Jesse: In every great epic adventure worth its salt, the heroes must battle adversity on their way to their journey’s end. But for us, at least, the South American leg of our trip had been comparatively easy: great highways, little rain, nice people…little more difficult than riding in North American, really. That was about to change completely.
Route 40 continued more or less directly southward through the pampas, transforming itself into a dusty gravel road, but to stay on the pavement we curved eastward to the Argentine coast and happily continued our journey southward on good asphalt. We changed our bikes’ oil in front of our hostel’s entrance that night (unfortunately spilling oil everywhere in the process. Note to self: buy a funnel!) and the next day, after blasting our way through some of the most boring Steppe landscape in the world, paused to fuel up just shy of our destination for the day. As Jessica left to use the toilets, I noticed that her bike was dripping oil rather badly. In seconds I had our tool kit out and set about tightening her oil plug…but to my horror, the more I turned the plug, the looser it became. Was I turning it the wrong direction?! Just as that thought entered my mind, the plug popped loose and 2.3 L of oil gushed onto the pavement of the gas station—in front of a gathering crowd of entertained spectators. The expression on Jessica’s face when she saw the gigantic dark puddle under her bike and me standing there, wrench in hand, was one of aghast amusement. It turns out that her bike had a serious problem: during the previous oil change, the threads of her plug had become stripped. Had the plug fallen out unnoticed in the middle of nowhere, her engine would have seized. As it was, we had a ready supply of (expensive!!) oil available at the gas station and a few incredibly gracious local mechanics, Claudio and Denis, who took Jessica into town to find a shop where they could build her a new plug. They even paid for the whole thing themselves. That act of generosity alone went a long way to increase our opinions of Argentine hospitality. Incredibly, in less than 45 minutes after the disaster we had a new plug installed, new oil in her motor and we were on our way once more.
A couple of badass Canadian bikers
The next day we had our first real taste of Patagonian wind. It howled across the steppe and forced us to ride at a hard angle to keep in a straight line. 150 km later, we arrived at the crossroads heading to our destination, El Calafate. We could either detour 50 km for fuel or continue towards El Calafate and hit the next station in 111 km. With about half a tank left each, we opted for the later. The sky was growing dark, and on the horizon we saw an odd spectacle: beneath a blue hole in the clouds, there appeared to be a hazy bank of rain hugging the ground. Moments later, we found out why. A sudden, screaming gust of wind hit us like a fist and nearly knocked our bikes off the road. Rain blasted against us, blowing horizontally across the barren landscape. To save ourselves, we dropped our speed to about 40 km/h, tilting at nearly a 45 degree angle into the wind, and hung on for dear life. Jessica, on a lighter, less steerable sports bike, was blown all over the road and desperately tried to navigate the twin hazards of oncoming traffic and the soft shoulder. The wind was like a living thing, pounding us, grabbing our helmets and trying to twist our heads away. The neck strain to keep looking forward was incredible. On top of that, it killed our mileage: I watched in disbelief as my fuel gauge dropped by 1/6th and then minutes later dropped again. 15 minutes into the ordeal and less than 40 km into our 111 km ride to the gas station, and I had 1/6th of a tank left. Running out of gas in this wind would be a disaster as, without their forward momentum to keep the bikes upright, the wind would have blown them over the moment we stopped. I guess the engineers at Suzuki and Kawasaki decided to make sure their riders didn’t run out of gas unexpectedly, however, since we rode the rest of the trip on that 1/6th of a tank. Arriving at the gas station, we discovered to our disappointment that they had no gas. We chatted with a group of Argentine bikers, clustered at the gas station to seek shelter from the wind, and they marvelled at our tires. We still have ample tread left on both our back tires and we had ridden them from Houston,Texas, some 23,000 km (a normal bike tire lasts ~12,000 km). At last the fuel truck arrived, we gassed up, and continued our ride through the relentless wind, arriving at our destination several hours later, miraculously unscathed.
El Calafate is a pretty little town, sheltered from the wind of the pampas by low hills and plenty of planted trees. Tourists flock there from the world over to see one remarkable attraction: the Perito Moreno Glacier, an enormous river of ice 38 km long and 8 km wide, which pushes forward into Lago Argentino at a rate of 2 m per day (it’s one of the few “stable” glaciers in the world). Consequently it’s in a perpetual state rupture of calving large chunks of ice into the lake to spectacular gun-shot bangs and massive, slow-motion tidal waves. Needing a day off the bikes, we bought bus tickets up to the glacier and spent 4 hours wandering the extensive series of catwalks built up on a peninsula directly across the lake from the glacier. Every few years the glacier will advance all the way across the lake to the peninsula and dam it—and it has currently done so. As such, the glacier towers 60 m up from the water, and you can walk quite close to its jagged, glowing blue base. It an amazing experience to be so close to one of nature’s slowest but most inexorable forces, listening to it creak and groan, watching for the next major calving event.
The giant Perito Moreno glacier
The view from the catwalk
The tidal wave produced by falling chunks of ice
A close up of the spikey surface of the glacier
The Jesses at the Perito Moreno Glacier
From El Calafate, we headed south and west, crossing on a small dirt road back to Chile. As we bumped and bounced over the 10 km stretch, Jessica’s chain (which had become extremely loose on this trip) suddenly popped off its rear sprocket and her bike slid to a halt. It was loose enough that we got the chain back on with no difficulty, but it was clear to us that we had to find a solution to this problem quickly. We crossed back into Chile without difficulties (fastest crossing yet: 15 min!!) and headed down a marvellously paved road to Puerto Natales, a very Scandinavian-looking town perched on the shores of a long fiord from the Pacific. We marvelled at the fact that the continent was now narrow enough for us to cross from the Atlantic to the Pacific in less than a day’s worth of travel. After finding a hostel, we set out to track down a mechanic. Easier said than done. None of the official mechanics in town would look at our problem, and we were eventually directed to Samuel, the local handyman. We wheeled the bike into his back yard, and he set to work with vigour, disc-grinding Jess’s chain off and removing two of the links. We watched with mildly trepidation as he struggled to re-attached the two loose ends of the press-fit chain, but in the end he succeeded and asked for the equivalent of $10 US. We paid him $12 and rode off on a happily restored motorcycle.
The old dock in Puerto Natales
Much like El Calafate, tourists flock to Puerto Natales for just one reason: the town is an ideal launch pad for expeditions to the famed Torres del Paine national park, considered by most to be the best national park in South America. We unfortunately didn’t have the time to do a full-scale trek, but settled on the highlight tour: a hike to the Torres themselves, and camping overnight at one of the refugios. We rented a proper backpack, bought our food supplies, loaded up our camping equipment and headed out on a giant tour bus filled with outdoorsy types the next morning. When we set off in the park, the Torres peeking out from behind a huge mountain, the weather was a bit blustery but it gradually cleared as we headed up the steep trail. We dropped our heavy packs off at the refugio, set up our tent, and then began the last 5 km to the Torres unencumbered. Partway up the trail we ran into Greg and Danae, a fun Australian couple who had been on our tour of Bolivia! Unfortunately the Torres had been completely clouded in for them a few hours earlier, but the day was steadily improving. They were also staying at the refugio that night, so we made plans to have dinner together and we set off again. The trail was surprisingly challenging with the last 45 min a steep ascent up a rock-strewn mountainside. At last we popped over the top of the slope and beheld a view that attracts hundreds of thousands of people a year to this remote corner of the world. A semicircle of peaks surround a pure aqua-marine glacier-fed lake, and in the center of the peaks are three enormous towers—the Torres—of sculpted sedimentary rock which rise 600 m above the water. It was one of the most magnificent views I have ever seen, and unfortunately our photos simply don’t do the scene justice. We clambered down to the water’s edge and found a great, flat slab of stone jutting out into the water. We lay down on it and spent a happy hour snacking on trail mix and contemplating the Torres. Eventually dark clouds swirled in and we beat a hasty retreat to the refugio, had a fun dinner of dehydrated food with the Aussies, and spent a windy night in our crowded little campsite. The next day was our long extraction from the park back to Puerto Natales, a bit of bike maintenance, and dinner out in a snazzy African-influenced restaurant, Afrigonia.
En route to the Torres
The final ascent to the Torres
Our first view of the Torres del Paine
The Jesses at Torres del Paine
Fun with hollow trees
The Jesses with Greg and Danae
We left Puerto Natales the following day amid icy rain and wind and as such we were puffed up like the Michelin Man with all our layers on. The nice thing about Chile is that they have reasonable speed limits: 100 km on secondary highways, and 120 km/h on freeways. We therefore never sped in Chile, whereas all the other countries in South America were fond of posting strange speed limits like 100 km/h on a freeway, followed by a short section of 20 km/h—ridiculously dangerous, and everyone generally ignores them (much like the speed limits in Canada!). Despite the miserable weather, we made good progress and eventually the sun came out and the wind picked up. We paused for gas at a tiny outpost where we witnessed a semi-truck filling up for around $775 US (gas is NOT cheap in Chile!), and then continued on. We left mainland South America and crossed the Straits of Magellan on an open-air vehicle ferry, which rolled and dipped in the high seas. I could picture Magellan’s little fleet of 3 ships being tossed in the violent weather as they searched for passage to the Pacific. We unloaded on the other side, covered in salt-spray.Tierra del Fuego at last!
The Jesses, all bundled up on the Straits of Magellan
The island is the southern-most region of South America and was named the “land of fire” by early European explorers who saw the natives’ fires along the coastline. Nowadays, it is reluctantly shared by Chile and Argentina, and although Chile got the best part of Patagonia, there is no doubt Argentina won when it comes to Tierra del Fuego. The Chilean portion (the north and west parts of the island) is virtually identical to Patagonia: a flat, dull plain scoured by violent winds. After a few kilometres, the pavement abruptly ended and we faced 120 km of gravel, by far our longest stretch off asphalt. Initially the road was fine and we bumped along at 60 km/h…but it quickly degenerated into washboards and imbedded rocks, and the ride became an exercise in vibration. The hours wearily ticked by as we made for the Argentine border atSan Sebastian. The main problem was that the smoothest path lay right on the edge of the road, a few inches from the soft gravel of the ditch. After a while, we began to ride there simply to escape the worst of the pounding—and that’s when disaster struck.
One second I was riding along on the edge of the road, the next moment the soft shoulder extended a little too far into my path and my bike was sucked into the soft the loose gravel. Everything happened in a heartbeat: I tried to ride out of the soft gravel, my handlebars suddenly loose and flailing in my hands; I succeeded, only to be sucked back again; I rode out of it a second time, but my back tire had lost traction and came out skittering sideways across the road; then my bike bucked underneath me, sending me flying one way and the bike crashing to its side and sliding down the road. I slid on my stomach and rolled quickly to the side to avoid being hit by Jessica who was trying to steer to avoid me. My tough rain suit actually took the brunt of my fall, ripping on one arm and one hip, but otherwise in one piece. My bike cracked its already-abused fairing, some stickers were scratched off the side case and a reflector was broken. But all in all, not bad for a fall at 50 km/h!
After I recovered myself, we limped the remaining few kilometres to San Sebastian. Chile and Argentina each have a tiny outpost of a town called San Sebastian on either side of their border; we thought we were making for the Argentine town, but settled for the Chilean version. We paid a ridiculous sum for a crappy hotel ($88 US), and were treated to some of the worst service of our entire trip at the only restaurant (the waitress screwed up everything—twice!), and gratefully fell into bed.
The next day was monumental: we would complete our journey southward to Ushuaia (pronounced “oo-Shwhy-ah”), the southernmost city in the world. From Ushuaia, you’re less than 1000 km from Antarctica, which, if there was a highway, we could cover in 1.5 days! Alas, only ueber-expensive Antarctic cruises travel beyond the ends of the Earth…maybe one day. As it was, we crossed back into Argentina, and to our utmost happiness, hit the pavement southward once more. The winds were intense, keening in our helmets and doing their best to push us off the road. As the road wound its way through the pampas, however, we’d occasionally get the wind at our backs and then the world would go silent and we’d experience the bizarre sensation of virtually no wind resistance. It was like standing still at 100 km/h.
The Rupublic of Argentina, The Province of Tierra del Fuego, Antarctica and the Islands of the South Atlantic
About 50 km past the border, my engine began to act strangely. I would suddenly lose power and my RPMs would fall, causing my bike to “chug” forward. Then the problem would disappear, only to return minutes later. Fearing a catastrophic failure of my fuel pump, I began to slow down and as I continued to lose power, decided to pull over. As we stopped, however, a sudden gust of wind hit us from the right, and Jessica, attempting to put down her kickstand, was knocked into the middle of the road with her bike on top of her. Her footpeg jabbed her painfully in the leg and she was trapped under the motorcycle. I rushed to lift it off of her, and a passing driver stopped to help us right the machine. The fall had finally smashed her right mirror once and for all, but otherwise the bike was undamaged. As she recovered from her leg injury, we contemplated how to get out of this situation. With the wind blasting us from our right, we knew that as soon she lifted the kickstand the wind would knock her over again. She tried climbing on the bike, kickstand down, shifting it into neutral and getting ready to ride off the moment there was a lull, but a powerful gust blew her over a second time—with her kickstand down! It was a bit of a perilous predicament. We righted the bike again, and this time I acted as her brace, holding her up from the left as the wind assailed her from the right. As soon as there was a slight lull in the wind, she started her engine and began riding forward as I ran along side, supporting her until she was up to speed. I then hopped on my bike and sped off in pursuit, nursing my struggling engine along until we reached Rio Grande. There we fuelled up and I suddenly realised what must have happened: we had finally used the reserve gas in our spare jug the previous day and likely water had gotten into the container and had fouled my gas. I had no further problem with my engine that day, so I *hope* I’m right about this!
From Rio Grande, we turned south and west, the barren wind-swept pampas giving way to low hills with groves of dead trees, twisted into tortured shapes by the wind. Gradually the trees became taller and straighter, the hills rose into a low range of rocky, snow capped mountains, and we entered the southern reaches of Tierra del Fuego. Our road wove past enormous Lago Fagnano, festooned with huge whitecaps from the wind, then up and over the mountains, and finally it twisted down into a gorgeous alpine valley, worthy of Switzerland. We sped out of the valley heading southward, and there on the southern slops of the Sierra Lucio Lopez, the last low vestiges of the Andes, looking out over the Beagle Channel, was the city of Ushuaia. We had made it at last!
The nice part of Tierra del Fuego
Who knew the ends of the Earth looked this good??
My bike in Tierra del Fuego
We made it!
Ushuaia, city at the ends of the Earth