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

Location: London. Back.

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

Saturday 4 December 2010

Winding it up again

Our poor bikes.  Martin and La Pinguina, our trusty and beloved steeds for over 9,000km to the Mexican border, must have thought it was about time for a proper rest.  OK, so they had a few days puffing and steaming in California whilst we rambled around in a car.  But almost before the stiffness had eased from their spokes and chains, there they were back in another cardboard box; frozen in a couple of aeroplane holds; shoved in and out of Buenos Aires taxis and then - as if all that wasn´t enough - thrown onto an overnight bus down to Patagonia.  We really should be kinder to them.  They have been extraordinarily good to us.

But there is no rest for the wicked, not even the remarkably resilient steel-framed wicked.  Their holiday will have to wait for now.  They did at least get a full overhaul in Bariloche and looked as good as new.  But we are back on the road again.

This is the final leg of what has become a complicated route.  We set off from Bariloche a couple of weeks ago.  We took the road South on which we had originally hoped - but for that Tierra del Fuego wind - that we would have come North.  We are now attempting to get to the bottom of Argentina so as to have a pretty dotted line on our map to show for it.  The kind that belongs on one of those ancient weatherbeaten maps that Phileas Fogg or Indiana Jones might appreciate.

And so we climbed onto Martin and La Pinguina as the sun shone out of a deep blue sky and headed South.  If we are honest, a small part of both of us was thinking "why"?  We had already been a long way, and experienced the kind of trip that only the luckiest few can.  It might have made sense to quit while we were ahead.  But we were both keen to get to the bottom of Argentina, a country whose least visited parts we have spent so many months discovering this year.  We liked the idea of using the wind to our advantage this time (we hope).  And, frankly, we´re both pretty stubborn.  Oh, and there´s also the small matter of ´reality´ that neither of us feels a crushing urge to return to just yet.

Within the first kilometre, we were pushing the bikes.  Those hills to get out of Bariloche are not to be trifled with.  The view over Lake Nahuel Huapi was spectacular, but as we sweated our way up it was an instant reminder that this section was to be no pushover.  Fortunately, however, we were in for a magical next few days.

As soon as we were out of town, we found ourselves cruising along between explosions of roadside 10ft high yellow gorse, bordering lakes so vividly blue that it made you think you were cycling across some kind of impossibly huge Boca Juniors shirt.  That first day was a tale of cloudless skies, perfect temperatures, the deepest pine greens, and distant snow-covered peaks.

And we were going faster.  A crucial piece of advice we would give to anyone contemplating a long bike ride through South America is to do a long one through North America first.  It´s all about units.  In the USA, we had finally grown accustomed to miles.  It had taken a while, and in the early weeks it was marginally morale-sapping to have to make do with 50 miles in a day rather than 80km.  80 just sounds better than 50.  And to average just 10-11mph.  But now that we were back in the land of the metric unit, it was all change.  Suddenly, on smooth, empty tarmac we could cruise along at 18kph - a clear improvement on our speeds last time we were here.  We appeared to be going places more quickly.

But that didn´t stop us marvelling at the flowers.  Now, I am no David Bellamy.  I can tell a daffodil from a crocus, and I´m pretty much there with lillies and hydrangeas, just don´t ask me for too much more detail than that.  But I´m learning.  You can´t fail to be intoxicated by Argentina´s wild flowers in spring.  As that first day back in the saddle wore on, we hit lupin territory.  At the risk of sounding like a botanist, lupins must surely be some of the prettiest flowers out there.  And here they were by the roadside in such numbers that it almost made your eyes ache.  Massive battallions of them, in every shade from deep purple to the palest pink, standing tall and elegant as if to say "Wilds of Patagonia, huh? Pah!"  They were to accompany us for several days, and became etched on our memories.

That evening, we stopped early.  We simply couldn´t pass the "camping" sign with the ghostly white tandem hanging from it.  It was a sign!  And sure enough, we enjoyed a wonderful night´s camping in an orchard protected from any wind by a thick line of poplars.  The sun was still high in the sky, the grass soft and comfortable to sleep on, even the tent pegs went in easily.  Being back on the road was good.  So far!

Inside the lodge alongside the orchard, Raúl and Martha ran a wonderfully dishevelled but charming setup.  Effectively a log cabin, it doubled as memorial to the indigenous people of El Foyel who, we learnt, were amongst the last to be duped into surrendering to the invading troops in the second half of the 19th century.  We heard yet more disturbing stories about that era from Raúl that evening, as we launched into local trout ravioli and stout.  We especially learnt as he held forth to a film crew who were the only other guests that night.  They were interviewing him as part of a documentary about the history of the Argentina/Chile border for a Japanese television channel.  And the sound girl, wielding a massive furry microphone, came from Acton.  It´s an international old world out there!

Next day, we ran into our new Spanish friend Jose as we left.  We had met him the previous day as he sunned himself by the roadside.  He is cycling around central Argentina and Chile, and - having come off his bike early on in his trip and broken his arm - has had to shorten it somewhat.  As a nurse, however, and not wanting to waste time, he decided to remove his cast after just three weeks.  The last few weeks have been his convalescence!  A great guy, with plenty of refreshing attitudes.  Yet another reminder that with Spain´s economy in its current state, this year wasn´t a bad one for not being in Europe.

That day, however, we were on a roll and left him trailing somewhat - the wind caught us, the road seemed eternally downhill, and we hit a memorably delicious rhythm on the bikes.  We only had about 50km to get to El Bolson, and it took us barely two hours.  Two hours through idyllic valleys, past glacial meltwater streams straight out of mineral water adverts, tall waterfalls, and acres of lupins and gorse.  We were there in time for lunch, time for (at least...) two doses of Jauja ice cream in their branch there, and time for relaxing in our charmingly diminutive guest house that felt like a cross between a set from a Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale and a gnome´s house.

Next day, we left the province of Rio Negro and crossed the border into Chubut.  Chubut is really where classic Patagonia begins.  But not quite yet.  We still had to endure most of the day through hillsides carpeted with pine forests, artesanal jam makers selling their wares from Swiss style log cabins, and yet more floral roadside delights.  But the scenery was beginning to adjust.  The snowcapped mountains were becoming rather more patchy now, more resembling a line of gigantic freisian cows.  The lupins were beginning to give way to verdant bushes of small pink briar roses.  Valleys were becoming flatter and rusty little settlements protected by poplars more the norm.  We spotted a couple of herds of those mini-mountains being herded along the road by gauchos on horseback with their dogs.

As lunchtime rolled around, we saw Jose´s bike outside a small restaurant and joined him.  Good thing we did, as that was the last place to eat for about 150km.  The valley view out at the back was magically Alpine, but we resisted the (frankly minimal) temptation to join Jose on 100km of ripio, as recommended by several of our enthusiastic fellow lunchers.

Instead, we stuck with the considerable compensation of tarmac.  We moved into harsher territory, although no less impressive in its own way.  Trees disappeared, Patagonian scrub reappeared.  The wind became less friendly and more blustery.  Still nothing to worry about, but a factor once again.  And it felt like it was all a steady climb.  We were therefore more than relieved to find that it wouldn´t come to pitching the tent in the middle of nowhere.

Instead, we were once again treated impeccably by Argentina´s much maligned police force.  The Leleque road police outpost is 80km or so from any real town, but Cristian is the man in charge, and from the moment we met him he was a delight.  "Please, feel free to camp out at the back here; so nice to see you, you´re the first cyclists this season; the others usually go out there behind the trees, out of the wind...".  A true gent.

He does shifts of 24 hours on, 48 hours off, and shares the spot with a group of forest firefighters, who came and went several times as a generic mass in the back of their bouncy old pickup.  He joined them later for an hour of evening football nearby, but came back and was only too happy to offer us his bathroom to shower in.  It was fascinating chatting with him as he explained the problems he has with Chilean truckers who don´t know how to use their brakes, insufficient budgets for icing or repairing the roads in winter, and why he loves it there, near his hometown.  By the time we had enjoyed our dinner in the well sheltered garage, chatted with his venerable dog and her litter of puppies and taken to our tent, we felt thoroughly contented.  Even the wind dropped, hospitably.

The following morning, we were woken by hot sun pouring in through the tent canvas.  Another seemingly perfect day dawned.  But it wasn´t to be quite as simple as that.  Today, the wind returned with a vengeance.  From the moment we pedalled away from Cristian and his colleague at their roadblock near their base, the wind appeared set on persecuting us.  I say that, but in fact Liz handled it much more phlegmatically and patiently than me.  To me, it just felt that all day, it was out to get us.  Even after we had spent most of the morning climbing gradually, any downhills were hindered by that all too familiar thunderous noise of wind in our ears.

But there was compensation.  Mid way through the morning, we spotted condors.  These were the first we had seen that we were confident were indeed condors, and we stood by the road transfixed.  Two flew close by overhead, and one came down to no more than 20m or so above the ground.  Those telltale flared wing tips, barely needed to beat as they circled upwards on the air thermals.  The elegant surfing on air and that overtone of silhouetted black menace.  These are birds that can take lambs when they look for prey.  It was thrilling to watch.

As the afternoon wore on, we were reduced to less than 10kph and struggled onwards across bleaker landscape than we had seen since the Peruvian desert.  The wind sapped our energy and our will power.  Dark grey clouds rolled in and the temperature dropped substantially.  Thank goodness Liz was able to keep team spirits up.  At one point I found it was marginally quicker to walk my bike for a kilometre or two.  It wasn´t even really uphill.  Grrr.

As we always do, however, we got to our destination in the end.  Esquel was to be our base for three days, and by the time we rolled into town we were as broken as we had been in ages.  The great thing about the sun setting after 9pm at this time of year is that you have time on your side.  But boy, we needed it!  As we finally paused to leaf through our trusty Lonely Planet for potential lodgings, we ran into Evo, and diminutive young Italiano who was whizzing like the Duracell bunny towards Chile.

It was he who prompted us to reconsider our options for how best to get South from Esquel.  We spent much of the next three days pinned on the horns of a three way dilemma.  The options were: the iconic but isolated, wind-pummelled, hilly and rough Ruta 40; the out-and-out bleakness but tarmac of wind-pummelled Ruta 3, the ´unbikeable road´; or finally, Evo´s route - Chile´s iconic, less isolated, less wind-pummelled, hilly, rough and potentially snowy and/or wet Carretera Austral.  Option 3 was likely to involve at least two ferries and horses.  Hmmm.  You see the problem?  By the end of three days of intense discussion, we thought option three sounded least bad.  But it´s still under discussion!

We liked Esquel.  On the second day, we rented a tiny car and headed to the nearby Parque Nacional Los Alerces, famous for its ancient alerce trees that have been compared to California´s sequoias.  Whilst that particular comparison may be optimistic, the park itself is blissful.  As we drove along beautifully maintained gravel roads, we wondered if anywhere could claim, in full confidence, that it is unarguably more stunning than here.  Parts of Canada, maybe, New Zealand perhaps, Norway might have a shout.  But this place must be right up the list.  The colours of the fjord-like lakes, the intense green forest, clarity of the air and the light, the splashes of floral colour and the snowy mountains that act as a backdrop to it all.  We had lunch on a deserted lakeside beach, and walked later that afternoon around a deserted trail that passed crystal clear rapids, rare ancient trees, mirror-still lake surfaces, and high Andean glaciars.  And still that saffron yellow gorse at every turn.  Very, very lovely.

We spent the rest of our time in Esquel poring over maps and guide books and eating excellent homemade pasta in our (rapidly identified) favourite confiteria.  We went through our usual process in a new Argentine town: find a base, and then track down - in no particular order: the best ice cream in town, the YPF (coffee and breakfast medialunas, wifi), supermarket, cash machine, laundry, decent spots to eat, a good bread/cake shop, a bike shop, and the tourist information office.  We succeeded on all these fronts.

We hunted down Bruce Chatwin´s favourite Old Patagonian Express, ´El Tronchito´, as it steamed nostalgically out of Esquel station, stuffed with tourists, on its twice weekly trip a few kilometres North up the line.  Wonderful to see how perfectly maintained it is, a real example of how Argentina´s legacy can be taken full advantage of.

We also enjoyed pottering through the Plaza Mayor on one of their summer ´Culture Sundays´.  This meant the main blocks being closed to all traffic larger than bikes and skateboards, demonstrations of folkloric dancing, kick boxing and volleyball, live local bands, chess competitions and empanada making on trestle tables.  It was Esquel´s answer to a regular village fete.  Everything you could wish for short of welly throwing or a coconut shy.

But it was time to push on South.  After the comforts of those early days out of Bariloche, we knew it was only likely to get harder going for Martin and La Pinguina.  It´s only a few hundred kilometres to go, but those bikes and their riders are going to have to earn them.

It´s all about that wind from now on.


  1. You are both an inspiration to cyclists and aspiring travel writers. We may be seeing you in BA for Xmas. Watching your progress in earnest.

    Garth n Dee

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