Punta Arenas(Chile)-Porvenir-Onaisin-Cámeron-Russfin-Paso Bella Vista-Rio Grande(Argentina)-Tolhuin-Puerto Almanza-Ushuaia
It is only fitting that our journey should come to an end in Tierra del Fuego, a remote, desolate, harsh island strangely reminiscent of Alaska. The early winter wilderness embodied Patagonia at its most raw; we´ve been looking for places like this. The end of the world did not disappoint, throwing us into unexpected adventures left and right. Just as it did when we began pedaling forever ago, the warmth of the people we met here provided a stark contrast to the whirling snow and wind, reminding us what bike touring is all about. We´ve truly come full circle.
|Tierra del Fuego: home to few people and a few penguins|
|What we wrote a long time ago about cycling to the farthest point south accessible by road... well, I guess we´re going above and beyond.|
|At 8:30 am, even Danny, lover of the snooze button, gets to take in a sunrise or two.|
The people out here say that, in Tierra del Fuego, you get all four seasons every day, and I believe it! The sun comes out for a while, then clouds and snow, then sun again. Late afternoon we are suddenly overtaken by a large blizzard. Struggling against the fierce winds and snow, we find our way to a small bus shelter. It doesn't look big enough to spend the night in, but it's the only place out here. Just then a red truck pulls up and offers to take us to a better shelter just up the road. We load up.
A couple of delicious candy bars later, we say goodbye to our new friends and disembark at an amazing shelter where we will be able to spend the night out of the snow. Inside other cyclists have written notes and stories all over the walls, and we recognize quite a few of them. (That's how you know you've been on the road for a long time.)
|Caro and Rodri... we met them about two months ago|
The next morning dawns frozen and windy but clear of snow.
|This puddle outside our shelter had little waves frozen into it, a showcase of the wind and cold|
We cycle 14 kilometers slowly into the blasting wind, motivated by where we're going: a King Penguin colony! King Penguins belong to the same genus as Emperor Penguins, just slightly smaller (0.9 vs 1.1 meters tall). They are the only two species of penguin that incubates their eggs on their feet. Unlike Emperor Penguins, mom and dad take turns going out to fish while raising the chick.
This particular colony is the only one in South America (others live on sub-Antarctic islands), and they just showed up recently, about 50 years ago. Apparently overfishing around their previous nesting grounds drove them to look for new homes, and since commercial fishing is not allowed in this bay and the surrounding strait, they have plenty of food here. The 70 or so penguins that we can see today are clearly happy and healthy. And there are currently a bunch of 3-9 week old chicks!
A day in the life of a penguin chick:
|What should I do today?|
|Let´s go find mama. Mom! Mom! Mom!|
|Gosh, that was tiring.|
|Mom! Mom! I´m hungry!|
Day in the life of an adult penguin:
|Looks like a nice day. I´ll stand here for a bit.|
|Maybe do a bit of dancing...|
|...or some singing!|
|Hey man, you didn´t like my song?|
We watch the penguins for hours, and when we get cold, the caring and knowledgeable researchers who run the place invite us out of the wind to heat up our lunch. And, as if that weren't enough, when it gets late they load us up with firewood and send us up the road to a little shack where we stay warm and cozy all night.
|Anything seems like luxury when the temperature´s hovering around freezing and it´s raining|
|With a fire going, we´re perfectly content.|
The penguin-fest is not yet over! Just a few kilometers up the road we encounter a colony of Rockhopper Penguins! These guys are not as well protected from human influence, but there are a few signs warning not to get too close. Rockhoppers can be up on these ocean cliffs for weeks without food while raising their young, and even a bit of stress can be incredibly detrimental. They are completely different from the King Penguins; they're much smaller and have hilarious yellow eyebrows that make them look both funny and extremely serious. And of course they're called rockhoppers for a reason...
|One of the many Rockhopper Penguins! It´s not every day you come across penguins by the side of the road.|
|Up we go!|
|We get a bit dirty, too|
We're going to have to find a place out of the rain to spend the night, so we press on to the estancia that we know is up the road. At first the collection of buildings appears totally deserted, but then we spot smoke rising from a chimney. We roll up on our bikes and are greeted by Rafael, a reticent, hardened gaucho.
|On a day like this, nothing could be better than a massive wood stove, except perhaps for the fire inside of it.|
Overnight the rain changes to snow and in the morning the ground has been covered by several inches. The sky is completely grey and it looks like the storm isn't over yet. Not eager to have another day like yesterday, we decide to stay at the estancia. While the gauchos go out to tend to the sheep, Danny splits a lot of wood, and I clean our muddy bikes and dry the rest of our wet gear.
|Hmm... not what we had hoped to wake up to...|
|...but it does add a picturesque air to what, yesterday, was a muddy mess of a road.|
|Staying inside = quesadillas!|
In the late afternoon we meet Martin. He's dressed well, with a beret perched on his head, and holds himself with confidence. We're not surprised to learn that he's the owner of the estancia. He welcomes us and brings us over eggs and bread.
Rafael and Martin leave to tend to some sheep and we are left with Jorge, who invites us to have tea. We learn that the estancia is massive, holding around 22,000 sheep on 200,000 hectares! He shows us a picture; it looks like a sheep ocean.
The following morning dawns clear and sunny and we are happy we waited out the snow! It's always nice when a decision based on no evidence at all turns out to be the right one.
Late morning we reach another division of the same estancia. This sector is called Rio Grande, and in the summer they run a popular fly-fishing lodge for the sea-run trout in the river. Martin has invited us to stay the night here, but since it's still early and the sun is out we don't want to stop! Best to take advantage of the nice weather while we can. We walk up to the buildings, intending to leave a note for our new gaucho friends.
Instead, we meet Yolanda, Rafael's wife. She stuffs us full of delicious homemade bread rolls, butter and jam, and hot tea. An unbelievably generous lady, she avails us with stories of other travelers she has taken in and visitors that come each year to the lodge. We immediately feel at home in her cozy kitchen.
As we prepare to get back on the road, Yolanda treats us to a bag full of more rolls (hot out of the oven!) and some jam. Spirits high, we set off towards the border with Argentina.
It's not long before we are stopped in our tracks by a huge group of condors. Several are nearby on the ground where we can get a good look at them, and I count more than twenty in flight! And most people consider themselves lucky to just see one!
|The unmistakeable andean condor|
To reach the border we ride through a bit of forest. The shade means that the snow hasn't melted here, and the fall colors turn our road into a winter wonderland.
|Snow´s not just for fat bikes! At least not when it´s only an inch deep|
Thrilled by the colorful scenery, we quickly reach the Chilean border, a series of cabins. You know you're at a remote border when you need to knock on three different doors before finding someone who can stamp you out of the country.
|But we finally talk to the right people and head out.|
|Bye, Chile! It´s been great.|
|A final surprise: just months ago, a bridge was built over the river! Dry feet seem like a luxury when you already thought them doomed to wetness|
The Argentinian border is much the same. The immigration official isn't in the office, so we go knock on his door and ask to be stamped in. Since it's late, the guys there set us up in an unused school building complete with gas stove, mattresses and tons of blankets. What luxury!
|The perfect end to an amazing day: sunset through the lichen-drenched Fuegian woodland|
Argentine Tierra del Fuego
In the morning we spot a sign:
|Our first sign for Ushuaia! We´re close...|
The expansive landscape and washboardy road reminds me of the north of Argentina, only here there are grasslands instead of sand, and guanacos instead of vicuñas. To keep things interesting, after lunch we turn off the main road and head towards some 4x4 tracks.
|First we´re riding through a spotty forest...|
|...lichens hanging down from every branch...|
|...then the trees become sparser...|
|...until we find ourselves on pura pampas, extensive grasslands.|
Unfortunately, the little-used 4x4 tracks are quite muddy. The sticky mud builds up on our tires and clogs our drivetrains. We ride carefully, removing rocks when they get stuck, staying in the middle chainring to keep our chains farther from the mud-covered tires, and coasting when we can, but suddenly there's a loud CRACK! And Danny's derailleur has broken off. In the cold and mud we work to find a quick solution, removing the derailleur and shortening the chain onto a fixed gear.
|The hanger attaching the derailleur to the bike snapped clean off. Since Danny wasn't pedaling, we have few ideas of how it happened.|
|With the derailleur off and the chain shortened, we´re back in business. Or not.|
The road is so bumpy that the chain won't stay in gear; it keeps falling off. With the sun setting quickly, we abandon plans of finding a place inside to spend the night and push our bikes quickly into a small patch of trees to camp.
|Beautiful sunset on the mountains in the distance|
|With the sun setting, our goal for the day becomes those trees in the upper left of the photo. They´re farther away than they look.|
Sheltered by the trees we stay warm in the tent, but in the morning the mud has frozen solid to our bikes. It takes a good fifteen minutes hacking away with metal tools to free all the moving parts of the drivetrain from their icy homes and get things moving again.
|A piece of frozen mud molded to the form of a bicycle chain|
|Tam hacking away|
|Our frosty road|
To keep Danny's chain from falling off we rig up a stick to keep it in place. Either the stick works, or this road is smoother than the last, but the chain doesn't fall out of the set gear anymore. What's more, we do some math and figure out that we can manually shift it into another gear, giving him a total of two! It's not much, but it's enough for him to pedal up and down hills. Turns out those other 25 we´ve been riding with this whole time are superfluous (except when you´re in Peru, then you only need one gear, the lowest possible).
|New, high-tech bike technology: a zip-tied stick|
Since Danny's bike is in poor condition, we don't know if the other 4x4 tracks are going to be just as bad as the last, and it's so cold this morning that we are wearing our fleece, down, and rain jackets while riding, we decide to bail on our planned route and head to Rio Grande. We ride almost 50 kilometers and are close to the city before a truck passes and we flag it down for a ride.
The driver of the truck, an Irish-Argentine fly-fisherman also named Danny, not only takes us the last few kilometers into the busy city, he drops us off right at the bike shop!
It's soon clear that we have arrived at the right place. Benito, the owner and mechanic, moves around his shop with amazing vigor, attending to customers and fixing bikes with seamless efficiency.
|Univega: the right place to be|
Benito helps us get the part we need and reinstall the derailleur. But something is wrong with the limit screws and when Danny takes it for a test ride it breaks again. By the time we have a functional derailleur in place it's dark outside and we ask if we can sleep on the floor of the shop. No! Instead we are loaded into the back of his enormous white van and taken to his house where we are shown our own little apartment complete with bathroom, hot shower, and mini stove. We continue to be overwhelmed by people's generosity.
Graciela, Benito's wife, invites us to stay another day, and since we're in no rush, why not?
In the morning we go out to walk around town a bit. I'm excited to see the Atlantic for the first time in so long, and the confluence of the Rio Grande with the ocean makes for an interesting, constantly-changing delta.
|Sunrise over the Atlantic|
The city itself is extremely industrial. Argentina has established tax breaks for this region to encourage people to come down here and work in the factories. A lot of electronics are produced: TVs, cellphones, air conditioning units, and more. Since it's the closest city to the Falkland Islands, there are a lot of monuments to the Falklands War. Í feel a sneaking pleasure that the U.S., for once, wasn´t part of this debacle.
|Las Malvinas, the Falklands. These signs are everywhere.|
But perhaps this area is most famous for the fishing opportunities. The Rio Grande is known for its giant trout.
|Some of the winners caught around the Rio Grande|
It so happens that today is the birthday of Benito and Graciela's son, Alessis. The whole family comes over to celebrate. We enjoy some interesting conversation, homemade pizza, and cake. We can't help but think back to our first night in Mexico when we went to a similar gathering and didn't understand any of what was going on. Tonight we're making jokes and having conversations about agriculture and genetic engineering. Our Spanish has come a long way.
|Benito´s on the left, Graciela in the middle surrounded by her children and holding her giggling granddaughter. A happy family if I´ve ever seen one!|
In the morning Benito drives us out to the outskirts of the city so we don't have to go through the industrial zone. As an open-minded vegetarian, he had been one of the few people we've met in Latin America we can relate to about diet, and we're sad to say goodbye.
Our road follows the coast for a while and since it's Sunday morning, things are relatively quiet. Suddenly our attention is caught by a family pulled over on the side of the road. They're surrounding a small penguin! We pull over as well, and, appalled by how close they are getting to take pictures with it, we ask them to give it some space. I feel so bad for the little guy. It's a rockhopper, but unlike the others we saw, this one is alone, with feathers matted and falling out. With a nest this close to the road, I don't think it has much chance of survival. I know that death is part of the natural cycle, but it sucks when humans are the cause of it.
|Poor little guy|
It's 100 kilometers or so to Tolhuin, and on the paved main road we make excellent time. In Tolhuin there is a famous bakery that not only makes delicious treats and empanadas, it´s rumored that they host travelers! The place is busy when we arrive and we're not sure who to talk to, or even if they´re still hosting, but when the lady behind the counter sees we're cyclists she immediately puts on a coat and brings us on a tour.
|The sky is threatening rain, as usual, and we´re happy to arrive at the bakery just before it starts.|
|Some of the artwork in our room (I realized after the fact that Paul took the same photo... imitation is flattery, right?)|
|Some more wall artwork|
We spend several days at the bakery, each morning going into the main kitchen to "help out." The guys are so masterful at what they do that I'm pretty sure they would accomplish everything at the same rapid fire pace even without Danny and me helping. But we do our best, have a lot of fun, and eat all sorts of delicious bread and pastries throughout the morning.
I'm amazed at how this operation runs. There are mixing bowls the size of small bathtubs, racks upon racks of pastries in all different shapes, carefully folded thin dough that takes the same shape and form as cozy bedsheets, and crazy Rube Goldberg-esque machines that cut and flatten and roll the dough into perfect forms. Every day I seem to discover something new.
|Cutting up 20 kilos of butter in a giant mixer|
|The basic source of all the goodness: a warehouse full of floor-to-ceiling flour|
|Empanadas ready for the oven|
Just as we're starting to feel at home, it's time to leave. The weather forecast says that the next days are the only sun we'll have for the next week and we're eager to get over the pass before more snow falls. Our new, wonderful friends at the bakery send us off with a big bag of pastries and rolls, all of which we helped to make!
|With Javier and Alcidres, bread masters|
The traffic is annoying, but the scenery is picture perfect all day. The fiery trees stand brilliant against snowcapped peaks, and glassy reflections dance on the small waves of clear, blue lakes. The sun is bright, warm and fierce enough to banish all the clouds from the sky.
Late afternoon we descend from the pass and face a decision: turn right and bike to Ushuaia tonight, or turn left to take the longer, more difficult route into the city and arrive in two days. You can probably guess which way we turned...
The Coastal Route
The last two days into the city are the perfect culmination of the trip. The riding is fun and challenging in parts, including roads, beaches, 4x4 tracks and trails. The scenery is remote and breathtakingly beautiful. We meet only one person along the way. Daniel, the caretaker of a remote estancia, is a thoughtful character, respectful of our skill as cyclists, generous with hot tea and crackers, and a lover of life and good stories.
|We reach the coast near Puerto Almanza, where these two characters welcome us. Across the channel is the Isla Navarino and the Chilean town of Puerto Williams, the farthest south settlement in the Americas that`s inhabited year-round.|
|With the route literally right next to the beach the whole time, we couldn`t get enough of the superb ocean views...|
|...balanced by striking late-fall colors|
|The largest unknown of the route: passing through this naval area unseen. Fortunately it was completely deserted|
|Perhaps the navy needs some more training?|
|The whole area seems to have been forgotten long ago|
|More incredible riding by the Beagle Channel|
|We pass up a shack early in the afternoon, hoping we`ll find somewhere else to spend the night. We soon find this estancia, meet Daniel, and share some thoughts and stories over dinner...|
|...and he offers us this unused cabin for the night.|
|The wind is howling in the morning. Seems to be common in these parts.|
|A short stretch on the sandy, pebbly beach makes us wish we were on fatbikes...|
|...then we`re back to flat coastal grass, easily rideable, remote, and beautiful.|
|Soon we head up into the trees and find dense, dense brush. Cue a few hours of struggling against the branches and thorns...|
|...but the trail after is fantastic.|
|A magellanic woodpecker joins us for a bit|
|Danny`s yellow jacket and backpack camouflage him in the bright forest|
|And then we`re out of the woods, literally, standing on the doorstep of Ushuaia|
I feel numb riding into Ushuaia, partly because the wind is so cold and partly because I don't know what to think or feel. We cruise through the big industrial port, then through the main street, stopping briefly at the fin del mundo sign.
|Ushuaia is a busy port city|
|...but so does street artwork, making for an interesting place to take a stroll|
We've reached the city that's been our long-term goal for the last two years, but sitting here now, both of us realize that arriving actually means very little. What got us is here is what matters.
Chile: The ferry from Punta Arenas to Porvenir runs once a day at 9 am except, if I remember correctly, Mondays. 6200 pesos p/p, bike is free.
Porvenir has shops, restaurants, internet, hotels, ATMs, etc, but best to do all that in Punta Arenas.
The route directly east from Porvenir through the Cordón Baquedano was under construction, so we took the "main" road. Very little traffic, generally good dirt surface. No natural water sources for the first 35 km out of Porvenir, though there are estancias scattered here and there. Water continues to be scarce after that, though there is the occasional freshwater stream. We filled up at an estancia, then the next day at the penguin colony.
There are some fishing shacks on the right at around km 50. At the crossroads just north of Onaisin (where you turn right for the penguin colony), there is a municipal refugio, a fantastic place to escape the crazy weather.
The king penguin colony is 14 km down the road towards Cameron. 12,000 pesos p/p for entry. We filled up water, ate a hot meal (though don´t expect this), stayed with the penguins all day, then stayed at their shack about two km up the road. Even if you don´t check out the penguins, the shack makes for a wind and rain-free night, though it´s nowhere near as nice as the refugio 14km before.
Parador Russfin, after the town, was useless to us, though they do have a hotel and hot drinks available to buy after 7 pm. Better to stop in the "town" of Russfin and camp in one of the buildings. There´s a caretaker there year round, though we never figured out specifically where he lives. One of the buildings south of the road (on the right) near the east end of town, that´s all I got.
Paso Bella Vista closed in 2016 at the end of April, but it may not always be open after April 15. Ask at the carabineros in Porvenir.
Argentina: We attempted to take 4x4 roads more directly from Bella Vista to Tolhuin, cutting off time on route 3, but the mud killed my bike. It wasn´t raining and hadn´t been recently, so I would presume that 4x4 tracks in that region are relatively muddy all the time, at least in fall and winter.
In Rio Grande, there are two bike shops, Everest Outdoor and Univega. Everest has shiny, expensive, brand-name parts. Univega has Benito Vega, who, if you´re a touring cyclist, can help you much more than an overpriced Shimano replacement. He machines his own parts and can figure out a creative solution to any problem. Contact info:
Viedma 329, Rio Grande
02964-430391 (you may need to add a +54 at the beginning and leave off the first 0)
There is a dirt road alternate part of the way from Rio Grande to Tolhuin; see here for details.
Bikepacking to Ushuaia:
The route is easy to follow, as it stays by the coast pretty much the entire way. All tracks are on Open Maps.
Shortly after the top of Paso Garibaldi, take a left onto smooth dirt route "J" towards Puerto Almanza. About 36 km to the fishing village, where you can probably find some simple supplies if need be, through don't rely on much being open in fall and winter.
15ish km on the road brings you to a restricted naval area; hop the fence and continue. Apparently the area is used only every 2-3 months, so chances of being caught are low. Even so, be aware of the comments here. We were there on Saturday and didn't see anyone.
About 7 km in the naval area to Remolino, where there's an awesome sunken ship, a few run-down shacks (didn't try the doors), and a river crossing. Follow tractor trails along the coast; road quality deteriorates into mud, but it's still all rideable and easy to follow. There's a small "shelter" in a few km, just some tin roofing overlaying a bent tree trunk, and a more sturdy (and open) building a few km beyond that, under a large antenna. Push on the beach for a few hundred meters before freestyling on the coastal grass to an estancia. Daniel, the caretaker, will probably be there; he has some unused buildings, one of which he let us sleep in.
After the estancia, there's a deeper river (I rode across but still got my feet wet), then it's back to the beach for a km or so. Stay down by the coast. Some of the beach is rideable with a standard mountain bike, but most not due to deep, loose sand and rocks. As soon as the beachside cliff gives way to flat grass, freestyle some more then go around the fence marking the end of the naval area.
Follow the steep, dense trail up into the trees. This 5 km is the hardest, with fallen trees, mud, super steep inclines, and very dense brush.When you're reaching the end of the thorny bushwhacking, you'll see a flat, grassy bulge of land into the ocean: that's where the Rio Encajonado drains. Cross the knee-deep river by the beach (or risk your life on the sketchy suspended tree trunk), then head back uphill. The trail from there on is a dream, especially compared to where you've been: scenic, technical, clear, and almost all rideable with no more frigid river crossings. Near Estancia Túnel turn uphill and follow a muddy but mostly fantastic ATV track (fork left after a few km to head steeply downhill). There's also apparently a trail that traverses this part from Estancia Túnel staying by the coast. The ATV track spits you out onto a dirt road, follow the coast 10 km to Ushuaia centro.
Many thanks to Paul for sending us some helpful notes and to Cass for pioneering the route.
GPX track here (drawn, not recorded).