Our seven-day sojourn in Chile’s capital was protracted because of having to stay put for parts to be replaced and spares to be shipped. Three weeks of languidly waiting around had come to an end. If there had been any quiet little moment of peace to savour about the late night drum beating, World Cup cheering, zoo-captive monkey howling city, it was upon reaching Cerro Santa Lucia. Smack in Santiago’s hustle and bustle, we chanced on an old park of steep stoned steps haphazardly lodged in a hill leading up to a stellar view. The hill was a remnant of a volcano 15 million years old.
Before tracing my way up, I came face to face with a goat head dominating an ornate vase, proudly protruding above the Neptune fountain. There was an unusual coolness emanating from the green oasis all about me, goosebumps spread at warp speed from wrist to shoulder. It felt refreshing, especially after returning from local ride outs with black marks smeared on my face every time – the air was that filthy. As far as soaking up a place was concerned, I was starting to feel like a dirty, saturated sponge. On the cobbles part way up I caught sight of a few hummingbirds hard at work, thrumming about the colourful bracts of a pink Acanthus flower. It was the prettiest part amid the urban sprawl I’d seen and treasured these gems to purify if not help redress my somewhat skewed view of this fume-fogged metropolis.
Swopping the hazy smogsphere that smudged Santiago and its litter lined roads for Andean mountainside brought us relief as our lungs inhaled long and deep on fresh Chilean air. The air we’d supped on over the last 21 days had been a noxious soup of God knows what spreading a miasma of odours that just weren’t able to dissipate in a clogged up city. Back on Ruta 5 towards Los Andes, a growing absence of vehicles coughing and spluttering gave way to a more oxygen-rich ride – acting as a filter for the brain, a way to ease my mind back into calm and untroubled thoughts.
Our return ride to Mendoza was rudely halted on Ruta 60 just before being able to ‘get the knee down’ on the steep ascent of switchbacks up to Portillo, a ski resort on the edge of the Chilean border. Police informed us at the front of a roadblock amid a crowd from a long line of backed-up traffic that the delay would cost us an hour’s wait. Good time to feed our faces and chat to some likely locals. During the time it cost for Jason to grab us a bite to eat, a mere 60 minutes setback had turned into 24 hours. Bugger, we were going nowhere. An alleged imminent snowfall up at 3,200 metres later that afternoon meant that us road-users were forced to make alternative arrangements. Oh well, it could be worse.
A handful of coach-faring Argentinians sought to see if they could help improve our situation, eyeing our eagerness to continue. It was ridiculous to return to Santiago although pitching the tent just off the roadside didn’t altogether appeal either. Our provisions were low, we weren’t exactly falling over discreet places to camp and if snow and her icy sister were looming, my wheels and I would much rather be looking down on the steep zigzagging road, not up. While a few folks and I were attempting to unravel the most likely scenario across an interfering language barrier, a handful of ladies off the coach seized an opportunity to have their photo taken astride Pearl. It was an amuse-bouche she’d got used to dining out on and one which the ladies reveled in when Jason smiled as he gestured, ‘Roll up, roll up! Come on chicas, 10 pesos a go!’ His beckoning body language set them all to giggling.
Informed by a police officer at the barrier that if I could organise for the Portillo Hotel – a choice establishment catering to the Austrian Olympic ski team amongst other ski aficionado holiday makers – to call him directly and confirm our reservation, we were good to proceed. Well, granting us 15 minutes up the steep Scalextric track, a small boon at least. Sounded convoluted to me so I took a punt to proceed through the road blockade regardless. Hoping the police officer would tune into my pitiful puppy-dog eyed plea, I soon realised hell would freeze over before that man would bend to sense, let alone my will. The measured look I received told me that further beseeching him would prove as beneficial as nipples on a motorcross chest plate. Alas I needed to make that reservation. It didn’t mean we had to stay there or even check-in. If the Gods were good, the tunnel leading to the Argentinian border would still be open. The sky was a sun-lit cloudless blue and it was mild. The day promised to see an outbreak of sun-kissed freckles on my face than it did any snowfall.
The time it took to faff, deliberate, make the hotel reservation and land the police officer’s attention to depart, I imagined we could have missed the presumed snow and made it into Argentina, stopping for a Kodak moment with the southern hemisphere’s largest mountain Aconcagua en route. The prospect of paying through the nose for a 4/5 star establishment didn’t entirely flood us with joy. Without further delay, we zoomed past the accommodation and headed straight for the tunnel. We had missed its official closing by less than an hour. Double bugger.
Befuddled, we back-tracked to the hotel and met New Zealanders Monica and Dave in the same predicament as us. Although their wheels were powered by the thigh-burning pedal variety. Neither they nor us could afford to shell out for the only available lodging topside of the hill. Still stumped, I was furiously trying to formulate an idea when Michael the owner of the Portillo hotel ushered me to his private office. Utterly abashed but with nothing to lose I outlined our trip and quandary we found ourselves in with a budget that could ill-afford his standard rate. I proposed a promotional video of his hotel using the quadcopter in exchange for a room rate akin to our meager lodging funds. I was sure the manager would look at me as he might regard a dog who presumed to hump against his leg.
The conversation between us saw the manager: reveal that he loved our story-so-far, decline my proposition to trade Jason’s drone services for a cheap room and his enthusiasm to resolve our plight by an offer to furnish us with a $200 USD room for a sliver of the cost. The hotelier actually asked me how much I would be prepared to pay, which rendered me quite speechless. That was the last response I was expecting. The manager smiled as I pressed him a little further; he agreed to extend this generous gesture towards the cycling couple too. The Morris powers of persuasion had worked tenaciously on this occasion.
In the next moment, we trailed after the housekeeping lady like a procession of ducklings following the mother duck. Within the hour, all four of us were lording it over high tea, one of the four daily meals entitled to even a partially-paying patron, as we peered down incredulously at our ski passes. Refreshed, we wasted not a minute and basked outside neck-deep in a heated swimming pool. It overlooked the mountains under a star-twinkling night sky, steam blurring the beauty of the unforeseen magic that mingles with travellers from time to time.
The impending snow was a day late and wasn’t so much as a forecasted ski-worthy fall but a translucent smattering, lightly lacing the hillsides. The hotel employees’ dismay was ashamedly our delight. The roads remained clear and any ice soon thawed in the morning sun. We awoke to -4 degrees Celsius, departed Portillo mid-morning in 4 degrees and arrived to Mendoza late afternoon in a balmy 14. We’d experienced yet another snowed-in escapade although comfortably admit that we’d both had our fair share of fun on the snow and ice. Guess that’s the nature of Argentina’s wintery beast.
Re-entering Argentina from the Chilean side, we straggled behind half a hundred people keen to return to their home country. We stopped at what can only be described as a drive-thru border crossing. It took everything I had not to ask for two cheeseburgers with extra fries but being on the Chilean side, I thought better not. The best part of the afternoon had past for us to reach customs and them to process us through; with that drawn-out rigmarole under our belts, we were once again allowed on our way.
It felt as fine as it did familiar to return to Mendoza and reunite with our buddies we’d made the month previous. Although we weren’t full to the brim with exciting stories from our stay in Santiago, our Mendozian friends had just had a baby. I was smitten at least. During our stay, we feasted on more mouth-watering meaty asados and caught up with new acquaintances in the celebration of Argentina’s Día del Amigo, ‘Friends Day’ with Juan Pablo and his family. The weather had been so darn good, I’d even donned sun cream. A planned couple of nights turned into over a week at both Toto’s digs and Juan Pablo’s house; it was going to be difficult to leave Mendoza. We were rather sweet on these people and their place. It was a wrench to finally go and wave farewell although Pearl brought me round with her endorphin-releasing tonic, my RDA of mood enhancer. It was the balm my soul sighed for – as it always does, my ride.
No sooner had we swung a right westward off Ruta 40 back onto the 7 north towards Uspallata, when the cold became cruel. Icy raindrops started to drizzle and pesky pellets of hail began to pour down. My toes were fire-fighting the burn of the cold, all sensation slowly extinguished. Argentina’s autumn had gently kissed us; winter was now starting to bite us hard – its teeth snapping at any exposed strip of flesh. The saving grace was that it gave rise to quite a dramatic scene-stealer; dense clusters of brooding clouds, dark grey steely skies and the purply presence of the Andes with hoarfrost gripping at every low level bush was as Wuthering Heights as I was likely to see this side of the southern hemisphere. We got lucky and hit an unpaved track between the 39 and 412 roads – the first time I’d off-roaded smiling in the snow!
Arriving in Barreal that afternoon felt like someone had turned up the colour saturation in Photoshop. Up to then, I’d been blasé to the bland landscape of wind-tortured plains and dusty mountains, the appearance and texture of elephant skin and had no idea what lay around the corner. I’d read that this part of the San Juan province gave locals around 300 days of ultra-clear, pollution-free skies each year. Like a tap of a wand to a magician’s hat, out popped vivid-green poplar trees, fiercely blue rivers running clear and an ancient, dried out lakebed ‘La Pampa del Leoncito’. Every square centimetre of the 10 kilometre mud-flat was a pattern of cracked crazy-paving. It turned the colour of Maldivian sand when the sun shone down. Needless to say, we spent nigh on an afternoon simulating spirals, figure of eights and playful attempts at crop circles leaving only traces of our tyre-streaked fun. Back in open country, a blending of the soul took place once again by means of my motorcycle and me. A courtesy Pearl never denied me.
Sharing stories at breakfast, learning local knowledge over lunch and regaling one another with tales over tea made our stay in Toto’s utopian setting Posada Olivar that much more idyllic. We took full advantage of taking time out to sink into our surroundings, aided by the selflessness of Juan Pablo, our newfound friend via a Horizons Unlimited community, Toto and their warm wives. We spent the best part of a week relaxing at Toto’s place, the manicured grounds of which were akin more to some sort of open aviary than an average back-garden.
At Juan Pablo’s back-garden asado, we mingled over slow-roasted meat and Malbec, enjoying three generations of his family’s company as much as Toto’s. I’d heard non-stop about Mendoza’s world renowned Malbec wine and here I was having my glass replenished with the award-winning nectar, straight from Juan Pablo’s family vineyard Hacienda del Plata. It didn’t disappoint but exceeded all expectation. The flavour had a plump, dark fruity taste and felt heady on the tongue. We were served plates of piled-high portions until I was so stuffed, I loosened a button on my trousers with as much discretion as I could execute. The food was so good I was left feeling like ten pounds of sausage in a five pound skin.
Mendoza is often called ciudad jardín, meaning garden city. The leafy tree lined streets were clean, houses of grand design and gated; the ‘feel safe’ factor alongside affluence in abundance. Grubby and incongruous with the place, we sheepishly took our dirt-caked bikes down to a local jet wash. I never expected such a warm greeting from two young chaps that all but jumped on Pearl. Ignoring Jason and his 800 completely, they spent the next 30 minutes grafting through layers of grime to reveal a pristine Pearl, sparkling in the sun. During a combined hour and a half, the guys and Jason had used the jet wash, soapy sprays and air nozzles non-stop. 800 also came up like a shiny new penny; Jason was in his happy place. It took all I had not to kiss the guy in charge when he billed us 20 pesos for the whole service. That’s less than £1.50!
The next morning we rode many miles and more. Juan Pablo was keen to show us Mendoza’s centrepiece. It took seconds for the world’s longest continental mountain range to make a statement. Our luggage free bikes seemed as giddy as we were on the outskirts of Mendoza. Wild horses grazed by the side of the road, happy at a safe distance from us and the odd bemused guanaco looked up only to scarper at our noisy approach.
Riding on a road as straight was a spear towards a dragon like spine of sharp ridges in dusky pinks, dusty mauves and muted reds, the mountain range got at something very deep in me. We were led through tunnels carving out the primeval rock, the entrances of which yawned like toothless black mouths. The sun hit us like a white hot penny and cast a fierce light over the Andean mountains, this land of legend was impressive all over again. I marvelled at the number of tight twists and switchbacks we negotiated for nigh on the afternoon; there were more hairpins than in my old hairdressers. The path we rode wound up and up, snaking through staggering vistas. I was having possibly the best Friday ever – it was likely the mythical shape of these mountains would remain forever etched in my memory. I was getting dirty in the dust leaving me with a rather unladylike five o’clock shadow – much to Jason’s amusement. Although the 800 was having a ball getting dusty in the dirt, which soon wiped the smile off Jason’s mocking mug!
We stopped for a late lunch, situated 28 kilometres from tarmac, which was another 100 kilometres on top back to our accommodation. A combined 80 miles. Well into the afternoon, I’d been salivating since midday with the tantalising promise of a mini-asado in the mountains. Tormented, my stomach thought my throat had been cut. It was here Jason’s 800 incurred a problem. She had her first wobbly and wouldn’t start. Without the proper tools to jump-start the engine or determine the root cause, Jason made some tweaks before fruitlessly testing this and that but conceded it was a ‘no go’. Alas, Juan Pablo left our lunch stowed on the back of ‘Mulata’, his BMW R100 for there was a mega-tow to be tackled. He attached a rope between his battered old R100 and the relatively young F800; she at least had the courtesy to hang her head in shame. And on we went – stomach still growling, clinging onto the hope of hot chicken wings and honeyed ham.
Jason stood up on the pegs to keep the coiled tow-rope secure with his right foot, and with surprising progress, coasted all 128 kilometres back home. Trailing behind the rescue mission in the desert, I stayed close watching the dust motes dance around them in the sun. Pearl in her vainglorious moment was doing me proud, she’s such a good lass! Although I had to give it to them, Juan Pablo and Jason worked famously together. Crikey, I did a double take when I clocked the pair of them – still linked by rope – overtake a lorry at 50mph! On the occasions when the rope would sometimes unfurl from Jason’s foot peg, Juan Pablo would fall back and outstretch his leg to push on the back of 800 to kick-start Jason’s momentum again. Don’t think I’ve seen such a fine example stemming from the fellowship of the road. The R100 succeeded nobly in recovering the kaput 800, Mulata had won pride of place as the ‘Official BMW recovery vehicle’. Superb effort. We made it back safe and sound, ate ravenously in the hope of rapidly satiating half-starved stomachs and in the next instant, flopped into bed. I rolled over, pressing my face deep into the pillow. Sleep opened beneath me like a well, and I threw myself into it with a will and let the darkness eat me up.
The ride over to Santiago was strangely swift over 380 kilometres. It felt fabulous to be astride our bikes once more, although I relish striking a balance of being in and out of the saddle. With the prospect of spending a largely unwanted week off the bikes in order to source parts, make repairs and run errands, we were hell-bent on making the most of the ride. We said a temporary farewell to the prodigious Andes around Mendoza, flirting with us in our side view as we flew over tarmac. Ushered by traffic through the intersecting village Uspallata, we were led to a road crossing the Andes from Mendoza to Santiago, carried on and up wending our way towards leaving Argentina again.
Once again we re-entered Chile, the passport was starting to favour these two neighbouring countries with fervency.We soldiered on through the rigmarole of the border-crossing. You didn’t need more than a thimble full of sense to recognise how convoluted this particular ‘Exit Argentina, Enter Chile’ border crossing was – confusingly set up for us gormless gringos. Paperwork eventually in order courtesy of an official whose lips were pursed in perpetual disapproval, Jason thanked the officious authority figure with his most disarming smile. Thanks love, have a good one! We peaked the journey at 3,200 metres before feeling the icy touch of altitude and being well rewarded upon reaching a Scalextric like zigzag descent.
Amidst a mêléeof honking horns and traffic streaming in every direction, the noise of motorcycles, cars and people swelled to a steady rumbling roar, a great heady stew of sound. Our host Carlos met us outside his high-rise apartment smack in the centre of Santiago with a gentle bonhomie. His smile-lit eyes alone reset the tone for the week ahead – from one we assumed would be a necessary evil amid a smog-veiled capital to another that drew us into the heart of this guy’s unconditional kindness. We were invited every night to join Carlos after work into the nucleus of his social circle, which was as touching as it was terrific. We shared beers with a lively bunch of Brazilians, passed hilarious hours with two quick-witted Indians fueled by a few Pisco Sours on occasion and relaxed spending quality time with Carlos himself. I felt particularly honoured; primarily because our Couchsurfing profile revealed we ride, did this Ecuadorian take a chance on us inviting a pair of total strangers into his sanctuary with the caveat that there was no hurry to leave. Ground rules comprised: make yourselves comfortable with what is mine, is yours.
Furthermore, I had free rein over his compact and bijou brand new kitchen, untouched by this bachelor or anyone else for that matter. I let myself loose and put my culinary skills to good use in preparing some sorely missed home cooked meals. The feeling of a full stomach satiated after a hearty meal is one of the most satisfying segments of a non-riding day. On the days the smoggy mist lifted, our 17th floor balcony commanded a crystal clear view of the Andes. We’d sup on Carlos’ favourite Ethiopian coffee with him and watch the crystalline light of dusk turn into a rose quartz pink, bathing the snow crowned mountains in a soft glow. We encountered some creative street art on Carlos’ doorstep and felt pretty privileged to have been part of this gregariously guy’s world, unruffled by life.
We’d transitioned from strangers to amigos in a matter of days, felt at ease to let our guard down and had it explained by our host that he wanted nothing tangible in return from us. Carlos convinced us with conviction that as his invited guests, the company we provided was his to enjoy. We shared new outlooks and experiences with each other, and as a sociable creature, spiced our host’s usually empty apartment with something out of the routine. Without feeling awkward towards the magnanimity cast our way, I guess the exchange was mutual. We thanked Carlos for expressing such goodwill towards us as travellers whom I hoped we’d repaid with something sincere, no matter how intangible.
For those of you who haven’t seen our latest video that appears in the July episode of Adventure Bike TV or doesn’t want to watch other bike related topics before you get to it, then here for your viewing pleasure is our latest video – The road to Copahue… we hope you like it.
The second episode of Adventure Bike TV is now ready to watch – check us out when we take a short trip to Caviahue in Argentina, where we get more than we bargained for!
We are somewhere near the middle of this action packed episode…Enjoy!
We’d enjoyed and endured about as much snow as we could take in eight days – white sheets had fallen in a fierce Patagonian wind for a week. We’d also been scarred as much as the bleating goat had been scared out of its skin upon our Caviahue departure. The bikes were calling and it was a profound joy to be deposited out of the snow onto silky smooth roads again. Back onto Ruta 40, we cruised through the bland town of Chos Malal and unexpectedly, the main drag took us through a dramatic scene of volcanic dessert, crested caracara country and a steppe landscape whose rocky hillsides were tiered in reds, russets and dusky pink. What a contrast to Caviahue under the mantle of winter.
An unanticipated interruption was the following afternoon’s angry wind. Forewarned with what felt like a williwaw – a sudden violent squall blowing offshore from a mountainous coast – we were torn right over on our bikes, teetering on the fringe of the road. I just about regained control, on the edge of reason. This sharp blast of wind had come from nowhere, even if we were climbing close to 2,000 metres and advancing towards an ascending gulley between the mountains. On the approach, the gale picked up another nasty notch; it took on the power of the Hulk. It demanded a Herculean counter-strength just to keep moving through the wind tunnel. The strongest force we’d encountered on the trip to date, it took my breath away.
In a hair’s breath, the wind blew me uncontrollably off the road. Just like that. No time to react, lean or unseat. At lightning speed, I careered across into a large patch of gravel – miraculously keeping Pearl unscathed and upright. Shelving an appreciation that I’d just spent one of my nine cat lives for later – all too aware that our hilly ascent had past vicious drop offs without road barriers – reflex took over. I swiftly shoved a rock underneath my side-stand to give Pearl a little leverage against the thick gravel in the howling wind. Despite that, Pearl was still dangerously at risk of being blown over and I had my full weight astride her stationary! Two workmen rushed over to offer assistance while Jason manoeuvred my bike around the corner, out of the screaming 60 may be 70 mile per hour winds.
The following morning saw us ride in the saddle before a serene vista of windless wonder. Heaven. I was in front of Jason, taking the twisties with a contented ease and around a corner is an approaching double-carriage road train. Advancing in my lane! Fortunately I had ample braking distance to swerve around to the safety of an empty lane again, free of oncoming traffic. No point getting rankled even if this trucker had almost sent me reeling, this is South America! I’m loathed to advocate that things always come in threes but suspicion started to seep into my stomach. In a largely flat landscape, I was humming away “ride, Sally, ride” to Mack Rice’s Mustang Sally when WHAM! A medium sized bird with a mocha brown plumage smacked straight into me. It dropped like a lead weight to the road, knocked out on impact. What with witnessing the blood sport of goats, almost falling to my own windblown death and guilty of birdslaughter – life on the road gives you ample time outside the comfort zone.
A few parts of Ruta 40 still remain unpaved. A couple of sections are a lot more rugged than most yet still used as a main road. It wasn’t until completing one of these sections I reflected that timing is sometimes so perfect, I’m left too stunned for speech. We hit the ripio – gravel but my usual ‘warm up’ half hour of ‘screaming and snotting’ (as Jason puts it) down the Scala intercom didn’t come. Neither did my vexed concentration nor fear of every lump and bump. Something clicked. Without conscious thought, I really opened Pearl up and started getting groovy on the gravel. In third and fourth gear, I was having something of an epiphany. In a Eureka afternoon-prolonged moment, Pearl skimmed over the severe corrugations, carved the thick gravel and gnawed through the gnarly terrain. The ripio was no longer foe but a fond friend, I was relaxed without feeling complacent. The transformation was impeccable, particularly as this was the roughest stretch of Ruta 40 we’d incurred to date. I was even a little crestfallen when the ruts, sand and stones were replaced with the tedium of tarmac. The transition in my off road riding sustained me on a natural high – my mind was buzzing for the whole day. Letting go was cathartic, I was having the time of my life. How could I not love this life more than yesterday but less than tomorrow.
Just above Bardas Blancas on Ruta 40, we’d read from a reliable source that stepping inside the Reserva Provincial El Payén was ‘mind altering’. Well it was an Andean national park I suppose host the world’s largest concentration of volcanoes. 800 of them in fact. Okay – lets hope we get no eruptions so we can recce the place. I only prayed that Pearl who was truly being put through her paces could cope mechanically. In the last few weeks, I’d noticed that she was tolerating an intermittent electrical fault between the ABS light and fluctuating speedometer; missing part of her chain adjuster and had a dislodged headlight whose beam was better at spotting owls than illuminating the road. Oh Lordy Lou, was that another Rule of Three manifestation? Taking umbrage at the notion, I parked it altogether.
53 miles of hard riding over bone-jarring gnarly ground got us to the other side of Reserva Provincial El Payén. My mind hadn’t exactly ‘altered’ as much as it was awed by around 10 of the 800 volcanoes off in the distance. I was too busy concentrating on the demons of the dirt road to cast a wider glance at my surroundings – a necessary evil for me sometimes. Our intentions to wild camp were a little ambitious as the day hadn’t risen above a chilly one degree Celsius. The night only promised well below sub-zero temperatures, the park was officially out of season and the risk of being marooned in this remote region, without a soul in sight was too great. We turned around and I continued to savour at how much better I was coping on the sandy, stoney dirt roads. At last, I’d turned a thrilling corner.
After a pitstop in Malargue, we took guidance from the GPS as opposed to our older paper map equivalent and hit what we thought was a disused section of the old Ruta 40. It was meant to be a more interesting passage through to our next destination Mendoza, avoiding some of the uneventful tarmac that now paves the majority of Ruta 40. Wending down a confusion of narrow tracks, the route got increasingly deeper in sand until the soft, loose terrain started exasperating the pair of us. It was interesting alright. And technically, I was also in too deep: Drop bike. Curse. Check for broken bones. Reflect on how ‘bad ass’ we are. Lift bike up. Pant. More reflection. And repeat. And repeat again. Marvellous, another one to throw into The Power of Three pot. Our GPS was telling us porkies – serves us right for mistrusting the map but better to have uncovered this 11 miles into the 97 mile sand-riddled stretch.
We were also dreading the prospect of getting trapped in this isolated place. If my enthusiasm, waning as it was continued to outweigh my capability, I’d end up cracking a rib. Admittedly, the sandpit we’d ridden into began to take its toll on my skill as much as my spirits. I decided to take stock before my wits completely fled and I’d rue the impulse to ‘keep at it’. And to add insult to near injury, we’d reached a dryish riverbed – getting the heavy bikes stuck in sand or even quicksand would be back-breaking if not downright disastrous. Despite the low temperature, the sun in this desolate spot was beating down like a fiery hammer and we were carrying minimal water. After winding myself one too many times, I could smell the sharp, acrid tang of fear creeping in. The sand was sucking every ounce of my ability as much as my engine was sucking the sand in. The pair of us were mindfully happy to turn around and head the 11 miles back the way we came.
San Rafael was our chosen reststop to soothe some minor aches and pains. We had reached the end of the continent’s southernmost ‘V’ – over 7,000 miles and just shy of three months in – latitudinally, we were now on a par with Montevideo – our first port of call from the cargo ship. A small pang of pride permeated even if this was just the tip of the South America’s iceberg. The ride up to Mendoza redirected all thought to Tupungato Volcano Provincial Park. This was where we espied Mount Plata and Tupungato Volcano, towering above the clouds; 6,800 metres above sea level to be precise. Catching sight of this mountain range was the most impressive I’d ever seen. Through the foothills we rode at full tilt for nigh on an hour towards these mammoth mountains, and they simply weren’t getting any bigger! That’s how big they were. My mind was blown.
Back home, friends were preparing to enjoy the Horizons Unlimited event. This is an annual festival that takes place around the globe with an emphasis on travel. Those present, as Graham Field puts it perfectly, “are there to inform, inspire and encourage, share experiences and get enthused by others’ experiences”. The essence of this was not lost on the pair of us as we’d recently made contact with a local biker in Mendoza named Juan Pablo through the Horizons Unlimited website. Through his and his friend Toto’s combined generosity, we ended up kicking the side stands down inside a gated complex ‘Posada Olivar‘ in Lujan de Cuyo. Complete with outdoor pool amid lush green grounds; a bedroom bigger than our old cottage – boasting a super-king that’d comfortably sleep six; rustic furnishings and a fully equipped granite kitchen in which Gordon Ramsay would be fulfilled. Yes, I think we’ll be happy here. Looking shabbier than a stray cat, I felt utterly unfit to be striding through such decadent surroundings. On top, we were being charged a rate on a par to some of the more scruffy hostels we’d recently taken up temporary residence. Relaying “Muchas muchas grasias! Esto es EXCELENTE!” to Toto and Juan Pablo with all the heartfelt gratitude I felt somehow wasn’t quite enough. We were engaging with local people again, different from us but sharing that common denominator – two wheels.
San Martin de los Andes was where the Ruta de los Siete Lagos (Seven Lakes Road) ended. As beautiful as this resort in the rain was, a joint visit with Jason to a friendly barber’s shop departing as two satisfied customers from the experience, coupled with our hostel room’s pre-installed ‘bum gun’ were the concluding highlights. Our en suite toilet came with a device, which when I kindly operated for Jason, his derriere got slightly more than it bargained for. A spurt of overly refreshing water gushed out at forty-five degrees reaching parts that a Heineken wouldn’t have a hope.
After being treated to the Ruta de los Siete Lagos, we were treated yet again to an unpaved dirt road, Ruta 46. To my mind, it was in direct competition to the Carretera Austral. Church bells were chiming inside my head, rejoicing alongside the ring of a quieter alarm bell as to why this road was so unknown and underrated. It took us from one national park to another via a scenically steep mountain pass. We were riding 1,200 metres above sea level through big sky country where the striking volcanic deserts led us all the way to Laguna Blanca. The laguna was a drainage lake that formed when lava flows dammed two small streams; now host to coots, grebes, upland geese and the odd flamingo, primarily under protection for the black-necked swans.
By dusk we were forced to stop in Zapala, a town that took its name as an adaptation of the Mapuche word chapadla, meaning ‘dead swamp’. Image wise, it was spot on – I didn’t get a single special vibe about this industrial, bland town. Although it didn’t go unnoticed when the local kids eagerly came over to shake our hands, did their utmost to relay directions towards fuel and gasped in awe when we briefly outlined our two-wheeled journey. One young teenage boy with bright, intelligent eyes volubly asked me questions, which I loved. I don’t think I’ve ever encountered such gregarious warmth from an adolescent stranger on the street in the UK.
Quite a few other Zapalan locals took the same interest in us the following day, in fact a glimpse of me astride by bike took one couple by such surprise, they gave me simultaneous thumbs up and no option but to smile sweetly into their mobile phone cameras for the agonising minutes it took for the traffic light to change. Oh go on then…! – I mused, as I obliged this excited, wide-eyed couple.
The silver lining in Zapala was South America’s third largest collection of spectacular fossil specimens cast in rocks of all sizes. In a department store sized room, I marvelled through the glass displays of precious stones packed with layers upon layers of colour from thousands of years’ worth of mineral forming. Two identical elongated pieces of precious stones boasting swirls of shiny colour would have made a cracking pair of ‘Bett Lynch’ earrings. I poured over the manganese dendrites, ridged trilobites and petrified dinosaur remains from around the globe for a full hour. Jason even espied a near-perfect ammonite all the way from Witby on the east coast of England.
Angling west to east, we detoured across to El Chocón whose dinosaur remains were not quite the Natural History Museum standard we’d desired. Still, after further humouring a coach-load of sight-seers with our travel story so far, the thrum of excitement was palpable through the crowd. Mmmn, a recurring theme was starting to emerge… We expressed gratitude in response to their warm reception for us – especially Pearl who I was informed was “the best bike in the world!” Seldom does my plodding Pearl trump the F800GS!
Full after tucking into a mouthwatering beef asado, we found ourselves sprawled around a sparkling cobalt blue lake. It was luxurious to laze the afternoon away digesting our meal slowly in the warm autumnal sun. Both contented to wild camp, we ditched the tent and fancied ourselves a night in a hotel instead. A million star hotel! Stargazing into the wee hours, our eyes traced shooting stars flashing across the night sky from the comfort of our sleeping bags. It was magical to glimpse so many of these rapid meteors. What I found less magical and more marring was when the Patagonian wind put in an unexpected appearance. Catching me unawares the fury of the wild did everything to keep me slipping into sleep. Beastly tired, I slept not a wink through the night’s misadventures and resigned myself to an open-air experience bombarding the senses. Hey ho, think we’ll bide our time and seek warmer temperatures before repeating that again.
One of Argentina’s most enduring icons is the gaucho, whose tradition began centuries ago when loosing their cattle on the grassy pampas. We’d seen scores of these lone cowboy-like figures through Argentina and Chile, pitted against the elements with only his horse for a friend. The nomadic cowboys once lived by breaking in horses, hunting cows and drinking the caffeine-rich herbal drink known as mate (pronounced mah-tah – the only cultural practice that truly transcends the barriers of ethnicity, class and occupation – a dried tea leaf from a relative of holly). I’d heard about a folklore tale of a revered gaucho who many moons ago had robbed from the rich to feed and clothe the poor, congruent with our Robin Hood tales. En route to Caviahue, we spotted a modern-day ancestral gaucho, a gaucho-for-export. He rode over the plains on his horse amongst his cattle donning a dusty boinas (a beret) and bombachas (riding pants) on his estancia (sheep farm). He greeted me warmly as he stopped on top of a hill, perfectly poised for a photograph. This guy was as glorious as he was perceptive. I thanked him deeply for allowing us such an intimate encounter with him, impinging on his working day no doubt.
Particularly from the ride over from Zapala to Caviahue, we got whipped through strong wind in a wanderlust cocktail of Freddy Flintstone boulder-lined desert, mountain lakes and pehuén forests but best of all, monkey puzzle trees amid big snowy mountains dominating the landscape. In the nineteenth century these evergreen coniferous trees, native to Chile, were named in response to a remark that an attempt to climb one would puzzle even a monkey, uh uoh!
The roads left the senses tingling as we were riding into the onset of the ski season. Admittedly, the omnipresent threat could spell disaster if we pushed our luck at high altitude, so close to winter. The warning signs of impassable snow and imminent ice were already there on the day we reached Caviahue venturing the ten mile ride over on thick ripio to Copahue. We’d heard the mud baths and hot natural springs were still open to invitation for the slightly crazed. I got four miles in when the dirt road dwindled to a pebbly thread, finally to a mere suggestion. I was goose pimpled, close to being blown over by the wind if not suffering an ‘offy’ on the bike so conceded that turning back was sensible for Pearl and me. The increasingly treacherous stones, slushy mud and injurious ice were too much for me although the return ride felt like a piece of cake with my back to the unwanted wind.
We awoke on the first morning in Caviahue to a picture-postcard winter wonderland. It mattered not a jot that the snow had come about a month early – oh my, we were officially snowed-in! The bikes were going nowhere – stuck in a stunning snowscape. What to do now? Getting traction from the bikes would be as fruitful as trying to squeeze silver from a silverfish. Pondering, we learned that Caviahue is a flyspeck mountain village, sitting inside a giant extinct volcano, around 4.5 million years old. Lets just wind down as we wend our way through the white stuff on foot for a few days, or a few weeks – perhaps until spring!
We awoke to a crisp cold morning, when I stepped a toe outside my breath was puffing pale from my mouth. Looking out, it was a semi-opaque scene from Argentinian’s equivalent of Lapland, trees barely visible ten feet away with big blobs of snow atop every roof, streetlight and surface about the village. The meringue smooth snow had turned heavy, its fall hadn’t stopped for 24 hours – big soft flakes cascading lazily from the sky left six foot drifts and rising. We were slowly losing sight of our bikes beneath the engulfing white. It’d be sometime before the colour would steal itself back into this world. Wading knee-deep we padded our way through the afternoon, the dry powder squeaking beneath our footsteps – it was as soft and loose as icing sugar. And a complete novelty, Christmas had come early. The festive scene soon turned into a stinging snow blizzard in which I couldn’t discern whether snow or hail pinged against my face. For five days straight the cold hit me in the teeth like a fist, which set me to shivering at once. Nothing burns like the cold. Trudging through 65 mile per hour winds just for a beer and change of scenery from our hostel ‘Hebe’s Hostel’, I wondered if this was what an Antarctic expedition would be like.
The last two days in Caviahue were wonderful when the snow had finally settled; the weather had calmed, warmed and set the scene for a blazing promotional video. Jason had offered to shoot some footage for ‘Caviahue Tours’, the activities and excursions focused business our new friend Fernando, family friend of Hebe who owned our hostel. Some may say it was more like five minutes showing ‘A day in the life of Lisa’ as I willingly opted to play the tourist in front of the camera. Off we went dog sledging with a beautiful pack of high energy dogs, snow-shoeing in the forest up to two impressive volcanic waterfalls and flying over the snow if not through the air on a high powered skidoo. As an unexpected gesture of goodwill, Fernando knocked fifty per cent off our accommodation cost, he was so delighted with the end result. The quadcopter was beginning to pay for itself beautifully. Nice job Jase!
Digging our bikes out of one and a half metres of snow was a back-breaking, draining ordeal. But it worked up a healthy appetite to wave farewell to this winter wonderland. Time to replace never-ending snow for the deliciously dry asphalt, with not a whisper of white in sight. We’d successfully sourced a guy and his father, his four by four and trailer to cart the bikes and us 20 kilometres back onto ridable roads. My heart was in my mouth for the painstakingly lumpy journey out of the snow-blanketed village, bikes skewed over and strained in their straps. Our driver swerved for a dog that jumped out onto the road; my first thought went to the bikes although I was relieved no harm had befallen the animal. It was a crying shame the same fate wasn’t bestowed on a hapless goat. Our driver made no effort to swerve – the goat was left dying in agonising pain on the road. We were aghast – the driver laughed off the incident that could have so easily been avoided – it left a vile taste in our mouths. Sometimes I suppose we just live in the absence of reason. No sense lay behind why this had happened, it just had.
Pearl my bike is painted blue, a colour as calming as a Patagonian sky. However she’s built more for comfort than speed. Over the past few weeks in the saddle, Pearl and I have pretty much fused together to ride as a unit. It’s just as Lois Pryce described in Lois on the Loose after months in the saddle through the Americas – she felt herself transforming into some mythical Greek creature: half woman, half motorbike. It’s pure jubilation when you have this relationship with your bike, moulding comfortably as one. For me, there’s increasing trust and understanding of how to handle Pearl respectfully – if I keep it up, she may just get me all the way to Alaska. But what a daring distance to go until I can have strength in that conviction. Two months and three countries into South America, we had put just over 5,000 miles on the clock.
The Carretera Austral through Chile is a road that will satisfy your soul beyond conscious comprehension. We were initiated onto the Carretera Austral by completing a series of rides that saw our derrieres slanting off the saddle and leaning over like we were aiming for first prize in a limbo competition on motorcycles. Stunning scenery aside for a day-prolonged moment, the wind was back with attitude; so much for it being a shade more sheltered west of Argentina, up through Chile.
We spent a week riding Carretera Austral’s dirt roads, which was well worth the extra effort involved through the gravelly, muddy and corrugated parts. The pothole-peppered track took us hundreds of metres above sea level on Mount Jeinemeni, which gave us day long views of a lake the size of a city. It was so lofty from atop, I felt like I could see half the world. Mammoth-sized mountains engulfed us as well as voluminous lakes under even bigger skies. Everything was sized on a mega scale – the only missing piece of the jigsaw was the dinosaurs. Feeling like a dot in the landscape, we wound our way up and down the mountain passes taking extra care. There were no barriers on some of the steep hairpin bends, which were loose and corrugated to add to the fun and games. Some former travellers had described these mountain passes as “hair-raising on two wheels” although it was often so stunning, forgetting I was on more technical ground was made easier. I also had the intercom-benefit of being mentored over the tricky bits too – learning a rough wisdom a whisker above my skill level took me places I would ordinarily not have had the confidence to ride solo. Number one addition to my overland adventure motorcycling configuration: my man!
Further north past Chile Chico, the terrain either side of the Carretera Austral changed dramatically where barren plains gave way to a grassy, lush landscape. The orange, reds and russet leaves of autumn were just appearing here. Soaking up the vegetation-dense vista was like having a sponge bath, it was good to drench the soul in something green for a change. I made a mental note to get some cruciferous veggies inside me too, it’d been a while since eating anything leafy or green. My stamina throughout the day wore on the further we rode. The rutty ripio took a desultory toll on me after a while, which after riding it ‘up on the foot pegs’ all day finally gave me a respite at dusk when we hit the tarmac. The tarmac soon turned into an icy obstacle course 850 metres above sea level. The snow turned ice left remnants of slippy patches all over the road. Daylight was no longer on our side so we manoeuvred round as fast as safety would allow. Digging a bit deeper to reach some lodging was not optional.
Riding down into a mountain village called El Blanco and glimpsing a warmly lit homestay was wonderfully welcoming. Greeted by two elderly women – waiting on us hand and frozen foot – served a hot drink on arrival. One seated us around their roaring log fire while the other rubbed warmth back into me. I gave them a shock when pulling up with purply blue lips and a nose redder than Rudolph’s; their expressions were priceless and one that confirmed we’d reached a new level of crazy upon two motorbikes in sub-zero temperatures. I don’t know if I inadvertently returned a similar expression though as one of the ladies greeted us with a plastic bag on her head from the local supermarket. A DIY home-hair treatment perhaps? What a honey. I relished having my electric clothing, which had worked wonders. The jacket and gloves had kept me comfortable in inclement conditions all day but my lower body had numbed, cold to the core – it just goes with the territory sometimes. No wonder we weren’t seeing any other touring bikers!
Wind was replaced by rain, and the loose gravel ripio stayed more or less present with us on the Carretera Austral. Bizarrely, the ripio was broken up with the odd small section of brand new tarmac road, no longer than a mile or two. There was neither rhyme nor reason as to why the tarmac would suddenly appear for a short stretch and then disappear in the moment of a gear-change again. With ripio comes the road less travelled, the scenery to be seen from being off-road is always a sight to behold. Especially on the serpentine trails we were riding through amid temperate rainforests shrouded in as much mystery as mist sometimes.
Pulling into Queulat National Park for an evening gave us a chance to kip alongside nature for the night. Hostels and homestays are agreeable when it’s cold although camping has its merits too. We pitched the tent amid virgin evergreen forests and made a cosy fire to stave off the chill. Every so often, it was impossible not to hear those all-familiar, deep-seated rumbling noises of the glacier. We had this Jurassic place to ourselves – all because we were mad enough to camp in the cold. First light, we practically raced through the temperate rainforest, up to the Mirador viewpoint. The Hanging Glacier was a prehistoric sight to behold; it was like the mountain wore a protruding blue cravat – a triangle of thick suspended ice. Two glacial waterfalls blasted down the mountain face, falling hundreds of metres south. That is, until a giant piece of ice broke off and stopped the waterfall flow entirely. Resuming again a couple of minutes later, it was a rare moment. And unexpected, it even raised the park rangers’ eyebrows when retelling them about the occurrence.
The end of the Carretera Austral deposited us at Chaitén – what an unparalleled road that was. The best we’d ridden in South America to date, which has our strongest recommend for anyone on two wheels. Detouring on the island of Chiloé didn’t overly inspire us riding through farmland so we headed for Puerto Montt back on the mainland, which also had us zooming past at full tilt upon the mass of urban sprawl on offer. We rocked up into Puerto Varas instead. An inviting little town with a gorgeous German influence in the culture, people and architecture. It overlooked the sparkling freshwaters of Lago Llanguihue and the snow-capped Osorno Volcano as well. This was what it was all about – no reliance on public transport supplying us with a flow of spontaneity on tap. We checked into Hostel Klein, a rustically worn and shabby place erring on the side of endearing. Despite no heating in our room, it mattered not as the Fräulein of the hostel couldn’t have been more warmly attentive towards our every need and whim. It was cheap, our bikes were secure and we were comfortable in the living room with to a wood-fired stove at our constant disposal.
Before heading further north, we came off the main drag on Ruta 225 and weight-shifted up a Scalextric track of tight hairpin bends for an encounter with the ‘King of the South’. A 2,652 metre tall stratovolcano between Osorno and Llanquihue provinces in the Los Lagos region of Chile. Reaching the snow-capped volcano took concentration in trying – without succeeding – to get my knee down. Fantastic fun. Being as close as we got gave us a thrill – the volcano was textbook conical in shape and loomed imposingly over the emerald green waters of Lake Todos Los Santos and Lake Llanguihue. Not a bad Monday morning by any stretch!
Ruta 231 on our map marked as the 215 on Google maps led us through Puyehue National Park, out of Chile and back into Argentina. Around the sweeping roads we rode, curving up around the mountains and back down until we were hit by a powdery place of volcanic ash. Tall trees robbed of life and leaves perforated a thick carpet of brown flakes either side of us. It was like riding through the land of the dead where all colour had fled the world. Instead the world was awash in sepia. Nature woke up again in Villa La Angostura, an upmarket town in which we stayed overnight; a resort gearing up for the imminent ski season. We took our gear and zoomed straight onto Ruta 234 via a pitstop in the touristy town of Bariloche, renowned for its sickly chocolate. Time to hit the road, leave these resorts to it and get our backsides out of busy towns. The 184 kilometres of Ruta de los Siete Lagos – the Seven Lakes Road was set to facilitate just that.
Pearl my bike had thus far been a trusty and law-abiding travelling companion. That is, until she had a brush with the law en route to San Martin de Los Andes. Upon seeing a halo around the sun, forming a complete rainbow ring, I pulled Pearl off the road into the gravel to get a longer look. It was the first time I’d ever seen this natural phenomenon, which apparently can happen anytime in any season when sunlight passes through ice crystals in cirrus clouds. The crystals bend direct sunlight, projecting it elsewhere into the sky and at 22 degrees, a halo can be seen around the sun. What a ‘Wow’ moment seeing one on the bike! One minute I’m cursing my iPhone camera for its lack of SLR properties and the next, I look up and see a van hurtling dangerously close towards Pearl and me. BANG! The van careered over the road’s white line at high speed and clipped my aluminum pannier with a crunch. I rushed around my bike to see the damage but the driver had left naught but a scratch down a ripped sticker. Possibly one of the rarer occasions when a motorbike comes off better than a four-wheeled vehicle in a collision! Pearl wobbled like a Weeble momentarily but essentially took the knock on the chin, unscathed without any cause for concern.
Grateful that the Argentinian driver returned to see if I was unharmed and inspect any injury he’d inflicted on Pearl, I was more sympathetic towards the scratches and dents left down one side of his newish looking van. The guy was distraught. Pearl was taking no prisoners on that day, armour fully in tact and testament to MetalMule’s durability. What I didn’t expect after leaving on amicable terms was to ride on for a couple of miles only to be pulled over by the local Policía. Oh no, what version of events had this guy relayed to the roadside authorities? Despite Jason having footage of where I’d safely parked up off the road, I was still wary of any trouble I may have landed us in.
Half an hour of copious paperwork, checking my papers were in order with a fine toothcomb and failing to be understood, the police officer in charge concluded that Pearl and I were free to go. Phew. On we rode still feeling sore for the van driver, whose concentration either lapsed or may be the sun was in his eyes. A mile on and we were pulled over again. Drat, what have we done now? Nothing. Just a routine spot check for contraband. Nope, none of that being carried – the chap on patrol satisfied after unzipping just one of my pockets. Might we be on our way now please officer? “Por qué muchas grasias Señor” – Why thank you Sir.
The lagos of the Seven Lakes Road were aptly named for their salmon fishing, beauty, clarity and hidden aspects – we wouldn’t have missed this road even if it did feel a little wrong to be riding on asphalt through virgin coihue and colihue cane forests.
The day’s song ended on a sweet note as we dared to hope that a steep trail would zig-zag us down to a mysterious looking lake. The day peaked on a harmonious crescendo as we stumbled upon it, Lago Lacar. A long, narrow bar of opaque blue mist hung beautifully over the freshwater. Behind me, I saw hills rising wild as far as the eye could see covered in trees that no axe had ever touched. I saw the last of the sunlight glinting off the lake and clouds sweeping in from the west. I even saw a caracara circling. I waved at him as late afternoon drew upon us, shadows growing long. Dusk arrived and left to a fleeting tune of pinks and oranges. Overhead a half moon peeked out through the scuttling clouds, beneath which a stillness settled over my mind. The stars looked like eyes, watching over us in this secluded spot with only each other for company.
A few miles from Puerto Natales, we squeezed in a visit to a cave whose mylodon remains had been found opening up paleontological insights into the times of an extinct sloth around 14,500 years ago. It was an hour neatly filled. A few miles down the road, we zoomed past Devil’s Chair, a big rock of alleged geological interest situated not far from an area abundant with condors. A flight of condors all took wing from a steep hill making a rather striking spectacle, soaring above and gliding around in search of carrion. Unlike the cave, this place I wouldn’t have missed.
Into the teeth of the wind we rode making the 170 miles from Puerto Natales to El Calafate, a region as big as Denmark whose estancias – sheep farms were as big as counties. Both bikes were flicked over like dominoes when perched on their side stands – only unattended to help each other pick up their blown-over bike. Mother Nature was peeved about something that day, she wouldn’t give us a minute to compose ourselves. At least she didn’t deny us sight of the Andes’ snow-capped mountains, which remained in our peripheral vision the whole way. With the behooving help of Jason, I got my mojo back on 40 miles of ripio, loose gravel; a scenic shortcut seducing us in a way that only off-road rural beauty can.
The approach to El Calafate was a sere and desolate land of low hills and barren windswept plains, broken up by the odd guanaco grazing. The flag trees were a constant weather vane as to the prevailing winds constantly sweeping through. I was pained when I saw a young guanaco blindly panic at the sound of our bikes; it misjudged the height of a tight wire fence near the roadside and instead of clearing it, somersaulted and flipped back over impaled on the wire. Jason ran towards the trapped animal to help although through dogged determination, the guanaco detangled its hind leg and shot off, a trickle of red staining its fur. It was probably thee only time I cursed our motorbikes – wretched noisy things!
I liked the town of El Calafate, it had a good vibe about it; bustling with ice-trekking operators, hiking shops, rustic bars and small restaurants. It looked and felt very alpine to me. Our hostel ‘Huemul’ although a little tatty was cheap and cheerful at five pounds per night, had secure parking for our bikes and closely located to town.
Out of Los Glaciares National Park’s 356 glaciers, we took our crampon-strapped feet onto Perito Moreno. Bigger than Buenos Aires at 97 square miles, it’s also 19 miles long; as icefields go, it’s the world’s third largest glacial area and freshwater reserve. We spent a good hour gaping on the tiered viewing balconies at the imposing façade, 60 metres tall. We bore witness to the odd mass of ice crash down – creating resounding roars and widespread ripples in the glacial-melt water. Shame we didn’t have the recording button on!
Next, we jumped on a boat that sailed a load of us over the milky turquoise to commence our ‘mini-trek’ on the ice. A little touristy for our taste – we followed a group, hacking our spiked feet into an established, undulating ice trail. Skirted safely around sinkholes, curved past crevasses and peered into icy cavities layered in darkening hues of blue. We tried our level best to pause only at designated spots for photos but kept failing miserably; the guide was getting rankled at us by the minute. Why get yourself in a lather about such things? Although the weather was a dire combination of freezing snow and mountain-enveloped mist for the most part, the glacier – a sculptor of the landscape – still made a spectacular sight worth seeing. Especially this close, on top of it. Jason couldn’t wait to return solo to capture some undisturbed footage on the quadcopter.
Spoilt with another beautiful riding road, we took a refreshingly windless route under cool blue skies over to El Chaltén, a small mountain village nicknamed the Trekking Capital of Argentina. I felt instantly uplifted compared to our last hostel as we checked into Lo De Trivi, costing us double at ten pounds each per night. The restaurant-sized kitchen, which was spotless, safe spot around the back for our bikes and comfy lounge boasting panoramic views of the Andes amply justified the cost.
Taking a pre-dawn hour-long hike up to Lake Capri gave us a good warm-up. It was a chance to watch the sun rise over Mount Fitz Roy from afar, part of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field. We stayed until the first light bathed the tip of the peak at over 3,400 metres; its meringue smooth snow was the whitest I’d ever seen. It was bitterly cold but the three German, Dutch and Argentinian chaps accompanying us agreed, it was well worth the chilly 14 kilometres walked.
The following day, we were itching for a closer look so the two of us took the 25 kilometre round trek over to Laguna de Los Tres. This was about the closest we were going to get to Mount Fitz Roy, which afforded the most intimate vantage point overlooking the lagoon. As soon as we’d caught our breath from the slog endured to climb up there, the sight took our breath away once more. The lagoon was incredible, so clear and altogether gorgeous – it was all I could do not to leap into those placid waters. Mother have mercy though, we were walking on hot coals for the last ten kilometres to get back – plodding heavily down unforgiving stones salted with white on the snow-speckled trail. These peaks of Patagonia certainly make you earn it.
Daylight broke, still cold but sunny. The storm had diminished to a steady breeze – leaves and snowflakes whirling around us. It was the end of the night’s dark dance at least. Feeling the groggy end of a bug we’d both caught, it felt good to pack up, hit the open road and enjoy the wind on our faces again. It was the day I was to deal with my demons – “100 miles of relentless ripio on Ruta 40 where the section runs out of paved road”, we’d been informed by many. I hadn’t slept much the night previous, mind racing at where Jason had marked this stretch of off-road on the map as ‘tricky’. I’d tackled ripio a few times before, why was I in cold, clammy fear of this section so badly? Probably paying too much attention to other peoples’ scaremongering accounts and negative experiences since arriving to South America mid-March. None I relished the prospect of facing; being blown off the road, spraining ankles and crashing through the thick, bike-wrecking gravel. There was nothing else to do but to see for myself.
Departing El Chaltén, we rode alongside the sun-flecked waters of Lago Argentina for what seemed like an eternity. This lake was at least fifty miles long. As sure as eggs were eggs though, the smooth tarmac gave way to more taxing terrain shortly before Lago Cardiel. At a nearby petrol station, I couldn’t tell for sure but upon being greeted by a ginger kitten there, whose matching eyes flashed golden at me, this friendly little feline interaction changed my whole persona. My confidence went from zero to ‘Lets go!’. Unbeknown to me, it was just the tonic I was looking for.
The stretch of Ruta 40 I’d been utterly dreading was not nearly as nasty as I’d imagined. Fear of the unknown had definitely gotten the better of me on this occasion. Damn it. Sure, we hit the gravel but some of it was compacted, other parts hard mud, broken up by a series of freshly laden tarmac. There were a host of road blocks for us to skirt around to let the workmen crack on with surfacing the new road being built, barricading the four-wheeled traveller. The enabling bliss of being on two wheels was not lost on either of us.
The skills were honed each time the terrain varied as we switched from ripio to tarmac, to road foundations to ripio, to hardcore back to ripio for the first twenty odd miles. We practically had the place to ourselves, meeting only one cyclist en route. I actually had quite a bit of fun! We successfully negotiated over all the usual suspects: scores of stones, a few big rocks intending to cause mayhem with the front tyres, lashings of loose gravel, coarse corrugations and some sneaky sand disguised as hard dirt. I lost control a few times veering off sharply when the wind blew me senselessly over, although manoeuved a couple of brilliant saves in the sand – somehow staying upright. Who knew I had it in me? I laughed off each bone-jarring, hairy and manic moment. Instinct took over and I felt revitalised by the whole experience. I was finally beginning to relax as my reflexes kicked in. I was consolidating my off-road skillset, now coming into its own. I wasn’t a patch on Jason’s off-road prowess but it was still ace to ride the ripio at ease.
Jason lost his balance a few times and confirmed it was due to gazing out, which coupled with the ‘tallness’ of his bike being clipped by the wind, fell victim to going down a couple of times. It was the most challenging stretch of ripio to date, even though we only encountered around fifty miles of it in total. I made a mental note to start taking bigger pinches of salt when talking to people. At the end of the day without feeling broken, my muscle memory started rejoicing at getting ‘bike fit’. Pleased with myself, I wanted to punch the air, I was that happy!
Leaving the calm surroundings of Puerto Natales and our bike-friendly Hostal Don Guillermo, four of us including Andrew we’d met in Ushuaia and his buddy Hilton set off in high spirits for some serious trekking among the last glacier strongholds in the world. A 10 day self-sufficient trip around the complete circuit of Torres del Paine National Park, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve boasting 227,000 hectares in the Andes. On arrival after three hours on the bus, we learnt that the full circuit was closed for the season; we’d have to be content with conquering the ‘W’ trail. Better to be over-prepared than under I thought, even if were carrying twice as much food as required in shoddy rucksacks – although it didn’t weigh our enthusiasm down. We’d just have to feast at every meal.
Before stepping a foot inside the national park, we were all subjected to a safety briefing and presentational video. I lost count how many times we were told it was strictly forbidden if not a felony to start and cause a fire inside the national park. We’d be looking at anything from 51 days to 5 years in prison, with up to a $16,000 fine on top. I couldn’t help but hear the Prodigy’s ‘Firestarter’ lyrics blaring in my mind, which would have added effect to the regimented rules thrown down our throats.
Ridged regulations shelved, day one in the park was anything but disappointing. Equally as, if not a shade more impressive than Argentinian Patagonia further south, my first glimpse of the Andes caught me off guard. The sun, which sat against an azure blue sky shone a brilliance down on the wind blasted white of the snowy peaks, alighting the blue green jewels of the glacier embedded in the mountain. Dazzling us in its glacial glory, the landscape’s composition offered up such a powerful vista, I didn’t know where to look first.
Although the first day was a continuous series of sharp ascents and descents, we accepted the pain barrier of getting that initial momentum going. The discomfort endured from our over-laden packs and lack of ‘mountain goat’ fitness was offset by the staggering far-reaching views, deciduous fairytale forests filled with beech tree enchantment and dappled sunlight. Around the top corner of a mountain, we saw an Andean condor flashing white against its black plumage. Then another condor and another and another – some of these birds span over three metres long – I counted seventeen in the air at one time. Oh my wow – condors are endangered but were positively flourishing here. We watched these New World vultures fly over the mountains, whose unique formation composed of contrasting layers of igneous, sedimentary and metamorphic rocks making a special sight for us to take away.
Before sunrise, we left Campamento Torres and headed straight for the Torres (towers), from which the national park was named. In a pre-dawn light, we padded our way up a sharp climb, negotiating over rocks and boulders until it was all I could do not to conk out and take a ‘Nana nap’. Grateful for the well-marked trail, there was scant chance of getting heinously lost in this wilderness. We stayed on the trail, following its twists and turns as it snaked along, up, around and down the mountain, making the odd switchback in steeper areas. We walked through a wooded area and were deposited out of the forest to see another intense sight. Three overbearing naturally forming towers stood proud and tall; the granite spires of Torres del Paine. Within twenty minutes, the morning sun shot up, the clouds politely parted and the scene transformed from impressive to immense. Our photos would be cooked unless we turned down the saturation levels – the brightness bordered on ridiculous. It was golden and I couldn’t help wonder if we were inching closer to as good as it gets.
We walked on quite a bit further, never knowing what we’d see next, more than making up for the challenge of it all. We saw a trio of authentic gauchos – South American cowboys guiding up their work horses, corded with muscle pulling up cumbersome construction materials. Towards the end of day two, Hilton stopped dead in his tracks – gawping. Wondering why, I looked to my left and smiled; he’d found a rare flat ‘look out’ point of the towers in which to wild camp on the trail between a refugio and campamento – the spot would more than suffice. And hopefully avoid the national park’s mice attracted like magnets on steel to the camping areas. Having got up at the crack of sparrows to see ‘The Towers’ in first light, to see ‘The Horns’ against the sun setting nicely concluded a long day.
I was in no mood to be such easy prey to the grey furry bludgers, harmlessly looking as they were. Everything we carried, we hung in dry bags on a guy rope between the trees – our weapon of choice. I knew mice could climb up if not fling themselves from tree to tree but at least they’d have to perform a tight-rope circus act to scrounge our provisions. That evening wild camping, I could hear the howling of the wind, it made a high thin sound as it shivered through the trees and tugged at our tent’s guy ropes. That wasn’t the only thing tugging at the guy lines. By morning, whether the sub-zero chill of the night, prevailing winds or our precautions had made the difference, I didn’t know, but we’d suffered no real mouse-induced damage. It was war but we’d won the first battle.
Lunch was taken at Italiano campamento, which we nicknamed ‘Mouse City’ as the most notorious place for the rodents ruling. One minute I was on Danger Mouse alert and the next a falcon swooped down and devoured a mouse whole. Was that divine intervention stepping in? Up we went, sweated buckets of perspiration and felt the thighs burn beautifully, we made it to the top at Mirador look out point. And greeted by a panoramic paradise. We had ice world on our left – the glacier; rock world on our right – Los Cuernos (the horns) adjacent to the towers and water world behind us – a glacial lake shouldered in between a valley awash in the colours of an autumn afternoon. It was dreamlike. Each world was microcosmic, experiencing separate conditions where dense mist shrouded the tip of the glacier, fluffy clouds stirred above the granite formations and a gentle sun shone over the valley. It looked surreal.
The weather at the look out point was on the turn for the worse although moments before threading our way back, a series of almighty rumblings commenced. We were witness to big chunks of the glacier breaking off and tearing down before us. It was a glacier-lanche! The glacier was littered with cracks, broken boulders and tumbling heaps of rock grumbled like a fighter jet roaring above when massive pieces of the glacier broke free, rolling fiercely down the mountain face. The fallout was immense. I won’t deny it, I was in awe and drunk on joy.
I was exhausted after climbing up and down from Mirador, even if staying at Mouse City wasn’t a viable option, we had no choice but to trudge on. Dismay drove all other thoughts from my mind. Digging deeper, we set off and pressed on for a good number of miles, up and down, back up and down again. And on it went. It was a killer walking past the end of the day, after dusk and losing light. The rocks threatened to trip me with every step, the thick tree roots seemed to grab my feet and the holes ever present where it was so easy to twist an ankle. In a moonless inky black sky, we arrived footsore and sour to Refugio Paine Grande. Yes, the pain was grand. Deep down, I was relieved that I’d made it under my own steam.
The next morning saw bags the size of suitcases under my eyes – get me out of this mice-infested hole! The little buggers had kept me awake all night long. I was grumpy, stiff and my joints were beginning to seize up, taking their toll on my physical strength to carry on. My endurance levels were being tested to their upper limits. We took much longer than the map indicated – I was losing purchase on my will to continue. Agitated as I was, I’d made it to Glacier Grey and in turn, completed the ‘W’! A happy moment easing the deep-seated soreness somewhat.
The rest stop at Glacier Grey on day four was notably luxurious by comparison of the others. A late lunch on comfy leather sofas and long rest by a wood burner – welcome heat beating against my face with a warm cuppa in hand – gave me enough steam to complete the short walk over to Glacier Grey. My knee was still screaming like a ‘mother’ but deterred I was not. My jaw dropped when I saw the icebergs and floating slabs of glacier on the opaque blue glacial lake. Some massive platforms of ice hardly moving, others in abstract and mysterious shapes. They moved in a kaleidoscope of colour. One looked like a majestic swan, it was like an exquisite ice sculpture although Jase was adamant it was a dolphin. There were icebergs in the distance that were solid blue from the years of pressure squeezing all the air out of those things. Beyond the icebergs and the lake sat the Southern Ice Field, the last living memory of those prehistoric glaciations. Climbing up the mountain’s jagged ridges to the top afforded the best vantage point. We stood on the edge of the precipice that gave way to a vast openness, underneath which lay the ice spreading beneath us like a quilt. Blowing a howling wind, it was beautiful, rugged and remote. We stayed until we lost all light – it had been worth the discomfort, tenfold. Where we were stood was pure gold.
On day five, the 11 kilometre return hike back to the boat at Paine Grande campsite was an unexpected breeze. We’d found our second wind and the homeward stretch kept me on a high the whole way back. I was a lot more mindful too. The day previous, I hadn’t really taken the time to notice the beauty of the gnarly forest whose tree roots we were clambering over twisted up from a myriad of fissures and hairline cracks. The thick forest gave way to a series of stony hills that rose high and wild to the north. Walking in a pre-dawn moonlight, I wondered about any roaming pumas nearby but put that thought to one side, this place was too beguiling. There was a section of the national park that had been burned down by a previous hiker, having done prison time for his misfortunate conflagration. It left an entire forest of dead trees black and silvery white in its wake – thin and naked, bereft of leaves and life. Unintentionally, it created the most incredible contrast against the fuchsia pink foxgloves. It shouldn’t have been but it was absolutely striking.
A rewarding sip of Calafate Sour liqueur put a smooth, rewarding finish to the trip – feeling its warm tendrils spreading through my chest, like fingers of heat coiling around my insides and on my tongue was a taste of sweet berries. It was a satisfying end to one hell of a trip. Leaving Torres del Paine by catamaran was filled with mixed emotions – as the turquoise glacial water chuckled against both hulls, I mused that I’d loved and loathed this place. I had gone beyond my pain threshold in the 70 kilometres trekked over four and a half days carrying over a quarter of my body weight. I’d left the national park undoubtedly fitter and stronger. I felt very alive having come away with the rawness of it all; ever-changing glacial landscapes etched in my mind for the rest of my days. For me, that was all that mattered.
Before peeling ourselves away from the Land of Fire, we set off for a last bite of the Ushuaian cherry, a final sip from the world’s end ‘cup’. We’d been invited to stay at an estancia for the weekend with Juan Pablo and his friends tucked away near the west coast on the border between Argentina and Chile. In departing Ushuaia, we were forced to slide over a slushy road covered in snow – wobbling like jelly for a time – although our bikes made it out of the capital unscathed and upright.
It took quite a distance on a dirt road to reach the accommodation, skimming where possible if not jolting over deep corrugations and pesky potholes. Pearl, my bike was doing extremely well; she’d taken a hammering of the rutty terrain firmly on the chin.
The weekend was filled with feisty fun. Some of the guys couldn’t wait to unload their dirt bikes from their trailers and show us how it was done through some deep water in the freezing cold river adjacent to our accommodation. I was impressed and laughed as the bravado grew, risks flying and the odd engine flooding. One of the chicas in our group managed the crossing on her 125cc bike although the afternoon was definitely given over to her teenage son, who casually cruised through the deepest sections of the river – out-shining the older, more experienced men. Such wholesome fun left me warm inside even if my body was numb from the cold. It was all hands on deck feeling ravenous after an afternoon ride-out; we made fresh pizza for nigh on twenty, a hundred or so traditional Argentinian deep-fried meat pies, which were mouth-wateringly delicious and consumed desserts and drink until bursting point.
Traditions were further upheld with a night of raucous singing around the guitar, drunken merriment fuelled by bottles of Tres Plumas - a dangerously quaffable liqueur, beers, red wine and much else besides. Magnificently messy I’d say. Had to pinch myself as I could scarcely believe where I was and the company I was keeping. It rounded off our time on Tierra del Fuego brilliantly; chance meets were letting us taste a charmed life and for that, no one can remove the exultation on my soul for which that brings.
A cosy warmth cocooning your upper body and hands in cool climes on two wheels is a wonderful thing. My plug-in heated gear is the one thing I wouldn’t be without when adventure motorcycling in all seasons. Conditions invariably change to inhospitable temperatures; investing in a Gerbing jacket and gloves were reaping soothing benefits. I never thought for one minute that this would incur an injury. I burnt my hand! The irony wasn’t lost on me that such items were supposed to offer you comfort, keeping you in control and free from the burn that comes with the cold. I’d adjusted the heat setting a little too high but before I knew it, the flesh on my middle knuckle had badly blistered. Conversely, Jason’s fingers were suffering with the stinging bite of one degree Celsius while mine were cooking like French Fries. He was insistent that my ‘hot spots’ was the nicer problem to have although at that moment, I would have willingly traded my frazzled finger for his frozen twiglets.
Staying overnight in the Argentinian side of San Sebastian at the same derelict building we’d squatted in previously (with permission) may not have been one of my better ideas. Jase had wanted to pitch the tent. Where the ripio had taken its toll and left me exhausted the time before, I was now used to gravel roads and was wide awake. I remembered beforehand how my fatigue had acted as a defense shield, slowing down my reactions and emotions. My default mental state before had become weary resignation. Not on the second visit to this place. My heart was pounding enough to deafen my own thoughts as I sat curled in the foetal position inside the disused doorless building. The abandoned place was situated next to a dirt road on which big road trains teared past in the dead of night – creating a supernatural, shadowy scene from the film Blair Witch Project. Arrrgh, me no gusta!
Morning came. The sub-zero chill of the night had touched me with cold fingers and by dawn my face felt ready to drop off. We left Argentina on an eerie note. Moving on, we reflected that aside from some light maintenance as well as exerting a little due care and attention, the bikes had so far run as sweet as a nut. That is, until I tried to fire up Pearl having re-entered Chile and attempt to zoom off in my usual carefree fashion. Pearl was simply having none of it. She jittered, spluttered and coughed. Juddered a bit more with an involuntary shaking force – lurching me forward in the process. This continued for a few miles until there was no coaxing her on another yard. I felt uneasy by my bike’s reaction, as though I’d neglected my bike in some way, taken her for granted even. I guess with the rough ridges, gravelly grooves and rocks I’d negotiated over, it was hardly surprising that my motorcycle needed timeout. Crying out for some ‘TLC’, Jason opened her up with a couple of instinctive notions as to what may remedy the problem; within minutes the diagnosis became clear. There was a loose connection to the battery. Poor Pearl, no wonder she was struggling!
Crisis averted, we cracked on and skimmed and skidded over 90 miles of mud on a dirt road from San Sebastian to Porvenir. I failed to see anything quaintly pretty or Victorian in Porvenir based on Lonely Planet’s description and both of us were seething after learning we’d zoomed right past a 14 kilometre detour to the king penguins en route. I made a mental note to get hold of a good Chile guidebook, and pronto. After a short overnight stay, we took a ferry across to Punta Arenas. The 150 mile ride over to Puerto Natales was cruisey on solid, pristine concrete roads. The smooth surface permitted the chance to really look at my surroundings without having to constantly read the road. The sun followed us the whole way – it was a pleasant ride soaking up the scenery.