The ride continued to awe me, the road twisting and turning through winding canyon roads, still under a beautiful blue sky, still under a beautiful crystal blue sky, so high I could almost each out and touch the wispy clouds above.
The brown desert contrasted magnificently with the sky. I passed odd patches of green, riding high on the altiplano, filled with a feeling that I was all alone, being watched only by the mountains that bracketed the desert road. I looked down on deep canyons, occasionally with meandering rivers running thousands of meters below me.
As I neared the coastline, I rounded another curve to see the road snaking through the desert below me like a massive scalextrix set in the sand.
I followed the road down, thinking I was finally approaching sea level, only to climb again to pass a final set of mountains, after which the road straightened out again, and I opened the throttle up. Garth slowly picked up speed, at over 4,000meters, the power was considerably lessened, but once I reached a cruising speed of 70mph /110kmh, Garth purred along contentedly. At this altitude, Garth was hardly using any fuel, and I went further on this tank of gas than I had on any ride before.
The road continued on through the Atacama desert, taking me along ridges looking down on more deep canyons, taking past the Geoglifos, past the deserted ghost town of Humberstown, and finally round one last final bend before I was presented with my first view of the Ocean since Peru.
The blue sea, streaked with tones of turquoise, met the desert sand, and there was Arica. I was disappointed that the road had ended, but also excited to be by the ocean once more.
Arica was not some sleepy surfer style beach town. Tall, modern high rises dotted the shoreline, and behind them, a maze of small buildings was crammed behind the beachfront condos and hotels.
Welcome to “civilisation”.
I curled my way down the road, back to sea level, back to the “modern world” and back to traffic lights, gas stations, junctions, and hooting horns.
I rode around for a while, and checked into the cheapest hotel I could find. I wasn’t really impressed with Arica. It was a bit of a shock to the system. Gone were the multicoloured ex US school busses. Gone were the traditional dresses and bowler hats, gone were the raggedy beat up pick up trucks and the crumbling colonial architecture of Bolivia, replaced by shiny new 4x4’s, modern high rises, and , well, civilisation. I pulled into a gas station to fill up, 250miles /400kms since my last gas fill, and Garth was still showing ¼ of a tank unused.
I couldn’t find a hostel in the city, so was forced to take a room in a cheapy hotel a few blocks back from the beach. I also had a hard time finding anything cheap to eat, gone also, it would seem, were the street vendors who had provided me with most of my dining requirements for the past weeks. The bonus was that bastion of the American dream, MacDonald’s.
I filled my grumbling stomach with the clown’s biggest burger, washed it down with Coca Cola, as opposed to the ridiculously high sugared Bolivian equivalent, and finished off my fine dining experience with a McFlurry. Things weren’t so bad after all.
Back at the hotel, feeling considerably better about life in the modern world, I turned on my air conditioning, and connected to proper high speed internet. There was an upside to civilisation after all!
I slept like a baby that night, well, I didn’t wake up in the middle of the night crying or mess my nappy, but you know, I slept well, and rose early the next morning, packed up, and left Arica for Iquique, in the hope of finding a slightly more relaxed beach town.
I headed back inland and followed another twisting road, riding through canyons until I was spat out again back on the coast at Iquique, an even more built up seaside city. I asked directions for the hostel owned by the guy I had met back in Peru, and made my way through the traffic, along the coast and to the hostel. I passed through the old part of the city, which was quaint, and lifted my spirits considerably, and arrived at the hostel, took one look at it, and went in search of another.
The old part of Iquique
With the help of the Lonely Planet, my bible, I found the HI Backpackers hostel a few blocks further down the beach. An infinitely better option, I was able to park Garth inside the gates, was closer to the beach, and had much better facilities. Plus, it looked as if the hostel was cleaned more than once a month!
After I checked in and unloaded Garth, I hosed him down, washing off the desert sand and Bolivian mud, and a few weeks worth of grime, before giving myself the same treatment down at the beach, washing away the dirt and fatigue in the refreshingly chilly ocean.
A million miles from Bolivia, Garth at the beach at Iquique
I spent a few relaxing days, hanging out on the beach with other travellers from the hostel, and catching my breath after the rigours of Bolivia. I would have stayed longer, the sun was shining, there were no mosquitoes to annoy me, and the hostel was full of lively, fun people, exuding a great relaxed, easy going vibe, but Christmas was drawing closer, and I wanted to get myself down to Santiago, settle into the city, and try to make some friends with whom I could pass the holidays, and also try to catch some of our biker buddies who we’d met along the way, Thom and Flo, the frogs, 2 up on a BMW, and Ric and Emily, who were each on their own Beemers.
Also, the elusive Jan, a crazy Dutchman who had been a few days ahead of me for a few thousand miles on his 1940’s Harley.
Santiago was really pulling me southwards, like a black hole. I had e.mailed the Harley Owners Group of Santiago, and had been invited to go for the Christmas run with them on the 19th of December. The only thing I really needed to sort out before I left for Santiago was a new rear tire. Iquique was a tax free zone, and I was told I could find a tire here for less than half the price of anywhere else in Chile.
I set off for the Zofri, the tax free zone, and was just pulling into the complex when another Harley rider zoomed passed me. I followed him down to the parking lot, and went over to introduce myself. He was meeting a few other Harley riders, and said that he could help me on my tire quest. We met up with his friends, and after a round of introductions, we all went off in search of the elusive Dunlop D402.
We nearly succeeded, there were tires to fit every car, motorcycle and truck in the automotive section of the Zofri, but alas, nothing to fit my rear wheel. I could have chanced a slightly bigger, or smaller tire, but decided I would try to get to Santiago and fit a tyre that the dealer was holding for me.
It was a tough decision to make. I had a tad over 1,000 miles to cover, and my tyre was already balder than me, more like a drag tyre than a road tyre, but, there was no rope showing, so I thought I’d give it a go. I had been assured that the road to Santiago was paved and in great condition all the way, and the roads since I had left Bolivia were certainly in great condition, so I went back to the hostel, and prepared myself and Garth for an early start.
I set off bright and early, waking up just before sunrise, and leaving just as the sun was rising over the mountains over my left shoulder. I had a full tank of gas, and as I left the city behind, I opened up the throttle and let rip, for about a minute, then I remembered the state of my slick tyre, and slowed down to a more respectable speed, in the hope of stretching out the life of the last semblance of rubber.
I followed the coast, back on the Pan American Highway, known here in Chile as highway 1, and the blacktop sliced a path through the desert. As the sun rose in the sky, I rode down the Pan American, desert to my right, and the ocean, under a blanket of gentle mist, sat to my right. I followed the blissfully smooth blacktop along, past outcrops of rock, jutting into the ocean, and forever southwards. I was hoping to get over halfway to Santiago on the first day, aiming to make it to Bahia Dos Ingleses before sunset.
It was an awesome ride, the highway alternating form hugging the ocean at sea level, following the curves and sways of the shoreline, to rising up the sides of the mountains to look down onto the deep blue water, to long straight sections, surrounded by nothing but bare desert. I was awed.
After 4 hours of riding, I crossed the Tropic of Capricorn, now I was well and truly in the Southern Hemisphere. The road took me inland, and I pulled over to have a look at my options on my map when I came across a rare treat, a junction. I took the opportunity to have a look at my tyre, which was thinning, but fortunately still covered with a smooth layer of rubber.
I was still over 800miles from Santiago, but I had to keep my speed down, riding at an almost intolerable 60mph along fantastic, deserted desert roads. At least it gave me the opportunity to take in all I was seeing, feeling and smelling. Even so, I really wanted to open up and speed along this almost lunar landscape. The desert sand had a slightly reddish tinge to it, and I felt that this would be the closest I would ever come to riding on the red planet, Mars.
I extracted my map and laid it out on the seat of the bike, and as I was checking my options, a huge articulated truck flew by, the turbulence lifted my map and ripped it neatly halfway down the middle. I swore loudly at the truck, and was more than a little surprised when the driver slammed on his brakes and pulled into the side of the road a few hundred yards ahead of me.
My first thought was that I had sworn at the only English speaking trucker in Chile. The driver stepped out of his cab and waved enthusiastically at me. He came running over to the bike
“Aaah, so it IS a Harley Davidson, I thought so!” Where are you going?” said the driver to me in that rapid fire Spanish that the Chileans use.
I explained that I was hoping to follow the coast road to Antofagasta, and was then heading on towards Santiago, before continuing right down to Ushuaia.
“My friend, you are making the trip that I have dreamed of since I was a little boy, I drive the truck everywhere, but to ride these roads on a motorcycle, that is the dream my friend, the dream!”
He looked over at my map and told me of the possibilities.
It appeared that there was a road that I could take, unpaved, but only for a few Kilometers. I had to take my first right, follow this road for 2 or 3 kms and then turn left, and follow that unpaved road until I reached the coast road, that he assured me was paved.
We smoked a cigarette together, and I drank the bottle of water he retrieved for me from his cab. The driver, Juan Jose, asked me all about the bike and the trip, where had I started, how much had I paid for the bike, had I had any problems and so, and I filled him in as best I could, in my far from perfect Spanish.
Juan Jose, then said he had to push on, and wished me ”un buen viaje”, before leaping back into his cab, and driving off into the desert. I put the map away, mounted up and pulled off to the right in the direction of Paposo and the coast road.
After a few minutes, I came to another junction, with not one, but two unpaved roads bearing off to the left. Hmmm, there had been no mention of two roads, neither of which were showing up on my GPS nor had signposts indicating where they might lead me.
Normally, I wouldn’t have hesitated to go with whatever my instinct told me, and double back if I was wrong, but in this instance, I couldn’t really afford the extra mileage on my long suffering rear tyre. Gravel roads really take a toll on road tyres, and on racing slicks even more!
There was no traffic passing on the main highway I had just left, no one to ask, and I had this horrible feeling that my luck was going to change and that I would get my first puncture of the trip in the middle of an unused, unknown, unpaved road in the middle of the desert and be eaten by desert coyotes, never to be found.
I must admit, I was more than slightly worried.
I took a chance on the first road, followed it for 6 kms, then turned around and tried the second exit. I followed this road for about 10 kms before I spotted to my left a tarmac road, but there was no way for me to cross the deep desert sand to get to it, all I could do was stick to my decision and push on. And push on I did, getting more and more stressed as the gravel road continued on and on. I guessed I had passed the point of no return and was now committed to my choice. I followed the bumpy gravel track , until eventually after what seemed like hours, I hit tarmac, blessed tarmac. My elation, however, was shortlived, after only a few minutes of smooth cruising, I was diverted off the fresh blacktop, and back onto a gravel track that ran parallel to the smooth road. I cursed the construction crews and the busy bodies who had deemed the new road not ready to transport vehicles. This continued for far too long, off and on the tarmac, until finally, when I was directed off the tarmac for the 4th time, I just stayed on the tarmac, and continued along the “work in progress”.
I came across the construction workers a few clicks down the road, and asked them if it was safe for me to continue on the new road. They replied that as long as I kept my speed down, I would be fine.
I rumbled along the new road, ignoring the rest of the diversion signs, until I was finally back on a completed road that lead me straight back down to the coast. This road, probably due to its inaccessibility, was utterly, utterly deserted. I didn’t see any signs of life for hundreds of Kilometers. I parked the bike up in the middle of the highway, and got off to take pictures, still nothing to remind me that I wasn’t all alone on the planet.
I rode on, and as the sun grew low, I decided to call it a day and go find a bed. I was only a short way from Bahia dos Ingleses, but decided I would just pull into the first town I came across off the highway. I don’t even remember the name of the town I stopped in, 13 hours after I pulled out of Iquique, let alone remember the name of the hotel I found. I do remember parking the bike up, asking where I could find some grub, picking up a takeaway, and waking up at first light with my cheek resting on a slice of pepperoni pizza.
Rested and refreshed, with the Pizza cleaned off my face , and a few millimetres of rubber left on my tire, I set off once more, and entered Santiago at just after 5pm, just in time to get caught up in the madness of South American rush hour. I had no idea where I was headed, and so when I spotted a bike on a trailer being driven by a huge 4x4, I caught up with the truck and knocked on the window. The driver agreed to let me follow him to the turn off to the road that would lead me to the Harley dealership and fresh rubber.
I followed him and took the turn off as directed. I was then fortunate enough to encounter another Harley on the road that I followed straight to the dealership.
The manager, Lucas, met me at the shop and the mechanics came out of the workshop to look over the bike.
They were all suitably impressed that I had made it, and there was now nothing but a smooth layer of fine rubber precariously stretched over the rope bonding the tire wall together.
I arranged with Lucas for the tire to be fitted and for an oil change, before hopping in a cab to the hostel I had booked the day before, and where I was hoping to meet up with Ric and Emily.
I walked into the hostel, and there was Ric, busily tapping away on one of the hostel’s computers. We hugged and set about the business of exchanging stories and catching up on each others travels. Ric told me that the Frenchies, Thom and Flo, were in a hostel over the road and that they would be coming over soon, to meet us all for dinner.
I went into my dorm, had a quick shower, sniffed through my clothes for my least smelly T-shirt, changed, and went downstairs, where Thom and Flo were chatting excitedly with Ric and Emily.
We went out together for a Pisco Sour before dinner, where Thom surprised us all by saying that he was craving a MacDonald’s for dinner. Ric wasn’t too happy about the Frenchman’s gourmet choice, but went along with it, and a few minutes later, we were crowded around a table, eating Big Mac’s milkshakes and Mac Sundaes.
We all hung out together for the next few days, and then it was time for me to go pick up the bike, on the day of the Santiago Harley Christmas run. I turned up at the dealership to find Lucas waiting outside the shop. He’d been locked out, left his keys at home, and was waiting for one of the store staff to turn up and let him in. The mechanics were milling around the back door, smoking, and I went over to see how my bike was doing.
Apparently, it wasn’t quite ready, but Lucas assured me that it would be ready in time for the run, which left in just over an hour!
The keys arrived, and I followed the mechanics into the workshop to see their progress. My heart sank. There was Garth, in bits. Back wheel off, oil in a plastic tub under the sump, seat hanging on the wall.
“don’t worry , we’ll have it ready in time for the run, for sure” they said.
I waited in the showroom and Lucas made coffee and we munched on doughnuts. He said he would go ahead and delay the run, and that one of the guys would lead me to the rendez-vous for the ride when the bike was ready.
Sure enough, a short while later, the mechanics rolled Garth out and took him out for a short test ride.
After a few minutes, Garth came rumbling round the corner, and one of the employees motioned for me to get my lid on and follow him to the departure point.
Garth had a new set of pads, so I had to go easy on the brakes, and my new tire also needed a bit of warming up.
We pulled into a massive Gas station, where over a hundred Harleys and their riders had congregated, ready to roll. Lucas was giving a pre-ride briefing, and he introduced me to the group, who applauded me politely, and then, we were off. 120 Harleys pulled out of the gas station, and onto the highway. I hadn’t ridden with such a big group for ages, and it was making my heart race. We rode on until an hour or so later when we came to a tollgate. I pulled up, and was waved through, as one of the other riders was paying the tolls for the group. I rode over to the other side of the gate where a bunch of riders had parked up, and waited. Half the group left, and half stayed. Not knowing what to do, I left with the first group. As it happened, this turned out to be the fast group, and the roared along the highway at breakneck speeds, until they turned off the highway and onto a small lane. They pulled into a small roadside café and dismounted. I waited to see if the second group was coming, but there was no sign. Then a few of this group stared to make their way back onto the road and I decided to follow.
It seemed like a good idea at the time, ride on ahead at a nice slow pace, take in the scenery, have time to admire the fields and fields of vineyards along the Ruta de Vino, and admire the beautiful lakes. However this was not on the minds of my fellow bikers. It appeared that I had left the slow group and split off with the fast group, and now the slow ones of the fast group had stopped and I was riding on with the insanely fast death wish posse.
I could have just pulled over to the side of the road and waited for the rest to catch up, but I had no idea where I was or where I was going, for all I knew these guys might even be going a different way. So , I sped along behind the pack of 6 Sportsters, scraping my way round corners, and having a fair amount of difficulty keeping to the pace they were setting, but at the same time, I was having a blast pushing the bike to its, or at least my limits.
We arrived, my adrenalin still pumping, and pulled down a dirt track to the grounds of a beautiful lakeside restaurant that had been reserved exclusively for the Harley Owners. A short while later, the remaining hundred or so other bikes began pulling out of the driveway and parked up alongside Garth and the Sportsters on the grass.
I couldn’t spot Lucas, the only person I knew out of this band of brothers, so I just hung around my bike, trying to look busy in the hope that someone would come over to me and introduce themselves. Unfortunately, this didn’t happen, so I made my way to the entrance of the huge dinning hall.
I was on the first step into the building, when a big biker dude passed me on his way in. He turned around and I all I saw was this quintessential “bicycle” moustache, favoured my North American bikers in the 70’s.
I just had to ask;”Are you an American?”
“no, I am from Canada” came the reply, “and what about you?”
And so the conversation began. I explained that I had been invited along by Lucas, but hadn’t seen him since we left on the ride, that I was travelling on the bike, and that I didn’t know any of the riders. He invited me to join him at his table , and I gratefully accepted. I then got introduced to his long term girlfriend, Paula, and we all got to talking animatedly about the trip I was doing, and the trip was had been semi planning, semi dreaming of.
He asked me questions, and I answered. Ralph was getting more and more excited about this wealth of knowledge sat next to him, and we were chatting so much, we nearly forgot to go to get our meal from the BBQ.
After lunch, the wine, beer and Brandy flowed. The room was a sea of leather jackets, denim jeans, and the full catalogue of Harley Davidson T shirt designs. It never ceases to amaze me how much people take to the whole Harley ”lifestyle” package. Not just a bike, not just a way of life, but also a wardrobe too.
Ralph invited me back to what he called his Ranch. At first I declined, but Ralph and Paula made the decision so easy for me I could no longer refuse. I don’t know if it was the offer of a GPS map for my Garmin (Ralph had the same unit as me, and had maps for all of Argentina and Chile) they had a spare room, and , this was the clincher, a Jacuzzi!
We sat at the table and Ralph’s friends came over to say hi to him, on each occasion he introduced me to them, telling them of my “epic adventure” and his friends would stay and chat for a bit before moving round the room and hugging their mates or patting them on their backs.
We went outside to soak up some sun on the grass, took a look at some of the bikes and chatted to more of Ralph’s pals. We spent the afternoon in this way, and finally, Ralph, Paula and I set off for the ranch. They told me they are nearly always the last ones to leave, especially when the liquor is flowing!
We had a much more relaxed ride back into Santiago, and arrived at Ralph’s just after dark.
I had a quick tour around Ralph’s amazing pad, before he threw some shorts in my direction and we all jumped into the Jacuzzi. I had one tiny moment when I had that slight panic. What if they’re swingers!!
Thankfully Ralph and Paula were NOT swingers
I needn’t have worried; Ralph and Paula were wonderful hosts. We sat in the Jacuzzi supping fine Chilean red wine from Ralph’s cellar. I don’t know how long we stayed there, but it was longer enough for my fingers and toes to turn into prunes. I was shown to the spare room, and I collapsed onto the bed.
I woke the next morning with a slightly fuzzy head and the familiar smell of, could it be, yes, bacon.
Ralph, Paula, and Azabache
Paula had been busy in the kitchen and a I sat down with Ralph and her and ate a hearty full English brekkie. We spent the morning downloading maps and talking about routes. Ralph had several suggestions for my continuing journey through Chile and Argentina, and I copied down a load of contacts for him on his trip, which was now turning from a dream into a possibility. I left the ranch after lunch and returned to the slightly less luxurious surroundings of my dorm room. I had to take the bike back to Harley Davidson in Santiago to fit the new bracket for my headlights, a part that had eluded me since it snapped on a dirt road in Mexico.
Lucas’ shop had been the only one since leaving the states that could get all the parts I needed in less than six weeks. He had told me when I first arrived at the shop that he could order the parts from the states and have then in the shop 4 days later. When I tried to get this same part in Cancun, Mexico, the dealer had told me it would take at least 30 days for the part to arrive, and since then, I had never been in one place long enough to wait more than a week for anything. Mercifully, I had never really needed to. I was optimistic but at the same time reserved about finally getting my lights pointing on the road, in stead of lighting up the treetops.
The repair to fix the bracket in Cancun had left each my twin headlights equally useless. The right hand light lit the treetops, while my left side lamp blinded oncoming traffic; Night riding had been unbearable, but at times unavoidable. In the dark of night, I could light the road ahead when I was going round a bend, and the bike was leaning.
Not really an ideal situation.
I called Lucas on the 4th day, and although the package from the states had not arrived, he assured me that it was on its way, and told me to come to the shop at about 4pm so the mechanics could fit the new bracket when it arrived.
I arrived shortly before 4, and chatted with some other riders and Lucas in the store. I waited and waited, but at 5.30pm, the part still had not arrived.
Lucas was most apologetic, apparently there had been some mess up with DHL, but he was certain that it would be there at the store within 48 hours, he said he’d call Ralph and let him know as soon as the part arrived. I returned to the ranch, riding out of the city into a beautiful sunset. Sure enough the following morning, Ralph received the call.
I rode back into town and to the dealership. I waited in the store, again, just hanging out with Lucas and more of his customers, and spent the afternoon in the shop, drinking coffee and swapping stories and riders tales, and getting more and more suggestions of places I had to see and roads I had to take.
I loved these times, there was such a bond between bikers, weather they rode Harleys or not. But, here comes that word “brotherhood”, is something that I really think is strongest in the Harley clan. There’s that one common bond. We all know our bike isn’t the fastest bike on the road, we all know we have to chug round corners that a sports bike will eat up, but we also know that no other bike would do. It’s not about numbers and figures, not about acceleration and cornering, not even about chrome and leather, it’s the whole package.
A Harley is a V-Twin, and the sound these engines produce are actually patented. The degree in the Harley V-Twin is what also gives it that distinctive, and inimitable rumble. The big Harley Engines, “big twins”, are a little larger than a standard European family car, anywhere from 1340cc to 1600cc and beyond. The bikes wore more metal than the plastic Japanese sports bikes, and so are also a hell of a lot heavier, and therefore slower. Garth weighed in at a ridiculous 350kilos before we added the tour pak and luggage.
So what have we got? It’s a heavy, relatively slow bike, that doesn’t do too well in the corners, doesn’t brake that well, and well, doesn’t really handle great. None of that really matters. We have bought a Harley because when we get on it we can’t help smiling. When we fire it up, it makes our heart beat faster, and the grin broaden.
When we ride it we feel better about ourselves. You are transformed into the set of your own movie.
I have owned other bikes in my time, a few Yamahas, a Honda, I still own a Vespa, and have ridden a plethora of other makes, and like a lot non Harley bikes for various reasons, I might even consider getting one as a second bike, but I doubt it, if I could have two bikes, I’d have 2 Harleys.
They say that if you have to explain, you won’t understand, so I won’t try any more, except to say that Garth had taken me a tad short of 50,000miles. I had never been unable to continue the journey. I never even got a puncture – for which I still thank the preacher from George who blessed our bike in Florida, a year and a half ago.
My bike was finished off at the end of the day, and I rode back to the city and returned to he hostel. Ralph had invited me to join his clan for their annual Christmas camping trip, and I was excited about the prospect of spending Christmas on the beach. I had a few things I wanted to see in town, and also wanted to meet up with the guys who were still staying in the place before I left for the camping trip. I spent two nights in the hostel before returning to the ranch the day before Christmas Eve, so I could be ready to leave with Ralph, Paula and her son Franco in the morning.
On the morning of Christmas Eve, we packed up the trailer and the truck, and I followed behind on Garth as our little convoy pulled out of the ranch and headed north to the site that Ralph had reserved. We had a 3 hour ride up to the site in glorious sunshine, but as we got closer to the beach the sky clouded over and the temperature dropped a few degrees. We arrived at our patch and Ralph, Franco and his cousin who had joined us on his bike set up the trailer while I started a campfire.
Ralph had brought enough meat to feed a football team, and enough wine to satisfy a small army. We cracked open a bottle and threw some meat on the BBQ. We sat round the fire, eating and drinking, Franco supplying the music on his acoustic guitar, and the hours slipped away under a clear star filled sky.
The perfect way to spend Christmas Day
Christmas day was spent walking along the beach, and eating a huge and very untraditional but extremely tasty seafood lunch, followed by the usual shenanigans around the campfire. We were joined by our neighbours at the campsite, a couple of guys on leave from the Chilean Navy with their wives, and a friend of Paula’s who had driven up from the city with her son.
After a wonderfully relaxing mini break at the beach, we packed up the camping gear and made our way back to the city. I was meeting up with Carlo and Toni, our BMW buddies from New York, and Jacquie was flying back to Mendoza so we could all spend New Year’s Eve together in Santiago. I spent one more night at Ralph’s and early in the morning I set off to Mendoza, Argentina, to pick Jacquie up from the airport.
Another amazing ride through the Andes, more outrageously twisty mountain passes, and I arrived in Mendoza with a few hours to spare before I had to go meet Jacquie. I rode up to the hostel I had booked, and rang on the bell. I was met by the manager, who told me that the hostel was over booked, and that I didn’t have a room. No amount of pleading or arguing was going to change the fact. The manager pointed me in the direction of another hostel and I set off in a huff. I found a room in the hostel, but was still pissed off. I had wanted a nice cosy little love nest to bring Jacquie back to, and my first choice had a beautiful homely double room, and the hostel had a pool and a huge kitchen, but this place was just another hostel, not dirty, but just characterless. I chose a room and set about unloading the bike. I had just put everything in its place when the receptionist knocked on my door. He apologised, and then told me that he had thought this room he’d given me was free, but it was in fact booked, but he could give me another room. I looked at the room. It was yet another step down, smaller than the original room, with less light, and a window that opened directly onto a brick wall.
My time was running out now, so I had no choice but to accept, but my good mood had taken a serious beating.
I moved all my gear into the new room, and left for the airport. On arrival, the information boards showed Jacquie’s flight was delayed by an hour, so I went for a stroll round the airport. That filled up about 6 minutes, what to do next?
I went over to check the boards again, only to see that Jacquie’s plane was now 2 hours delayed.
I went back out to the parking lot and took Garth for a quick spin. When I returned, I only had to wait a few minutes before the boards showed that the plane I was waiting for had landed, and a half an hour after that, I spotted Jacquie walking through to the baggage claim. We waved to each other animatedly, I couldn’t wait to throw my arms around her and give her a huge smacker on the lips.
Jacquie cleared customs, and I met her at the end of the ropes that keep the passengers separated from the greeters. We exchanged some body fluids, and then I took her bag from her and we walked arm in arm out to the parking.
We rode into the city so Jacquie could stretch her legs and take in some of Mendoza’s scenery, and we went straight out for a big fat Argentinean steak and a couple of glasses of Mendoza’s fine wine.
We got back to the hostel, and I told Jacquie the whole story about the room being, well, not being the one I had booked, or the one I would have settled for, but the third option, but she didn’t care. She was just happy to be back in South America, and back with me.
We left Mendoza the next morning to ride back to Ralph’s for one last night before returning to the hostel in the city centre to meet up with Carlo and Toni and share a Santiago style New Year’s Eve together.
The ride back into Chile from Argentina was much more arduous than it had been going the other way. Thousands of Chileans were exiting their homeland to spend New Year’s Eve in Valparaiso, an Argentine beach town famous for its extravagant fireworks display, and the queue for the border stretched for miles, and the tarmac had been lifted off leaving gravel in its place in preparation for a new road surface.
We followed a couple of other bikes along the inside of the queuing cars, until a policeman a few hundred yards from the border stopped us. He asked what we thought we were doing, and I explained, along with the other biker- who were Brazilian-that I was doing what I always do and skipping past the cars. The policeman seemed very confused by our behaviour. We all plead our case, but the copper was having none of it. Clearly bored, and with nothing better to do with his time, he was exerting his power because he could. We argued with him a few minutes more but soon we grew tired of banging our heads against a brick wall, so we turned round, rode a few hundred yards back up the queue, and pulled in again, with maybe 40 or 50 cars in front of us. We crawled along in the gravel, Jacquie walking along beside me. If I had the engine running, the heat from the engine started to slow cook my legs, but the bike was too heavy to push along the gravel, so we compromised, half pushing, and half riding the bike for another hour until we finally got to the border.
Once again, the new Argentinean system meant that no one knew how to make a temporary import for our bikes, and we waited another hour while papers were shifted from one portacabin to another, and customs officers discussed with each other the inadequacies of the new system.
Finally, we were through, and now we were stuck behind a convoy of huge trucks, slowly winding their way down the Chilean side of the Andes towards Santiago.
I waved goodbye to the Brazilians, and commenced a series of death defying overtaking manoeuvres, until we had a clear road ahead of us.
We arrived back at the ranch in the middle of the afternoon, and were in the hot tub washing away our stresses a few minutes after we arrived.
Paula had prepared a delicious meal for the evening and invited a couple of Ralph’s friends round for dinner, and that night we ate, drank and made merry once more, before leaving in the morning for the hostel.
We arrived at the Casa Roja hostel shortly after Toni and Carlo, and after the usual catch up session, we went out for supplies. We bought our meat from a local butcher, and the rest of the ingredients for our evening came from the supermarket.
Making the Caipirinhas, the most important part of any meal!
On returning to the hostel, the girls set about preparing the salad and veggies, Carlo was in charge of the BBQ, and I had the most important job, the drinks-on this occasion, Caipirinhas, the most popular drink in Brazil, made from mashing lime and sugar together with ice and Cachaca, a local rum type liquor.
We had a beautiful dinner, and shortly before midnight, we stepped out into the centre to watch the fireworks in the main square and the free concert.
We bought some tinsel wigs to help us blend in with the glittery locals, and a couple of rockets for good measure. The crowd in and around the square was huge, we could barley see the stage, but we could definitely hear the music, and the crowd loved it. The countdown began, and as the digital of the tower and display on the top of the telecom tower turned to 00:00, a sea of fireworks exploded from the roves and adjacent buildings. Simultaneously, thousands of rockets launched confetti into the air, filling the sky with tiny pieces of paper, coloured lights, and smoke. It was quite beautiful.
The only thing to spoil this spectacle was the cheap Champagne that was now being sprayed all over the crown by some idiotic Chileans. When the display was over, the crown began to disperse and we headed back to the Casa Roja for our own little party, away from the throng.
On New Year’s Day, we rode together for another night at Ralph’s, and another big meal accompanied by more delicious Chilean wine.
We based ourselves there for a couple of days before riding out to Valparaiso, a coastal town known for its corrugated buildings and Bohemian vibe. From there, we followed the coast road as much as we could southwards before heading back inland to the Chilean Lake district and Pucon.
Riding into Pucon was a surprise to say the least. After hours of riding through valleys and alongside lakes, we turned a corner, and found ourselves in the middle of Villarica Swiss Alpine town. It was incredible. The ski shops, cafes, restaurants and hotels all looked like they had been imported straight from Klosters or Davos.
We parked our bikes up and went for a walk in search of a good lunch stop. We ate in an equally Alpine style wooden restaurant, and then strolled around the town. We rode the final 40 minutes or so to Pucon, which also had a distinctively Alpine feel, and we all liked the place immediately. We found a hostel and settled in.
Set around Lake Villarica, Pucon is a popular ski resort in the winter, which transforms itself into an outdoor activity centre in the summer. Hikes to the still smouldering volcano Llaima overlooking the town were on offer, as was mountain bike trails to waterfalls, trips out on the lake and a variety of outdoor pursuits, however, the weather had been on the change, and on our second day in Pucon, the clouds rolled in and the rain came down. We passed the time walking round the small town, tasting the locally made Swiss-style chocolates, drinking coffee, and window-shopping. There was an earth slide on the volcano meaning that hiking up it was impossible, and to be honest , I was relieved. I had had my fill of scrambling up Volcanoes, and was more than happy to put my feet up in front of the telly and relax for a bit.
After a couple of days in Pucon, we were ready to move on. We were all heading to the same place, but Carlo and Toni were going to head out on the dirt road, while Jacquie and I would take the tarmac.
We headed out early in the morning, a day before Toni and Carlo, and rode out the way we had come in, past the beautiful lake, under the watchful eye of the Llaima volcano, and onwards towards the Argentine border once more.
We rode on through more lush green fields and valleys, passing more volcanoes on the way. We stopped for a warming hot chocolate and a snack, the temperature had been slowly dropping since we left Santiago, and by now we were back to wearing jackets and neck warmers on the bike. Reinvigorated, and now wearing an extra pair of socks, we pulled out of the roadside snack bar and onto the road that would take us to the border with Argentina. The sun shone brightly as we rode on, the landscape alive with colours of blooming flowers, volcanoes to our left and to our right. It was beautiful.
I rounded a corner, and here, in the middle of nowheresville, we came across the Moncopulli Museum. We spotted it by the 50’s American car hanging over the doorway, and had to turn around and go check it out. I spoke to the receptionist, explained that we were just on our way to the border and had no Chilean money, and she agreed to let us in for a quick look for free.
We were amazed at what we found, dozens and dozens of beautiful old American cars, mostly Studebakers, with a few odds and sods thrown in, plus a small display of 50’s memorabilia. Opened in 1995 by a private businessman from Osorno, the museum was a joy. After snapping a few pics, we were back on the bike and headed for the border.
We made one last stop at a beautiful waterfall, before following yet another lakeshore until we reached the border. The frontier was in the middle of a national park, high in the Andes, and was the most beautiful border we had ever crossed. The crossing was not busy, and we were out of Chile and into Argentina in no time.
Both of us had really been looking forward to Argentina, and the promise of amazing steaks, delicious wine, and friendly folk, and now we were here. It wasn’t the first time in Argentina, but this time we were here to stay, at least for a while.
There was often a section of no man’s land between most South American countries, and that area here on the Chile / Argentina frontier was simply gorgeous.
As we rode through the National park, shared by the two countries, as we climbed to the top of some of the hills, we looked down on lakes set between snow-capped volcanoes, twisted our way through forests, along more lakeshores, until we emerged on the outskirts of Bariloche.
Bariloche was another famous ski resort and centre for outdoor adventures. I had been thinking of trying to work there for a ski season, but arriving at the beginning of summer as we were, there was no snow apart from on top of some distant mountains. The town however was still bustling. January and February is the summer holiday period for Argentina, and as a result, Argentina was awash with holidaymakers. Our bible, the ever faithful Lonely Planet, had warned us that in January and February bookings were essential in Argentina, but we had not paid much heed. It was our downfall. We hunted and searched in Bariloche for a room or pair of dorm beds, but we were out of luck. The crowded town was full. We were sat on the bike outside the Tourist Information office when a burly red-faced gent approached and asked us if we were looking for a room. When we responded in the affirmative, he pulled out a flyer form his pocket, told us there were still rooms available, and gave us directions. We rode up the hill and, on our second pass, found the hotel. It was small, expensive, run down and pokey, but we were tired and wanted to get out of our bike gear and explore the town on foot before the last of the day’s light disappeared.
We weren’t that impressed with Bariloche, and decided to continue on to our next destination, El Bolson, a less touristy, more chilled, Hippie town, where we had planned to meet up again with Toni and Carlos.
We enjoyed yet another spectacular ride on the Routa 40, Che’s highway, through the Argentine Lake district to El Bolson, and after one wrong turn, we found the hostel that we had booked from Bariloche.
We checked in and took our stuff up to our dorm. We couldn’t help but notice how unfriendly and unwelcoming the people had been in Argentina so far. Since the border, where the friendly Argentine Police had greeted us enthusiastically, we had come across a string of moody, insular, inimical Argentines. The staff at the hostel were grouchy, and the other guests-mostly Argentine- just seemed really unsociable compared to what we had been used to. We both missed the company of Toni and Carlo, and just as I was about to vocalise this to Jacquie we heard a familiar engine sound, and a few seconds after that, Carlo rode into the driveway of the hostel. We ran over to greet them, and explained that we hadn’t been overwhelmed by Argentine hospitality and friendliness, and were really glad to have our mates back.
That night, we went out together in El Bolson, and found a small local restaurant, where the owner, the chef and the barman gave us our first real experience of how genuinely affable Argentineans could be.
We ate a great BBQ and sampled some of the region’s locally micro brewed beer, before heading back to the hostel.
We decided over dinner that we would all leave together the next day for Trevellin, a village founded by Welsh settlers escaping Anglicisation and poverty in the late 1800’s.The road was packed gravel,and once again we had to lean into the wind and push our way down the compacted gravel road to our destination.
We reached Trevellin to find there were still a handful of Welsh coffee shops, now serving the tourists more than the descendants of the original settlers. We had booked a hostel on the outskirts of the town, and were delighted with our choice. There were all kinds of animals running amok in the grounds, chickens, goats and dogs among them, and the Israeli owner was friendly and welcoming. He showed us around and told us of his plans to improve the property in the coming years. He had a few other guests staying with him, mainly Israeli travellers who had just finished their military service, the most common type of tourist in South America. The Israeli’s normally move around in large packs, dominating every hostel or town they visit. Isolated, I found the Israeli’s charming, kind and funny, but in a pack, they were a force to be reckoned with, inconsiderate, impolite, and cliquey. Fortunately, these guys were cool, and we all hung out together at the hostel in harmony.
We spent a couple of days at the hostel, enjoying the slightly warmer temperature of the Trevellin microclimate.
Our next stop was Saramiento, and once again, we decided to split, Carlo was wanting more dirt road adventures, while Jacquie and I were content with the tarmac. The final approach to Trevellin had seen the wind’s strength increase, and we were told to expect more the further south we travelled, but I was totally unprepared for what nature had in store for us.
From El Bolson, there wasn’t an awful lot to see in Argentina until we reached Western Patagonia and the glaciers of Calafate and El Chalten. The road distances were huge, and the there was nothing to break the monotony of the boring blacktop.
Saramiento looked as good as any a place to stop for an overnighter, nestled as it was between two lakes. As we neared the town, the wind coming across the lake blew with a force that threatened to blow us, and the bike, right off the road. I battled the winds, Jacquie clinging on behind me, until finally, exhausted, we arrived in Saramiento.
Saramiento reminded me in many ways of some of the towns we had ridden through in Peru. Brick buildings constructed with no flair whatsoever. The town was soulless, characterless, and hostel-less. We found a hotel, again costing far too much for what it was, and Jacquie and I both agreed that we always seemed to end up paying more for the hotels and hostels that were in places that we didn’t even want to be. We headed out for a meal, and after realising that there was absolutely nothing at all of interest in the place, we returned to our hotel and watched some TV. In Spanish.
From here on in, we were in the land of the bastard winds. For the next two days we were constantly hammered by the winds, Garth moving forwards in a straight line but leaning at a 30-degree angle. It was tiring and unrewarding. The road was dull, straight and flat, with nothing to distract the eye except for the occasional oil drill diligently pumping away, standing solitarily on the brown plains.
This dull road continued on for three full days, the wind constantly attacking us from our right. As we finally drew close to Calafate, the blue sky clouded over, and became blacker and blacker by the minute.
We knew what was coming next, and sure enough, with out much delay, the heavens opened. We rode through the storm and were out the other side of it after an hour of riding through fist-sized raindrops. In my mirrors I could see the threatening black sky behind us, and I opened up the throttle to get us to our destination as quickly as possible.
Here comes the rain...
And out the other side
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.
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!
We had done what we wanted to do in Ushuaia, we bought stickers for our bikes and postcards for our friends (which finally arrived in the UK four months later), and decided to head out the next day. Carlo and Toni were coming with us, Chris and Frank were going to stay and explore Tierra del Fuego longer.
We had only been riding for a half hour or so when the rain started to fall. We pulled over and once again donned our waterproofs. Carlo was not happy about this change in the weather, well, none of us where, but we pushed on in the hope that we would ride through it and out the other side.
We pushed on, the rain, rather than dropping off, increased. I just wanted this ride to be over. I passed a truck, throwing up a cloud of spray that I could barely see through, and waited for Carlo to follow. When he didn’t pass the truck, I decided that I would push on ahead and wait for Toni and Carlo at the gas station in Rio Grande, it was the only gas stop en route, so I knew that Carlo would have to pull in there. I could order some hot chocolate for all of us, and from there, we could get on the internet and see if there was an option to stay in Rio Grande, wait for the weather to pass, and carry on once the rain had stopped.
We pulled into the garage and I waited for the pump attendant to come over while Jacquie went into the building to get out of her wet clothes and get on the Internet.
Sure enough, just as the attendant finished gassing the bike up, Carlo pulled in.
He was not happy with me. He was upset that I had left him behind. I explained that I had just wanted to get out of the rain so had carried on, and apologised for leaving him behind. In my mind, we both knew where we were going, and if he hadn’t turned up at the gas station, I would have gone back for him.
Carlo was prone to stopping a fair amount on a day’s ride. I had thought that he would have stopped for a piss or to re arrange his clothing or goggles, and I had been right, still Carlo was pissed off at me for not waiting for him, and I guess he had a point.
We found a place on the internet, and after we had warmed up , we got back on the bikes and rode the short distance to the hostel.
We parked up, went through the ritual of unloading, showered and went to the shops for some food to cook up. We returned to the hostel, and had just started dishing out the food that the girls had prepared when we heard a familiar voice. Frank walked. He had decided that Ushuaia had lost its appeal after we had left, and decided to leave to. He’d also been caught in the rain, and as luck would have, had the same idea as us. We dished up some food for him, and we opened the bottle of “Fin del Mondo” wine we had brought from Ushuaia.
The rain continued for the whole of that day, and the next, until finally on the third day, the weather broke, and we made a run for it. The day got better and better, from a dull start, to a bright but chilly afternoon.
We rode passed fields of sheep, being herded by Gauchos on horseback, under a sky with beautiful wispy clouds.
In many respects, Tierra Del Fuego reminded me of Bolivia. The sky was unnaturally beautiful, and unlike anything I had seen before. We came to the border into Chile once more, and Carlo told me that he and Frank were going to go on ahead, not wanting to wait for us on our slower bike over the dirt section of the road. I was a little peeved myself now. After the telling off I had received form Carlo after leaving him in the rain, now he was going to leave us on the hardest part of our journey. Well, that was fine by me.
Another border, back into Argentina and back on the Chilean dirt roads of Tierra Del Fuego...
We went through the customs rigmarole and set off for the ferry. I must admit, I was annoyed that Carlo and Frank were not staying with us, and I guess that lead to me wanting to prove a point. We had managed an average speed of about 50kmh on the way out, and I was determined to keep pace with the others. We had a small head start on the guys, and I pushed Garth along the bumpy dirt roads to keep ahead for as long as I can. There was no sign of the guys behind us after ten minutes; I guessed they must have taken the alternative route.
I rode the bike as fast as I the road surface allowed, sometimes maybe a bit faster than that. We stopped at the side of the deserted dirt road for Jacquie to relieve herself, and she berated me for my speed. We jumped back on and I continued on at a speed somewhat decreased. We bounced and bumped along the road for another hour and a half, before turning off the road to head for the gas station at Cerro Sombrero.
We had a small matter of getting stuck in the mud to deal with, and then after a quick gas stop, we travelled the last few kilometres on blessed tarmac before reaching the ferry. The others were in the queue, and we rode straight past them and parked up at the head of the line, before walking back to meet up. They had taken a different road, and had arrived a few minutes before us, it would appear that I had made my point.
Waiting for the Ferry to stop rocking so I could ride on
After a short wait, we boarded the ferry, which was moving around a fair amount, making for a butt clenching boarding, and then we were on our way across the choppy seas to the mainland.
The next day we split up again, Jacquie and I leaving Rio Gallegos for the Monte Leon national park, while Carlo and Toni took Frank back south in search of penguins. The wind was blowing hard as we left Rio Gallegos, but as we reached highway 3, it increased to almost intolerable strength. We battled with the wind, leaning the bike into it in an effort to stay on the road. We were being blown about as if the bike was made out of paper. We pulled over at a rare, sheltered area and considered our options. As far as I was concerned, this was the most dangerous part of the trip so far. We had read and heard stories form fellow bikers about the strong winds in Tierra Del Fuego, but nothing had prepared us for this. To make matters worse, every time a truck going in the opposite direction passed us, we were smacked in the face with a force as strong a good hard slap. To make matters worse, they would temporarily block the wind that we were leaning into, meaning the bike would suddenly lean at an even more obtuse angle than that required to keep us heading in a straight line. The road was punishing, dead straight, flat as a pancake, dull and seemed to go on forever. At one point, a huge flat truck barrelled past us in the opposite, causing a blast of wind so strong that it ripped half the windscreen right off the bike.
We pulled over, the screen wobbling precariously, and as Jacquie leant her bodyweight into the bike to stop the wind blowing it over, I tried my best to find a solution. I tried redistributing the holding screws so that instead of the usual 5 screws holding the screen in place, now there were 3, one on each end and one in the centre. This arrangement lasted for a few kilometres more until another truck roared past us, and the screws popped out again. We tied the screen to the back box and set off.
The wind got even stronger, and I was feeling the full force of it now the screen was gone. I was constantly splattered with bugs, butterflies and a variety of exotic insects, and by the time we arrived at the park, I was exhausted. We pulled into the park and onto the dirt track that we would have to follow for another 20 kilometres to reach the penguin sanctuary.
Jacquie groaned at the thought of riding another dirt section, not having fully recovered from the previous day’s ride from Rio Grande across Tierra del Fuego. We rolled slowly down the track, with me trying my best to give Jacquie as smooth a ride as I could until we reached the end of the track and the park’s snack twenty minutes later. We refreshed ourselves with hot coffee and sandwiches in front of the beautiful untouched and deserted beach before heading back up the track to the penguin area.
We parked up and walked to the passed the pampas deer, keeping a watchful eye out for pumas, until we came across the penguin colony. The penguins took no heed of us as we walked through their colony to the cliff edge where we could look down at thousands of the little fellas waddling out of the sea. The wind was blowing hard still and we were sandblasted as we tried to take photos.
The Penguins were adorable and made us chuckle with their swagger and clunky movements, and our spirits were lifted by our feathered friends. We strolled back to the bike, rode out of the park and up the road for another hour to look for a place to spend the night. We pulled into San Julien, another non-descript town built purely for functionality, lacking in any attempt at panache, rode around awhile, checked out a few of the hotels, until we decided on a roadside inn type affair. We continued along highway 3 the next morning, the wind still pummelling us constantly.
We stopped to eat our sandwiches -stolen from the breakfast buffet- crouched behind a large concrete sign that we used as a windbreak. We rested for a while before once more returning to the 3 and battling our way northwards. The wind was relentless, and had blown all my good spirits away, and it was a real effort continuing on to our next stop at Caleta Olivia. By the time we arrived at the town, I was shattered, we rode up to the first hotel we came across, checked in, showered and rested, before heading out in search of dinner.
We returned to see Frank’s and Carlo’s bikes parked next to ours. We went in and knocked on their door, and talked about each other’s experiences on Highway 3, we had all had to deal with the ridiculously strong winds, and it had taken a lot pout of all of us. I told Carlo and Frank about my screen being blown off, and we went down to the bike with Frank to see if we could fix it, but to no avail. We accompanied Toni, Frank and Carlo to the restaurant that Jacquie and I had just eaten in, and decided we would ride together to Puerto Madryn the next day. We strolled back through Caleta Olivia, another dull Southern Argentinean with not a lot going for it except for the huge petro-chemical plant nearby, stopped off for some cake, and retired for a well needed early night and some rest.
We were up and out early in preparation for another long day through the wind, about 600 kilometres of dead straight, flat road again today, and we were all feeling a little low.
The Joys of an Open Face helmet and no windscreen
Frank, who was on the lightest of all the bikes, was getting blown dangerously across the whole of the road, and we had to pull over so he could rest. He was so bored of this straight-line battle that he was on the verge of nodding off on the bike. At one point, we were riding behind him and we could see his head lolling around, his bike slowed, and it was obvious that he needed another stop. We pulled up beside him and asked him if he wanted to pull over, he nodded his reply, so I then caught up with Carlo, motioned for him to pull over, and then went ahead and rode off the side of the road. We parked our bikes up, took out our snacks and walked away from the side of the road to find a spot to rest up.
We had just sat down and were passing around the chocolate and sandwiches when we heard a thud, we looked up in time to see Frank’s helmet get blown off the handlebars, and then the bike too got blown to the floor. We picked up the bike and retrieved the helmet, which was rolling off along the pampas, propelled by the wind.
Fortunately, there was no damage to either the bike or the helmet, and after our short break, we got back on the bikes, feeling somewhat refreshed and buzzing form our recent sugar hit. We carried on that way all day, riding for an hour or so, stopping for a break and a chat, a bite to eat, and off again. We passed through the police check area that Jacquie and I had passed on the way down, and the same guys were on duty.
They instantly recognised Garth, and came over to say hello. One of the officers came over and started to ask for us to fill out the forms, with details of our passport numbers, where we travelling to and from and so on, but the Captain, with whom we had taken pictures on the way down, told him to leave us alone, and waved us straight through. We took another photo and then continued on our way. After one more stop to fill Frank up with Energy Drinks, we finally pulled into Puerto Madryn.
At last, Puerto Madryn, beach, sunshine, warmth and finally some friendly folk!!
The days were getting considerably shorter, but we still had a good amount of daylight until about 9pm, so we even had time for a stroll down to the beach after we sorted accommodations and parking.
We treated ourselves to a day off the bikes, and spent the day relaxing on the beach and sorting out bits and bobs for our bikes, Carlo needed some oil, I was still trying to find a way to fix the screen on the bike, and Frank needed a new mirror after his bike got blown over by the wind. I was the only one out of us three to not gt his wish fulfilled, and I was getting tired of all the insects I was eating. At least we were now into the warmer weather, and the wind was beginning to ease off we thought.
The next morning, we left again, for Bahia Blanca, where we had been informed that the wind would disappear completely. Frank decided to stay in Puerto Madryn for one more day, so we said our farewells, and rode out of town.
We rode more of that dullest of dull roads, the 3 , through yet more Pampas , watching as the sky turned from blue to grey to black. We knew it was only a matter of time before the rain came down, but there was nowhere to run, and nowhere to hide. The only signs of life along this road had been the gas stations, strategically placed at every 150kilometers. The rain started early in the afternoon as a alight drizzle. We pulled over, Carlo stating that the rain was moving in the same direction as us, and suggesting that we wait for it to get ahead of us and then follow along behind.
Waiting for the storm to get ahead of us on the way to Bahia Blanca
It was a good theory, but the storm was moving a lot slower than us. We sayed behind the storm for an hour or so, riding for 20 minutes, then pulling over when we got close to the rain so that the storm could move away from us. We went on like this for a couple of hours, making incredibly slow progress, until finally I had enough. We put on our rain gear, and pulled back out onto the road. We hit the rain a few minutes later, and a few minutes after that, we were through the storm and out the other side. It had taken us 3 hours to travel 130 kilometres. Towards the end of the afternoon, we stopped at a gas station to fill up, and Carlo said he was going to push on to Buenos Aires. We had friends that we were meeting in Bahia Blanca, so once again, we said our goodbyes, or rather “see you later”, and split off in different directions. Carlo still had a fair few hours of riding ahead of him to reach Buenos Aires, and the daylight was beginning to wane.
As I rode on towards Bahia Blanca through a landscape that was still flat, but becoming more and more colourful with crops and flowers on either side of the road.
Covered in Roadkill after the ride to Bahia Blanca with no screen
On the downside, however, the amount of insects coming to their death on my face increased. As I rode through the fields, I saw a large black blob in the air in front of me. I wasn’t sure at first what I was seeing, by the time I had recognised it as a bee, it was too late. I couldn’t to react in time; I saw the bee, in slow motion, fly straight into my helmet. A moment later, I felt it as it stung me on the ear. I pulled over; my eyes were watering so much I couldn’t see. My ear was throbbing. Jacquie pulled the sting out of my ear, and the pain intensified. I ran around in circles by the side of the road, until Jacquie calmed me down and made me sit still. I lit a cigarette and sat for a few minutes. My ear was bright red, and well on it’s way to becoming double its normal size! I gingerly replaced my helmet, and we rode the last few kilometres into town.
My fat ear from the bee that got in my bonnet
We hadn’t expected much from Bahia Blanca, having come across nothing but plain, functional brick towns for the last week or so through Southern Argentina, and it was a good thing too. Bahia Blanca was just a larger, busier version of those more southerly, bland towns. Even with low expectations we would have been disappointed.
Bahia Blanca was not blessed with a clement climate either. Apparently, the city was either swelteringly hot, being blown to pieces by wind, or flooded by heavy rains.
This time of the year, we were enjoying the excessive heat. This place was hot. Real hot. The locals were mainly sat on the steps to their houses, the women in summery dresses, the men mostly in string vests, sipping on iced `Matte and smoking. Those that were moving did so at a very slow pace, using up as little energy as possible in the heat.
To make matters worse, the power went out in the city, no fans, no aircon, no TV, no lights. Apparently, when the city gets this hot, everybody turns on their air-conditioning, which overloads the city’s power grid. Brilliant.
We met up with our friends in Bahia Blanca as planned, and spent a couple of days hanging round in the hotel, to hot to do anything at all. We had met Angelica and Nick in Nicaragua, and they had spent my 40th birthday with me. We hadn’t seen them since, so there was a lot of catching up to do. They had recently been volunteering at an animal project in Bolivia. Nick had been set upon by the Puma he had been walking, leaving deep gashes across his neck. It seemed he had a lucky escape. They were now heading south, and I tried to put them off going to Ushuaia.
On our second afternoon in the hotel, the receptionist asked us if we would like to be interviewed for the local paper. The paper was running a story on why travellers came to Bahia Blanca, and wanted to come talk to us and take some pictures.
We agreed, as there wasn’t much else going on, and that evening, the reporter came and interviewed us for her article. She explained that the feature was a monthly item, and showed us a copy of the last month’s issue. There, in the photo, was Ricky, a American biker I had shared the crossing from Panama to Colombia with.
Our interview over, the reporter then called the photographer, he picked us up and I followed on Garth as he drove to the train station for some pictures.
We posed by the bike, and once more, Garth was immortalised!
We hung around in Bahia Blanca for an extra day solely to hang out with Nick and Angela, occasionally leaving the hostel to go buy ice cream, before riding the last stretch up to Buenos Aires.
We were dreading entering the city. The GPS wasn’t working anymore, so we couldn’t rely on that, and the map we had as a back up had next to no detail of the city centre. Fortunately, the Gods were smiling on us that day, and we didn’t miss a beat. We rode straight into the city centre, into the oldest part of the city, San Telmo, and directly to our hostel.
We persuaded the staff to let us park Garth in the reception, at the end of the breakfast table and moved into our dorm. The hostel was really well decorated with funky pieces of art, stacks of broken old television sets, and interesting displays of retro telephones and typewriters. The staff were friendly and helpful, but the place was hot, noisy and uncomfortable. The sounds of people talking in the common areas downstairs echoed through the hallways, and were amplified by the windows. Busses passed by in the narrow streets outside the window all through the night, and we barely slept. The next day we looked but couldn’t find another hostel where we could park the bike. So we decided to stay put and deal with it as best we could. We went and looked up our old mate Adrian, who had recently moved to Buenos Aires from Baja, Mexico. Adrian had apparently landed on his feet. He invited us round to his pad, a fantastic top floor apartment overlooking the Market, and introduced us to some of his friends from the city. We ate too much delicious Argentine meat, drank too much wine, and thoroughly enjoyed an evening catching up with our old mate. You meet so many people travelling that it’s hard to keep up, but spending time with old mates from home is just something else. To talk with someone with whom you have history, common friends, and shared experiences are such a breath of fresh air.
We spent the next few days wondering the picturesque streets of San Telmo, the oldest district of Buenos Aires, watching street Tango shows, listening to music and checking out the numerous antiques and market stalls.
Our long lost French pal from Cali, Alain was in town having to bring his bike trip to a halt after he blew up his engine, and together we went to visit the colourful La Boca area .
The single square block was awash with bright colours and even more colourful characters, but if you walked one block too far, you really know you were in the wrong side of town. The change was dramatic. One minute we were surrounded by gringos pointing cameras at the lovingly restored old buildings, then there were just small groups of rather threatening looking tamps and addicts. We turned around and went back to the more tourist friendly streets of La Boca, sat down in a restaurant for a plate of Bife de Chorizo, a typical Argentine steak, and watched the world go by.
We returned to San Telmo and met up once more with Adrian and some more of his Argentine friends and went out for more meat at Dos Niveles, a classic San Telmo eatery. The place was packed with diners getting stuck into various cuts of prime Argentine beef. The food was delicious and very reasonable. One of the things we loved about Argentina was that, unlike its neighbours, it didn’t export all of it s best products to overseas markets.
Ecuador, growers of some of the world’s best coffee, exported all of it’s product abroad, forcing us to drink instant coffee –Nescafe, also known as No Es Café- at restaurants. Most of Colombia’s finest Cocaine was exported; similarly a large proportion of Chilean wine never found it’s way to Chilean wine stores. But Argentina help on to its best beef, and it was always available at low prices in butcher’s, supermarkets and restaurants. Well done Argentina.
Over the next few days, we explored more of the city, the centre and the refurbished docks at Puerto Madera.
Buenos Aires- Centro
Our friend Carlo had bumped into an Argentine Harley rider in a Buenos Aires’ BMW store, and , at his request, had passed on his e-mail address to me, saying we should get in touch on our arrival . We emailed him and arranged to meet at the Harley Davidson store in the North of the city.
We rode to the store and Luis was there to meet us. He owned and ran a small TV company that made bike shows for the Internet, and said that he wanted to talk to us about our travels. We chatted in the store for a while, and then he invited us to go to his house for some lunch. We followed him back to his house, a few minutes ride away from the shop and sat and chatted for ages. He invited us to come stay at his house whenever we wanted, and told us about a Harley rally that he and the other members of his bike club were going to in Mar Del Plata, on the coast a few hours south of Buenos Aires.
We had heard about Mar Del Plata, a popular vacation spot for Argentineans, and had been put off by the stories of packed beaches and literally millions of visitors in the holiday period from January to February. I had to work hard to persuade Jacquie to come with me, but she finally gave in.
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