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El Chaltén, Argentina to Ushuaia, Argentina (and back home!)

posted Feb 10, 2012, 8:00 PM by Paul Gareau   [ updated Feb 15, 2012, 6:24 PM ]
Hello! Well, this is it - the last blog entry for my trip! I'm writing this more than one month after finishing and time has been flying by. As quickly as time has been going, it also seems like I left El Chaltén a lifetime ago. Since then I've seen the massive glacier Perito Moreno, hiked in Torres del Paine National Park, gone to a rodeo, celebrated Christmas in Punta Arenas, crossed the Straight of Magellan, and ridden to Ushuaia, the "End of the world", battling the worst headwind of the trip. Here's how it all went down...

Before leaving El Chaltén, I attempted another trek that I was really excited about. The most popular "extreme" adventure  in the area (maybe after scaling Fitz Roy itself), is trekking around the Fitz Roy massif, which requires traversing two tough passes and spending at least two days on the southern ice field - the largest non-poplar ice field in the world. Since I haven't had experience with that kind of thing, didn't have anyone knowledgeable to do it with, and didn't want to pay thousands of dollars for a guide, I decided to do my own version of it. I would head out the way most parties return, crossing the "Windy Pass" first, and then turn left, and walk next to the glacier from the relative comfort of land. 

I had just heard that someone else in town had done this route in two days - which I had no intention of doing - so I packed food for three and a half days and headed out of town after registering at the park office. The rangers there gave me some information about the route, including where to cross the melt-water river from the first glacier I'd encounter, then how to cross that glacier and loop around back to town. It was also encouraging to know that someone was able to do it so quickly. 

My first day was relatively short to an established camp, since the only other option would get crossing the pass and walking a couple hours more to a refuge. The second day I packed up and early on faced the braided river leaving the upstream glacier. Until the very end, I was able to hunt around for narrow or shallow spots, but the last was deep and wide enough that I had to remove my boots and pants to wade across to the other side. The air and water temperature were just a fraction of a degree above freezing, and by the time I got to the other side, my toes were completely numb. I got my socks back onto my wet feet as quickly as possible, then continued onward towards the pass. After that point the trail became almost impossible to follow - it was hard to believe anyone had been there before. Luckily just after I reached the glacier, an 8 person trekking expedition who had done the full loop over the previous 8 days, passed and I knew I could get on the glacier at that point. I talked to the leaders briefly, who gave me some useless information, and I continued on in the direction of the pass. I reached the end of the glacier without seeing any way to either get off of it, or up the steep, loose moraine (like sand) on the other side, and I walked back and forth for about half an hour trying to find some evidence of a trail, or even the footprints of the eight people who had just passed. Unfortunately, there was nothing. It was also windy and snowing and the visibility wasn't good enough to see the pass, so without a trail, and without being able to see the pass, I had to give up and turn around.

I met the expedition I had passed earlier that day when I got back to the camp and went right to the leaders asking about the trail. The said it wasn't really a trail at that point, and I would have just had to make my way up the moraine and towards the pass. The other group members later told me that even if I had been able to make it, there was too much snow on the other side of the pass, so it would have been impossible to continue after that. So, I guess this is why the trail is marked "Solamente con guia" on the maps. (Only with guide). I really would have liked to get a view of the ice field though, so not making it was disappointing.

After getting back to town I took a day off and prepared to leave, but I woke up with a terrible sore throat that lasted for four days and I was stuck in the hostel until I felt well enough to head out. The next stop was a town called El Calafate, where I would base myself while I made a side-trip to the Perito Moreno glacier. I thought it might take three days to get there, but with the wind, possibly much longer. I packed food for four and a half, hoping it would be enough, and luckily the wind forecast told me I'd have a good tailwind on the day I'd be heading east, not much of a crosswind on the day I was heading south, and only mild wind on the day I'd ride into El Calafate. 

The ride went perfectly according to plan and I got to the first junction the first day, about 10 miles from the next junction on the second, and then into El Calafate early on the third. I passed about 8 other cyclists in total on the second and third days - most of them were touring for a few months in South America, and one of the guys was doing the second leg of his 4.5 year round the world trip, and was heading north to Alaska. 

Some quick info for cyclists: You can get water about 45k from Chalten, there is a tin shack at the junction, behind the hills - after you turn onto the main road, there is a gate on the left and a dirt road heading towards a windmill, the shack is on the left. There is an estancia near the first junction after the lake with free water and expensive food, a highway department building about half way through the road where you can get water, and the two rivers before the junction for Calafate have potable water. The road to Calafate is pretty rolly and you can expect a headwind.

As I pulled into El Calafate I met two other guys who I had heard about, who had just started their northbound trip to Alaska - one had ridden from England to South Africa a year before. They were looking for a place to stay too and we all went to THE campground for cyclists, where a french couple and a french Canadian couple I had met in El Chaltén were already staying. There was a second French Canadian couple there, that was also headed north to Alaska.

I spent one day seeing the glacier, which was amazing. It's enormous and is one of the few advancing glaciers in South America. Another day was spent looking for a place to get my cracked trailer repaired, but after going to five places and always being sent to another, I gave up and decided to get it fixed in Puerto Natales instead. On the third day I got a late start and tried to leave, but the wind was so strong the police stopped me and told me I couldn't go because it was too dangerous. Before I could even leave, they changed their mind, got my passport number for some reason and told me just to be careful. I had changed my mind though, since even if I survived the wind, there would be no shelter that night and I'd have been blown away in my tent.

The next day was perfect and I did about 80 miles, with a great tailwind helping me over a small pass. During the day I met  another French couple who was touring with backpacks on ultralight road bikes. The guy asked me if they'd be able to do the Carretera Austral, which for most people is hard on mountain bikes. I said it might be possible, but even if their bikes survived, it wouldn't be fun. It actually upset me that people would come to a place like this being so unprepared - I wonder how far they made it.

I stayed at a police outpost that night where I was able to pitch my tent in the wind shadow of a small building, and use the indoor kitchen while the on-duty officer stared at me the whole time. Another one for my "most uncomfortable experiences" list. As I was leaving that morning, I met a couple from Oregon, who had started in Alaska a year after me, and had already caught up. If someone I met in Peru hadn't just finished after 3.5 years on the road, I'd have felt even slower! Amazingly, we had already been talking through the panam-riders email group about an end of the world/end of the year party for cyclists in Ushuaia. We rode together for a few days into Torres Del Paine, where they continued on and I stayed to hike. 

More stuff for cyclists: There is a river and campamento between the left turn back towards Chalten and the climb - but this is more useful for northbound cyclists. At the junction of the route 40 shortcut there's a highway department building where you can stay. In the middle of the shortcut there is a river and the police station. At Tapi Aike, there is a gas station with drinks and snacks, a police station and the Tapi Aike estancia, where you can ask permission to camp in the grassy area near a very dirty stream (get water at the gas station). Cerro Castillo has a small but well-stocked store where you can get everything you need, without paying the outrageous prices that are found inside the park. There is also a restaurant "El Ovejero" (if I remember correctly), where you can overpay for cookies, or buy bread. You can also exchange Argentinian Pesos at a horrible rate, or "buy" Chilean Pesos with a credit card for a 4% fee. You can loop through the park without backtracking, see the map I posted previously. 

I spent five days in the park hiking and was constantly amazed by the scenery. As always, I was more impressed by the "unknown" parts of the park, than the most famous. The two-tone "Los Cuernos" (The horns), were the most impressive feature - better than the Torres (towers) themselves, and the best overall views from the hike were the view of the blue-green lake with islands and a backdrop of snow-covered mountains, which was before Campamento Italiano, and the Campamento Britanico area afterwards, with a massive, multi-colored amphitheater of granite. The day I hiked out to Britanico was my favorite of the five. The weather was great, I could go slowly and enjoy the scenery and spend as much time as I wanted at the viewpoint, before turning back. That night I went back down the trail to try to catch some avalanches from what I think was called the French Glacier (it's in the French Valley anyway), where I found a trail that goes all the way to the base of the glacier. I got to do some great exploring that was off the beaten path, which is hard to do in a park so crowded it's become known as "Tourists del Paine". 

From the park it took me two days to get to the next town, Puerto Natales. I spent a day riding out of the park, slowed down partly by the rolling hills and dirt road, and partly by the fantastic scenery and wildlife, and I camped just outside the park in a small "town" (Villa Sorrata) that was little more than a cluster of hotels. A couple people told me that I could buy food there, and that it would be cheaper than inside the park, but when I got there there wasn't a store to be found. Desperately, I went from hotel to hotel, seeing if one had some food they could sell me. Finally I stopped at the Hotel Tyndall, where they gave me all the food I needed (and more!) for a great price. I rode back to a great looking camp spot that I had noticed on my way into town and as I pulled in, I heard a "snap!" from my trailer - it had finally broken. I unloaded everything and made sure it was reasonably well hidden, and rode back to the hotel, where I had noticed a good sized tool shed as I left earlier. I met one of the maintenance guys right away, explained my situation, and asked if he, or someone around could weld the trailer. He said sure, and that it would cost the equivalent of $10 US. After traveling for so long, you get very tuned into the common "micro-expressions" that people make when they're trying to charge you more than they know the service is worth. Not missing his, I said "Wow - that's a lot!", and he quickly said "OK, four dollars!". He was obviously new at this. I told him I'd pay him six (the amount I had paid for my last repair in Chile), but only if it worked - if he broke my trailer, he'd get nothing. We agreed and he got to work. About 15 minutes later he had made the ugliest, but perfectly adequate, weld I had ever seen, so I paid him and rode off. Broken to fixed in such a remote place in under 45 minutes - amazing luck!

The next day was a nice, but relatively uneventful ride into Puerto Natales, where I was looking forward to a few days off after so many back to back days of cycling and hiking (11 in total I think). I met two guys I had met back in Chalten, and we decided to go to the rodeo in town the next day. It was the real deal, with local cowboys and untamed young horses. It was interesting to watch. I checked the wind forecast that night, which was perfect for me to leave the next morning, so unfortunately I didn't get the rest day I had hoped for. 

I made good time to Morro Chico, a strange outcropping at a junction in the road, where I was again able to stay at a police station, this time in one of the unused buildings out back. The next day I met a German couple early on, who also happened to be panam-riders members, and they knew me before I even introduced myself. We traveled together for the next two days to Punta Arenas, but since they already had a reservation at a hotel in town, we stayed in different places, and didn't meet up again until Ushuaia. I wasn't particularly attracted to Punta Arenas, and being a port town, the only noteworthy thing is the huge number of strip clubs throughout the town. I met the French couple Seb and Laeti for the third time there, and went penguin viewing with them the next day. They had a flight out to New Zealand that afternoon where they'd ride during the next part of their one-year world tour. I stayed at the Hostel Independencia, where there was a huge BBQ on Christmas Eve, then I headed out the following morning (Christmas Day), hoping to arrive in Ushuaia before New Year's Eve. 

From Punta Arenas, I took a ferry across the straight of Magellan, to Tierra del Fuego (Land of Fire), the island that contains Ushuaia. From there it was a surprising 6 days of riding to the end, but mostly because I had a headache one of the days and didn't ride far, and because of terrible wind leaving Rio Grande on the next day. Before I left town I ran into a woman named Holly who was also heading North towards Alaska! As always, when you meet these people you have to do a brain dump and give them advice on what's to come. We talked for 2 hours before I finally decided to head out and face what may have been the worst wind of the trip. I had a 5 mile upwind section, before the road turned south and crossed the river. I tried cycling for the first 2 miles or so, then gave up and pushed my bike the rest of the way - even that was hard and I had to stop several times to rest and eat (of course!). After turning the wind was more to my back and I made great time, but I spent so much time on the first 5 miles, and since I got such a late start, I didn't get very far overall. There was a great spot at the river Ewan Sur, where I camped, regretting that I wouldn't make it to the famous Panaderia La Union, a famous bakery that gives cyclists a free place to stay and all the pastries they can eat. 

The next day I stopped in Tohluin to get some empanadas from La Union and to buy some food for the rest of my ride to Ushuaia. That night I got a little farther than I planned - to the base of the last pass of my trip, where I found a nice grassy place to pitch my tent. 

The next morning I got packed up, squeezed everything through the fence I had come in through, snapped a quick "happy face" picture of myself on the last (928th) day of my trip, and started the easy climb over the final pass (Paso Garibaldi). Unfortunately the weather got worse throughout the day, and it started to rain just as I began the descent. It was cold and miserable - not how I would have liked to end my trip. I also didn't get to see much of the purportedly fantastic scenery on the last part of the road into Ushuaia, and upon arriving to town, I didn't see the famous sign greeting travelers and reminding them they were in the southernmost city in the world (I later learned that it had been taken town and replaced by a more modern looking, but less photo-friendly structure at the town border). I was able to find a "Fin del Mundo" (End of the world), sign on harbor, and settled for a picture there, taken by someone who was asking me about my trip and I figured they could do me a little favor.

So that was it - my trip was finally over. And the big question has been "how did it feel?". Honestly, I can't say it felt like anything at all. As with most people who have done this trip it was just another end of another day, no different than any of the others that had come before it; this day was only different because there wouldn't be another one following it. I wouldn't call it anticlimactic though, since I wasn't expecting there to be a sudden feeling of relief or accomplishment, and I think part of this underwhelming reaction has to do with the sheer size of the trip. It's too big to get your head around in the beginning, and it's too big to get your head around at the end. It didn't feel like one trip or one experience as much as many small trips and many experiences that I began to see more as my life than something separate from it with a clear beginning and end. Arriving in Ushuaia also really reminds you of what a personal mission it has been, since when you arrive, there is no finish line, no one waiting at the end to congratulate you, no one you pass on the street knows what you've done - and if there had been, all they would know is the time you've spent and the distance you've covered, which to me are so insignificant compared to the depth of the experiences that this trip was really about. Traveling this way, you can live 10 lifetimes in two and a half years and to focus on something as insignificant as a number would mean that I had totally missed the point. 

I had hoped to find a cheap boat to Antarctica from Ushuaia, but the boats that were leaving soon were too expensive, and the boats that were less expensive left three weeks from when I got there, so sadly, I had to decide that I had seen enough, and a trip to Antarctica would have to wait. I was in town for about a week and a half, mostly looking for boats, selling my bike, trailer, tent and sleeping bag, doing some souvenir shopping, and making trips to the national park and through the harbor on a boat tour. I wanted to leave sooner, but all the flights were booked until January 15th, and even the buses were full for a few days, so I had to occupy myself until I could get out of the city. I opted for taking buses up the coast to Buenos Aires for a few reasons, even though the cost was about the same as a flight and they take 50 hours instead of 3.5 - I could head north much sooner by bus, I wanted to stop at a beach town before Buenos Aires (and without a parachute, this wouldn't have been possible from a plane), and maybe most importantly I wasn't ready to leave the ground and miss seeing everything on the way up the coast. After seeing everything in such detail on the way down, deciding that nothing else was worth seeing on the return trip just didn't seem right - why should I not care just because I had stopped pedaling?

I had two nice days in the Necochea area on the coast, but the water was too cold to spend much time in, and the waves weren't good for surfing. I got to see a little of Buenos Aires, which is an enormous city of 13 million people, with some great architecture and an 18 lane highway that's said to be the widest in the world. It's another place that I could see myself living in - but not now. From there I flew to Santiago for a connection and got to experience a 5.6 earthquake while waiting in the airport, then my next connection was in Toronto where it was snowing, then finally I flew to New Orleans where I arrived at the same time as my friend Cher, who was awesome enough to bring me my favorite pizza in her luggage! We spent 6 days seeing four of the Gulf states, Louisiana, Missisippi, Alabama and a little of Florida. Next I flew to my Mom's place farther south in Florida and spent a few days there with her and her boyfriend, before finally flying back north to Rhode Island where I've been staying with my Dad and step-mom. 

Since I got to Rhode Island I've been almost constantly busy looking for jobs, a place to live, a car, buying clothes and other things I need to get started again and trying to catch up on the latest changes in IT, since I'm hoping to go back to a job in that field. Tomorrow I'll be checking out a temporary apartment in Boston, where I can pay week to week while I continue my search for a job and a permanent place to live. I'm still considering a move to another part of the country, with San Diego, Denver and Portland high on the list.

I want to thank my family for their support and encouragement before and during the trip, for giving me places to stay since I've been back, my Dad for driving me around everywhere and letting me use his car (amazingly, I can still drive a car!) and I also wanted to congratulate my sister and her husband for giving me my first niece! I tried hard to get home in time, but they were just a few days too early! Lastly, I want to thank everyone who has followed along, and everyone who has donated to my fundraisers - every donation was greatly appreciated! Thank you all.

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