Tierra del Fuego means land of fire and is so called as when the first explorers sailed around the island they noticed the giant fires built by the native Selk nam and Yanama people, used to keep warm and survive in such harsh conditions. This island, across the Magellan straight from the most southern part of mainland Americas is the natural end to most trans-American cycle tours.
I fell in love here, there is such a unique beauty when no one else is around and the sun shines on the grasses and the guanacos run by; estancia sleepovers, as well as seeing dolphins and king penguins also made this a truly remarkable place. If you paid attention there were signs that the land was running out, the flat expanses and arriving at the Atlantic coast for the first time in our trips were our signs, we were coming to the end.
A place I had been long imagining, or at least imagining the feelings I would have on being there. We were living in high definition, an intensity, as we clung on to the final few days of our trips. So many people have asked how I felt to arrive in Ushuaia, and the truth was that I was just riding, and then we were there…. everything that has happened is in the past, and all you have in that moment is you, on the road.
4th March – Puna Arenas to Porvenir by boat, Porvenir to Estancia Concordia
The ferry left Punta Arenas at 9am and took two hours.
Porvenir means future in Spanish.
Women’s rights mural that was being painted as we cycled past.
The flying club of the future, this sign reads.
We faffed around in Porvenir buying food, this being our last opportunity to use our remaining Chilean pesos.
We took the coastal route, with the Magellan straight to our right.
It was a still day, the famed Fuegan wind decided not to show that day.
Riding down towards the bay I could make out some splashing in the ocean and squealed with delight with the realisation of what it was; an incredible performance of flips, dives and synchronised swimming by a school of dolphins. The awe, joy, thrill, and happiness I felt were just something else. What a gift.
Horses passed as we sat in the bay. As Lee said, “TdelF is pretty cool.”
Sweet, shiny legged Lee.
I can still remember the sound of the crunching sea weed under my feet.
After over an hour of watching dolphins we thought we better hit the road. The riding was undulating and tough at times.
Charms and Lee had stopped to put on their rain jackets when Carlos came out of his tiny tin hut to invite us in, at the point that I caught up with them. A self-educated recluse who was a little creepy but incredibly intriguing. We piled into his small living space whilst he handed out the beers and told us to stay for the night, he sat the whole time with his top off and a giant hernia sticking out of his chest. He owned piles of books, and had taught himself several languages from the dictionaries he had picked up. Once the rain had stopped we turned down an offer of a second beer to keep riding.
Beer and dried tiger fish all round. Unfortunately I have no pictures of that afternoon, the weather became grim and it was cold, and my mood changed grey like the weather.
That night we found ourselves in the luxurious cabin of David, the caretaker of Estancia Concordia. What a special guy, he laid out tea and bread with real butter for us, and did the same for breakfast. We warmed ourselves on the wood burning stove and slept in the spare dormitories in the cabin. That night the wind picked up, and it rained hard, so unpredictable the weather. We were so relieved to be indoors, and also a little intimidated by the thought of heading out.
5th March – Estancia Concordia to San Sebastian (Argentina)
It was around 11am once we finally got on the road.
We had 100kmph tail wind that day, we sailed along.
The presence of guanacos on the island really got me thinking about the pangaea.
I caught up with Lee and Charm at a cross roads marked on the map as Onaisin. This was in fact just a bus stop, a luxuriously enclosed one providing essential respite from the wind. We went through our options, we had wanted to take the long way round to Rio Grande along Bahia Inutil but the wind was insane that it would have been dangerous to even ride against it as a side wind as we would have been doing. Not taking this route would mean missing the King Penguin colony around 13km ahead. Missing the penguins was not an option for Charms. We therefore stashed our bikes in the bus stop, and hitched (in a tourist mini bus) to the penguin colony.
The King Penguin are the second largest species of penguin in the world, and are normally only seen on subantarctic islands; this was a unique opportunity. It is thought that they are tempted here by the warmer waters of the estuary that runs into the Magellan straight.
A real privilege.
Bahia Inutil means Useless Bay, and is so called because 19th century British explorers were unable to use the bay as a port to dock their boats.
Well camouflaged little fox. After our little penguin side trip the mini-bus dropped us back at our bus stop, we ate lunch and then free wheeled our way along to San Sebastian.
It was mostly really good fun. At times though, having such a strong tail wind felt dangerous, it was hard to stop and impossible to hear anything, we would always give on coming trucks a wide birth. The ripio became quite bad close to the border, we would not have chosen this route had the wind not dictated it.
Our final border crossing.
Once stamped into Argentina one final time we enquired about a place to sleep for the night. We were offered this heated resting room by immigration police, complete with stove and seats. Bram and Katarina were there too!
I had been carrying this Buddha since Nicaragua when it was given to me by a Brazilian cycle tourist who was heading north. The Buddha had previously gone up and down the continent twice before that. Bram and Katarina were continuing their trip, heading back north, I gave them the buddha. Wonder how far he will go?
6th March – San Sebastian to Rio Grande
Lee had 3 days to catch his flight from Ushuaia, these 3 places would be his destinations for each remaining night.
Our first view of the Atlantic on the trip, land is getting thin.
Sometimes cookies don’t have enough calories for touring cyclists, and we have to boost them with peanut butter.
We stopped at a hill filled with various shrines to popular road side saints. Gauchito Gil is the favourite, people leave offerings, mainly booze and cigarettes, it smelt like a pre-smoking ban pub.
Leave some wine and light a black candle for the grim reaper. Argentinians are so unique in so many of their customs.
Bleak pier on the Atlantic coast.
An agricultural missionaries college.
Taking some gnarly dirt tracks into Rio Grande.
Rio Grande. Some people might say it is a shit hole, I would say it is an interesting place. It felt quite sad to me, a depressed industrial port city, we were arriving in late summer and it was already grey, cold, and obviously quite impoverished. The whole city was a war memorial to the Falklands war, as all the Argentinian boats left from there 32 years ago.
One of Rio Grandes saving graces was the Grido. This ice cream chain powered our pedals in Northern Argentina, acting as a huge motivator in those difficult hot desert pampa days.
Las Malvinas / The Falklands are something that have little importance to British peoples lives. They are simply not something we are taught about, a tiny insignificant notch on the bedpost that is Britain’s war history. It is quite the opposite in Rio Grande, and still over 32 years later, the 6 week long war continues to define the city. Another cycle tourist called the city a petulant child. Being British we had been subject to too many conversations about the Malvinas during our time in Argentina, we therefore decided it only appropriate to go and visit the Veteran run Malvinas memorial museum.
I am quite ashamed to say this now, but I wanted to go and visit the museum objectively and not enter a debate, so we all said that we were Canadian. I regretted this lie, firstly because we all know that lies are never worth telling, and secondly because the veterans who ran the museum were engaging, informative and friendly, and I think it would have been fine. They said they did not have foreigners coming very often. In the museum it was possible to buy plenty of propaganda, but more significantly we were able to look at photos of the troops on both sides in battle, models of the ships, and the original soldiers uniform.
They insisted Charms try on the uniform. The veterans we spoke to all had different stories. One had been on the Belgrano, the Argentine ship controversially sunk by the British, over 600 of the 1000 sailors on board died. He was from Correntes, the jungle part of northern Argentina up by the border with Brazil. I was imagining how he must have felt, aged 18 coming from the tropics, down to fight a war in the Antarctic ocean in the middle of winter, brutal. The young boys were used as cannon fodder in an ill planned invasion ordered by President Galtieri to help bolster support for / detract attention from his failing military dictatorship. The veterans spoke about their strong feeling that the islands should be part of Latin America, and their disappointment of being let down by ‘their brothers’ and neighbours, Chile, who assisted Thatcher in allowing the British navy to use Chilean ports.
Another of Rio Grande’s saving graces was the fire station. We camped in the night in the junkyard, and were welcomed inside to use the kitchen, wifi and hot showers. It was our last evening with Lee, and he cooked up some rich pasta dinner using 4 cheeses.
7th March – Rio Grande to Estancia Miramonte
Charmian and I had a week to get to Ushuaia, Lee on the other hand had just two more days, so that morning we parted ways. I waved Lee off, pretty sure I would see him again at some point in the future.
Obligatory sign. Charms and I left Rio Grande riding as a pair for the first time in about 6 weeks. We cycled around 13km on the main road before taking a ripio detour.
The quiet road was a joy after the highway…
…. past gauchos…
…. and through forests.
That evening we were given a place to sleep in the spare room of another estancia caretaker’s house.
Cooking dinner on these wood burning stoves is a joy. We took a shower using the wood fuelled boiler.
8th March – Estancia Miramonte to Tolhuin
Chronically shy Daniel, the estancia caretaker.
A tree full with old mans beard moss.
Very glad to have taken this detour, it was quiet, beautiful and we saw no traffic that day. I think this whole detour could have been done in one long day to Tolhuin if you left Rio Grande before mid day (unlike us).
Once back on the main road it is 11km to Tolhuin. The weekend traffic was enough to make us feel incredibly smug to have taken the detour. We arrived at Tolhuin to the famous La Union bakery, with a Casa del Ciclistas attached. We were in a place that had been many people’s first and also final night of their adventures.
9th March – Tolhuin
Empenada making in action. We took a rest day in Tolhuin as we had no rush to get to Ushuaia. We were happy to hang out with the other cyclists, eat pastries and use the wifi.
Those facturas, think we had a 3 a day habit.
10th March – Tohuin and back to Tolhuin again
We left Tolhuin….
… got 17km down the road battling crazy dangerous side wind, past beaver dams like these.
We stopped to eat some bakery snack, and decided the wind was too crazy, and turned back, barely having to pedal the whole way. We got back to the bakery and ate more facturas.
11th March – Tolhuin to camp
The following day, the wind was down, and most of the cyclists left the bakery.
We had time to get to Ushuaia so we decided to take a side route that went to a thermal springs, we had not had good enough internet to check if a road would lead us through to Estancia Harberton as we hoped. One map told us there was a road, but all of the others told us it didn’t exist, we decided to go check it out.
Coca-cola coloured lake.
A peaceful little detour.
Passing through a few ‘no entry’ signs….
… and an incredibly scary dog, luckily locked up. The guys who ran the thermal springs told us the road had been cut and it was not even possible to hike.
We headed back to the main road, it had been a nice detour.
It was down hill back to the road, views of Lago Fagnano in the distance.
A relaxing lunch, I love to lie and stretch out at any opportunity.
Back on the main road.
We barely noticed the up hill to Paso Garibaldi.
At the top of the pass we were treated to views of Lago Fagnano.
We descended though beautiful scenes like this. Ushuaia is unique in that is the only place in Argentina that is on the western side of the Andes, being on this side of the Andes makes atypically green for Argentina. We came across an out of season ski resort, and found some other cyclists, Katarina, Bram and Victor, we all camped in a small cave.
12th March – camp to Ushuaia
Our final morning camp. We were just 30km from Ushuaia.
Riding under ski lifts.
Oh, Tierra del Fuego, you are beautiful. During those final kilometres I soaked everything in. I was trying to scan my mind for feelings of nostalgia and emotion but I was just riding and then we were there!
Ushuaia, the end of the world! The end of our journey!