Bike Touring

Chung Wah

When I was a child, there was a Chinese takeaway shop just up the road from us. It was a real hole-in-the-wall type of place, a high counter opening to the street, where you placed your order. Run by Cantonese people, it sold both European and Chinese takeaway food. The Chinese food was probably that version that seems to get sold to Westerners, but not within China, but that’s by the by.

On a Friday night, we would frequently cook some steak on the BBQ, and get some chips to go with it. All well and good, but I could never understand the quality of the chips that Chung Wah produced. By all appearances, this was a very successful business, and operated there for many years. But the chips were horrible nasty greasy things, soggy and disgusting. I am aware of certain guidelines on how to produce quality potato chips, involving things like temperatures, oil, time, etc., and I’m pretty sure that Chung Wah didn’t follow any of them. But people kept going back. After some time I managed to convince the family to frequent Adriatic Fisheries instead, which produced decent chips. I should also note that Chung Wah has now been replaced by “Great Wall Takeaways,” which produces a similar line, but in a nicer shop, and they do know how to make good quality chips. A special tip: When ordering chips there, use “Jackson” as the pick-up name for an extra large serving.

Now the reason I bring this up is because by and large, the potato chips (or French fries, or papas fritas) are appalling. Even Chung Wah would be embarrassed by some of them. Chilean food is pretty poor generally – even some Argentinians were complaining to me about it the other day – and chips are fairly prevalent. But they seem to have no idea what decent chips look like. Until here. I’m not sure what it is, probably something to do with the far more mixed heritage of Punta Arenas, but I have either eaten or seen, at at least 6 different establishments, potato chips worthy of the name. True, they aren’t “Mr Chips chips, mister,” but they are pretty good. If only I could get them to consistently bring me the Aussie Gravy when I do order chips, I would be sorted. My Spanish is sufficient for most restaurant/bar situations though, so it’s no big deal.

The ferry from here to Porvenir, Tierra del Fuego, doesn’t run on Mondays. So I have had four days off here, not doing a huge amount. Had a broken bolt on the bike, found a bike shop, the helpful owner took me up the road to a engineering shop. No problems, we can sort that. So I pick up the bike an hour later, and as I’m putting the rack back together, I snap another bolt. So I’m back at the machine shop in half an hour, with a wry grin the engineer takes the bike from me again. This time it was a bit trickier, the blowtorch was required, as there was Loc-Tite on the bolt, making it almost impossible to remove without heat. Going to have to get some touch-up paint on that. But it’s now sorted, and hopefully that will be the last broken bolt for this trip.

Tomorrow I’ll head to Porvenir, weather permitting. A 2.5 hour ferry ride, then a couple of days of gravel road riding, then a few days of tarmac to get to Ushuaia. Almost the end…will have a look at the wind, and decide if Ushuaia will be the end of riding in South America, or if there might just be a bit more. The engineer was telling me about 200km/h winds just a bit further up the coast…

A few photos from around Punta Arenas, taken with the new camera

  • Church in Punta Arenas
  • Main shopping street (Bories)
  • Government buildings
  • View over the Straits of Magellan
  • Derelict soccer field
  • Not much of a racecourse
  • No stormwater drains, in spite of the rain
  • Typical houses (well, nicer ones anyway)
  • You've got to be hardy to go paddling in the Straits of Magellan
  • More flooding
  • This was the least dodgy looking nightclub
  • Not quite sure why Magellan is subjugating Fuegians (at each side)
  • Friend sitting beside me on the bench
  • Not all dogs are strays
  • Punta Arenas Cemetery
  • Punta Arenas Cemetery
  • Punta Arenas Cemetery - notice the origins of the couple, and the use of English
  • Spaces still available
Bike Touring


In a real bed! With a TV! And central heating, no less (excellent for drying clothes). Sheer luxury I tell you, here in Punta Arenas.

Not bad, since I woke up that morning in a gravel pit, by the side of the road, only 3 degrees in the tent. Took a crap in view of northbound trucks (luckily not that many at that time of day). Then rode most of the day in crosswinds, apart from when it started hailing. Rain I can handle, since I was wearing all my rain gear as protection against the wind. But hail stinging a man in the face does wear you down.

Captain Stokes, the first captain of the Beagle killed himself not far from here, writing beforehand:

“In the south…a man’s soul dies within him.”

Now it didn’t all work out badly in the end, because he was replaced by Robert Fitzroy, who would choose a young Charles Darwin to accompany him on his next voyage. And I am certainly not in the same situation as Captain Stokes. But I tell you…if I had to spend years sailing around here, dealing with day after day after day of gales, sleet, hail, snow, rain, well…I could understand his choice of exit. This Thing of Darkness is an outstanding book about the Beagle, I highly recommend it.

I rode down from Puerto Natales in a couple of days, with the winds being more manageable in this direction. I met an American couple who had been on the road five days, and now had 35km (out of 245) left to go. Here’s some free advice for would-be bike tourists in Patagonia:

  1. Do some research into the wind! Do not ride north or west, unless you have an astonishingly good reason to.
  2. Get some decent wet weather gear. Yes cold is a problem, but rain is a constant too.
  3. Do not, under any circumstances, take your girlfriend on her first bike tour to Patagonia. Take her to France, or South East Asia, or Switzerland. Nice, easy, non relationship-breaking. I have met several couples where she has given up on the bike, and gone onto the bus. If this is their first experience of bike touring, why would they come back?
  4. Get a decent bike, and test your gear out first. I’ve seen plenty of bikes broken by the ripio. Mine too, but so far only minor.

So since I’m staying in a nice place, and it’s a reasonable town, I’ve decided to stay a few days. Riding in Patagonia has taken a lot out of me (or maybe I didn’t put enough in?) and I need the rest. 3 days off would have been enough, but due to ferry timetables, I will have to take 4 days off. Plenty of shopping around here, and I needed to get a replacement camera. I could get a new GPS – same model as before, or a shiny new touchscreen one – but the prices are too high. Even at the duty free area, the prices for cameras were a little high. Annoyingly, they’re also refurbished ones, although you don’t find that out until later. Oh well. It’s still better than the one I had.

I’ve also been eyeing up a netbook, as there are so many for sale here. Around $400-$500USD for a reasonable little notebook computer, it’s very tempting. But given the weather, the roads, and my propensity to get stuff stolen, I think I’ll hold off on that. It can wait until the next trip, when the iPad has taken over the world.

A final note: Google is removing the FTP publishing feature I use for this site, to publish content to They want to further assimilate me, and host the blog at It’s something I could really have done without, especially since they’ve not given us much notice, and these things are always a pain to sort out on the road. So I’m going to have to look at my options, possibly move to WordPress. The timing is bad – if it was a month later, I could get it all sorted when I get home, but instead I may have to migrate, then shift again later. Argh. You get what you pay for. Anyways, there will be some changes over the next few weeks – if it all goes well, you shouldn’t notice too much difference, although RSS feeds will probably need updating. Will let you know.

Bike Touring

Fool me once

I was going to write about the last few days, riding from El Calafate to Puerto Natales. I would have written about the scenery, from mountains to open altiplano, back to valleys, and down to sea level again for the first time in weeks. I would have mentioned the cold – some snow at 500m even – and of course the wind. I would have told you that I enjoyed the open spaces, although admittedly not so much when I was tacking into the wind.

I would have mentioned the dead horses at my campsite – no, beating them didn’t help. Plenty of live wildlife though, guanacos, Darwin’s rheas, foxes, and oddly enough, sheep and cattle. I would have even posted pictures of some of them.

Long distances, isolated places, these would be mentioned. And then reaching Puerto Natales, where I found Baguales, a micro brewery that has now opened a bar that would not be out of place in Kingsland (or perhaps Leith, for my Scottish readers). They served me excellent beer, and the best hamburger I’ve seen so far in South America. And then holy of holies, I found peanut butter! One last jar at the supermarket, right at the top at the back of the shelf, where shorter customers couldn’t see it. It was from the United States, so luckily it had bold writing on the side, proclaiming: Warning: Contains peanuts. Well I should hope it does.

But…after returning to my campsite from dinner, I saw the front zip partly open. This was unusual, because I generally close the zips fully, as you don’t know what the weather will do. As I opened that zip, I saw the inner zip was not closed fully either. I pretty much knew what had happened as I opened the zip. Sure enough, my bag was open, looking rather empty. Empty camera case tossed aside, GPS missing, inner pocket opened, and one of my cash supplies gone, along with memory cards missing.

Sigh. We’ve been here before.

Could have been better, could have been worse. This time, the passport was stored somewhere else, and not touched. Technical issues in Calafate stopped me copying my photos to another drive. But I have been uploading photos along the way, general in full size, so they’re not all lost. There was quite a bit of cash, as I had been carrying extra amounts because I’ve got a few different currencies. The mobile phone wasn’t taken. The GPS hd track logs, waypoints, and full maps, which were very useful…but no more. I still have a copy of those maps, but nowhere to view them. Luckily it’s not too much further to go now, and the roads aren’t too complicated here, so I should be able to work it all out. The travel journal was left too, and no credit cards were lost (they’re distributed with my other money supplies. Strangely, my water and fuel bottles had also been taken.

Well I suppose everyone gets stuff stolen in South America. Just that it’s usually in the poorer, rougher countries, not the relatively developed Chile and Argentina.

Just after seeing what had happened, I met Max, an Australian riding down from Alaska to Ushaia. He’s staying at the same campsite, but I hadn’t seen him earlier in the day when I arrived. A pity I hadn’t, because he’d seen someone at my tent around 8:30, when I was out. They were sitting at the door of my tent, wearing a headlamp, and looking like they belonged. Not knowing whose tent it was, Max didn’t think it was out of the ordinary.

Interesting sidenote: On a hunch, we checked the rubbish bin out on the street – and there was my fuel and water bottles. Lucky, because getting a replacement fuel bottle isn’t easy, and would have rendered my stove useless. So the thief was probably trying to look like he went to the tent, grabbed the bottles (which were sitting in the vestibule), and strolled out, looking like he belonged. Which is part of what makes me think it was a tourist, not a local. The locals tell me that a local thief would have just taken the whole bag, and I would have lost a travel journal too. But then why did the stupid **** take a crappy 3yr old camera, and my memory cards, which would have been worth bugger all.

Anyway, Max speaks fluent Spanish, and was a tremendous help. We spoke to the staff of the campsite/hostel, and they got the manager in. We went over what happened, and went around the corner to the police station, to file a report. The carabineros are a solid, respected force, but there’s not much they can do. I’ve got a report for insurance purposes, but there’s not much else that will happen. They were hassling the campsite owner, saying he should have better security. But there’s not much more he could do – the site is fenced, there’s one way in and out, but if you look like you belong, you probably won’t be challenged, given the numbers of people passing through this town.

Oddly enough, after all that, I slept as soundly in my tent last night as I ever have. You just have to deal with these things. But maybe I should not have balked at the $31USD I was quoted for a dormitory room at a hostel in town…

I’ll head to Punta Arenas from here, which is one of the biggest towns in the region, at around 120,000 people. It has a duty free area, so I’ll try and pick up a new camera there. Will probably give the GPS a miss, since the prices won’t be cheap.

Bike Touring

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:

  • On the ferry, heading down Lago O'Higgins
  • This was actually an easy part. Note the wide, dry road, even if we did have to push
  • Looking back to Lago O'Higgins. The colour is because it's glacier fed
  • Susan riding up a manageable part
  • The truck stopped just before this bridge
  • Not every day you ride down a runway
  • This was a good bridge
  • Here it started getting ugly
  • Like this
  • Joke of a bridge
  • The ruts got deeper a little further down
  • Woke up the following morning, to realise a glacier was very close to the campsite.
  • Rare clear view of Mt Fitzroy. Too steep for snow to stick to it.
  • Not so nice in the mountains

Like Jeff Kruys says, I would have taken more photos, but it was too damn hard.

Bike Touring

Villa O’Higgins

I’ll keep this brief, because the Internet connection is flaky, but I’ve made it to Villa O’Higgins, at the end of the Carretera Austral. A few good days travelling down from Cochrane, on some very quiet roads.

At one point I needed to catch a ferry, from Puerto Yungay to Rio Bravo. I had seen a sign indicating they left at 8:00, 10:00, 13:00 and 18:15. I arrived just before 13:00, to find it had left at 12:00, and the next one was at 18:00. It was pouring down at this stage, but there was a little cafe, with a fireplace, and the owner was quite happy for me to sit there for 5 hours, drying out. At one stage he went home, leaving there by myself. I only helped myself to one extra slice of cake, but I did tell him about it when it came time to pay.

On the other side, on a road that only opened 10 years ago, there is very little traffic. By this time I was riding with Susan and Martin, a Dutch couple who started in Alaska. Empty roads, a few climbs, and so many condors! Plus any time you ran out of water, you just went to the side of the road, and found a stream of pure snow-melt, no treatment required. You could see the ice and snow, and where the stream ran down the mountainside to your bottle. Perfect.

From here, I’m crossing to El Chalten in Argentina. Will take two or three days, assuming the boat leaves tomorrow. It’s an interesting crossing – see here for details.

Oh and I must look it up on the map, but I do believe this is the furthest south I’ve ever been – I must be very close to the southernmost point of New Zealand by now.

  • Not many houses, but lots of forest and lakes
  • Gravel roads, and mountains too
  • Flat riding following the river
  • Ferry from Puerto Yungay to Rio Bravo
  • Bikes on the ferry
  • Unloading at the other side
  • Isolated country
  • Heaps of condors - there's one in this shot if you look closely
  • Dead fox above our campsite
  • Nearly at Villa O'Higgins, the end of the Carretera Austral
Bike Touring

That’s more like it

Things have been going much better the last few days – I’m in Cochrane, the last major (2,000+) people town on the Carretera Austral, less than 250km from the end. This part of the Carretera Austral has a different climate, much drier than a little bit north, but with manageable amounts of wind. There’s still been some rain, but there’s been mostly sunshine for the last 3 days. Such a change to ride in just shirt and shorts.

Not all plain sailing of course – the first leg to Villa Cerro Castillo was paved, but it’s been rough roads since, with a lot of corrugations. Sometimes you don’t see them coming, hit them too fast, and just about get shaken apart. With all the shaking going on, I’ve been surprised that more things have not broken. Two things I’ve noticed – one was a rack bolt in the same place as before, but this time I could extract it myself. Lucky. Not sure why that side keeps breaking though.

The second thing was something I never expected to fail – my pot. I was cooking my dinner, and couldn’t understand why my stove kept going out. Multifuel stoves can be temperamental, so at first I didn’t think much of it. Then I realised the water was slowly draining out a small hole in the side of my pot. I had to tilt it at 45° and not put too much into it, to cook my dinner. I just managed.

Around Puerto Bertrand, there are plenty of flash lodges, aimed at well-heeled fly fisherman. Oddly though, some are closed up, empty, in the middle of what should be the high season. I don’t know if this is because they would never have been economic, or if it’s recent events. I have heard tourist numbers are down 30-40 percent, and I’ve never had a problem finding a place to stay. This even though guidebooks tell you to book ahead at this time of year. Could be that people are put off by the high costs. I paid $50USD for a room the other night, which was OK, but didn’t even provide a towel. So it’s back to camping, which I’m doing in someone’s backyard in Cochrane, for the more reasonable amount of $6USD. Hot showers too, or at least there should be when they finish painting and unlock it again.

In Coyhaique, there were camping stores where I could get perfect replacement pots, made by MSR. I didn’t want to get a bus back there though, so thought I would look around here. This town used to be the end of the line, so there is a true general store – Casa Melero. This sells everything, from toothpaste to toilets, from chainsaws to chickens, nails to nail polish. A true old style general store. They have camping gear too, so I thought I would be in luck – but no joy. The only pots I could find were too large. I’m not going to carry a 20L soup tureen on my bike, to cook my noodles. However, I bashed over the hole, and testing last night indicated that it will now hold water. So I’ll keep using it until I can find a replacement.

I’ll need it the next few nights too, as I’m heading to Villa O’Higgins, and I’m not going to make the detour to Caleta Tortel. This means 4 days of riding until the next town. I’ve stocked up on food, so I should be OK, but it’s going to be some long empty stretches. Perhaps a little more rain too, as I head west a bit, before going east again. Because of the topography here, a few kilometres each way can make a big difference in rainfall. With luck, I’ll get the Saturday ferry from O’Higgins, to make the trek across to Argentina. If I don’t have time to do web stuff in O’Higgins, it may be 7-10 days before I’m online again.

  • Teasing me, with a paved road on the Chilean side. It wouldn´t last
  • Plenty of kayaking and rafting on these rivers
  • See to the left of the rack, the sheared off bolt?
  • And the fix - lasted for a week so far
  • Its a big river - note the fisherman
  • So many waterfalls here
  • Lago Yelcho
  • Campsite, plus cyclists. First company on the road
  • First day on the Carretera Austral proper
  • See this bug - it would fill the palm of my hand
  • Hospedaje - very cramped room for us, but warm clean and dry.
  • The Carretera Austral
  • Interesting strata
  • Lunch stop, at a dodgy bridge, where one end had collapsed. Seemed strong enough for us though.
  • Casa Ludwig. Very German.
  • Puerto Puyuhuapi
  • A Samson-like dog. There is a better one in Coyhaique
  • Puyuhuapi. The mist/rain is typical
  • Puyuhuapi
  • Minor mechanical problem
  • Hanging Glacier
  • Hanging Glacier
  • Hanging Glacier
  • Walking trail. Duck.
  • Dirt roads again
  • Pavement! And not raining for once
  • I think this was a rodeo area
  • The rope was broken, so I don´t think anyone crosses the river this way anymore.
  • Fine day, smooth roads, such a change
  • You choose, 62 or 72km to Coyhaique. No indication as to which way is shorter (it´s the gravel road, but that would take longer on the bike)
  • Rio Manihuales
  • Looking down to Coyhaique. Long downhill to town...and a nasty uphill just before getting there