Arriving in Ushuaia, Argentina by bike

We did it!
Anchorage, Alaska – Ushuaia, Argentina
30,893km, 1009 days, 16 countries and a million memories.

A final dirt detour

April 13th, 2014

Suddenly, the name that we have been heading for so long is close. Too close for comfort, in fact. So close that we might have to start thinking about what comes next.

We scrutinise the map, searching for a way to delay the inevitable. Our escape presents itself: a dirt road looping away from the tedium of the asphalt into the heart of Tierra del Fuego.

It’s the perfect ride: Patagonia in all its multicolour autumn glory, perched precariously on the edge of an icy winter. If I could finish anywhere, then it would be here – on the dirt, in the middle of nowhere, with just the guanacos for company. This is where I feel at home.

But the magnetic draw of the finishing line is too strong. We reach the asphalt once again. End of the World ego trumps my romanticism, and we push on, Ushuaia-bound.

James

 

Sheep on Patagonia estancia

Tierra del Fuego: land of pampa and sheep, corralled in enormous estancias

Martin the shepherd, Estancia Rubi, Tierra del Fuego

…and watched over by shepherds like Martín. An icy downpour has us seeking shelter at his door, and in true Patagonian style we are greeted with a smile, mugs of tea, tray after tray of roasted lamb, and a bed.

Estancia Rubi, Tierra del Fuego

The next morning dawns icy…

Frosty bike handlebars in Patagonia

…everything covered with a hard frost.

Stove in estancia kitchen, Patagonia

We retreat to the stove to defrost frozen hands…

Sunrise over barbed wire fence, Patagonia

…until finally the sun creeps over the horizon.

Cycling Estancia Rubi, Tierra del Fuego, Patagonia

It doesn’t get much better than a crisp, clear Autumn morning’s ride like this…

Frosty grass, Tierra del Fuego, Patagonia

…the world seemingly frozen in time…

Frosty autumn leaves, Tierra del Fuego, Patagonia

…caught between autumn and winter.

Cycling Ruta 9, Tierra del Fuego, Patagonia

We savour the moment, absorbing every detail of what feel like our last days of South American freedom:

Horses in the frost on Tierra del Fuego, Patagonia

…the ever-present onlookers…

Icyy puddle on Tierra del Fuego, Patagonia

…the roadside art…

Frosty fence on Tierra del Fuego, Patagonia

…the plays of light…

Snow peaked mountains, cycling Tierra del Fuego

…the freshly dusted peaks…

Tree in Patagonia

…the ancient waymarkers…

Estancia and snowy mountains, Tierra del Fuego

…and the hidden lives.

Riding Ruta 9, Tierra del Fuego, Patagonia

These are the days when I could ride towards the horizon forever…

Leaves on the road, Tierra del Fuego

…the magnetic pull of the open road.

Signpost to Ushuaia

And then: Ushuaia calling 123…

Facturas at Panadería La Union, Tolhuin, Tierra del Fuego

…forestalled by a stopover at the legendary Panadería La Union in Tolhuin. It feels like Christmas Eve; the perfect place to spend our final night on the road with empanadas, facturas, a warm bed and good company.  

“Whatever a penguin does has individuality, and he lays bare his whole life for all to see…sometimes solemn, sometimes humorous, enterprising, chivalrous, cheeky – and always a welcome and, in some ways, an almost human friend.”
The Worst Journey in the World
Apsley Cherry-Garrard

 

For me, a visit to Tierra del Fuego – the island nestled at the foot of South America – wouldn’t have been complete without a trip to the recently re-established King Penguin colony between Porvenir and Camerón. As a long-time admirer of this funny little waddle machine, I was looking forward to the visit with great expectations. (And it would take all of my self-control not to sneak one of them into my panniers before leaving).

Second only in size to the Emperor Penguin, the King is usually found in the much more southerly regions of South Georgia and Antarctica. As these areas are only accessible by long and expensive boat trips, we were keen and privileged to be able to access their colony by bike.

We were also lucky to have the place to ourselves. Camping there with three other cyclists, we had the last of the evening’s sun to nip down and pay them a visit and then the following morning, we returned to watch them stretch, wake and explore – a little more closely than we could ever have anticipated…

Sarah

Penguins territory on Tierra del Fuego, Chile

Magical Patagonian evening light is the perfect time for viewing…

Penguins preening themselves on Tierra del Fuego, Chile

…as the penguins busy themselves with preening…

Calling penguins on Tierra del Fuego, Chile

…calling to one another, and not-so-gracefully flopping down on the grass.

Penguin standing alone on Tierra del Fuego, Chile

These are the penguins that grace the cover of well-loved paperback books…

Penguins on Tierra del Fuego, Chile

…or the shiny red packets of school-day chocolate bar snacks.

Penguins walking across the pampa in Tierra del Fuego, Chile

There’s something about the way they move that seems so human. Perhaps they feel the same – that we seem so ‘penguin’, and so over they come to investigate.

Two penguins approaching Karen on Tierra del Fuego, Chile

Karen is the first target. Once one has decided to check her out…

Penguins lining up to meet Karen on Tierra del Fuego, Chile

…the others soon follow…

Penguins gather around Karen on Tierra del Fuego, Chil

…and before long it’s a veritable penguin party.

Penguins approach James on Tierra del Fuego, Chile

Then they’re headed James’ way.

Penguins bowing in front of James on Tierra del Fuego, Chile

First, they respectfully bow…

Close up of penguins on Tierra del Fuego, Chile

…before they invade his space. “Does he have a beak like us?…

Close up of king penguin feathers, Tierra del Fuego, Chile

…Are his feathers as beautiful and smooth as ours?…

Close up of two king penguins on Tierra del Fuego, Chile

…and can he carry off ‘regal’ like we do?”

Penguins approaching Sarah on Tierra del Fuego, Chile

“How about the female over there…

Penguins appraoching in a line, Tierra del Fuego, Chile

…let’s check her out!

Penguin feet close up, Tierra del Fuego, Chile

Are her feet like ours?…

Penguin biting a shoe Tierra del Fuego, Chile

…hmmm, clearly no good for Antarctic swimming.” 

Penguins with Sarah on Tierra del Fuego, Chile

And finally they decide we are no longer interesting…

Four king penguins, Tierra del Fuego, Chile

…and off they waddle…

Three king penguins standing together, Tierra del Fuego, Chile

…to discuss more pressing things.

Band of bikers

April 5th, 2014

For the stretch between the end of the Carretera Austral in Chile, all the way to the island of Tierra del Fuego (some 500kms) we barely ever cycled alone. Part of a merry band of bikers, we enjoyed the social riding – the endless banter, the clash and blend of personalities, and of course the food…always the food.

Sarah

Bikes alongside the ferry in Villa O Higgins, Chile

The end of the Carretera Austral is in reality a very dead end, exit to Argentina only being achievable for cyclists and pedestrians. Even for them it’s a bit of a challenge: first a ferry across Lago O’Higgins, then a hike and bike for around 25kms, then another ferry across Lago Desierto and finally you’re in Argentina. We are two of ten cyclists on one of the final ferries of the season.

Nando Padros, cyclist from Cataluna

Joined, amongst others, by the inimitable Nando – otherwise known as el abuelito (grandpa)…

Anthony pushing his bikeup a steep hill with Lago O Higgins behind, Chile

…and Anthony, a Frenchman on a trip from Quito to Ushuaia.

Sarah cycling through the border between Villa O Higgins, Chile and El Chaltén, Argentina

Another low-key border crossing… 

Sarah cycling through the woods at the border between Villa O Higgins, Chile and El Chaltén, Argentina

…which winds through beautiful woods…

Autumn leaves and calafate berries near El Chaltén, Argentina

…with autumn in bloom…

James pushing his bike through a narrow section at the border between Villa O Higgins, Chile and El Chaltén, Argentina

…and as the track narrows…

Sarah pushing her bike through a narrow stretch at the border between Villa O Higgins, Chile and El Chaltén, Argentina

…it turns into a tricky boggy battle, that takes us to another boat across another lake.

A lamb on a roasting cross in the fogon at El Chaltén, Patagonia, Argentina

All tired out, we reach El Chaltén and Flor’s amazing casa de ciclistas. Luck would have it that they’re roasting a whole lamb on a traditional Patagonian asador that very night, and so we feast unexpectedly and catch up with old friends – Anna…

Lee with four kittens on his head at Flor's house in El Chaltén, Patagonia, Argentina

…Lee (plus a few very cute accessories)…

Raul chopping cabbage in the garden at Flor's house El Chaltén, Patagonia, Argentina

…and Raul. So begins a cooking frenzy that will go on for a whole week – at any one time ten cyclists gather in Flor’s tiny kitchen trying to outdo one another with fresh gnocchi, Argentine buñuelos, stuffed apples, flapjack, Scottish cranachan and more.

Fitz Roy range, Argentina

It’s hard to tear ourselves away from the cozy house but the Fitz Roy range, looming directly over town is a good distraction…

Drinking mate by Fitz Roy, Argentina

…and we wander with Lee to find a good spot to drink maté and ponder both the past and the future.

Group of ten cyclists with Flor at her house in El Chaltén, Patagonia, Argentina

The party gathers for a final group photo (courtesy of Tatan) before thanking Flor profusely for her boundless hospitality…

Tatan and Candela cycling away from the Fitzroy range near El Chaltén, Patagonia, Argentina

…and we zoom out of town with a delicious tailwind. Tatan and Candela (from Argentina) lead the way…

Sarah, Lee and Heidi cycling away from the Fitzroy range near El Chaltén, Patagonia, Argentina

…followed by myself Lee and Heidi, loving the effortless cycling and chatting away. There’s a distinct air that everybody (all ten of these southbound cyclists leaving Flor’s at least) is coming to the end of their trip…

Seven cyclists in front of the Fitzroy range near cycling away from the Fitzroy range near El Chaltén, Patagonia, Argentina

…we can’t help stopping for group photos and babbling on with excitement, mixed with anxiety, anticipation and lots of in-jokes.

Abandoned Pink House near El Chaltén, Patagonia, Argentina

A day’s ride from El Chalten with that favourable tailwind (we covered 90km in just under four hours) brings us to the fabled “Pink House”…

Cyclists' register on the wall at the Pink House, near El Chaltén, Patagonia, Argentina

…an abandoned hotel, where hundreds of cyclists have stopped before us and signed the wall of fame.

Signing the cyclist register in the Pink House near El Chaltén, Patagonia, Argentina

I duly add our details – is it a sign of a good trip that I have completely lost track of the year?

Raul lighting a fire in the Pink House near El Chaltén, Patagonia, Argentina

Raul stokes up a roaring fire and we huddle around the warmth, happy to be out of the wind for the night.

Road sign of a tree being blown in the wind on the way to Calafate, Patagonia, Argentina

Because when it blows here, it really blows…

Sarah, Lee, Heidi and Kurt stopping for a snack on the way to Calafate, Patagonia, Argentina

…making roadside snacks challenging. We take refuge, using each other as windbreaks…

Perito Moreno glaciar near Calafate, Patagonia, Argentina

…on our way to El Calafate and the mighty Perito Moreno glacier.

Lineup of seven cyclists in front of Perito Moreno glaciar near Calafate, Patagonia, Argentina

Believe it or not, all these cyclists (plus one who didn’t make it into the photo) managed to fit into just one hired VW Golf to get to the national park…

Wide shot of Perito Moreno glacier near Calafate, Patagonia, Argentina

…but the uncomfortable journey was worth it – watching the stunning glacier calve into the lake below…

Chunks of ice in the lake at Perito Moreno glaciar near Calafate, Patagonia, Argentina

…seeing the chilly details up close…

Perito Moreno glacier

…and marvelling at the overall spectacular. Pictures just don’t do it justice.

Sarah cycling away from Calafate, Patagonia, Argentina

Another tasty tailwind leaving Calafate…

Sarah cycling through the pampa near Tapi Aike, Patagonia, Argentina

…and we practically fly into the pampa…

Sunrise at El Cerrito, Patagonia, Argentina

…with its breathtaking skies…

Pink clouds of sunrise at El Cerrito, Patagonia, Argentina

…every morning a new show…

Sarah cycling past a roadside scarecrow near El Cerrito, Patagonia, Argentina

…and its assortment of roadside characters – some less inquisitive…

Grey fox in the bushes near Tapi Aike, Patagonia, Argentina

…than others.

Sarah and Andy cycle past a road sign on the way to Puerto Natales, Chile

Back into Chile and we feel the end is near – even the road signs say so: we are now following the “Route to the End of the World”.

Andy eating crackers in a bus stop on the way to Puerto Natales, Chile

We ride with Andy – fellow Brit and self-confessed hot chocolate addict. Lunching in bus stops we appreciate them anew, as things of beauty: well built, warm and better than most of the Central American hotels we stayed in.

Frozen eggs at Cerro Castillo, Chile

We camp in a playground at Cerro Castillo where it’s so cold overnight, Andy’s eggs are frozen in the morning.

Entrance gate to an estancia near Puerto Natales, Chile

Fighting sidewinds, we pass grand entrances to estancias we cannot see…

Shack in a field on the way to Puerto Natales, Chile

…and humble shacks battened down against the weather.

Two dogs behind a fence in Puerto Natales, Chile

In Puerto Natales, the welcoming party pops up to say hello…

Old boat in the yard at Puerto Natales, Chile

…and we wander through the run-down shipyards…

Close up of abandoned boat in Puerto Natales, Chile

…admiring old hulking ruins…

Hip hop graffiti in Puerto Natales, Chile

…alongside graffiti (you are the hip to my hop)…

Mapuche graffiti in Puerto Natales, Chile

…Resist brother Mapuche! (indigenous people of Patagonia).

Andy brushing teeth in Puerto Natales, Chile

When does the constant movement of cycle touring become normal? Perhaps when brushing your teeth astride your bike in the middle of a busy shopping street doesn’t seem at all strange…

Bus shelter and three bikes by the side of the road on the way to Punta Arenas, Chile

…or when sleeping in a bus shelter feels like a luxurious treat. This architectural gem is our home for the night.

Andy and Sarah waking up in a bus shelter on the way to Punta Arenas, Chile

The three of us squeeze in, make hot chocolate and even watch a film on the laptop. The next morning we drag ourselves away from our cozy spot…

Tree mishapen by the wind on the way to Punta Arenas, Chile

…back into the Patagonian wind…

Andy and his cycling goggles on the road to Punta Arenas, Chile

…and it’s “goggles down chaps” for our final ride into Punta Arenas and the end of mainland South America.

Minefield on the roadside on the way to Punta Arenas, Chile

Past forgotten mine fields…

Boy cycling along the front in Punta Arenas, Chile

…into a port city with a laidback feel…

Large group of imperial cormorants on a pier in Punta Arenas

…a hoarde of resident cormorants…

A wall in the cemetery at Punta Arenas, Chile

…and a fascinating cemetery to mooch around.

A plate of cakes in El Immigrante cafe, Punta Arenas, Chile

And this particular leg of the journey ends as all good journeys should…

Andy with a big slab of cake in El Immigrante cafe, Punta Arenas, Chile

…with fellow cyclists and with cake.

La Carretera Austral

March 15th, 2014

 

Gateway on the Carretera Austral, Chile

La Carretera Austral: undeniably beautiful but – to coin an Al Humphreys’ book title – “There are Other Dirt Roads”… 

It’s almost impossible to write anything about the Carretera Austral without lapsing into full-blown cliché. This, after all, is another of South America’s iconic rides, the much-touted “best dirt road” on the continent, stretching 1000km into the wild heart of Chilean Patagonia (see, I’ve done it already). And on paper, it had all the ingredients we love rolled into one: dirt, isolation and unspoiled natural beauty. So why then did I ride into Villa O’Higgins at the far end of the Austral feeling, well…slightly anti-climaxed? Relieved to have got it out of the way rather than re-invigorated and inspired?

At the time I put it down to a simple case of travel fatigue, as my gaze inevitably turned inwards and the senses began to shut down towards the end of a long trip. After all, the Austral did have some undeniably special moments: our first glimpse of the turquoise Lago General Carrera in the morning sun, following the roar of the Rio Baker towards Cochrane, or simply camping wild night after night in perfect silence. But still, as beautiful as it was, something was missing.

I thought back to some of the dirt roads we had ridden further north in South America, in Colombia, Ecuador and Peru; the ones we already talk about as the “golden days” of this trip. What made them so special? I realised that a large part of it was the lack of hype factor. If we had stumbled across the Carretera Austral in the way we stumbled across many of our favourite roads, then it would have been a different experience. Instead, we already had a clear idea of what the Austral was going to be like in our heads before we set foot on it – and that’s pretty much how it was: predictably beautiful. No surprises, good or bad.

Of course, that’s no fault of the Carretera Austral. It shouldn’t really have come as a surprise that riding one of the most hyped routes in the world, along with half the cycle-touring population of South America, would be something of an anti-climax. You’d have thought that we’d have worked out what makes us tick by now. And I think we have – but the trouble is, it’s actually quite hard to swim against the current and completely turn your back on these “must-see” routes. Try telling another cyclist that you’re not going to bother with the Carretera Austral because “it’s a bit clichéd” and watch their eyebrows go skywards.

But ultimately I’m glad we rode the Austral. Partly because it showed us an undeniably beautiful part of Chilean Patagonia. But also because it re-affirmed to me everything we’ve learned about how and why we love to travel. Our best moments on this trip have been the least-expected ones, not the “don’t miss” ones. That doesn’t mean we deliberately side-step the “must-see” sites – in fact, we’ve seen almost all of them along our route. It’s just that, on their own, they leave us unfulfilled.

We’ve realised that for us, surprise is the magical travel ingredient. The best part of travelling is to be surprised – and definitely not just by landscapes, but also by people and places. Take away this element of surprise and travel becomes little more than a predictable tick-list. Does X Wonder of the World look like the photo? Yes, tick. Next…

So where does that leave us as travellers? In a clique of tedious traveller-types obsessed with a quest for “authenticity”? Maybe, but I hope not. The world might be becoming more homogeneous by the day, but surely it remains too diverse, too rich in these moments of surprise and discovery to be reduced to a list of “1000 places to see before you die”? By all means go and see them. Ride the Austral. But then throw away the guidebook, pick a place you’ve never heard of, and go and explore.

And the best thing about travelling by bike? That it makes it so easy to break free from the tick-list approach to travelling, to just throw a dart at a map and go. Because for every Carretera Austral, I guarantee there are a hundred other dirt roads out there waiting to surprise you.

James

Carretera Austral road sign, Chile

We join the Austral at La Junta, after a beautiful and remote border crossing from Argentina via Las Pampas and Lago Verde (highly recommended). After two days in which we’d seen less than five cars…

Cyclist covered in dust on the Carretera Austral, Chile

…the Austral is a shock to the system: racing, honking traffic which leaves us caked in dust. This is definitely not the dirt road of our dreams; this is a dirt highway where it seems that goodwill and patience towards the streams of pilgrim cyclists has run out long ago.

Sign with construction notes on the Carretera Austral, Chile

In fact, much of the middle section of the Austral around Coyhaique is now paved, and undoubtedly all of it will be before too long. Until then, meticulous roadside notes detail the never-ending task of keeping the road passable – or maybe lay the blueprint for the asphalt to come.

Pulled up fishing boats at Puyuhuapi on the Carretera Austral, Chile

After Puyuhuapi, thankfully the road quietens. We scout the edges of the loch for a camping spot…

Barnacles on the sea loch at Puyuhuapi, Carretera Austral, Chile

…duly noting the clues that this is actually a sea loch and so tidal. We pick a grassy ledge set back above the beach, and watch the dolphins swimming in the bay while we cook dinner. Idyllic. As we drift off to sleep, I utter the immortal line: “Listen to the dolphins, they sound so close”. Which is because they were – in fact they were probably swimming laps around the tent by this point…

Cyclist with flooded tent on the Carretera Austral, Chile

…because by 2am, we awake to find our sleeping mats (and all our other possessions) bobbing gently in 20cm of rapidly rising salt water. It seems we might have mis-judged the tides. Luckily, we manage to rescue everything before it floats off into the Pacific and re-pitch our tent on higher ground. We shiver into our soaked sleeping bags and hope for a sunny morning.

Fuscias on the Carretera Austral, Chile

Of course, we wake to lashing rain. A tough climb up and over the Cuesta Quelat keeps us warm though, and finally the rain stops and the fuchsias come out in all their magnificence.

Cyclists drying clothes at a bus stop, Carretera Austral, Chile

Next morning the sun peeks out, the wind blows, and we convert a bus shelter into an impromptu laundry.

Casa de Ciclistas in Villa Mañihaules, Carretera Austral, Chile

Jorge’s Casa de ciclistas in Villa Mañihuales provides a welcome rest stop …

Cyclists asado at Casa de Ciclistas, Carretera Austral, Chile

…and a fun reunion with friends from the road. Argentine Nico takes charge of the asado…

Cyclists birthday cake at casa de cilistas, Carretera Austral, Chile

…and Stephanie from Quebec bakes a delicious cake in anticipation of the arrival of the Alaskan posse. Eventually birthday boy Andrew and Kanaan roll in – apparently after a rare interlude on bikes. It’s been a long time since we saw them back in La Paz, and we catch up on all things eggs and check on progress with their English pronunciation lessons (conclusion: a hopeless cause).

Cyclists wild camp on the Carretera Austral, Chile

In Coyhaique, we camp on the lawn of Jeff and Loreta, new friends we met up at Lago Verde. They receive us with open arms and hot food, and it’s hard to tear ourselves away…but eventually we do, and it’s back to more rustic camp spots in the bushes like this one.

Cerro Castillo, Carretera Austral, Chile

Here the Austral is paved as far as the looming Cerro Castillo…

Valley near Cerro Castillo, Carretera Austral, Chile

…then back to dirt through the valley with a vicious headwind.

Refugio on the Carretera Austral, Chile

The Carretera Austral is littered with abandoned houses and sheds like this one, many of which have been adopted by cyclists and walkers in dire need of a roof for the night. I like the fact that in Patagonia, these places are self-maintaining, cared for and respected by the people that use them: “If you use this refuge, please don’t leave it dirty” is inscribed on the gate.

Yellow flower and shingle clad house on the Carretera Austral, Chile

The walls are clad in typical Patagonian wooden “shingle”…

Guacho sticker in refugio, Carretera Austral, Chile

…and inside a faded sticker of a gaucho from a local rodeo competition alludes to its past life as a home.

Shimmering islands on Lago General Carrera, Chile

For us, Lago General Carrera is the highlight of the Austral: an enormous, shimmering lake…

Turquoise Lago General Carrera, Chile

…which comes to life in shades of turquoise when the sun shines.

A Frame house by Lago General Carrera, Chile

Not a bad place to build yourself a classic A-frame…

Cyclist scouting for camp spot, Lago General Carrera, Chile

…but if that’s not yours, then just head down to the nearest bay for a picture-perfect camping spot.

Mountains surrounding Lago General Carrera, Chile

The next morning is a beauty…

Cycling towards mountains surrounding Lago General Carrera, Chile

…and we head briefly towards the mountains…

Friendly dog meets cyclist, Lago General Carrera, Chile

…and then back to the lake via an extremely excitable four-legged friend.

Cyclists tea stop on Lago General Carrera, Chile

An idyllic spot for a mid-morning cuppa…

Bees on purple flower, Lago General Carrera, Chile

…while the bees work away in the last of the summer sun.

View from river bridge, Lago General Carrera, Chile

This is the pristine Patagonia I always dreamed of; turquoise rivers and snowy peaks. Maybe only its remoteness has kept it this way for so long…

Patagonia sin represas sign, Lago General Carrera, Chile

…although of course, it’s only superficial perfection. Patagonia is an immense store of natural resources, not least of all water, and there have been long-standing efforts to dam Patagonia’s rivers and create a series of hydroelectric plants. Thanks to the efforts of pressure groups like Patagonia Sin Represas, the latest proposal was recently thrown out…

Patagonia sin Tompkins sign, Carretera Austral, Chile

…but no doubt there will be many more to come. It’s become a classic battle of locals against outsiders, with the conservation efforts of North American millionaires such as Doug Tompkins (founder of the North Face and Esprit clothing brands) viewed with intense suspicion.

Worn road sign near Cochrane, Carretera Austral, Chile

Finally we head away from Lago General Carrera towards Cochrane…

Cycling past lake, Carretera Austral, Chile

…past more picture-postcard lakes…

Rosehip with lake and mountains, Carretera Austral, Chile

…and with hints of autumn around the corner.

Turquoise Rio Baker through the trees, Carretera Austral, Chile

We follow the impossibly turquoise Río Baker…

Cyclists camping along the Rio Baker, Carretera Austral, Chile

…another riverside camp spot…

Rio Baker confluence, Carretera Austral, Chile

…and a last view back over the confluence of the Baker and the Nef.

Abandoned bicycle tyre hanging on sign, Carretera Austral, Chile

From Cochrane, the traffic slows to a trickle. This is the true dead end of the Austral, with exit only really possible by a combination of boat plus bike/foot/horse. Signs of cyclists are everywhere – from roadside fire rings to discarded spare tyres, left hanging optimistically on road signs.

Cyclists passing messages, Carretera Austral, Chile

There’s still a trickle of northbound cyclists coming the other way. We meet Mark and Katia halfway up a pass, bearing messages from our friends further along the road (“Hurry up!” was the general gist) in a kind of cyclist pigeon post. As always, we compare notes and swap tips on camping spots and where the next meal might come from – and then it’s onwards, the cycling version of ships passing in the night. 

Cyclist cresting hill, Carretera Austral, Chile

One final hill to crest…

Ferry crossing the River ??, Carretera Austral, Chile

…before a ferry across the river at Puerto Fuy.

Abandoned cab of truck in forest, Carretera Austral, Chile

This final section is the Austral at its wildest, and feels like a glimpse into its early pioneer days.

Dense trees on the Carretera Austral, Chile

It’s a sparse landscape of dense vegetation…

Moss on the Carretera Austral, Chile

…deep greens and browns…

Waterfall on the Carretera Austral, Chile

…and water, trickling everywhere…

Cyclist shelters from rain, Carretera Austral, Chile

…including onto us. Our lucky run of good weather finally comes to an end, and we are treated to some more typical Patagonian days: grey skies, hanging clouds and driving rain. We ride heads down, stopping when we find shelter to make hot drinks and food.

Lago Cisnes with low cloud, Carretera Austral, Chile

Just as we reach Lago Cisnes, the rain eases. We stop on impulse, just a few kilometres short of Villa O’Higgins…

Cyclists campfire on the Carretera Austral, Chile

…but lured by the prospect of a final night’s wild camp and a roaring fire.

Kitchen stove at Tsonek Eco Camp, Villa O'Higgins, Chile

The next day we reach O’Higgins, where we swap the open fire for a stove at the excellent Tsonek Eco-Camp. This is how organised campsites should be: a cosy communal kitchen…

Indigenous postcard in the window, Tsonek Eco Camp, Villa O'Higgins

…secluded camping on raised platforms in the woods, friendly hosts with an environmental conscience…

Bookshelf at Tsonek Eco Camp, Villa O'Higgins

…intriguing bookshelves…

Cyclist postcard at Tsonek Eco Camp, Villa O'Higgins

..and plenty of inspiration: “Ride as if life was going to last forever”. 

Lakes & Gates

February 24th, 2014

In my experience, when given the choice between a lake and a gate, cyclists would normally always opt for the lake. Throughout our trip, pedalling past beautiful lakes has brought us peace and contentment. The two mighty lakes of Atitlán in Guatemala and Titicaca in Bolivia spring immediately to mind, but there have been countless lakes along our route to relax by and enjoy.

Gates on the other hand have always represented a temporary or permanent obstacle in our path; an annoyance. Either we have been completely unable to pass or, in deciding to tackle the gate, we have had the onerous task of unloading our bikes, heaving them over the gate and loading them back up again – not much fun with two bikes and ten bags between us.

On this leg of the journey however, it was to be the reverse. The lakes, although pretty, were hidden from us behind a succession of wet and grey days and instead it was the series of gates that were the real pleasure along the road, tempting us along towards the Carretera Austral.

Sarah

Sarah outside the tent near Villarica, Chile

Leaving the northern Chilean coast behind, we are off to a bad start, arriving at Villarrica, portal to the Chilean lake district in the middle of torrential downpour. Unlike our beloved English Lakes, there isn’t even a fascinating pencil museum to shelter in and so we pitch a soggy tent in a soggy field…

Building a beach near the lake in Villarica, Chile

…and wake up to breakfast on a building site. Villarrica sees the potential in tourism and is in the midst of building an artificial beach for its visitors.

A view of Volcan Coñaripe over the lake of the same name, Chile

Things improve when we reach Coñaripe and camp next to the mystical lake…

View of volcan Coñaripe, Chile

…before a beautiful ride, climbing up towards the volcano of the same name.

James picking blackberries in the Lake District, Chile

We are racing against time but the change in the seasons means we can enjoy the blackberries…

James picking blackberries in Chile's lake district

…picking juicy ripe berries as we go is one of the highlights of travelling by bike in the autumn.

Pan amasado, local honey and a flask of tea in the Chilean Lake District

Another highlight of bike travel in Chile is stopping for warm bread straight from someone’s oven. Pan amasado can be found in nearly every village in Chilean Patagonia and this particularly warm, fluffy and comforting batch couldn’t have come at a more welcome time. Straight from the oven with fresh local honey and a cuppa from the flask. Perfect.

Fire station at Puerto Fuy, Chile

Rain again stops play. We are forced to postpone our ferry crossing at Puerto Fuy because the weather is so bad but it leads us to ask for shelter at the cosy new fire station in the village.

Wooden stair rail in the fire station at Puerto Fuy, Chile

Beautifully constructed from local pine, it’s not quite finished yet, but the attention to detail and craftsmanship are evident.

Wood panelled room in the fire station

We stretch out in a warm dry room, listening to the rain hammer outside.

Sarah pulling into the port at Puerto Fuy, Chile, on her bike

By the morning, nothing has changed and it’s a damp journey to the port…

James and Sarah on the ferry across Lago Pirihueico, Chile to Argentina

…reminiscent of soggy days in Alaska at the very beginning of our trip.

Two bikes leaning against a tree at Lago Nonthué , Argentina

The ferry takes us from Puerto Fuy across Lago Pirihueico and back into Argentina. When we arrive at idyllic Lago Nonthué just across the border, the sun finally shows itself…

Rainbow over Lago Nonthué, Argentina

…and we hang around the campsite to watch the rainbows.

View of the lake near San martin de los Andes

No visit to the Argentine lake district is complete without a stop at San Martín de los Andes…

Picture of Sarah's Ecuadorian hat at a campsite in San Martin de Los Andes, Argentina

…where it is time to say goodbye to my faithful but battered old hat, with me all the way from Cuenca in Ecuador (May 2013).

One of the lakes in the Argentine Lake District

The Argentine lake district seems distinctly more attractive to us than its Chilean counterpart…

Light shining on a meadow near San martin de Los Andes, Argentina

…but perhaps that is because the sun shines on this side a great deal more.

Russian style church in a meadow near San Martin de Los Andes, Argentina

Pretty churches with a Russian feel hide behind trees…

A rule measure sticking out of a lkae in the Argentine Lake District

…we ride quietly past…

Lago Espejo, Argentina

…until crystal clear Lago Espejo (Mirror Lake) convinces us to stop riding early and jump into the water.

Man fishing near Bariloche, Argentina

It’s hard not to fall in love with Patagonia…

River near Lago Espejo, Argentina

…really hard.

Shop window of a chocolate shop in Bariloche, Argentina

But there is an uglier side to this area – chocolate shop Swiss-style towns like Bariloche sometimes make the lake district feel like it’s a bit of a circus…

Two circus performers in Bariloche, Argentina

…especially when the circus does in fact roll into town and add to the mayhem.

James and Sarah in front of a distance sign on Route 40, Patagonia, Argentina

Back on the road, we are heading for the less-visited towns of Esquel and El Bolson, stopping along the way to “create” a birthday card for James’ brother Ed. A handily placed road sign with the year of his birth, a hastily prepared poster, a tripod and hey presto we’ve got ourselves a card!

Sarah and James in a bus shelter, near El Bolson, Argentina

Map check in a lovely log bus stop. I could happily live in something like this one day I think.

Road sign for Route 40 into Esquel, Argentina

Unbelievably, we are still on Route 40! It brings us to Esquel where…

A tray of facturas from Esquel, Argentina

…true to form, we seek out the bakery. Facturas are mini pastries to be found in every Argentine bakery in Patagonia. The quality varies but in Esquel we hit the jackpot.

View of the river valley from Corcovado, Argentina

Time for another detour and we choose a route to avoid roadworks at Futaleufu, the traditional border crossing for the Carretera Austral which takes you back into Chile. Keen to avoid the gravel, dumper truck mayhem we have been hearing about we used Skyler’s Off Route blog to plan a more picturesque and fun-filled route.

Road sign from Corcovado to Lago Vintter, Argentina

It’s a route that takes us along dirt roads, past forgotten lakes and through plenty of gates to our destination of the Chilean border crossing at Lago Verde, just a day’s ride from the fabled Carretera Austral at La Junta.

Tree branch hanging over river near Lago Vintter, Argentina

Idyllic camp spots…

A stone through crystal clear water near Lago Vintter, Argentina

…with crystal waters…

Small daisies in a field near Lago Vintter, Argentina

…and pretty little daisies which, I learned after all this time in Latin America are called margaritas. I will never look at a tequila cocktail in the same way again.

View of a windy day at Lago Vintter, Argentina

We reach Lago Vintter on a stormy day. The wind blows caps onto the lake and all of sudden we feel we are by the sea.

Pushing through the wind to Las Pampas near Lago Verde, Argentina

Ploughing through that wind, we head for the hills…

View of the zig zag in the road on the way to Las Pampas near Lago Verde, Argentina

…I love the zig-zag at the end of this dead straight stretch of road.

Picture of policeman Aldo in Las Pampas or Doctor Atilio Oscar Viglione, Argentina

At the end of that zig-zag lies a village that used to be known as Las Pampas and is now called Doctor Atilio Oscar Viglione. Thankfully our generous host that evening has a much more manageable name: Aldo. Head of the local police Aldo wastes no time in taking us in, giving us a bed, plying us with tea and then providing the tastiest indoor bbq I think we will ever eat.

Sign pointing to lake Number 5 on the border between Argentina and Chile at Las Pampas and Lago Verde

Saying goodbye to Aldo, we start on one of the most enjoyable days we’ve had in a long time. We only clock up 30km, slipping and sliding across rivers and through gates but it’s challenging, remote and beautiful…in all the right doses.

Sarah pushing her bike across a river on the border between Argentina and Chile at Las Pampas and Lago Verde

We start the morning with a push across the icy river outside Las Pampas…

James standing at a gate on the border between Argentina and Chile at Las Pampas and Lago Verde

…and encounter our first gate…

A gate  on the border between Argentina and Chile at Las Pampas and Lago Verde

…and then another.

Sarah on her bike riding a pebbly path on the border between Argentina and Chile at Las Pampas and Lago Verde

I lose count of them eventually, all linked together with pretty, pebbly tracks…

View of Sarah cycling through a gate near Las Pampas, Argentina

…all beautifully engineered…

Gateway on the border between Argentina and Chile at Las Pampas and Lago Verde

…leading us to…

Argentine border post at Las Pampas / Lago Verde, Argentina

…perhaps the most pristinely cared for border post in the world. Even the dog is immaculate.

Sarah pushing her bike through a high river on the border between Argentina and Chile at Las Pampas and Lago Verde

I rashly opt to push through the next river fully loaded…

James lifting his bike across the river on the border between Argentina and Chile at Las Pampas and Lago Verde

…while James sensibly lifts his across.

Yellow eggs for lunch on the border between Argentina and Chile at Las Pampas and Lago Verde

We fire up the stove for a delicious lunch made with Aldo’s sunshine yellow free range eggs.

Burned trees on the border between Argentina and Chile at Las Pampas and Lago Verde

Post lunch sees us weaving through a fantasmical ghost-wood.

Sarah crosses the gate at the border between Argentina and Chile at Las Pampas and Lago Verde

One final gate marks another humble international border…

Welcome sign at the on the border between Argentina and Chile at Las Pampas and Lago Verde

…and we are in Chile.

View of Lago Verde from the border, Chile

The stunning Lago Verde awaits with a prime camp spot but before we get there, refuelling is needed…

Dog sniffing cake at Lago Verde, Chile

…Aldo has slipped a homemade cake into our panniers and this local hound knows just as well as we do that it’s a tasty snack. What he realises much later to his dismay is that cyclists don’t share!

River near Lago Verde, Chile

We soak up the sights on the Chilean side…

Lancha on the lake at Lago Roosevelt near La Junta, Chile

…and our final camp spot before we hit the Carretera Austral? Why at a lake of course: this time, the serene Lago Roosevelt.

Compañeros

January 15th, 2014

When I handed in my notice and announced plans to make this trip with James, I distinctly remember amongst the mix of enthusiasm and bemused faces, one of my colleagues raising his eyebrows and with heavy sarcasm wishing us “good luck”. When I asked him to explain, he replied “…all that time together 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, you’re going to need some luck; it’ll make or break your relationship”. He was wise and knew well before we did that although the weather, the budget, the physical strain of riding the Americas would all be challenging, perhaps the greatest challenge of all would be spending so much time in the company of one other person.

James and I both worked two jobs for well over a year before we left and saw relatively little of each other in the effort to save as much as possible to make the trip happen. Then, in a pure reversal, we boarded the plane to Alaska to begin a journey which would see us spend practically every waking minute together. In the course of two and a half years, there haven’t been many hours where we have been apart. So undoubtedly our relationship has evolved.

At times it’s felt like a pressure cooker – tough physical moments, sickness, confusion, deliberation and unparalleled highs – just waiting to explode. By nature, thankfully we’re both pretty placid and not inclined to argue but we’re also both opinionated, used to getting our own way and always think we are right; as a result the air has occasionally turned blue during some spectacular foot stamping barneys. As time has passed, the unusual situation of only having each other to depend on has, thankfully, made our relationship stronger, particularly during the frequent low periods when we were ill.

Whilst the relationship might have lost some of its sparkle through the repeated daily routine of riding our bikes and setting up camp, living in our little world of just two cyclists has seen us become each other’s agony aunt, financial advisor, entertainment system (impromptu pedalling concerts being a speciality), chef, life coach, nurse and friend.

I had assumed that we would be the only friends each other had during this journey. Making new friends on the road was never something that I had considered, perhaps because it seemed so improbable. The very nature of our lifestyle, with us always moving, choosing different routes, riding in different rythyms had the odds stacked against any meaningful relationships forming. And besides, just because we are all cyclists doesn’t mean we should instantly get along does it? I have happily been proven wrong however and there are brilliant people we have spent time with – both on and off the bikes – that I truly hope to meet again when we have finished. People who have inspired us, people who have clicked with our sense of humour, people whose riding styles mirror ours, those we have taken under our wing and those who have taken us under theirs.

Spending time with others and travelling with others has eased some of that pressure of 24-7 with one another too. As a couple, you bicker less in the company of someone else, discussing opinions with an ‘outsider’ helps galvanise the opinions you share with your partner and if you all have mutual appreciation for bicycles, coffee, food and language, the myriad of variety within those topics can fuel conversations for hours on end.

Our cycling buddy Lee ticked all of these boxes for us and cycling together with him at the beginning of our trip was ten weeks of taco fuelled silliness that saw us through Baja California, mainland Mexico and into Guatemala.

We went our separate ways in Guatemala after attending Spanish school in Xela. James and I got back on our bikes and Lee stayed behind to continue his studies and fulfil a long held desire to learn salsa. In doing so, he met Heidi and nine months passed before he dusted off his bike and carried on with his tour. Like in all good fairy tales, the heroine wasn’t left behind and Heidi decided to get herself a bike too and came to join him in Colombia. From Bogotá they rode together and had been chasing us throughout Peru and Bolivia. We were finally reunited during our new year stop in Mendoza and made plans to ride on together from there.

Sarah

Lee carving a piece of vacio at Hostel Alamo, Mendoz, Argentina

New Year seen in with seven other cyclists, an asado feast for Heidi’s birthday, Argentine Tango, a merry go round of gear fixing interspersed with ice cream trips and artesan beer drinking. Our time in Mendoza was hectic but fun and most of all it allowed us to eat…a lot.

Cat graffiti on the road out of Mendoza, Argentina

Leaving the city as a foursome, we roll past some graffiti for a local gym.

Sandy stretch of Ruta 40 near Pareditas, Argentina

Extra supplies are essential on the next stretch though as there’s nothing out here on the old Ruta 40. In fact the road is not much more than a sandpit.

Car heading into the distance on Ruta 40 near Pareditas, Argentina

Only the occasional vintage car…

Dying trres on the Ruta 40 near Pareditas, Argentina

…a row of tree skeletons…

Grasshopper on a blade of grass on Ruta 40 near Pareditas, Argentina

…and a plague of pretty grasshoppers keep us company.

Lee and Heidi eating biscuits on Ruta 40 near Pareditas, Argentina

A shared love of biscuits presents the perfect excuse for regular stops to munch and chat…

Heidi, Lee and Sarah cycling along the old Ruta 40, near Pareditas, Argentina

…before we continue up and down on the dirt. 

Sunset over Ruta 40 near Pareditas, Argentina

Camping around here is pretty and easy…

Lee riding in the early morning on Ruta 40 near Pareditas, Argentina

…and with bleary eyes, we ride in the early mornings – before the sun and wind pick up in the afternoons. 

Big insect on Lee's hand on Ruta 40 near Pareditas, Argentina

We pick up a stowaway hitchiker. This little guy got folded up in Lee and Heidi’s tent and miraculously survived. We release him back into the wild 60km from home and wonder if he will hitch a ride back?

Sarah and James' bikes on the Ruta 40 near Lago Diamante, Argentina

The 40 continues, with little to distract, until… 

Lee drinking maté near Lago Diamante on Ruta 40, Argetina

…we are invited to drink Argentine maté with a family on holiday at a refugio in the middle of nowhere. Maté (a caffeinated herb) is held in awe in the same way that tea is revered in England and so there is a distinct etiquette and culture surrounding its making and drinking. Lee already knows the most important rule – don’t touch the bombillo (straw).

Lee and James chatting in the road on Ruta 40 near La Jaula, Argentina

Busted! Catching up on all things coffee. 

Lee and Heidi riding away from La Jaula, Argentina

The early morning climb out of La Juala sees Lee and Heidi chasing their shadows up the hill… 

Lee riding across an enormous plateau near La Jaula, Argentina

…bringing us to a huge plateau. We think we’re doing well, until we realise we have miscalculated the distance to El Sosneado.

Lee on sandy Ruta 40 to El Sosneado, Argentina

Lee of course takes it all in his stride whereas Heidi and I don’t find the extra sandy 20km quite so funny. 

An amardillo on the parilla at a campsite in Malargüe, Argentina

A day off the bikes in Malargüe and we plan an asado feast. Our neighbouring campers already have their grill on the go and their speciality dish of the day is armadillo.

James, Lee and Heidi eating an amardillo foot at a campsite in Malargüe, Argentina

We are invited to taste some of the leg and vote overwhelmingly that this poor little critter won’t be making an appearance on our bbq any time soon.

Cycling towards the Chilean border from Bardas Blancas, Argetnina

From Bardas Blancas, we head towards the Chilean border…

Goats running home near Bardas Blancas, Argentina

..and chase the goats home to their corral. 

Lee and Heidi in the road to the CHilean border near Las Loicas, Argentina

As we contemplate the hot and dusty road ahead, Lee and Heidi discuss the finer points of salsa technique…

Putting a tea bag in a hot drinking bottle near Las Loicas, Argentina

…and it gets so hot that the only way to deal with our nearly-boiling drinking water is to stick a tea bag in it.

James, Lee and Heidi in the river near Las Loicas, Argentina

A cool, rushing river is incredibly welcome at the end of a long hot and dusty day. We wallow, we splash; and when it’s time to get out…

Heidi leaves the river near Las Loicas, Argetina

…Heidi does it in style.

Goats in the road near Paso Pehuenche, Argentina

Climbing up towards Paso Pehuenche and the Argentine/Chilean border, a menacing herd of goats brings us to a stop.

Lee and Heidi cycling past Campánario near Paso Pehuenche, Argentina

They graciously allow us through and we continue to climb, past the spectacular peak of Campánario…

An Islas Malvinas sign at the Paso Pehuenche border between Argentina and Chile

…to the border, where a final opportunity is taken to remind us that the Falkland Islands (or Las Malvinas as they are known here) are Argentine.

Chile sign at the Paso Pehuenche border between Argentina and Chile

Into Chile.

Heidi cycling downhill on pavement into Chile after the Paso Pehuenche border between Argentina and Chile

Now heading downhill and on pavement, we are flying…

Sarah overlooking Laguna del Maule near the Paso Pehuenche border between Argentina and Chile

…towards Laguna del Maule.

Lee and Heidi sheltering in the shade mear Laguna del Maule, Chile

Time for some lunch and the fierce sun means we have to improvise and make our own shade.

View of Laguna del Maule near the Paso Pehuenche border between Argentina and Chile

A post lunch swim is tempting but it’s a long way down. So we continue towards Talca, where we have Warmshowers host Daniel waiting for us.

Moon over the valley on the way to Talca, Chile from Paso Pehuenche

All that remains is a 100km downhill through a spectacular valley with, of course…

Lee and a handmade Chilean tortilla, near Talca, Chile

…a few stops to sample some of the roadside food that’s on offer this side of the border.