Dave and I sat with Sora on the shoulder of the dusty road between San Sebastian, Argentina and Porvenir, Chile. We had put in a good effort for the day and felt ready to stop after nearly 10 hours of riding. With little shelter to block the wind and a fence running along the entirety of the route, the rare open field near where we ate offered a promising spot to sleep for the evening.
We had not yet pitched our tent, as the winds had begun to die down and we debated over whether we should take the opportunity to ride in the pleasant weather. As we spooned the remainder of the curry I had prepared the evening before, we watched a car make a U-turn and begin driving strangely along the shoulder opposite where we sat.
As the car approached, the driver rolled down the window and beckoned us over. He delivered a note.
A note? For us?
“It’s from your friend,” she said. “And happy birthday to your dog!”
Baffled, I read the note and immediately knew the sender. It was from our friend, Janka, our first ever Warm Showers host, whom we met in Sweden. She had just completed a doctorate program and gifted herself a cycle tour in Patagonia to celebrate her accomplishments.
Chatting over Facebook the previous evening, we knew that only 150 kilometers separated us. With no way of communicating on the road, we made a plan to find each other in crossing and hoped that it would work.
Her letter, however, indicated that we were just 20km apart.
Upon receiving Janka’s clever postal delivery, we hopped back on the saddle and pedaled the remaining distance in order to reunite with our friend. We found her waiting for us at the bottom of a hill just outside a refugio in Onaissin, Chile. Hugs ensued and we spent hours catching up and talking bike travels.
Our journey through the harsh lands of Southern Patagonia left us asking ourselves nearly every day why we chose this particular route.
It wasn’t for the scenery, for the the majority of the landscape offered tearfully boring views of yellow grass and the occasional dried river bed. Houses, or edifices of any sort, for that matter are few and far between, towns appear every 250 kilometers, and nothing grows there – there are no trees and few bushes, only the spiky plants that stab our feet, Sora’s paws, and our tent the moment we step off our bikes.
It wasn’t for the route itself, for the winds that blow with such constant force have enraged us, battered our bodies, pained our knees, chapped our lips to the point of cracking open and bleeding, drawn tears from our eyes, diminished our morale, and tossed us around like a desperate unfortunate soul dead set on soliciting a positive reply from his magic 8 ball.
And now that we’ve arrived to the supposed cyclist eden – the Carretera Austral – we still find ourselves struggling. As beautiful as are the turquoise waters that meander through the cragged ravines below the towering mountains and glistening glaciers, the 1.200km route is equally as difficult for us. With our narrow tires and heavy loads, we spend about half our time pushing up the hilly, slippery, insufferable ripio terrain. Some days take us seven hours to advance just 30 kilometers.
So what keeps us going each day?
Cycle touring the entire length of Patagonia is a bit of a cyclists’ rite of passage – battling the harsh landscape and thrashing in the wind certainly earns the cycle tourist a badge of honor – and it is for that reason that this route attracts so many cycle tourists from all over the world.
But it isn’t just earning that badge that rouses us from our cozy sleeping bags each morning.
It is our fellow cyclists.
Often, several times per day, we’ll spot a slowly moving vehicle off in the distance – a member of our tribe. We have met dozens of cycle tourists along the way, exchanging tales of our battles with the wind, divulging bits of information on where we can find shelter for the evening, asking whether we’ve spotted friends they’ve made along the route, or sharing tales of fellow cyclists. The flow of cyclists along this route operates as a game of telephone.
Have you met the Germans traveling with their baby?
Do you know about the bakery in Tolhuien that houses cyclists?
Did you hear about the Americans who went to see the penguins and were attacked by the crazy people with an ax? (true story, we met them, they’re from Oregon, no cyclists were harmed)
There’s a pink house on the right on your way to El Chaltén, it’s La Casa Rosada, an abandoned house where cyclists can sleep.
Look for the cairn on the side of the road with a bike tire. That points you to the refugio where you can stay. It even has a fireplace.
La Panaderia La Union in Tolhuien houses dozens of cyclists each day, opening the doors of their spare room to cycle tourists from around the world. There, we met Flavia from Brazil, Brian from San Francisco, and Johannes, and the two Jonases, “the Three German Guys.”[easy-image-collage id=1817]
Didier and Kyla friends we made on Instagram, recognized our trailer while traveling around Patagonia with Kyla’s dad. They pulled over, stopped us, and we chatted for 20 minutes on the side of the road. Didier would be joining us in the ride back to the states in a solo venture. Much faster than we are, we knew he’d blaze by in a matter of days.
We found Nicolas from Denmark cleaning his bike in Lago O’Higgins before embarking on the boat to Villa O’Higgins, the launching point for the Carretera Austral. Hitting it off immediately, we learned about one another over the three-hour boat ride.
Heading off in separate directions or on schedules that did not quite align, we departed bidding farewell to our new friends, figuring we’d only see one another again on the Interwebs.
However, kismet intervened several times over, delivering us a community of trusted friends on the road.
We found Flavia in Punta Arenas, when she spotted Sora from the car which delivered her to the hostel at which we were staying and spent the next two days planning the adventures that lay ahead.
The bus that refused to take us and our bikes from Punta Arenas to Puerto Natales and forced us to ride the 250 kilometers separating the two cities placed us outside of the fruit market in Puerto Natales at the same time Brian went in search of a haircut at the barber next door. Brian was stuck in town due to a slow-to-arrive debit card. We spent hours long dinners meals together over the next several days while we awaited cards and good weather.
The two sets of drivers gifted to us by the Universe twice in one day in between Puerto Natales and El Calafate delivered us to El Calafate in time for the local holiday. This holiday prevented us from obtaining Sora’s border paperwork and forced us to stay one more evening in the campground from where we had just departed. While setting up our tent once more, we ran into the Three German Guys who had just rolled into town and rode within close distance of one another on towards El Chaltén
While finishing lunch in the picturesque village of Puerto Bertrand, we noticed Didier rolling down the hill to meet us, and not even a minute later, we spotted Nicolas guiding his bike down the road in our direction. Much faster riders than we, these two fellas crawled along at our 5km/h pace for several hours. It was our best day of riding on the Carretera.
It is these stories, these connections, these moments of kismet that have carried us through the most cumbersome miles of our entire tour. We miss our friends and family back home, and we know with comfort and certainty that our fellow cyclists and travelers will fill the void, serving as our community on the road and beyond. This is why we cycle in Patagonia.