I’m currently writing from the one sunny corner in a cabaña while my toes thaw and my shivers cede. I’m all about the hygge of a wood burning stove, but not so much the inefficiency of distributing the warmth, time spent trying to get the damn thing started, and the pollution output from all the smoke.
We’re in a small lake town called Panguipulli in the Rivers Region of Chile visiting an old neighbor of mine whom I knew when I was eight or so years old. She and my mom were friends, as Nedy didn’t speak much English and my mom speaks Spanish. I remember holding her then-two-year-old daughter Bernadette. Now, Bernadette is 25 and a world traveler like we are. Nedy has three other children, plus a whole lot of family, so we’ve been spending a lot of time meeting new wonderful people and I’ve been playing translator for Dave. It’s been equally joyous and exhausting at once.
At the same time as our arrival, we learned that our friend Jonas, whom we met on our second day of cycle touring, nearly four months ago, had a bad accident on his bike. He had been traveling with two friends, Jonas (yes, two Jonases!) and Johannes, but they all split up for some solo riding, just days before the accident occurred. He broke his scapula and two ribs, one of which punctured his lung, so he has been in the hospital, all alone, with little ability to communicate, as he speaks little Spanish. We’ve made trips to the hospital 2.5 hours away by bus and also have made arrangements for Jonas and Johannes to join us in Panguipulli.
While relaxing in the cabana, I’ve been collecting my thoughts on cycle touring Southern Patagonia over the past several weeks, specifically the journey from Ushuaia, Argentina to El Chalteén, Argentina. The desolate landscape felt like some horrible form of torture at times. With nothing to admire for hours – no homes, no land texture, no people, no flora or fauna, just grass, road, sky, endless fencing and the occasional estancia, guanaco, or hawk – the slowly passing hours filled our minds with thoughts of boredom, doubt, and wondering why the hell we elected this journey for ourselves.
Oh, the wind. I’ve already told you about the wind. The relentless, insufferable Patagonian winds erected a wall, forcing us to claw our way forward with each pedal revolution, like a bee stuck in a pot of honey, fighting his way to freedom. For six weeks, we spent each day mercilessly fighting the wind. No matter the tactics we employed, the wind defeated us, day after day after day. Our only solution to conquer the evil force came in the form of a hitched ride.
Wind and barren lands aside, I offer you my honest thoughts on cycle touring southern Patagonia.
The Patagonian wind is its own beast in this part of the world, and then there’s the weather. It’s completely unpredictable. It can and will change. One long, miserable day of riding brought us a morning of numbing pinprick penetrations of frozen rain, which eventually abated, only to bring on a sudden and violent wind/rain/downpour/hurricane?/storm where the rain drained from the skies in sheets so thick, I couldn’t see Dave 20 meters ahead, nor could he hear me scream at the top of my lungs. Cycling was out of the question, so we held onto our bikes for dear life, bracing like tree trunks against the 100 kmph gusts of wind.
Thoroughly soaked and frigid, the wind blew away the clouds and unveiled the sun 20 minutes later. It was as though nothing had happened.
Expect everything, and always have your rain gear at hand. And warm gloves.
With so little in the way of, well, anything along this route, the estancias provide an important source of water. For some reason, cyclists we met always told us how there was no water for the next 100km, but we never found ourselves without water, as long as we stopped at the estancias.
Always friendly and appearing every 25-50 km, estancia owners were happy to fill our waters, chat about our journey, and sometimes offer us a place to sleep – inside – for the evening. With little opportunity to find shelter from the wind or rain, we always accepted the offer.
La Panaderia La Union, Tolhuien Argentina
Do yourself a favor and don’t miss the opportunity to spend the night at La Panaderia in La Union. It’s not so much for the hospitality or the bakery, although we were incredibly grateful for both. What came out of the experience was a solid group of friends. Traveling for so long, just the two of us can become a bit lonely. Sure, we keep each other company, but I don’t always want to hear about the latest in soccer and Dave doesn’t really care about how dry my hair feels.
After taking advantage of the generosity of the bakery owners on our second day of touring, we departed the following morning with several new friends, many of whom we have traveled with for months – including the three German guys mentioned above – leapfrogging or running into one another as we make our way north. We have shared meals, drinks, roasted chestnuts over campfires, and found dog sitters. The friends we made there provide a valuable social outlet for the solitary traveler.
Puerto Natales, Chile
Touristy, yes, but I still loved this little town. Transient foreigners mull about the streets, either en route to or just returning from several days traversing the trails of Torres del Paine. Since the park was off limits to dogs, we stuck around town for a few days while we awaited several days of strong winds to pass.
Though Puerto Natales caters to tourists, we never felt like it took advantage of the outsider. Prices seemed fair for the most part and there wasn’t an overabundance of kitschy tourist shops selling crap. Rather it was a nice mix of locals meet travelers.
With lovely places to walk along the water or through the main square and plentiful restaurants like our daily indulgence at El Living, an organic vegetarian restaurant, and a decent beer scene, we felt cozy in this little town.
Chile is not dog-friendly. In fact, it is the least dog-friendly country we have visited on our entire journey. Finding accommodation that accepts Sora has been challenging and requires quite a bit of up front research and calling ahead. Campgrounds seemed to be fine with her, though sometimes required a bit of convincing.
Argentina, on the other hand, is surprisingly dog-friendly. People love dogs in Argentina and in Buenos Aires, you can find dog walkers juggling eight dogs at once. We never once had trouble locating dog-friendly accommodation or campgrounds.
ATMs – Argentina
We found taking money out of ATMs in Argentina nearly impossible. I’m not sure if it’s a U.S. account problem, a chip card issue, or an Argentine issue. In Buenos Aires, we visited some 7 ATMs before finding one that would give us money, after running into a fellow American experiencing the same issue. After that, we had to find places to exchange US dollars. We’d find “exchanges” in the form of travel agencies or individuals who worked at tourism offices. Be sure to ask around in order to find the best rates.
I sure hope you enjoy carrying heavy food around because if I hadn’t made it clear, there is not much in the way of services along this route. Distances between grocery stores averaged about 250 km, which amounted to five days of riding for us, sometimes more, depending on the wind or the state of the gravel road. To be cautious, I’d often carry an extra day’s worth of food. And it was h-e-a-v-y.
Refugios, or shelters, dotted the route, providing valuable shelter from the wind. Most of them however, didn’t exactly meet my standards for cleanliness. All too often, we’d spot a refugio in the distance, pedal like mad to reach it’s walls, only to find the inside resembling some sort of open toilet that also functioned as a dump, kitchen, and sleeping quarters. Flies buzzed around, feasting on the feces and bones left from animal carcasses.
Some, on the other hand, were lovely, clean-enough edifices maintained by cyclists. Onaissin and La Casa Rosada offer respectable places to call home for the night.
Cycling from the end of the world – Ushuaia – is certainly a cyclists’ rite of passage, especially if you have intentions of one day making your way to Alaska. We’d recommend starting in Alaska and making your way south, as the Patagonian winds tend to blow in a southerly direction, pushing the cyclist merrily along at a speed of some 50 kmph or more. Otherwise, if you’re simply planning a Patagonian cycle tour, we’d recommend foregoing this section and starting somewhere like Puerto Natales or El Chaltén. There is no need to voluntarily subject oneself to such an arduous journey, and I’m not sure we would put ourselves through the punishment if we were to do it all over again.