We are currently in the tourist town of Calafate in Argentina, after spending six days riding the 325 miles from Punta Arenas. It has been quite a journey. To us, it feels like we’re living inside a National Geographic magazine. Around every corner there are exotic animals on windswept plains, or twisted Juniper trees that have been deformed by the gusts. We see far off mountains and glaciers, and we’ve slept everywhere from rodeo stalls to lake shores to portable construction housing. In short, it’s like a whole new adventure down here.
Our first day out of Punta Arenas was grey. It rained for most of the morning, but the wind was blessedly calm. Since I grew up in the Pacific Northwest, I thought this situation was perfect. We waved goodbye to the cyclists who had decided to wait out the weather in the city, and we rode off into the wide open. The riding was good, and we saw some of our first South American wildlife: guanacos, rheas, flamingos, and sheep. Ok, so the sheep aren’t so wild, but the rest are! Guanacos are wild llama-like creatures, and rheas are huge flightless birds that look a lot like ostriches (or chocobos). That night, we got permission to camp in a sheltered stall at the rodeo grounds of a small town. Good thing, too, since the wind picked up and blew all night long.
It took two more days for us to get the next town of Puerto Natales, and the scenery continued to be lovely. One morning we had a raging tailwind that pushed us uphill at 15 miles an hour! Each day we met other cyclists on the road, some of whom made us feel like short-term tourists. There was a Mexican fellow who had ridden from Cancun and was about to start riding back on the other coast of South America, and a young guy who had ridden all the way from San Francisco. Our second night out, we camped on the shores of a lovely lake and watched the birds all evening.
The town of Puerto Natales is a hopping destination for backpackers who are on trekking trips in Patagonia. It is right on the water and surrounding by beautiful mountains. Folks in fancy outdoor clothes were everywhere. Jason and I stayed in a no-frill hostel that allows camping in the backyard. We were pleased to find a spot for our tent near the back of the yard against a fence. Unfortunately, we forgot to take a walk around the back to see what was behind the fence. It was the bonfire / party area, and we heard folks having a good time all night long!
Puerto Natales was also funny because we expected it to have a limited grocery supply. Because of this expectation we were happy when we found a funky little store with only somewhat limited selection and inflated prices. Sure, we had to run to other stores about town to find all our supplies, but we were happy. Then… we turned a corner and found the big, complete, and lovely supermarket. At this point, it was far too late, and we walked back to the hostel laughing at our unnecessary scavenger hunt.
Leaving Puerto Natales we had a wonderful morning with views of the mountains, lakes, and a pleasantly gentle wind. All too soon we were at the Chilean-Argentinean border, and the pavement ended. We needed to get an exit stamp to leave the country, and Jason had somehow managed to throw his ‘tourist card’ away. There was a moment of panic when he realized it was necessary to leave the country, and another moment of panic when the border agent said that he would have to go to jail. After a pause, the agent smiled and gave him a new bit of paperwork to fill out. Less than a minute later, we were on our way.
Right after crossing the border the scenery changed to a stark, flat land of pale yellow grass. This scenery remained for the next two days. The first night we slept in a construction trailer, protected from the wind. The next night we slept in an old house next to a police stop on the highway. In between we spent 40 miles on a rough dirt road, practically getting our teeth shook out of our head.
Now we are in El Calafate, our last full-service town before setting out on the remote and beautiful Carretera Austral. We are very excited! This town is quite touristy, and packed with people from everywhere. We’ll write about our rest day here in the next post!