Argentina - gravel roads, strong winds and Ushuaia.
There are two options for getting to Ushuaia - either the coast road or the inland Route 40. I seek guidance from the girl at the tourist information office in Perito Moreno. She uses the word 'mystical' when describing Route 40. Okay!! I already know that Route 40 is well documented and synonomous with adventure bikers so Route 40 it is. It crosses the Great Antiplano Central, a massive swath of nothing covering most of Patagonia. Its predomiently flat and featureless. Its also notoriously windy - although it's green, trees don't grow here. Only pampas grass.
The road is predominently unpaved - that means gravel. Out of 666miles, I reckon on 480miles of gravel. Nice!! This adds up to 3 days of continuous gravel riding on top of the two I've just done in Chile. Gravel roads come in lots of varieties, but riding mostly involves finding the best clean line and staying out of the loose / soft stuff. They are often steeply cambered which seems to have an effect of pulling the bike towards the ditch!! The roughest parts are normally on uphill sections - downhill sections have the most loose gravel as well as the corners. Often its a case of driving totally on the wrong side of the road.
I dont mind the gravel roads, I've done enough miles now to have confidence on them, but they become tiresome. They are physically tiring - you notice it at the end of the day. They are also mentally tiring - the gravel demands high concentration and focus on the road. Unfortunately the scenery has to take second place, which is a shame as the snow capped Andes are never out of sight. Always on the right. It also feels like it takes forever to get anywhere. 25mph is a reasonable average speed even though I can manage 40 or even 50mph at times. My mechanical sympathy and desire to protect the bike keeps the speed down on the rough sections. Although on the whole the road is in good condition - certainly better than the Carretera Austral. The wildlife is also interesting - lots of llama's and emu's. Emu's are funny birds - they always seem to be in pairs, but run in completly opposite directions when they hear the bike.
The first night stop is in Baja Caracoles. I share a hostal with an Italian cyclist and Arnou, a German biker. Its good company and there's an obvious commoraderie between us. Arnou has good stories of a previous round the world trip. Planning fuel stops is important here. A stranded camper van onroute to Gdor Gregores highlights this - Arnou gives them 5 liters to get going. For us our planned fuel stop in Gdor Gregores is a disappointment - there is none. This is Tuesday and there has been no fuel since Sunday. However maybe tommorow!! We find a hostal and stay the night - we have no option. The next morning we find a Belgian biker couple with spare fuel and buy enough to get us to Tres Lagos - the next stop. The Belgians are glad to see us - they are stuck in Gdor Gregores until the girl recovers from an accident. They had it really bad on the road, getting caught on the '40' with near hurricane force winds - hence the accident. For me the weather is perfect - blue skies and no wind. I feel really fortunate.
With only 30 miles to go until Tres Lagos I have a puncture. Its the front and being on the gravel road it takes a minute to realise. Getting the bike stopped was interesting to say the least - the tyre went down really quickly. The repair is straight forward. I know that Arnou is on the road behind me - he arrives within 10 minutes to lend a hand. Its much appreciated. Soon after a South African and two Brazilian bikers also arrive. More encouragement and support. Its strange, but despite the fact we are in the middle of nowhere with all the help it doesn't feel isolated. Other than the bikes traffic is minimal - its not even obvious to me why this road even exists.
That night is spent at El Chalten in the shadow of Mount Fitzroy. El Chalten is a nice little town and full of trekking type tourists. At least the road is paved (thats tarmac) now and the gravel is behind me - or so I think. I cross to the east coast for the run down to Ushuaia. Leaving Rio Gallegos the wind has risen and is reasonably strong. On tarmac is not a problem, but creates discomfort while riding. The only road south frustratingly cuts back through Chile. Frustrating because it means another two border crossings heading south and another two on the run back north. Even more frustrating, the first border crossing is closed. There is some form of official cermony taking place - I wait 4 hours until 3pm. I share the delay with Irish biker Oisin Hughes who I had previously met briefly in Costa Rica - bizzare. The only consolation is that while waiting I chat to a senior military type who speaks perfect english. He obviously takes pity on me and has someone escort me into the immigration office to do the border paperwork - I'm the only one there. Once the border opens I'm first across.
Once into Chile there is a ferry crossing across the Magallanes Straits which join the Atlantic with the Pacific Oceans. Because of the wind I'm expecting it to be rough. It is - very rough. I ask the boat guy if they tie the bike down - he says no, it'll be okay. Easy for him - its not his bike. However he did give me an apple as some form of consolation. I spend the whole crossing hanging on to the bike - its not easy. Looking at the side of the ferry, the horizon changes from big sea to big sky to big sea as the boat rolls - you get the picture. People are struggling to walk properly or even stand straight. Thankfully its only a short crossing. Oisin tells me afterwards that his bike fell over. Crossing the Magallanes Straits means I'm now in Tierra Del Fuego.
The big surprise after the ferry is gravel - 100miles of it. Obviously Chile can't see any reason to pave it - the only purpose the road serves is to get to the bottom bit of Argentina.
Approaching Ushaia is also a surprise. Apart from the blue skies and balmy temperatures which are totally unexpected, the flatness turns into a range of snow capped mountains. These form the backdrop for Ushuaia, the most southerly city in the world apparently (thats what the sign says). I expect nothing of Ushuaia but find a really nice town (city!!) with lots of Antartica expectant tourists asking `were you on the boat'. Apparently there had been some drama at sea with cruise passengers having to be rescued. Makes me feel safe on a bike. The sunshine gives me that feel good factor and I decide to stay in Ushuaia an extra day. However my extra day turns to disappointment with gale force winds, heavy rain and wintery temperatures. Just like home. Do I feel fullfilled - I dont think so, not just yet. I'm saving that feeling for Buenos Aires - that's still 2,000miles away.
I head off the next morning in more wintery weather - the mountains, the rain and the cold wind remind me of Alaska - that feels so long ago. I dont remember Alaska being particularly windy though. I'm also heading north for the first time in 5 months.
The run to Buenos Aires is uneventfull. There's really not much of anything on the east coast run - the truck drivers all flash their lights and wave. I guess they find this road dull also. The long straight flat roads give me time to think. I refect on the gravel roads and feel pleased that I got through unscathed. I try and pick out the good and bad points of the trip - bad points? I couldn't really think of any. Would I do anything different if there was a next time? I dont think so. The KLR - best choice for me.
Eventually the landscape changes from pampas to farmland - at least there are cows and things to look at. Approaching Buenos Aires things pick up and there is real life.
Buenos Aires is a city I've always wanted to visit and I'm not disappointed. The guide books liken it to Paris. I would agree. It's big. And not sprawling low rise but elegant high rise. The bike is great for getting around although the traffic here has a strange habit of driving on the white lines, not between them. Maybe they are all closet bike riders.
So thats it. 5 months (to the day), 24,735miles and 14 countries. As a parting shot here are my own observations about Argentina:
i. The car of choice here is the Ford Falcon, a car of unknown parentage and possibly unique to Argentina (I dont know?). I would suggest circa late 70's, early 80's and fitted with a large engine (3.6ltr seems standard). It looks like nothing else I have ever seen. They also love Fiat's - 147's and especially 128's. Also Hillman Avengers - series 1 and 2, Renault 12's and Peugeot 504's. How quaint.
ii. After cars, they also love horses. In Las Flores there was a 3 day horse festival - Caballeros of all ages, all in traditional dress parading down the main street on their trusty steeds. Actually quite impressive and worth seeing.
iii. They party late - the restaurants are still packed well after midnight. I guess this explains why nothing opens until after 10am, close for two hours at lunchtime and close up around 5pm. Nice life if you can get it.
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