Latest Update (as at 30/1/11):

Location: London. Back.

Total Distance Cycled: 10,325km
Days Biking: 140
Longest Day: 174km (2/12/10)

Friday 5 March 2010

Life gets sweeter and sweeter

Our story resumes since we made the decision to call off the battle against the wind in Tierra del Fuego - to be resumed later in the year.  Watch this space.

Since then, it has been by no means all wailing and gnashing of teeth.  Yes, we theoretically wanted to do the route in one dollop, but we always knew we'd need to be flexible, whether in the early weeks, or several months in.  We have at least learnt early, as Liz suggested in the last blog, that certain elements are not to be trifled with.  Going with the wind, when sensible and viable, will make for a far more enjoyable trip.  And joining the dots, to try to cover the entire route, remains more than feasible.  The dotted red line may yet be of a decent length.
It is an odd feeling, being in Bariloche already.  On the one hand, we both have a background tinge of disappointment to have had to adjust our plans.  But on the other hand, the vital thing is to get Liz's knee into one piece - it was a salutory lesson to both of us that we will need to listen carefully to our bodies if they start grumbling.  And on an imaginary third hand, and perhaps most importantly, what a totally brilliant place to spend a few days!  Spirits are high.

Before telling you about Bariloche, a little about how we got here.  From the Chilean border at San Sebastian, we managed to catch a bus back to Rio Gallegos.  Not entirely a seamless operation, as the wind if anything grew even stronger after we made our decision the previous day.  As we rumbled along 'ripio' roads across the sunlit landscapes of northern Tierra del Fuego, even small ponds were bumping their resident ducks and flamingoes around amidst white horses and froth and the grasses were on the point of giving up and getting blown away.

By the time we reached the Magellan Straits, it was clear - from the moment we emerged from the bus and stumbled around trying to keep our footing - that either somebody had spiked our bus company sandwiches or the wind was comically strong.  Despite deceptively bright sunshine, we reckoned it must have been gusting to over 100kph and the ferries were hiding in port.  We spent 3 or 4 hours in an overheated but cosy cafe overlooking an almost entirely white stretch of froth.  As the queues of livestock trucks, 4x4s and cars grew, we were kept occupied by coffee, Scrabble and a small radio updating us on the Chilean earthquake.  Slowly the water began to calm somewhat.  Eventually one of the sturdy little ferries ventured out from the port 4km across the straits and came to find us.  Amazingly, it was more choppy than out and out rough, and even the nervous sailors amongst us reached mainland Argentina unscathed, notwithstanding a couple of failed 'landings' to allow our double decker off without grounding.

We made it back that evening to our same unexpectedly family hostel in Rio Gallegos, and slept like the dead in a room devoted largely to the cult of red satin.  Next morning, we once again went on the diplomatic offensive to convince yet another bus company to allow our unwieldy steeds (plus 9 paniers) onto their coach. This time, the destination was Comodoro Rivadavia.  Not unlike the cases of Rios Gallegos and Grande, which we'd got to know pretty well by mistake, most guide books suggest that the best thing about Comodoro is the Ruta Nacional 3 out.  We had 24 hours there, and felt it had been undeservedly condemned.  OK, any town, however grim, is going to look better under clear blue skies.  But after Comodoro's rough start, as we staggered around the bus terminal in something of a dust bowl, it grew on us.

We spent the day wandering along the simple waterfront, admiring the fanciest shops we'd seen since Buenos Aires a few weeks back, eating in panaderias and heladerias that could have done Paris or Milan proud.  You can tell the place is built entirely on the oil money that began pouring in when the first gusher gushed in 1907.  The reason for Argentina's topical interest in Falklands oil, we have learnt, is that Comodoro's ain't very good - you wouldn't find much of the finer grades here - but the impression of wealth is unavoidable.  I rode my bike up to the top of the sand stone cliffs that loom up behind the city and enjoyed spectacular views over Comodoro and the ocean.  There was also plenty of well preserved evidence of the golden age of Argentina's railways, and as ever 100% welcoming people to look after us.  Perhaps the culmination was our first 'tenedor libre' - literally 'free fork' or megabuffet.  Suffice to say, I probably confused the restaurant management's statistics.

The way up to Comodoro took us through the last of the out and out Patagonian landscape we would see - for now.  We continued to marvel at what we saw.  Ruta 3 runs over 3000km from Buenos Aires to Ushuaia - we had taken it all the way down, and part of the way back up, and you can't help but form impressions.  Liz made the astute observation that much of the land looks like several days of chin stubble - rough gorse plants growing in patches.  They are joined by smaller, less harsh plants, still only knee high, and ever softer grasses.  It is almost as though the good Lord has provided every grade of sandpaper courseness for a giant carpentry set.  It sounds dull, but whilst these plants are a near constant, you sit transfixed for hour after hour, hardly daring take your eyes off it all so as not to miss the next blazing white salt flat, sudden rust coloured canyon of soil, field of glacial morraines and erratics, or distant range of sierras.  And there seemed to be ever more of our friends the guanacos and nandu, trotting around in bigger herds the further they are from civilisation.

And at times we were faaaaar from civilisation.  As you stare out to the horizon, it is frankly terrifying to contemplate setting out on foot, on bike, or by any means across that land.  There are hundreds of kms between villages.  The sun brings the whole scene to life.  Under cloud, the mucky coloured sheep almost blend camouflaged into the drab grey of the grasses.  When the sun emerges, every colour under the sun, literally, comes to life simultaneously.  As we rolled along, hypnotised by the fence posts and km markers, we strained our eyes occasionally to check the wind direction with bikes in mind.  We were going in the right direction, was our conclusion.

The towns along that East coast are curiosities - Piedra Buena was set on the banks of an emerald green river, with the main avenue a beautifully manicured set of lawns and all the main buildings looking well maintained.  Oil money, again, no doubt, but well channelled.  Much earlier, it was supposedly the origin of the first indigenous 'patagons' discovered by Magellan.  San Julian was begging for an art house movie to be shot there, a jumble of bright graffiti and low house, but again just a brief stop on our bus North.

We took an overnight bus from Comodoro to Bariloche.  There can´t be many better ways to travel than to wake up in well reclined comfort as the sun rises over Patagonia.  We spent the morning on the bus watching as the last vestiges of Patagonian sparseness gave way to ever greener and more mountainous landscape until we were inescapably into the Lake District.  By late morning we were weaving our way along pine lined ribbons of road, with snow capped peaks in the distance.  Towns like El Bolson and El Hoyo are part of Argentina´s fruit and vegetable heartland, and full of campsites, wood cabins and folk who have decided way of life is top priority.  And who could argue with them, with the sun beating down on strawberry patches and orchards, clear rivers babbling under bridges and mirror calm lakes stretching out to more pine covered mountain sides.

We got to Bariloche at lunchtime, and met Fede, a local parapente instructor driving a beautifully restored 1964 pick up.  Once he had finished seeing his parents off to Buenos Aires on the bus and doing handstands on the tailgate, he agreed to give us a lift along the banks of lake Nahuel Huapi and into town.  On the way he gave us the name of a knee specialist - what better man could we have chosen to hitch with than one who deals with hard landings on knees for a living?!

The knee: good news - it is not bad.  We went to see Nestor Rendon, the disarmingly handsome knee specialist in central Bariloche with a consultancy room spectacularly overlooking the snow capped Andes.  In an astonishing display of efficiency that would put the medicine elsewhere to shame, we were seen within moments, given a clinical diagnosis that he was confident there was no tear, and referred for an MRI scan first thing the next morning.  Which we went to, were through within an hour, and back with Nestor before lunch for final confirmation that there was no ligament or meniscus damage.  It is strained and needs more rest, but will not be harmed by doing things gently with it.  Phew.

Meanwhile, Bariloche... was there ever a more idyllic town?  We have been basking in unseasonal low 20s temperatures that should have happened in January, and wandering the town.  Whilst it feels like a ski resort, it is more than that.  It is now Argentina´s (South America´s?) winter and adventure sports capital, and it is amazing that it is still not beseiged by American and European tourists.  Admittedly, we have just entered the post-holiday season, which means worryingly short queues for the chocolate and ice cream for which it is partly famed.  If Belgium can compete with the kinds of chocolate emporia/supermarkets we have gasped in, then I´m a dutchman.  And if Italy can compete with the ice cream that we have found in Helados Jauja - reputed to be Argentina´s finest - then I´m moving there.  We have tried to restrain ourselves to two daily visits only to Jauja for our 1/4kg tub of delicacies such as mascarpone and fresh raspberries and double choc chip dulce de leche, but it is not easy.  It feels as though Bariloche´s bus station gates may have been pearly, and Fede the parapente instructor may actually have been St.Peter ushering us into paradise.

All the while, the massive lake Nahuel Huapi offers one of those views that you think can´t be real.  Must be a Hollywood backdrop from a 1950s film.  The water never stops changing colour and pattern, and the layers of mountains fade gradually into the background on the far side of the lake.  Totally idyllic.

We are hoping (well, mostly) that the knee will be good to go for Monday.  In the meantime, for the weekend we have rented a little car to head back to El Bolson, where we have arranged to meet up with the family who set up Helados Jauja back in the 1960s and hopefully see it being made.  It really is that good.


  1. Is there any ice cream left in Rio Negro state?!! Glad to hear that the knee prognosis was good and it sounds like you might be on your way again today.
    We've spent a few days driving through Neuquen and are now in Mendoza province for our last 7 days.
    Cycle safe and may the wind be always at your back! S&S.

  2. "By the time we reached the Magellan Straits..."

    You chaps are living passages from a Patrick O'Brian novel.

    Glad you are mixing it up a bit. I've always been of the opinion that the better part of valour is discretion, and as the man said in 'Wear Sunscreen', look after your knees.

    I like this blog for many reasons. I will now look at the photographs.

    I think you should comment in detail about the local food and provide pictures. And I encourage you to talk about politics.

    Love to you both.


  3. Just viewed the latest pictures.

    Fernet Branca and Coke! The national drink Argentina! And also (you may be interested to hear) of San Francisco, so don't think you're done with the stuff yet.