San Carlos de Bariloche proved to be a beautiful little city, nestled in between mountains on the idyllic Lago Nahuel Huapi around which is centred a beautiful national park of the same name. In addition to its natural beauty, Bariloche also contained everything we needed, including a motorcycle shop that sold insurance making us once again legal on the roads. We also took the opportunity to change our oil, though this time the mechanics in the shop did it – for free!
We left Bariloche Tuesday morning geared up for a week of riding along the Andean spine that separates Argentina and Chile. Our first stop was in El Bolson after traversing soft twists and turns that carried us around mountain lakes and past rolling shrubby meadows; the road lined with a taste of bright yellow wild flower bushes. We crossed icy blue streams in and out of small settlements of log homes and barns tucked into small openings between the tall trees. Occasionally a subtle hint of smoke from a far off woodstove would quietly float into our helmets, offering a strong taste of home. El Bolson is a nice small village busy with markets and tourists, hostels and restaurants, but we decided to push on to a campsite, unaware at this point of just how beautiful it would be.
The bikes were soon topped up with gas and loaded with camp-friendly food, and carried us towards El Hoyo where we turned up yet another gravel road. The mood was perfect as men on horseback, clad in colourful floppy berets, trotted across the wide expanses of pristine farmland. We climbed up through the abundance of trees, then twisted along the hard-packed dirt until the lake presented itself, clean and clear, sitting at the foot of rugged rock walls. Along the shore were a series of humble campgrounds, offering many waterfront tent sites, which, after last week’s stretch of roadside campsites, was truly heavenly. We went to bed as the last whisper of light trickled over the dark mountain silhouettes, and a splatter of stars began to emerge through the fog of night.
In the morning we awoke to a few messages on the satellite phone from loved ones in Canada, which brought news of the US election. We had been following the campaign since leaving Canada with great interest and amusement and were blindsided by the result as we cooked breakfast in our paradise which sat in southern Argentina: far from politics, far from the United States, and far from the implications of the election outcome. The world might have looked different following the surprise victory, but the lake still looked as perfect as it had the day before.
We retreated back out of the rich farmland along the gravel road, the beauty quickly abandoning us as we soon found ourselves again riding through the high plains. Though snowy mountains gave life to the horizon, our local geography was filled with gravel and colourless bushes that lived in the cold gusty air. The riding was cold and windy, but regular stops for tea at gas stations along the way enriched to the passing hours. We encountered stretches of road which were being eaten by their hungry gravel shoulders, and where the asphalt was flooded in potholes. On our approach to Rio Mayo the wind became absolutely ferocious. A relentless side wind forced us to adopt the ‘Patagonia Lean’ for hours on end, and the occasional turn in the road led to inconceivable head winds. The wind was so strong that it had us unconventionally leaning to the right on left-hand curves, and the right-hand curves required extra caution to make sure a gust didn’t sweep the tires from underneath us as we leaned heavily to the side. It was awful. But, in Rio Mayo, we found an unattended Municipal Campground, which was perfect for us, though a far cry from the lakeside heaven we had enjoyed the night before. Our tents were protected from the wind, and we walked through the blustery town, miserably isolated, for a big supper before going to sleep tucked away from the beast that continued to blow outside our thin flapping walls.
The next day was another battle with the wind. Our enemy had not lost its power or control over the roads and we fought diligently to stay between the lines. Our dismal day was punctuated by stops for shelter in gas stations and deep roadside ditches where the hot exhaust warmed our hands, gloves, and souls. During our stops we discussed our route for reaching Tierra del Fuego, and with the prospect of facing this wind for the days to come we settled on cutting across from El Calafate to Rio Gallegos to expedite the journey.
We arrived in Gobernador Gregores for the night where the best restaurant turned out to be at the gas station, and a local auto shop helped out with a few lingering issues. Dom had his luggage rack welded back together after one of the connections broke at some point during the day’s ride, and Ben had Howie in for some tune ups including fixing the unreliable kickstand, straightening out the bent front end, and making a temporary license plate which is probably better off staying off the bike. A fellow rider talked to us at the gas station, having just come up from Ushuaia himself. He was adamant that the roads would get windier, and that we could not skip these three towns: El Chaltén, El Calafate, and Torres Del Paine – calling it a failure if we missed them! Faced with the news, we altered our recent plans of heading Southeast to Rio Gallegos and prepared for a few short days of hopping between the mountain towns.
So, the following morning we set out, back on the roads in the face of the ceaseless wind. This day being Remembrance Day, we paused on the outskirts of town, taking a moment of silence to remember the fallen soldiers who made the ultimate sacrifice to afford us the freedom to live our unconstrained lives. We remembered these young men and women who set off blindly into the tight grasp of war. We remembered the families who were broken and bruised by the loss of their loved ones. We reflected on the soldiers still serving who answer the nation’s call of duty. We reflected on our liberty and opportunity as Canadians, which has allowed us to undertake this amazing adventure.
We rode along the rough gravel road, still accompanied by the wind. Alone the wind is one thing, as is the gravel, but together they are a nasty combination. We were pushed laterally into thick ridges and deep ruts, continuing to lean into the strong gusts. Eventually the road returned to pavement just north of Tres Lagos, and we could yet again focus on the strong winds without the added burden of gravel. The animals in this area are hardy and include armadillos, foxes, hares, guanacos, skunks and birds we can’t name. The guanacos are the Andean lamas, and they like to gnaw at the grass on the side of the road, threatening to jump out at any second. We also passed fields of light grey bushes that turned out to be sheep strewn out across the barren land. The animals give some life to the otherwise dreary landscape.
The approach to El Chaltén was windy as ever, and riding west we faced it mostly head on. Despite the wind it was a beautiful ride. The tall mountains got taller, and Lago Viedma watched us roll past it from behind its steely blue face. The famous Mt. Fitzroy can be seen at various points along the drive, and is an incredible sight. Its spiked peaks are powerful but peaceful, and as we rode towards it the mountain shyly peered out from behind a cover of clouds. El Chaltén is a hotspot for hiking enthusiasts with many trailheads leaving from the town directly. We set up our tents in the backyard of a hostel, next to a handful of others travelling on a budget, then decided to take a short walk up to the nearby waterfall. The walk was along a gravel road, unfortunately, but the silver lining was that we were able to catch a ride with a passing van! The waterfall, like most waterfalls, was beautiful and serene and we spent some time there before walking back into town, and making ourselves dinner in the hostel’s kitchen before bed.
In the morning we rode out of El Chaltén, this time with a tailwind, which is an incredible experience. Travelling at 110km/h, you can open your visor without a breath of wind in your face. It feels like a dream. Of course floating freely along the highway didn’t last forever, and soon we were back in the tight grip of our now familiar foe. With the stunning mountains only in our mirrors we were left with the desolate grasslands of the wind-battered plains. The winds not only made life more challenging for us, but also our bikes. They were guzzling gas at an alarming rate and Ben and Dom, with regular sized tanks, hit reserve early - less than 300km after the previous fill up. We still had roughly 70km before El Calafate and considered our options if we were to run out. We had about 2L of spare fuel, and Tym riding Suzie with her 30L tank certainly had enough to go into town and fill up, and then double back to rescue the others. In the end, Dom needed an extra litre of fuel and Ben limped into town at low speeds. We filled up, found another campground within the city limits, then rode out to the Perito Moreno Glacier, which is an absolutely incredible sight. Lying in the shadow of mist-covered peaks this vast sheet of sharply ridged ice creeps constantly forward, icy blue chunks falling intermittently into the frigid waters below. Cracks and splashes are amplified by the towering wall of ice which stands 40-70m above the water level, and every chunk that falls causes a thunderous roar which echoes through the mountain valleys. Even the road to the glacier was picture perfect with corners flowing around the tree-covered slopes. Definitely a must see for those in the area.
The next day saw us cross into Chile at Torres del Paine. The town turned out to be pretty bleak, but the national park is supposed to be beautiful. Unfortunately, Ushuaia was calling our name and we decided to skip touring the park in favour of making headway further south. The ride was amazing, and though the vegetation remained bland it was slowly greening and now splayed out over the rolling hills which shielded us from the wind. We ended the day in Puerto Natales, a charming port town in the southeast corner of Chile where channels and gulfs create a mountainous maze of wonder on the maps. The city is full of single-storey multi-coloured blocks of classic maritime homes. It was of course windy, rainy and cold but it managed to hold on to its allure and we set up our tents, yet again, in the backyard of a hostel where we could benefit from both the warmth of the lounge and the low tent fees.
In the morning we set out towards Tierra del Fuego, the large island at the southern tip of South America split between Chile and Argentina. The ride to the island was mixed between pavement and gravel, and included all the miseries from rain to sleet to wind. We were reminded that the water bodies to our right were no longer clear mountain lakes but ocean gulfs by the pungent smell of the sea. Upon reaching the ferry port near Punta Delgada, after a few cold hours, we were happy to learn the ferry wouldn’t leave for over two hours – giving us plenty of time to warm up, play cards and rest. When we did board the ferry it was quick and painless, and as the boat set out from the port it was pushed vigorously northeast by the extreme current that connects the Strait of Magellan to the mighty Atlantic. The journey across the water was only about 20 minutes, and on the far side we only had about half an hour before reaching our destination for the night at Cerro Sombrero. The only hotel in town allowed to us to set up camp behind the building, sheltered from the wind, and as the evening hours dissolved into night, it felt like a night like any other, except for of course the Super Moon and the prospect of finally reaching Ushuaia the next day!
Of course the road to Ushuaia wouldn’t be complete without a border-crossing delay This one involved the Chilean customs workers being on strike and only working for one hour a day. Luckily we hadn’t missed the short window, and the wait was only about an hour. It was frustrating but manageable, and after completing the process we rode to the Argentina crossing where we were through in no time. We were now separated from Ushuaia by less than 300km and a few hours of riding. The road took us along the frigid coast, before heading south towards Tolhuin where we found a warm gas station. Our pause was brief. The excitement of reaching our destination was palpable. We were almost there.
The last 100km saw an extreme shift in driving conditions. We rode up through the Garibaldi Pass which is apparently beautiful, but the cold humid air, rife with large snowflakes created a thick fog in our visors that limited visibility to a narrow field of view directly in front of us where condensation trickled down our visors. Soggy snow accumulated before our eyes requiring almost constant finger wipes to mimic the windshield wipers we so desperately needed. Slush on the road made for slow riding on our balding tires, and we were often blasted with the slurry of a passing vehicle. Stopping for pictures at the gates to the city, we were greeted with the same peace that accompanies all Canadian mountain villages when the snow drops gracefully from the sky on to the green trees below. It almost felt like home.
Howie, who has been struggling of late to get going in the cold weather, required a push-start literally through the Ushuaia city limits – a perfect summation of the bike’s months-long struggle to reach the southern destination. Meanwhile, the two Suzukis purred through the gates. Regardless, the three amigos and the three bikes had finally made it!
We paused yet again at a gas station to warm up and coordinate with our AirBnb host before we rode up the curb and parked our three bikes in front of the famous sign which reads: ‘USHUAIA – fin del mundo’. Yes! We had made it to the end of the world. We took photos and celebrated with champagne in front of the sign among dozens of other tourists who had arrived by boat or plane, unweathered by months on the road. We spoke to many interested passers-by and received a few handshakes and congratulations. It was perfect.
We ended the day with celebratory pizzas and beer at our home for the week, the nature of the celebration numbing the pain of the $80 price tag! Over the next few days we will ride to the very end of the road in the nearby National Park. We will tune up the bikes in preparation for the last leg of our journey. We will absorb the sights and sounds of our long awaited destination. And, last but not least, we will celebrate Tym’s birthday as he turns 22 on the 17th.
The fundraising effort continues, and as of publishing this post we have raised the incredible sum of $21,412. We have been blown away and truly touched by the incredible generosity of our donors. The vast majority have been our close friends and family and we cannot thank you enough. We have also received donations from complete strangers who we have met along the way or who followed our journey online and to you we extend a heartfelt thank you. The money has an indisputable impact on the lives of those fighting through the reality of poverty and your donations will make a difference.
The adventure is not yet over, and neither is the story, as we will have another blog post upon reaching Santiago where Tym and Dom will prepare the bikes for sale as the two Suzukis embark on an extended tour of South America with some Dutch adventurers. Ben will travel west to Valparaiso where we hill pack Howie up in a wooden crate and ship him back to Canada where the adventures and misadventures are sure to continue!