The plan was simple enough, or so we thought. We’d spent a couple of days recovering, eating, drinking and getting clean after our 8 day hike of the Torres del Paine ‘O’ Circuit and now it was time to get moving again. We set our course for Punta Arenas where we’d catch yet another ferry to cross the Strait of Magellan to Tierra del Fuego, about 250km further south.
It was a warm and sunny day and we anticipated a perfect day for riding. We’d heard that southern Chile and Tierra del Fuego in particular could be a bit windy, but we’re from the Canadian prairies so we thought were familiar with wind. A -40 C Winnipeg winter wind at the corner of Portage and Main can teach you everything you need to know about wind, at least that is what we’d been lead to believe. We were so naive.
Everything seemed completely normal as we left town, however that all changed as we rounded the 1st bend and were slammed by an invisible force so strong that it nearly pulled us out of our saddles. We were both blown over the yellow line and clear across the road, luckily there was no on coming traffic. And that is how things went for the rest of the day – we fought the wind constantly, leaning our bike as far over as we could to keep them going in a straight line. Half way to Punta Arenas there is a large “Monument to the Wind” sculpture, but we did not stop to pay our respects.
At least we had some company along the way. There was hardly any traffic but the fields were filled with wild Guanacos (the llama’s bigger, more graceful and undomesticated brother), sheep and rheas. Rheas are large flightless birds, they look just like emus and ostriches, (like a massive feather dusters). At least the guanacos had the decency to keep their distance, the rheas, on the other hand were running all over the place, including across the road in front us. Actually we couldn’t tell if they were running across the road or being blown across – either way they can move pretty fast!
We arrived in Punta Arenas to find yet another surprise. Since we had spent the last 8 days in the Chilean backcountry around Torres del Paine without access to any news, we did not know that Punta Arenas had suffered a massive river flooding only days before.
We were exhausted from the ride so we did notice much at first, then as we neared the town centre we could see the entire area was covered in a sea of mud. Thankfully the clean up was already well underway, however may streets were un-passable, some shops and houses were completely engorged with more than a meter of solid mud on the main level. The streets that were open were still slick with a heavy layer of incredibly slippery river mud, so we tip-toed our our way through emergency vehicles and clean up crews and eventually made it our hostel.
One of the attractions of Punta Arenas is a fairly large Penguin colony located a short boat-ride away. We looked into the possibility of a tour, but backed off once we heard the price. Besides, there is a small colony of about 50 rogue King Penguins located on Tierra del Fuego … we thought we could just visit them there. For free. So, we resorted to simply exploring the small city with an amazing cemetery.
We didn’t sleep much that night. Not because we shared a dorm room with 4 other travellers (& one who needed to investigate the contents of her crinkly plastic bags a surprising number of times during the night), but because the intense winds outside rattled the windows, the house and howled all night long. When we woke the winds were still going strong.
Despite the winds, we packed up and headed out. We drove to the end of the block, and still, the wind seemed to be under control. Then, we turned the corner and we felt its full wrath – as we pulled away from a street light the wind blasted us, knocking Sandra and her motorcycle to the ground. I barely made it across the intersection.
I pulled over and ran back to help her pick up the bike and as I made my way back to my bike, I could see tire tracks I had left in the mud-coated street. Because of the extreme wind, I had actually left diagonal tracks in the mud with both my front and rear wheels. I didn’t even know that was possible. We rode directly back to hostel, unpacked and stayed another night. Total distance traveled: 1 km.
We checked the wind report when we got back to the hostel. 91 km/hr explains a lot! (49 knots/hour 57mph)
Things were slightly better the next morning, and we made the decision to leave.
Patagonia is famous for its wind and it certainly was living up to its reputation, however we still needed to get off the mainland and reach the island of Tierra del Fuego. There are two ferries that will take you to Tierra del Fuego; from Punta Arenas it is a 2 hour ride aboard the main ferry across the Straits of Magellan, or one can drive 160 km north east the and take a smaller (and free) ferry which crosses at a much more narrow spot, therefore running every 20 minutes. We chose the later since the big ferry wouldn’t be leaving until 5pm.
The road took us along the north shore of the Strait of Magellan until we reached the ferry station, and our timing was perfect as the last cars and trucks were just boarding the landing craft-style ship and we were directed to just ride up the ramp. Easier said than done, the ferry more or less runs aground and drops a ramp to load and unload cars, and in the wind the waves were moving the the ship around like crazy and making it a moving target.
Once aboard, the short crossing was extremely rough so we rode the crossing beside the bikes holding on to them tightly in an attempt to prevent them from falling over while the ferry rolled and pitched excessively. It was a long 20 minutes…
Once we were successfully across we found a spot for lunch and then considered our options. It was getting on in the day and we still had a couple of hundred kilometres to cover and a border crossing into Argentina. There were 2 gravel roads heading out of the small town of Cerro Sombrero, both of which would take us where we wanted to go. We talked to some fellow diners in the restaurant about which would be a better choice for us and our motorbikes, one man said the western route was better, one said the eastern route was better and one reported that both roads were equally terrible. We decided to take the route our GPS device recommended – a decision we would soon regret.
The first 3 or 4 kilometres were manageable, but it was all down hill from there. We soon learned that the GPS had put us on the main trucking route. There was not a lot of traffic, but what little there was took the form of huge semi trucks hogging the entire road and showering us with stones. The road was full of huge ruts created by the trucks that would grab our tires and throw the bikes around, however what made it even more treacherous was the long stretches of deep gravel that would arrive without notice, causing the bikes to change direction unexpectedly, shaking the handlebars violently from side to side. This type of riding would have been unpleasant but manageable under normal conditions, however by now the wind had become ferocious, further complicating matters.
So, in addition to fighting the road and avoiding trucks, we also had to fight the wind by leaning our bikes in to the wind with all of our strength at, quite frankly, ridiculous angles in an attempt to keep the bikes going in a more or less straight direction. This caused the bikes to slide around even more in the deep gravel. The wind pushed us straight across the road to the edge of the opposite ditch on numerous occasions.
Under these conditions there are two options: stop and pull over or go faster, slowing down in deep gravel almost guarantees an accident. Since we were in the middle of nowhere stopping was not really an option, and besides, we would have surely been run over my a semi truck minutes later. Reluctantly we chose option number 2 and opened the throttle as much as we dared. I can’t count the number of near misses, last-minute saves and almost-crashes we survived, but it was without a doubt the most difficult and scariest ride of our entire trip. Two hours later, we arrived at the Argentinian border, exhausted, sore and extremely proud!
There were still a few hours of daylight left, so we decided push on to the town of Rio Grande, another decision we’d soon regret, but for different reasons.
The Argentinians seem to be obsessed with the Falkland Islands, or the Malvinas as they call them, and since this was the 30th anniversary of the war against the British, Malvinas banners and commemorative celebrations were everywhere, including in Rio Grande, headed up by the populist President, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner.
It was late in the day, we were frozen, exhausted and emotionally drained. However, because of the celebrations there were no available hotel rooms in the city, and it was just too cold and windy to camp. We rode around to 10 or 12 hotels and hostels, all of them were full. We asked hotels to call other hotels, to no avail. This was the first time during our trip that we had a problem finding a place to stay, we rarely make reservations and usually just show up, someone has always found room for us.
Finally, after 2 hours of looking, one innkeeper eventually found a hotel for us, sadly it was in a large luxury hotel at approximately ten times the cost of what we usually pay for a night’s lodging. Reluctantly we pulled out our credit card and called it a night. After such an eventful day it was actually pretty nice to have a night of luxury, so maybe it was not all bad.
The next day we got up, topped the bikes up and rode the final 300km to Ushuaia, the most southerly city in the world, literally the end of the road. The further we went, the more scenic the landscape became. From flat pampas, to rolling hills to dramatic mountains, the scenery on Tierra del Fuego kept getting better and better. As we crossed the final mountain pass we could feel the excitement rising, after nine months on the road we’d be reaching the actual end of the road, you can’t go any further.
Reaching Ushuaia is a special moment for all overland travellers travelling south through the Americas, and it was no different for us, it was very exciting. Of course we were immediately stopped by the police who welcomed us to their city.
After a quick hello, we followed the road that goes through town and out again to the end of the road. With frozen finger tips we happily posed in front of the sign thousands of overland cyclists, motorists, motorcyclists, and personal friends have posed in front of before us.