Our book is now available!

That’s right, the Great Pan-American Motorcycle Expedition is now available in paperback and on Kindle! Filled with many more stories and adventures from the road that never made it into our blog, it’s definitely worth a read. Plus, we’ve included a ton of information to help motorcyclists plan an epic trip of their own! Each chapter has maps and suggested routes, and we’ve added 8 appendices which tell you how to prepare for the trip, how to cross the Darién Gap in Panama, how to maintain a motorcycle during a long expedition, etc. The book is a fun, easy read, and the extra info makes it especially worthwhile if you’re planning your own great Pan-American motorcycle expedition! We hope you enjoy it.

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You can buy it from Amazon (click here). And don’t forget to give it a rating once you’ve finished. We want to know what you think! For newer and more grueling adventures, check out our blog for our recent ’round the world trip (click here). And stay tuned… who knows what we might be up to next!

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There and Back Again, a Jesses’ Tale

Jesse: One-hundred and fifty-two days and 26,516 km after leaving Cambridge, Ontario, we arrived in Buenos Aires. We entered the city on an elevated highway where the posted speed limit was 130 km/h, the fastest I’ve seen outside of a German autobahn. We did the usual park-and-try-to-find-a-hostel bit and eventually settled on the Che Argentina Hostel, which, like the revolutionary, was named after the Argentine expression Che! (which roughly means “dude” and “whoa!”). We then set about the all-important business of arranging the shipment of our motorcycles back to Canada. Jessica had been in contact with Andres, a shipping agent who had given us the lowest quote for shipping the bikes by sea: $400 for Jessica’s bike and $500 for mine (compared to $1900 per bike to ship by air). However, as we talked to him on the phone and he began getting details from the Aduana (customs office), the price climbed…and climbed…and climbed until we were looking at about $3000 to ship both bikes!! Suffice it to say we were a little unhappy about the outrageous discrepancy from the initial quote.

We met up with Andres the following day and spent a total of 9 hours filling out the necessary paperwork, and running around between the Aduana, a notary, the shipping depot and his office. A hectic and exhausting day, but in the end we paid $1800 US with a potential of being charged an additional $500-1100 when we finally pick up the bikes in Toronto next month. Pricey, but in the process we gained a bit of insight into some of the convoluted problems which plague Argentina.

The last parking spot for our noble steeds

Undeniably, Argentina is one of the most modern countries in Latin America (surpassed only by Chile, I think), but its economy is topsy-turvy. Most prices—especially for accommodations—are double the listed prices in our guidebook, with the hotels regularly jacking their prices by 25-50% every year. Salaries don’t follow this hyper-inflating trend, however, pushing the population into increasingly difficult economic times and leading people to drive complete rust-buckets that belch Central America-worthy black smoke. In the month we were there, the Argentine peso was devalued by 2.4%. To compound problems, the country’s infrastructure also suffers. For instance, many gas stations didn’t have gas, even once the fuel truck strike ended…With vast distances between service stations, this would sometimes leave drivers stranded and lead to massive queues at the gas stations that did have fuel. Other problems included no toilet paper or hand soap in most of the country’s washrooms. It is illegal to sell imported vehicles in Argentina (hence we had to ship the bikes), and increasingly difficult to export them as well. I could go on…

Argentines, on the other hand, are very aware of these problems but seem to accept them as the facts of life. As a culture, they come across as fairly proud, but are also quite friendly and always curious about where travellers are from. Jessica had to explain her origins (“Mi padre es espanol, y mi madre es del Salvador”) to every person we met. Argentines are hopelessly addicted to mate, a tea-like herb they pack into little ornate cups, dribble a little hot water over and then drink through a filtered metal straw. They pass the mate around as a sort of social event, and no Argentine worth his salt is caught without a Thermos of hot water under his arm! Argentines were also universally impressed at our adventure: cars on the highway would flash their lights at us, people would wave to us, children and adults alike would press themselves against the glass of passing cars to stare at us…it was gratifying but, as the month of adulation wore on, a little annoying.

Anyway, once our bikes were safely at the depot and the last of the paperwork complete, we felt a little strange and nostalgic not having wheels for the first time in 5 months. Nevertheless, we happily set out into Buenos Airesas pedestrianized tourists and explored the city on foot. Despite having many issues with the rest of the country, Jess and I agreed that BA is absolutely fantastic. The architecture is a mix of colonial and 1920’s Gothic, the avenues are wide (sometimes reeeeally wide) and treed and filled with cafes and bookshops, and the people are cosmopolitan and friendly. We saw a formal tango show in a theatre and many tango shows in the streets. We visited the famed Cementerio de la Recoleta, an enormous cemetery filled with spectacularly elaborate mausoleums and statues (where we joined the hordes of tourists paying tribute to the grave of Eva Peron). We wandered through the throngs at the huge San Telmo antique market (where we saw some disturbing Nazi memorabilia…many Nazis, if you recall your history, escaped to Argentinaafter WW2). And finally, on our last night, we had a magnificent, all-you-can-eat traditional parilla (barbeque) dinner—no more surviving on cheap empanadas!

The avenues of Buenos Aires

Some Gothic BA architecture

Street art, Buenos Aires style

Some amazing trees in a BA park

Retro robots at the San Telmo antique market

Old school street tango

An angel statue in the Recoleta cemetery

More statues in the Recoleta cemetery

Tombs in the Recoleta Necropolis

Parilla!

Our last dinner in South America

On our last day, we packed, wrote some final postcards, and headed to the airport early to meet up with Rogier and Anna, who, arriving in BA that day, had decided to see us off. We passed them on their baggage-laden green Versys en route to the airport, and then met them a few minutes later by the Air Canada desk. We sat in a little airport café where we sampled the local espresso and reminisced about our incredible motorcycle trip. It was great to have friends on hand to wish us farewell. At last we said goodbye, made our way to our gate, boarded a modern Air Canada A340 and headed back to the real world. Like all good things, our amazing adventure had come to an end.

Gettin' my riding boots shined in the Vancouver Airport

Epilogue

It took 32 hours to travel back to BC, where we stayed with my parents high in the snow-covered mountains of the interior. We enjoyed some much-needed rest, relaxation, good food and good company, and then finally headed to our home in Waterloo. Now, back in our apartment and back at work, we feel a little like the trip was all a dream. But we’ve got 8000+ photos, 60+ hours of video and over 14,500 hits on our blog to prove that we rode out our door and all the way to the southern tip of the South American Continent. Although times were often tough on the road, there’s no doubt it was the trip of a lifetime (that is, until the next trip of a lifetime!). Jess and I faced some unbelievable stress and adversity, overcame them together and our relationship is absolutely stronger as a result. Contrary to many people’s expectations, we were never seriously threatened, robbed and we never paid a bribe. In fact, the people of Latin America that we met were almost uniformly friendly, gracious, and helpful—and that includes the police. We met some fantastic other bikers along the way (Carol, Laurent, Rogier, Anna, Phil, Wade, Adrian, Tim, Glenn, Kerman, Jann and Andre, to name a few!) and for a while we were part of a brotherhood of adventure riders from all over the world. The weather, particularly in Central America, clearly demonstrated the effects of global warming in countries without a polar ice cap: record storms, floods, landslides, and rain for more than a month straight. I learned to speak a little Spanish and Jessica learned that, even though she speaks the language fluently, that didn’t always mean she could communicate with the locals! Culture and local dialect/vocabulary often barred the way. We calculated that we gained about 7.5 years of motorcycling experience (all done on our M2 learners licences!!) and the equivalent of 12 years of life experiences! I have more white hair on my head than when I left (Jess just looks more beautiful) and when we think back to the day of our departure, it seems like a lifetime ago.

Thanks for reading our blog, everyone! I hope you all enjoyed a little vicarious living through our words and photos!

Until the next great adventure,

Jess and Jess

Escape from Patagonia

Jessica: Ushuaia was a hidden paradise at the end of the long, arduous road through Patagonia. Hemmed in by the Beagle Channel on one side and jagged, snow capped mountains on the other, this small town has become a must-see for more than just long distance motorcyclists. People fly in, sail in and sometimes bus in to be able to say they have been to the southernmost city in the world. Few, however, can say they rode off from their front door in Canada and ended up there. We felt that the tourists who arrived and left in the lap of luxury didn’t appreciate the town the way we could. As we walked around the steep, one-way streets, we patted ourselves on the back for our achievement, and decided nothing short of a celebratory dinner and plane ride around the surrounding area would do. And so, after a much deserved three hour nap, we headed to the Aerodromo to contract a pilot. The wind, however, was not in our favour and so we saved the flight, and dinner, for the following day.

The mountains above the Ushuaia skyline

The next day turned out to be perfect for flying, and although Jess was a little leery of the gusting wind, we soon found ourselves gliding smoothly upwards in a little ‘60s Piper Cherokee. The road looked a lot tamer from those heights, but of course, the biggest issue had been the wind, which was now swooping us safely along. Our flight took us on a 1 hour loop past rugged peaks, glaciers, alpine lakes and out over the sun-dappled Beagle Channel, the main passage for tourist boats towards Antarctica. It was an amazing ride. We would have loved to be able to stay in Ushuaia longer, but we had already booked our return tickets home and we knew it was going to be just as difficult to escape Patagonia as it was for us to enter it. So we loaded up the bikes, waved a sad goodbye to the Ends of the Earth (not without buying the t-shirts first!) and faced, once again, the agony of the Patagonian winds.

Ushuaia from the air

The view out the window

The mountain paradise at the end of the world

The Beagle Channel and the route to Antarctica

The islets of the Beagle Channel

Only 3040 km to go!

Our scenic ride out of Ushuaia

Jess was still having power issues with his bike, so when we arrived at Rio Grande we headed straight for the closest mechanic. Unfortunately he wasn’t able to find the problem so he gave us a referral to a shop in Rio Gallegos and sent us on our way. The ride to Rio Gallegos was a very full day consisting of not one, but two border crossings, an exciting ferry ride across the angry, wind whipped Atlantic, 250 km of highway riding and an exhausting 120km ride on a dirt/gravel road during a wind storm… with construction. At one point, as we approached a construction crew on the gravel road in the midst of howling wind, a dude with a stop sign stepped forward and indicated we were to stop—which, given the windy conditions, meant that we would both be blown over immediately. So Jess, beeping his horn and shaking his head negative drove straight past the signal man. Fortunately there was no oncoming traffic, so we managed to escape being blown over AND being hit by a semi truck. That makes for a good day in Patagonia. Anyway, to say we arrived in Rio Gallegos absolutely destroyed would be a gross understatement. Thankfully Jesse’s bike behaved itself admirably during the most recent bout of abuse to which we had submitted our poor bikes, so after a night at yet another dodgy hotel, we were ready to take on the last leg of the trip. Or so we thought. Unfortunately, his bike had plans of its own and shortly after leaving Rio Gallegos the problems started up once more, worse than ever before. We knew we had really pushed both of our bikes hard during the last week and a half, so we didn’t feel too bad about turning tail and heading back into town to search for the motorcycle shop the mechanic in Rio Grande had recommended.

On first blush, the staff at the mechanic shop (SM Motos) were blasé to the point of rudeness about our problem, and only after talking to the owner did we get any sort of response from them. To their credit, however, they immediately identified the problem: Filling up at countless dodgy gas stations across the Americas had likely produced some residue in Jesse’s gas tank, and the crash he had had in Tierra del Fuego had probably broken some of the residue loose and it was now intermittently clogging his bike’s fuel pump. We spent the day sitting on the steps of a closed ice cream shop reading while we waited for the shop to install a donor pump from an anonymous Yamaha (no Kawasaki Versys parts in town) and finally by 6:30 PM we were on our way. Luckily the sun sets late over Patagonia and we only had 350km to ride that day.

Our ride up the east coast of Argentina along Route 3 was an odd mix of dangerous—because of the high, relentless winds—and mind-numbingly boring. It consisted of flat scrubland, as far as the eye could see with outrageously long straight sections (we clocked one at 100 km in length)…and that was all we saw for days at a time. Most of the places we stayed at along the way were pretty uninteresting and not worth mentioning, except that one of our rooms smelled like urine because I had made the mistake of checking the room out with my helmet still on. After that the rooms received a thorough sniff-test before we agreed to stay there. One day, the wind storm was so bad we decided to stay an extra day in a fairly nice hotel we had found. The wind was so strong that it would actually push us forward a foot or so if we jumped straight up at just the right time.

The Patagonia you don't see in tourist brochers!

Amazing cloud shadows at sunset over the Patagonian Steppe

We had calculated about four days worth of windy riding after Rio Gallegos but our arrival in Gaiman, a small Welsh settlement outside of Trelew, days later was almost as windy as our ride out of Rio Gallegos. After spending our first day exploring a facinating palaeontological museum, we met up with our Dutch friends, Rogier and Anna, in Gaiman, a town that was settled back in the early 1800’s by Welsh immigrants looking to preserve their culture. To do this, they fled to the most remote and inhospitable land they could find: Patagonia (this coming directly out of the mouth of one of the direct descendants of the first settlers. Her words, not mine!). And preserve it they have. Welsh is taught all the way from kindergarten to high school and they still hold regional poem and song competitions, both in Spanish and Welsh. They even fly a panel of judges in fromWalesto judge the Welsh portion. And amongst the most important traditions and customs preserved in that town are the Welsh tea houses, an all you can eat and drink of English tea, pasties, tarts and desserts, including a very delicious clotted cream cake. I have to say I had never had clotted cream before and actually thought it sounded rather disgusting, perhaps like curdled milk. I was pleasantly surprised. We missed meeting up with Rogier and Anna on the first day, so Jess and I headed off to the tea house on our own, hoping that they had gone there and we’d meet up. That particular tea house was famous for being one of the first houses built by the settlers as well as for hosting the former Princess Diana when she visited the country back in 1995. The staff was impeccably dressed and very British (see Maggie Smith, aka Prof. McGonagall from Harry Potter) and the plates of cakes and sweets they brought us were absolutely delicious. Alas, Rogier and Anna were not at the tea house, having arrived a few short minutes after us at the hotel and being told we were out they had headed out again to get a snack before dinner. But since our first Welsh tea experience had been such a smashing success we decided to give it another go with Rogier and Anna the next day. So after wandering around the hot, dusty town somewhat aimlessly (everything was closed, so we had attempted to do a historic tour of the town, the highlight of which was passing through a 300m long tunnel… it was THAT exciting) we walked the 8km back out to the famous tea house for another round of all-you-can-eat sandwiches, pastries and tea. But, as the proverb goes, all good things must come to an end and so the tea house closed and “the help” (very politely) kicked us out.

Jessica staring down a T-Rex at the palaeontological museum in Trelew

Check out the outline on the wall of the Argentinosaurus, the largest sauropod ever discovered

Walk towards the light

It's Tea Time, fools!

The next day we waved a sad goodbye to Rogier and Anna and headed off towards Buenos Aires. After 2000 km of riding in a veritable gale, the wind had finally abated to something Canadians would call “a windy day”. The day before we reached Buenos Aires we stayed in a town called Azul, yet another nondescript town except that here we stumbled upon a celebrity, nay, a legend of the motorcycling touring world. His name was Jorge “Pollo” Cuatrochio and he was the founder of La Posta, a motorcycle camping ground were almost all the people making this trip invariably end up staying. People have been so grateful to him and his wife, Monica, for their hospitality (La Posta used to be free of charge but now costs a mere 30 pesos, or under $7CND, to help pay water, electricity and gas bills) that they’ve sent him on trips to Europe and Japan. The walls of the kitchen are literally crammed with signatures, greetings and words of wisdom from bikers who have stopped in for a night or two. Jess and I left our own marks, a badly painted Canadian flag with out names and date on a little corner of the already crowded wall, as well as a quick description of our trip, scrawled across the side of the fridge. Signature space is a precious commodity at La Posta, and you take it where you can get it. Case and point, a Swiss flag was painted under the lid of the toilet seat in the bathroom! At La Posta we met three other motorcyclist: Julian, doing a tour of Chile, Argentina and Ecuador on a African Twin, and Chloe and Guillaume, also on an African Twin. Apparently they are the perfect bike for all things touring, as long as they stay vertical and you’re taller than 5’ 10”. Obviously they were not made for the likes of me.

Adventure riders at La Posta

(Jesse: As an interesting sidenote, one of the names written on the Posta wall of fame was that of Peter Forwood. Peter is an elderly Aussie, who, with his wife Kay, holds the world record for the most countries visited on motorcycle—on an aging 1340cc Harley no less! Seven years ago, while traveling in Siberia, I met Peter by chance along the shores of Lake Baikal. We ended up having coffee together and he recounted some of his incredible adventures…including riding through Sierra Leon during the middle of their civil war or, his current trip, riding down through Iraq shortly after the Americans had occupied the country. Years later, I’m now a motorcyclist and our names are side-by-side at La Posta).

The picture I took of the legendary Peter Forwood in Siberia, 7 years ago

The corner of the Wall of Fame at La Posta which we share with the legendary Peter Forwood

We spent one night in La Posta, did some quick motorcycle maintenance before taking off and mounted our noble steeds once again for our final ride of the trip. 3000 km from Ushuaia and 26,556 km from our starting point in Cambridge, Canada, we entered the last city of the trip: Buenos Aires.

To the Ends of the Earth

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

Don’t cry for me, Argentina

Jesse: In a lot of ways, Chile is a bit of a funny country: it’s on the cusp of becoming a full-fledged first-world nation; it’s a little lacking in indigenous culture, but has some of the most considerate drivers we’ve ever seen; it’s environment ranges from full-on, no-rainfall-in-25,000-years desert in the north to some of the most spectacular alpine scenery on Earth in the far south; and although it averages only 175 km wide, it’s 4,300 km long—and we rode through most of them. “Civilized” Chile ends at Puerto Montt—south of there, the country narrows considerably and becomes peppered with fiords, glaciers and enormous national parks. We crossed to Argentina just north of that point, riding through a gorgeous landscape of sharp mountains and green valleys, very reminiscent of Austria/Switzerland. We were sad to leave Chile, but knew we’d be back: our route through the far south wove frequently between Argentina and Chile.

We exited Chile without mishap and then rode another 75 km (!!) before we encountered the Argentine checkpoint. That route used to be one of the prettiest rides in South America with the road rising and falling amid amazing mountainous scenary. But on July 4, 2011, volcano Puyehue-Cordon, just inside the Argentine border, blew its top off to spectacular effect and covered the entire region in nearly a meter of ash. Nowadays, riding through that region is like riding through a wintery, monochromatic world, with dirty white ash covering the trees and piled beside the highway. In the hardest-hit zone, all vegetation has died and billions of floating pumice pebbles clog the lakes. Seismologists predict that the volcano will continue to spew ash for the next 2-3 years.

The volcano, doing its thing back in 2011

The world in ashes

Our border crossing into our last country on this trip was a cinch, and we stopped at the first town we came to, the Banff-like resort town of Villa de Angostura. We quickly discovered that Argentina was far and away the most expensive country we’d encountered in Latin America yet: meals were a little pricier than Chile while hotels were closer Canadian prices ($40-150 US per night!) That’s fine for a short vacation, but when you have to effectively live there for a month, it’s painful. We decided to camp and roast hotdogs. Although we elected to stay in Villa de Angostura the next day, and even rented a bicycle built for two to get around town, we quickly grew tired of getting ash in our eyes, our mouths, on our food and all over our motorcycles—plus, all the activities in the area were suddenly beyond our price range ($150 US for two people to visit a national park, what!?). After a day we’d had enough and moved on.

Dancing with the gnomes!

Our route quickly took us out of the ash zone and we paused for lunch at the lovely San Carlos de Bariloche, a small, very German-esque city on the shores of Nahuel Huapi Lake. We tried some ridiculously good hot chocolate (the region is known for it’s chocolate, much to Jessica’s satisfaction!) and then continued southward through the mountains towards El Bolson, a bit of a New Age center with lots of wacky alternative lifers living there (i.e. lots of weed and dreadlocks). But the atmosphere there was quite pleasant and the scenery amazing: an enormous, jagged ridge towered over the town, and we were determined to climb it! Organized tours seemed like overkill and certainly overly expensive, so we decided to go it alone. After all, the tourist information desk in town told us that there was an excellent road leading halfway up the mountain that was the jumping off point for treks, so why pay for transport when we had our own wheels?

The lake district of Argentina

More beautiful scenery near Bariloche

The next day we left bright and early, riding two-up on my bike. We turned off the highway onto the road leading up the mountain and quickly discovered why people paid for transport: it was not a *good* road, but a rutted, 4×4 track with deep, soft dirt and giant rocks waiting to de-bike unwary riders. Halfway up, I was on the verge of dropping my bike and had had enough. We parked the bike by the side of the road and continued the ascent on foot. Turns out we weren’t quite halfway up…9 km uphill and an hour and a half later, we finally reached the parking lot and the serious hiking began. The trail was well worn but deep with powdery dust and in no time we were completely grubby. But the alpine views, particularly of the giant ridge we were ascending, were exquisite. The first stop on the trail was an amazing open-air museum of wooden sculptures, carved from the burnt remains of an old forest fire. While some carvings were a little too abstract for us to appreciate, some, like a woman seeming to emerge from a stump, or an old Ent-ish man carved from a fallen log, were extremely well done. On and up we went, pausing for a rest at a refugio where they sold pizza and cervesa to famished hikers, and then upwards towards the summit. We eventually emerged onto the flat saddle between two peaks, congratulating ourselves on our efforts; no hiking for 4 months, and we were still going strong. The final ascent of the peak was still waiting for us however, and while the rest of the hike might be classified as “moderate”, the last kilometre would probably be “difficult” while the last 100 meters were “extreme”: a near-vertical wall of loose shale where every 3 steps upwards resulted in sliding 2 steps down. In the end we opted to rock climb the nearly shear wall next to the shale slope, but eventually we pulled ourselves to the top! …Only to discover that it wasn’t the top. The real peak was another few hundred meters of even steeper shale. Lucky for us our current vantage point gave us a magnificent view of the range of mountains behind the ridge: it looked remarkably like the mountains of Mordor from the Lord of the Rings movies. We had our lunch, contemplated ascending the actual peak, decided that the people we saw straining their way to the top didn’t have an extra 9 km walk back to their vehicle at the bottom, and set off back down the mountain. Several years later, we arrived at the motorcycle, utterly spent. We then had to wrestle the bike around, and then ride back down a gnarly dirt road—now in the pouring rain. By the time we made it back to the hostel, we were destroyed…but happy.

Climbing up the road towards the ridge above El Bolson

The wooden statue park above El Bolson

The old Ent in the wooden statue park

The final ascent

On top of the world

The next day, we rode out of El Bolson, beginning our long, southward sprint towards the ends of the Earth. First, however, the daily routine of fueling our bikes. To our consternation, neither gas station in town had fuel. No problem, my handy map of the region showed a few gas stations just south of town, so off we went to the nearest. No fuel there either. It seems that the fuel truck drivers were on strike in Argentina, and the gas shortage was crippling the country. It was a bizarre glimpse into a Mad Max-esque future where the world’s oil supply has begun to run out. It wasn’t pretty. The station attendant thought there might be gas at a nearby town some 18 km away (the next nearest being 150 km away), so with our gauges hovering around the ¼ mark, we used some of our precious fuel and sped away in our search. Sure enough, they had fuel, but everyone and their uncle was headed there. As we waited in line at the pumps, we emptied our water bottles in the hopes of filling them up with a little reserve. No luck, they refused to fill the flimsy bottles. We quickly ran around town until we found a proper 10L fuel container. By this time the line up for the pump had grown to be nearly 30 cars long, so with a little brashness I jumped the queue and got our container filled. Feeling a little better about the gas situation, we sped off southward at last.

About 30 minutes later, we left the mountains and entered the Patagonian Steppe, or pampas: a desolate, flat plain of tall grasses, straight roads, and occasional Guanacos (larger cousins of the vicunas) and emu-like rheas wandering across the roads. The legendary Patagonian winds were strong and forced us to ride at an angle to keep upright. We were on the almost-mythical Route 40, Argentina’s version of the US Route 66. It was indeed a lonely, remote highway, often with poor asphalt, but from a motorcycling perspective, it—like the rest of Patagonia—quickly became tedious. 150 kms later, we rode into the next gas station…They had fuel indeed, but with the line-up for the pump at close to 3 hours, we didn’t have enough daylight hours left to join the queue just to top up our tanks. So again, we brazenly (but with all our Canadian politeness) jumped the queue and sped off before a mob of angry, fuel-starved Argentines could lynch us. Our chosen destination that night had no fuel, so we decided to press on to the next town. They had gas, luckily, but their prices for accommodation were pure highway robbery: $80 US for a crappy hotel room, or $150 US for a little apartment. We reminisced fondly over the comparatively low Chilean prices…and in the end opted for $5 camping. The next day, fuel truck convoys began to pass us and we knew that the strike was over at last.

Welcome to Patagonia. Have a windy day.

Rheas, the mini ostriches of Patagonia

 

Ever Southward

Jessca: We left San Pedro somewhat bright and early, after a hearty breakfast of manjar pancakes (basically dulce de leche poured over a crepe and folded in half… mmmm) and set off towards Antofagata without bothering to fill up. After all, Jess had checked his gas level and he was at half a tank. Calama was about 100km from San Pedro and we could fill up there. No problem, right? Except as soon as we had left the city limits his indicator dropped to a third of a tank. Lovely. Well, we thought, surely we could make it on a third of a tank. My gas light doesn’t turn on until Jess’ level indicator drops to a sixth anyway. Usually. We were not counting with altitude and my carburetor, however. A few minutes later my fuel light started to flash. A good way to add some drama and excitement to an otherwise boring ride through the desert. “Don’t worry,” Jess assured me, “it’s mostly downhill from what I remember”. It wasn’t. As kilometre after kilometre flew by I could almost feel Luke’s engine sputtering to a halt, leaving me stranded by the side of the road while the rest of the party sped off happily. Of course that would never happen, Rogier would probably let me siphon some gas from his tank and surely my husband would never dream of riding off without me. But that would make running out of gas far less catastrophic. I urged Luke along, whispering encouragements, promising that Calama was just over the next hill. And, miraculously, we made it. I confirmed the long suspected idea that when the gas level really gets low the light stays on rather than flashes, and I was able to make 65km on the flashing warning light. Uphill with head wind. Not bad, Luke, not bad at all.

Antofagasta is Jesse’s favourite name for a place, but the city is not as interesting as it sounds. However, it was far better than the Lonely Planet’s description of it (“smelling of nicotine and brine, this city is low on traveller’s lists). It’s pleasant, with an open air market that sells anything you could possibly think of (we even found a towel with a scantily clad Britney Spears splayed out on a tiger rug… like I said, anything), a food market where store owners try to talk you into eating at their restaurants, and a supermall/movie theatre along the boardwalk. But it wasn’t enough to hold our interest for more than one day, so we set off once more, this time to Bahhia Inglesa where we FINALLY satiated my weird need for camping.

I guess it’s the fact that I never camped as a child, but I seem to have this strange fascination with camping, I seem to have a romanticised the act of pitching a tent, starting a fire and rolling out a sleeping bag. Jess does not share this oddly idyllic view of camping and had up to now successfully staved off my repeated attempts to spend the night under the stars. This time, however, I was finally going to get my way (although Jess did attempt to ride into town to find more “civilised” accommodations but finally gave in when all we could find were fully furnished cabins well out of our price range). Ideally we would have stayed on the beach, just us, our tents and a fire pit, but settled for an organised camp ground with bathrooms, hot water showers and electrical plugs. Not exactly roughing it, but at least I got to cook my dinner over a fire. That night I went to bed in the little tent we borrowed from Evonne and Garrett listening to the waves crashing on the beach nearby. The next day was spent doing… nothing. A blissful, peaceful nothing, that included playing Solitaire on Jesse’s lap top, fixing the flat tire on Rogier’s bike and taking a walk along the beach to poke at dead jellyfish and hunt for shells.

Camping at last! And the boys even let me do the barbecue!

The next day I sadly helped Jess pack up the tent and we once again set out, this time to La Serena, a laid back little city with delicious empanadas and a cute little bulldog called Freida (Jess insisted on calling her Maurice and she seemed to like it) who belonged to our hostel owner. We walked the somewhat busy streets then headed back for some home cooked dinner and a bit of Animal Planet on cable.

From La Serena we headed south, to Valparaiso, a pretty coastal city christened “the San Francisco of South America” by Jesse. It will catch on, trust me. It’s a neat little city with steep, cobblestone streets that climb the slopes of the mountains at ludicrously steep angles. The walls are covered with bright, colourful graffiti that ranges from political outcries and social commentaries, to memorials for loved lost ones and declarations of undying love. Peppered throughout the city are little “ascensores”, trams that climb the steep sides of the mountains surrounding the city to save citizens from having to huff and puff their way up a forty-five degree street. We walked along the top of the mountain, where our hostel was located and came to Pablo Neruda’s home, which he shared with a couple of artist friends. Cool. Pablo Neruda is a Chilean poet whose works I’d had to study in high-school literature class. I had never seen a picture of him before, however, and he was a lot shorter and stubbier than I had imagined. Strange. The dogs in Valparaiso were ridiculously aggressive to motorcyclists; on our way in, one had actually bit my ankle while riding. Thankfully my motorcycle clothes had prevented any injury, but it was still a nasty experience.

Street art in Valparaiso

More street art

The view over Valparaiso

In Valparaiso we met up with Phil and Wade, our Aussie friends, who were trying to kill some time while they waited for some spare parts for their bikes. Apparently our choice not to ride through Bolivia had been spot on, as they had both blown their rear shocks on the wonderfully groomed Bolivian tracks. We all convened at Rogier and Ana’s hostel for a dinner of leftovers and gorgeous views of the night time cityscape. The following morning said our goodbyes to Rogier, Anna, Phil and Wade. We knew we wouldn’t be meeting up with any more of our biker friends for the rest of the trip: the Jesse’s would ride solo once more.

A dinner with a view

We headed south to Chillan, where my cousin Fernando is doing his year of service. His host, Nelly, let us stay and made a wonderful dinner (called “Once”, which means eleven in Spanish… but they have it around 8pm. Go figure). We had grandiose plans of visiting the thermal baths or waterfall the next day, but we were just too exhausted and slept in until well after ten in the morning. Jess had fallen asleep in his clothes the night before as we were talking in the bedroom so it was no surprise that we were so late rising. As it was too late to do anything by the time we were ready to go, we settled for a guided tour of Chillan. We visited the Plaza de Armas, the downtown and the food market, where women literally play tug-of-war with the competition to get customers for their restaurants. It was funny to watch it happen to others, but when we found ourselves in the middle of a circle of ladies, each trying to drag us to her restaurant, the laughter quickly dried up. It had been an interesting day, but we had to keep moving, so we said a sad goodbye to Fernando, and off we were once more, this time to Valdivia, our last stop before the Argentinean border.

Me and my youngest cousin, Fernando

In Valdivia we had our closest call to date with a traffic accident: as Jesse was turning left onto a side street, a woman tried to pass him on the left, despite the fact that he was slowing with his turn indicator on. Both the woman and Jess slammed on their brakes but her car ended up hitting his front tire. No damage, but he was understandably shaken—and mad. Once he was ready, we made our way to the nearest hostel, an old, rambling house that was usually a very popular, but was in the midst of a summer cleaning and so we had the entire thing to ourselves. The owner, Eliana, was a lively Chilean grandmother who we suspect was actually German, although she denied it thoroughly. She made us some amazing coffee in the morning and talked non stop about politics, music, film and Hamburg.

We wandered the picturesque little town for half a day. It’s one of the main centers of German immigration in Chile, so Jess was determined to find some proper German food. We did manage to find several bakeries with undeniably excellent apple strudel, but our quest for a full German dinner went unfulfilled (despite checking the menus of 10+ promising restaurants). Valdivia is also firmly ensconced in the lush green Chilean lake district, and we found this a very welcome change after months in the desert.

Sealions sunning themselves in Valdivia

The next morning, with some hearty brown bread tucked away in our tummies and some helpful advice from Eliana on what lakes to visit along the way, we set off for the Argentinian border. The last leg of our trip had finally begun.

Sun, Sand and Salt

Jesse: It’s been a while since our last blog post, and inevitably, the adventures and experiences pile up on a trip like this, so this post might be a long one! We left Puno and headed towards Arequipa, Peru’s second largest city. Our route took us up over the roof of the Andes again, where dark storms flurried snow on the hillsides above–and freezing rain on us (the usual)–and the altitude took our breath away. The outskirts of Arequipa were depressingly run-down, but the city core sported some lovely white-stone architecture and first world amenities. Hungry for a change from the local food, we made an impromptu stop at a T.G.I. Friday’s and ordered the sloppiest hamburgers we could find and for an hour pretended we were home again. We found a cute, family-run hostel with bike parking and then crashed in our room and watched a marathon of House on the cable TV.

The next day we felt completely refreshed and set out to explore the city. The first stop was the Museo de Artefacto Andinos, where we were shown a fascinating guided exhibit about Incan child sacrifices, culminating with the display of Juanita, the frozen remains of a 12 year old Incan princess. Apparently the Incas would sacrifice ritually-selected children once every four years (coinciding with the El Niño weather pattern) on the highest peaks in theAndes, close to the home of the gods. Juanita was particular in that she was found alone (most sacrifices were multiple) and buried in royal regalia, indicating her rank as a princess. Her remains were huddled in the darkness of a very dim, highly refrigerated glass box.

Juanita, the Incan ice princess

That evening we headed to the Monasterio de Santa Catalina, a 17th century convent which housed nuns selected from the upper echelons of society…After living in secluded, hedonistic style for a hundred years, they were eventually brought down from the high life by a stern nun from the outside world. The convent was enormous, spanning a full city block with gigantic, fortress-like walls on the outside and an astounding maze of brightly coloured streets, courtyards, houses and fountains, all with torches and fireplaces lit, filling the place with the scent of wood smoke and giving the impression that the nuns had just stepped out.

Monasterio Santa Catalina by night

The next day we sped further south into the sprawling hot deserts of southern Peru. The emptiness of the land surrounded us; at one point we clocked a straight section of the highway 36 km without a curve. We reached the border of Chile in the late afternoon, and after a fairly painless crossing (which included x-raying our luggage, a first for this trip!) we arrived atArica, a pretty Caribbean-esque port town with an enormous rock bluff overhanging the town square. We spent a lazy day there, visiting Eiffel’s cast-iron church (forged in Paris and assembled in Arica) and the beautiful beaches south of the town. The water, however, was absolutely frigid, the Humboldt Current carrying Antarctica’s chilly waters northward. Moreover, it was filled with jellyfish, so we didn’t swim so much as stand in the waves and gasp every time we were hit. That night was New Years Eve. The shops closed at 5:00 PM and Arica became a ghost town until midnight when fireworks lit up the sky above the rocky bluff and revellers entered the town square for a giant salsa dance. We danced to a few tunes, saw a couple UFOs (we think they were paper lanterns propelled aloft by an internal flame, but we couldn’t be sure—so they remain unidentified!) and hit the hay by 1:00 AM.

The emptiness of southern Peru

New Years Day, we hit the long road from Arica to Iquique (pronounced e-key-kay). The road wound up and down through desert valleys and through the northern plain of the Atacama dessert (the driest in the world) where dust devils spun on the horizon like giant twirling dervishes. Just beforeIquique, we crested an enormous sand dune and began a long switchbacked descent towards the city, which rested on the narrow coastal plain below. The city was a pretty, modern beach town with the downtown core populated with the old-west architecture from the Nitrate-mining heydays of the late 1800s. Our first day there was spent exploring the UNESCO world heritage site of Humberstone, an old nitrate-mining town and neighbouring mine that was abandoned en-mass with the advent of artificial fertilizers in the 1960s. The mine itself was set out on the broiling plain of the Atacama and Jess and I had a great time exploring the skeletons of the huge old buildings—virtually without another tourist there. The town of Humberstone was much more touristy, with many of the buildings set up as museum pieces. Towards the outskirts in the back, however, the town became deliciously creepy and we explored to our hearts content for the entire afternoon.

The canyons of northern Chile

Downtown Iquique

The Humberstone ghostmine

Exploring Humberstone

The next day I decided to take advantage ofIquique’s unique position as the paragliding capital of the world, and go for a little flight. We contacted a Lonely-planet recommended company, and they picked Jess and I up from the hostel and drove us to the top of the giant mountain/sand dune overlooking the city. After a quick safety briefing, I was buckled into Raul, the Chilean champion of acrobatic gliding, and seconds later the wind pulled us firmly skyward. The sensation of flying in the open, with only the sound of the wind and the distant noise from the world below, was incredible. We soared up to 3000 ft, and headed out over the city. The conditions were perfect and we cruised smoothly beneath the clouds. Moments before our touchdown on the beach, I asked Raul to give me a little demo of his acrobatics, so we executed a few hair-pin turns which jumped our velocity from a happy 35 km/h to blazing 150 km/h in the span of 3 seconds. Fantastic fun, but the last few seconds made me incredibly airsick. Ah well, it was completely worth it. That night Jess and I stopped by an old-west photography studio and got a shot of us dressed as a dandy and lady of high Chilean society, circa 1920.

Paragliding!

Iquique from 1000 ft up

Chilean gentlepeoples indeed

Our next stop was San Pedro de Atacama, high up on the bulge of the Andean foothills. We were there to meet up with Rogier and Anna, our Dutch friends that we had met on the sailboat crossing from Panama to Columbia. We had arranged to go on a 4×4 tour of southern Bolivia with them, as we had mutually decided to not motorcycle that particular country, given its notorious lack of anything resembling a good road. San Pedro de Atacama was something of a dusty hole which, due to its location next to some amazing natural wonders, had become a serious tourist trap complete with surely locals and massively inflated prices. While we waited for Rogier and Anna to arrive, we explored what little of the town was worth exploring and pondered how we were going to eat for a reasonable price.

Taking a break in the Atacama desert

Our tour embarked a little late, and once we reached the Chilean side of the border, we found out why. The Chilean side is situated at a comfy 2800 m, while the remote Bolivian office was high up on the Andean plateau at 4200 m where the roads had been closed from snow for the past two days. While we waited at the border with hordes of other tourists (most of whom were headed to Argentina, whose border was also shut), the information changed every 10 minutes: no, the border was closed indefinitely; yes, it would open in 30 minutes, be patient; no, the tour would be cancelled and we’d try tomorrow; yes! The border was open; no, that was a lie, it was still closed. Finally, after waiting 5 hours, the border was indeed finally open and we were stamped out of Chile.

The Bolivian border is indeed remote: it is 47 km away from the nearest town, high up on a barren saddle between two picturesque volcanoes. There we switched to Bolivian 4x4s and Bolivian drivers and set off in a convoy of jeeps into the astounding landscape that is southern Bolivia. We first visited Laguna Blanca and Verde, the White and Green Lakes, colored by mineral deposits from the surrounding mineral-laden volcanoes. We then drove through high altitude desert valleys, our drivers finding their own way through the rocky landscape more often then following the rough track of a road. We stayed the night at a mud-brick refuge on the shores of Laguna Colorada, the famous Red Lake. The next day we explored the shores of the lake…the warm, shallow water was an opaque orangey-red, and filled with colourful flamingos who stalked back and forth, searching for tiny plants and animals in the silt of the lake bottom. From there we headed out to the Arbol de Piedra, the Tree of Stone. It was a garden of rocks that had been carved by wind erosion into fantastic shapes, including the rock shaped vaguely like a tree. I had a blast climbing as many of the towering rock formations as I could in the time we had.

The remote Bolivian border

The high Bolivian desert, 4800m

Warming up to a gyser

Evening in the Bolivian highlands

Flamigos on Laguna Colorada

The Jesses on Laguna Colorada

Yet another flamigo!

Our little group and the Arbol de Piedra

King of the hill

The altitude took its toll on our little group. We suffered all the usual symptoms: massive dehydration headaches, frequent urination, sleep apnea, difficulty breathing—and group-wide constipation! Moreover, the tour company was highly mediocre with uninformed guides, poor food, and, on the last night, no drinks with our meal (but they would SELL us drinks!) Still, we had a ton of fun and saw some amazing sights. Near Uyuni we visited the famous train graveyard for a few quick pictures, and then headed out to the highlight of the trip: the Salar de Uyuni, the largest salt flat in the world. Although crowded with other jeeps and hordes of tourists, the Salar was an otherworldly experience. It was the wet season, so the salty surface was covered by several centimetres of water, creating an incredible mirror-like effect such that, when looking at the horizon, it was hard to tell where the Salar ended and the sky began. Moreover, although storms raged all around us, the sky was perfectly clear above the Salar: the salt had sucked all the moisture out of the sky. We took some fun perspective photos on the Salar, and then, all too soon, started our long trip back to San Pedro.

Rusting bolts in the Train Graveyard

Monkeying around in the train graveyard

Jess popping out of an old train wreck

Giant Rogier

Tiny Rogier

Jess on the Uyuni Salar

The Jesses on the Salar

We arrived back in town the following day, and signed up for a late afternoon tour to watch the sunset over the Moon Valley. It was a great tour with an informative guide and another dose of other-worldly landscapes and narrow gorges to explore. The valley was magnificent, the sunset a little watery. That night Jess and I met up with my old friend Jeff from my UVic days. We had been room mates during our co-op job in Hawaii, but had lost touch after our undergrad degrees. Jeff was now working as an astronomer at the ALMA radio telescope in the Atacama desert. We had a great meal with Jeff and a few of his colleagues, caught up on our lives for the past 10 years, and reminisced about the good old days.

The Valley of Mars

A sharp turn in the Valle de la Luna

An archway in the Valley of the Moon

Sunset over the Valle de la Luna

Jesse and Jeff, reunited in Chile after 10 years!

From San Pedro we again turned south and began our long, hard ride towards the end of the continent. We have a month and a half left, and over 6000 km to cover…