Rio Grande, Bellavista, Cameron, Porvenir 21/01/2012 – 30/01/2012. 322Km (Total 619Km cycled)
Highlights: leaving Rio Grande, the flight of the condors, wind, guanacos, Chilean border crossing, wind, illegal garlic, epic night-riding, wind, never-ending ripio, wild camping, and did we mention the wind?
Day 13, 21 January 2012 – Leaving Rio Grande, Chile-bound
We did a major sweep of the local supermarket to pick up provisions for the next few days’ wild camping before leaving a quiet Rio Grande early on a Saturday morning. The local town drunk gave us thumbs up and mumbled ‘Suerte!’ as we left. We’d calculated that the next part of our ride would take us no more than 5-6 days. Little did we know that the secondary road we’d selected, AKA the Road Less Travelled, would be more challenging than we’d expected. We began to get the hint when locals kept pulling up alongside us and trying valiantly to tell us that we were lost and couldn’t possibly have chosen to go this way. But, nutters that we are, and never ones to give up on a challenge, especially where hills are concerned, we ploughed on.
The temperature was mild and never really troubled us. The wind, however, was another story. We’d experienced strong winds before in Denmark and New Zealand, which were on a par with the Tierra del Fuegian gusts. However, the wind, coupled with the often poor gravel road surfaces and regular ups-and-downs in the road, we found it really hard going.
We moved further away from civilisation into the bleak nothingness of the open moorland under simply massive skies. We passed a few desolate estancias (ranches/farms) which looked battered by the weather, and empty of any signs of life. After 32km our legs were well and truly knackered, so we set up camp by the side of the road. Every one of the few cars which passed us that evening gave a wildly excited friendly toot.
Despite being out in the open with little shelter, our trusty Hilleberg tent stood steadfast against the strong wind, and gave us excellent cover as we cooked up a mushroom omelette for tea.
Day 14, 22 January 2012 – The Flight of the Condors
After a long sleep of 12 hours (remember, we have started this tour very unfit!) we hit the road. The surface got progressively worse and the wind was colder, making this a tough day. As we crested one hill, we met Roberto, a friendly local who had pulled up at the side of the road to see where we were heading, as he didn’t see many ‘mochileros’ (backpackers) in these ‘ere parts. Peli told him we were finding it hard into the wind, to which he replied, “Pero, hoy es debil el viento!” (But the wind is weak today!). You can imagine our expressions. What?!
After lunch we were getting rather desperate to find water and as we finally approached a river, a huge black and white bird swooped above us just metres from our heads. Its wingspan was so massive it really was quite a humbling sight which made us gasp for breath before we frantically grabbed our cameras. Then there were more, and we quickly realised that these were condors, the national bird of South America. Given the way they were swooping so close to have a good old peer, they were definitely checking us out for dinner.
The road then turned upwards, and began to do its best impression of a washboard covered in deep gravel. It was just impossible to ride this section on heavily-loaded bicycles into the wind, so we employed our 24 inch gear (two feet), leaned on the bars and plugged away until our path was rideable again.
After a short but very tough day it was a delight to find a fantastic camping spot set back from the track. A flat grassy area amongst trees which covered us perfectly from the wind. We had a lovely sunny evening stuffing our faces with dulce de leche and other high-calorie goodies. Though the locals – sheep – were rather bemused to find a large green Hilleberg laying across one of their well-worn paths. This spot also had its fair share of guanaco bones. Finding skeletons in perfect wild camping spots became a common theme for the next few days.
Day 15, 23 January 2012 – Border Control
We left after an excellent sleep into a thankfully milder wind, and the last (for a while) of the poor surfaces. The landscape flattened out considerably and we were even graced with a powerful Patagonian tailwind for a section. The only other vehicles we spotted were a couple of German motorbikes. Apart from Argentinian and Chilean the only numberplates we see here are German. Someone in Germany is making a mint from shipping over motorbikes, 4x4s and “end-of-the-world-Zombie-Apocalypse-Mad-Max-Monster-Trucks” which just need a finishing touch of a Gatling machine gun and perhaps a flame thrower.
We knew we couldn’t take fruit or vegetables over the border (a very annoying rule for starving cycle tourists in need of a wholesome meal). So, with the Chilean border at Bella Vista in sight, we sat at the side of the road and stuffed ourselves with cheese, onion and, thanks to the wind, grit sandwiches. The taciturn Argentinian border guard at Radman filled in the necessary paperwork – and our water bottles – and waved us on. Curiously, there was quite a large community activity centre at Radman, though we’d seen little signs of any community that day, other than that of the the guanaco.
Clutching our official paperwork, we waded through the river which marked the beginning of No-Man’s-Land between Chile and Argentina and arrived at the series of small huts which marked the Chilean border control at Bella Vista. A barking boxer dog named Mariela greeted us, along with a couple of excited-looking children who peered curiously at our bikes. Those kids really do live in the middle of nowhere.
In the office hut we were greeted by a man from the police, and a lady from the Department of Agriculture, who had donned their official jackets for the occasion. We were obliged to declare our worldly possessions, and in particular whether if we were carrying any fresh fruit, vegetables, meat or dairy products. We’d only managed to eat half an onion (along with our cheese and grit sandwiches) and so formally declared this, ticking the ‘Yes’ box on the form.
It was lucky that we had, as when the lady from the Department of Agriculture thoroughly delved into our panniers, rogue cloves of garlic were found in Peli’s food bag. Que horror! Contaminated garlic! The offending articles were urgently whisked away by the nice lady into a locked underground pit of contaminated items. Peli was invited to peek into its depths (to prove that the border guards didn’t feast on the items at dinnertime) and reported seeing all manner of things from lettuces to sausages to a whole chicken!
We pressed on for a few more miles into Chile, then decided to rest our tired legs and pitch up for the night. Predictably, were were again greeted by guanaco bones. This time, Chilean ones.
Day 16, 24 January 2012 – the missing link
We somehow lost a day here, so lets just say it was windy, gravel and stunning view. Will update when we remember what happened :)
Day 17-18, 25-26 January 2012 – Beaten by the wind, then we get our own back
We awoke to our first morning in Chile and were welcomed by our constant companion – the wind. We slogged away into an increasingly fierce gale for just 12km before deciding it was futile to continue. It was enough effort to simply keep the bikes upright, and Peli kept falling over from a standstill, so we decided to pitch the tent at the first sign of water, rest for a few hours and try our first spot of night riding when hopefully the wind would have calmed down. It was quite a relief to come across a lake at the side of the road. The water we filtered from it was a dodgy green colour, and smelled a bit off, but at least it was wet. We decided to only use it once boiled, to be on the safe side. After a bit of a kip we cooked some pasta with a surprisingly tasty mushroom sauce from powder which we’d tracked down in the Rio Grande supermarket. Lightweight dehydrated food suitable for adventurers is not that hard to find – though fresh vegetables are a treat, especially when you’re robbed by the border controls.
As the sun set at around 10pm we packed up to ride into the night. The rain clouds were hovering ominously as we rolled out into the darkness. A mile into the ride we found a river with clearer water which we swapped for our green muck, and spied some kind of mammal swimming about in the murk – it may have been a beaver. Then things started to go a bit pear-shaped.
As the rain became heavier, my front light started to give up the ghost as the contact points were filled with wet grit and muck. Then, a slow puncture made itself known in my rear wheel. The combination of the darkness, the cold, the rain and the gritty gravel road made fixing a puncture impossible. Everything you touched was immediately covered in a fine, wet sand so I decided to simply pump it up and hope for the best. As icing on the cake of misfortune, my previously-fantastic dhb Event rainjacket decided to do a great impression of a sieve. I was soaked within an hour and unable to warm up given the wind and my slow speed. Peli was plodding on OK in her new Showers Pass jacket, but we were both feeling pretty miserable and so decided to cut short our assault on the Patagonian night after 16km. We drippingly pitched Caterpillar, our wonderful portable bit of home, on a handy spot of flat grass at the side of the track and were immediately protected from the elements. Our soaked clothes graced the west wing while we snuggled into our warm, dry sleeping bags and drifted off to sleep. Aren’t tents gradely?
After a little Audax-style kip of three hours we decided to launch a surprise attack on the wind and set off early. See, the wind would never see us coming! What followed was our most successful ride of the trip so far. We seemed to pedal gracefully into a gentle breeze and the kilometres began to sail by under our wheels. We rounded one corner and were greeted with a fantastic view of the majestic Bahia Inutil (the Useless Bay – so named as it’s difficult to dock there) and the Magellan Strait. For the first time in what seemed like many days we started to see more people – a farmer in a tractor, a couple of large lorries and even the local Porvenir to Cameron bus. We rolled into the junction at Cameron and the sun warmed us and dried off our clothes while we cooked up a much-needed pot of hot porridge. Yum.
After Cameron, we turned to the east and managed another 15km before my legs started to tire again. We decided to listen to them, and found a sheltered gravel pit where we rested again in the tent for few hours. The wind picked up strongly so we decided to take advantage of the rare tailwind which fairly pushed us towards the northern end of the bay, via lots of precipitous ups-and-downs. The road on some steep corners was like a gravel velodrome, with such an acute camber it was a challenge to stop yourself sliding down into the gutter! We finally pitched up for the night, feeling that we’d finally made some good progress, behind a sand dune. We prepared to take the wind by surprise again with another early start. We know, it’s very unlike us.
Day 19, 27 January 2012 – A Colonialists’ Cemetery
We managed to get up and off relatively early. The road surface for the first 12km was of the washboard-style again – even I felt I needed an over the shoulder boulder holder to stop things bouncing about uncomfortably. The only place of note on this rather boring stretch of our ride was the Onaisin cemetery, which housed the graves of colonialists killed in the late 19th century “by Indians”. All that appears to be left of the formerly important Caleta Josefina estancia is a couple of sinister-looking empty houses along with a simply massive sheep-shearing shed.
We passed the ruins of the small village of Puerto Nuevo, a settlement which serviced the nearby farm and which has its own plaque, but which is now completely deserted, just a pile of abandoned concrete lumps at the side of the road.
A bit further down the road, we were cooking our lunchtime repast (a regular staple of our trip so far is a Knorr pasta packet soup with Cabello de Angel spaghetti for extra stodge) when we spotted the familiar sight of bikes and panniers approaching us at some speed. Two friendly German cycle tourists (their blog is http://spitzzahn.blogspot.com/) pulled up a patch of grass and stopped to chat for a while. They were making good progress and had already covered 60km from San Sebastian. They sped off again in search of water and we picked them up some kilometres later as they were tackling their “first dinner” of the evening. We started to look for a place to camp at the junction of Armonia as they whizzed off along the coastal road towards Porvenir.
Some metres up the road from the junction we found a great place to camp for the night, with a beautiful view over the bay and the mountains of the Cordillera Darwin. Just 50km remained between us and Porvenir, but we had little water and so this was our first priority for the next day. Taking the coastal road according to the map would mean over 40km before we would get to a river and the inland route would only be around 10km. I knew that the miners up there in them there hills would need water so there must be some up there for us.
Day 20, 28 January 2012 – La Ruta de Oro (The Golden route)
We woke up reasonably early and got going. Peli’s legs took some time to wake up so we made slow progress up the first hill. I, somehow, had got a bit of extra wind. I felt tired but OK and managed to twiddle myself and the trailer upwards. While waiting for Peli to catch up a local guy pulled up his 4×4 next to me and told me that we might prefer to take the coastal road, since this inland road was very hilly and narrow. My limited but excellent Spanish permitted me to declare at that time, “una cerveza grande, por favor”. However, it was a bit hard to get that into the conversation, mainly due to the lack of cervezas, and explain to the friendly man that water was our main concern and that we (especially Peli) like being up high.
We had a peer at a few puddles and tested out the water filter on the best-looking one, since it at least had some running rain water coming into it. But the algae gave the water a green tint, so it wasn’t that palatable. We pumped some in any case so we could at least use it later after a good old boil.
The road was indeed steep and when we arrived at what we were sure was the hill top, Peli’s legs started to wake up with the sight of, in her words “GLORIOUS views and road”. We enjoyed the last bit of view over the Useless Bay before we got treated to the view over a plateau, which made me think, where are these hills the local man warned us about?
Before the marked river on the map we spotted a very clean and fresh looking stream, where we cooked up brunch and refilled our bottles.
As we plodded on, around the plateau the second hill arrived, he clearly didn’t lie since it gave our well-used legs a work out. At this point we were at around 400metres up, we clearly couldn’t go any higher, could we? Ha!
On this Golden Route, La Ruta de Oro, there are plenty of signs of the gold diggers, hills that had been dug up in the hunt for that prized golden nugget. There are also notice boards that tell you about the history of the place. Let’s just say that, predictably, the early colonisers weren’t nice to the locals.
When we arrived at the brow of the hill at 535metres the wind gave us a good old shake about and we could see the dark clouds coming in fast too. It was clear that we wouldn’t be able to do the whole distance before nightfall, let alone have showers and stuff our faces, so we found a sloping grassy spot near the bottom of yet another big climb to camp up for the night.
We decided to eat our nearly last bit of food and call it a night, nice and early with the idea of getting up early and beating the wind to Porvenir.
Day 21, 29 January 2012 – We made it!
We didn’t get to sleep that much since the wind and rain kept starting and stopping all night. The early start we had planned got cancelled when I woke up at 5am and nearly felt icicles on my beard. The thermometer in the tent showed 5c, but outside the tent the icy wet wind was probably much colder. So we got up at 6am instead, ate our almost-last bit of food (bouillon with angel hair spaghetti) and contemplated the 29km to go.
If the cold hadn’t woken us up, the next few hills did! But it was well worth the early start since the wind was down, and the sun was out and gave us great views and light.
We had peaked in height, but every time we rounded a corner and were sure that it would be downhill from here to our destination, a rather nasty down and up arrived and really drained the very last bit of energy out of us.
With around 3km to go I started to think, is this is a mirage? Are my eyes deceiving me? Can this be a town which is actually more than three sheds and a dunny? We really had finally hit civilisation. This was Porvenir at last. The very first shop we could find open on a Sunday got raided for some real food, crisps and chocolate.
While filling our faces outside the shop a friendly asked us where we were from and going to. While chatting we got invited to his house to stay and he would even cook for us. We politely declined since we were so knackered we just wanted a shower and to veg out for a bit, and Peli’s Spanish was also suffering from exhaustion.
After a visit to the museum and tourist office we were armed with information on where to go. While we were talking over our options and had nearly decided where to go, a lady and her husband came up to us and gave us their card, telling us they had an offer on at their Hostal. The place happened to be the very place we had picked to try first.
Peli chatted away with the hosts and was told she had a definite Northern accent. A Northern Spanish accent, that is. As the good Doctor said, lots of planets (countries) have a North! (And Peli did learn her Spanish in Pamplona…)
We got shown to our rather shabby, basic room, in a house that shook in the wind, headed straight to the very warm and wonderful showers and made a beeline for the only restaurant that was open on a Sunday, the Club Croata. After a long wait, during which time we almost chewed through a couple of place mats and a table leg, we got salad, egg and chips (what foreign muck!) for Peli and chicken and chips and a cold beer for me.
After a wonderful kip and read of our books we headed out on the town in search of more food. Salad and egg and chips for Peli (they have a lot of choice for the discerning vegetarian here) …and this time steak and chips and a cold beer for me.
The landlady offered to wash our clothing and made a good breakfast for us of cake, bread rolls (all bread rolls seem to be the same in Chile – small, round and poked with a fork), tea and eggs.
Day 22, 30 January 2012 – Rest day
We managed to hunt down free internet at the local Bibloteca since all the other places shown on the tourist maps were either closed or not there. The town square’s free internet hotspot wouldn’t let us log on.
Peli made good friends there with the locals while I was busy checking my emails. She found out the real reason why this town grew where it did: it wasn’t the miners, it was the ladies of the night who provided them with services!
We will be heading over to Punta Arenas tomorrow on the ferry which departs 5km out of Porvenir. Here, we will be doing some last-minute admin, such as sending home a few bits that we have learnt that we do not have any use for. We’ll then be heading towards Torres del Paine.