Days 675 - 685: The End of the World... the Beginning of Everything

Rio Gallegos to Ushuaia, Argentina 627 km

February 27 to March 9, 2014

The end of the world, the beginning of everything.  This is sort of a motto here in Ushuaia, and I like it quite a lot.  Reaching the end of this journey has been (and will be) very emotional and very strange, but it certainly marks the beginning of our next adventure, whatever that might be. These last 600-odd kilometers have been spectacular and challenging, but mostly surreal.  For the majority of this stretch we travelled through more wind-swept flatlands, but about 150 km from Ushuaia the trees, the mountains, and the lakes began to reappear... this was magical.  Now we have about two weeks to relax, hopefully do some hiking, and prepare for our air-borne journey home. 

Patagonia: Part Three

Rio Gallegos - Cerro Sombrero (three days)

We got a late start out of Rio Gallegos, too many errands and not enough sleep...  The wind made for some tough riding, it was a side-head wind all day.  We had plans to make it to the border with Chile that day, as we did not have enough water for the evening, but about 10 km short of the border we saw a turn off for the 'Laguna Azul', so we decided to head over to see if we could camp there.  The Laguna was only 3.5 km off the main road, and quite spectacular.  It sits in a very ancient volcano crater and it was probably the most interesting landscape we had seen in weeks.  We walked down to the laguna to fill our water jugs, and then set our tent up near the rim, and then it started to rain.  It didn't let up all evening, so we cooked our dinner in the vestibule of the tent (you can't do that in Alaska!).

In the morning the rain was gone, and the skies were blue... but it felt like we would still be facing a headwind.  We crossed the border into Chile.  We needed to travel about 200 km in the Chilean part of Tierra del Fuego, before crossing back to Argentina.  The only problem with this is that Chile has tight restrictions on bringing vegetables, fruits and dairy into the country...basically you can't.  Our problem was that we would not reach anywhere to buy fresh food for another couple of days... and fresh food is nice.   So we declared an onion and some carrots, which were promptly confiscated, but we conveniently forgot about the rest of the stuff we had... luckily they didn't make us put our bags through the scanner!   We carried on, more or less into the wind.  Eventually we turned towards the ferry...and the wind should have helped us at that point... but it, of course, also turned! Fet up, we set up camp about 4 feet from the road.   A bus driver had told us that the ferry stopped running at 1:00am, so we figured there wouldn't be any traffic after that to keep us up... but it seemed the trucks were coming and going all night.  The trucks were likely oil and gas company vehicles.  We had quickly discovered that oil extraction is big business in this part of the world, the biggest it seemed.  In addition to traditional extraction methods, there is a lot of Fracking happening, which is causing problems with the ground water.  

We woke up, having not slept a whole lot and headed, with a sweet tailwind, to the ferry!  It was a 20 minute crossing, and free for cyclists! And then.... we were on the island of Tierra del Fuego!  It is the biggest island in South America, and I have imagined what it might be like for a long time now.  Turns out that the northern part of it is a lot like the Argentian pampas we have been riding in for the last few weeks... but we did have a few more hills.  We enjoyed a tailwind all the way to the town of Cerro Sombrero, a most peculiar place.   Placed in the windswept middle of seemingly nowhere, it is without a doubt a 1950's American-style company town.  It is the headquarters for ENAP, the Chilean national oil company, and because it is not the lovliest place to live in mainly houses workers.  However, the town was built in the 1950's, by an American architecture firm to be a bit of an oasis in the middle of the pampas; complete with a cinema, a heated pool, a greenhouse, and a bowling alley!   We got permission to camp next to the huge dining hall, and had a quiet night in this strange town. 

Cerro Sombrero - Rio Grande (three days)

We were up early so that we could be on the road before the wind got too strong, as we had about a 10 km stretch into the prevailing wind.  As we were packing up, and the workers were leaving the dining hall for their work sites, they started bringing us food.  First it was a few rolls, then a couple bags full of cookies and fruit, then yogurts, then sandwiches ... It was very kind, if a little comical!   Needless to say, our panniers were rather heavy as we left town.  Luckily the wind wasn't strong at all and we were making good time. When the road turned south, the wind was at our backs and we were zooming along.  We even had a 35 km stretch of gravel, but it didn't phase us too much as the quality was good. We pushed on, hoping to make it to a nice Refugio that our friends Margit and James had told us about.  In Patagonian Chile, there seems to be a tradition of building small huts at remote road junctions or generally in the middle of nowhere.  In the cold and windy pampas, they are an excellent place to spend the night.   We pushed on and on and eventually came to the almost brand new little hut that we had heard about.  It was lucky too, because by this time the wind was strong and some rain had started.  It felt luxurious to spend the night 'inside' and we slept very well! 

We had another stretch of gravel ahead of us, this time about 55 km to the Argentinian border.  Luckily the road, again, was in good condition except for the last bit...and we had an excellent tailwind ...which meant we motored was great fun!   Before we knew it we were stamping out of Chile and making our way 15 km more to the Argentina customs.   Then we hit beautiful smooth pavement once more, and the wind was still delightful!  We carried on for another couple of hours until we got tired and asked at an Estancia if we could camp.  It was in fact a huge sheep farm, aside from oil extraction, sheep farming is the main industry on Tierra del Fuego.  Many of the estancias were originally set up by European immigrants, this one was run by a Greek family and was more like a small village than a farm.   We had a yard to ourselves, that also housed all sorts of old farming equipment.   

We had a short ride into the city of Rio Grande, and the wind pushed us right along.   The city has about 35,000 people and it spreads out over quite a large area.  It seems mainly industrial, and although it sits on the coast it is not particularly beautiful.  We would soon find out that it is a huge contrast to Ushuaia.   We arrived on a holiday, so many shops were closed, along wth the tourist information office.   We found online that there was a campground at the 'club nautico', but when we went there it looked almost abandoned and no one was around.  We then spent far too much time looking for a reasonably priced place to stay...with little luck. In the end we went back to the club nautico and luckily some of the members showed up, and said that the campground was closed, but we could pitch our tent anyway.  One of the members even let us use the shower, and with six days of bike grime, it felt great!  

We felt we needed a rest for a day or two, and we were in no rush to get to Ushuaia.  However, the club nautico members seemed to imply that one night camping would be fine, but probably not more.  We thought we would give looking for a place one more go...and we lucked out and found a little hotel in a part of town we hadn't checked, and a hotel worker who seemed to like us and gave us a discount.  We spent two more nights relaxing and getting ready for the true final leg. 

Rio Grande - Ushuaia! (three days)

The last stretch.... And in fact a pretty incredible ride.  The scenery changed dramatically from Rio Grande to Ushuaia.  We left Rio Grande and headed back into the flat grass lands.  Quite fortunately the wind continued to be kind.  About 30 km into the ride, a vehicle slowed down beside me and said "te espero a la panadaria" (I'm waiting for you at the bakery), it would have been a very weird thing to hear if we didn't have a little context.  Another 70 km down the road, in the town of Tolhuin, there is a bakery and it is famous not only for its excellent food, but also for taking in cyclists.  We hadn't really planned on making it all the way there that day, but we were making great time with the wind.  As the day progressed we began to see small trees, then bigger trees, then some rivers, and mountains!  It was quite magical.  By late afternoon we had made it to Tolhuin, and were being shown the cyclists room by Emilio, the owner of the bakery.    That night we feasted on the most delicious empanadas of all time.  

We had about 110 km more to Ushuaia... And we planned to do it in two days, this is a beautiful stretch of road.  The wind had also become rather nasty.  So our progress was slow.  The cold fierce wind didn't seem to affect our moods at all though, it was just another little challenge on a journey of many challenges....and there wasn't much in our way now.   We set up camp about halfway along, and made dinner in the vestibule, as it had started to rain.  

We woke up on our last official day of the trip, to snow on the tent... So much for making it to Ushuaia before the snow! But it was hilarious, and we couldn't have been happier.   And, hey, snow is better than rain.   

We climbed up our last pass of the trip (450m), and our last official crossing of the Andes.  I was all giggles all day.   The scenery became more and more dramatic as we approached Ushuaia, rocky snow-covered mountains in every direction.  Mid afternoon we started our final descent into the city of Ushuaia.   There is nothing in this world, that I have discovered anyhow, like descending on a bicycle through beautiful lands... and the realization that this would be the end of experiencing such joy nearly everyday, was more than a little sad.   But, we were also reaching the goal that we had been working away at for nearly two years....and this felt incredible.   I have to say that arriving in the city proper was a little anticlimactic....just another city to navigate through, and where was our welcome parade and our medals anyways?!   No one seemed to even notice our monumentous arrival, save for a little white dog barking at us madly.   But, we knew we had arrived...  So we went to the pub and had a beer.