Having cycled the southernmost part of Argentina just a few months before, we thought we knew what to expect from this remote region of Chile, well, we were very, very wrong!
But let’s take a few steps back and let’s start at the beginning; we pedalled 5000 kms to Ushuaia from Buenos Aires but we had to return briefly to Europe where we also ended up cycling from the North of England to Madrid, where our flight was leaving from, and so we had “reset” our mindsets in some way.
Back in South America
So, after a very exhausting flight across the ocean, we embarked on a “local” flight from Santiago to Punta Arenas, had an amazing view over the Cordillera along the way, and landed on another world!
Magallanes is not only the name of the strait connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, but also the last region of Chile, and it’s simply mind-blowing! It’s difficult to explain why but it does have a “far, far away” feeling to it. We landed in Punta Arenas and spent some days resting, learning about Chilean culture with Constanza and Fabian, a local couple of soon-to-be-bike wanderers, and getting everything ready for the imminent trip. This small city is right on one of the world’s most famous navigable straight (well, not since the Panama Canal anyway) and is the departing point for adventurers going to Antarctica. It is pretty small and, at first glance, one might think that there’s not much to it. However, with the help of locals we ended up leaving with a feeling of owe. The people we met taught us a lot about life at the end of the world, we had a pretty cool interview on the local TV/radio and tasted the best Choripan in Chile in the Kiosko (right off the main square) where the current President gets his from whenever he is in town (which is pretty often because he is from there).
On a sunny spring morning, we packed everything up and left feeling like our bikes have never been heavier, since we were also carrying 3 days of food, and soon realised that we had forgotten about the strength and intensity of the world renowned Patagonian wind. While back in Europe, we often talked about it and so we wrongly thought we remembered, especially because in Magallanes it’s even stronger than on the Argentinian side. How? No idea!
Off to a difficult but great start!
The first day we only managed 30 kms. At one point we were pushing our bikes on the shoulder of the road and it was difficult to walk!
Luckily, differently to what we had experienced on the other side of the border, here, there’s lots of small buildings near the road and so we ended up having lunch in an abandoned police building where, eventually, we spent the night. There was some kind of other highway authority right next door, we asked, they said it was fine, they even kindly let us use their toilet and gave us hot water. With one of the workers, Marco had a long chat about 70s Italian music and the Sanremo Music Festival. If you’re Italian you can surely appreciate how surreal that conversation must have felt in that place and time.
The next morning we woke up mega early and left with the first light to beat the wind and hated our first hour on the bike; the weather was bleak, cold and already very windy, although it was not as bad as the previous day, the landscape very boring, and the road rather busy. Very important side note on the matter; in Magallanes, we got the feeling that drivers behave incredibly well around cyclists … even trucks and buses!
There’s nothing like local culture
The plan was to stay on that main road as little as possible (for all the above mentioned reasons) and head for Rio Verde on a much quieter one and, as always, we flipped out. Everything changed, everything, even the sun came out! We were told that we would have found “ripio” (gravel) in bad condition but it was tarmac. Nice. After a few kilometres we climbed a small hill and found ourselves looking out onto an incredibly beautiful bay and we were gobsmacked; only a few minutes before we were surrounded by that very typically samey Patagonia Steppe and now, this! Amazing! We laughed and chatted away on that quiet road till we turned about 15° North and were reminded that, down here, you’re not the boss of anything; the wind is. And so cycling sucked again, just like that!
By that time, we had been riding for a while and a break was necessary, but where? A pick-up which had just overtaken us turned right towards an estancia which was only a hundred metres or so away from the road and gave us the idea to go and ask for a wall to shelter behind. Any cyclist reading this know how badly the wind can get in your head and how badly you need to get out of it for a while when it does.
Well, things went well and we got invited to lunch! This estancia was also a canteen for a nearby military base (long story) and before we could say “we’recyclingaroundtheworldforcharity” a huge portion of sheep stew, freshly baked bread, and juice were being served and we were chatting away with the owner of the place and two soldiers in uniform. In the long-distance cycling world, this is known as “the dream”! Seriously though, we wish to learn about local cultures everywhere we go and this was it; this kind of situations is why we cycle!
The cook, Pedro, refused to let us go without giving us some recently baked bread (always welcomed) and we went back to the reality which was patiently awaiting outside; the wind. We fought hard with it all afternoon (averaging only 7 km/h), on top of that, the tarmac magically disappeared and out of the blue came that loose gravel that we were warned about and, last but not least, grey clouds carried over some sleet! Over a small period of time, twice we stopped to have a break; once in an incredible bus shelter (similar to the ones found everywhere in Chile but with the difference that, in Magallanes, they are closed) and a second time in an abandoned house also by the side of the road. But the universe had one more surprise for us at the small village of Villa Ponsomby (small but vitally important to all the area); the municipality had just finished building a small hostel for residents who were stuck there and couldn’t make the last ferry across to the island and, since the weather was very cold and windy, they allowed us to be the first guests! One second you’re under a small storm and in the blink of an eye you’re lighting a fire in a brand new stove and enjoying a hot shower!
The next day we swinged by the town hall to say thanks and headed our way. It’s funny, you forget about the cold, the wind, and all those things until they hit you in the face. When you’re out there and facing difficulties, there’s often not much you can do but change your perspective on things, remind yourself that you’re somewhere beautiful (it really was), that you’re there because you want to, and because you’re free… And just like that, it all gets better… Apart from the cold wind, that sucker bit us in the face all day long!
The library, the vandalised hut and the extinct volcano
Before reaching Villa Tehuelches, an interesting small town with an equally interesting history, we climbed a couple of hundred metres and everything changed again; green forests surrounded us and there was some snow on the floor; the speed at which landscapes change down here is utterly incredible! We tried having lunch in the big, closed bus stop by the main road but after only a few minutes we started feeling cold again. We noticed a public library next door… Long story short, 5 minutes later we were sitting in some sort of over-heated (not complaining) conference room. We later offered the two amazing librarians two huge packs of tea we had found on the road earlier that day as a thank you token. Isn’t it funny how the universe works sometimes?
Our objective for the day was a small abandoned cabin by the river Pendiente which is well known among cyclists because it’s the only shelter for 150+ kms. It was still pretty far though, we were already tired, and we were about to face a long stretch of flat and straight road. Worse of all, we would probably have a strong sidewind!
But we had to try, if we’d stop in Tehuelches, we’d have the same problem the next day! As luck would have it, the wind helped a little part of the way and, although extremely exhausted, we managed to arrive there a couple of hours before sunset.
Bad news; the cabin had been vandalised. We could see so from the main road. Good news; we asked at the Police Station just opposite if there was anywhere else to pitch a tent and, pretty much straight away, they offered an unused building (with no water or electricity, whatever) for the night. The place was bare apart from a folded up table-tennis table that, no, we didn’t use. It was also incredibly cold and its roof kept on making loud noises because of the wind but, hey, it could be a lot worse so we thanked our friends in uniform and chit chatted for a little. They must have flipped out when they saw us slowly getting closer to their outpost, pushing again the 70 km/h gusts of wind, because we could see them peeking through the window, looking astonished. Anyway, as they were writing down our names and passport numbers, out of nowhere, we were asked by one of them if we’d like to go climbing the next day. How can you say no?
In the middle of a vast plain, there’s a small “nipple” of a mountain called Morro Chico; it’s all that’s left of a volcano that once lived there and probably caused the huge flatness surrounding it. Said place is, literally, in the back garden of the police outpost, and that’s where we went climbing! The wind was so strong that, at the top, we could do that silly thing where you lean into it with your whole body and not fall… We spent a few lovely hours with Claudio Pérez who protects the law during the day and is a mountain guide the rest of the time (whenever that may be), walking around this small National Landmark, discovering its amazing hexagonal basalt rock formation and learning about the basics of rappelling.
The other thing Claudio taught us was how to eat those weird pâté sausages they sell in Chile which is a good thing, in the future, they will save our lives a couple of times (not literally).
That afternoon we had a very exciting rdv in an estancia located 20 kms West of where we slept but, by lunch time, the wind had picked up even more and it would have been dangerous to cycle. Maybe feeling the dread in our hearts, the Police guys offered a lift and, we’re not ashamed to confess this, we accepted! It would have taken us over 4 hours to cycle those 20 kms, by car it took less than 20 minutes!
The living estancia and a South American rodeo
A friend of a friend in Punta Arenas got us a visit of an estancia which has been “artificially engineering” sheep since a long time ago. Sounds weird but apparently it’s pretty common. They basically just mix different pedigrees together and breed animals for different customers around the world. The point being; it was super interesting! Not just to learn about all of this but to actually see a working estancia. We’d been hosted by half abandoned ones in Argentina a couple of times but to stay there was a real treat! We slept in the shearer’s quarters (empty at the time because the shearing season hadn’t started yet) and got fed 3 meals a day by a cook who made better food than my grandmother! Oh, cherry on top, we went to a “Jineteada” (Chilean rodeo) with our host and had a real good time!
Thanks to the time spent at the estancia and the rodeo, we realised something really important; this part of Chile is very similar to its neighbouring part of Argentina and, if you were to observe this little corner of the world on a map, you would see why; they are both disconnected from the world but there’s actually no natural borders between them!
Having had a day off, we were ready to face the last leg of this first part of the trip and finally made it to Puerto Natales! We didn’t know what to expect of this small city and, truth be told, we preferred Punta Arenas; we really enjoyed its historic and local feel to it. True, Natales has much more touristy stuff but it also feels like it recently sprung out of nowhere to face the tourist flow to the mighty Torres del Paine National Park.
A good summary of this initial leg would be; very tough but definitely worth it! It is obviously not the most scenic region of South America, although there are some seriously pretty corners with amazing wildlife to be observed, but it does have a very interesting human factor to be considered and discovered too. Every second spent out there meant being tested by either the restless wind or the bitter cold, neither could stop us by the way, and even the surprisingly warm locals tried, but we made it!
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