Head North Young Man
Buenos Aires, 5-May-2010
It snowed that night in the mountains around Ushuaia. We woke up to a chilly -2ºC and again we waited until 10:30 for it to relatively warm up (3ºC) and Oliver and I headed off. Kilometer 15,067, Ushuaia, 19-Apr-10 @ 10:30. Just to give you an idea, Ushuaia @ ~ 55º00 latitude is as south as Fort McMurray is north. Or in other words, if leaving from Montreal heading north, Chibougamau will only be the half way point on route to 55º north! Thunder Bay for you Ontarian is just ~1/3 of the way if leaving from TO. And April in the southern hemisphere is equivalent to our northern hemisphere October! As soon as we exited the coastal city of Ushuaia, trucks and buses coming the opposite way were honking when crossing us and their drivers pointing behind them (i.e. pointing to the direction we were heading) and signaling us to slow down. We could see that the lakes and water puddles at the sides of the road were all frozen and we knew we had to just take it easy. As we climbed Paso Garibaldi it started snowing on us. We stopped to snapped a few pics; it was all fun, “How awesome” 😉 But the more we climbed the colder it got, the snow intensified and my fingers were freezing. We stopped again to analyze the situation. “You want to go back?” asked Oliver, trying to see my state of mind. “Nop. I want to head north to warmer ground. Let’s take it easy, I’ll go first”. A couple of turns later, still heading up, the road started being covered by patches of snow and soon thereafter, fully carpeted by a couple of cm of snow. I was already committed to cross the pass, no turning back! I put my bike in higher gear to try and stop the rear wheel from slipping and just let the bike crawl slowly upwards. Very unnerving driving conditions and I was stressed, yet I still needed to try hard to relax my muscles & my grip on the steering; any abrupt movement, brake or acceleration and I would be bobsledding with my baby. As usual, downhill were the worst: little traction and I was pumping the brakes calmly to slow down the bike. Add to that tackling the mountain curves and crossing black ice patches left by passing trucks; I was grinding my teeth while driving. It seemed it took forever until we finally crossed Garibaldi pass and cleared the snow.
The temperature again dropped below 0ºC and everything around us was frozen. 300Km to the border but I was already cold. We had to stop many time to warm up, to no prevail. At one point, I needed to pee but my fingers were completely numb; I was unable to grip and open my pants zipper. I needed to go…. bad! After a few minutes trying, I just ripped the fly open breaking the zipper :(. Ah well, that’s going to be embarrassing at every stop I make…
We had lunch just before the border with Chile, warmed up then headed back to see the kings. See, everyone heard my story and saw my pics of the king Penguins and all wanted to see them. Oliver was the only one who actually could and there’s no way he was going to miss it. So we fooled ourselves by thinking we will reach Rio Gallegos by 20:30 and did the detour to my second encounter with the kings (Kilometer 15,451, somewhere in TDF, 19-Apr-10 @ 18:00). There were more of them today and we happily went snapping pics, enough to put any Japanese tourist to shame. We said our goodbye to our highnesses by sunset and rushed to catch the northern ferry to South America’s mainland. I would never ride through gravel road at dark but today we had too. We waited 45 minute for the ferry to dock before getting on-board for the 25min crossing of Magellan straight. Once back on firm land we speed toward the northern border: it closes at 22:00 and we had to cross to Argentina again. We made it with 5min to spare and after all the formalities we drove another 75Km to finally reach Rio Gallegos just before midnight (Kilometer 15,709, Rio Gallegos, 19-Apr-10 @ 23:30).
Oliver took off the next day to El-Calafate while I spent an extra day in Rio Gallegos to switch my tires (put my road tires on and send the off-road ones to Salta). The plan was to meet up again in Peninsula Valdez in 3 days. As for me, I wanted to reach Comodoro Rivadavia in 1 day. But it was just too cold, it even hailed on me on route, which then melted and froze creating black ice patches. I had to stop by the side of the road every 50Km or so, jumping and running around to warm up & let my blood flow or warming my hands on the engine. Truckers kept on honking laughing at this crazy tourist doing gymnastic on the side of the road. Oh yeah? Wait until I pass you flying in a few minutes 😉 But I couldn’t withstand the cold, especially my fingers; it felt as if I had burned my finger’s palm! So I just stopped in Puerto San Julian, ~300Km north of Rio Gallegos (Kilometer 16,106, Puerto San Julian, 21-Apr-10 @ 17:30). The remaining 450Km to Comodoro Rivadavia will be completed next day.
You’ve got to hear this: The following day, at one of my gas stations stop, while I was warming up with a hot cup of tea, a couple of riders heading south stopped by. We started chatting and I gave them a few pointers on the road conditions in Ushuaia. As the conversation progressed, it seemed we could meet up again in BA so they wanted my e-mail. When I gave it to them, one of the guys asked with a surprised look: “Sami?! Are you “Vroum” from the HUBB?? It’s me, Fernando!”. Damn! Fernando was the guy I was supposed to meet to ride the 40 together (he decided not to and did the detour) and here we are in the middle of eastern Patagonia, at a gas station, finally meeting :).
Kilometer 16,544, Comodoro Rivadavia, 22-Apr-10 @ 17:30 Comodoro Rivadavia is an oil city, probably like Fort McMurray, with nothing interesting to see. And it’s expensive! Everything is double the price than anywhere else in Patagonia. From the kilo of meat, to hairdresser, to hotel, all costs 2x more. Incredible! All this because in this neck of the woods everyone had $$$. The oil industry is booming, companies’ pay big bucks for workers and local business take it back by charging more. The only reason I stayed here was because I wanted to visit the petrified forest of Sarmiento which is 160Km east of here. Kilometer 16,734, Bosque Petrificado, 23-Apr-10 @ 13:30; Millions of years ago, this desert was a lush tropical jungle and huge rivers used to carry fallen trees all the way to today’s Sarmiento were they accumulated due to the weakened river flow. Covered with mud, they petrified through time only to be un-earthed in the recent millennium. They lay in the cold Patagonian desert, mostly shattered and in danger from todays homo-sapiens: they break them or even steal them. What is left are still amazing petrified relics of giant trees: they are like stone version of the trees, they take the local mineral/earth colors and are very heavy yet fragile. Check the vid: Bosque Petrificado
As I headed toward Peninsula Valdez, the joy came at mid-day: I finally rode enough northbound (I was equivalent to Montreal latitude) for the weather to warm up and make “amazing” riding conditions (under the circumstances). I was so happy it felt like my love for this trip just reached another level, sort of a nirvana. I was dancing and singing on the road and this feeling is still erupting today. Pure and simple joy, what else do you need? Kilometer 17,479, Punta Piramides, 24-Apr-10 @ 18:00; I reached the fishing village of Punta Piramides, a village usually flooded with tourists but now almost dead. Only 3 hotels open and 1 restaurant (the one from my hostel… hey, I am lazy, I wanted to eat & sleep in the same place :)). No sign of Oliver though… he might still be on the road. I took a shower and as I stepped into the resto to have my dinner, here was Oliver drinking a beer. He made it as agreed (German engineering!) and he even hooked up with another German rider, Matheas, riding a BMW GS800. Matheas was a funny brew master… needless to say more ;). We had dinner and planned our next day. Southern Right Whales won’t come this way until sometime in July but this month it’s Orca month. They will be on Punta Norte teaching their young how to hunt seals, an extremely rare spectacle to actually see them (Lonely Planet says 3% chance, whatever that means!). Next morning, we left early dawn as we needed to ride 80Km on dirt road to reach Punta Norte where the Orca’s will use the early morning high tide to beach themselves and catch seals. We rode in the foggy and cold morning (-3ºC) but we were so excited to see the Orcas, none of us actually cared. As soon as we parked the bikes we could see the killer whales and we rushed to the view point. The spectacle was in full swing. 5 Orcas were taking turn, longing the shoreline, spewing water through their blowhole then shooting fast & straight up the shore, beaching themselves trying to catch seals. Gladly, none succeeded :). We then headed to Punta Cero to see Magellan Penguins followed by Punta Cantor where elephant seals live before heading back late afternoon to Punta Piramides passing by a sea lion colony (Kilometer 17,698, Punta Piramides, 25-Apr-10 @ 17:20).
We stayed another day relaxing in this village. I wanted to go dive with the sea lions but the only dive shop wanted top dollars and a minimum of 3 persons to go dive. With no-one around for 2 days, I guess I will postpone diving for another time.
We said goodbye to Oliver as he was heading toward Santiago de Chile to ship his bike home (he did Alaska to Tierra del Fuego and his trip is almost over) and Matheas & I headed toward Viedma and Carmen Del Patagon, its sister town across the river (Kilometer 18,268, Viedma, 27-Apr-10 @ 16:30). They are beautiful little towns, each having a nice walk on its shoreline, good plazas and all together a “buena onda”, perfect stop to gather energy for our next morning long ride.
Ridding north form Ushuaia the steppe vegetation extended all the way up to Puerto Madrin. From there on, small trees and shrub started to appear. By Viedma, we could see farms and livestock in the fields. Heading toward Mar Del Plata, we rode in the heart of Argentina’s agriculture fortune: Soya. Endless fields of this brownish bean bringing richness to Argentina and it was harvest season. We passed hundreds upon hundreds of trucks carrying the beans to ports or processing plants, while giant machines where combing the fields & harvesting the soya beans leaving behind big clouds of dust. As we arrived late to Mar del Plata, I went to look for a hotel as Matheas was crashing at a friend’s house (Kilometer 19,037, Mar Del Plata, 28-Apr-10 @ 19:30). The beauty about low season is it’s easy to travel. Hotels are empty with practically no tourists and you share the city with the locals. The action and parties tend to concentrate around a handful of bars & boliches making it easy to find the happening spot. I hooked up with Venesa and Tamara (from BA): we went to the beaches in the day, took power naps in the evening and hit Alem Street to party at night.
Hernann, my Argentinean friend I met back in Chile, was from Mar del Plata but he was studying in nearby Balcarce. That was my next stop but before, I went to visit his parent at their house in Mar Del Plata for an afternoon tea and dinner, chatting about my trip with his father who was so curious to know about all my adventures, especially Aconcagua. We chatted until 19:30, way too late for my liking but I still headed out and met Hernann in Balcarce, 100Km away (Kilometer 19,137, Balcarce, 30-Apr-10 @ 23:30). I crashed at his place, went out for a traditional asado then for drinks around town.
Balcarce was also the home of Juan Miguel Fangio and I was dying to go see his museum. I wasn’t disappointed and it was amazing to see again how these guys used to race in the good old days. I said my goodbye to Hernann by early afternoon and headed toward BA. An hour before reaching the outskirt of the city, a huge brown cloud was hanging in the horizon: smog and pollution were my welcoming committees. As I got closer, the horizon turned to grey then faded away, smell of fire, garbage, gas, diesel and who knows what filled the air. What an ugly and rude awakening to city life after spending the past 3 month with nature…. I used to be wary of crazy Guanacos running across the road, now its another type of animals I had to watch out for ;). As I entered the city, I was stuck in its traffic jams, dodging buses and taxi drivers who seemed to be on a hunt for me. I felt like the rabbits I encountered down in Patagonia but this time oit was me running in front and in between crazy and aggressive drivers, trying not to become the next road kill (Kilometer 19,587, Buenos Aires, 1-May-10 @ 19:30).
or click on “page 2” below to see the photo album.