I spent the better part of the morning using the wireless at my favorite coffee shop/confiteria here in El Calafate. So the plan of an early start simply meant an early start catching up on the e-mail and blog while throwing in some photo editing. It’s getting tougher to keep this blog up to date. I find that my senses are on overload and my interactions daily are strictly with local or spanish speaking people that by the end of the day I’m worn out – tired and just want to sleep. I’ve got to slap myself to write or at least get my notes into the computer. Yeah. I’m falling behind.
With so many experiences and a plethora of stories to remember, my trip is a dream. It’s the people I’ve met, the scenery I’ve gazed upon, the problems I’ve solved and the obstacles I’ve overcome that comprise the story. And I’m just another character growing and riding through. As I continue southbound the terrain get rougher and more desolate. This is Patagonia. And its beauty is its vast emptiness and the frozen landscapes of the southern Andes. Today the Patagonian wind team was ready for another bout with this WorldRider. The gusts tossed me like tumbleweed across the California desert. I fought back with a firm twist on the throttle, bent back and tuck behind my puny windscreen. My eyes rolled to my eyebrows while I tried to keep watch on the deserted road. The occasional truck passing in the other direction made my bike squirm like a fish in hurry.
I spotted a pile of something on the deserted golden grass on the side of the road. By the time I got a reading I was passing it at 70mph. A bicyclist, his bike sprawled on the side of the road next to his tent that was flapping like a determined flag. No sign of the rider. He gave up on the wind and built a shelter. The wind and a sky absent of clouds made for a chilling temperature. I was counting down the clicks to Esperanza where I knew I’d have to make the turn toward the Chilean border and where fresh gas, a warm cup of coffee and some salty and sweet snacks waited for me.
Pulling into the tiny settlement I immediately recognized small motorcycle parked against the building. With tank filled I eagerly entered the meager building. Wafts of cigarette smoke provided a striking contrast to the wind and chilly air outside. “How’s it going Allan?” There sat my friend, the artist and ceramic teacher who was riding his new Honda 250. With a pointed goatee, narrow face and a cigarette in his hand, I had run into him more than a week before in Sarmiento (remember, I was a bit disappointed that I forgot to take his picture). I greeted Adrian with a hug and a smile. The coincidences and reinforcements of the “small world” adage keep hitting me almost harder than the wind.
Adrian bought me a cup of coffee and we sat inside the small service station swapping stories while a couple locals sat with us sucking down a liter of Quilmes beer. I wanted to stay longer, but the waning sun and the prospect of a long ride in the dark on dirt roads was looming. Adrian agreed he should be moving on, though unfortunately in a different direction. Once again, he bundled up with several layers under his heavy duty canvas army style jacket while I layered up in my high tech gear. Again I’m reminded and humbled by the tenacity, commitment and relatively simple gear my friend sports on his Argentinean odyssey. We riders making this South American journey labor through internet pages trying to determine which equipment would be best for the journey. Where Adrian simply loads his bike and heads out on his adventure as if merely on a whim, let alone on a Honda 250 street bike — which is certainly designed as more of a city bike than a Patagonian adventure tourer. Even so, we bid farewell with the ubiquitous exchange of email addresses, phone numbers and offers to stay in our respective domiciles should our paths cross sometime.
So Adrian headed south and I headed west. According to my map and conversations of others who’d ridden this route in the last year or two, after about 20 miles, the road I’d be riding would turn to dirt – ripio. By now any heat that the sun had provided me earlier was gone. The chill of the powerful wind had my teeth chattering. I zoomed along fast waiting and wondering when I’d lose pavement. It never happened. I was freezing, my fingers numbing I squeezed the tank with my knees, thighs and calves hoping to rob my engine of its heat as we barreled down the road. I craved warmth. Instead of stopping to suit up further, I promised myself at the border stop I’d provision myself better for the cold riding. So I tucked behind Doc’s miniscule windscreen and twisted the throttle.
By the time I looked up I was in Rio Turbio, a small Argentinean settlement near the border of Chile. I passed a huge mine, some factories and industrial parks before pulling into a gas station. Rio Turbio is perhaps famous for mining the most coal in Argentina — perhaps in all of South America. Most of its 8,000 residents are work in the mines or earn their living from mining related business activities.
I quickly learned that I had passed the turn off – a small dirt road that leads to Cancha Carrera and then onto Villa Cerro Castillo, the puny Chilean border settlement close to the entrance of Torres del Paine — about 20 miles back. I had two options. First, i could continue southwest and connect to the northerly road that leads to Torres del Paine or back-track and find the dirt road I missed. Everyone I talked to convinced me that I’d be better off going back given I’d planned on staying in the park that night. So I slammed an espresso and coughed down an alfajor, suited up in my electric vest which had to be rescued from the depths of my panniers having last been used in Northern British Colombia and the Yukon eons ago, glove liners and my heavy duty Gore-Tex Held gloves. Then I blasted off.
The wind still toyed with me but I was more comfortable, although feeling like a a bloated space man from a bad B-science fiction movie in the 50’s. I found the turn off about 45 minutes later. Two heads, a guy and a girl poked out of what I thought was an abandoned motor-home fixed on the side of the road at the turn. With specks of rain and whipping cold wind I imagined this guy doing the only thing he could be in that trailer, shagging that woman of his and I must have startled the couple given there was NO traffic on any of these roads.
The road was typical Argentinean ripio – slightly loose gravel and packed dirt. Thirty minutes down the road I stumbled onto the small settlement of Cancha Carrera which comprised of about 2 or 3 buildings, a flag pole and a rusty chain with tattered rags hanging from it slung across the road. I was happy to be in the heat again, and with my Argentina exit stamp inked in my passport the chain was lowered and I cruised onto Cerro Castillo, which is huge compared to its Argentinean neighbor. But as border towns go it was still tiny. A couple restaurants, a bus station, a hotel of some sort and a handful of government buildings, I quickly was reminded of the Chilean bureaucracy. I had three “stops” to make in the small border office – immigration, customs and inspection. The latter simply another form to fill out asking about plant, animal and food products I might be toting on my bike.
By now the sky was a deep dark blue with the sun disappeared and hinting an orange glow silhouetting the mountains. I cruised the dirt road out of town. It wasn’t in bad shape but worse than the short run to the Argentinean border station. I kept my speed at about 40-50 mph. After an hour I got worried. It was much darker and I had seen no hint of a town, estancia or anything. I followed signs toward the park and soon passed a small yet scenic lake with reflections of the dark silhouettes of the mountains rippling in the water. I rounded the lake and twenty minutes or less I came to an iron gate across the road. At the entrance to Parque Nacional Torres del Paine sits a few buildings. A distant dwelling beyond the gate showed life with a small outside light glowing. I made some noise with my boots as I marched up the steps to the building next to the gate. A man zipping up his jacket trotted across the dusty track and let me into the building where I had to pay fifteen-thousand Chilean pesos (about $30 USD). He asked me my plans and timeline to be in the park. I had no idea. I just wanted to find a place to camp or sleep. He randomly checked some boxes on my pass, directed me to the closest hosteria (lodge) and refugio (both named Las Torres) and told me that it was only 15km away. The iron gate lifted and I cruised on.
In daylight, the road would be fine. But small marbly gravel with the occasional softball and football sized rock thrown in for good luck, I wished the lights on my bike were stronger. But I waddled along keeping speed in check. I soon came across a narrow bridge comprised of rotting horizontal 2×4’s and haphazardly vertically placed 2 x6’s making a path/track for 4 wheeled vehicles complete with gaps big enough to burry a motorcycle tire. I stopped. The experience of the wooden bridge in Bolivia flashed through my mind. There were double laid 2×6’s that formed a car track/path. I decided to ride between them and arrived at the other side. Minutes later I’m crossing the same river but over a smaller even more assuming bridge. This one is a bit shaky. Perhaps if I just close my eyes and go would be best. Because there’s no strategy I could find that seemed, well, solid. I go with eyes open and fortunately, emerge unscathed. I can see in the distance the lights of what must be the hosteria; and to the right other lights of what I assume is the refugio.
Shot as I was leaving the park, this is the first bridge I had to cross in the dark on my arrival to Torres del Paine.
A refugio (kinda like refuge) is a small building or hut with bunkrooms and shared baths. Most rooms have 4 bunks holding 8 people. In Torres del Paine trekkers typically will spend 3-7 days trekking through the park stopping to camp or stay at a refugio. All but one of the refugios in Torres del Paine are accessible only by hiking/trekking. Refugio Las Torres is close to the giant granite rock towers that give Torres del Paine its name. There is a nearby campground, but I’m cold, tired and it’s 9:30 and the kitchen in the nearby cafeteria restaurant is closing. I opt out of camping as they have one bed available for $35 – I grab it. And after a mediocre meal with a decent half-bottle of Chilean Cabernet, I’m zonked out. What a day.
Shot as I was leaving the park, this is the second bridge I had to cross in the dark on my arrival to Torres del Paine.