Calafate to Ushuaia
We arrived in Calafate exhausted and grumpy after an overnight stop in another non-descript town and went straight to the supermarket to get some food to cook up for dinner. The town was a pretty but very touristy little number, and the restaurants were way out of our budget.
It was when we were on our way to the shops that we saw, riding into town, Carlo, Toni, and their new friend, Frank, an Irishman that they had picked up on their way down on the Ruta 40.
We told them where we were staying and they went off to find a room, while we went to buy food for the 5 of us.
That night we sat in the hostel and compared the routes that we had taken. Frank and Carlo had had to battle through mud and loose gravel while the wind did it s best to blow then of the road. Their biggest problem had been that they were trying to keep a line along the tracks left by the big trucks, but the wind kept blowing them over the ridges made by those same tracks. We had to deal with a slightly stronger wind strength, but at least we were travelling on tarmac, a surface that didn’t shift, un like the gravel. I was happy that we had not had to contend with dirt roads in these conditions.
Calafate proclaims itself to be the Glacier capital of the world, and in this respect, it doesn’t disappoint. On our second day together we rode in convoy to the Moreno Glacier.
The sky was a light shade of blue when we left the hostel, but soon the clouds rolled in, and then the rain came. Toni and Carlo had come with out any waterproofs, and as the water seeped into their shoes and clothes, it also dampened their spirits. We pulled into a café in the grounds of the National Park that contains the Glacier, and we all hung our clothes and wet socks in front of the fireplace while we drank hot coffee in an attempt to shift the chill from our bones. There was one more boat that day that could take us to the edge of the glacier, and we decided to go for it.
We finished our drinks, squelched back into our damp clothes, and headed off to the boat dock.
We arrived just in time to eat our packed lunch, glug a bottle of wine, straight from the bottle, and get aboard. As the boat made its way towards the glacier, the rain stopped and the sky brightened up.
The Glacier, one of the only advancing glaciers in the world, was extremely impressive, and made the three days of hell we had endured to get here so worthwhile. The boat chugged up and down in front of the glacier, and we were lucky enough to see a house-sized block of ice fall from it into the lake.
The next day we went our separate ways again, Frank, Carlo and Toni headed back into Chile to visit Torres del Paine, while Jacquie and I headed North to El Chalten to hike to another glacier.
The road to El Chalten
Thankfully the wind had a day off that day ,and we made good time to El Chalten, one of Argentina’s newest towns, having sprung up only 25 years before. Where Calafate claimed to be the Glacier capital, El Chalten was the hiking capital. After we checked into our rustic log cabin style hostel, we took a stroll along the main street. Everyone, and I mean everyone, looked like a pro. People marched along the road in hiking gear, complete with walking sticks, thermoses and other hiking equipment, and I started to wonder if we had made the right choice. I had never been much of a walker, and these hikers were making me feel decidedly out of place. Nevertheless, I agreed to go on a 3 hour hike to the Torre glacier.
Despite my misgivings, the staff in the tour agency insisted that I would be fine, and that the hike would be well worth doing.
I hired a walking stick, Jacquie hired a pair of hiking trousers and a backpack, and we arranged to meet at the agency at 5.30 am for a 6am departure. What had I let myself in for?
I slept badly that night, worrying about the day ahead of me, and a 5am, I got out of bed and into the shower. We packed up our stuff, camera, layers of clothing, video camera and our sandwich lunch, and stepped out of the hostel. Outside, the light was just beginning to overcome the dark of night, the air was chilly and fresh, and I couldn’t figure out if `I was more excited or nervous. We met up with our fellow hikers and the guide explained the route we would be taking. We were all measure for crampons, sharp metal spikes that would clip on under our boots to help us walk on the glacier, and then we were off.
Ready to walk...
We headed up the hill out of town, and just as we reached the top, the sun lit up the town below in a glorious golden light. We walked on and on, through the woods, up and down hills, through amazing scenery until, 3 hours after leaving base, we came to our first challenge, the river crossing.
There was a set of ropes tied above the river, and our guide attached us one by one to the ropes before we pulled ourselves across to the other side.
We rested on the other side of the river, ahead of us in the distance we could see the glacier riding up from the lake, and revitalised from the view, we set off once more.
After a scramble down a precariously rocky decline, we were at the foot of the glacier. We stopped to attach our crampons and were given a quick demo on how to walk with the crampons, and told what we should and shouldn’t do while on the glacier.
Slowly, we began picking our way along the surface of the glacier. It was like being on a different planet. As our guide led us over the glacier, she pointed out waterfalls within the glacier, huge crevices, and small streams. We stopped to fill our water bottles from the stream, and then came to an ice cliff. This was to be where we could try our hand at ice climbing.
The guide’s assistants made ready the ropes, and two by two, we donned hardhats, and with an ice pick in each hand climbed to the top of the cliff. It was an awesome experience.
We broke for lunch after the ice cliff, and then turned around and walked back over the glacier, and slowly started our way back to the town.
Looking down on the glacier on our way back to town
The sky was wonderfully blue now; the morning’s clouds burnt away by the sun, and the views of the distant ice-covered peaks were spectacular. The day had been perfect, and the guide told us how lucky we had been. This trip had been cancelled due to bad weather everyday for the last week, and today had been the best day for the hike that she could remember.
After a good 10 hours of walking, we were all flagging. The beauty of the scenery kept us going, and we finally arrived back at the town just as the sun was setting. We returned with our guide to the agency where we dropped off our gear before limping back to the hostel for a hot shower and rest.
We were up and out early the next morning. The sun was shining, but not strong enough to take the chill from the air. We had a fair distance to cover, back-tracking pretty much all the way to Calafate, before crossing back into Chile where we would stop for a night before taking the ferry across to Tierra Del Fuego the following day. This was another day of flat, straight, wind blown roads, and the town we stopped in for our overnighter was another non-descript, dull town. The further south we rode, the colder the weather became, as did the temperaments of the people we met. I could understand, I knew I would be miserable if I lived here too. The few towns we passed were all of the same, unimaginative, functional style. Wind battered every corner of the land, and there was nowhere to take shelter.
We were blessed with ridiculously long days this far south. The daylight started around 4am, and darkness rolled in and overtook the daylight a little after 11pm, giving us the means to ride for 12 daylight hours or more every day, and we took advantage of this to cover more ground and get to our destination, Ushuaia, as soon as possible.
I was anxious now to get this part of the trip over with. Patagonia was a special place, sure, but the high winds, cold weather, rain, flat lands and straight roads, it was just no fun at all, and I longed for a return to warmer climes, and riding through deserts, beside pristine shorelines. I really was not enjoying this part of the ride, and just wanted to get it over and done with.
We opted for the shorter ferry crossing, landing in Cerro Sombrero, the ride was a little longer by road, but the ferry crossing was much shorter, and we were told more reliable. The ferries often had to stop if the winds kicked up and the waves became too high, and we had a better chance of getting across on the shorter trip.
We arrived at the port just as the ferry had started loading, and we were unloading at the other side in Tierra del Fuego half an hour later. We filled up with gas at Cerro Sombrero, and then hit the dirt road that would be taking us as far as the Argentinean border 170kms away.
We had both been dreading this ride. Garth was a great bike, but was heavy, and hated the dirt roads. Fortunately, the gravel road was in really good shape, and we found we could ride at 40-50mph without too much trouble. As a result of this, we covered the ground twice as quickly as we had expected and arrived at the Argentine border two and a half hours after getting off the ferry.
We queued again to cross the border once more, and wondered why these two countries hadn’t managed to come up with an alternative. Tierra del Fuego was shared by Chile and Argentina; neither wanting to let go because of the valuable resources found there, most importantly, water.
After the crossing, we were back on tarmac, and we motored towards the final destination, Ushuaia, the end of the earth.
We had planned to stop overnight in Rio Grande, but we had covered so much more ground than we thought we would be able to, we decided to push on and go straight to Ushuaia. The weather had been kind to us, the roads had been manageable, and we had rolled straight on to the ferry with no waiting, so we were way ahead of schedule.
We rode on, the monotony of the flat, dull Patagonian roads now behind us, as we weaved our way through the mountains and lakes to the end of the earth.
We had been spectacularly lucky with the weather, but as we rounded one last mountain, our luck ran out, and the rain came down. We pulled on our waterproofs, and rode the last few miles into town.
Ushuaia was bathed in an orange glow when we first laid eyes on the town spread out beneath us from our vantage point on the side of the mountain.
We saw more snow capped mountains in the distance, cargo ships were coming and going from the port, and the town looked quite surreal. I was hit with a feeling of achievement and accomplishment, followed by a wave of nostalgia, as the trip flashed through my brain. We were here, this was the end of the road, nowhere else to go, run out of road, dead end, full stop.
We rode down into town in search of a bed. We had been warned that we should book ahead in Ushuaia, but we had nothing arranged. We had, after all, arrived a day early. We checked out the two hostels listed in lonely planet, but they were both full, we then checked the places the receptionists had suggested, they too were full. We were tired, hungry cold and wet from the rain, not a great combination, and so the inevitable argument ensued. We split up, Jacquie heading downhill, and me uphill, in search of somewhere to sleep. We met up a few minutes later, both of us calmer, but neither of us had found a room. We continued to comb the town for a room, and finally took a room in a little hotel on the outskirts of the town centre. It was much more than we wanted to spend, but we had run out of options, and we had been on the road for 14 hours, we both needed to lie down and recharge. The room had a bath, a rare luxury, and I soaked away the chills that had worked their way into my bones.
We woke the next morning still aching from our three day marathon ride. We checked our e.mails, and we delighted to see that Toni and Carlo had also just arrived with Frank, and had met up with Chris, an American rider that I had met in Santiago.
Re-united and on our way to the End of the Road landmark
Jacquie and I rode over to their bed and breakfast, and took the last room spare in the house. We ate lunch together and then the bunch of us rode together to the Tierra del Fuego National Park, the site of the official “end of he road” landmark.
I gawped at being charged a ridiculous amount of money just to ride into the park and take a photo of the sign, but we were here, and so we all coughed up and rode to the end of the trail. The park was one of the least interesting parks on the whole trip, as well as being one of the most expensive.
We parked our bikes around the sign and took a load of photos. Passers by stopped and asked if they could take photos too, and we got chatting to a bunch of people, all of whom were impressed that we had travelled as far as we had, all of us starting from different points in the USA.
Posted by Dan Shell at April 28, 2010 09:58 PM GMT
With the photos done, we turned around and headed back into town.
We found a little bar and sat down for a drink. It seemed that we were all feeling the same way; a sense of loss had come over us. We’d all had the same goal for so long, and now that we were here, we all shared this anticlimactic sensation. What now? I knew what I wanted to do, turn around and get the hell off Tierra del Fuego. I longed to be somewhere warm and sunny again, to go swimming in the ocean, to be around friendly locals.
Just over 3,000kms to civilisation!