05 May 2015

Punta Arenas to Ushuaia: Riding to the end of the road

We had a restful couple of days in Punta Arenas with our very kind couchsurfing hosts Jaime and Claudio, but with the Patagonian winter drawing ever closer we knew we couldn´t wait for too long. Punta Arenas marked the end of our journey on mainland South America, Finally we would be riding in Tierra del Fuego, a place which evoked in us ideas of remoteness, and discovery. We had been told that the scenery was not exactly stunning, but actually were pleasantly surprised by its open beauty. It reminded us of that favorite cycling destination of ours in the Northern Hemisphere, Scotland. 

Crossing Tierra del Fuego from Porvenir was a rewarding and beautiful experience,  which we appreciated more fully once we crossed into Argentina and found the busy route 3 which many cyclists take all the way from Rio Gallegos, if they don´t fancy the ripio of the Chilean side. We were so grateful for those final days in the ´wilderness´ before hitting ´civilization´again. On the other hand, civilization has its perks, as we learned during our rest in the famous Panaderia La Union in Tolhuin. 

Our arrival into Ushuaia was different to how we had pictured it. Poor weather forecasts prompted us to ride the final stretch from Tolhuin in one day instead of two, meaning that we had to watch the clock a little bit on our final day, and take our arrival pictures quickly while there was still some light remaining. Nevertheless, it was a day to be savored and one that we´ll remember for a while. It´s true that this trip has always been about the journey rather than the destination, but it´s also true that we´ve spent the last 16 months answering "Ushuaia" when people ask where we are headed. Regardless of our plans moving on from here (which will be revealed in a future blog post of course), arriving into Ushuaia represents the end of a chapter.

We catch the early morning ferry from Punta Arenas to Porvenir, on Tierra del Fuego, joined by Christophe who we had been riding with since El Chalten. Christohpe is a firefighter in France, and thanks to a complicated web of connections we were able to take the boat for free!

Leaving Porvenir we are delighted to discover that, unlike many of the ´coastal´roads in Chile, this one actually does follow the coast, giving us stunning views in the chilly sunshine (this one taken looking back on the hill we have climbed).

We had heard that drinkable water was hard to come by on this section of the ride, but soon learned that the presence of a dwelling meant there was a source of fresh water nearby.
We stop to ask for water at an Estancia, and are told we can camp on the dueƱo´s property by the sea. 

After a beautiful, if chilly, night by the ocean we pack up camp in the sunshine again.
Passing a few more fishermen´s homes as we go.

We spot something in the water that first we think is a whale, and then think is some penguins on a rock. We head to the shore for a closer look but can see nothing once we arrive. 
Reaching the crossroads for Cameron, we are delighted to find a refugio out of the wind, and decide to end the day early and sleep there. We collect some useful pieces of kit like this drink bottle that Christophe uses to store his condensed milk -- Spanish cafe bombon having become a favourite treat.
A sheltered spot to cook means we can be more ambitious with dinner, here making delicious flatbread to go along with our lentils and rice.

In the morning, we get some good news. We had left Punta Arenas believing that only the main border crossing on Tierra del Fuego was open, but some municipal workers who stop by the refugio in the morning are able to call and confirm that our preferred crossing, Paso Bellavista, is indeed still open. In great spirits we turn right towards Cameron. This does, however, mean a half day of riding into the wind.
Soon we pass the infamous King Penguin colony of tierra del fuego, which up until two years ago was free to visit but now charges a whopping 12,000 pesos ($20 US) for a few minutes´visit. We ask for water at the front desk and can hear the penguins in the distance and even see some black and white blobs in the grass far away. With the help of the camera zoom we can confirm that there are indeed some pretty impressive penguins there!

Later that evening we find an unused gaucho´s refuge, perfect for a night protected from the wind and chill.
Deceptively small from the outside, inside there are four beds and a small kitchen!

It´s a chilly start the next morning, and we start to understand why locals will seemingly find a way to make use of any kind of shelter available to them, including a broken down bus.

The final kilometers to the border are beautiful, passing through thick autumnal forest.

We arrive at Paso Bellavista in the late afternoon. We had been worrying a little bit about the river crossing we had heard was too high to ride through. Luck is on our side though, and as we are unloading the bikes to prepare for several portage trips, two Argentinian tourists show up in a pickup truck and offer to ferry our stuff across! We´ve never been so grateful for the presense of a car!

Finally, we´re in Argentina, having crossed our last border on this journey South.

We ask at the Argentinian border about where we can stay and are offered a quincho (covered camping area)...

... complete with parrilla!

Strong tailwinds the next day blow us all the way to the Ruta 3. Without much shelter around we don´t even stop for a proper lunch. The wind is much more pleasant when you´re moving with it!

We reach the main road in late afternoon but can find no where to camp. We are rejected from a police station and an estancia, resulting in pedalling almost until sunset. The road is busy, we are tired, and we just want to find a place to put the tent!

Finally, just as the sun is getting ready to set, we arrive to the Atlantic coast and find a perfect beachside campspot. It's visible from the road but the good news is there's not much light left in the day for drivers to see us.

In the morning we eagerly ride on to Tolhuin, where we know we will be taking a few days off in the legendary Panaderia La Union, which is known to host passing cyclists for a strategic rest before the push to Ushuaia.

It feels great to arrive to a warm place to sleep after so many chilly days and nights. Even in the absence of Emilio, the owner, we are still welcome to stay.

Cyclists are permitted to help out in the bakery, but perhaps it would have been better not to know how much butter goes into those delicious Argentine facturas. Yes, those yellow slabs are butter, on top of the butter that is already in the dough.

Time off in the Panaderia also gives Alberto and Christophe time to practice their beer-can stove making abilities. Spain won.

As always, the presence of other cyclists, particularly from France, Spain or Italy, in these spots leads to great culinary feats. Here the frenchies make apple tart.
Tolhuin is the kind of place where if you're not careful you can stay for a long, long time. But a look at the weather forecast suggests that we should take advantage of a clear day and make it to Ushuaia before a storm rolls through.
We often thought that Ushuaia was a rather arbitrary place for so many people to finish their rides, but in fact it means you get to finish by riding through some of the most stunning scenery for a long time. Riding in the autumn also offers some pretty cool colors.
The clouds intensify a bit as we make our way up Paso Garibaldi and over to another valley.

We're glad to be riding on a dry day, as it's clear that precipitation in this area takes the form of snow.
We arrive to the top of the pass, which to be honest wasn't much of a pass, at 450m above sea level and a gradient so gentle we barely noticed it. But we were in good spirits about our arrival Ushuaia so celebrated anyway.
But just because it wasn't as high as some other climbs in the Andes doesn't mean it didn't offer spectacular scenery!

Although temperatures were very rarely uncomfortably cold for us (with all our layers on), signs of winter were all around.
Argentinian Tierra del Fuego was full of signs about this missing girl.

Finally, in the fading light, the big city comes into view.

The epicenter of the 'Malvinas son Argentinas' campaign.

The money shot!

Route notes:

- Punta Arenas to Paso Bellavista: We were told there was no water on this stretch but in fact there are two or three freshwater streams and a fair number of estancias. We tried to make sure we were always carrying a full day's load. There is a bus shelter at the junction of the coastal road (Y-71) with the interior Y-635. At the crossroads with the junction to Cameron there is an excellent refugio (no water nearby). Be sure to ask about the status of Paso Bellavista in Porvenir (rather than Punta Arenas). Navigation is easy and signposted. There are no shops along this route after Porvenir. Camping is possible with both Chilean and Argentian aduanas.

Paso Bellavista to Ushuaia: There are three estancias spread out roughly evenly along the road towards Ruta 3, for water purposes. You join Ruta 3 about 12km south of Rio Grande. More traffic than we are comfortable with but there is a good soft shoulder basically the whole way to Ushuaia. No shops til Tolhuin.

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