Friday, 13 April 2007

The End...

And so to the final week...

From El Bolson, it was a final scenic, albeit rather hilly, 130km ride north to the chocolate heaven of Bariloche. Sitting on the edge of a large and beautiful lake, Bariloche is the primary destination for holidaying Argentinians, and for good reason. Situated in the Argentinian Lake District (a bit like the one in the UK, but on steroids), it is surrounded by national parks and has enough outdoor activities to keep one happily occupied for a good couple of weeks.

It was a beautiful place, but also marked the beginning of the end of my trip for me. It was a very sad moment when I came to dismantle my bike, wrap it in bubble wrap (if anyone knows the spanish word for bubble wrap, I would really love to know it...) and carefully stow it in a box for the journey home. The bike did me proud, I could scarcely have dreamed of it giving me so few problems. No mechanicals (the rubbish front pannier racks aside), 3 punctures and just shy of 3,000 kms on generally "challenging" roads.

The cycling part of my trip over, I spent the remaining time doing the more regular tourist things, first in Bariloche, and then finally in Buenos Aires.

Testing out a couple of different transport options, I explored the edge of the Patagonian steppe on horseback,

and then pottered around in a kayak on a nearby lake. A thoroughly relaxing way to spend an afternoon!

My time in Buenos Aires was generally spent wandering all over the city, probably best illustrated by a few photos,

The colourful buildings in Boca, the vibrant, slightly dangerous area near the football ground.

The graveyard! I've never seen such impressive "streets" of tombs...

I couldn't quite work out if these cranes were still being used, or had become part of the designer look of Puerto Madero, the newest district. I quite liked them though!

The infamous obelisk in the centre. When I saw it, there was a huge demonstration going on, blocking the whole of the centre of town. Apparently, it's a common occurrence!

And that's it really. I'm now back home in England, still struggling to put my thoughts and experiences into words. What should I say as an appropriate ending to my final entry in a blog of such an incredible trip?? I saw and did so much, that I really don't know where to begin, and if I did, I probably wouldn't know where to stop!

Looking back to the first entry I posted, back in December, I ended up doing everything I'd vaguely intended, and then some. I really feel that I saw both Bolivia and Patagonia, not to mention dipping my toe into Antarctica, and I love South America. It's such a vast, varied and exciting contintinent to explore. Fortunately there still remain huge tracts of it that I've yet to visit...
Bye for now,

Sunday, 1 April 2007

And back to Argentina

Hello again! This time, from Argentina again - the number of stamps in my passport is now becoming a little ridiculous given I´ve only actually been to a couple of countries!

Since it seems that for some unfathomable reason, people are still apparently reading my ridiculous ramblings, I´m sitting here in an internet cafe in the quiet town of El Bolson, having spent most of yesterday sampling some local Artesanal beers (all rather strong), sweating under the pressure and wondering what on earth I can write of interest... Don´t worry, no more about the roads! I survived them, and the rest should now all be paved...

It was really sad to say goodbye to my cycling companions from the Carretera Austral. It was great fun cycling together through such beautiful and wild surroundings, and I would have loved to have joined them for the remainder. Especially when I saw the bus I was doing the next section on...
Twelve hours on this beauty. Its only saving grace was that my bike was nice and safe from harm on the roof. I, however, had a splitting headache and was thoroughly exhausted when I finally manoevered my stiff body off the bus over thirteen hours later (one tyre change, numerous stops for I´ve no idea what, and one complete search of the bus by the police for stolen booze from a local shop... I could go on) in my destination, a tiny village called Villa Santa Lucia. Give me a bike over a bus any day!

Next morning, I was back on my bike heading east to the village of Futaleufu, and the border with Argentina. It was a lovely ride - no tailwind (of course), but a beautiful sunny day and gorgeous views.
The view from my campsite was just fantastic.

It was then a very easy ride over the border (hilariously, in their perpetual battle with Argentina, the Chileans had paved the last stretch of road to the border, despite the fact that for miles beyond, it was a terrible gravel road. Reassuringly, they had still somehow managed to incorporate some hideous ruts into the tarmac though...) and onto the Welsh town of Trevelin. Meeting up with a Welsh lady I´d run into a month earlier further south, we spent a very enjoyable afternoon in a Welsh tea-house. There are a number of towns in Patagonia that were founded by Welsh immigrants, and Welsh tea is a tradition they brought over with them... although not one that either she or I had ever heard of in Wales! Especially the cake filled with dulce de leche, a thick caramelised condensed milk, ubiquitous in Argentina, but not something I´m convinced has made it to Wales... Still, the immense pile of cakes was delicious, and rapidly devoured!
Sunset in Trevelin.

Between Trevelin and El Bolson lies the National Park los Alerces, and a lovely ride through rich forests, past massive lakes and mountains. Quite similar to some of the scenery on the Carretera Austral in some ways, but with different vegetation.

In fact, the range of vegetation I´ve seen in Patagonia has been enormous. Where else do you see glaciers and snow-capped mountains, hummingbirds, woodpeckers, eagles, condors and vultures, cypress trees, giant rhubarb and bamboo, to name just a few of the things I saw and could actually recognise? The diversity is remarkable. And as I leave the north of Patagonia and head from El Bolson to Bariloche, in the Argentinian lake district, the climate is now lovely and hot, and the area is known for its wonderful fresh fruits and honey.

And, consequently, there are rather a lot of bees around... Although I hadn´t really given them much thought. That is, until, having just suffered through 60kms of gravel roads, I was relaxing, enjoying my first fast descent on tarmac when one decided to fly into my lip... Thinking positively, at least it seems that I´m not allergic to bee stings! And as my lip swelled nicely, it gave me something else to focus on rather than the headwind... Although when a second one stung me on the neck, I wasn´t so amused...

Saturday, 24 March 2007

Part 2: Cochrane to Coyhaique

It was with some trepidation that I got back on my bike for the next stage of the Carretera Austral. After raining solidly the night before our departure from Cochrane, by the time we´d packed the tents, it was clear, and blowing a gale... The weather changes so fast, and the wind really was rather strong...

For the first 2 days I felt great - rested and keen to "attack" the hills, I found the gusting winds fun, adding a new element to the daily battle of negotiating the roads. By day three, the novelty of being blown all over the place, sliding around on the gravel, and jolting over the ruts had worn a bit thin though... My whole body hurt, and in places the road was unspeakably bad. There are no words really adequate to describe it, you have to ride on it with loaded panniers and no suspension for several days to really appreciate the full glory. I dreamt of reaching the tarmac just one day away...

At one point, after a particularly bad patch of road that is painful just to recall, we reached a beautiful stretch. A smooth, hard-packed mud road winding through the trees and I found myself grinning from ear to ear. The sheer joy of being able to ride effortlessly was so intense, it was quite remarkable, and rather thought-provoking. I will remember the feeling forever, but was it really such a good thing that something so simple as a few minutes of easy cycling could give me so much pleasure? Being as we were in the middle of nowhere, life had been reduced to nothing much more than sleeping, eating and cycling. I think it´s great to get away from the regular bustle of everyday life at home (and things like blogs...), and to appreciate the small things, but if something so minor was so wonderful, didn´t that mean that the rest of the time was just too hard?! It`s something I´m still pondering...

The views though were just great, and the sun often shone - we saw a heumal, a rare local deer, just metres away, and of course lakes, rivers and mountains...

Despite the condition of the roads and the wind, we made good progress, and after four days, reached the long dreamt-for tarmac. And started climbing immediately. Which was fine - we knew that we had to go over a high pass, and it was rewarding to reach the top - great views and nothing but 80kms of flat roads between us and our destination, the town of Coyhaique. But then we rounded the corner and found... WIND. Parallelling this road north through Chile, there is the infamous Ruta 40 through Argentina - miles of dirt road through the flat and windy pampas. The Chilean road is much wetter and hillier, but there is more to see, and the whole point is, it isn´t windy. That´s the deal - the risk of rain, endless hills, but no wind. Or so I´d thought as I battled ahead at 4-8 kms an hour. I´m sure that in the UK, less strong winds blow rooves off houses... The others laughed at my frustration (having cycled across tierra del fuego, they´d dealt with days on end of much stronger winds, and were more than entitled to tease me!). It took me a while to come to terms with the fact that there was nothing I could do but continue to grind ahead in my lowest gear with the wind whistling in my ears and I found it soul-destroyingly horrible. There was nothing enjoyable about it in the slightest, and there wasn´t even anything interesting to look at! Not that you could really look anywhere but a metre ahead without risking being blown off the road...

Coyhaique itself is the biggest town on the carretera austral, and a pretty chilled-out place to spend a few days of wind-recovery therapy (which involves eating lots of chocoate cake...). As I´m running out of time to get back to Buenos Aires in time for my flight home, unfortunately I´m going to have to say goodbye to the winds and take a bus for the next section though... And then its back on my bike to cycle across the border and back into Argentina. More hills and bad roads, but fingers crossed, since I´m heading East, I might even have a tailwind... I can always hope!

Saturday, 17 March 2007

The Carretera Austral

Having spent rather a long time travelling "with" my bike (as opposed to "by" bike. I´ve been bumping into people from the trip to Antarctica ever since leaving the boat, and having initially thought that I was a tough cyclist, they think its hilarious that I´m taking the bus everywhere...), I decided it was time to get back in the saddle. Having done some hiking, to ease my way back in, I started off by combining the two - trying the well-known "hiking carrying a bike". A once-only in the life-time experience, I wouldn´t recommend it... Crossing from Argentina into Chile, I was making my way from El Chalten, past Lago del Desierto to Villa O´Higgins, which involved man-handling my bike 5kms along a footpath that looked like:
Great fun with a fully-loaded bike, as you can imagine... I thought it was going to be 7kms, so I was extremely glad when I got to the end early, to find the long-awaited sign telling me I´d arrived in Chile!

It was then another 15kms ride down a terrible road, dragging my bike through an icy-cold river to get to a tiny hamlet called Candelaria Mancilla, the border control and Lago O´Higgins, the next obstacle:
A massive (and beautiful in the sun) lake, the boat across it goes supposedly every Saturday, but its schedule is a little "subject to change", and is one of the reasons (along with the path and road) why this border is very seldom used. It only seems to exist as both Argentina and Chile want the land around it, and the whole area is in dispute. Still, having made it thus far, there was NO WAY I was going to drag my bike back up the road and through the forest again! In the end I was lucky - the boat was only one day late. I stayed in a little estancia with a wood-burning stove (actually, the only place to stay), and it was the perfect enforced rest that I needed after all the hiking. It poured with rain outside, but I just sat inside drinking tea, eating freshly baked bread and talking to the other "intrepid travellers" who had made it there.
The goal was to get to the Carretera Austral, a road leading 1,200 kms north through Chile from Villa O´Higgins to Puerta Montt. And disembarking from the boat, in torrential rain in the pitch dark, I´d made it, along with four other cyclists. We pitched the tent right where the boat docked, unable to cycle anywhere in those conditions, and for the last five days, we´ve been pedalling our way north. The area is incredibly remote, and the weather extremely changeable, so it´s been fantastic to cycle with others - a French couple cycling around for 6 months, and a crazy Austrian couple on a tandem who´ve been cycling for two and a half years, so far...
As for the Carretera Austral. Hmm. This is my favourite sign (after the one indicating that the road is about to go downhill of course). Chile, the most developped country in South America, is proud of the fact that it has built a bridge... And the road, initially pretty good, doesn´t really bear mentioning. A dirt road, it´s actually more like a gravelly, rocky, pot-holed and hideously rutted track with a big pile of stones running up the centre. The great debate (taking up many hours) is whether to cycle on the gravelly stones in the centre, slip around all over the place and use up loads of energy, or whether to take the ruts along one side and jar every bone in your body. Its a difficult choice, and as neither seems really good, endless hours of fun can be spent trying first one, then the other...
Its not really so bad, and when the going gets hard, I just have to look up and remember that I´m cycling through Patagonia, in one of the remotest parts of the planet. The first couple of days it rained a lot (my tent loved it...), but after that, the sun came out and we had a spectacular couple of days. Cycling in the sun through beautiful valleys, alongside lakes and rivers glistening in the sun, past mountains with dollups of snow sprinkled here and there and the odd glacier. Again, maybe some photos can describe it better than me...

We´re currently in a little village called Cochrane, the first place we´ve come to, and taking a day of rest (laundry, drying everything, internet, maybe even a glass of wine later!). The last few days we´ve been camping next to a river, literally in the middle of nowhere, eating around a campfire and watching the stars. Its an incredible experience - not easy, I won´t pretend it is, but then the best experiences rarely are... Tomorrow we confront the rutted road again for another 6-ish days cycle ride north to Coyhaique, the next "town" on the route. I´ll see if I can come up with some more choice words for the road then... In the meantime, I hope you´re all safe and having fun! Helen.

Glaciers galore, and SUNSHINE!!!

Continuing my journey (by bus) north, I headed back into Argentina to see the Perito Moreno glacier. A massive, advancing glacier, I saw a photo of it a few years ago and have wanted to see it ever since. And it was huge! 5 kms wide, and 40-60 metres high, it was impressive. I´d have loved to get right underneath it to appreciate its real size, but as chunks keep breaking off, it´d have been rather dangerous, to say the least, and we were kept well away. The noise it made was fantastic - a constant cracking and crashing emanated from within it, and every now and again, a huge piece would fall off into the water. At one point, a piece the whole height broke free and crashed into the lake. It was hard to appreciate watching from a distance that it was the size of a building!

From one huge glacier, to many smaller ones - my next stop was the gorgeous little climbing village of El Chalten, a little further north still. I knew I´d like the place as soon as I saw it, nestling in the valley with mountains towering all around. The clouds parted as I arrived, showing the two main mountains, Cerro Torre and Mt FitzRoy, in all their glory, and the sun shone the entire time I was there. I was incredibly lucky, and made the most of it, hiking my heart out. How to describe the scenery - the photos hopefully will do it some justice! The first couple of days, I explored everywhere I could with Sue-Ann, a Canadian girl I met on the bus. And she killed me. An avowed knitter, smoker and avoider of all exercise at home, I practically had to run to keep up with her on the hills... and I had thought I was fit!

After climbing to a lookout point on the first day (first photo), we then hiked to see Mount Fitz Roy on the second day (the big, solid mountain behind me), and then every valley around... It was amazing - huge mountains everywhere, beautiful lakes, trails meandering (usually uphill) through enchanted-like forests, and crazy glaciers tumbling and falling off the mountains into the lakes, sparkling in the sunshine. Stunning.

Cerro Torre itself is a crazy mountain - tall and pointed with a snow-cap on top making it a nightmare to climb. I can´t imagine how you´d even begin! I was more than happy looking at it from a distance!

The glacier leading to it though was cool - and I got to fulfill another long-held desire: to use crampons and an ice-axe. Having hiked our legs to exhaustion on the first two days, Sue-Ann and I decided to give ice-climbing a try, and headed up to the glacier. True to form, she made it look incredibly easy, dancing up the ice on her first attempt. It didn´t come quite so naturally for me, but unfortunately, I think I´ve found a new sport... I loved it! The guide was great, teaching us everything we wanted to know about climbing techniques, knots, putting in the ice-screws and the like, and then we went hiking on the glacier. Now I just have to find some more ice to go and play on!