So our plans changed within two hours of writing the last blog. While having dinner with Christian that evening, he invited us for a meal with one of his friends the next night. These kind of opportunities are what travelling is all about so we happily delayed our departure for one more day. The evening turned out to be great. We were introduced to Paulina and her two children, Nahuel and Lucia, and were treated to a wonderful meal. We also had the opportunity to practise our Spanish with the kids who were learning English (we were on about the same level!) Our last night in Ushuaia was an appropriate ending for our time there, it would have been easy to stay longer.
Our first real day on the bikes started exactly as it should, with tea and porridge. After some final words of advice from Christian we were on our way out of Ushuaia following Ruta 3. Our route north off Tierra del Fuego followed this road for a long time so navigation was really easy. After we had crossed our first Andean pass just outside Ushuaia the riding became mostly very flat, by Yorkshire standards anyway. With wide, smooth roads, very little climbing and no navigation to do we made really good progress, to Tolhuin at least.
Finding accommodation turned out to be a lot of fun and we spent several nights in different places with four walls and a roof over our heads without spending a penny. The first night’s accommodation was an abandoned lakeside hotel at Lago Escondido. It was a truly idyllic setting, though we did have to hike-a-bike through the snow down the old road to reach it.
The next night was spent at the iconic bakery ‘Panaderia La Union’ in Tolhuin. This was Ben’s idea of heaven. Sleeping in the store room of a place that sells cake was amazing! The bakery has a room solely for touring cyclists to stay in and whilst it is basic, there is light, power and beds along with a hot shower and bathroom. What more do you need? It was also truly inspiring to read the messages written on the walls by all the previous cyclists that have stayed there too and fun finding all of the people that we have been following on social media or blogs too.
Beyond Tolhuin the road stayed the same but the landscape became ever more empty as we approached the Atlantic coast. It was a real novelty to be riding through an area where the towns are over 100km apart and there is nothing in between. A stark contrast to the UK! However, the proximity to the coast brought with it an unwelcome, but fully expected challenge; the fabled Patagonian wind.
It made things even harder than we had expected, progress considerably slowed towards Rio Grande. The absolute lack of shelter also became an issue when looking for somewhere to camp, “out of the wind” was not an option. So we looked for alternatives and diverted off the road to Estancia Viamonte (Estancia is a sheep/cattle ranch). After asking if we could camp somewhere, thinking in a barn or similar, we were told they have a cabin just for cyclists and we were the first ones to stay there this season. (October is very early with the seasons only just changing from Winter to Spring and as such, it was still very cold). With bunk beds, a wood burner and some tables to prepare food on it was absolutely perfect, and a relief to get out of the wind!
A couple more days of battling with the with the wind and we reached our first border crossing, entering Chile at San Sebastián. Continuing the alternative accommodation theme we stayed in the Argentinian border control waiting room the night before actually crossing to Chile. It was warm with a kitchen and showers that we could use, you don’t need much more than that after a few tiring days. We hadn’t expected things to get even more difficult though. How naive we were!
Looking at the map and the distance to Porvenir we had estimated 2 days riding from the border, and being fairly inexperienced we didn’t have much more food and water than that. Due to the wind we had already experienced it seemed sensible to buy some more just in case the journey took longer. Unfortunately San Sebastián has almost nothing. There is one hotel which sells a selection of snacks. To make matters worse we had hardly any Argentinian pesos left in cash and they didn’t take card payments. We bought what we could afford, another bottle of water, a selection pack of biscuits and a big bag of crisps. A healthy diet!
The Chilean border crossing was straightforward, though fairly bureaucratic. A big downside was that you can’t bring fresh produce or meat/dairy across the border into Chile. We ate all our cheese before we crossed, but they threw away our bag of kidney beans too, leaving us with just rice, polenta, porridge and a few spices until we got to Porvenir.
Worse than all of that we only managed 36km riding on our first day past the border! The wind was brutal, non-stop howling in your ears, blowing dust and grit into your face, continually trying to push you off your bike. A real test of patience and endurance. Compound the wind with the fact the road had turned from pavement to ripio (gravel) and it made for a very slow day. The only upside was that they had started laying a new paved road next to the old road but as it was still a work in progress, the cars weren’t on it so we had a straight paved road to ourselves for a good few kilometres anyway.
After several hours we arrived at the first hint of shelter we had seen since the border. A roadside cabin with dilapidated bunk beds, a broken wood burner and picnic table… and some sheep taking shelter! The door was missing and the sheep had obviously been using it for a while, but after scraping out the sheep poop and spreading some gravel/sand from the road on the floor it was perfectly habitable by cycle touring standards. Much better than camping in the unrelenting Patagonian wind. That evening was spent contemplating the fact that it might actually be 4 days to Porvenir at this rate, did we have enough food?
It seems the way to avoid the worst of the wind is to start early. As early as you can! We adopted this strategy for the next couple of days, being on the bikes as near to sun up as we could manage. Progress improved again, and despite some minor issues like the road technically being closed for a Rally we soldiered on towards Porvenir and the end of Tierra del Fuego.
Our final night on this road was spent in an abandoned fishing hut on a beach. While not glamorous it provided a very welcome respite from the wind. It was also a relief to know that we would reach civilisation the next day and we hadn’t run out of food!
Waking up at 5am the following morning hoping to get some easy miles in but already hearing the wind howling around the cabin was fairly heartbreaking. Still, you can’t change the weather so we got on with it. The final stretch of coastline to Porvenir is beautiful and despite the wind it was an enjoyable ride.
Not long after finishing all of our remaining food we rolled into town, but despite having just arrived we went to the tourist office to see about leaving that afternoon. The reason for this was that the daily ferry to the mainland doesn’t run on Mondays and we didn’t want to spend 2 nights in Porvenir. Having a few hours to kill we finally got some Chilean pesos out of the bank, then went to a cafe. Going into the first place we came to and we saw the 2 German guys, Till and Lucas, that we had met in Tierra del Fuego national park around 2 weeks ago. Having only seen them and one other cyclist on the road thus far it was nice to have some company, mostly to discuss how crazy the wind was.
They had arrived in Porvenir the day before and had already looked into where to stay in Punta Arenas. As we were tired from the day’s ride it seemed like a sensible option to just follow them. A few hours and a fairly uninteresting ferry ride across the Magellan strait later and we arrived at our first proper accommodation since leaving Ushuaia.
With our first solid week of riding now done we have learned a few things:
Always carry a bit more food than you think you need, especially if there are unusual circumstances to deal with (border crossings etc.)
Don’t just judge a days riding by distance/elevation, conditions really do dictate everything. Plan your entire day around beating the wind!
Also, as much as we are riding without much route planning I think we need to start looking a bit more than a few days ahead. Patagonia is massive and there are vast distances between resupplies, so being too shortsighted can cause real issues.
We will see if these lessons come in handy on our next stretch pedalling north towards Puerto Natales and the Torres del Paine national park.
Ben and Steph
If you plan on cycling this route or want to know more specific Tierra del Fuego information such as where to stay and distances we rode per day, check out the routes and travel tips we wrote here.