Travel memories: Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego for New Year’s Eve 2015
Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego will always be the most coveted destination for any self-respecting motorbike enthusiast. The unpredictability of the weather conditions, the roads embedded in boundless landscapes and the strong wind of the Argentinian steppes are only some of the incitements pushing motorbike travellers to embark on this 3,900 km (2,400 miles) odyssey. Since 2009 we have been leading our groups in the discovery of El Fin del Mundo (The End of the World), the bends of the Andes, Ruta 40, the Carretera Austral, the Perito Moreno glacier and the eighth wonder of the world, the Torres del Paine.
New Year’s Eve tour is undoubtedly our most exclusive departure. The roads are empty of the usual tourist influx, the temperatures are ideal and celebrating the beginning of a new year on the fjord of the Carretera Austral lends an even greater significance to this adventure, which remains indelible for all time.
The three intrepid motorcyclists who tackled these pure adrenalin-raising kilometres were Paul from Great Britain, Warren from Canada and Alberto from Italy, in the saddle respectively of an F800GS Adventure and two R12000GS LC. Guiding the group for 16 days in discovering Latin America’s southernmost wonders was Gionata, founder of Ride True ADV, riding an R1200GS LC.
The four GS left the city of Osorno, travelling through the country and grazing lands overlooked by the volcano of Puyehue. The sun shone on our first Andean pass, at 1,300 metres (4,260 feet) above sea level, but at the Argentinian border the customs authority seemed to have problems with the entry documents of one of our members. Ride True ADV resolved this issue by obtaining the missing document from the first office beyond the state boundary so that Gionata could return and present it to the customs officials. A stretch of volcanic ash then opened ahead of us, covering the whole mountain ridge, as if we were in a lunar landscape, an impression disproved by a notice of ‘Bienvenidos en Argentina’ (Welcome to Argentina). We were soon to arrive at Bariloche where a first dinner of trout and salmon was waiting for us, accompanied by red Argentinian wine.
The next day the group followed the inlets of the Llao Llao circuit and discovered to their amazement a view of Paradise in this hidden corner. After a welcome coffee stop the group continued towards Trevelin across Los Alerces National Park, which welcomed us with unpaved roads, lakes and pine forests. The town of Trevelin formed the background to a dinner based on mushroom ravioli and glasses of wine that we raised in honour of the kilometres we had passed.
The Carretera Austral is undoubtedly one of the most iconic and loved roads because of its waterfalls, woods, rivers and suspension bridges among which winds the famous unpaved Ruta7. The micro-climate of the fjord of Puyuhuapi and the influence of the sea make this magical place a fishermen’s centre for the best salmon and cod. This gave a reason to celebrate our progress in conquering the Carretera Austral by visiting the pier and enjoying an incredible dinner of the freshest fish and white wine, with a view of the boats.
The last unpaved kilometres committed us to climbing up the bends of the fjord, at the end of which we met the asphalt again, accompanied by very fast corners. Going towards Coyhaique we could admire the beautiful fields of multi-coloured petals and berries, the rodeos and rural reality of Villa Manhuales. Transported by the scent of the flowers we stopped to admire the famous Cascada de la Virgen before reaching Coyhaique, eager to celebrate New Year’s Eve. To mark the occasion Ride True ADV had organised a welcoming aperitif followed by an exquisite gourmet dinner and midnight toasts. The members of the group were enchanted by the hotel’s welcome and fired up by their wish to celebrate this night under the stars of the southern sky.
For the first day of rest Ride True ADV had organised an excursion on horseback among the slopes and woodland tracks of the valley, an unforgettable experience, especially for Warren who lost his passport somewhere along the way and only recovered it thanks to the guide accompanying the group in this equestrian excursion.
We left Coyhaique by speeding along the 120 kms (75 miles) of asphalt that pass by Balmaceda and Villa Cerro Castillo, admiring the valleys of these paradise areas as we descended a serpentine series of bends opening up the vastness of the spaces of Chilean Patagonia. Back onto unpaved surfaces the rear wheels of our GS raised great clouds of dust that lent this stage a Dakar rally touch as we discovered the southern splendours of Ruta7. The sun was high and matched by the group’s spirit as we spun along these kilometres, with some photographs and coffee stops before the most wonderful views. The turquoise colour of General Carrera Lake and the lush vegetation of this area gradually faded as we approached Chile Chico.
Back in Argentina the Patagonian steppe’s dry and arid profile loses its mountainous relief and is characterised by winds that can reach 120 km/h (75mph). The grazing guanacos tended to cross the highway at the last moment, but were kept away by Gionata’s horn, which warned the group, . We were at last travelling along the iconic Ruta 40.
The unpaved surface of the final 20 kms (12 miles) of the stage that led to Gregores was a clear indication of what awaited us the following day. For now, the estancia where we stayed for this night was found hidden among the creeks of the Patagonian steppe. The group was immediately struck by the authentic and remote character of this true Tehuelche place where the family who has lived on these 5000 hectares for generations welcomed us with a wonderful dinner of cordero al palo (spit-roasted lamb), beetroot salad and guanaco ham. Beyond the great window of the quincho were cattle, ducks, sheep and horses roaming the meadows, while puma skins were drying in the wind.
As expected there were deep heaps of gravel intermixed with compacted stretches on the unpaved surface of Ruta 40, along which the motorbikes made their way with the utmost caution. The typical strong gusts of wind of the Argentinian steppe blew the motorbikes out of their paths, forcing them to waver. Gionata therefore imposed a speed limit of 70 km/h (44mph), a pace maintained for all of the expected 180 km (110 miles) of unpaved surface. The three motorcyclists accepted this without hesitation and reached La Leona for a lunch stop before continuing to El Calafate. Inside the walls of the old inn of La Leona it was possible to relive the stories of Butch Cassidy, the Sundance Kid and Ethel Place, who had stayed there after various robberies for which they were sought as international criminals. The excellent road surface now led us as far as El Calafate, a tourist centre famous for its nightlife movida, where we stayed for two nights.
Here we enjoyed our second rest day, in which we visited the Perito Moreno Glacier, in Los Glaciares National Park. From the hotel we rode to the national park where we spent the whole day exploring this area. The magic of the place rendered the group speechless, admiring in silence this great cathedral of ice. While walking along the narrow paths we saw great blocks of thousand-year old ice break off and smash onto the surface of the water. We then saw the ice from another perspective by boarding the ferry that sails up Lake Argentino. We sailed close to walls of ice reaching, at their highest point, a height of 65 metres (215 feet).
We passed from one geological wonder to another, bidding farewell to El Calafate and returning to Chile to enter the national park recently named the Eighth Wonder of the World: Torres del Paine. The group, ecstatic about the beauty of the prairies full of grazing guanaco and the grandeur of the two towers that rose majestically one above the other, rode through the wide open spaces, discovering turquoise lakes and waterfalls that, crashing upon age-old rocks, turn to spray in the air, creating a fresh breeze.
The wonderful unpaved road through the national park gave us 140 km (85 miles) of adventure, ending just a few minutes from the courtyard of the hotel in which we spent the night. Here the group enjoyed a cold beer served in front of burning logs in a fireplace and a dinner of local delicacies. The sensations from the more than 2,000 kilometres (1,250 miles) ridden over already were palpable in the air.
We stopped at Puerto Natales the following morning to fill our fuel tanks. The cold wind of this region was now constant and we faced strong gusts as we bowled along more than 300 km (185 miles) of perfect and straight asphalt that follows the coast of the Magellan Straits. After a very interesting stop beside the farm of San Gregorio and the buildings once lived in by what had been a very active community, we explored the wreck of the hull of the Amadeo, a British ship that ran aground here in 1932 and, 40 years later, became a national monument. When we reached the harbour to await the ferry that would carry us over to Tierra del Fuego, we were taken by surprise at an unforeseen delay to our progress: because of that day’s strong wind the ferries were suspended until further notice. The group awaited the harbourmaster’s announcement for several hours until, at 7.00 p.m. he confirmed that the first crossing would be attempted. We finally landed on Tierra del Fuego, after a crossing in which we were astounded by the strength of the waves and the swaying of the ship, and arrived at our hotel 35 kilometres (22 miles) further on, allowing ourselves a rapid dinner before a well-earned rest in preparation for the next day’s stage, in which we would reach our pre-arranged destination: Ushuaia!
Cerro Sombrero lies 450 km (280 miles) from Ushuaia, 120 of which (75 miles) are unpaved. We would soon be back in Argentina and by lunchtime we had already covered half the distance. The wind did not manage to penetrate the mountainous chains of the southernmost part of the world and Garibaldi Pass and Lake Fagnano afforded us the perfect landscape for group photographs. A few kilometres further on we caught sight of the city of Ushuaia and read its welcome on the wooden totem at the gates of the city. To accomplish what we had set out to do 3,500 km (2,200 miles) and thirteen days earlier, we crossed this harbour city and headed towards the Lapataia national park. There, deep in a dense patch of scrub, is hidden the notice that announces arrival at the Fin del Mundo (End of the World). The group was exultant! The three motorcyclists had done it and celebrated their personal victory by raising their glasses in a fish restaurant in front of the harbour. Fresh crab, salmon and cod, accompanied by white wine, made a perfect evening.
Going back into Chile we stopped at Rio Grande for the night and arrived the following day at Punta Arenas, very surprised by the powerful wind even on the unpaved stretch. The motorbikes made slow progress against it, while the great clouds of dust raised by the rear wheels formed a trail in the air that was blown away within a few metres. Fortunately crossing the Magellan Straits caused no delay and we reached Punta Arenas in good time, returning the motorbikes before checking in to our rooms and celebrating with the farewell dinner provided by Ride True ADV.
Sitting before a table sumptuously loaded with pisco sour and local delicacies, the group revelled in the incredible adventure they had undertaken and congratulated each other on the innumerable challenges overcome, both because of the wind and the unpaved surfaces. And at this moment passion for the motorbike and a spirit of adventure united all the members of the group.