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 3: Carretera Austral | Lago Carrera General to Villa O’Higgins

January 13 – 16, 2011

I was in the midst of Chile’s northern Patagonia, deep along the Carretera Austral and getting a feel for living in a remote land. After a few days in Puerto Aisén, I continued south around Lago Carrera General and to the current terminus of the Carretera Austral at Villa O’Higgins.

The wood shed of the small hotel that I was staying at in Puerto Aisén. Even in summer, it’s quite chilly here and fire places were roaring.

After resting for a day, I continued on south. The first and only wind power turbines that I saw in Patagonia. If there’s one place in the world where the winds are constant and strong, it’s here and I’m wondering why there aren’t more wind turbines. If the government really wants to harness energy from Patagonia to supply the north, let it be thru wind rather than hydro.

I fueled up and restocked my grocery supplies in the biggest city in this region, Coyhaique and then headed to the massive lake coming up. A sign board of the towns on the southern section of the Carretera Austral. From Puerto Yungay, it’s another 100 kms (62 mi) to Villa O’Higgins.

South of Coyhaique, I rode through this valley lined with jagged snow peaks.

A billboard at the turnoff to Rio Ibáñez, fighting the proposed damming of Patagonia. It reads, “our rivers are much more than electrical energy.”

This was a classic image of Patagonia that I had before I got here and it’s just like it looks in the pictures, but of course, it’s a much grander feeling when you’re actually in this huge valley, devoid of much human activity, except this snaking, winding path.

The pavement ended about 100 kms (62 mi) south of Coyhaique and it soon turned into washboard. The route was climbing up the opposite side of this valley with the snow peaks coming and going into view.

Nice to be back on the dirt and on the pegs after the central paved section of the Carretera Austral.

Rivers flowing down from glaciers and ice caps up in the mountains. Is it worth losing these kind of places in the name of energy from dams for continued economic growth?

I came around a corner and found these blokes from New Zealand taking a break. They flew into Los Angeles, bought these used DR650s and set off on a 6 month ride around Latin America and found buyers for the bikes in Buenos Aires. They hadn’t planned too much for spare parts and their tires were bald and one guy’s rear sprocket was way past its usable life. I told him to watch the down-shifting. They were loving all the things I did to sanDRina and were happy to see a well-setup DR in the wild. And of course, they asked what all the switches were for.

Coming up behind them was this Brit on a BMW R100GS with a DR front end. A proper Franken-bike.

I admired all his self-fabrication and envied his wind guards that he cut from oil containers. So, in the middle of Patagonia, there was a bike meeting of 4 1/2 DR650s and a half of a Beemer.

The crazy chap made his panniers from plywood and had a livery of zebra stripes; he could be mistaken for dinner in the savanna.

The Kiwis told me of a great place to camp along Lago Carrera General, so I headed there for the night.

It was slow-going with so many wonderful photo opportunities.
Click here to see the high resolution version.

A turquoise river flowing from an unseen glacier that cloudied-up the water with pulverized rock held in suspension.

The road was in good condition, allowing for higher speeds but the views were constantly distracting.

Besides the epic scenery, the fast-changing weather held my rapt attention with the thick clouds changing day into night.

When I saw the first of these signs, I was ready for some ‘danger’ around the corner, but then I realized, they were just warning about the corner itself.

Climbing up along the side of this valley…

…and then dropping down and flowing over these hills.

The Carretera is characterized with these slender, tall trees. Perhaps it’s a result of the constantly wet environment, letting the trees grow as tall as they desire.

Taking a break in the middle of the road and not worrying about any traffic.

I turned the corner and wow, a complete rainbow to welcome me to the jewel of Chile’s northern Patagonia, Lago Carrera General.
Click here to see the high resolution version.

The lake is massive, the second largest in South America below Lago Titicaca and its most striking feature is the almost unreal color of its waters.

I found the camping spot that the Kiwi riders told me about and it was just past the small settlement of Rio Tranquilo. The road stays high up along the cliffs and it was a steep descent down to the shores of the lake.

My spot for the night under these trees with a fantastic view of the lake.

The iridescent blue waters of Lago Carrera General. The changing sunlight determined what kind of blue was shown and I guess rainbows are quite common here with the humid air easily catching the Sun’s photons.

There was a fire ring with a picnic table and home was setup for the night.

Preparing dinner with a view.

I started cooking more rice than pasta after I realized it didn’t really take all that much more time to prepare rice. And with the adjustable flame option of the MSR Dragonfly stove, I could have it simmering on a low-enough flame to make a good pot of rice without burning it.

Frying up some dehydrated spices to add flavour to dinner. This was also made by my aunt in my mother’s village outside Madras, India. It’s a mixture of onions, garlic, mustard seeds, fennel and other such ingredients, which are dried and when fried release their flavours.

The fried spices were added to the rice with a can of tuna and tomato sauce. Good eats on the Carretera Austral.

I woke up to rain the next morning but after waiting a while, the sun came out and made it a happy day. The nice thing about rain is that once it’s done, it leaves behind clear air.

Continuing south around the lake.

It’s known for great trout and salmon fishing.

The blue is just surreal, especially contrasted with the surrounding greens. At the southern edge of the lake, the Carretera continues in a one-way direction to Villa O’Higgins. From here, there are only two ways to get back into Argentina by road. One is going east around the lake to cross at Chile Chico or a smaller border crossing a bit further south at Paso Raballos.

Since I was heading all the way to Villa O’Higgins, I would be back-tracking up to this junction in a few days to continue to Ushuaia. Lago Carrera General with a back drop of snow-peaked Andes and Laguna Negra in the foreground, which was considerably darker than it’s more turquoise neighbour up north.

From El Maiten to Villa O’Higgins, the Carretera is even more remote than the relatively more populated region in the north.

The route followed Rio Baker, which drains Lago Carrera General to the Pacific. The river flows along the eastern edge of the Northern Patagonian Ice Field, the largest continuous mass of ice besides the polar regions.

The changing characteristics of the Carretera Austral. The route climbed more into the mountains compared to the relatively flat riding in the past few days.

Rio Baker and the glaciated turquoise waters of Patagonia. This is the site of the proposed dam by HidroAysén. They want to flood this valley and generate power. The company bought the water rights to this area during the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet and thankfully haven’t been able to capitalize on it, yet. Besides the issue of destroying natural beauty, Chile sits on the Pacific Ring of Fire and its frequent seismic activity is well-known. Does it make sense to build a huge dam in a place that could possibly experience a massive earthquake? I hope the recent disaster at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant with make authorities around the world pay more attention to the consequences of building risk into unstable places.

Passing through the biggest town in the southern half of the Carretera Austral of Cochrane. I topped up with petrol and was heading for Puerto Yungay.

A signboard in Cochrane informing of the ferry schedule for the ride to Villa O’Higgins.

The route flattened out a bit before heading for those mountains.

I made quick work of the 125 kms to Puerto Yungay, as I was trying to catch the last ferry at 6 pm.

The road wound up the mountainside and one could tell that this was a relatively recently constructed road compared to the other parts of the Carretera.

Arriving at the ferry from Puerto Yungay across to Rio Bravo. These two Americans were cycling from California, but skipped countries along the way and in their words, were traveling around the world by cycling through ‘safe’ countries. From here, they were heading to New Zealand, then Japan, then flying to Europe.

A monument to Puerto Yungay, which was once the terminus of the Carretera Austral, at kilometer marker 1150. The Cuerpo Militar de Trabajo (Chile’s Army Corps of Engineers), who built the Carretera Austral, recently extended the route another 100 kms (62 mi) to Villa O’Higgins, which was only opened to traffic in 2000.

The terrain is quite rough here and the lake and its steep cliffs prevented the southern continuation of the route, but this ferry was put in as the solution. It’s a free service that runs three times a day. It goes north to south from Puerto Yungay to Rio Bravo at 10 am, 12 pm and 6 pm. Coming back south to north at 11 am, 1 pm and 7 pm.

The 45 minute ride went by quickly with nice views of the nearby moutains.

The southern port of the ferry at Rio Bravo and the continuation of the Carretera Austral.

The current terminus of the Carretera Austral is at Villa O’Higgins and the route is impeded by the massive Southern Patagonian Ice Field. However, there is a drive from the politicians in Santiago to continue the route and link it with Chile’s Southern Patagonia region of Puerto Natales and Punta Arenas. The proposed route heads from Rio Bravo to Ventisquero Montt and onwards with 9 ferries to Puerto Natales. The first part, which branches off from here has been built, but the continuation from Ventisquero Montt is still to come. They say it could be another 20 years before the route to Puerto Natales is completed, due to the harsh, icy terrain.

It was 7 pm around now and I rode along the Carretera looking for a place to camp for the night and about 10 kms south of Rio Bravo, I found this clearing in the trees and setup camp as it started to rain. The forest was wet but I managed to get a fire going after dousing the wet limbs with some petrol.

These small flowers on the ground in my camp got picked up by almost anything that touched them with small grips at the end of the purple hairs lodging themselves between threads or I can imagine, animal fur. When I tried to remove them, they would self-destruct and fall apart into the numerous individuals pieces that make up each flower ball. An interesting tactic to spread its seed around.

Rio Bravo with the Carretera Austral running along its shore, deep in the southern reaches of Patagonia. The next human settlement was Villa O’Higgins, leaving me close with nature.

Washing my pots in the pristine rivers with biodegradable soap.

My camp was located in these trees, on the shores of Rio Bravo.

The next morning, after packing up a wet tent with overnight rains, the Carretera continued south.

There was one big mountain ridge to cross and the sign warned of steep and tight curves.

From the summit, looking ahead through the fog and wintry weather. It was cold and wet but the desire to reach the end was enough to keep me going.

After a few more curves and climbs, the weather turned for the better revealing the closeness of the snow-capped peaks along the route.

It was raining just across the ridge there, but I was glad to be in the sunshine here and took a break to warm up my cold fingers in the sun.

The route being cut into the cliffs as the mountains were right up against the water.

The clouds cleared as I got within 20 kms (12 mi) of the end and I was rewarded with beautiful views.

Lago Cisnes, which the route wraps around as it nears the end. I came along the left shore and…
Click here to see the high resolution version.

…crossed along the southern boundary and within a few kilometers…

…I arrived in Villa O’Higgins, the end of the Carretera Austral.

It’s a small outpost with about 500 inhabitants that was only recently connected to the rest of Chile via the Carretera Austral. It was settled in the 1920s by European immigrants and renamed in 1966 to honour Chile’s independence hero, Bernard O’Higgins, who was born of Irish and Basque descent in the 18th century.

I found a place to camp for the night and then continued along the road to the actual end of the route, a few kilometers south of town. There’s free WiFi access in the town square as HidroAysén tries to buy the favour of the local people so that it can go ahead and flood Patagonia.

South of town lies the huge Lago O’Higgins, which straddles the border with Argentina and their half is called Lago San Martín, named after Argentina’s independence hero of José de San Martín. It’s the most irregular of the large Patagonian lakes with eight well-defined fingers, four on each side of the border that runs along the mountains to the left. To the right is the huge Southern Patagonian Ice Field, which feeds the lake through numerous glaciers. An interesting feature is that this is the deepest lake in South America with a maximum depth of 836 m (2,742 ft), even though it only sits at an elevation of 250 m (820 ft). Besides damming Rio Baker, HidroAysén would like to build a dam across Rio Pascua, which drains this lake into the Pacific.

At the unceremonious end of the Carretera Austral. From this port, tourist boats leave for day trips to the O’Higgins Glacier and provide transport for bicyclists and hikers for the route to El Chaltén in Argentina. That route consists of taking this ferry for $40, hiking 12 kms along a rough horse path, which is not suitable for any kind of motorized traffic and then catching another ferry across Lago del Desierto to El Chaltén. For motorized traffic, the only way to El Chaltén is back-tracking up to cross at Chile Chico or Paso Roballos.

A small glacier hanging above the town as I returned for the evening.

From the campground, looking across the valley and marveling at the fact of this huge extent of ice, the Southern Patagonian Ice Field, lying just behind those mountains. It dictates the current terminus of the Carretera Austral. To continue south, the route must go around the ice field, either via ferries along the coast or via land in Argentina.

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

Previous: Patagonia, Part 2: Carretera Austral | Futalefu to Puerto Aisén

Patagonia, Part 2: Carretera Austral | Futalefu to Puerto Aisén

January 9 – 12, 2011

Winding through the wet and verdant side of Patagonia is the Carretera Austral, a famed, remote route linking the towns in Chile’s Northern Patagonia. It’s one of the great destination roads in the world, renowned for its lush forests and numerous glaciated lakes. Being cut off from direct road access to the rest of Chile keeps this region isolated and charming.

In southern Chile, the Andes spill into the Pacific and thus in many places, water becomes the only means of connection to the rest of the country. There’s a ferry service from Puerto Montt, the last city in contiguous Chile to the small town of Chaitén (which was destroyed by its volcano in 2008), where the Carretera Austral currently begins. Small isolated communities existed here, long before any connections via land, as they were sea-fairing peoples. During Chile’s last military dictatorship, General Augusto Pinochet decided to forge a road through the wilderness in order to better integrate these isolated communities with the rest of Chile. The project hasn’t been completed yet, so land access only comes from crossing over from Argentina.

Being remote and rural, most of the road is unpaved and enjoyable. However, as no place on this planet can escape modernisation, large sections of the route around big cities have been paved over. I took my time and visited small fishing communities along the route and enjoyed the ability to wild camp in beautiful places.

A massive welcome sign into Chile at the border crossing near Futalefú. The two countries like to show up each other and I get the feeling, Chile wants to show-off its superior development.

My route along the Carretera Austral. Click on it to go to the interactive version in Google Maps.

The road is paved the 10 kms (6 mi) from the border to the town of Futalefú, which has survived through the years from its land border connection with Argentina, as it is not connected by roads to the rest of northern Chile.

At a campsite on Rio Futalefú, just outside town that cost 3000 Chilean Pesos for the night, equal to US$6.50.

Fire! Getting a fire going with wood supplied by the camp owner. It’s the height of the southern summer and the sun is setting later into the evening the further south I go. It’s around 8:30 pm now and while it feels strange to have a fire when it’s light out, I needed to get to sleep for an early start.

Setting up my kitchen, which has grown to include oil, soy sauce, garlic sauce and coffee powder. And that little spice jar on the right is Smoked Curry powder that I found in Bariloche. Just like in Alaska, they like to smoke fish and meats down here and I was beaming to find curry powder infused with the aromas of traditional smoking.

A simple meal of pasta going into a soup from bouillon cubes with a can of beef liver pate stirred in. It might make some people squirm, but hey, it’s cheap protein, so throw some spices on it and refuel the body.

In the morning, as I was packing up, I met James, who was getting ready to guide a raft down Rio Futalefú. He’s a rafting guide from the US, who came down for the Chilean summer with his current outfit to guide a group of American adventurers. He said this river is an excellent one for rafting and gets to the Pacific in about 60 kms (38 mi).

Setting off from Futalefú to catch the Carretera Austral.

A taste of the numerous lakes and the views to come all along Chile’s Northern Patagonia region.

It was 75 kms (47 mi) to the junction of the Carretera Austral.

However, the ride there on this spur was interesting in its own right.

Crossing Rio Futalefú as it flows to the ocean.

I was happy to be in a place where blue lakes and snow-capped mountains are the common sight. It might get tiring after the first few, but this was candy for my eyes. This whole area of southern Chile was under the Patagonia Ice Sheet during the last ice age, which ended here about 17,500 years ago and all these lakes are what’s left of the ice sheet along with two huge ice fields up in the mountains, which drive the local climate. They say the melting of this ice sheet alone raised global sea levels by 1.2 meters and it’s been predicted that if we reach a tipping point in the current warming of the planet that triggers the Greenland Ice Sheet to melt, sea level will rise by 7 m (23 ft) in just one century. I wonder if all our coastal cities can cope with that kind of rapid geologic change.

On the Carretera Austral (CH-7) and it starts to impress right away. This is one of the great destination roads in the world, famed for its remoteness and unending natural beauty. The route technically starts in Puerto Montt, but the road south of there from Hornopirén to Chaitén is still under construction and is traversed by irregular ferries. So, the overland route is best accessed from Futalefú.

The road has many different characteristics and in the upper parts, it’s long and straight with great views of snow-capped mountains to cross further south.

Pretty soon into the ride, it’s hard to avoid the local controversy going on here. The Chilean government wants to build dams for hydroelectric power all through Patagonia and it’s contracted the Spanish company HydroAysen to figure out how to do it. However, the locals are fiercely against it, along with international environmental groups and it’s an on-going situation. ‘No represas, Fuera HydroAysen’ = No Dams, Get out HydroAysen. Another point is these billboards, which can be found in remote places where some form of modern infrastructure project has just been completed by the government. I guess the people here have felt isolated and ignored by the rest of Chile for a long time and now the government is working hard to show them that it’s bringing progress to the region in terms of bridges and paving. It was amusing for me to see a brand new concrete intersection in the middle of nowhere and then a huge billboard with the photo of said intersection and the message, “Look at how we’re progressing Chile” (by the ministry of public works).

The Carretera Austral was built during the 1980’s by the Chilean Army’s Engineering Command and it is only since 1988 that travellers have been coming through here on their own vehicles. Previously, visitors and locals had to come via sea and the numerous fjords that define the land-sea border here.

A distance board indicating all the major towns along the route. The official name of the highway is Longitudinal Austral (southern longitudinal route). They sure do exaggerate the steepness of the grade here and the interesting thing was to note all the different forms of vehicles used for the road grade signs; it changes almost with every sign.

This is beautiful country.

Lenticular or wave clouds, sculpted by the fierce winds of Patagonia, which were less intense on this side (compared to Argentina), but they were always blowing. These clouds form on the crest of waves when moist air flows over mountains. Their lens-like shape has been mistaken for UFOs in better formed specimens.

Rio Palena, near the first major settlement along the route of…

La Junta and the famous sign of the highway, bearing the name of General Augusto Pinochet, the previous name of the highway. It looks like this fence around the sign is quite new as previous travellers have been able to get right under the sign.

There’s a gas station across the sign and a detailed distance board of all the communities north and south of La Junta. I was heading all the way to the end at Villa O’Higgins, 824 kms (512 mi) away. Villa Santa Lucia is the town at the junction to the road coming from Futalefú.

Copec is the national oil company and they’ve got the route pretty well covered. Cochrane is the last place with a proper petrol station, but it can still be found in Villa O’Higgins. Being remote, especially via land, petrol prices here are higher than the rest of Chile, which is already pretty steep. The cheapest was in the biggest city of Coyhaique at CP736/L ($6.04/gal) and the most expensive in Villa O’Higgins at CP935/L ($7.68/gal).

I was planning to spend the night near La Junta, but a couple, traveling on a new Honda TransAlp from Santiago approached me and told me about this hanging glacier that we could camp at a bit further south. Sounds good to me.

Putting in my wind-stop liner as the temps dropped with the receding sun and the TransAlp couple, Francisco and Liz swinging by. It was their first time going off-road and I made their ride a lot more comfortable by lowering the air pressure in their tires. They had just gotten into motorcycling recently and wanted to practice and learn how to tour by motorcycle before setting off on their dream ride all the way up to Alaska.

As the route gets close to its first encounter with ocean waters, I passed by the thin, long Lago Risopatrón. The road was cut into the cliffs and the views were wonderful while standing on the pegs.

Coming up to the small fishing village of Puyuhuapi at the mouth of the fjord of the same name. It was settled by German immigrants in 1935 and its tourism potential is growing. You can see the route continuing along the left side.

It was getting quite late in the day, but the bonus of riding near dusk is the beautiful light at this time of day. Local time was 7:30 pm.

The sunlight hidden behind clouds brought a warmth that is easy to capture.

We set up camp at Parque Nacional Queulat, just off the main route and we didn’t have to pay any entrance fees since it was so late in the day. This is the glaciated river flowing from Ventisquero Colgante (colgante glacier) back up behind this ridge.

A panorama of the park giving you a glimpse of Ventisquero Colgante, a hanging glacier, up in the mountains there.

The river was full of huge boulders, all brought down from the immense force of the mineral-rich water.

The next morning, we set off for a 2 hour hike to get much closer to the glacier.

The trail went through wet forest that was full of lively plants. This huge-leafed Nalca plant is typical of the region and Francisco said the stalk is a delicacy, tasting similar to rhubarb.

A weeping wall – water soaking down the rock face and allowing moss to flourish.

We got to the view point by mid-morning and there was still cloud cover over the top of the ridge and hiding the glacier, so we waited for the sun to warm up the air.

The glacier is constantly melting and its huge waterfalls is transporting that age old locked-up fresh water down the mountains and in turn, eroding the land. The waterfalls has a height of around 500 m (1,640 ft) and in the time that we were there we saw a new waterfalls form and disappear after a while.

After giving it an hour, the clouds lifted and revealed Ventisquero Colgante in all its majesty. It was a sight to behold; a river of ice hanging in a high valley and the color of the ice, a vivid blue showing the purity of the water held in there. There were frequent loud cracks that reverberated through the valley as the glacier slowly retreated, back to its mother, an ice field in the mountains.

On the way back down, a view looking west towards the route as it runs along the shoreline of this fjord.

A natural arch on the trail from fallen trees.

Saying goodbye to Francisco and Liz on their new Honda TransAlp, who set off from Santiago for a three week trip to the south, their first big motorcycle trip. Francisco was mining me for all sorts of various information regarding what tools were needed, how best to carry food and electronics, etc. I remember doing this to other travellers when I, myself was in the initial stages and it felt good to pass on this knowledge. They’re saving up for a house next and then the big trip to Alaska in a few years. Long term planning makes long term travelling a breeze.

Setting off southeast back on the Carretera Austral, running along this fjord.

When the route gets narrow, it raises your awareness as the surroundings close in. The huge leaves of Nalca plants added a new dimension to the scenery.

Between Puyuhuapi and the turn-off to Puerto Cisnes, the route is the most twisted as it climbs up and over a mountain ridge that extends to the sea.

Gaining elevation quickly through continuous switch-backs.

A pretty back drop as the route reached the summit. As I got more level with the peaks, I could see that they were all connected to an ice field extending over their tops.
[URL=””]Click here[/URL] to see the high resolution version.

A close up of a steep valley carved up by the flow and ebb of these rivers of ice. If we can transcend the business of our daily lives, the drama of Nature can be revealed. Yes, it’s hard to imagine this drama as it happens on time scales much larger than our few decades on this planet, but once awareness is raised of geologic time, stemming from the much larger cosmic time, there’s a hectic story being played out around our human civilization.

It was hard to pay attention to the road as new snow peaks came into view and my search to see if they were revealed to be part of yet another mountain glacier or not.

Tall trees and snow-capped mountains define this section of the route.

Coming down from the mountain, the first branch off of the Carretera Austral takes you along this newly paved section to the fishing community of Puerto Cisnes, about 30 kms (19 mi) away.

Puerto Cisnes at the mouth of the Puyuhuapi Canal.

It’s a small town with fishing still the primary activity and all supplies are still brought in by weekly truck deliveries on ferries from Puerto Montt. Even though the town has been recently connected via road to the Carretera Austral, commercial traffic is low on the route since it’s not easily connected to Puerto Montt.

Across from town, I came across the municipal park that had picnic benches and places for barbeques and camp fires.

I saw lots of dried wood lying around and collected remains from the other fire rings to have enough fuel to burn for the evening. I finally put my machete to use by chopping up a dried tree trunk into burnable pieces. If you’re wondering, I’ve crossed numerous borders with this machete with no problems, cause no authorities have seen it. I bought it back in Bolivia, a few months ago before I headed across the Amazon and sleep with it by my side when I’m wild camping.

The park was on the shores of this bay with fishing boats docked in the shallow waters. I watched as the waters retreated with the out-going tide. Local time is around 8:30 pm.

A lovely home with sanDRina parked among some trees and a roaring fire along a deserted beach in Patagonia.

A picnic table isn’t essential, but it makes camping all the more comfortable as a place to cook food and roll everything back up in the morning.

Cooking up some rice in a vegetable soup with tuna chunks on the strong performing MSR Dragonfly stove. Other travellers told me that using petrol as a fuel would require constant maintenance of the burning jet as it’s a dirtier fuel than propane, but so far, so good.

Frying up some crispy salted chillies, made by my aunt in her village outside Madras, India. The red chillies are soaked in salty curd (plain yoghurt) and then sun-dried. Deep-frying them to a crisp makes for a tasty condiment that’s not too spicy. I’ve tilted my smallest pot on the stove in order to use the least amount of oil possible and handy chopsticks getting the job done. There’s an intricate global supply chain in place in order to get these homemade goodies all the way from a village in India to my panniers in South America, thanks to my sister who’s been my logistical coordinator.

And voila, a tasty rice dish with some hearty proteins. After frying the chillies, some bits got broken off and the seeds also remained in the oil, so not to waste a good thing, I dumped the oil in the rice to heighten its flavour. My saturated fat intake is pretty low while I’m camping, so I can afford this oily addition to my diet.

Enjoying a tasty meal by a warm fire in southern Chile. What more do we really need?

After dinner, the simple entertainment of managing a fire makes up the evening programming. Once a fire gets going, it becomes an entity that responds to inputs that can massage the required carbon out into the oxygenated atmosphere, releasing light across its spectrum from visible to infrared (heat) along with the products of this combustion being CO2. Contributing to the ever-increasing amount of CO2 in our atmosphere does give me second thoughts about lighting a fire. However, I’ve eased my worries by calculating my carbon footprint for this trip and seeing that with an average monthly mileage of 4,750 kms (2,950 mi) on a motorcycle, my carbon emissions come out to 0.52 metric tons of CO2, compared to the monthly average of a developed urban resident being around 15 metric tons. So, a camp fire here and there feels justified.

I woke up to rain the next morning, which is very common here, hence all the lush vegetation.

I had to wait it out in the tent until it let up before I could emerge and go about the business of packing up a wet tent. Since mainly the outer tarp gets wet, I had it strapped on top of a pannier, along with the wet bike cover. It’s pretty slow-going in the morning when I camp and I just take my time, which I’ve observed to be 3 hours from the moment of waking up to rolling away on the bike. That takes care of washing up, preparing breakfast, washing the pots, packing the sleeping equipment, the off-bike clothes and putting everything back in its set place on the bike.

Heading back to the Carretera Austral. The road to Puerto Cisnes was only paved halfway.

A scenic sight of Rio Cisnes with boulders brought down from the mountains.

Back on the main route, which is paved for the next 270 kms (168 mi) past the big city of Coyhaique.

Climbing up and over a ridge with a wide view of Rio Cisnes down in the valley.

As I was passing by the pioneer village of Villa Mañihuales, I noticed this bus with a chimney on top and stopped for a light lunch.

Melinda’s Cafe is quite snazzy for how remote it is and I was happy to find wifi on this grounded bus. Since I had only a short ways left to my destination tonight, I bought a sandwich and spent an hour catching up with my digital life.

Back on the road and the impressive views are relentless.

There was about a 20 km (12 mi) section of gravel that was under construction near this bridge.

The Carretera Austral is hugely popular with touring cyclists. I saw more of them than motorcyclists. I’m moving so slowly that I kept passing these two guys every day. But hey, it’s not a race.

There’s a story behind this picture: Yesterday, when I stopped to take a photo of some snow-capped mountains with my SLR, I dropped one of my Wunderlich luggage straps and didn’t notice it till the next stop and I went back to look for it to no avail. I passed Helmut here and since they’re obviously going much slower and can see more of the road, I asked him if had seen the strap. So, today when I passed him, he waved me down and said he had found my strap. How nice of him and being German, he understood the importance of quality German-made luggage straps. Fostering good relations between motorcyclists and bicyclists.

As I rode thru Valle Río Mañihuales, the skies opened up and let loose their rain, so I found a comfy hotel in Puerto Aisén for CP12,000 ($24), ouch, but I didn’t want to set up camp in the rain and a warm shower sounded good after three days.

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

Previous: Patagonia, Part 1: Argentine Lake District

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