Archive for December, 2008

Carretera dreaming

EL CHALTEN TO COYHAIQUE

Well everyone did say we should get horses! The overland crossing from El Chalten (Argentina) to Villa O’Higgins (Chile) won’t be forgotten easily. The memory – of dragging our bikes up hill, across countless fallen logs, through rivers that threatened to wash us away, all the while being eaten alive by mozzies – has been burned into our brains forever. While a great achievement and an adventure that even Indiana Jones himself would have been proud of – in hindsight, next time we’d pay the US$40 and get a horse!

We’ve left the empty spaces of Patagonia behind for the ultra-rural Carretera Austral (the jaggedy bit at the bottom of Chile!). Life is slow paced here, with cows and horses just as popular as cars on the roads.

It’s also amazing how stark the contrast in scenery is this side of the mountains.

There is literally water everywhere – in rivers and lakes, so blue you think they’ve been photo shopped, cascading down waterfalls, so numerous they have become ho hum (at one point we counted sixteen from one spot!) and locked up in immense glaciers that sit atop the jagged mountains. I’m thinking one big pipe all the way to drought stricken Australia is all that’s needed!

The relentless wind has gone, but we now have new challenges to deal with – poor roads, lots of hills and rain! But we’ll be ok, especially if the American couple we bumped into with a 5 ½ month old baby can do it! Better still, they have been riding for 3mths!!

But we like a whinge and have come up with several ways to describe our new found love for the gravel roads; 1) Tyre track – probably the best you can hope for, but watch the soft edges and slippery middle; 2) Washboard – rattles your bones and grinds you to a halt, often found on flat sections just when you think you’ll do ok; 3) Riverbed marbles – very hard in the loose stones to keep traction, especially when combined with almost vertical climbs; 4) Quick sand – impossible to cycle on with bikes that weigh 40-50kgs and lastly; 5) Babies bum – road graded less than a week ago, we’ve heard it’s out there somewhere? Let us know if you find it??

Now the hills are a little different, they are tough but enjoyable. The sense of achievement and downhill run more than makes up for the pain on the way up. I think Jess might be getting the bug too – she seems rightly impressed with her first 1,100m climb! Bring on the 3,800m monster Mendoza!

So our riding is improving, we are getting fitter and stronger and finding places to stay and fending for ourselves on the road is now a piece of cake. Do we miss our old lives? Well we don’t really have a lot of time to think about it honestly, but we love each day as it comes to us right now.

From here, we continue up the Carretera Austral for another 400km but then its decision time – do we cross back into Argentina and head for Bariloche, or cross over to the island of Chiloe? Ah, the hard decisions in life…

All the best and thanks again for your supportive comments. They’re great and the news from home is awesome too. Keep them coming.

Jules & Jess

Heading for the border

Heading for the border

Bikes weren´t made for pushing

Bikes weren´t made for pushing

We made it!

We made it!

Life on the Carretera

Life on the Carretera

Some holiday this is

Some holiday this is

Now that´s more like it

Now that´s more like it

Hills and lakes everywhere

Hills and lakes everywhere

We just love gravel like this

We just love gravel like this

Another perfect roadside campsite

Another perfect roadside campsite

Time out

Time out

A hamburger restaurant out here?

A hamburger restaurant out here?

Our first real uphill

Our first real uphill

We´re getting stronger

We´re getting stronger

Santa Claus is coming

XMAS 2008

While we wanted to be home sharing Xmas with you all, rest assured we didn’t go without either.

We took a few days off and enjoyed some good food, cold beer and warm showers in a little town called Cochrane on the Carretera Austral (the jaggedy bit at the bottom of Chile!).

Thanks everyone for all your comments and emails. It’s really encouraging and so good to hear your news too.  Keep them coming.  Here are some pics … I hope your Xmas’s were just as filling!

Jules and Jess

Hmm look what´s cooking

Hmm look what´s cooking

A happy camper

A happy camper

Almost like home

Almost like home

Mucho Viento

PUERTO NATALES TO EL CHALTEN

Our final leg across Patagonia proved to be the toughest but also the most rewarding. From Puerto Natales we decided to skip El Calafate (the jumping off point for the Perito Moreno glacier) and instead head directly to El Chalten 450km north. This should mean we can make the Carretera Austral by Christmas and leave the “mucho viento” (much wind) behind us.

Our first day broadly followed the path we had taken on the bus to Torres del Paine. This time though, travelling at our usual 10km/hr, we could take it properly, including that magnificent lake we rode right alongside of (it must of been on the other side of the bus??).

We passed through the Cerro Castilla border with ease and started along the famous Ruta 40 (the road Che Guevera took on his motorbike). There was not much wind and we managed to clock up 115km and reach Tapi Aike by the evening. Like a lot of Patagonian towns there is not much to say – a petrol station, main roads depot and an Estancia (farmhouse). We camped by the river and soaked up the distant Andean views and the ‘last place on earth’ feeling of remoteness.

The next day we set off along 70km of bone rattling gravel to El Cerrito. Now there are gravel roads and there are gravel roads. This was one was more like a river bed than a road. It was like riding on marbles and it took every effort to keep our bikes upright. Sensing our vulnerability, the wind kindly provided a consistent headwind too. It took us over 10hrs to make El Cerrito. Unfortunately we were behind schedule and had to ride a further 15kms after dinner to get back on track for tomorrow.

Where we sleep between towns is always a surprise and tonight was no exception. Exhausted, we settled for a tunnel under the highway. You don’t get loyalty points for this kinda stay, but its relatively wind protected and can’t be seen from the road – and that will do us just fine for tonight.

We had 5hrs sleep before our 3am wake up call. We had to cover 60km of westward travel before the wind picked up otherwise we’d get stuck. We pedalled hard and a surprise 15km downhill run into Rio Biote just got us there in time. A sweet reward for the last 2 days climbing. PS, if ever asked, llama can run at 45km/hr … we know this as we raced one!

From there we enjoyed some of our best cycling so far - andean and glacial lake views, friendly locals, a tailwind at times and we even found a restaurant in the middle of nowhere that served empanadas and coke!

After 118km we stopped for the night at La Leona, a tourist Estancia that offers food, camping etc (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid supposedly hid out here for a month while on the run from the law).  A perfect place to celebrate our first 1,000km on the road! Two hamburgers and two beers, por favor!

The wind reached the ridiculous again overnight and we had to bus it the last 100km to El Chalten. You can ride a cross wind with a fair bit of effort, but head on it’s just impossible (and dangerous given traffic etc).

So, our time in Patagonia has come to an end. While in many ways this comes as a relief, its been great adventure and a fantastic intro into cycle touring. Long days, sleeping rough, constant wind and a lack of spanish has been a real test. But Jess and I have both passed with flying colours and that gives us confidence for the road ahead.

From here, we take the 3-day overland route to Villa O’Higgins in Chile. This town marks the start of the 1,200km Carretera Austral highway. Some say is the best road in the world to cycle?  We’ll let you know.

Merry Xmas and Happy New Year

Jules and Jess

Carbo loading

Carbo loading

Another Patagonian road

Another Patagonian road

The famous ruta 40

The famous ruta 40

Not exactly 5 star

Not exactly 5 star

Mucho viento

Mucho viento

Simply breathtaking

TORRES DEL PAINE NATIONAL PARK

We’ve traded bikes for backpacks and have decided to hike for 4 days in the Torres del Paine national park. Several buses later and many pesos exchanged we were finally in the park. Simply breathtaking is the best way to describe it.

We planned to walk the typical “W” route which takes in the major sites – Grey Glacier, Valle de Frances and the Torres.

Glacier Grey was immense, so much frozen water! Jess saw a big piece fall off, but unfortunately I was busy peering into my water bottle for some reason?? I got my revenge by brewing up a tea with 1,000 year old glacier ice back at camp.

The Valle de Frances was our favourite part. The mountains there were alive, avalanches were constant and sounded like thunder all down the valley.

By now the packs were getting heavy and the hiking harder. Or maybe it was the 700km we had cycled just prior? We decided to skip the Torres and spend another night in Frances before making the trek out of the park. After all this is meant to be our rest from the bike!

Inspired and rested we are now back in Puerto Natales and preparing for a 500km ride north to El Chaiten. From there we leave Patagonia behind, take the overland path to Chile and begin our ride along the Carretera Austral.

No wind is all Jess and I want this Christmas. We’re aiming to be there by the 25th.

From Jess and I a Merry Christmas to all.

Simply breathtaking

Simply breathtaking

El presento Glacier Grey

El presento Glacier Grey

Happy camper

Happy camper

Say no more

Say no more

The wicked wind of the west

PUNTA ARENAS – PUERTO NATALES

We planned an early start to beat the wind.

By 4am we were on our way to Puerto Natales 245km north of Punta Arenas. We figured it would be a 3 day ride. The early mornings are great, traffic free and the wind is relatively calm (for Patagonia that is). Chile feels more developed than Argentina, which surprised us, given you seem to hear so much more about latter. Maybe though, it is that we are heading into tourist zone – Torres del Paine national park, Perito Moreno glacier etc. We look forward to them – and hopefully we’ll make it there in one piece, provided those air-con gringo buses keep their distance!

The Patagonian wind seems to build through the morning, reach its peak by mid-afternoon and blows itself out through the night (a theory which is holding for now). Its force is simple incredible. You literally wrestle with your bike to keep it on course. Side gusts are so strong they can blow you across an entire lane and onto the gravel. The howling in your ears never seems stops. It is patience testing stuff.

The road’s pretty flat, so how far you get in a day depends entirely on the wind. At times we can only go 4km/hr (walking speed!). On our first day, we managed 75km before making camp 20km before Lago Blanco. It wasnt much, but we turned our roadside thicket of trees into a pleasant home for the night. The next day we pushed onto Morro Chico. A sign by the roadside promised a roast lamb lunch and no wind on earth was going to stop us getting there. We devoured our lunch then hid out in a bus shelter across the road. We were on track to make Puerto Natales tomorrow. The wind howled all night, at times we thought our bus shelter would actually topple over! By morning it seemed to be getting stronger (there goes our theory). What do we do? We’d waited 18hrs in a bus shelter. If it was this strong now, what would it be like in the afternoon?? We made the difficult decision to hitch the last 100km into town.

Did we cheat ourselves? A purist may think so, but that’s not what this trip is about for us. You can ride across Patagonia no problems, all you need is lots of time (and patience). We gave it our best shot. Today the wind beat us, and we take our hats off to it!

Early morning starts

Early morning starts

Friendly locals

Friendly locals

Sorry Tom - Mums cooking a lamb roast

Sorry Tom - Mums cooking a lamb roast

A whole lotta nothing

RIO GRANDE – PUNTA ARENAS

Finally, we are in Punta Arenas after a 3 day 240km slog from Rio Grande!  Despite a 5am departure on our first day, the wind caught us. It was a very long day and we will never forget the constant howling. Several times we were almost blown off our bikes. Strangely no matter which way the road turned the wind was always blowing in our faces?? At times we averaged only 5km/hr at full speed! It was an experience, that on reaching San Sebastion (the Argentinian/Chilean border town) we were glad was over.

The next day, facing gravel roads, we decided 3am was a better time to start.  We started across the border, we waited in fear, then waited some more … but the wind never came? It was incredible, not even a puff.  Believe it or not, Patagonia is actually quite pleasant place without the wind.  You have time to take in the vastness, listen to the birds chirping and talk to the odd llama or two. Really though, Patagonia is a whole lotta nothing – No towns, just a long straight road, a few sheep and the occasional truck - and i guess thats what special about the place. It sure is a world away from London!!

The next day we again started at 3am, this time to make it to Porvenir in time to catch the 2pm ferry. As it turned out the 2pm ferry didn’t exist (just like some of the towns we had on our map the day before), instead we were assured it would be 8am the next day. This didn’t come as a great surprise as we were warned scheduled transport can be a bit hit and miss out here. As a town, Porvenir actually surprised vs what we had expected.  Jess found us a decent hotel and we celebrated our crossing of Tierra del Fuego with a meal out Chilean style – a gigantic lump of cow with chips!

So after 8 days how are we finding it?  Brilliant! Yes our knees ache and my red backside is best left unmentioned, but it is amazing. We are making our way slowly, but we now have a little line on our map to be proud of … and we´ve done it all by pedal power. Tomorrow we leave for Puerto Natales at 3am. The forecast is for 100km/hr winds. Wish us luck!

Jules & Jess

Chocolate is your friend

Chocolate is your friend

Yes, this now feels real...

Yes, this now feels real...

We are now in Chile!

We are now in Chile!

A whole lotta nothing

A whole lotta nothing