Argentina, Part 6: Bahia Blanca, Azul and Buenos Aires

February 4 – 16, 2011

The fun, adventure part of riding in Latin America was over and now it was a matter of getting to the end in Buenos Aires and planning the exit from this continent onwards to Africa.

I stayed with Walter in Bahia Blanca and we’re partaking in a daily habit of Argentines, the purchasing of ‘facturas’, which are baked snacks that go along with drinking maté.

All sorts of savory and sweet treats.


I seen these kind of cookies in a variety of countries. They all taste great with melted sugar on top.

Walter said there was a costume party in town and said my biking gear looked ridiculous enough to pass for a costume. Sounds good to me. He’s going as an Arabic sultan and his friend went as D’artagnan. Argentines are a pretty conservative people and Walter said it was a rare event for people to put on costumes and let loose.

There were the usual naughty maids and cowboys.

Cat girl and a pirate. Because I was coming from the US, the cowboy hat soon landed on my head. I peeled myself away at 3 am since I had a long day to Buenos Aires.

Halfway to BsAs, there’s a motorcycle haven in the small town of Azul, at…

La Posta del Viajero en Moto.

Jorge and his wife, Monica, opened up their home to motorcycle travelers in the early 90s and since then, it has become a fixture on the motorcyclist’s map. Travelers from all over are encouraged to stop by and spend a few days in a place comfortable to bike travelers. Everyone leaves their mark on any available place in Jorge’s garage.

Jorge said there were a lot of Japanese motorcyclists in the years past, but lately, it’s the Brazilians who are the most represented country. He said that one Indian woman stopped by here on the back of another guy’s bike, but was happy to point out that I was the first Indian rider to pass through. He was so enthralled with India that he interviewed me on tape to remember the occasion.

Saying bye to Jorge after a short visit. I had to get to Buenos Aires in order to prepare visas and onward travel.

One last pit stop by the road side in Latin America and as the glow of Buenos Aires showed up on the darkened horizon, I took stock of the fact of what had transpired since leaving Chicago. This was the end to the chapter of riding in the Americas and I was thankful for all the wonderful experiences.

Back in a developed setting of the grand city of Buenos Aires and it’s efficient freeways. Look, there’s WiFi on that bus.

I was happy to make it to BsAs without having to change tires since Santa Cruz in Bolivia. My rear Pirelli MT 60 tire after 13,000 kms (8,075 mi) with the grip down the center all but vanished. Thank goodness it didn’t rain after Ushuaia. The underlying carcass wasn’t showing through, so I was still good for a few more kilometers. This was a good 50/50 tire as that’s just about the kind of terrain I rode on. I was saving the new Kenda K270 that I was carrying with me for Africa and didn’t want to waste it on all this tarmac.

I stayed with Gaby here for a few days and she’s showing me the proper way to prepare maté. It’s a slightly bitter drink and there’s a particular technique to wet all the leaves at a progressively rising temperature so as to reduce dust from being sucked up. She said she liked her maté with water at 79 degrees Celsius. It was refreshing to meet someone with this kind of precision about their tastes. She was a very interesting character and well read. We frequently dived in to deep, philosophical topics regarding morals, ethics and the structure of the Universe. We had differing views, but level-enough heads to hear each other out.

El Obelisco de Buenos Aires, the symbol of the city, built in 1936 to honor four hundred years of the city’s first foundation. I was booked to travel on the Grimaldi’s Grande Francia ship across the Atlantic and had to secure a visa to Europe since my plans for getting down in Senegal were no longer feasible. So, now I was heading to Hamburg, Germany and then would plot my route into Africa.

Visiting the barrio of La Boca, a distinct neighborhood of Italian descendents from Genoa.

A false-color image of El Caminito, a short, colorful walkway that resident painter Benito Quinquela Martín in the 1960s took upon himself to transform his run down barrio.

He applied pastel colors to all the buildings and brought some life back to this area. Now, it’s a popular tourist attraction with tango cafes lining the streets.

Caricatures of famous Argentines on a balcony. That’s footballer Diego Maradona, Eva Perón (Evita) and her husband, Juan Perón, who is still highly regarded by Argentines.

An example of the past residents of La Boca.

Free tango lessons by the port.

This is a more working-class area of the city, along the Rio Riachuelo-Matanza.

Argentines are mad about football and rightly so since the hometown team of Boca Juniors is one of the most successful football clubs in the world. This is their home, Estadio Alberto J. Armando, known as La Bombonera. The classic game is against the cross-town upper scale club of River Plate, as Boca Juniors is considered the club for the working class of Buenos Aires.

A promenade along a park. The city is very modern in places, resembling Paris and other European cities, yet, there’s a laid-back feel to it as well, due to the character of Argentines.

The city is booming in evidence of neighborhoods like Puerto Madero with new high-rises going up. Some of the older residents of the city don’t agree with the modern construction, but that’s the price to pay for keeping up with the rest of the world.

La Casa Rosada (The Pink House), the center of Argentina’s colonial history through to present time, serving as the official seat of the president, like the White House in Washington, except the Argentine president doesn’t actually live there, but in a nice villa outside the city. The building was painted its trademark color in the 1860s either to placate the two opposing parties by mixing their colors of red and white, or some say they used cows blood in the paint to prevent against humidity. It’s a fitting color these days, since Argentina is the first country in Latin America to approve same-sex marriages, a bold move in this predominantly Catholic continent.

Driving down the widest street in the world, Avenida 9 de Julio, through downtown Buenos Aires. It spans a whole city block at over 110 m (360 ft) wide with 7 primary lanes going each way with an additional 4 lanes in the flanks. That’s 22 lanes from end to end in the heart of a city and one can imagine that for pedestrians to cross it would take multiple traffic lights. Some people try to run from one side to the other. For sure, there’s lots of traffic, but I was never in a traffic jam. The city has also perfected synchronized green lights with digital displays informing you of the start of Onde Verdes (Green Waves) and it even tells you what speed to maintain (depending on the volume of the traffic, for cars), so as to reduce the amount of braking. On the bike, I would filter to the front at a traffic light and then take off, cruising through this dense city at speeds over 70 kph (44 mph) for kilometers at a time; a real rush. El Obelisco is at the main intersection with Avenida Corrientes.

Passing by a fruit stand at the central mercado in the pleasing San Telmo neighborhood.

I stayed with Fernando for the last few days and we’re buying some veggies for a chicken curry.

An open bar with a parilla. Beer and grilled meats.

The streets of San Telmo, the oldest barrio in Buenos Aires with well-preserved colonial buildings and cobblestone streets.

Having a coffee with Fernando at Café Dorrego, an institution in Buenos Aires. It’s been open since 1880 and haunts of all the great conversations that have taken place in these walls are evident. I tried to capture the ambiance with this 30 second exposure.

The barrio is popular with tourists and street musicians abound.

A view from the top floor of Fernando’s flat in the barrio of Ramos Mejia.

He let me have the mezzanine and I prepared for the long sea voyage coming up (no internet for a month!).

Buenos Aires is a very comfortable city and while it is massive, it’s also very agreeable, mainly due to the kind nature of Argentines. The city is plugged in to the world and very cosmopolitan. It was a good place to rest after the mega miles of getting here from Ushuaia.

And that concludes the Latin American chapter of my journey that began in Mexico in March, 2010, traveling through Central America, crossing over to Colombia and heading down the Andes. From Bolivia, I went across the Amazon jungle in Brazil and then down its marvelous coast. After a second visit to Bolivia, I continued down the Andes till the tip in Ushuaia.

I had a few breakdowns, but overall, am thoroughly pleased with how sanDRina, my 1998 Suzuki DR650 has handled the trip, so far. She’s a simple-enough bike that I could manage with all the breakdowns and it helped that I carried the appropriate spare parts. By now, I’m very comfortable with living on the road and have my routines down that I can keep going for the foreseeable future.

I had many ideas and philosophies of life before going into this trip and, so far, they’ve all been reinforced giving me confidence to keep the throttle twisted open. In all this time, I’ve had zero security-related incidents. Not once did I even feel threatened and I knew this would be the case if common sense was rigorously applied. I had learned from previous travelers that having a good command of the language was a useful tool and also a door to greater engagement with the locals. This proved very true and I highly recommend learning Spanish for travels through Latin America.

I met numerous wonderful people, either by chance or through traveling networks, such as, which has been a great tool in my journey. It’s reassuring to see the same kind of awareness-raising around the planet, with regards to nature and how we treat each other. Of course, this inadvertently comes with rising habits of consumption, which is the same in all developed and quickly-developing areas. Besides picking up a few bad qualities from the West, the people I interacted with were aware of the positive qualities from their culture, such as strong social bonds. I think there’s something to learn from every culture to make this a more harmonious planet to live on.

Saludos, Americas.
Hasta que nos encontramos otra vez (until we meet again),

Next: Grimaldi, Part 1: Buenos Aires up the Brazilian Coast

Previous: Patagonia, Part 6: Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego and Penguins

Patagonia, Part 6: Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego and Penguins

January 28 – February 3, 2011

I had reached the southern tip of the South American continent. With a short ferry ride across the Straits of Magellan, I would finally be in Tierra del Fuego. This name has been etched in all overland travelers’ minds as one of the distant ends of the world. lt also serves as a symbolic and literal turning point since the road doesn’t go further south.

After a few days on this island at the end of the world, I started my journey back up north to Buenos Aires to finalize my exit plans from Latin America. On the way up, I stopped in to see the charming penguins at Punta Tombo.

Heading north 164 kms (102 mi) from Punta Arenas, I arrived at the short (free) ferry across the Straits of Magellan over to Tierra del Fuego. Coming up this way from Punta Arenas to the border at San Sebastian makes it a 305 km (189 mi) journey. There’s a shorter route with a ferry costing US$70 going from Punta Arenas to the town of Porvenir across the straits, and that journey to San Sebastian is about 145 kms (90 mi). Besides the cost, I chose the longer road route since that ferry runs more frequently across the narrowest part of the straits. The ferry to Porvenir runs only once a day.

A map of my route around the southern tip of South America. Click on it to go to the interactive version in Google Maps. To get to Ushuaia, which is in Argentina, the road crosses through Chile and there is no direct link between Rio Grande and Rio Gallegos. Tierra del Fuego is considered an island since the water body of the Straits of Magellan separate it from the mainland continent. After numerous border conflicts between the two nations (resembling India and Pakistan; artificial conflicts between the same people), they’ve split Tierra del Fuego down the middle. If you look near El Calafate, there’s a section of the border that has not been agreed on and is still being arbitrated by the UN. It’s a section that’s under the Southern Patagonian Ice Field and with the animosity between these two countries, it probably wont get settled until the ice melts.

The Faro Punta Delgada (lighthouse) at the western end of Bahia Posesión, marking the entrance to Angostura Primera, the first narrow section of the straits. This must be a welcome sight for sailors in the fog. Fernão de Magalhães, in service to the Spanish King, was the first European to navigate these waters in 1519 on his circumnavigation voyage. Besides getting these straits named after him, he also has a GPS brand to his name.

Just to get our geography down, the Straits of Magellan separate the South American mainland from Tierra del Fuego, with Punta Arenas as its biggest settlement. Then, there’s the Beagle Channel, with Ushuaia on its shore, that separates the Isla Grande (big island) of Tierra del Fuego from smaller islands to the south and then past Cape Horn (the last piece of the land considered part of the South American Continent lies the Drake Passage with Antarctica on the other side. Of all these, the Straits are the calmest to navigate from the Atlantic to the Pacific and the Drake, the biggest for commercial ships, mainly those classed as Post Panamax (oil and gas tankers too wide for the locks at the Panama Canal).

The ferry makes the crossing in about 20 minutes, arriving at Bahia Azul on the other side. The appeal of riding to the ‘end of the world’ seems kind of lost nowadays when tour buses and family sedans are part of the traffic. I was told we would need to pay for the ferry at some point, but no one asked for any money. The straits are calm these days (besides the wind), but there was a lot of conflict about who owned this prime marine route in the 19th century, with Chile establishing Punta Arenas to put its foot down on ownership and keep the British, French and Americans away from occupying it (like they did in Panama for the canal).

Welcome to the island of Tierra del Fuego. I’ve been saying this name for the past 4 years and to finally see a signboard with those words was quite the occasion. But instead of the image of a distance, rustic land that I had, it was a brand new concrete road with a mega sign. Oh well, can’t stop development just for our romantic notions. As soon as the gate dropped from the ferry, it felt like a sprint race from all the eager Argentines behind me. I let them pass to savour this moment.

The route is only paved for the first 30 kms, till the small town of Cerro Sombrero, then it’s a flat and gently rolling 110 kms (68 mi) of dirt to the last border with Argentina. The name Tierra del Fuego translates as ‘land of fire’ since that’s what Magellan saw due to the constant fires that were lit by the native Yahgan people to keep warm in this chilly land. Surprisingly, the Yaghan did not wear clothes and managed to survive here by huddling around fires and smearing themselves in animal grease. Over time, they developed higher metabolisms and were able to generate more internal body heat than the average humans. Their numbers dwindled with the arrival of European settlers and the diseases they brought with them.

Arriving at Paso Fronterizo San Sebastián and this is the only border that I came across where it’s paved and more developed on the Argentine side than the Chilean side, since the Argentines have a bigger population with larger settlements than the Chileans on this island. The wind was blowing strong here. From the border, it’s a short 87 kms (54 mi) of tarmac, along windswept vistas of the ocean till the city of Rio Grande (and cheap Argentine petrol).

Ruta 3 flows over the gentle land south of Rio Grande, passing thru evergreen forests, but it’s the last 100 kms (62 mi) from Tolhuin to Ushuaia that makes for an exciting ride as the route climbs up and over the Martial Mountains with Cordillera Darwin to the west on the Chilean side. This range stretches east to west across the island and marks the southern end of the Andes. Tolhuin is at the eastern end of the 98 km (61 mi) long Lago Fagnano.

I see it! Almost there. Another 24 kms (15 mi) west of the city lies the actual end of the road at Bahia Lapataia. All the road signs has splits in the middle, I think to allow less resistance for the winds and prevent the signs from being blown down.

It was relatively calm, but getting chilly and I saw rain clouds ahead.

The route started twisting and climbing and I was feeling good with sanDRina to be so close to Ushuaia.

Ruta 3 is the main route on the Argentine side of Tierra del Fuego, with Ruta 40 ending near Rio Gallegos on the mainland.

Looks like I just missed the rain with the sun already coming back out. My rear tire was getting thin in the middle and I took it easy through the wet turns.

The still, steel blue of Lago Escondido (Hidden Lake) near the summit across Cordillera Martial, looking north.

As I crossed Paso Garibaldi, at an elevation of just 430 m (1,410 ft) the weather was quite rough with sheets of rain falling like blades of ice and the low sun, reflecting off the shiny road surface directly in my face, made it a tough section to manoeuvre through. However, the sun visor of the Arai XD did its job of blocking out El Sol. It’s only been caught once or twice in the fierce winds of Patagonia and I believe the daily benefits it offers in terms of protection from the sun far outweigh the few times it might be tugged in the wind.

The sharpness of the peaks of these mountains is quite dramatic compared to the steppes of Patagonia to the north of the island.

The road drops back down from the pass into the valley that leads to Ushuaia.

I was surprised to see such sharp-peaked mountains in this windy area, that too with snow and ice adding to the erosional force. Perhaps they’re just pure granite and can withstand the test of time. They’re not that tall with an elevation of only around 700 m (2,300 ft), but height has nothing to do with how enigmatic a mountain can be.

And voila, I’ve arrived at Ushuaia, La Ciudad Mas Austral Del Mundo (the southernmost city in the world). To be honest, it didn’t really feel like an accomplishment (except maybe for the geographer in me), but just felt like another city along my route. I think after seeing the numerous mind-blowing sights along the Andes, just getting to a town at the end doesn’t really light the fire. The mural depicts the penal colony that was setup here in the late 19th century to replicate what happened in Australia’s Tasmania and France’s Devil Island, whereby the isolation of the place thwarted any escape attempts. The prisoners were in essence, forced colonists, since the Argentine government used them as citizens to increase their numbers on this hot territorial land.

Besides its significance on a map, the location of the settlement is quite impressive on the shores of Bahia Ushuaia along the Beagle Channel, under the gaze of the Martial Mountains.

The town certainly has an ‘end of the world’ feel to it, but with a resident population of around 63,000, normal life carries on as I pass thru this new sub-division where the road was still being laid. There’s even a television assembly factory in town but the main sources of income are still tourism and gas and oil exploration.

Oh yes, the all important gasoline that keeps any human settlement chugging along, especially remote ones such as this one. YPF is the national petroleum company.

Another view of the city rising up the flanks of the Martial Mountains.

The wide expanse of Bahia Ushuaia in the Beagle Channel. It is named in honor of HMS Beagle, the ship that carried Charles Darwin to these parts of the world in the years that he started formulating his Theory of Evolution. The mountains on the other side are on Isla Navarino in Chilean territory with two more towns of Puerto Williams and Puerto Toro, all vying for the title of southernmost city of the world. However, the first has less than 2,000 inhabitants and the last has just a few families, so I think Ushuaia, being a proper city, still retains the title.

I stayed with Ricardo thru CS who travels back and forth between Buenos Aires and here, transporting construction materials. He recently bought this old house and is in the process of renovating it.

He made this tasty lamb dish, since that’s the primary meat of the area, even though all Argentine’s still prefer beef. However, everyone’s been telling me that prices for beef have been rising steadily and they are looking at lamb more and other meats. I think the popularity of Argentine beef abroad is limiting supplies for domestic consumption, leading to the higher prices. Sheep produce less methane than cows, so I’m all for encouraging more lamb and mutton than beef (methane is 20 times more harmful than carbon dioxide to our atmosphere). Did you know that scientists are thinking of adding turmeric and coriander to livestock feed to reduce the amount of methane that they produce? Believe in the power of curry!

Ricardo’s classic Fuegian house, narrow and long.

The area of Ushuaia has been inhabited since 10,000 years ago when the first natives of the Yaghan people arrived here, descendents of the humans that crossed the Bering Strait during the last ice age and made their way down the Americas. Their numbers declined as British missionaries tried to ‘civilize’ these savages and inadvertently introduced the diseases of Europe to this land, for which the natives had no immunity. In a strange social experiment, three natives were taken by Captain FitzRoy to teach these people the civilized way of modern life in London, which they picked up with ease. They returned with Charles Darwin a year later and shockingly to the British, quickly discarded everything they had learned and went back to their old ways.

An abandoned building in Ushuaia, up for auction.

I made it. Prudhoe Bay to Ushuaia in about… three years (I went to Alaska in 2008). 25 kms (15.5 mi) west of town lies the Parque Nacional Tierra del Fuego (P65 entrance) and the road officially ends at Bahia Lapataia.

Ok, time to turn around and head north.

Bahia Lapataia. This is what the end of the world looks like. Not bad. The GPS reads 54.5 degrees south and on the other side of the equator, this same latitude would fall only about halfway up British Columbia with Prudhoe Bay, on the northern edge of Alaska at near 70 degrees. Because of this, a lot of people have asked me if Alaska is terribly cold, seeing how much closer it is to its pole than Ushuaia is and they’re surprised when I say it’s actually much warmer than all of Patagonia (that is only during the short summer). The difference is that, just a 1000 kms (620 mi) south of Ushuaia is the massive frozen continent of Antarctica, the source of all the freezing winds here. There is the ice cap on the North Pole, but it’s much smaller than it’s counterpart in the south.

A more enchanting view of the Beagle Channel from Bahia Ensenada.
Click here to see the high resolution version.

After enjoying the sights around Ushuaia, I started my journey north. This is just past Paso Garibaldi and this also signifies the last time that I would ride in the Andes on this trip, having first climbed up into them near Pasto, Colombia.

Looking out over Lago Escondido with a fire burning in the distance. Hmmm, so this is Tierra del Fuego after all.

A few kilometers past Tolhuin, I heard a crunching sound coming from the rear wheel and this time, I knew what it was immediately – a rear wheel bearing failure, exactly what happened 29,800 kms (18,500 mi) ago south of Cusco in Peru. And it was the same bearing that failed, the one on the rear brake rotor side. I guess that’s not a bad mean time between failure (MTBF) considering I rode the TransAmazonica in Brazil, then the Lagunas Route in Bolivia and miles and miles of washboard and gravel down Ruta 40 and the Carretera Austral, that too with my heavy luggage. I am still wondering why it’s only that particular bearing that has failed twice now. This was an SKF bearing and I guess I can’t bad mouth the All Balls bearing that I initially had in there, but that failed much before the SKF and that too over mostly tarmac riding, so I’ll still stick with SKF bearings.

I limped the few kilometers back to town and found an automotive shop. This young mechanic was hesitant to help me out since he said he didn’t know how to repair bikes, but I told him not to worry and to just get me some fire. I had a spare set of bearings with me, that I was carrying ever since the last bearing failure and just needed to dislodge the old bearing and pop in the replacement. He turned on the acetylene from his welding setup and pretty soon the job was done. He didn’t accept any payment from me and my experience has been that if you work on your own bike in a shop, they feel bad about taking any payment. I was back on the road, with only 30 minutes spent on this breakdown. Be prepared, it’ll pay off.

Heading into Rio Grande and bracing for the strong wind blast as I leave the protection of this berm. The sign conveys the message but there’s no palm trees anywhere in sight.

A monument in Rio Grande for Argentina’s continued claim over the Falkland Islands, referred to as Las Malvinas here. They’re a group of islands about 460 km (290 mi) offshore from Argentina and the British have laid claim to them since the early 19th century, much to the continued consternation of Argentines, even though the islanders prefer to be loyal to the UK. In 1982, the failing military government of Argentina invaded the islands in a move to gain the people’s support by rallying up nationalistic feelings. They forgot that Margaret Thatcher (nicknamed the British Bulldog) was in power and her forces soon overpowered the Argentines, leading to the fall of the dictatorship in Argentina and the re-election of Thatcher.

Arriving at the end of the dirt in Tierra del Fuego and besides a small stretch of dirt near Punta Tombo, I knew the next long dirt riding would be somewhere deep in Africa in the coming months.

Back on the ferry, saying goodbye to a nice experience on Tierra del Fuego.

Sunset over the Straits of Magellan.

I met a local biker who travels frequently between home in Rio Gallegos and Rio Grande for work and has to pass through two borders (going into and out of Chile) every time he makes this journey. From Punta Delgada, it’s just 55 kms (34 mi) to Paso Fronterizo Integración Austral and my last land border crossing in the Americas.

A further 68 km (42 mi) from the border is the bigger city of Rio Gallegos, where I stayed with Daniel thru CS, who runs this internet cafe. He didn’t have any place in his house to host surfers, but there’s a radio studio in the back from where he plays good ol’ American tunes and I put my sleeping bag down there. After a day on the internet, doing some planning for the voyage across the Atlantic, it was time for the long haul to Buenos Aires.

It’s 2,500 kms (1,550 mi) from Rio Gallegos up the east coast of Argentina along Ruta 3 to Buenos Aires and it’s all flat, just like this. Having enough experience with flat, boring riding, I use this time to plug in the audio books and learn another language. Since I was preparing to enter West Africa, I listened to the French language course by Michel Thomas, my secret for quickly picking up a new language.

There was some excitement, once in a while, when guanacos crossed the road…

…but mostly, it was just you, Ruta 3 and the wide open land and skies of Patagonia.

I became the proud owner of a thermos flask recently and am enjoying some hot tea during a break in the chilly conditions. A man in a truck approached me at the petrol station in Rio Turbio and offered me this thermos. He said he saw it fall off another biker but couldn’t catch up with him to return it. It has Japanese markings on it, but I didn’t come across any other bikers.

Some say it’s boring. I say, just learn to deal with it. There’s a lot of uninteresting sights in the world, in-between the mind-blowing stuff, so just figure out a way to deal with the boredom (audio books) and all is well.

Coming into Caleta Olivia and riding right by the sea, watching some rains move across the horizon.

I wonder what Caleta Olivia is all about? Oil! The monument of El Gorosito (the roughneck), in honor of the petroleum industry worker.

When I stopped for lunch in Bariloche a few weeks ago, a biker from the Motoneros club approached me and told me to get in touch when I swing by his city of Caleta Olivia, so I did so and I got to hang out with a local Argentine biker club. They were mostly riding cruisers and choppers, but bikers are all the same. Great bunch of guys.

I camped out in the garden for the night.

A very windy section of Ruta 3 between Caleta Olivia and Comodoro Rivadavia. So much so that when I stopped to take this picture, a passing truck upset the winds around me enough to unbalance the bike and drop sanDRina to the ground. A passing driver stopped to help me pick her up.

There is one last recommended site to visit in Patagonia and 75 kms (47 mi) south of Trelew, there’s a turn off towards the coast. In all my travels, this is the first sign, and that too in English, warning of the dangerous gravel roads. This indicates the number of foreign tourists heading this way and it seems like a number of them have caused enough accidents to prompt this sign. After 75 kms, this dirt track leads to…


The natural reserve of Punta Tombo is the summer breeding ground of penguins and here’s an example of price discrimination that is common all throughout the developing world. They use the dollar sign to signify the Argentine Peso. So, while it’s only US$8.75 to enter, it’s the feeling that foreigners have to pay 10 times what the local state residents and 3 times what Argentine citizens have to pay that irks many of them. I’ve met many European and American travelers who complain that it’s not fair because in their countries, everyone pays the same. But, I guess it’s a question of how well developed your society is and how much can you afford. Plus, I think giving the local citizens easier access to their natural treasures should give them better incentive to protect these kind of areas.

I arrived just as the park was closing at 6 pm, so I decided to camp there and visit in the morning. I dropped this cracker and this little birdie swopped in before I could pick it up.

There’s no official camping allowed right by the park, but if you’re discreet, the boys who run the restaurant and gift shop will allow you to camp next to this shed. He said he’s met lots of other bikers who’ve camped here. There’s also a very nice bathroom outside the park gate and I took a sink shower there.

A fiery sunset just as sol dips beyond the horizon. While it’s remote, it’s not at all tranquil, since there’s a million penguins within a hundred meters and they’re yapping 24 hours of the day, making the most of summer.

In the morning, I went for a walk around the reserve and pretty soon spotted the first penguins, including a guanaco.

There are boardwalks that we are required to stay on and I guess the penguins can use them too, since this is their home. The nice thing about this experience is that there is no separation between the animals and humans. This area has been protected since 1979 and just like the Galápagos, the animals haven’t associated humans with danger, making close approaches possible.

However, they are still wild and can attack if they feel threatened and I waited about 10 minutes for these guys to finish up their morning gathering and singing. The guy in the front started approaching me and while they’re short at around 50 cm (20 in), the way they walk with their chest out portrays a sense of confidence in taking you on and I retreated and let him pass safely.

The guanaco looks like such a sedate animal and I wonder how it stands the constant commotion of the penguin colony.

These are Magellanic Penguins and they migrate down from Brazil to incubate their eggs and prepare their offspring for the migration back at the end of summer. A couple makes a nest in the hillside and each parent takes turns guarding against predators and egg-snatchers, like birds.

Ducking in to the nest when all looks clear for a snuggle with the missus. These penguins live up to 25 years and they keep the same mate throughout life. When the breeding seasons starts around October, the male returns to the same nest and waits for the female, who follows his call song back to their home. Then, after some penguin magic, two eggs are laid and they take turns incubating until the youngins hatch.

A toddler slowly losing his baby fur, that they need only right after hatching and while on land. Before getting into the sea and swimming, they’ll have to lose all their fur, otherwise it would weigh them down. Note the clipped tag on the penguin behind.

Two field scientists were ahead of me and they were gathering data on tagged penguins.

A nice shot of this guy as he stopped to look at me. I was on a small bridge that went over the main route the birds took from their nests to the sea.

Morning rush hour at Punta Tombo. The penguins were all wobbling their way to the open water to catch some food for the family.

It was nice to see everyone marching along in the same direction, almost as if they had set streets in the colony, which wouldn’t be surprising considering how many years they’ve been coming back to the same place.

‘Aww, yeahh, right there, right there, feels good’

Sporting a fashionable new ‘do.

It’s amusing to observe them as they march towards the sea, with their stiff wings out helping to smooth out the wobble.

High street of Punta Tombo with penguins going about their daily business.

‘What did your parents get you for dinner last night? Oh, we had some sardines and squid. Cool, my mom found some cuttlefish and krill. Can’t wait to learn how to fish for ourselves.’

This is the biggest of all penguin colonies in Patagonia, with numbers ranging around a million at their peak

Penguins standing guard in front of their nests.

‘Honey, are you done cleaning out the nest?’

After an enjoyable few hours among the penguins at Punta Tombo, I hit the road for the long haul to Bahia Blanca, 835 kms (519 mi) away.

It got dark and the sun set on my exciting few weeks in Patagonia.

I spent a full month traversing all over the great land of Patagonia and saw numerous, outstanding natural attractions. If felt rushed, since the distances are great between sites and probably two months would have been more comfortable, but you make do with what you have. From Mendoza to Bahia Blanca, I covered 8,730 kms (5,422 mi) and felt I had seen all the major and a few minor attractions in this massive region. Of the 34 days here, I camped 15 of them and stayed only 2 in a hotel with the rest CouchSurfing.

The camping experiences were fantastic and allowed me to spend lots of quality time with nature. The region is well protected but that also means it’s well developed and packed with other tourists. However, having your own transportation gives you the freedom to seek out places that suit your mood.

Once a mysterious land at the far end of the world, now Patagonia is a place to me where I could get a real feel for the beautiful works of art that nature can produce, if we learn to live synergestically and one with it.

Next: Argentina, Part 6: Bahia Blanca, Azul and Buenos Aires

Previous: Patagonia, Part 5: Perito Moreno Glacier and Torres del Paine

Patagonia, Part 5: Perito Moreno Glacier and Torres del Paine

January 22 – 28, 2011

After being on the road in the solitude of the vast, sparsely populated expanse of Patagonia in the past few weeks, I was now to enter the prime tourist circuit of Southern Patagonia. Besides the crowds, it’s the increase in prices that puts me off from developed tourist sites. However, if the attraction is large enough, I’ll put up with anything and these sites are not to be missed.

I spent a few days in the town of El Calafate before getting up close to the Perito Moreno Glacier and then crossed back into Chile to pay a visit to the Torres del Paine National Park.

I stayed with Matias in El Calafate thru CouchSurfing and took a day off to just rest my bones and enjoy some hot showers, since it had been about five days since the last one. I also got a chance to wash some clothes and my sleeping gear after the dusty camping experiences in the past few days. A nice sunset over Lago Argentino.

So, first order of business, I prepared my chicken curry. Almost everyone mentions it now on my CS profile and new hosts ask me to prepare it right away. I love it cause it’s a great way to connect with people. That’s Celine, a couchsurfer from France who was also staying with Matias and he invited a few of his friends over for dinner.

I think this one came out pretty good. I love all the boney parts and offal (internal organs) and this is the rib cage. It adds good flavour to the curry. Argentines are so European that they need to eat everything with some bread. I pointed out the obvious that there’s carbohydrates already in the rice, but it’s their habit of taste.

Dirty hands. I love to eat with my fingers and usually everyone gives it a try. I give a little demonstration about how you make a small ball of rice with some chicken, pick it up with your forefingers and then push it into your mouth with your thumb. I also point out that you must wash your hands right before eating and then it’s hygienic. I don’t need a metal tool to get between me and my food. Argentines have been taught from a young age, I guess after 5, that to be proper, they should not touch their food with their hands and I enjoyed seeing the smiles when the environment was right for them to break this taboo.

Ahh, a pleasing site for a cook: ravished pots of food and cleanly finished plates.

Enjoying a nice dinner with CouchSurfers and local residents of El Calafate.

We went out on town that night and Celine here was captivated by this money-sucking machine at a bar. It’s the kind where if you drop a coin at just the right moment, it’ll push other previously dropped coins into the jackpot. It’s designed so well to keep enticing you to part with your money.

Having a few drinks at the only club in town. El Calafate is a big draw due to the glacier and tourists fly directly in, giving it very much a destination resort feel where everything is built in mind with pleasing the tourists.

Being treated to a Super Pancho (mega hot dog) at 5 am.

After a short nap, it was time to see what this glacier was about. A nice rainbow welcoming me to the Parque Nacional Los Glaciares, about 73 kms (45 mi) west of El Calafate. This time, I had to pay to enter the park, which was 100 Argentine Pesos ($25). If you enter before 7 am, there’s no fee.

Within a few kilometers of entering the park, I caught my first glimpse of the famous Perito Moreno Glacier. It was overcast in the morning, but I was immediately impressed by seeing this massive river of ice coming down from the mountains.

Since I was here, I decided to splurge and spent an additional P50 on a boat trip that took you right up close to the glacier.

Here’s a satellite view from Google Maps to put this glacier in context. It flows down from the Southern Patagonian Ice Field and is about 30 kms (19 mi) long. All the blue is part of Lago Argentino and as the glacier advances, it cuts off the southern portion of the lake, referred to as the Brazo Rico side and the rising waters on this side build up over a few years and then crash through the ice dam in a spectacular show.

The interesting fact about this glacier is that it is one of the few in the world that is still advancing (growing) despite the ever-warming of the climate. There’s no disputing the data and the ice field itself is actually shrinking in line with all the other ice fields of the world, but this glacier, along with 2 others that flow from this ice field appear to advance, in contrast to the 45 other glaciers (from the same ice field) that are retreating. One theory that makes sense to me is called ‘glacier surge,’ whereby melting glacial water reduces the friction between the glacier and its rock bed, increasing its forward momentum that appears to us as a growing glacier, when in fact, it is just a glacier running to its death. Can you see the connection between advancing glaciers and cosmological black holes, as a star spins faster and faster to its death? Another theory, which came to mind is that as the ice field loses mass and shrinks, the heavy weight of so much dropping ice in the center (considered the third largest reserve of fresh water on the planet), might actually push the ice at the boundary faster through some glaciers, depending on the hydrological dynamics of said glacier. You could imagine pushing down on a piece of dough and seeing it squeeze out the sides.

The terminus of the glacier with its dynamic skyline and prominent glacier cave, that forms from melting water at the surface taking advantage of air pockets and slowing growing over time.

Spires of ice, towering 70 m (230 ft) above the water with another 100 m (328 ft) below. As the boat approached the glacier, the engines were turned down and everyone went silent, almost as if we were in the presence of a sacred, delicate sculpture that was alive. The sound-absorbing qualities of the ice also added to the hushed environment. I felt like I was on a pilgrimage to this spiritual site of astounding natural beauty. I wonder why humans still need to be awed by supernatural forces when nature itself can be so awe-inspiring.

The edge of the ice is highly ragged and looks like sculpted art.

The point where the Perito Moreno Glacier touches land and creates a natural dam. The waters on the Brazo Rico side rise up to 30 m (98 ft) above normal water levels and this immense pressure buildup finally wins the battle against the ice and ruptures through in a dramatic event. Ruptures vary from once a year to once a decade. The first such event happened in 1917 and the most recent was in 2008. I can just imagine the show of force from nature in such an event. Note the effects of sunlight on the glacier.

An iceberg floating near our boat with the changing water levels evident against the ice. The constant rising and falling of the water level on this side has prevented any trees from growing below the normal height of the water before rupture events.

I was mesmerized by the unique shapes that could be identified in the ice. Doesn’t that look like a dog or a pointed finger from a hand in the ice?

Thrilled to be up close and personal with the Perito Moreno Glacier. It’s cold, of course, cause it’s a river of ice, but not so bad. There was water misting in the air and I came prepared with a towel to constantly wipe off the lens and protect the camera.

The sunlight filtering through translucent clouds makes the glacier appear to glow from within.

With my trigger finger on the shutter release, I captured one of the calving events that occur every 10 to 15 minutes, preceded by a thundering crack from within the ice and followed by gasps from the human admirers. As the glacier is advancing, ice is being pushed down the valley and this causes the face to crack and fall apart as the river of ice behind it continues its progress.

Within a few minutes, I managed to capture another smaller event. The boat hangs around long enough and goes up and down the face of the glacier until they’ve shown you at least a few calving events.

After the resplendent boat ride, I headed to the main visitors center, which gives you walking access to the point where the glacier meets land. How amazing to reflect on the fact that is a river of ice flowing down the valley from a huge ice field further aback in the mountains.

A view of the north end of the glacier, slowly inching forward.

Some close-up shots to show the detail of the glacier’s surface.

Melting water creating various channels in the ice. The deeper the blue, the deeper the sunlight has to penetrate before being reflected back to our eyes.

The stunning color of the glacier spans the spectrum from being almost purple to an ethereal white, depending on how the sunlight is reflecting off the ice crystals.

The reason glaciers appear blue is based on the same principle for why the sky appears blue, namely Rayleigh scattering. In the sky, when some of the photons from the Sun hit particles in our atmosphere, like oxygen, nitrogen, etc., the shorter wavelength of blue light gets scattered much more easily than the other longer wavelengths and that’s what we see with our eyes down here. It’s also the reason why sunsets appear red, since the longer wave lengths of red light have enough energy (like radio waves) to penetrate through lots of atmosphere and reach our eyes as we recede away from the Sun for the night. In large pieces of ice, red light gets absorbed by the ice crystals and only allows the shorter blue light to get reflected back out to our eyes. Rayleigh scattering is why we see different shades of blue from this reflected light as it has to travel through more ice to come back out.

A panorama spanning the entire 5 km (3.1 mi) wide mouth of the Perito Moreno Glacier as it spills down from the Southern Patagonian Ice Field.
Click here to see the high resolution version.

Getting down to meet the glacier once again and waiting for a calving event. The glacier is named in honor of Francisco Moreno, who explored this area in the 19th century and was instrumental in defending Argentina’s territorial claims against Chile in Patagonia. He was given the title of technical specialist or expert, which is Perito in Spanish. At one point, Chile laid claim to all of Patagonia but conceded a lot of this ‘waste’ land to keep Argentina neutral during its campaign against Peru and Bolivia in the War of the Pacific, where it forcibly took over the nitrate-rich Atacama desert and cut off Bolivia’s access to the sea. This is part of the reason why Chile’s neighbors hold a grudge against it.

Within a few minutes of waiting, a chunk of ice broke free and…

…crashed into the waters below, followed by oohs and ahhs from the watching crowds. The black lines of debris mark the shear planes in the ice, where cracks are likely to form.

After about another 15 minutes, a few more rumblings emanated from the glacier, drawing everyone’s attention to the start of the next calving event. First, a few lose elements fell, destabilizing that region and then…

…that whole section broke free, caught here in mid-flight. It’s probably a piece about 20 m (65 ft) tall.

Resulting in a huge splash. This location delivers the most calving events because the glacier is coming against a sharp point of land, raising the compression pressures in the ice. I’d like to come back for one of the rupture events.

Just as everyone was glued to the last calving event, a huge spire of ice broke free on the northern side of the terminus. You can see the freshly fallen ice still floating near the glacier. What a dynamic place. Glaciers might move slow compared to human speeds, but it’s mighty exciting to see this wall of ice steadily creaking and cracking forward.

A full, fun day experiencing the awesomeness of the Perito Moreno Glacier.

That night, back at Matias’ place, Celine prepared crepes for us with savory and sweet fillings.

Back on the road, heading south on Ruta 40, one of the longest continuous routes in the world.

There’s still a few stretches of gravel along the 40 in the Santa Cruz province, but all of it is slated to be paved to increase tourism to the region. However, for adventure travelers, a paved road is less of a draw than the more natural feel of a dirt road.

I crossed at the mining town of Rio Turbio back into Chile and its Southern Patagonia region, named as the Magallanes and Chilean Antarctic Region, home to Torres del Paine, the two cities of Puerto Natales and Punta Arenas, the Straits of Magellan, a part of Tierra del Fuego and Cape Horn, along with a claim of Antarctica.

That’s sea water, but the open ocean is much further away, beyond a maze of snow peaked mountains rising from the water.

The Mano de Puerto Natales, an imitation of Mario Irarrázabal’s Mano del Desierto in the other end of Chile, buried in the Atacama Desert.

I connected with Gloria who has opened up her family and house to the spirit of CouchSurfing. She welcomes all travelers to stop by and has multiples beds for the weary.

They lived in a more working class area of the city, but besides tourism to nearby Torres del Paine, this city is still mainly about the sheep and fishery industries. It was settled a few hundred years ago when explorers were seeking the passage to the Straits of Magellan but was officially formed into a city in 1911 in order to process the vast quantities of sheep products coming out from Patagonia.

Gloria, on the right, prepared hearty meals and had a bubbling energy that spilled over. She felt this was a great education for her kids to meet people from all over the world. They had lots of questions about India, especially since they had recently seen a documentary about my country. Another couple, on the left, Alfred and Catherine, were traveling from France and also stayed there.

From Puerto Natales, a 110 kms (68 mi) north of town lies the famed Parque Nacional Torres del Paine. The route is mostly paved, except for the last 30 kms, which will probably be paved soon. After a bland ride through the surrounding Patagonian steppe, these jagged peaks show up on the horizon and I was happy to be here on a clear day, since seeing any isolated peak is always a gamble, especially in Patagonia where the weather changes on a whim.
Click here to see the high resolution version.

Riding under Torres del Paine, a part of the Paine Massif/Cordillera, referring to the compact group of granite mountains that form this independent portion of the Andes. The massif contains the three towers, another group of three horns (around the corner) and the massive forefront prominence of Almirante Nieto.

sanDRina basking under the strong Patagonian sun in front of Laguna Amarga under the gaze of the granite towers. The name ‘Paine’ either comes from an early European explorer to the area or refers to an ancient native word for ‘blue’ in the Tehuelche language.

I love me some geology and live history of the Earth. Besides coming here to see the granite towers, I was attracted to these white structures growing on the edge of Laguna Amarga (Bitter Lagoon). The lagoon is named as such since it lies in an endorheic basin, meaning that there’s no outlet for the mineraly-water flowing down from the glaciers. Over time, this becomes a hypersaline lagoon, where anything that evolved in the last billion years can’t survive (and that’s just about everything on this planet), except the white structures, which are living stromatolites. Besides the sharp mountains, this is what our planet looked like for most of its life. Stromatolites are one of the first forms of life to evolve, with fossil evidence of their existence going back to 3.5 billion years ago (bya), just a billion years after the Earth formed. They only thrive in locations where no other organisms can eat them and thus, their decline from dominance of the planet coincides with the explosion of large life froms at the start of the Cambrian period (about 530 million years ago).

A signboard next to the lagoon explains some of the meaning behind this significant location.

Stromatolites are rocky structures that are formed by the all-important cyanobacteria. This microorganism forms as a thin film on the top of the structure and is the first organism to photosynthesize sunlight and carbon dioxide into food with waste products of calcium carbonate (limestone rock) and oxygen. Most every living thing on this planet owes its existence to the tireless work of cyanobacteria, which slowly over 2 billion years (from 3.5 bya to 1.5 bya) converted the early inhospitable carbon dioxide rich atmosphere into the oxygenated world we live in today. That is, all the oxygen we breathe in originated from a stromatolite. Respect. Also, since these structures formed on all of the coastlines of the oceans, their oxygen rusted out the iron that was suspended in the oceans into the vast bands of iron ore that we have been mining out of the Earth to support our civilizations. This process turned the oceans blue from their previous greenish appearance. It is humbling to note that our complex life today owes thanks to this sturdy bacteria, who is definitely going be around much longer than us. So, tread lightly on this planet that we think we dominate for this short blip in history.

I had a light lunch on the shores of this ancient lagoon just taking it all in and imagining what it was like before humans were around, that is, until a tour bus roared by and dumped a horde of my fellow bipedal tramplers.

The iconic towers of granite of Torres del Paine, about 2,500 m (8,200 ft) tall. Their vertical faces are the dreams of rock climbers the world over, but just to marvel at the beauty of the erosional power of wind, water and ice that resulted in these formations was enough for me.

I headed further into the park (where I could bypass paying the entrance fee since Gloria’s son worked at one of the park gates)…

…and observed huge numbers of guanacos (relatives of the llama and alpaca), seen here wading across this stream along with flocks of rheas, an ostrich-like bird. Guanacos were almost hunted to extinction when the European settlers arrived as they cleared the land to make way for their grazing cattle. They also burnt down lots of surrounding forest for pastureland before the park was established in the 1950s, but now, the area is slowly recovering from man’s heavy hand. The soft wool of the guanaco is considered only second to the highly-prized wool of vicuñas.

A parting shot of sanDRina under the late afternoon sun at Torres del Paine, a prime example of the grand beauty to be found in Patagonia.

After another night at Gloria’s back in Puerto Natales, I headed down the easy ride of 250 kms (155 mi) to Punta Arenas.

The windswept trees of Patagonia. If you ever doubted how strong and consistent the winds are, here’s some convincing evidence. The winds constantly blow in from the west and in different places around the region, they start and die down at almost the same time everyday and one can time their daily life around the winds.

Coming across a sign for Laguna Seca and what do you know, it’s actually indicating a dry lake. For all bikers, Laguna Seca refers to the famous race track of the same name near Monterey, California, where the annual US MotoGP race is held, with its famous ‘corkscrew’ set of turns.

I spent a day in Cecilia’s home in the suburbs of Punta Arenas and started arranging things for the upcoming trip across the Atlantic, as I was nearing the end of my time in Latin America.

While Chile is generally considered a safe and stable country, just a few days before my arrival into the Magallanes, the region was in the midst of a general strike that turned violent, which seems very out-of-character for Chileans, but probably in-character for the hearty people that endure the rough Patagonian climate year-round. Because it’s quite cold throughout the year, residents here need to use natural gas to heat up their homes constantly and previously, the government subsided the price of gas to offset the harsh living conditions. The central government’s decision to drop the gas subsidy would’ve raised the price by 17%, which was seen as unacceptable by the people and they took to the streets, manning road blocks and cutting of the region to the outside world. This brought them attention, especially since about 4,000 all-important tourists were ‘trapped’ here and diplomatic pressure pushed Sebastián Piñera’s government to come to a compromise, which was a 3% rise in the price of gas.

I’m not sure which side of the argument I stand on since on the one hand, yes, it’s not fair for the residents here to have to allocate so much of their income to heating their homes, but they are paid higher than the rest of Chile for living in such a remote city. Cecilia moved here years ago with her then husband since they found higher paying jobs here. However, the environmentalist in me says that we can’t go on subsidizing high consumption of fossil fuels and the only way to move beyond our current fossil fuel dependent civilization is for its price to rise so dramatically that every citizen on this planet demands that policy quickly makes a transition to a cleaner way of life. Sadly, this is going to lead to highly turbulent times for most people and the poor and less developed communities are going to be feel the brunt of this transition.

Even in the United States, $3/gallon is not going to ween that society off from the gas pump, but $10/gallon might bring the economy to a standstill or even crash and this is why this is a such a delicate game to play with its results affecting the coming decades. I enjoyed the cheap petrol prices in Bolivia, as there too, it is heavily subsidized by the government either to aid the poor or keep their support for their leftist president. A few days after I left Bolivia, the government tried to remove the subsidy on petrol there and just like in southern Chile, the people took to the streets and protested violently until the government backed down. This is going to become a more common occurrence in the coming years. India, too, recently decided to scrap subsidies on fuel but the transition was smooth since the price difference wasn’t too drastic.

Punta Arenas, with the show of Chile’s military power. This city was formed on the Straits of Magellan to protect Chile’s ownership over this once important water passage in the early 20th century. It was a coaling station, where steamships fueled up on coal when transiting from the Atlantic to the Pacific, before the Panama Canal was built and was also the major center of administration for the vast sheep estancias all over Patagonia. Due to its isolated location, it was also used at one point as a penal colony to punish problematic soldiers.

Even though Southern Patagonia has been well-developed with tourist infrastructure, the draw of the outstanding natural attractions is still strong enough to enjoy this land. Torres del Paine was nice and perhaps a hike into the park would’ve left a stronger impression, but for me visiting the Perito Moreno Glacier lived up and beyond its expectations.

Next: Patagonia, Part 6: Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego and Penguins

Previous: Patagonia, Part 4: Backtracking up the Austral and down the 40

Patagonia, Part 4: Backtracking up the Austral and down the 40

January 17 – 21, 2011

I had reached the current terminus of the Carretera Austral in Chile’s Northern Patagonia. From Villa O’Higgins, to continue south to Ushuaia, one needs to backtrack about 300 kms (186 mi) north before catching the road east across into Argentina and then turning south.

After spending a relaxing morning at the campground in Villa O’Higgins chatting up with other travelers, I got a move on to catch the 1 pm ferry from Rio Bravo to Puerto Yungay, because the next ferry was at 7 pm. I slightly envied the cyclists and backpackers who could continue on foot south to El Chaltén, whereas it would take me 4 days to loop around to get to the same place.

My route backtracking from Villa O’Higgins, around Lago Carrera General and down Ruta 40 to El Chaltén and El Calafate. The Carretera Austral ends at Villa O’Higgins as the huge Southern Patagonian Ice Field prevents progress further south and this demarcates Northern and Southern Patagonia in Chile. Click on it to go to the interactive version in Google Maps.

The Carretera Austral heading back north to Rio Bravo. This 100 km (62 mi) section felt the most remote of the whole route and was quite a special place to ride. The local weather was affected by the one big mountain ridge that the route crosses, being foggy and cold on one side and sunny and slightly warmer on the other side.

Yup, I’ve been there. Maybe when I come back next time, I can head right and see if the Carretera continues further south…

Back on the ferry over to Puerto Yungay.

The 20 km (12 mi) stretch from Puerto Yungay to the turn off to Caleta Tortel was quite mountainous.

The route went thru narrow canyons and the high humidity with the low temps chilled me to my bones.

A signboard showing the turn off from the principle route to the small town of Caleta Tortel, about 22 kms (14 mi) away.

Welcome to Caleta Tortel, a small coastal village near the mouth of Rio Baker.

The community was built in 1955 to exploit the Cypress trees, which are abundant in this area.

For most of its history, it only had sea and air access and land access via the spur from the Carretera Austral was only built in 2003. The unique look about this village is that all the houses are constructed on stilts and there are no regular streets in the village, only wooden walkways.

A fishing boat waiting for the tide to come in.

There isn’t much flat land here and I guess they went with stilts because the ground must be soft from all the wetness in the area. Also nowadays, it looks eco-friendly as the human construction on stilts has a much smaller footprint on the ground and local vegetation than the usual raze to the ground and pour concrete over the land.

Heading back to the Carretera and the high humidity showing through with these low hanging clouds in the valley.

The tagline of being the ‘most beautiful road in the world’ certainly rings true.

With epic views around almost every corner.

A local cowboy with an equal-sized herd of sheepdogs to keep the bovines in check. These dogs were harmless but nonetheless would come barking and attacking as I rode by. I just pick up my legs and power on through.

Enjoying the intimate feel of the tall, dense forests.

I fueled up in Cochrane, just enough to get me across the border to cheaper fuel in Argentina and headed out to look for a place to camp.

I found a nice spot along Rio Baker with ample firewood lying around, nestled under these tall trees.

I came along the shore of the river for a bit to find this secluded spot. The camping opportunities in Patagonia are just sublime but be prepared for regular nightly rains on the Chilean side.

The next morning, I reached the turnoff at El Maitén and headed along the coast of Lago Carrera General to the Argentine border. An impressive ride along 120 kms (75 mi) of stunning coast line.

The road climbed high up the lake’s rocky shores offering great views of this massive expanse of shiny blue water.
Click here to see the high resolution version.

The lake was relatively narrow along this part and the steep snowy peaks appeared very close, adding to the dramatic setting.

I was looking forward to riding around Lago Carrera General and it certainly impressed. The road is exciting as it twists and turns along the jagged coast line and then the views are stunning of the turquoise waters with a backdrop of snow-peaked mountains.

A natural horse with my mechanical horse, same difference. As the road dropped down to the water I noticed this lone horse who felt abandoned. He was drinking water from the rain puddles and I felt like telling him about the fresh, sweat-tasting expanse of water just a few feet over.

sanDRina was running like a champ and the road was in good condition, allowing for higher speeds and greater distraction by the scenery.

The clear, turquoise waters of the Carrera General. When our problems with global water scarcity become more prevalent in the coming decades, this place is going to become the new Middle East.

The lake spills over the border and the half in Argentina is known at Lago Buenos Aires. The border is defined by a change in the climate and terrain and the steep mountains along the lake’s coast abruptly end as it leaves Chile for Argentina. Chile Chico is the last town in Chile and it’s neighbor across the border is Los Antiguos, where I camped for the night after filling up with cheaper Argentine petrol.

Back on the Ruta 40, heading south. The road is paved from Los Antiguous to the town of Perito Moreno where it meets the 40. The town is not to be confused with the famous glacier of the same name, which is much further south near El Calafate. The 40 is under going major construction and looks like they’ll have it all paved within a few years. So, get down here soon if you want to enjoy some of the wild-ness before it’s tamed. But it’s hardly wilderness, since the whole of Patagonia is fenced off by ranchers. The one companion along the 40 is the constant fences on either side, revealing the history of this land when big estancias (ranches) were established in the early days.

From Perito Moreno, Ruta 40 is very remote and there are no petrol services en route for 460 kms (286 mi) till Tres Lagos. One could side-track to Gobernador Gregores, which is about 70 kms (43 mi) off the route, but I had no worries with the 800 km (500 mi) range of my Aqualine Safari tank.

sanDRina in the big sky land of the Argentine Patagonia.

This is where the winds are very pronounced, constantly blowing and keeping a check on the height of the flora, ensuring nothing more than a shrub could thrive here.

Small stretches of the newly paved sections of the 40.

The scenery is not that exciting, but the massive expanse of land with hardly any relief is enough to be enthralled by the landscape.

The road surface is hard with loose gravel but since there are so few turns in this remote section of the flat Argentine Patagonia, I could ride at much higher speeds than I usually did. Previously, my top speeds on gravel roads was no more than 60 kph (37 mph), but I think riding the Lagunas Route in Bolivia upped my confidence and I was easily cruising at 100 kph (62 mph) along the 40. With the correct air pressure in the tires, the bike doesn’t squirm as much and just motors along.

Ruta 40 Rocks! The current 40 runs parallel to the new 40 that is being paved and the route constantly crosses the new road and alternates which side it’s running on. In some places, the detour was quite rough with big rocks showing through, but most of the old 40 is still a pleasant ride.

I was making good time and knew I would need another day to get to Tres Lagos, so I explored a road leading away from the 40 up to an estancia and found a nice place to camp in the middle of Patagonia. There are no other plants around but I figured these small shrubs would offer at least some kind of protection from the wind, which was a non-stop howler.

This was the roughest camping experience to date due to the fine talc texture of the sand and the constant wind, which made everything dusty and my Catoma Twist not being a sealed tent showed its weakness here as fine dust was blowing up inside the tent. I quickly setup camp, which is a strength of the Twist and dived inside to shelter from the wind. I was forced to setup my stove under the tight confines of the tent’s vestibule and made sure to protect the nylon tent’s wall from the heat of the stove with the aluminum guards.

I slept well but woke up to see that my sleeping bag was covered in a fine layer of dust. However, who cares, because I knew I was in a special place, in the middle of nowhere Patagonia and woke up not to miss sunrise in this magical land.

The Earth, slowly spinning on its axis in space and constantly revealing the Sun’s rays in one place and diminishing it at the other end of the planet. What a realization it must have been for the first human to understand that it’s the Earth that spins around the Sun and not the other way around. Knowing these basic truths leads to a much richer life experience and the never-ending pursuit of deeper truths of nature.

It was bitingly cold and I covered up every bit of exposed skin before going about the routine of breaking down camp and packing up sanDRina. I’m wearing my fleece beanie under my hat and my rain jacket to provide maximum protection from the cold winds. Oakley goggles doing a good job to seal against the dust.

A memorable experience of wild camping in Patagonia.

Back on the 40 and eating up the big distances with ease. With the road hardly turning, it gave me time to gaze up at the wind-swept clouds of Patagonia.

My faster speed on the gravel caught up with me and one of my tool tubes under the bike had cracked and I realized later that I had spilled some very important tools along the 40. This was the thin-walled welding rod holder tube that held my TyrePliers bead breaker (pictured in the foreground), along with my tire irons and bike krutch. It was the longest tube that I could find to house these large tools, but the thin walls were no match for the rocks being kicked up from the 40. I had to backtrack around 35 kms (22 mi) until I found my tools spilled along the road. The other thicker-walled tool tubes that I have from Devon at Mega Tool Tube have been no problem, so far. I wrote to him and he said he would make me a thick-walled long tool tube to house these tire tools.

I was heading to El Calafate to see the famous glacier, but wanted to swing by El Chaltén first.

Less than a thousand kilometers to Tierra del Fuego, but I would be side-tracking into Chile once more for Torres del Paine.

Where a fence runs across the road, it flattens down into a cattle guard and it’s not advisable to cross them at full speed since some of the guards have big dents in them that could damage the wheel rim.

An unlucky calf trying to jump the fence and paying the price. I guess Patagonia could be the ideal pasture land with nothing but shrubs growing but due to the low precipitation, I would think regrowth could be adversely affected by overgrazing. Plus, the grazers would have to quite tough to brave the constant winds and the persistent chill in the air.

After hundreds of kilometers of nothing but barren steppes, seeing this turquoise lake near Tres Lagos was a strange and welcome sight.

I camped next to the only gas station in Tres Lagos and was advised to setup next to this wall to hide from the wind. I also managed to throw some water over my body at the station’s bathroom, since my last shower in Villa O’Higgins, but I would have to wait till I reached El Calafate tomorrow for my first shower in five days. With the cooler temps, you don’t notice your body odour and besides, there are more important things like surviving through the night, than smelling nice. All the water I camped next to was freezing cold and not inviting enough to take a dip.

I asked the station owner and his wife if they had any food in their convenience store. I was looking for something to add to my usual fare of pasta and beef liver pate, like a can of peas or beans, but they didn’t have any. However, the owner came by later and gave me a big milanesa (breaded steak) sandwich and I was truly grateful. And then again in the morning, he came over with some bread and cheese. I was touched by the kind heart of these Argentines.

Suiting up for another chilly day in Patagonia, which isn’t so bad if you have enough layers and the right kind of protection from the wind.

The road is paved from Tres Lagos south, at least till Rio Turbio (turn off to Puerto Natales). This is the 90 km (56 mi) one-way route into El Chaltén.

The views along the way were beautiful and I was hoping for clear weather in El Chaltén.

Getting closer to the chills of the snow peaks of the Andes.

And voila, the small touristy town of El Chaltén under the famous towering Fitz Roy Mountains, which were sadly covered under clouds. A clear view of the peaks is a rare experience due to the micro climate that the tall mountains create. This hamlet is a hiking base and was packed to the brim with foreign tourists, ranging from bus loads of backpackers to herds of European motorcycle tour groups. I took a picture and turned around. From Villa O’Higgins, which is not that far as the crow flies from here, the overland route by foot comes in to the north of town.

A picturesque valley and I would’ve liked to spend more time here, but the commercialization of a place turns me off.

Heading back to the 40 along Lago Viedma with the Perito Moreno Glacier just across those mountains.

This whole area from El Chaltén down to El Calafate is part of the Parque Nacional Los Glaciares to protect the numerous ice rivers flowing down from the Southern Patagonian Ice Field. There was no entrance fee to the park from the road.

sanDRina posing with the turquoise waters of Lago Viedma, which is colored like so due to the minerals held in suspension that are eroded down by the glaciers. You can see the broken cap of the red tool tube, which spilled the tools along the 40.

The four days to loop around from Villa O’Higgins to El Calafate was a wonderful experience, especially as the contrasts of the two side of Patagonia were quite evident. The lush, green side of the Chilean Patagonia striking against the dry, wind-swept steppes of the Argentine side.

Next: Patagonia, Part 5: Perito Moreno Glacier and Torres del Paine

Previous: Patagonia, Part 3: Carretera Austral | Lago Carrera General to Villa O’Higgins

Patagonia, Part 1: Argentine Lake District

January 3 – 9, 2011

Patagonia, a distant land at the end of South America. An image of pristine, natural beauty sweeping to the horizon. Only recently settled by modern people, its vastness is still its trademark impression. Having Antarctica close by keeps the year-round temperatures cooler than similar latitudes in the northern hemisphere and the unbroken chain of the Andes all the way to Tierra del Fuego creates two distinct Patagonias: the wet and green side on Chile and the dry and flat side on the eastern rain shadow in Argentina.

In Northern Patagonia, which starts below Mendoza, both sides of the Andes are blessed with lush temperate forests with numerous lakes created by glaciers resulting in the Lakes District. Its popularity with international and local travelers makes it a highly touristic region, but still worthy of a visit by nature lovers. That being said, all the major attractions in Patagonia could be considered touristy, but that doesn’t diminish the feeling of awe for the natural beauty and outside the urban areas, it’s still one of the most remote places to travel in the world.

I set off from Mendoza in the new year of 2011, south on Ruta 40, which is now paved for the most part.

I watched this thunder cell move across the horizon and right into my path. Instead of waiting 30 minutes for it to pass, I suited up in all my rain gear and rode in, only to be thrashed around by the strong winds and pelted with the force of a water cannon.

The sky cleared up and I had about 1,200 kms (750 mi) to cover before getting to the Lake District.

At the municipal campground in Malargüe. In contrast to all the other Latin American countries (Chile included), Argentina has a well-developed camping culture among the general populace. Families make camping road trips along Ruta 40 and mostly stay at the municipal campgrounds that are in every town in the region. These are sites for pitching a tent, rather than picturesque camping locations, but they’re the most affordable form of accommodation in pricey Patagonia. A tent site here cost P30 ($7.50), which includes a hot shower and electrical outlets and firewood, if available.

The next morning, heading into another rain storm. This is the best time to visit (the height of summer), but Patagonia is no usual land, with strong winds and storms common throughout the year. It’s just that it’s less cold now for a few months with no ice on the ground.

Ok, I take that back. You can come across ice year-round. I crossed a small ridge, only peaking around 2,000 m (6,560 ft) but that was enough for the chilling temperatures to freeze the falling precipitation into hail.

It looks like snow, but is actually small balls of ice and having never ridden through a hail storm before, it was a strange experience to be pelted softly from all sides. If it wasn’t for the near-freezing temperatures, it could’ve been an enjoyable massage. The heavy duty Kevlar fiber of my Motoport suit was adequate protection.

Hail on the ground, but not a significant amount to affect mobility.

As I came down the other side, the slightly warmer temperatures turned the hail back into water and an unpaved section…

…lead to riding through small streams of mud.

The good thing about the strong winds is that the storms go as quickly as they come.

Two sheep by the road side, slowly being claimed back by the land.

Taking a break and noting the black lava rocks and small shrubs covering the land.

The road was neglected in places and with no major towns around with very little traffic on this remote route, it can be expected. I much prefer a proper dirt road than deteriorating pavement.

The Argentine side of Patagonia is defined by a series of steppes; wind-swept plateaus that are devoid of much vegetation. The temperatures were around 16 C (61 F) with wind chills on the bike at speed at around 10C (50 F) or less.

Rain storms moving across the horizon. I was looking forward to a warm shower.

At the municipal campground in Chos Malal on Rio Neuquén, I met these two brothers, Juan and Cocho from Bariloche who were on a trip to the northern end of Ruta 40 on 70cc Motomel Chinese mopeds. They were doing this during their summer break and would head to Buenos Aires to continue university studies. The poor chaps could only achieve a maximum of 70 kph (44 mph) with the wind behind them and said they chugged along at 25 kph (15 mph) on the long uphill stretches. They had limited mechanical experience but knew better and were carrying spare pistons, expecting the tiny motors to give out at some point. They were envying sanDRina and all the goodies on her, yet they knew that it’s the journey that’s important, not your mode of transportation.

And they look some solace in seeing the maintenance I had to do to sanDRina. In the afternoon, I noticed an oil leak from the top of the engine.

After setting up camp, I investigated and found the root-cause to be hardened gaskets in the valve inspection covers. I had removed these covers in Mendoza to do a routine valve clearance check and didn’t inspect the status of the gaskets upon reassembly. They had hardened over time and were not providing any compression resistance anymore between the valve cover and the cylinder head, which is required to provide a good oil seal. I broke the seal when I did the valve check and oil was subsequently slowly seeping out. I made a temporary gasket with RTV silicone and that would do the trick until I could get a hold of some new gaskets.

Continuing south from Chos Malal on a beautiful day in Patagonia.

Taking a break among a rare grove of trees.

‘Patagonia. Wish you were here.’ A mile marker indicating 2,300 kms (1,430 mi) left to Tierra del Fuego.

The land is naturally devoid of any flora taller than a shrub, and the only trees were those around farm houses. Sheep, introduced from the Falkland Islands, are the mainstay of estancias (ranches) that span all of Patagonia.

The road twisted up and down big ridges and valleys.

I love big skies and enjoyed staring at the clouds over big distances and making out shapes of dogs, dragons and DRs.

A wide view of an expansive valley and surrounding steppes.
Click here to see the high resolution version.

And just like that the scenery changed into forests of evergreens and I knew I was in the Lake District. I passed the first town of Junin de Los Andes and…

…found a nice campsite in San Martín de Los Andes.

Having more sunlight as the latitudes rise, I bought some veggies for a bit more elaborate dinner. How do you like the little Lexan cutting board?

Cooking up some red bell peppers with onions and peas.

Served up with polenta, a cheap corn-meal food widely available in Argentina (coming from Italian influence).

A shot of my food bag with lots of oatmeal and some pasta.

A view of the stylish town of San Martín on the shores of Lago Lacar. It’s a popular destination for Argentines on holiday and January is the traditional month of travel for most families.

From San Martín, the scenic Ruta de los Siete Lagos (7 lakes route) meanders through Parque Nacional Lanín. It’s fame has grown over the years and the road was crowded with enthusiastic hikers, bicyclists and family cars.

Regardless of the crowds, the scenery is stunning and to be so close to deep blue lakes is a wonderful feeling.

The snow-capped Andes of Parque Nacional Lanín.

A waterfall on Rio Hermoso (Beautiful River).

At the lookout point for the waterfall, I attracted a lot of attention and prompted questions about my trip from the other park visitors. Argentines are very friendly people and this group of friends from Buenos Aires who were on a multi-day cycling trip chatted me up with questions on India and the trip down the Americas.

A tree leaning into Lago Villarino.

A volcano on the border with Chile looking over Lago Villarino.

The waters are super clear and change colors depending on the particular minerals in each lake.

Reducing air pressure as the road got bumpy over a stretch still under construction through the park.

The off-road was mild and will probably be paved within the year.

Having a lunch break by this flowing river.

A wide view of Lago Correntoso.

Getting to my next destination, the town of Villa La Angostura (meaning town by the narrows).

The town is on the shores of massive Lago Nahuel Huapi, part of the national park of the same name. Elevation is 2,510 feet (770 m).

I met up with Gustavo thru CouchSurfing and he showed me the sights around town. A tour boat heading to the Arrayanes Forest from Bahia La Mansa.

Looking through the shallow water reflecting in the sunshine.

Life must be good on the shores of Lago Nahuel Huapi with a backdrop of snow-capped mountains.

And it’s better with a motorcycle. Gustavo is an avid off-road rider and that’s his KTM 450 EXC.

Villa La Angostura is a small town that has recently boomed due to tourism, but it’s still charming and…

…is known for its numerous chocolatiers, resembling Swiss mountain towns.

I treated myself to a bag of assorted chocolates and could eat many, many more. They covered all sorts of things with chocolate and fudges in a variety of flavors. The discs are ginger snaps. Mmm.

Gustavo in his downtown graphics and sign-making business. He purchased a small 70cc Motomel off-road bike for his 8 year old nephew and was in the process of turning the bike into a look-alike KTM so the young rider could look like his uncle.

A shot of a typical Argentine bathroom, where the bidet is still in popular use. It’s a remnant from their strong European cultural influence. Its use has died down in the western world, but is still going strong in many other areas. Personally, I prefer to use water rather than paper to clean up down there. It’s easier on the skin, more sanitary (since paper does not remove all of the waste) and more environmentally friendly (since paper takes a lot of water to make and trees need to be felled). The other issue in favor of water is the strange requirement in Latin America of putting the soiled toiler paper in an external basket, rather than in the toilet bowl. The plumbing of the sewage system, from colonial days, is too small to handle paper, so now that habit is part of the culture today.

Gustavo and his finished KTM makeover of the Motomel outside his mountain-style home.

From Villa La Angostura, I continued along the shores of Lago Nahuel Huapi.

Distracting views.

I passed through the Lake District’s biggest city of San Carlos de Bariloche and stopped for lunch with a fantastic view of the Nahuel Huapi Lake.

The ride through this whole area is well-worth dealing with the increased traffic due to its popularity.

Near the town of El Bolson with steep mountains showing the gradual fade from trees, through the treeline to bare rock.

Taking a dip in Lago Puelo, south of El Bolson. There was a place to camp near the lake and the clear waters tempted me in. It was cold, for sure, but refreshing all the same.

South of El Bolson, Ruta 40 exits the Lake District and we’re back to the wind-swept steppes of Patagonia.

The mountains were far away and I wished there was a route through them.

I stocked up on supplies and petrol in Esquel, the last town before crossing into Chile.

Getting back into the mountains and feeling energized by the flowing waters.

At the Rio Grande Argentine border crossing, which gives you road access to the Carretera Austral.

Next: Patagonia, Part 2: Carretera Austral | Futalefú to Puerto Aisén

Previous: Argentina, Part 5: Central Ruta 40 | Cachi to Mendoza

Argentina, Part 5: Central Ruta 40 | Cachi to Mendoza

December 29, 2010 – January 1, 2011

Getting good vibrations from northwest Argentina (not just from the corrugations), I continued south on Ruta 40 from Cachi across the middle of the country, down to Mendoza, making it there in time for New Years.

From Cachi, Ruta 40 goes through some remote terrain. As there are paved alternatives for the locals, the ride remains a destination.

The route hugs the tight crevasses of the hillsides and dips in and out quite sharply, making for an engaging ride. It gets narrow in places, like passing under this boulder-hewn wall, evident of past flash floods carrying big rocks and boulders down from the eroding Andes.

The little stream up in the mountains of yesterday had now grown into a proper river and Rio Calchaqui was supporting a blanket of green spreading from its banks into these farms.

Between Molinos and Angastaco, geologic forms stand out right by the road.

Heading into the Corte el Canon.

A narrow canyon with spires of rock.

These flat layers have been pushed up and out of the ground by the giant forces constantly at work deep underneath our feet.

Back in Cafayate and I stopped at the same little shack from my trip heading north for a lunch of some emapandas.

The vineyards of Cafayate with the tall Andes to the west.

From Cafayate till the Lake District, Ruta 40 stays out of the high Andes and cuts across the flat lands in its shadows.

It’s not all paved, yet, and once in a while the route goes up and over a small ridge with the terrain being generally dry.

This dry land is punctuated by rivers flowing out of the mountains and with the rainy season started in the north, arroyos provided for fun water crossings. This is where you need a riding buddy, to take pictures of you splashing across the stream.

Stopping for the night in the small town of Haulfin. The owner of this hospedaje told me of the various other Ruta 40 travelers that had stopped here over the years. Traversing the length of this road is popular with travelers from around the world.

From here south, Ruta 40 was mostly paved and after a short section of curves through this canyon…

…it’s defined by ultra-long stretches with no turns for about 20 – 30 kms (12 – 19 mi) at a time.

With only a few towns here and there, the route was heading south as efficiently as possible.

I yearned to be back riding in the mountains, but knew that that time would come soon.

Prepare for the Dakar!

A billboard in the town of Chilecito proud to host the famous Dakar Rally Race. It was starting in just a few days from Buenos Aires and would pass through here in about a week. The race moved to South America after security threats in northern Africa and is hugely popular among all the gearheads of this continent. The buildup to the race is quite big here and people would come up to me and say, “Vamos al Dakar” (let’s go to the Dakar). I could probably enter in the truck category, seeing that I’m carrying my support vehicle with me.

Time not being on my side, I continued on. A road sign indicating 4,000 kms (2,500 mi) to Ushuaia.

From Nonogasta, the route heads over this strikingly red mountain.

The red stands out all the more in contrast to the greens of the valley below with Rio Miranda and the blues of distant mountains.

Even without the striking colors, the valley is quite impressive.

There’s a short section of off-road as it goes up and over a small pass.

A wider view of the red canyon.

End of the twisting road as it descended down from the pass.

And back to our regular programming of straight-as-an-arrow empty roads under big, blue skies with white, fluffy clouds.

The excitement picked up as the route gained some relief and became defined by ‘badenes’, the dipping down and up over the numerous arroyos that are characteristic of this area. In the rainy season, water flows down the hillsides and instead of being collected in one river, the wide slopes allow the water to run where ever it wants and being impractical to build a bridge over every possible arroyo, the road simply drops down into the arroyo.

Near San Jose de Jachal, there’s an older route that goes up and over the scenic ridge of La Cienega, compared to the newer Ruta 40 that goes around it.

It’s a narrow, paved road, covered in heaps of falling rocks.

And a tunnel ride taking you from the scenic canyon back to the bland landscape on the other side.

I pitched my tent in the municipal campground, just outside the town of San Jose de Jachal. It was free and I think it’s mainly a day-use place but I asked some locals if it was all right to camp and got the go ahead. There was a basic bathroom nearby and the trademark Argentine place for an assado. The straight roads made quick work of the big land and I covered 530 kms (330 mi) today.

Having some chocolate oatmeal for breakfast, which was my daily morning food for the past few years in the US, much to the consternation of my colleagues. I’m missing some walnuts, raisins and coconut to make this some truly gourmet oatmeal. Minus the chocolate, this is a good traveling food as it’s cheap, easily available all through Latin America, healthy and being a complex carbohydrate, its energy is slowly released over a few hours instead of the sudden release of glucose from simple carbs like those in white bread.

As I left town, I was hailed down by these guys from the local TV station. They had seen me yesterday driving through town and figured I would make a good lifestyle segment to their daily newscast. They interviewed me for about 15 minutes and I told them my story. Being from India always adds a novelty factor and I was complimented on my Spanish. I asked them to send me a copy so that I could proudly show my parents.

It had rained the previous night and knowing this to be arroyo-land, I was expecting some water crossings.

However, the damage was much worse with the muddy water flowing over the road and depositing debris for a stretch of about 20 kms (12 mi). The TV crew were actually on their way down the road to report on the overnight damage done to the 40 with cars skidding off the mud into the ditch. Earth movers were also dispatched to push the errant mud off the tarmac.

This is an arroyo gone bad. Instead of following the rules and flowing under the little bridge, the heavy rain-induced flows swept across this whole area, removing ground from under the train tracks and carrying all that mud onto the road.

And here was the biggest water crossing with water flowing across a flat section of the road. After seeing a Toyota Hilux go through and seeing that it was less than a foot deep, I powered across.

After the excitement of the morning, the route quieted down and it was a relatively quick ride to Mendoza.

I spent New Years Eve with Alejandro and his family in Mendoza, through CouchSurfing. He runs a pharmacy below his house and recently got addicted to traveling by road. He purchased a motor home in Spain and plans to travel for six months through Europe and asked me questions on where he could continue with his travels. I took a few days off, replaced the clutch on sanDRina and prepared for the next leg.

Next: Patagonia, Part 1: Argentine Lake District

Previous: Argentina, Part 4: Ruta 40 in the Northwest

Argentina, Part 4: Ruta 40 in the Northwest

December 27 – 28, 2010

Having looped around southern Bolivia, I was now pointed south, heading to Patagonia and Ushuaia, before turning north for Buenos Aires. Argentina is the eight largest country in the world, similar in size to India but with only 40 million people making this one of the least densely populated lands in the world. With a third of the people in the capital and most of the rest in the central industrial belt, there is a lot of open land. The terrain is quite rough, because either it’s mountainous in the west or wind-swept by the chilling winds from Patagonia, making this excellent motorcycling country.

I primarily took famed Ruta 40 most of the way down. It’s a continuous route heading down the entire spine of the country. In years past, its gravely surface had a gnarly reputation in the motorcycling community, but it’s slowly being tamed with asphalt. There’s still some adventure to be had in this safe country, where wild camping is easy to do.

Crossing at Paso de Jama from Chile at 4,200 m (13,780 ft).

Blue skies, white clouds and a smiling sun. That sure is an appropriate flag.

After the border formalities and filling up the tank with cheaper petrol than in Chile, I headed down to Susques…

My route down Ruta 40 along the western edge of Argentina. Click on it to go to the interactive version in Google Maps.

…to turn south on Ruta 40. This famous road was gravel all the way to Tierra del Fuego at one point, but slowly over the years, it’s being paved over.

But there’s still large sections of good dirt riding left on the old 40.

Northwest Argentina is famous for its colored rocks and striking geology.

A wide angle view as the route dipped down across an arroyo.
Click here to see the high resolution version.

The road was covered in loose gravel, but was well-maintained and corrugations were mostly absent.

A mesa-like structure with wind erosion creating its flanks.

The route climbed high, back into altiplano territory as the vegetation suggested.

Crossing a pass at 4,389 m (14,400 ft) and already getting a good taste for Ruta 40 as it passed through the province of Salta.

The distinct colors of the varied minerals showing through as the route descended from the summit.

It was getting late in the day and the colors were more vivid.

Passing under the Viaducto La Polvorilla, which carries the tracks for the Tren a las Nubes (train to the clouds), a tourist attraction that leaves from Salta and climbs up to the Andean plateau up here.

The clarity of the air at this altitude made the landscape ‘pop’.

A wide angle view of the valley that we would descend down towards San Antonio.
Click here to see the high resolution version.

Not a clean stitch, but a wide view of the route following a dry river bed.

Finishing the day with a ride through this canyon, that emptied in…

…the small mountain town of San Antonio de las Cobres. I didn’t feel ready to camp again since I didn’t stock up on supplies in Chile, so…

…I found a cheap room at Hostal del Cielo for P40 ($10), which included breakfast and kitchen access to prepare dinner. There’s not much electricity up here, so the hot water is produced with these solar thermal heaters.

I was the only guest of Mario’s, who lives in Salta but runs this hotel with his family for travelers up here. sanDRina enjoyed staying indoors as the winds picked up at night and were quite strong, blowing things around on the street.

The town is pretty run down, but there’s a big military base, which probably keeps it going.

Turning back onto Ruta 40 and capturing the highest marked mile marker that I’ve seen. This route continues south for another 4,626 kms (2,891 mi) ending near Rio Gallegos.

Twisty, narrow, inclined road with dips and falling rocks – a recipe for an adventure.

Climbing up the narrow, cliff-hugging track through the Abra el Acay protected area.

Things were going smoothly as I slowly gained elevation and enjoyed the remoteness.

This doesn’t look good. I came into this sandy switch-back at the wrong angle, lost balance and before I could get my foot down, gravity had won and took sanDRina down.

With the adrenaline pumping, I first turned off the ignition and then both fuel petcocks and quickly tried to lift her back up, but she wouldn’t budge.

The first real drop of the bike while off-roading of the whole trip. Not bad. But not good that it happened at 4,816 m (15,800 ft) on a remote road, with no local traffic (since there’s an alternative paved route around this section). I didn’t pass a single car in the previous hour and none looked like it was coming.

I tried lifting her again using the strength of my back, but no go.

I then rotated her, so that the front tire would be pointing downhill and slightly reducing the force needed to fight against gravity.

I still couldn’t lift her and finally realized I had to remove as much weight as I could and emptied the panniers and the spare tires. Yard sale on the 40?

And with a good heave, sanDRina woke up from her nap.

I will survive! If push comes to shove, I know I can pick up the bike by myself, but it’s going to take at least an hour to repack everything on the bike.

All set to go again and the nicely graded sand looked like a battle scene. Since I was pointing downhill, I had to back track a bit and attack this corner again with the proper line to put down any doubts.

Looking back at the way I came as Ruta 40 climbed up this pass. My oopsie happened in one of those hairpin turns on the left.

At the summit of the Abra el Acay at 4,970 m (16,300 ft). I was heading to Cachi.

Wide view of the route descending down the other side.

Resembling my favorite roads of northern Peru and Bolivia, Ruta 40 hugged the steep, rocky cliffs of this colorful landscape.

The route was wider than similar roads in the above countries, but…
Click here to see the high resolution version.

…with no guard rails and a loose, sandy, rocky surface, one fall could be the end.

However, thoughts like that don’t surface to the front when you’re actually there. You just get on with it and keep going forward. Let the GoPro take the pictures.

A hairpin turn and successive others dropping down into the valley.

Going from this side to that side.

Looking back at the summit of Abra el Acay.

And looking forward as the route followed the ever growing Rio Calchaqui.

A syncline in the rocks, where the younger sedimentary layers are surrounded by older ones.

One of numerous small water crossings as the route crossed back and forth from one side of the valley to the other across Rio Calchaqui.

Coming across the first few settlements, which slowly turned into farms.

A wide view of Ruta 40 in the Rio Bravo valley.

Besides the small river, it was dry and the route was sandy in places…

…but generally, the route was in good condition, allowing for some good speeds.

A crumbling wall of a farm set below the colorful mountains of Northwest Argentina.

A big cactus plant, reminding me of the tall saguaro cactus outside Dave’s house in Phoenix, Arizona.

A panorama capturing the vivid color palette of this area.
Click here to see the high resolution version.

Esquina Azul (blue corner), how aptly named.

After passing through some farmland, the route became interesting again as it followed atop a canyon.

I didn’t see a sign around but I bet these spiky, upturned layers of rock would be called El Spina del Diablo (the devil’s spine). I’d love to have some farmland with such striking backdrops.

As I ate some lunch under the shade of this tree, these two young boys came by herding their goats. Argentina has a reputation of being predominantly white, which it is, but not much is heard about Argentina’s brown residents, the indigenous people, who have lived here in these mountains for hundreds or even thousands of years.

I watched them as they directed their herd across this flowing stream, lending a helping hand to a young kid (baby goat).

The beautiful ride through this multi-colored canyon made for an enjoyable day on the 40.

Farmlands increased as the terrain flattened out and the route got closer to Cachi.

Passing through the sleepy little town of Cachi, in the middle of a wine renaissance.

I topped up petrol and fresh water and then set out in search for a place to camp for the night.

Passing by a very narrow canyon cut through the rock.

This farm house looked deserted and as I pulled up, an old lady, the caretaker (who was living with her family in a small hut in the back) came up and I asked if I could camp here for the night, which was no problem, since the owners were away in Salta and rarely came here anymore.

I found a nice spot under this tree and the old lady brought me a 5 liter can of water, with which I managed to have a small bath and cook my dinner with.

There was abundant firewood around and she said I could use whatever I wanted. All the camping I had done up to now was mainly to take shelter for the night and no campfires were made as I didn’t want to advertise my position. However, Argentina is a safe country with an established camping culture and I could finally make campfires.

Now, that’s an inviting home… to a nomad on a motorcycle.

I got my stove going to cook up some dinner as I didn’t want to put my pots on the campfire, since the soot would make a mess of my gear.

Ahhh. It was around 2,100 m (6,890 ft) and with no wind, it was very comfortable in the evening and I could enjoy staying outdoors with minimal clothing, making it very comfortable (compared to the rough conditions on the Lagunas Route). It is times like this, that I most feel like a nomad.

Even with a fall at high-altitude, the feeling of being around a warm fire soothed all ills.

Next: Argentina, Part 5: Central Ruta 40 | Cachi to Mendoza

Previous: Chile: San Pedro de Atacama

Argentina, Part 3: Colorful Hues of Salta and Jujuy

November 29 – December 2, 2010

From Tucuman, the Andes are close by and I took a scenic route through the mountains to head north to Salta and onwards to Jujuy. Northwest Argentina is famed for its colorful landscapes and wine culture. I took in the Quebrada de Cafayate and Humahuaca before exiting at Aguas Blancas.

There was a road block as I exited Tucuman, heading to Tafi del Valle. As is common during motorcycle travel, it’s always worth it to pull up and ask if you can pass since their grudge is probably with the government and they want to hinder commercial traffic, so I passed by on the shoulder. The atmosphere was quite festive with locals gathering and police slowing down traffic.

The road climbed up through steamy sub-tropical jungles and the narrow path added to the excitement. sanDRina was feeling quite chirpy.

Ummm, Ok. End of the World? So, this is where it is. I guess I don’t need to go to Ushuaia then.

The world carried on and the twisties were sublime.

I passed the pleasant-looking town of Tafi del Valle, situated in a valley and being the weekend getaway for Tucuman residents. The road climbed past 2,000 m (6,560 ft) and turned to dirt near the summit.

The moist farmland was exhaling clouds as the bright morning sun shone down.

The road peaked near 3,050 m (10,000 ft) and the terrain resembled the altiplano.

The difference in climate from one side of the mountain to the other was quite evident, being dry with cactus here and lush and wet on the other side, the effect of a rain shadow.

Heading down to take Ruta 40 north to Cafayate (pronounced ka-fa-jah-tay). I would come back this way after my loop through Bolivia.

Having some empanadas (turnovers) for lunch in Cafayate.

Besides wineyards, the town is known for the Quebrada de Cafayate (meaning canyon).

It’s a picturesque canyon with dramatic natural sculptures in the wind-carved sandstone of its geology. Here you can see some ventanas (windows).

The ride was picturesque and a marked difference after thousands of kilometers of flat land riding.

The route passing thru a gate of sandstone.

A wide-angle shot showing the scenery of the Sierra de Carahuasi, the backdrop for this stunning landscape.

El Obelisco, a tower of stone carved by the hands of the wind.

Flowing curves in the face of a hill, looking like successive strokes in a painting.

The varied colors of the under-lying sandstone being exposed after the wind peeled back the covering.

Passing by monumental structures of compressed sand, eroding at different rates based on their composition at formation.

The elevation was about 1,600 m (5,250 ft) and the sights were enchanting along the whole route.

One of the marked attractions along the route, the Garganta del Diablo (Devil’s throat), a narrow, enclosed canyon with the sedimentary layers clearly visible. It was about 80 m (260 ft) tall and was probably carved by water. You can tell how god-fearing the populace is (was) with the association of the devil to scary-looking natural phenomena.

A nice ride with very little traffic.

Broad valleys being opened up by sediment-rich rivers, acting like sand-paper against the mountain’s face.

A panorama of a beautiful valley showing the exposed sedimentary layers and low shrub, characteristic of the canyon.

A shot of a typical petrol station in Argentina. The national petrol company is YPF and they have stations in almost every town and are well-placed around the country. Petrol is called ‘nafta’ here. I think the word comes from naphthalene, rather than the North American Free Trade Agreement. Super XXI is the petrol I used and it’s rated at 95 octane. Sometimes, a Normal was available, mainly where farm equipment was nearby, but that’s rated at 85 octane and with the lowest acceptable being 87 for my bike, I stayed with the 95. The stations were well-kept and usually had a fancy convenience store attached.

The central plaza of Salta, a city growing in popularity for its good looks and agreeable climate.

A statue of José de San Martín in the central Plaza 9 de Julio (date of independence from Spain). He was the principle freedom fighter for Argentina, Chile and Peru and carries the same significance of Simon Bolivar in the northern Hispanic countries of South America.

I stayed with Noah and his wife Leigh, who recently moved here from New York City. Their daughter, Lila, is already bilingual and is trying to get Noah enthusiastic about this game she learned to play in school. He’s a mathematician and consults over the internet.

Buying groceries in the local market in preparation for a chicken curry that night. Noah was impressed that I was traveling with fennel (jeera in India) and referred to me as “The man who travels with fennel.” Would make a good book title, eh.

Picking up some dried fruits and nuts for the next leg of the journey to Santa Cruz in Bolivia.

Leigh and her big labrador, Mani, saying good-bye. She consults in the social media world and both her and Noah are setting up an educational project at the local university and plan to be here for a few years, before moving on to another location. She’s traveled extensively and is now a CouchSurfing Nomadic Ambassador, fostering growth of the community where ever she is.

From Salta, heading north to Jujuy, there’s a narrow, twisty piece of road, Ruta 9, which is well-known in the motorcycling community.

There’s a newer, faster, toll road to get to Jujuy and that’s a good thing, because all truck and most car traffic takes the new route, leaving this well-maintained stretch of twisty pavement to bikers.

Passing by the Campo Alegre Reservoir with its sluice gates open.

The route is very narrow and feels like a single lane road. However, the narrower lanes are just perfect for motorcycles and this is what roads would look like if only motorcycles existed.

Some bends are so tight, it’s one way traffic taking turns. I got behind a bunch of bikers and it felt like a local day ride.

A distance board in Jujuy indicating the major mountain pass between northern Argentina and Chile, Paso de Jama, which I would be taking after my loop of Bolivia.

I was planning to spend the night in Jujuy and would be taking another route to the border, so I went for an afternoon loop through the Quebrada de Humahuaca.

It’s a long canyon with varied colors of stones and minerals showing through on the barren hillsides.

The seven-colored rock of Pumamarca. Different layers of exposed minerals giving the hillside its colorful appearance.

The colors continue around the valley that this quaint village sits in, at the intersection to the road heading to Paso de Jama.

A wide-angle view of all the colored rocks from Pumamarca.
Click here to see the high resolution version.

Heading towards Paso de Jama for the salt flats over the summit.

The whole route is lined with dramatic landscapes. Wind and water sculpting the sandstone.
Click here to see the high resolution version.

Crossing the summit at 4,170 m (13,677 ft). Getting a taste for the high-altitudes in the near future in Bolivia.

From the summit looking west towards the altiplano down there and a slight glimpse of the reflection from the white salar past the mountain ridges. The route twisted its way down and with no traffic, it was a fun ride.

Road sign informing you of continued joy on sinuous roads with steep grades.

Salt production at the Salinas Grandes of Jujuy.

This salar (salt flat) is much smaller than the Salar de Uyuni just north in Bolivia, but still providing views worthy of a visit.

Ojos de la Sal (eyes of the salt), which are small openings in the hard crust showing the brine solution that lurks underneath.

Heading back up the pass and seeing colored mountains at every turn.

The terrain is harsh at this altitude but I caught sight of a few grazing antelopes.

Distance board at the summit.

Heading east back to Ruta 9 and descending down the mountain with fun switch-backs.

Back in the Quebrada de Humahuaca and noticing different colors with the afternoon sun against these hoodoo-like structures, where the softer sand has eroded quicker than the sturdier parts of the rock, leaving behind a structure of columns.

The longer wavelengths of sunlight and the hindrance of clouds painting enigmatic shapes in the already interesting hillsides of this colorful canyon.

Finishing up a fun loop from Jujuy through an interesting array of geological masterpieces. Give Nature time and space and she will create a feast for the eyes.

Sharing my curry with Julieta and Hernan in Jujuy. He runs an internet hosting service from home and she works at a school in town. They moved here from the busier side of Argentina to slow things down and enjoy the simpler things in life.

From northern Argentina, there are three borders with Bolivia and in order to make it to Tarija in one day, I took the flat route east towards Aguas Blancas.

The temps were getting hot as the geography moved away from the Andes and towards the dry Chaco.

My tour of Northern Argentina was complete and while there weren’t too many attractive sights to see along the way, frequently staying with locals allowed me an insight into the culture with numerous assados and liters of maté consumed. I felt secure and comfortable in Argentina and was looking forward to my second trip in the near future as I headed south to Patagonia. Now, the attraction of southern Bolivia lay ahead.

Next: Bolivia II, Part 1: Tarija to Villamontes and Santa Cruz

Previous: Argentina, Part 2: Crossing the Central Region

Argentina, Part 2: Across the Central Region

November 21 – 28, 2010

With all my trip chores and bike maintenance done, it was time to begin a big loop around the southern half of South America. From Buenos Aires, I headed for southern Bolivia and then would turn south for Patagonia and return to Buenos Aires. I lined up people to stay with through CouchSurfing all through Argentina until I got to Bolivia.

300 kms north of the capital is Rosario, considered the second city of Argentina, feeling like a smaller Buenos Aires.

A pleasant city to walk around, it’s also the birthplace of Che Guevara.

The Monumento Nacional a al Bandera, the national monument to the flag of Argentina and it’s not hard to see why blue and white are the primary colors of this big-sky country.

An eternal flame in the plaza.

I spent two days with Gabriel and his family. He’s a linguist and is currently studying German. We had some good discussions on Anglo-Saxon grammar compared to Latin-based languages. His mother shared some stories about how more and more farmland is being devoted to soybean production due to its increased demand around the world, but ignoring the damage this crop does to the land.

Heading west across concreted dual-lane divided freeway to Cordoba, 420 kms (260 mi) away.

The flat farmland, part of the economic belt that runs across the central band of the country is punctuated by aesthetically-placed tall trees.

The culture of yerba maté is widely associated with Argentina and Uruguay and its importance shows through with dedicated hot water dispensers at all petrol stations.

I had planned to stay with a girl named Rosario in Cordoba but she had to make a last minute trip to BA, so her friend Marco here said he’d take care of me.

Soon after arriving, we headed down to a park by the river.

Marco said he comes out here to play instruments in the open.

This xylophone produced warm, rich tones that sounded just right for dusk with flowing water and lots of greenery.

I’m telling you, there’s nothing more relaxing than playing a harmonic, wooden instrument on the banks of a river after a long days ride.

The next day, we had a look around the city. A canal yearning to be filled.

There was a strike by the taxi driver’s association and they blocked traffic into the city center.

But it was such a nice day to walk around. This is the main cathedral and it’s a mix of different styles. The older, brick parts are from when this was a Jesuit church. They were a group of missionaries that pre-dated the Spanish colonialists, forcibly converting the indigenous to Christianity.

At the Museo de la Memoria, which pays homage to the victims of the Guerra Sucia (Dirty Way), the military government’s campaign in the late 70s and early 80s against civil dissent.

About 30,000 Argentines are said to have ‘disappeared’ in a program the dictator, General Jorge Videla called El Proceso (or the Process of National Reorganization) where anyone talking bad about the military was questioned and most likely tortured and killed. As expected, young, educated liberals were the primary target, also because they were the primary constituents of a revolutionary guerrilla group called the Montoneros who were against foreign businesses in their country and the elites in power.

A wide array of human rights abuses were conducted in the name of justice and the museum conveyed the message through photographs and graphic art.

Surpassing what happened in Argentina, the art had something to say to all purporters of human rights abuses.

Since humans first discovered their ability to manipulate other beings, the quest for absolute power has yet to be quenched. I think universal access to the internet and its democratization of information will lead our population into an era where power-tripping by individuals over others will be seen as something in our barbaric past.

The museum is set in a former detention, torture facility and the walls of cells still hold the scratched messages of detainees.

It was a period in their history that Argentine’s today say set their development behind their more successful neighbors of Chile and Brazil, who also endured military dictatorships during the same period, but with outcomes leading to strong economic growth, as opposed to the collapse of the Argentine economy in the early 2000s.

The Dirty War finally ended with the humiliation of the military after their failed attempt of trying to take back the Falkland Islands from the British in the early 80s.

Emerging back into the sunshine, there’s plenty to be happy about in Argentina today.

Cordoba’s center is quite pleasant and people-watching all the more interesting with the generally good-looking populace, aided by the buzz of the large student population.

We met up with a bunch of Marco’s friends who had planned an assado for the afternoon. Walking by a gomeria, which is a tire-repair place in Argentina (goma referring to rubber, which comes from ‘gum’). This highlights the uniqueness of Argentina’s Spanish, which is markedly different from the other Hispanic countries, being influenced by the large Italian influx in its early days. In pronunciation, one big difference is how the double ‘L’ is sounded, where it has a ‘y’ sound in most other countries, it takes on a ‘shay’ sound here.

An assado (barbeque) is an essential part of Argentine culture and the primary way to celebrate for any occasion.

Through my travels, I noted how every self-respecting Argentine male had to know how to start a fire and get the coals ready for grilling the meat. The place for the assado was always a simple flat brick surface, which a grill was placed on.

A big part of an assado is socializing and drinking maté while the coals get ready. Yerba is the dried leaf that is primarily grown in Paraguay and surrounding areas and drinking it as a tea has been part of the culture since the early days. It has a slightly bitter taste, which I enjoy. And the significant thing about maté (the act of drinking yerba) is sharing it with friends and passing the maté gourd around. In western cultures, drinking out of the same metal straw as strangers might be seen as unhygienic, but there’s no real harm and actually, being exposed to foreign bacteria helps keep your immune system strong.

Yerba maté and meat on a grill. This concisely sums up Argentina’s gastronomy.

Along with chunks of beef and sausage, there was a slight nod to vegetables. It was interesting what they did with the bell peppers, cracking an egg into its cavity.

Most of the Spanish was too rapid for me to follow, especially with their distinct accent, so I kept myself busy by trying to capture their emotions.

I followed the gist of the conversation, ranging from heavy political discussion to the usual college life topics.

When the meat was ready, everyone pounced on it and wolfed down.

To wash the meat down, this is the alcoholic drink of choice in this area, Fernet. It’s tastes like cough-syrup (admit it, everyone liked the taste of it as kids) and it’s always mixed with a cola drink.

And the meat vanished just like that with the conversation resuming and carrying on into the late afternoon.

I had to leave and thanked them for sharing this most intimaté of Argentine experiences with me.

The terrain starts getting hilly from Cordoba and I was told to check out the mountains in the surrounding area, from the lakeside town of Villa Carlos Paz. After a few days there, I turned north towards Bolivia. There’s concrete freeway heading to Villa Carlos Paz from Cordoba, being the weekend getaway for the city-dwellers, but there’s also a nice route through the surrounding hills.

Taking in the sunset over Lago San Roque and looking towards Carlos Paz on the southern shores.

I stayed with Facundo (center) and along with his father and brother, they run a small hotel in town. He was intrigued by the idea of CouchSurfing and they have a room set aside for surfers.

For dinner, you guessed it, another assado (that’s two assados in one day). They were also doing the same thing with the eggs in the bell peppers with a huge chunk of ribs grilling behind them.

A post on HorizonsUnlimited informed me of a route up into the mountains and I went on a day ride to check it out.

This was the first off-road riding since the end of the TransAmazonica and I was eager to see how the suspension tune up in São Paulo would affect sanDRina’s handling.

It was a nice route, with hard-packed mud roads and felt good to gain some elevation again since descending the Andes in the Bolivian Yungas.

The route was devoid of traffic and passed through small farms and villages.

It felt good to be standing on the pegs and letting sanDRina dance as we turned through bends in the road.

The suspension felt more responsive and I was confident in taking her through the demanding Lagunas Route through southwest Bolivia, my next destination.

It was good to put her through her paces and on the tarmac back down the valley, the transmission was singing through the gears and with most of my load left behind at Facu’s place, it was enjoyable to have a lively and responsive bike.

A few kilometers from town, this man waived me down and said he had misjudged and run out of fuel and needed about half a liter. I knew carrying around the oil tanker that is the Aqualine Safari 40 liter (10.7 gal) tank would come in handy. He offered to pay but I told him to pay it forward as I was doing after all the help I’ve received on my travels.

That evening, instead of another assado, Facu asked if I could prepare my chicken curry. And to put an Argentine twist to it, I prepared it in the assado area over coals and used a ‘discko’, which is a large metal dish used for making lamb stews. Having a strong fire with a thick pot (spreading the heat evenly) and being outdoors, this was the most fun curry I’ve prepared.

We ate on the patio and some of their friends were invited. A few of the elder guests were a bit hesistant about spicy Indian curries but were pleasanty surprised where their mouths weren’t on fire, and yet they could taste the spices.

My best chicken curry to date. I think the smoke from the coals added to the flavour as well as the essence from the discko.

From there, I headed north towards Tucuman, which was a good 617 kms (383 mi) away on flat terrain.

Passing by a salt flat on Ruta 60, the Salinas Grandes, which is different from the same-named salar near Jujuy. There wasn’t much to see and public entry wasn’t encouraged.

I was getting used to seeing old and beaten-up trucks around Argentina, but this classic Land Cruiser pickup truck takes the cake. Missing a headlight, bumper and maybe brakes, as well, but kudos for keeping it going. They don’t make them like they used to. Petrol stations were not hard to come by in these remote areas and were usually at intersections of highways and I could use my credit card at most of them. All of them also provided free drinking water and the public water is safe to drink in Argentina. I wasn’t even running it through my filter and had no problems. It’s also a good way to introduce a light dose of the local germs to your body, so that the antibodies can prepare for a real attack when it happens.

I stayed with Sebastian and Martin in Tucuman and we gathered at a friend’s place for some beers and conversation.

It carried on late into the night and by now, I was aware of the skewed daily schedule of Argentines, where lunch is had at about 3 pm and then dinner at about 11 pm or midnight, so I snacked before arriving. Their friend, Alejandro had driven from Mexico back to here in a VW van, so we compared some of our experiences.

Over endless bottles of Norte lager, the conversation drifted from transcending left and right with regard to politics, to expected questions about India and they were impressed with my Spanish and ability to converse such topics in their language. By now, Spanish was back in the forefront of my brain, with Portuguese banished to the memory banks.

Instead of a boring taxi ride across town, Seba and I went two-up on his bicycle. It was rough, but memorable. At one intersection, we saw a dog get hit by a passing truck and then its limp body was repeatedly hit by a succession of cars. Quite a graphic image. We went out, in between traffic, and moved the carcass to the pavement. Seba is a history teacher and has back-packed all over Latin America. He noted that Tucuman’s importance was that it was the place where Argentine independence was declared in 1816.

The next day was Sunday, and Martin prepared an assado at his mother’s place. The dark sausage is a pork’s blood and rice sausage. Tasty, but loaded with cholesterol.

Group shot after stuffing ourselves. Martin is on the right, holding up his pet beagle. He’s an environmental engineer, working for a wind turbine company and travels to Costa Rica often. We had some good discussions regarding sustainable development and the recent UN climaté conferences, which directly affect his work. His girlfriend is Irena, in red, and the other couple are French architecture exchange students.

Next: Argentina, Part 3: The Colorful Hues of Salta and Jujuy

Previous: Argentina, Part 1: The Northeast into Buenos Aires

Argentina, Part 1: The Northeast into Buenos Aires

November 10 – 20, 2010

Argentina and Chile form the bottom half of South America and I was saving them for the southern summer, as the latitudes stretch all the way to Antartica in the south, but I still wanted to visit southern Bolivia first before heading south to Patagonia. I thought I could get across Paraguay and enter Bolivia that way, but the visa for Paraguay was going to take two weeks to process. And besides all the wrangles with the paperwork, I was still trying to get a replacement jet needle for sanDRina’s carburetor. My mechanic friend in Chicago, Gus had sourced the parts but they couldn’t be shipped to Brazil in time as my visa there was expiring, so I had them sent to Buenos Aires. At the same time, a friend-of-a-friend was flying from Chicago to Buenos Aires, so I arranged for a care package of miscellaneous items to be sent through him. And for the past few months I have been trying to arrange for a place to pick up a replacement set of Happy Trail panniers that the company from Idaho wanted to replace free of charge but customs in Brazil and other countries proved too big a headache. So, everything was converging on Buenos Aires and I headed there first, before turning north for Bolivia.

Exiting Brazil and entering Argentina.

Where there’s a bridge across a border, all through South America, I’ve seen the two countries paint their half of the bridge in the national flag colors.

Welcome to Argentina… and there’s duty free shopping to tempt all the traveling Brazilians.

My route through northern Argentina. Click on it to go to the interactive version in Google Maps.

Interesting to see a sign board indicating the route to cut all the way across Argentina for entering Chile. I guess it’s a commercial route to connect the two oceans and it wasn’t so surprising after seeing the number of Brazilian travelers crossing at Paso de Jama.

Puerto Iguazu is the small town at the border supporting the tourists who come for the Argentine side of the falls. It also has a gleaming gas station where I happily filled sanDRina’s tank with cheaper petrol, costing on average 4.20 Argentine Pesos for a liter (US$4/gal) and this would be for pure petrol with no ethanol. The bike ran fine all through Brazil, after tweaking the air/fuel mixture (as ethanol burns leaner) and now the settings were back to as they were before Brazil.

The Argentine 100 Peso note, equal to about US $25. Argentina went through its own economic collapse in the earning 2000s and the government had to lobe off a couple zeros to control hyperinflation. Things have been steadily progressing since then and they breathed a collective sigh of relief when the global financial crisis in 2008 didn’t affect their fragile economy. The stickler about getting money from ATMs in Argentina (and Chile, as well) is that they all charge $4 ($5 in Chile) per transaction, besides your own bank fees, so I tried to take out the maximum possible each time I had to visit one. In all the other countries, so far, I’ve managed to find a local bank that didn’t charge ATM fees and I only had to pay the 1% that my local bank in Chicago charges (I went with a small Credit Union, instead of a regular bank, since their ATM fees are lower). And since cash now costs 1% more, I use a Capital One credit card where ever possible since they don’t charge any foreign transaction fees (the only major card that does this) and I’ve had no issues with fraudulent transactions or holds on my card.

An overview of Iguazu Falls at the entrance to the park. Most of the falls is on the Argentine side and the main attraction is getting to the Garganta del Diablo (the devil’s throat) at the top end of the falls. The local legend (there’s always a human story to explain stunning natural phenomena) goes with the tale of two illegitimate lovers running away from her father and he strikes the ground with his staff, resulting in the earth giving way and obstructing the escape of the lovers and now a rock at the base is said to harbor their spirit. Humans get by and succeed in this world by making sense of what they see and experience. Today, with this aerial shot, we can see how the water is slowly cutting at the rock but for older humans, to explain what they saw must’ve been difficult.

Taking the park train through the Iguazu National Park, which, besides the falls, also protects a huge swathe of rain forest.

Riding through a cloud of yellow butterflies.

An Iguazu Iguana in the undergrowth, getting some sun.

The mighty Garganta del Diablo. The rock steps down where the force of the water is greatest and this concentrates the flows to make an impressive downward eruption of water.

The lookout platform gets you to be right across the Garganta del Diablo and you can see water jumping up from the force it’s flowing with and with the heavy mist and afternoon sun, a rainbow forms.

A bird flying past the thundering walls of water. I wonder what that does to its hearing and sight being completely taken over by the roar and the foam of water speeding down to rest with gravity again.

No, I’m not downloading data via a satellite link to my laptop (I wish), but I’m actually uploading the GPS maps for Argentina from the pc to the Garmin 60Cx (I forgot to do this before). Free gps maps are available for most of South America and this has made getting around quite easy.

After a full day of seeing rushing water (in two different languages), I headed south along Rio Parana to Posadas. The visor of the Arai XD dual-sport helmet coming in handy while riding into the sun. It draws unwanted attention for its cool looks, I think because of its use in role-playing video games like Halo (was never a gamer myself, preferring real-world thrills compared to virtual ones) but the benefits of the sun visor comes in handy all the time. It reduces the amount of light falling on your face and that cuts down on fatigue.

I was riding into the night but with Argentina being a safe country, there wasn’t too much to worry about, besides the usual animal danger.

The government building in downtown Posadas, a small city in Argentina’s north east, resembling the pink palace in Buenos Aires.

A riverboat moored on the shores of the Rio Parana with Paraguay on the other bank.

I stayed with Federico and his family, thru CouchSurfing and I was quickly put to use in preparing my chicken curry for them. He’s a biologist at the local university and moved here from Corrientes to research frogs. It can seem like an insignificant topic to outsiders, but the changing health of a frog population might be an indicator to changes in the big picture of climate, since they’re highly sensitive. We had good discussions about science and particularly how scientific papers get published in various magazines. His English was pretty good, but I asked them to speak only in Spanish as I had to switch the language in my brain from Portuguese to Spanish. I was replying in Portuguese for the first few days in Argentina and it took a good two weeks before Spanish was coming naturally again.

From Posadas, I headed west across Corrientes to Resistencia in the Chaco, then down south to Santa Fe and into Buenos Aires. It’s flat country up here in the northeast and audio books were plugged in to help the time go by, along with refreshing Spanish with my Michel Thomas language tapes.

Stopping for the night in Resistencia, a city on the edges of the Argentine Chaco, a dry land extending into Paraguay and Bolivia.

The city is a bit run down but it’s cheered up with numerous sculptures placed around the city.

A gateway to your imagination?

A horse and buggy cart tearing through the streets. My first impression of Argentina was that things were a bit run down, but that was ok, as long as it worked. A lot more older cars were still in use and that added a bit of character, along with the continued use of horse carts.

A moto sculpture in a park indicating how moto-crazy most Argentines are.

A fancy garbage-holder. In most of South America, I noted how instead of sealed garbage containers on the streets, to prevent dogs and other animals from getting into the garbage, it’s raised up above the ground waiting to be picked up.

Catching a performance by an indigenous group from the Chaco.

I stayed with Javier for the night, thru CS. He’s a network administrator at the local university and shared with me lots of good music.

One could make an interesting photo book of all the different things that speed bumps are called around the world. Here, it’s referred to as a donkey’s butt.

Sunflower fields on the way down to Santa Fe.

But most of the 550 km journey had bland scenery like this of dry fields.

Happy to see motorcycles don’t have to pay tolls in Argentina, but I soon realized this changes from toll booth to toll booth with everyone having to pay in Buenos Aires.

Stopping for the night in Santa Fe, a pleasant city along the Parana River.

I spent the night at Martin’s (left) thru CS and we met up with Javier from Spain, a teacher who was traveling for a few weeks around Argentina. Martin works at a nearby hostel and is in the music business.

One last break before heading into the dense traffic of Buenos Aires.

Stopping by Santiago’s house in the suburbs of Buenos Aires to collect the care package he brought for me from Chicago. The most important thing he brought was a new bracket for my GoPro helmet camera, which broke in Brazil and was limiting the amount of filming that I did.

I stayed with Maru (on my right) in Palermo, a trendy, yuppie part of the city and I prepared a dinner for a small couchsurfing gathering at her place.

My week in BsAs was chock full of chores to get done and I knew I would be spending more time here later at the end of my trip and would see more of the touristic side of the city then. Waiting patiently for hours at the main post office in order to collect the new panniers that Happy Trails sent. I contacted them after the welds started to split (months ago in Ecuador) and they wanted to send me a replacement set. It just so happened that sanDRina got dropped a few times after that with the panniers getting a lot of abuse, so a new set of boxes would be much appreciated. The customs duty is pretty steep in Argentina, coming out to 50% the value of the items including the cost to ship it (which I don’t understand). I contacted Javier at Dakar Motors, who agreed to buy my old set of panniers and this helped offset the duty on the new set.

Parking in downtown BsAs, along with the other motos. sanDRina almost blends in, but the huge profile with the panniers gives her away. I went to visit the Grimaldi office to initiate the booking for the Trans-Atlantic voyage towards Africa.

Santiago also received the carburetor parts that were sent from Gus through my sister. The new jet needle at the correct length, compared to the old one at a shorter length. I broke the tip when trying to fix a broken throttle cable and as a result, sanDRina was running rich since then until this new needle goes in. The profile of the needle affects the air/fuel mixture in the intake of the engine and I tried to find a replacement part in São Paulo, but no luck. At last, sanDRina would be running smooth, after the major overhaul done to her recently.

Argentina’s renowned beef steaks. A small juicy cut like this at a roadside stall in the city goes for P12 (US$3). Besides the steak, I love the olive-oil based dressings known as chimichuri, a mix of cilantro, spices, tomatoes. No one knows for sure where the word ‘chimichuri’ comes from but someone at a roadside stall told me that it comes from when the British were briefly here and since they already loved curry from India, they said it was a portmanteau from ‘give-me-the-curry’ when they ate their steaks, presumably. Sounds good to me. If you say it fast enough, I guess you could get there or pass it through some Chinese-whispers.

This is where the steak was cooked-up, in a neighborhood away from the glam of Palermo.

Another admin chore I had to take care of was getting a second visa for my second visit to Bolivia from here, to see the Salar de Uyuni. They wouldn’t cooperate in Rio, saying I could only get it at the border, but that’s hardly a sure thing for me.

Along with twenty and thirty year old Fords and Chevys, there’s a lot of classic BMWs and Mercs around BsAs. This handsome 320i was parked in front of Maru’s place. I had a 92 325i, which started my appreciation for German engineering.

Cordero Fuguenio, lamb grilled like it’s done in Tierra del Fuego.

For dinner one of the nights, Maru took us to a neighborhood establishment, an old-time pizzeria.

You could say it’s the Italian influence, but pizza culture is ubiquitous. Besides a variety of tasty classic pizzas, they had this one made of garbanzo (chick-pea, channa) flour, almost like a pancake. I miss food made of garbanzo, which is common in India.

I couldn’t get the fine tuning set on the carb, so Javier at Dakar Motos helped out. He and his wife, Sandra have been running a motorcycle shop in Buenos Aires for numerous years and are well-known in the motorcycling community for being a helping hand to overland travelers through the years. They organize shipping bikes in and out of Argentina and whatever else overland travelers need. There are also a few cheap beds in one corner of the shop.

I spent a few nights there as I was fine-tuning sanDRina and I cooked up a meal for Gus and I. He’s a Canadian, traveling on a BMW F650 and has been invovled in a wide-array of occupations. He’s looking into moving into the lake district of Argentina.

Taking the city metro train into downtown, as the bike shop is in the suburbs.

All though I didn’t see any of the sights that Buenos Aires is known for, I got a good look at working life in this mega city and that’s what traveling is all about, experiencing someone else’s culture.

Next: Pictures from Argentina, Part 2: Across the Central Region

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