Big City

At long last, I made it to Buenos Aires, the biggest, and last city for me in South America. I’m staying in an apartment, which is making a very pleasant change. The price is quite reasonable, and I get my own space, my own kitchen, cable TV, aircon. It’s an older place, so it’s nothing fancy, but it is very well located. Comes complete with the clunking lift with manually operated folding grill doors. The sort you could stick your hand through when it’s moving. I still haven’t gotten used to the sickening lurch every time it starts moving.

Having my own place, I’ve been taking it easy, doing a bit of wandering around, but not too much in the way of museums, etc. The city isn’t the best for walking anyway, footpaths are generally crowded, narrow, and in poor condition. Plus I find it just depressing crossing 15+ lanes of traffic to get to the other side of the road. The other day I was trying to get to the Post Office, and I could see the building, but it took me a long time to get there. To cross the enormous roads, and chaotic intersections, I had to move away from my target, circle around, and finally approach it from an oblique angle.

When I got to the Post Office, the next difficulty was how to get in. Lots of fences, cars, but not many doors. Found a door, a small crowded room with lots of hot, stressed looking people. Not quite sure what they were doing. Just didn’t look right though for sending a package overseas. Let’s try door number two: Hmmm, everyone sitting on rows of seats, facing forward, with a blank, bored look. Not sure what’s going on here either, although I see someone get up in response to some unseen signal, and go through a turnstile at the end of the room. Hmmm, try door number 3. Aha! This looks more like it, only a handful of people, and an unmanned Customs desk. I meet an Australian couple, also looking to post stuff. When the Customs official turns up, they get a grilling about the items they want to send. They speak no Spanish, but Customs official speaks English. I chat a bit with him in Spanish, he just takes a half-assed look at my stuff, doesn’t even want to open the bags, just says sure, it’s fine, don’t worry about it. A bit later on, everything’s boxed and shipped. Bloody expensive though, only service is airmail, costs me around NZD$200 for 6kg. But that’s 6kg less for me to carry.

I spent a day over around the Palermo area, a bit fancier part of town. It’s a bit strange, it’s very high density living, but it’s hard to see why so many people want to live there. Perhaps it’s because there’s more parks than most of the city, although still not enough greenery. I wandered through one of the parks, where people were sunbathing in bikinis, in a small park overlooking a busy intersection. Portenos are strange. There was also plenty of evidence of leathery skin, jutting collarbones and shoulder blades, and ribs you could play the piano. All the things that come from severe poverty, or in this case, from decades of being a trophy wife. Lower and middle class people are overweight, sometimes you need to be very rich or very poor to be severely skinny.

There’s an interesting method used by the hawkers on the subway. They walk down a carriage, with a box of whatever they are selling. A sample is placed on everyone’s lap, for them to look at, or ignore. Then the seller comes back down the carriage, either retrieving the trinket, or better yet, getting some money for it. The guy selling small lights wasn’t doing so well, but the young man selling a bunch of hair ties, targetting women with long hair, was making quite a few sales.

I’m not quite sure what it is with the city though, but I haven’t quite gotten into it. Not sure, maybe I was expecting a more interesting place, but so far it just hasn’t grabbed me the way that Asian cities do. There’s hints of an interesting past, but many of the buildings are a bit anonymous. Not modernist anonymous, a little bit older, but anonymous all the same. I wandered over to Retiro station, where the long distance bus station, train station, and subway converge. This is packed with people, stalls selling random stuff on the street, dodgy standup eating joints, etc. I picked up a very cheap striped bag to put my panniers in on the plane. You see poor people all around the world with these bags, but I’ve had great trouble tracking one down to buy here. Anyway, I got one, then went into a dirty restaurant, the sort where the seats and table are sticky. No airconditioning here, but the fan tries hard. There are packed seats outside, but it’s empty inside. I agree with Peter Robb, better to sit inside, less hassle that way. But as I’m sitting inside, drinking my cheap beer, I’m feeling much happier about the city. Perhaps I just need to try and find my sort of area.

The weather here is like Auckland in February – high twenties, high humidity. I can’t give my Scottish readers a comparison time, they just don’t get weather like this. Sometimes a touch warm, but very pleasant, and I’m going to struggle when I get to the UK on Friday. Currently it’s raining and cold there, it’s going to be tough if I try and ride out of Heathrow airport…

UPDATE: Photos added at last. Not too many, didn’t take many in BA for some reason.

A week of it

I have been in Puerto Madryn for a week now. This marks the longest I have stayed in one place for this trip. Tonight I will be taking an 18 hour bus ride to Buenos Aires, and will be staying there for a week, matching my lag here.

Sometimes you get a bit bored staying in one place for a while, but in other ways it’s interesting. You get to know quite a bit more about a place, you don’t need a map, you know how the buses work, where to eat, which Internet cafes are reasonable, etc. It helps if you’re staying in a reasonable place, and El Gualicho has been pretty good. Staying in a 4-bed dorm, but half the time I was the only one in there. Plenty of other people around though.

You also see the normal activity of a town, its ebbs and flows. You see many, many police walking about Argentina, but they are a scruffy lot, often with little to mark them as a policeman. If you put on a plain blue shirt and trousers, with no markings, then as long as you have a baseball cap with “Policia” on it, no-one thinks anything of you walking around with a gun strapped to your hip. Sometimes they wear fluoro vests, sometimes T-shirts. I suspect maybe they all buy their own uniforms from wherever they like, with the bribe monies they extract from the locals. Anyway, it was still somewhat disturbing to see one of them running down the street, loosely holding a pump-action shotgun. Not sure exactly what was going on, but I saw them apprehending someone on a bicycle. A large number of officers and firearms seemed a bit of an overwhelming show of force to arrest a middle-aged man on a bike. Not sure what he did, probably riding on the footpath or something.

There’s been plenty of time to do the various tourist things about town, including a trip out to Peninsula Valdes to look at sea lions. We had to stand behind a fence, some way back off the beach. But yesterday, I had a chance to get a lot closer.

Dive operators here offer trips to go diving with sea lions, and I’d signed up for one. We’d put the trip off for a couple of days, because the wind was not being very helpful, and was was stirring up the weed in the bay, dramatically reducing visibility. But we could only put it off for so long, as I have to leave here sooner or later. So on a windless day, at high tide, I went out with Scuba Duba. Carolina driving the boat, Emilia as Divemaster, and just the two customers, myself and Julia, an Open Water diver from Toronto.

Glassy seas, but a bit of groundswell, as we bumped over to Punta Loma, about 30 minutes away. It’s not possible to do anything in Argentina without maté, so of course we had to have some of that on the way over. I should write about it more another time, but for now just understand the Argentines seem to go everywhere clutching their maté cup and Thermos of hot water.

As soon as we moored, we had small sea lions nosing up against the boat. We geared up, and dropped in. Even at the top of a very high tide, it’s only around 6-7m where we were, 50m out from the shore. We’re not allowed any closer, and we can’t go and annoy the animals, but if we just kneel in one place, they soon come around to check you out.

Obviously the big bulls are happy to sit on the shore sleeping, but the young ones are very keeen to come and check you out. Visibility was very poor – for my Auckland readers, it was similar to Lake Pupuke on a good day – but suddenly this large shape looms up and nibbles your hand. Although they have four limbs, and can walk on all of them (one of the differentiating features between seals and sea lions), they don’t really have hands. As such, they use their mouths to investigate things. If you hold out your hand, they will come and gently nibble it, not hurting you. You feel a tug behind you, and think perhaps it’s another diver, before realising it’s a sea lion investigating your hoses. One took a real shine to Julia’s hood, coming back again and again, in spite of being pushed off. For the other divers it is amusing, but it can be a bit disconcerting when you can’t see what it is that keeps bumping your head about.

They will swim up and look, move away, come back closer, then away, then come closer still. And then they get bored with you and disappear. So you tug on one of the ropes holding a marker buoy, and they come back to investigate. Good fun. Different sort of dive too, just sitting more or less in one place the whole time. Would have been amazing if the visibility was better – it is normally more like 7m, getting up to 20m – but it was still a good dive. Due to the poor visibility, we didn’t take any pictures, but this link should give you an idea of what it was like.

Being geared up, we took the opportunity for another dive, on one of the wrecks in the bay. Visibility was better, but still only 2m, so it was a bit hard to work out what was actually going on with the wreck. It tended to loom up at you rather suddenly.

I think that I may have become a little used to excellent dive briefings from the crew at Global Dive, as I was underwhelmed with the briefing from Scuba Duba. Possibly due to English not being the DM’s first language, I don’t know. But I shouldn’t have to prompt them to do a signal review when you have an Open Water diver on the dive, who has only done 8 dives, and 6 months ago at that. Oh and I think that all Americans should be forced to learn the metric system, so I don’t get gauges with PSI. Takes me too long to do the 15 timestable in my head underwater.

So I’m on the overnight bus this evening, just another 18 hours. But I’m travelling cama, the closest to business travel I’ll ever get. It’s the “express” service too, with only a handful of stops, so I should get a fair bit of sleep. Since I’ve got a week in Buenos Aires, I’ve rented an apartment, as the prices are quite reasonable. Hopefully that all works out wellm and by this time tomorrow, I’m happily ensconced.

Con Bicicleta

Andesmar Express finally got sick of my bike cluttering up the office in Rio Gallegos, and got it shipped to Trelew. Their website wasn’t offering anything new, but I thought I’d go to the office, and see if anything was happening. Not only did they have a bike, they had two. Small pink ones. Hmmm, might as well join the line, see if anything new has happened. As per usual, the line was not moving. I’m not really sure what some people do when sending/receiving a package, but for some reason it can be an incredibly complicated procedure to send a small box.

Anyway, I was in luck – someone coming back on duty recognised me, and pulled me out of line. “Is this your bike?” They already knew me, so didn’t even need to check ID, just got me out of there, very happy to have the bike back in my possession. I still have two weeks to kill in Argentina, and I only wanted to get up to Puerto Madryn, 65km away, but the main thing is that I am now in control of my destiny, I’m not waiting on anyone else.

Straight out of town the next morning, on a road that was far busier than I expected. Unpaved shoulder for the first half, with a very high number of trucks and buses. Not the most fun, but the wind was strong behind me, so the dullness of the scenery didn’t get me down. God knows what the Welsh thought when they first came here. From a low hill, you could see the cities of Trelew and Rawson, with a whole lot of nothing around them. I’m happy to ride this leg, but I couldn’t keep on going north. Think I’d go mad.

Puerto Madryn is a bit nicer than Trelew, situated next to a wide bay, with a fairly decent beach. Not super hot, but pleasantly warm, getting a little hot if you stay too long in the sunshine. There’s wildlife in the area, and diving possibilities. The town is more of a touristy place, with restaurants/shops aimed more at tourists. So I think I’ll stop here for a few days, before heading up to Buenos Aires.

Of course, extra tourists brings less welcome things – e.g. the West Africans coming around restaurants, with briefcases of crap to sell. Luckily not the full-on fake handbag scene, but eventually it will get that way. It’s an organised industry selling that in Europe, didn’t expect to see them here. And of course more tourists means tourists doing stupid things – like the mother I saw putting food on top of her 4 year old’s head, and encouraging the pigeons to eat directly from her, so she can take a photo. Would you let your child be covered in rats? No, I didn’t think so.

Check out this photo, taken from my lunch table. This dog is almost the size of Samson. Maybe that’s what we should do next time he’s filthy and we don’t want to put him in the car. Clearly the dog/owner have a fairly trusting relationship. This was only around town, presumably they don’t go too fast, or stop too suddenly.

More photos here

Bored in Trelew

5 days later, and I’m still here in Trelew, waiting for my bike to turn up. I got all excited yesterday, because their website showed it arriving in Comodoro Rivadavia, only 400km south of here. It then showed it being shipped out 20 minutes later, so I thought it might turn up yesterday evening. I went to the supermarket, did my food shopping for a days ride, started packing up stuff, and headed over to the bus terminal at 20:30. Should have plenty of time for it to arrive.

It’s a small office, so you’d think a bike would be obvious, but still, when I had over my claim ticket, the guy still makes a show of looking through the randomly piled up cardboard boxes. NB it clearly says on my form that it’s an unboxed bicycle, so it’s not like he has to check all the numbers. He even asks around “Hey, have we had a bike turn up recently?” But no, no bike to be seen. Tomorrow maybe. Early, I enquire? No, sometime in the afternoon.

So what went wrong? It was supposed to be in transit, and I’d allowed plenty of time for it to cover the last 400km. I went back and checked the Andesmar website, only to find that after shipping out of Comodoro Rivadavia, it was then listed as shipping out of Rio Gallegos (i.e. the start point) two hours later. How the hell was it supposed to have gone back to the start point, and covered the 800km in only two hours? It’s all very strange. Makes me wonder if perhaps they were going to ship it out, and processed it as such, but then couldn’t/wouldn’t put it on the bus. So perhaps, just perhaps, it did actually ship out the second time, and when I go to the bus station later today, I can pick it up. Well, I can dream.

So what to do in this town? Not a whole lot really, mainly just wander around a bit, sit in a park somewhere, read a bit, people watch. The town is relatively pleasant in the centre, for an Argentinian town – doesn’t say much, Argentinian towns are generally pretty crap, not just my opinion either. I can’t really work this country out. I go out for lunch today to a food hall kind of place, which should be pretty cheap. But it costs me US$10. OK, so that’s developed country prices. But when I look around, it often reminds me of the Middle East. Half-finished buildings everywhere, concrete block construction, with my favourite being the completed ground floor, with half-assed blocks and reinforcing steel sitting on top, for when they get around to doing the next floor. A few paved streets in the centre, but as soon as you get a bit further out it turns to gravel, with various bits of rubble strewn about for good measure. A reasonable number of people walk and ride bikes in this town, but the council seems to actively hate pedestrians. Footpaths are a joke, heights all over the place, random step changes between properties, footpaths randomly ending. There are pedestrian crossings, but cars just plow through pedestrians. Public spaces have obviously had recent work done to them, but it’s never completed, just abandoned.

OK, so it’s like the Middle East, or parts of Asia – but how do you correlate that with the high prices? Why do they pay developed country prices, for developing country conditions? Must be a legacy of their past – massive corruption, incompetent government, has been going on for centuries, is still going on. That in combination with a bit of a laissez-faire attitude. I’ve been reading “Myths of Argentine History” and it has some fairly interesting things to say about what was going on up to, and around the time of independence. Unfortunately the translation introduces many errors and typos, and the book can be quite difficult to follow, so I’ve probably missed a bit. Must seek out some more material to explain why things are the way they are here.

People watching is more interesting. Like watching the overloaded van going down the road. The rear is completely full, and the rear door is tied down – but the rope breaks, and stuff starts spilling out on the road, as the van drives off, driver unaware for 100m or so. The construction crew nearby wander over, pick up some of the stuff, and hold on to it, until the van finally comes back to collect it.

Sitting by another park, I watch a late middle-aged couple out doing some exercise. Due to the afore-mentioned crap footpaths, the only place to walk a reasonable distance without tripping over is the path around the smallish park. It’s only perhaps 500m, so as I sit there, they pass by several times, accompanied by their arthritic Alsatian. I can fully appreciate going out for a walk in the morning, but I don’t think I could handle doing 20 laps of a small, not very nice, park. I’d get dizzy.

Watching TV in a foreign language is one of my pleasures in life. It’s lots of fun trying to work out what’s actually going on. I understood what was happening with the flooding in Buenos Aires. But I couldn’t work out what the follow-up story was today – people were out banging their pots and pans. Portenos have often used this tactic in the past, to express displeasure at the government, but I’m not quite sure who this was directed at today – were they blaming the local council for not sorting out stormwater systems, or was it actually a weather dance, the reverse of the normal rain dance? Doesn’t seem to be much about it on English language news websites unfortunately.

Anyway, I’ll try and the bus station later tonight, if that doesn’t get anywhere, I’ll give it two more days, then go back down to Rio Gallegos by bus, and take my bike myself.

Sin Bicicleta

I have been forcibly separated from my bicycle. According to the website of AndesmarExpress, it’s still in Rio Gallegos, 15 hours bus ride south of here. It was supposed to arrive a day after me, but now it will be Monday (two days away) at the earliest. So I’m stuck in Trelew for the next couple of days at least. Oh well, at least it’s warm and sunny, and the town is reasonably pleasant.

In Ushuaia, I got up at 4:00am on Thursday morning, loaded up and rolled down to the bus station nice and early, clutching four large pieces of cardboard. The bus crew weren’t too impressed by the sight of the bike, but luckily the bus was less than half full, and once I slipped them a few pesos they cheered up and gave me the rear luggage section for the bike. Easy, no boxing required.

It’s not that great a distance to Rio Gallegos, but it involves going via Chile, and a 20 minute ferry across the Straits of Magellan. Border crossings are much simpler with the bike. You’re often the only one there. But on the bus, it takes longer. Especially the “Paso Integracion Austral”, the second crossing back into Argentina. Heaps of cars, trucks and buses. For once, they had combined the Chilean and Argentinian border posts, rather than the usual long gap between them. This saves time, but the building designers are surprisingly clueless, making this take longer than needed – for a start the Chilean customs are on the Argentine side of the building – so you go past Argentine customs, check out of Chile, come back and do Argentine customs, then walk out. Daft. Obviously doesn’t work properly coming the other direction either.

Plenty of people getting frustrated too. I saw something that reminded me that age does not always bring wisdom. A grey-bearded Englishman, looking like the sort that would smoke a pipe, was shaking his fist at the customs officer. Rule number 1 of border crossings: “Under no circumstances should you ever, ever allow yourself to show anger. Remain calm at all times.” You are at their mercy, do not do anything to piss them off.

Reaching Rio Gallegos after 11.5 hours of travelling, it was cold and drizzly, so I decided to get a bus north that night, rather than staying a night. First bus company wouldn’t take the bike, so I didn’t tell the second ticket seller. Waited 3 hours, then the bus turned up at 19:45 (for a 20:00 departure), with a big crowd of people around it. This is not looking good. Crew looked at the bike, said nope, we can’t take that, then turned away. Shit. What do I do? Throw away the US$65 ticket, and hope for something better tomorrow morning? Have to move fast.

Race back into the terminal, there’s a desk that does cargo shipments to other bus terminals around the country. Can you send this to Trelew? Sure, will arrive a day after you do. OK, fine, take it, will cost US$20. Enter my passport details, quick, quick. Take my money, ah no change, no-one ever has change in Argentina. Go get some from another shop, done, no boxing required. Run back out to the bus, jump on, we’re off.

Hang on, someone’s sitting in my seat. Both of us have tickets with seat number 47 marked on them. Odd. Talk to the attendant, he seems to say “your ticket is for the other coach.” It’s the right time, the right company, and this bus is going to Trelew (I had checked with several people), but somehow it’s not right. Don’t worry about it he tells me, sit down, it will be OK.

I’m still a bit nervous as we leave town. There’s not many roads around here, so I try and see if he gets on the right road. All seems OK, and luckily there are enough spare seats for me in the cama section. I’d paid an extra 10% for cama, where the seats recline further, and it’s a smaller section with fewer people and no kids. Good for those very long journeys, easier to sleep, without costing too much extra.

On the way out of town, we’re stopped at the police checkpoint. Normally they just wave you through, or maybe take the passenger manifest, but this time they get on board, and check people’s ID against the list. I’m worried about this, because I’m not on that manifest, and someone, either the bus company or me, could get in trouble. But they turn out to only be shaking down the locals, as the police do here. They carefully compare everyone else’s ID to the list, but with me they just look at my passport, and hand it back. No check of the manifest.

So I go to sleep, safe in the knowledge that the bus must be going in the right direction for at least another 700km. Things work out well, and it ends up going all the way to Trelew, a Welsh colony, where we arrive 15 hours later.

Hopefully on Monday the bike will have arrived, and I’ll be able to leave this town, to head to Puerto Madryn. In the meantime, it’s a nice enough place. I’m staying in a very old hotel, which could do with some updating, but it’s nice enough, in a faded 1920’s glamour kind of way. It’s another former Welsh colony, but I will be steering well clear of any dodgy Irish bars this time…

Sun at last

Apparently Ushuaia has two warm sunny days per year, and I’ve been lucky enough to be here for them. It’s not exactly hot, but it is warm and pleasant enough.

Yesterday the weather was superb when I woke up, so I decided to take a boat trip down the Beagle Channel, to Estancia Harberton. Along the way we saw penguins, sea lions, lots of bird life, etc. All with fabulous clear views of the mountain ranges on the Argentinian and Chilean sides of the channel.

Coming back via bus, we went up Garibaldi Pass, which just isn’t so interesting when you’ve driven in a bus. But it was a nice day out, and then on the way back we got to pat huskies. A bit expensive all up, but a good day playing tourist.

Before leaving you with some photos, I’d just like to point out one of the ways in which language can change over time. I’ve been reading a lot of classic works recently, as I can download them to my iPod Touch for free. Recently I read “The Last of the Mohicans”, which contained this passage:

“…permitted glimpses of her dazzling complexion, fair golden hair, and bright blue eyes, to be caught, as she artlessly suffered the morning air to blow aside the green veil which descended low from her beaver.”

Obviously the meaning of beaver has changed somewhat…

Photos here

End of the Road

I was enjoying staying in my nice hotel in Punta Arenas, but I had to move eventually. I turned up nice and early for the ferry to Porvenir, as I hadn’t reserved a ticket. I was one of the first ones there, but by the time I boarded just after 8:00, quite a few others were arriving. No extra charge for the bike.

Mine was the first bike to go on, and I was one of the first ones in the cabin. So I was a little surprised when I got off to find 7 other bikes there. I thought there might be one or two, but not that many. There’s only a couple of ways onto Tierra del Fuego, and the ferry didn’t run the previous day, so perhaps I should have expected it.

In a turnaround to the normal order of things, it’s the Chilean part of Tierra del Fuego that is boring grasslands, and the Argentinian part that has mountains, lakes, forests. The first part, crossing from Porvenir heading towards San Sebastian, had very strong tailwinds, and I was making good time, over gravel roads. Almost nowhere to shelter out there though, just a handful of trees. I found a small hut on the side of the road, and sheltered in there. There was a table, a stove, and a set of bunk beds, unfortunately missing mattresses. This gave me good shelter from the wind, and somewhere to cook dinner. Many other cyclists have stopped here too, judging by the graffiti on the walls.

The iron bars weren’t going to be very comfortable to sleep on, so I set up the tent next to the hut, getting at least partial shelter from the winds that howled all night. Plus some passing motorist had thoughtfully deposited a turd in the hut, so it wasn’t the best place to sleep. It’s often the way here – any time you find shelter in this exposed land, it turns out that motorists use it to take a crap. Luckily the tampon left lying on the floor was still in its wrapper.

Crossed the border early the next morning, and back onto the pavement. It’s strange having to cross borders here in this small island. If you look at the map, it just doesn’t make sense. When I leave Ushuaia, Argentina, going to Rio Gallegos, Argentina, I will need to cross into Chile, adding hours to the trip time. But as soon as you cross the border, you understand why Argentina won’t give it up – there’s oil here.

Rio Grande next, a surprisingly large town, with two Carrefour and two La Anonima supermarkets. All on the same street of course, not far from each other. Like Asians, Latinos have a different view of competition to that normally seen in the West. I stayed at Club Nautico, where I slept on the floor of the dojo. Was easier and warmer than putting up the tent. Plus of course the wind hadn’t stopped, so I would get a better sleep indoors. My MacPac Minaret tent is very strong in the wind, and has been in some extreme conditions, but it still flaps about a bit, making sleep difficult.

On the way to Tolhuin, the boring grassland finally gives way to short trees and hills, and then forests and mountains. This also means you get some relief from the relentless westerlies. You need it, because the road turns south, then west. At Tolhuin, there is a superb bakery, offering everything a hungry cyclist could need. If you want to, you can even stay there for free, because the owner likes cyclists. Not surprisingly, there were 8 other cyclists there when I arrived. I felt like camping though, so went to Camping Hain by the lake, where the wind shelters have evolved into complete coverings for your tent. Nice place.

Sunshine and no wind made such a change. I could just sit in the forest and relax, something I haven’t been able to do for some time. I was in no rush to get to Ushuaia, so camped 30km from the city, by a river, enjoying the sunshine.

Didn’t last, so the ride into Ushuaia, on a particularly crappy road near the city, wasn’t much fun. I stopped for supplies, then headed to Lapataia, the end of Ruta 3. I had bought a bottle of bubbly for celebrations, but it was cold and windy, with a squall coming in, so I retreated to the campsite. I felt I deserved a decent campsite, so paid, rather than taking the free option. It was cold, and I wanted a hot shower…so after checking in the woman tells me the shower is broken, they’re useless and they can’t be arsed fixing it, and maybe it will be working tomorrow night at 9pm. Cow. Paid 50 pesos to get into the park, then 18 for the campsite, and now there’s not even a hot shower?

Rode the 20km back to Ushuaia the following day, this time getting snowed on. In the middle of summer. I have no idea how these people live here. Found a hostel, and soaked for a while in hot hot water. I’m sure the staff were grateful I washed and changed into clean clothes – I hadn’t changed my riding shirt for 6 days, and some nights I never took it off, because it was too cold.

It’s a bit much of a rich tourist town this one, too many shops selling overpriced crap. Sure, lots of places have English speaking staff, but you pay for it. At least I can get some English books, which I’ll need for the next phase of the trip.

I’m going to get a series of buses north, stopping off at various points along the way, to break up the journey. My first leg will be to Rio Gallegos, then perhaps to Comodoro Rivadavia. Went to one bus company, they said no, you can’t bring a bike. Try these guys instead. Went there, they said yes, but you need to put it in a box. Crap. Bike boxes are very scarce here, too many cyclists riding in and flying/busing out. Plus if I box the bike, it’s a pain to get to the bus station. So my current plan is to ride down to the bus station at 4am (departure 5am), and take a few large pieces of cardboard and a big roll of tape. Then I’ll have a chat to the driver, see if it really needs to be boxed, if it does, I’ll strap some cardboard around it, tape it up, and hope for the best.

Photos here.

Just a cool breeze

It’s amazing how quickly things change. I woke up in El Chalten, in the mountains, to drizzle. It would probably rain all day. By nightfall I was in a place that receives only 20mm of rain per year.

I had been considering a day off in El Chalten, but listening to the rain I decided I’d had enough of it. I knew I didn’t have far east to go, and within 10km I was pulling off the raingear. I was also riding on pavement for the first time in a couple of weeks, with a strong tailwind, and a gentle downhill. Very, very easy going, and such a change to the last few weeks.

The countryside changed very quickly, from lush forest, to dry country. Not many houses, to almost none. Just a few estancias along the way. The estancias are a mystery to me. They are generally large, with multiple buildings, and they appear to control a large area. However, I saw almost no sheep or cattle in the ride from El Chalten to El Calafate. A few horses, a guanaco, an armadillo, but only two sheep. Where are they all? My guess is that there used to be thousands of sheep, and large sums of money were made, but they destroyed the land. It’s too fragile out here, and when the sheep eat the grass low, the soil just blows away in the relentless wind. It will probably take thousands of years to recover.

Some people struggle with the bleakness here, but so far it’s OK for me. There are still mountain ranges, glacier fed lakes, and a handful of buildings. I’ve seen much, much bleaker than this.

I’m joined by Marko today, and we have a very easy ride for the first 90km. We then turn around the end of the lake, and it’s a different story. The wind is hammering us, pushing us all over the road. Thankfully there’s little traffic. After 20km of that, we stop at one of two places to stop along the whole 220km, at Hotel La Leona. It’s a very nice place, and we’re grateful when we shut the door and get relief from the wind. But we know there’s another place 10km down the road, and decide to push on, since we know the next day will be tough. So we just have cake and a drink.

Down the road we get to Parador Luz Divina (Divine Light), where it seems the proprietors are chasing a different sort of divine light. It seems to be run by a bunch of stoners, and is not so fancy, but it ends up being a good place. I would prefer if the owners spent more time clearing up the dead cattle and empty beer bottles from the camping area, than getting stoned. Walking around inside with a hoody on and wearing sunglasses is a bit odd too. But one guy speaks English, and is nice to us. I have a shower under a dribble of water, but at least it’s warm.

A couple stay in the hammock near our tents, talking and giggling all night. I don’t understand the way the locals manage time. It’s not that hot at day, so why sleep all day, and do things at night? Doesn’t make sense.

The next day I fill my bottles with very silty water – but it’s silty from the glacier feeding the lake at the other end, so it will be fine to drink. We set off early, knowing it will be a long day. Starts out OK, but then we climb, straight into the wind. At the top is a gentle downhill, but I can’t roll down it – I have to pedal, or I won’t move. But we can see the road turning just ahead, and crawl towards it. Speed again, and on a longer downhill I hit 73km/h. The road turns ahead though, so I brake, knowing that if I’m going to fast, the crosswind will fling me over the corner.

We all stop for lunch, Marko and I, and Neil and Victoria, a Scottish/NZ couple riding this way. We’re sheltering in a ditch, apparently also used as a toilet, to get out of the wind, before the intersection where we turn directly into the wind. We’re all apprehensive about the next 32km.

Can’t be put off forever though, so we try and get it out of the way. It is a ridiculous headwind, at least 40km/h, and we can barely move into it. Sometimes we’re reduced to pushing the bikes. One couple of cyclists will stop for a break, 10 minutes later you can still see the others, only a kilometre ahead.

All I can do is put my head down and focus on the white line under my tires. Sometimes 4km/h, occasionally up to 10. Drafting helps, but it still hurts. It will take us 5 hours to cover the 32km into town. Reaching the municipal campsite, we’re all shattered. You’re happy to have made it, so don’t quite realise how tired you are at first, until later that night, when you’re falling asleep at the restaurant. We all slept well.

I’ve been having 3 days off in El Calafate, preparing for the next leg, which will probably have both headwinds and tailwinds. The best I can hope for is light winds. That or I could head east to Rio Gallegos, instead of east, south, west to Puerto Natales.

While here, I went on a daytrip to Perito Moreno Glacier. This is the main reason for this town existing, and it really is remarkable. Just an enormous river of ice, 5km wide, 60m high, 30m long, and moving 1-2m per day. I’ve now seen a few glaciers on this trip, but this really is the most impressive. You might just be able to make out a boat to the right of this photo. That’s quite a large catamaran (at least 65ft), but it looks tiny.

Photos from the ride to Calafate here, and a few of the Perito Moreno Glacier

The hard way back to Argentina

I’m back in Argentina, after one of the more interesting border crossings I’ve done. I’ve crossed many, many borders now, and usually the fun and games come with the customs formalities. But this time customs on both sides were very quick, and the fun was the physical crossing.

The ferry leaves from about 8km out of town, so we (Susan, Martin and I) had a short ride to warm up. Early start for me these days, on the road by 7:45. Usually it’s been closer to 9 I’ve been getting away. Easy ride down to the ferry, where the bikes are loaded on. As we’re getting on, an old guy with crutches is being lifted onto the boat. Hmmm, is this crossing as hard as people make it out to be? Later turns out that he’s going to the estancia – he was probably one of the early people breaking in this land.

After everyone is aboard, another cyclist appears – he’s a Brazilian, who has been riding very long days for weeks, as he’s been short on time. Short on planning too, as he arrived at Villa O’Higgins on Wednesday, the day the last boat left. He also had no more Chilean money, so he had been camping for three days in a disused boat near the ferry. Despite being closest to the departure point, he is somehow late.

The ferry is straightforward enough – strong winds, but mostly behind us. On the way down the long narrow arm of the lake, we stop to drop supplies at one place, and drop a passenger (and his 3 dogs, who had crapped on the deck) at another. These are extraordinarily isolated spots – little regular transport in summer, none in winter. Guess they like their own company.

At the other side of Lago O’Higgins, we stop for lunch, before completing border formalities, and starting the trek. The Chilean side starts out very steep, but it’s dry, and the 4WD track is mostly rideable. A bit of pushing, but things are going OK. At the top, the track levels out, for some good riding. At one point, the road is diverted through a runway. The only time I’ve ridden on a runway before was on the emergency landing strips on the Stuart Highway. Strange runway to have in an isolated place, complete with fence and all – must have been military. Can’t see what Argentina would want to invade for. We meet a couple of cyclists coming down. They said it was tough, but OK. They don’t look too much the worse for wear.

We reach the actual border around 3pm, and so far we’re all OK. We could have camped right there, but figure we should make a start on the Argentine side. As we find out though, once you start, you can’t stop – you have to push on. It started to rain at this point, and the 4WD track became an ugly horse track.

What had been a manageable bike ride became something that would be a fun adventure on an unloaded mountainbike. Except now I’ve got panniers to deal with as I slog through the mud, across streams, sometimes with a few branches as a bridge, bash the bike on rocks, snag the front panniers on bushes…all while being rained on constantly. It’s a…challenge. Sometimes I have to leave the panniers behind, take the bike, come back for the panniers. Other times I sink in the mud up to my knees. Waterproof socks don’t work when they get flooded from the top.

At one point, the track was so deeply rutted that the sides were almost at the level of my handlebars. Sometimes I have the bike down in the ruts, while I walk with my feet on the bank above. How come the other cyclists we met weren’t filthy? I think they must have stopped off for a wash in the river somewhere. It would have been much harder for them, some parts were very steep. The track is also very slippery, so even when I want to ride on the level parts, I have trouble with the wheel slipping. My shoe tread is also full of mud, so they slip too. But there was a perverse enjoyment in it. I just wish I wasn’t bashing the hell out of my panniers – they’re at the end of their life, but I need them to last a couple more months.

Finally I make it to the Argentinian customs, on the north side of Lago del Desierto, at about 6pm. We hadn’t planned on making this crossing on the same day, but the boat is supposed to be due in 30 minutes. The hikers are hanging around waiting, so we join them. Thinking the boat won’t be far away, we don’t get fully changed into dry clothes. We wait, and we wait…finally the boat turns up, around 7pm. We get on the boat and wait some more. All four cyclists are very cold at this point, sitting still, trying to concentrate on staying alive. Other tourists open the windows to look out, we have to move around the boat to find somewhere no windows are open.

Finally the engines start…then die. A little later, the mate goes up to the bridge, holding a pair of pliers. A few minutes later, the engines start again, and we’re moving. We start moving down the lake. Gusts of wind coming roaring down the mountain, bringing up a lot of spray. It’s all quite interesting, but I can’t focus enough to get the camera out, and I don’t want to hang out the window, in the wind, to get a picture.

In front of me are a young Argentine couple. She has her eyes painted like a doll, or maybe like a young girl playing with makeup might. They keep kissing, but she keeps her eyes open, staring coldly at him. It’s very disturbing. It’s like she’s a Thai or Russian bride, pretending to get along with her suitor. The captain comes to talk to them. He looks like Maradona, although maybe not so fat. Could be he’s dressed to look more like him, and I can definitely see him doing a swan dive on the turf. He keeps opening the window to point out things you can’t see in the mist, and I’m thinking “Shut the ****ing window or I’ll die of hypothermia here.”

Finally we make it to the other side, around 8:30pm now, and hurry off the boat. A sign says “Camping 200m”, so we head that way. There’s no showers at the campsite – well there were, but they’ve been broken a while(years probably…), and there’s a pile of turds in one of them. But we’re too cold to argue about paying for not much, and then the guy hauls us all into the office in front of the fire…we all make the same sound, as some warmth finally returns.

As I put up the tent, some hail falls on me. I change into dry clothes, and we head to the cooking shelter, where a couple of Argentines have a fire going. They appear to be cooking half a beast, but it’s just dinner for the two of them. Not minding the smoke in our eyes, we cook dinner. Half an hour later, warm(ish), dry, sheltered from the wind and rain, with warm food inside us, the world is a different place.

The next morning we have clear skies, but it’s still cold. Clear skies show the glacier close to our campsite, and we are rewarded with views of Mt Fitzroy – normally covered in cloud 4 days out of 5. We have a strong tailwind pushing us down the rough road to El Chalten. Good campsite there too, lots of hot water. The only casualty is I lose my Icebreaker hat to the wind somewhere – didn’t notice until later that it had blown out of my barbag. Sunshine, pizza and beer in El Chalten, and things are looking up. I also catch up with Marko, who I last saw in Coyhaique.

One more note – the place next to the campsite had a sign up “All the pizza you can eat for $28” (about $7USD). But when we go past later, it’s gone – I think they saw 5 hungry cyclists ride past, and decide it might break the budget…

Some photos from the crossing here. Like Jeff Kruys, I would have taken more photos, but it was too damn hard.

Keeping up with the Jones

Well New Years wasn’t quite alone in a forest, but it wasn’t too far off. I was in a nice little riverside campsite, along with maybe 10 others. I had had a tough day on the bike, so although I could have joined them in the cabin, I ended up drinking some wine from the Tetrapak I was carrying, and falling asleep by 10pm. People talk about noisy Argentinian campsites, and I was a little worried about that, but it was no problem. I would have been too deeply asleep to notice anyway.

After Bariloche, I headed south in the wind and rain to Lago Steffen. This is a 10km dirt road detour off the main road. 4 of those 10km are very steep, with multiple switchbacks. I lost 400m in altitude, coming down to just below 600m. I think that this, combined with being more sheltered, made it feel warmer at the campsite. Still cold though – the temperature inside my tent dropped to 5 degrees overnight. It was a simple campsite, but with a shower block. There was a wood burner attached, that heated the water. There was no fire at first, but later someone lit it – lucky for me, because I didn’t think they would, since so few people were there. I was pretty grateful though, as I was too cold to face a cold shower.

In El Bolson, I stopped at the brewery, which has a campsite. Only one other person was camping, but plenty of locals were eating at the restaurant. Hot water, shelters, food, beer and Wifi – I was pretty happy.

More cold, wind and rain the next day, interspersed with hot sunshine, and some bad roads, made for a tough New Years Eve. New Years Day was a shorter day, but still a lot more climbing than I would have liked. At one stage I picked up a stray dog, that decided to follow me for 5km. It was mostly climbing, so it could keep up. Couldn’t seem to shake it, until I hit a long downhill. Kept trying to discourage it, because I didn’t want the skinny thing following me for miles, only to luck out on food.

Finally the sun came out for extended periods, as I rolled into Trevelin a former Welsh colony. First time in short sleeves for weeks. Nice easy day too, and a nice hostel – Casa Verde.

I was planning a quiet night, but some others encouraged me to go out. At first we sat by the main plaza/roundabout watching the same cars go by again and again. Turns out there’s not a lot happening in this town of 5-10,000. It has one bar, the “San Patricio Irish Pub” which would be the least Irish Irish pub I’ve ever seen. The only Irish thing was the green curtains.

The problem of course is that Argentinians don’t go out until quite late – we got there at 1:30, but it didn’t pick up until at least 2am. I have no idea where all these people were the rest of the night, but they were still going strong at 5am when we pulled the plug. A note to others going to this pub – do not order the “Cuban Mojiti” – rather than use fresh mint, they appeared to have used toothpaste for flavour. We’re not sure what was in the “destornallido” either, but it was strong. Another note is that you should be wary of places that let you pour your own vodka mix. Perhaps we should have done what the locals did, and stuck to beer.

So today was spent recovering, and wandering about this town. Odd place, with fair Welsh-looking people speaking Spanish. It’s also interesting seeing the places with immaculately groomed and watered lawns, something you don’t often see here. It rains a lot, but the dry winds seem to strip the moisture rapidly.

Tomorrow I will head back to Chile, to join the famed Carretera Austral. Not sure what communications will be like for the next week or so. Will update the blog, and add photos when possible.

Photos from this leg here.