In the south after leaving the pine forests and mountains of the Austral behind, Patagonia as a cycling destination is a series of oasis; El Calafate, En Chalten, Torres del Paine and a few other gems…….. but in between these incredible places which are a hiker, climber or ski tourer’s nirvana there isnt to much excitement in the south for a cyclist. For me, it is not the best touring destination, a series oasis’s in a vast sea of grass. It might be that at this stage in the game I am spoilt for I’ve seen a good few scenic spots. The Slovenians laughed at the fact that I didn’t ever stop to take a photo of a waterfall or another lake and I suppose after a while a waterfall is a waterfall and a lake is a lake.
Patagonia is an incredible place but for me it is built for hikers more than bikers. If I were to recommend a place to visit for say a month by bicycle (or camper) it would be the mountains of Kyrgyzstan and save Patagonia for serious hiking adventure.
Following silly season I leave En Chalten for the south. Leaving the mountains behind the landscape flattens giving way to vast grasslands, home to guanacos (essentially llamas), foxes, hares and abandoned shacks. From the town of El Calafate it is just a short ride to see one of the greatest, easily accessible, spots in Patagonia, the Perito Moreno glacier. From the network of viewing platforms and promenades you are faced will a colossal wall of frozen H2O.
I join the hordes standing wide eyed in front of the glacier, it is one of those tourist traps which is a must see despite the crowds. To hear it groan from deep within the icy mass as its squeezes together, like distant unseen bellows, is something else. The weight of the mass of ice pushes the glacier forwards in to lake Argentino whilst the sun carves slices from its front. As you stand at the head of this seventy metre wall of ice, a mosaic of white and cobalt, you would be stupid to peer through the lens of your camera, finger on the button like a trigger waiting to shoot the moment a segment of wall collapses into the waters below. That is unless you have a fancy camera, which I do not, for you will be to slow. After a few futile attempts to capture the action I resided just to stand and watch the sceptical as a condor swoops into shot and a great plinth of ice topples into the water with a great slap as it hits the surface, the crescendo to the perfect performance.
South of El Calafate and into rolling grasslands. Unheeded by mountains the wind holds nothing back as it sweeps across this tundra. Its New Years Eve and I’m in for a wild one. I actually have a tailwind for once and I am flying, hitting 60km on the slight down hill I barely have to pedal. But you have to keep your wits about you, when the wind veers at the wrong moment I find my self on the opposite side of the road, eyes wide as I am faced with the bull bars of an en coming Defender. A close call. At times my bike like the motorcycles over taking me has a list, leaning to one side my arse hanging of the bike like a ballast to windward.
Signs look like they may be uprooted and after I’m uprooted from my saddle and sprawled in the dirt I decide that enough is enough and I decide to ride it out in my tent. The only snag is that there is no shelter and my tent even if I could get it up in this wind would soon be flattened. After a small battle through the wind I finally reach a petrol station and set up shop behind the building, out of the wind. I settle down to a wild night, its 2pm and I am horizontal reading in my tent and hoping the winds will have subsided come the New year.
After a pit stop in Puerto Natales for some bike maintenance I start on the final push to the self proclaimed “the end of the world,” Ushuaia, it claims to be the most southern town or city in the world despite just across the Beagle Canal and back in Chile the town of Puerto Williams clearly sits at a more southerly latitude. South America is full of these accolades, the highest capital in the world, the deepest gorge or the most southern city there is normally a tacky sign denoting these achievements.
I had planned to tour through Torres del Paine, a Chilean National Park which is a mecca for hiking, but at this time of year unless you have booked campsites months in advance it is not really doable save with a tour company. It is one of the problems with cycling, timings are difficult and booking ahead of time is a not possible. I have to leave something’s to do when I come back.
After the tent squashing winds in El Chalten I have come round to the fact that my flimsily tent is not cut out for the wind and I have to pick spots wisely, four walls and a roof is preferable and ideally glass in the windows. In this part of Patagonia there are sporadic abandoned buildings, gauchos refugio’s and bus stops. Each with their own character.
The gauchos refugio’s can be fantastic, complete with wood burners and bunk beds or they can be unsightly necessities with mud floors and rickety bunks with the occasional air mattress puncturing protruding nails. A few times I have attempted to open the door to one of these shelters only to be barred by a lock, peering through the windows these locked ones tend to be the deluxe suites, complete with table and chairs, a wood burner and even facilities (a loo). On these instances I either push on to the next bus stop or after fruitlessly searching under every rock in the vicinity for a hidden key reside to camping in the lee of the building.
The standard of bus stop varies significantly but they all have one thing in common, a slight smell; I I’m convinced that the last process in the bus stop assembly line is to have a drunk tramp urinate in one corner. The frequenting by cyclists is readily apparent in the graffiti sprawled across the walls of these shelters. The boring Englishman in me still sees this a vandalism, just because you are a cyclist doesn’t mean you graffiti is tasteful, at least there are no crude penis’s scrawled on the walls. But it must be said that although I don’t tag the walls myself some of the art work is pretty good. I don’t know what the locals think of all these ruddy cyclists kipping in their bus stops though or of their graffiti.
They come in all shapes and sizes, small one man-ers in which the foetal position must be assumed to squeeze in, four tent-ers which can either house four tents or ten sleeping bags top to tail, ones with open fronts (more shelter than house) and sometimes they come compete with a mattress propped against the wall which you couldn’t pay me to sleep on.
The calibre of bus stops, shrieking shacks and refugios is a hot topic in the communal areas of hostels as cyclists say things like “you must stay at this bus stop, its just fabulous, its got glass n all, oh and even a door,” or “yeah I stayed at that one with five other cold bikers squeezed in like a game of sardines.” On lookers must wonder why on earth a cyclists all seems to know so much about bus stops.
The last stretch, occasionally I pass unfortunate soles cycling north opposing the prevailing winds, I don’t stop, usually I would have a chin wag, but they are in the hurt locker and the last thing they need is my sympathies and the smug look on my face as they crawl through the cold wind full of hail and chilling rain. I link up with Clive and we take pit stop in a famous bus stop. When we arrive two other cyclists have beat us to the punch but there is plenty of floor space to play sardines.
The pair already there are in for a bit of a show, myself and Clive are soaked through and a change of clothes is required; now there is no graceful way to removing a pair of soaking wet leggings which seem to be glued on even when dry. They are presented with two bare arses, albeit shapely on account of all the cycling but quite close none the less in the confined quarters; hopping about we in turn manage to not so seductively remove our resisting legging and slip into some dry long johns, but that is not before Clive nearly topples over baring all…nearly. For some reason unbeknown to us the Brazilian cyclists, without a word, start to assemble their gear and move on, well more room for us.
A visit to see some King Pinguinos and a few days more of riding through the tundra, the grass ripples beneath the wind like a vast ocean its surface of infinite waves, before I reach Ushuaia the most southerly city in Argentina and the inky black waters of the Beagle Canal. Ushuaia is nestled in the southerly part of the Andes and I’m glad to return to the Andes once more, a great spot to complete my South American leg.