Trip Report: Patagonia, by Danny Powers

Danny and Kylie took this incredible trip to Patagonia last year, and Danny was kind enough to do a write up and send us photos. His blue and sea foam Myth Wyvern was set up with 29er wheels and Revelate bags for the trip.

About the route: We started our ride in Punta Arenas, Chile, and ended at the southern terminus of the Pan-American highway to the southeast of Ushuaia, Argentina. The route traveled from northwest to southeast, was a little over 400 miles and took us five and half days to complete. Our decision to complete the route in this direction didn’t take much further thought after we learned through research that the wind in this region of Patagonia blows consistently (and forcefully) out of the northwest. The summer temperatures this far south are anywhere from the mid-forties Fahrenheit to mid-sixties with a chance of rain nearly every day. We tried to stick to all gravel and dirt roads and were able to do so for all but maybe 40 miles. Our route followed much of the Fin del Mundo route on Bikepacking.com

The the first day of our tour began with a morning ride through the town of Punta Arenas, Chile to catch a ferry ride to Porvenir, Chile, a three hour ride across the Straits of Magellan, which separates mainland South America from the archipelago of Tierra del Fuego. Before we departed Porvenir to begin our bike trip proper, we spent a little time looking at colorful old wooden fishing boats and were offered to smoke a joint with a local teenager with whom we got to chatting after complimenting his dog. Betraying what would be expected of most any other Coloradoans on bikes, we politely declined the weed and rode off, laughing about how some things are the same anywhere you go.  Within a few minutes we were at the outskirts, then past, the tiny town of Porvenir, which would be the last reliable place to obtain supplies until Tolhuin, Argentina, nearly 300 miles away.  The majority of that first day was spent on a gravel road with the oceanic expanse of the Straits of Magellan on our right and the arid, almost barren, steppe country of Patagonian plains (Pampas) on our left.

This was also our first introduction to the seeming endless expanse and unique beauty of the Pampas, as well as to guanacos (the most charming of camelids, and one that is endemic to Patagonia) which would end up being our constant (and oftentimes only) companions for the next few days. These interesting critters would later help break some of the monotony during the more uneventful sections of riding. They would entertain us by running alongside us for miles and miles, also southward with us, with the wind to our backs. We’re still wondering if they, too, had read some beta for suggested travel direction, and also what the poor guanacos do when the find themselves in need of going north again. Perhaps they patiently wait until the one or two windless days of the year and all head the other direction again….? Also of interest was a line of rusty tanks with their guns pointed towards the coast, a sight we would see more of during our trip. We ended our first day, not quite beating the rain, at a crude and dirty, but much appreciated, concrete refugio where we were able to get out of the wind for the night. This was near the only point on our trip where we had an opportunity to view penguins at the tiny Chilean park called Parque Pinguino Rey. Unfortunately, the park was closed by the time we passed by and closed on Mondays, which happened to be the next day. If I remember correctly, this is the most northern colony of King penguins and the only penguins on the mainland South American continent. I guess we blew it by not getting to see those special creatures. Maybe next time we happen to ride by, we’ll make it a sure point to stop and say Hola.

The next two and a half days brought us far away from the Pacific ocean and deep into the pampas, which consists of rolling grass hills as far as you can see and an occasional wind flagged tree or stunted beech (lenga) forest. The strong tailwind and rolling hills in the pampas make for some really quick miles and pleasant riding, but if you stop for a break, the wind can be almost unbearable. It’s also an unpleasant place to get caught in the rain because there is absolutely nowhere to seek cover. Half way through our second day of riding the light sprinkle of rain we’d been riding in since morning turned into heavy rain as we peddled into a dark and intimidating horizon. After enduring the rain for a few hours we considered stopping in the late afternoon and taking shelter in our tent but didn’t see much point considering we were already thoroughly soaked and weren’t finding any appealing looking places to stop. After being turned away by an otherwise very nice woman at a deserted looking cluster of buildings that once catered to fishermen on the Rio Grande River, we felt extremely fortunate to find dry ground under a new bridge over the river. Our little dry oasis provided us the luxury of drying out our gear in the intense Patagonian wind and the opportunity to be outside of our tent during the last few hours of the long summer day.

We woke up on our third day to dark skies and we tried to mentally prepare ourselves for the possibility of another long day of pedaling in the rain and wind. Lucky for us, aside from a few minor sprinkles of rain, we only got the wind and it was another great tailwind. This day ended up being maybe my favorite of the ride with the tail wind blowing us through the miles and the nice weather providing an opportunity to enjoy the big country of the Pampas. Having both spent plenty of time touring in remote parts of the American west, we still found this to be some most remote and desolate country we’d ever traveled through. It had a really frontier feel to it, maybe like the American west a hundred years prior, where residents had to travel for hours if they needed to resupply in a village. It was really inspiring to romanticize about how hard yet simple life might be living on an estancia in the Pampas.

Half way through our third day of riding we reached the very remote border crossing for passing out of Chile and into Argentina. For those who don’t know, Chile and Argentina have some animosity with one another, most recently because of territory disputes in Tierra del Fuego that nearly escalated into armed conflicts in the early 1980’s. Maybe as a result of this, we’re not sure, miles often separated each countries’ border crossing office. The border crossings in these countries also had a markedly different feel of officiality. At the Chilean office, the uniformed agents acted very official and police-like and gave us a bit of a hard time for not having papers for our bikes.  When we reached the border crossing office in Argentina, the office doors were open but we couldn’t find anyone around to admit us into the county. After a little while, the suavest young man appeared, dressed in a hoodie and track pants and sporting a man bun and beard.  Not appearing anything like the armed border agents in Chile, we began walking away to continue our search for someone to help us. At this point, the man began knocking on the window to get our attention while doing the stamping motion with his hands. After a few quick words while he sipped his afternoon mate and hand wrote our information on paper, he stamped our passports and sent us on our way with no questions asked.

After a bunch of delightful miles in the Argentine Pampas, crossing rivers, and being blown up to 30 miles an hour on flat ground, we started to see the first forest we’d been close to our entire time on the archipelago. We were really craving the return of trees and shelter from the wind.  After a hour or two on a delightful primitive double track, we took  the opportunity to camp in the shelter of unfamiliar, almost eerie-feeling, mossy woods and cooked dinner to the sounds of screeching ibis birds.

On our fourth day of riding we continued through the forest on primitive two tracks before emerging again into the big country of the Pampas. We weren’t particularly excited to be back in the open and the wind, but half way through the landscape began to change rapidly, with the Pampas becoming split apart by larger hills and forests, and huge freshwater lakes. At the first lake we visited for a water resupply, we found a strange abandoned resort, the first of two that we would see on this trip, hinting at times of greater prosperity. This day ended in the charming little town of Tolhuin, Argentina, which is situated on a gigantic 20 something mile long fresh water lake named Lake Fagnago. This town has a wonderful little family run hostel named Kau-Karskam (and a great bakery), that built their entire business model around housing Pan-American highway bike tourists. We had a great time there hanging out with the family and a handful of European bike tourists. As a side note, if I ever knew someone considering a Pan-American highway bike tour, I would highly discourage them from doing so, because from what I observed they’d be very lucky to live through it. But to each their own, I suppose.

Our fifth day of riding brought an even more abrupt change in scenery, as we quickly moved into larger, more luscious forests, impressive glaciated peaks, sights of the Atlantic Ocean, less wind, and much more pleasant temperatures. It’s still remarkable for us thinking back on how within a day of pedaling a bike we experienced a transformation from the chilly and exposed plains of the Pampas to being in a climate and mountains similar to summertime in Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula. After a night of fine-dining on the cheap in Ushuaia (yes, the food in Argentina is very good, and very cheap) we finished the route half way through our sixth day. The end point of the route is the southern terminus of the the Pan American Highway in Tierra del Fuego National Park, which is often called “El Fin del Mundo” (The End of the World) by Pan-American Highway tourists. This is as far south as one can drive or ride in South America. There’s an interesting sign there, who’s message we would later notice quite frequently, that incorrectly states “Los Malvinas Son Argentinas” (the Falkland Islands are Argentine) which we took to be an intentional display of Argentinian pride, as Argentina actually lost a war with the British in the early 1980’s over an ownership dispute of the Falkland/Malvinas islands. But we weren’t there to meddle in local politics, so we took a photo of the sign then hiked a mile or two along a somewhat touristy trail to Lapataia Bay, where we were honored enough to see whales…or at least their dorsal fins raising and lowering from the water. Pure magic, I tell you.

After reaching the end of our ride we spent a few pleasant days hiking in Tierra del Fuego National Park and then, for good measure,  a few more days bagging peaks above Ushuaia.  Usuahia is a great town with good food, and plenty to do when one needs to kill time before catching a full day bus ride back to Punta Arenas, Chile. Once back in Chile we spent a few days hiking around Puerto Natales, Chile and one day in the stunningly beautiful but insanely crowded and restrictive Torres del Paine National Park (which we dubbed Tourists del Pain). Our last day was spent walking around on a totally rad gravity-oriented bike trail system on the outskirts of Punta Arenas, and saying Hi to all of the locals, most of whom were riding really nice bikes. We’re guessing those who can afford to participate in mountain biking in Chile were the fortunate people among the country’s small upper middle class. Chile was going through some serious social unrest at the time of our visit due in part to the wealth disparities that are all too apparent and which have been attributed to unchecked capitalism. A month or two before our arrival, Punta Arenas had experienced intense protests which were widespread across the length of the long country and spurred by a modest increase in the public transit rates. The charming European feeling downtown of the city had been somewhat destroyed during these protests with several building burned, broken windows and political graffiti on everything. It looked like a war zone but interestingly everyone on the streets seemed pleasant and nothing seemed out of the ordinary. Interestingly, large protests were scheduled to begin again in cities all across the county just one day after we departed through Santiago. From what we’ve read the country is still very much in a transition, with the government about to begin rewriting their constitution. We hope the future is bright for the friendly people of Chile and their beautiful country.

Overall, this was a great route and we would recommend it to others with the disclaimer that getting lucky on the weather will make this a pleasant experience and getting unlucky with weather could make it pretty miserable. Lucky for us, we got lucky.

-Danny Powers

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