and passed by a couple of pretty lakes.  The weather was changing for the better in terms of sunshine, but we still faced substantial headwinds.  Along the road we spotted lots of birds and started to catch glimpses of the Paine Massif ahead, still sticking up into clouds.  A car which stopped to talk to us contained Ursula and Michael, a German couple living on a sailboat in the South Pacific; we chatted to them, and continued to run into them over the next few days.  Terri was taken with the idea of sailing in Polynesia:  travelling somewhere substantially warmer, and not having to sweat up short, steep gravel hills.  By mid-afternoon we had entered the national park, paid the eye-watering entrance fee and turned off for a late luncheon feast at Serrano campground.  We put up the tent behind a well-built wind shelter and went for a walk to enjoy the wonderful riverside scenery, birdlife and perfect views of the now-cloudless Paine Massif.  Seen from a distance, these mountains are a study in beautiful contrasts:  the rugged ice-rimed top of Paine Grande on the left, the two-toned rock faces of Los Cuernos in the middle, dark and chunky Almirante Nieto on the right with the polished steep spires of Las Torres just peeking up from behind. 
Terri riding towards the Paine Massif from Lago Serrano

After a night of well-earned sleep, we awoke to clear skies and more postcard-perfect views of the mountains and then cycled off through the park towards the main gate at Laguna Amarga.  A searching wind was raking the plains and stirring up dust clouds on the gravel roads.  It was mostly at our backs, but when it was even slightly from the side, it buffeted us mercilessly and made it hard to steer or even to stay on the road.  We rode past a series of lakes and rivers, each with great views over the water towards the mountains.  Guanacos dotted the landscape, and grebes, coots, upland geese, cascaroba swans and flamingoes glinted in the waters, while condors circled effortlessly overhead.  Terri found the combination of the wind and the relentless steep hills too much to take, with most of the hills done on foot and pushing her bike.  After making it to a lookout over Lago Sarmiento and its shoreline of microbe-built stromatolites, she thumbed down a lift with a pickup truck the last 12 km to Laguna Amarga.  Ironically, the road afterwards was largely level and downhill.  
Flamingoes in one of the tiny lakes in Torres del Paine National Park

At the park gate we watched the obligatory park rules video and rejoined the world of mass tourism as the main road from Puerto Natales came in from the other direction.  Casey, a very friendly woman from New Orleans who works for the park service, offered to take care of our bikes and excess luggage in the staff quarters, and we gratefully accepted, repacking our trekking gear and food into our backpacks as we chatted with Ursula and Michael.  We caught a bus the 7 km to the Las Torres campsite, put up our tents and slept soundly, excited to be setting off on foot the next morning.

Guanaco regards us quizzically
We awoke at 7:30 to a chorus of birdsong and intermittent cloud.  The early wakeup was wasted when I had the worst series of issues with my MSR XGK stove since the dark days of my 1998 Tibet trip.  It kept clogging incessantly, no matter how much I cleaned it.  We didn’t leave until almost 11 o’clock.  On the bright side, though, Terri went off to the local shop outside a fancy lodge just down the road and ran into Kurt and Liz, our friends from the MV Ushuaia who had been trekking in El Chalten and El Calafate while we were riding our bikes.  I did my morning stretching exercises against sciatica and was pleased to find that I could touch my toes for the first time since August. 
On the way up to the Base de los Torres
The walk that day, up the valley towards Las Torres del Paine (the actual rock spires after which the entire park is named) was wonderful.  The clouds burned off and gave us great Kodachrome colours on the lakes, rivers, flowers, trees and (especially) the mountains.  
Someone knows where the real danger lies!
After two hours of grunt work to get up a steep initial slope, the walk up the valley to a snack break at Refugio Chileno and further along to the free campsite at Base de los Torres was relatively flat and effortless, with great views of waterfalls.  We put up our tent, had lunch and then headed up to the mirador (lookout) for late afternoon views of Las Torres.  It was a steep 50-minute climb, but as we were only carrying daypacks, it was easier than the morning’s walk.  Las Torres were just as amazing as I remembered them from almost 16 years earlier, architecturally perfect granite spires rising sheer from a vestigial glacier.  We took photos, toasted the scene with some Singleton’s single malt and sat there absorbing the beauty.  
Las Torres in late-afternoon light
Even though there were lots of people up there, there was enough space to spread out and avoid feeling crowded.  We were in a great mood as we strolled back downhill to our tent and cooked up pasta in an overcrowded cooking shelter; Torres’ campsites have not coped well with the huge explosion in visitor numbers over the past decade.

Detail from the lake beneath Las Torres 
The next morning we set an alarm for 4 am and headed off at 4:30 for sunrise back at the mirador.  It was a cloudless morning, and we were optimistic about catching the perfect red early morning light on the towers.  We brought along our sleeping bags and warm clothing, and as we lay on the cold rocks waiting for the light show to begin, we were glad for every last bit of insulation.  Around us a hundred or more people sat or lay in small groups, cameras at the ready.  Sadly, although there were no clouds visible, the sun rose through a bank of thin cloud on the horizon, meaning that there was no direct sunlight and hence no magical red blush on the rock.  We were glad that we had gotten at least some good light the afternoon before, and the pictures of Las Torres that morning weren’t bad; they just weren’t perfect.
Subdued morning light on Las Torres
We descended back to camp and the sorry saga of my MSR stove continued.  After years of stalwart service, everything seemed to be going wrong at once.  This time the culprit was the fuel pump, whose flimsy rubber pump cup suddenly popped off, tearing the rubber and rendering it useless.  Without a means of pressurizing the gasoline in the fuel bottle, the stove didn’t work.  I was severely disappointed, especially as it was a new fuel pump, purchased back in late August in the Pyrenees, and shouldn’t have been dying such a young death.  We borrowed a stove from the camp warden to finish cooking a huge breakfast of bacon, roesti (hash browns) and eggs, and packed up our gear trying to figure out how to deal with a non-functional stove.  Just as I was finishing drying the dishes, I looked behind the warden’s hut and there, lying on a table, apparently abandoned, was an MSR fuel pump.  I picked it up and tried it; it seemed to work.  I asked the warden if it was his, and he said that a tourist had left it behind by mistake a week or two before, and that I was welcome to take it.  This was little short of miraculous, as very few tourists in Torres seem to use MSR stoves, and for the one part I needed to appear suddenly at the exact moment that I needed it was very fortunate.  We set off at 11, chatting with a Swiss-Canadian cycle touring couple as we retraced our steps to Refugio Chileno and then back to the main valley.  We had a long march in front of us, and so we pushed on as far as we could before hunger drove us off the main trail to a small lake where we ate watching geese, ducks and a friendly, fearless plumbeous rail cavorting in the water while we soaked our sore feet.
Fearless plumbeous rail

The rest of the walk was equally pretty, along the north shore of Lago Nordenskjold, although the winds scouring the lake surface blew harder and harder and had freshened into a raging gale by the time we finally reached the chaotic Cuernos Campsite.  As mentioned above, the national park hasn’t dealt well with increasing visitor numbers, and there were not nearly enough possible places to pitch a tent to accommodate all the trekkers arriving.  Terri and I scored what was probably the very last available tent site; other late arrivals had to keep on walking towards the next campsite in the dusk.  We cooked up macaroni and cheese and slept well, sheltered from the raging winds by the dense bush all around the tent.  The new fuel pump worked like a charm, and the fuel clogging situation seemed to be a thing of the past as well.

Terri, experienced in dealing with overcrowded tourist situations after years in the Swiss Alps, decided that we should get up and roll the next morning to make sure we got a tent site at Campamento Italiano the next day.  We set an alarm for 7:30 and were walking before 9 am, having breakfasted on crackers and leftover mac and cheese.  Two hours of death marching along Lago Nordenskjold, 
Waterfalls falling upwards in crazy winds
watching the wind shred the lake surface and make waterfalls fall upwards, and creating small waterspouts over the lake, and we were at Campamento Italiano before anyone else from our campsite had arrived.  
Female magellanic woodpecker
We had even found time along the way to stop and watch a female Magellanic woodpecker working over a dead tree for grubs, completely unconcerned at our presence.  We cooked up another big feed of roesti and eggs and bacon and then headed up the Valle Frances relatively late, at 2 o’clock, towards the base of Las Cuernos.  Hundreds of tourists were headed the other way, having set off from Italiano early in the morning, and we were among the very few headed uphill so late.  The views of the Cuernos, of Las Torres just appearing over the ridge behind, and (on our left) the huge hanging seracs of Paine Grande were amazing (and actively falling over with tremendous sound effects), and even though we didn’t have time to make it all the way back to the top of the valley (Campamento Ingles), we returned to camp very happy with the exercise and the views.
Terri and Lago Grey
Our last day of hiking, November 25th, was a repeat of the previous one in that we awoke early, had a frugal breakfast of cold-soaked oats and then hit the road by 8:30. We had more sunshine and the wind had dropped, so it was perfect for view and for hiking.  
Ubiquitous flower throughout Torres del Paine
Much of the hike led through a burnt-out section of forest, eerily lifeless other than a few of the ubiquitous rufous-collared sparrows that dominate the landscape.  We made it to Paine Grande campsite, a big open space beside Lago Pehoe, by 11 o’clock and had our pick of tent sites, choosing one well sheltered from any possible winds.  We cooked up a bean stew for lunch, chatting with an Israeli family, and set off for a day hike by 2 o’clock up towards Grey Glacier.  We had set off too late in the day, and although we had wonderful views of the icebergs floating in Lago Grey, and back over the southern part of the park, we didn’t get far enough along the trail to see the calving face of Grey Glacier.  We did have fantastic views of the impressive summit of Paine Grande and spent time watching soaring condors who were nesting high on inaccessible cliffs, and the general feeling of walking through such a pretty, well-kept landscape was absolutely perfect.  We returned, cooked up yet more roesti, this time with bacon and a cheese and onion omelette, and then turned in early after watching the sunset light play on the towering faces of Los Cuernos.
Paine Grande's ice-rimed summit
November 26th found us on the catamaran across Lago Pehoe back to the main road.  We got to the other side only to find that there were no buses back to Laguna Amarga for another 3 hours, so we walked to the road and stuck out our thumbs.  One of the first vehicles to pass stopped and an ebullient Polish-American guy, a larger-than-life character named Jan, had one of his passengers move up front to sit on her husband’s lap so that he could shoehorn us into the back seat with our backpacks.  It was a tight squeeze, but Jan’s tall tales of Latin American adventures kept our minds off the discomfort and the terror-inducing driving, and we were soon back at our bikes.  We re-packed and I pedalled off back towards Las Torres campsite while Terri got on a bus back to Puerto Natales, laden with excess baggage weight that she was determined to mail back in an effort to make her bicycle more manageable on steep hills.

I had a deliciously lazy day off the bike the next day, birdwatching, juggling, playing guitar, reading, napping and generally relaxing while Terri bought more groceries, mailed home everything non-essential and caught the afternoon bus back to Torres from Puerto Natales.  We cooked up steaks (fresh from Puerto Natales) and drank wine, ready to hit the road again the next day.  We had both thoroughly enjoyed the magical landscape of Torres del Paine, even if the overcrowding and overpricing did get a bit much at times.  It would be nice if the considerable income stream that CONAF, the government agency administering the park, were reinvested into the park infrastructure in a more visible way, rather than being treated as a cash cow.

Run, rhea, run!
November 27th found us ready to ride.  We cooked up oatmeal and a big omelette, then Terri caught the bus back to Laguna Amarga at 9 while I rode my bike.  By 10 am Terri had her bike out of Casey’s storage and had repacked her noticeably more slender panniers.  We rode off into a brisk headwind along dirt roads featuring Terri’s favourite, short steep hills.  The scenery was magnificent, with clear skies and lots of wildlife to see:  rheas darting across the grasslands and the road, and lots of guanacos grazing beside the road.  Condors wheeled lazily overhead, and pintails swam in small ponds in the depressions in prairie. After a while the road turned just enough to turn the wind into a tailwind, the hills flattened out and we left the national park boundaries.  We eventually hit the asphalt of a main road and cycled through a howling crosswind to the tiny village of Cerro Castillo where, after thinking about camping, we opted to sleep indoors out of the maddening gale.  One of our fellow guests, Phil, an Englishman on a motorcycle, came out to dinner with us and we swapped travellers’ tales of life on the road.
Phil, taking the slightly easier way through the Patagonian steppe

The next morning the wind had freshened even further.  We checked out of Chile efficiently, then bumped seven agonizing kilometres along a terrible gravel road to the Argentinian border post, where we stood in line for an hour behind 2 dozen silver-haired German and Swiss couples driving their own campers.  Bored young border guards showed their petty bureaucratic power with passive aggressive tactics.  To keep Terri from completely losing her patience, I kept her sedated with BBC podcasts on the iPod.  Eventually we were released and fought our way through the never-ending crosswind over the potholed gravel until we eventually reached the fabled RN 40, La Cuarenta, the road that runs from southernmost Patagonia to the northernmost point in Argentina along the base of the Andes.  It used to be all gravel, but now almost all of it has been paved, including our section.  We turned left gratefully and rolled effortlessly over asphalt with the wind now at our backs.  We made easy progress except on one huge uphill.  

On the downhill, we met three French cyclists, Axel, Letitia and Eva, who had started in Colombia and had been fighting the headwind all day.  They looked tired, cold and fed up with the wind.  From them we learned of a few good shelter options ahead, including the one we finally ended up at, the road maintenance compound at Tapi Aike.  The new paved RN 40 takes a huge detour east to La Esperanza here, but the old gravel road still runs directly north.  
Terri and I with Daniel at Tapi Aike
Daniel, the friendly man running the maintenance compound, put us up in one of the trailer dormitories used to house workers in the winter snow-clearing season, and let us cook in the big kitchen.  We were relieved to be indoors away from the maddening wind, and cooked up a small feast on the stove.  Another cyclist, Ralf, rolled up after us and also stayed in a neighbouring room.  Daniel showed us a series of photos of him with the various cyclists who have stayed with him over the past couple of years, and we added to the roll.  We were rocked to sleep by the wind buffeting our trailer.

Ralf at Tapi Aike
The next morning the wind was fiercer than ever.  After cooking up a hearty breakfast, Ralf left first and we followed.  It was a strange day of cycling, as the wind, now blowing at near gale force, was right at our backs for most of the day.  We just had to point the wheels forward and hold on to race across the pampas at 30 km/h, using the brakes to stay under some sort of control.  It was exhilarating but also dangerous, as occasional gusts from the side could blow us right off the road, or into huge potholes.  Terri took a spill partway through the day and her knee still bears the scars.  I made it all the way to the end of the ripio, 55 km, before I took a tremendous crash, being blown off the road into soft gravel, having my front wheel stop and somersaulting over the handlebars at 30 km/h.  I tucked my head and shoulders down, rolled over my back and landed on my feet, completely unscathed but rather shaken.  
Terri being blown across Patagonia's ripio

We found ourselves standing on the paved version of the RN 40, outside another road maintenance station, with the wind now fully in our faces.  Terri was in despair, as cycling into the headwind seemed completely out of the question.  I had to agree and, although we knocked on the door of the road maintenance place, nobody seemed to be home.  We stood with our bikes beside the road, trying to thumb a lift to El Calafate, and after two hours of futility, we decided to stash the bikes out of sight behind the station and go into town more lightly laden.  Eventually a bus driver returning from a maintenance run with an empty bus picked us up and took us to the tourist hot spot of El Calafate, where we put up our tent in a campground, ate a huge meal and ran into Ralf, who had battled his way through the headwinds until finally the road direction changed enough to cycle.  We felt slightly wimpy.

Armadillo running away rapidly
The next day we decided to avoid the winds by renting a car to transport ourselves and our bikes to El Chalten.  We got the car at typically elevated Argentinian tourist prices and started off with a drive out to Perito Moreno Glacier.  
Perito Moreno glaciar
It’s a spectacular spot, with a huge, wide glacier tumbling down off the Campo de Hielo Sur and almost cutting the long, narrow arm of Lago Argentino in two.  It was a hot, almost windless day (ironically; it would have been a great day to cycle) and we sat in the sun watching the glacier and hoping to see it calve off a huge iceberg.  In fact the glacier makes a lot of noise, but only seems to spit out frequent smallish pieces rather than occasional huge bergs.  There are a lot of tourists visiting this spot, but the Argentinians seem to have mastered the art of spacing them out with kilometres of metal walkways and viewing platforms so that the crowds don’t become overwhelming. 
Perito Moreno glacier pouring down off the continental ice cap
We drove back to El Calafate, then another 85 km out to pick up our stashed bikes, back almost to El Calafate and then north along the beautiful Los Leones river to Lago Viedma and then west to tiny El Chalten.  We had cloudless skies all day and had amazing views of Cerro Fitzroy and Cerro Torre standing out against the skyline.  We found a place in El Relincho campsite, a very laid-back and hippie-esque spot, ate and then slept the sleep of the dead.
Terri overjoyed to be in a car instead of on her bike

In the morning, I drove all the way back to El Calafate to return the car, then wandered around El Calafate looking for guitar strings, groceries and lunch; all three missions were successful.  El Calafate is the hometown of now-former President Christina Fernandez de Kirchner and her late husband and predecessor Nestor Kirchner, and a big billboard on the outskirts of town read “Welcome home, Ms. President!”  El Calafate has boomed under the Kirchners’ patronage, with a new airport, big hotel developments and a huge increase in population.  In the October/November presidential elections, Santa Cruz province, in which El Calafate is located, voted strongly for her preferred candidate Scioli; he ended up losing a close race to Macri, the new president, who opposed Kirchner’s populist and ineffective economic policies.  On a few signs and walls around town, I saw “CFK Fuera” (CFK, her initials, “out!”) but this seemed to be a minority position.  I finally caught a bus back to El Chalten, chatting with an American/Swedish couple I had met in Torres del Paine.
Cerro Torre looking very vertical
Meadowlark in El Chalten
Our four days off the bike in El Chalten were wonderful for Terri and me.  We had perfect weather, with hardly a breath of wind, barely a cloud in the sky, epic views of the mountains and lots of great hiking.  We stayed in town and did day hikes up to the base of Cerro Fitzroy and Cerro Torre, although the free campsites up in the mountains looked like great places to stay as well.  We saw lots of birdlife, including our long-sought-after 
Male Magellanic woodpecker
male Magellanic woodpecker (huge, with an all-red head and a Dr. Seuss-like tuft atop his head) as well as the secretive huet-huet.  We cooked up huge meals, including roast beef and luscious steaks, and had late-afternoon beers every afternoon at a local brewpub.  The town reminded me a lot of Jasper, Alberta, where my sister lives:  a small tourist town at the foot of great mountains, inside a national park and much less touristed than its better-known neighbour down the road (El Calafate in this case, Banff in the case of Jasper).  

At the foot of Cerro Fitzroy
I loved the vibe of the town, and I could see why a number of gringos have moved there for the summer season over the years to climb, mountain bike, ride horses or just enjoy the hiking.  We also enjoyed the interactions with our fellow travellers, many of whom we would see again along the Patagonian tourist trail.  El Chalten and its wonderfully preserved surroundings, so much less touristed than Torres del Paine but so similar in terms of wildlife and sheer rock faces, were definitely the highlight of our Patagonian swing.

Terri at the brewpub after another great day of hiking

Finally, having bought (expensive) tickets on the two ferries headed towards Villa O’Higgins, we were ready to roll out of Argentinian Patagonia and off onto the first stage of the Carretera Austral.  We had had amazing views, great wildlife, wonderful hiking and a mix of good and not-so-good cycling to get this far.  Now it was time to get to the main course:  the legendary Carreterra Austral!

Majestic Fitzroy