Goodbye South America.

We passed between two large stone towers and arrived in the place that I had been dreaming about for so long. USHUAIA said the large white letters. I had thought about this moment of arrival way back on lonely mountain roads in Ecuador, during times of sickness in Peru, fighting through the heavy traffic of La Paz, in the deserts of the Ruta 40 and in the rains of Patagonia.

But after the sheer emptiness of the last 6 days of riding through Tierra del Fuego, it was an utter shock to arrive in this busy city, heaving with cars and packed with tourists. We fought past the tacky souvenir shops and the touristy restaurants to drink a Pisco Sour to celebrate the end of the long road. But then we realised that there was no place for us to stay. High season in Patagonia meant that everything was fully booked. The sun was so intense and along with the alcohol that I had become so unaccustomed to, an ache began to pound through my head. I felt disorientated in this urban maze. Making the rounds of the fully booked hostels, searching for a bed, Fabian found a large cardboard bike box for his flight home and went carrying it through the streets. We then bumped into a cyclist who had just arrived from his home country of Venezuela. He carried his surf board attached to his bike with a home made set up made from plastic bathroom tubes. Him with a surfboard and Fabian with a giant piece of cardboard, homeless, kind of drunk, and in the city at the end of the world. It all seemed rather surreal.

After camping in the tiny garden of a hostel, we left for the Tierra del Fuego National Park and Bahia Lapataia which was quite literally the end of the road. It was here where the road would stop and the sea would begin. But it was not quite the magical place to be expected. Instead there was a row of coaches and crowds of chubby holiday makers. Surrounded by inquisitive holidaying Germans, answering their questions, I thought…”now the trip is really over”. A shudder, a feeling of sadness and sickness collected in my stomach. The trip was over but time was not.

How would life ever be the same again? After all the challenges, the tears, the emotions, the adventures, the sights, the views, the secret camp spots, the lessons learnt, the tests endured. It had been a journey of joy, frustration, excitement and strength. Vivid and ever-lasting memories day after day, new things to see, decisions to make, kilometres to ride. We spent our days buying supplies, planning routes, asking for directions, crossing borders, chatting to locals, jumping in rivers, finding campsites, cooking pasta, drinking coffee, taking breaks, taking photographs, watching the street life, looking at the view, fighting the climbs the kilometres, the heat and the cold, relaxing in the sun…It was a happy routine, a simple way of life. We had learnt to sleep everywhere and anywhere: in police stations, fire stations, back yards, behind rocks, jungle huts, football pitches, yards, gardens, farms, sheds, huts, between cacti, in silence or by the city, in an empty museum, at the rangers station, among ancient forests, creepy woods, in tunnels, in garages, outside, inside, in hippy camps or starred hotels. The questions had been never ending, amusing us, surprising us and entertaining us at every corner: Where are you from? Where are you going? Aren’t you getting tired? Don’t you want to take the bus? Aren’t you cold in that tent? Won’t water come inside? Are you rich? Are you a millionaire? Did you cycle here from England? Do you have children? Do you believe in God? When are you getting married? The pictures, paintings and views I had collected portrayed a colourful view of a dynamic land: the first view of La Paz, Machu Picchu, the island of the sun, the Huapi pass in the Cordillera Blanca, the view of the Huayhuash mountains, the volcanoes of Cotopaxi, Chimborazo and Sajama. The wild and untamed peaks without name, the jungles, the canyons, the deserts, the pampas, the high passes, the fast rivers, the dark forests, the rocky open road. The wilderness always giving silence, time to think and to feel. The people who lined our route, the colourful characters, the inquisitive locals: the farmers, immigration officials, curious children, solemn gauchos, fellow cyclists, passers-by, teachers, tourists, shop keepers, policemen, tour guides and street sellers. The chaotic clutch of a different culture: the colourful clothes, the dirty markets, the boisterous behaviour, the simple mud houses, the never ending friendliness. The bustling or deadly silent villages, towns or cities. Certain key moments would be etched upon my memory forever more: running up to Acotango across white rock at 5600metres in Bolivia, boating down the Magdalena river in Colombia, cooking bread and empanadas on the fire in Patagonian Chile, drinking bottles of wine on sunny terraces in Argentina, getting caught in a storm on the salt flats of Bolivia, trekking past 6000metre peaks in Peru, cycling through the jungle in Ecuador, riding the trampoline of death in Colombia, random conversations, unexpected encounters, breathtaking views…18000km, 250.000m of climbing, 6 countries, 9 months. And all the moments and memories trickle down to our arrival in Ushuaia at the end of this great continent.

The following days quickly passed by in a sluggish blur. Packing, preparing, cleaning and washing, ready for the long flight home. But in the end I found myself in yet another tricky situation, on my last night in South America, smelling and sweating profusely in the hot bright office of my airline at Buenos Aires airport. After months of travel, always careful with my possessions, I had forgotten to collect my credit card from my last ATM use and it had been swallowed up. I couldn’t quite believe it. So there I was pleading with the airline staff to let me take my bike on board for free, I had no other way of paying for it’s transit. That was my bicycle, my best friend, it had crossed a continent with me, been there for me in every moment, I had to take it home! Then, I managed to call my mother in England, waking her in the dead of night, instructing her to find my other PIN code for my other card, noted down in the back of my diary I had previously sent home from La Paz. The final disaster successfully averted, I dashed for the gate and made it just in time.

I knew that the days and weeks that followed would be difficult, slipping back into a life that felt like another planet. Flashbacks and daydreams would regularly transport me back to those bleak mountain tops or those sprawling markets or those vast desert views…secret camp spots. All of this leaving me with a deep longing and ache for that chaotic and lively, remote and wild life that had once carried me across a continent. And that big hole now carved inside me…what would I now fill it with?….more adventure, of course.

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Barichara, Colombia
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Shopping for my Colombian football shirt in La Plata, Colombia
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Trying out my coke can stove near Chillan, Chile
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6am, Machu Picchu, Peru
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4,800 metres @ Acotango base camp, Altiplano, Bolivia
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Laguna route, Altiplano, Bolivia
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Camping on the Ruta 40, Argentina
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Playa Blanca near Cartagena, Colombia…first day of the trip
Tierra del Fuego National Park.
Tierra del Fuego National Park…the last day of the trip.
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The Final Flight.

I was sitting in the sun in the garden of Hostel Independencia in Punta Arenas, talking to fellow cyclist Casey. In one year he had cycled down from his home in California, riding on asphalt and main roads. I asked him how he felt about the end of his journey. He told me that he was stoked on life and that when he returned home he would build a tipee in his parent’s garden. He also had thought about returning to college to study International Development. After spending so long in poorer countries he told me that he wanted to do something. He couldn’t just go home and start earning money again.

There was also a very grumpy French guy in the hostel. He complained about the weather and the wind. I recommended the rocky Carretera Austral to him and later realised my mistake when he told some French backpackers, “j’aime bien l’asphalt!”

When these conversations died down I picked up a book. The Latin America by bike guide book, published in 1990. Peru had been described as the most dangerous country. Every traveller would almost certainly be robbed. It was amazing to realise the great changes that had taken place throughout the continent in just the last 30 years.

It was a tiny and cramped hostel with ten tents in the garden and I was happy to soon be on the ferry to Tierra del Fuego. The wild land that sits on the southern tip of the continent. Dolphins jumped around the front of the ferry as we arrived into the port of Porvenir. The ferry was packed with people, a sharp contrast to the land around which was empty, full of nothing. Sleeping streets, crooked wooden buildings and angry dogs made up the village of Porvenir. Along with another end of the world type of feeling

We then followed the long and empty road by the coast heading east, zooming along thanks to the intense tailwinds. The land was smooth, the sea was wide and blue, waves crashed onto stoney beaches by small wooden shacks and old fishing boats. We found the entrance to an army base in the middle of nowhere and the guard let us eat lunch in the small hut, hiding from the wind. He was from Santiago, the busy capital city of Chile, thousands of miles away but he said he liked it here, it was very ‘tranquilo’.

We rolled on, observing distant estancias with mysterious names, in large empty fields. Covering over 100km, it was easy riding in the empty fresh air. At 7pm we came to a junction and found a well constructed hut. Inside there was an Argentinean cyclist resting and heading for the Ruta 40 – he is crazy we thought – Ruta 40 meant only pampas and headwind. With no water, we were a little desperate but the first passing car that we stopped gave us a 5 litre bottle and a bag of bread. Feeling exceptionally lucky we settled down in the hut for a wind free night.

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riding on tierra del fuego

The king penguin colony of Bahia Inutil was only 15km to the south of our junction but progress was very slow and painful with wind and exceptionally rocky roads and huge bumps. The only thing we passed was a farm with a sea of sheep and a few dark figures waving in greeting. We then observed the white little bodies of the penguins sitting still as statues over their precious eggs, their sharp dark beaks, their high pitched calls and their awkward walks, all in this bleak, windswept place they called home.

The next section of the ride seemed impossible. Directly into the wind, heading west, along the coast, rocky roads, constant ups and downs towards the tiny settlement of Cameron. Apart from that there was nothing. A feeling that I had come to relish throughout my South American ride. From here we headed inland through quiet pampas full of guanaco, enjoying a now gentle tailwind and the soft light of an evening at the end of the world. We finally camped in an old forest with twisted trees and a warm golden air illuminating the land. Already there in this peaceful paradise, I had the ominous and tragic feeling that the trip was nearly over.

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the king penguin colony on tierra del fuego

I squeezed every moment of magic and enjoyment from our last week of riding across Tierra Del Fuego. Waking up in an enchanted forest with creaking branches and crooked trees, watching powerful Guanacos stomping through the empty landscape. They were moments of peace and contentment before what would surely be the shock of coming home.

On the horizon there was a line of snow capped mountains, around us only empty space. Paso Bellavista must be the most relaxed border crossing of South American. We went looking for an official who eventually appeared with his two little boys, one of whom stamped my passport. Only a couple of other cyclists had crossed that day. We waded through the river and passed into Argentina for the last time and were met with a surreal sight. It was the first road sign marking Ushuaia, only 266km away.

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last border crossing
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the first road sign to Ushuaia

After 40km of easy dirt road the next morning, pushed along by a helpful tailwind, we arrived on the main road and asked for shelter in a nearby farm to cook lunch. We were kindly invited to cook on the Aga in the gloomy traditionally old kitchen. Soon, a little girl entered with pretty eyes and long flowing locks. She invited us into the garden to play with and feed her two pet lambs. She loved animals and loved having new people around to talk to…so eventually when we had to leave she was very sad to see us go.

After a few more kilometres of total nothingness we asked to camp on the Viamonte farm. The owner was part British with family in Derby and he lent us a big wooden house for the night. This was luxury for us and we passed the evening eating on the terrace, enjoying the sunset and watching herds of cows storming past.

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Staying on estancia viamonte

Lying in the sun the next day I thought to myself, this is it, never forget this moment of feeling free and alive, at the bottom of a continent in the sun and in the nature. Before long you will be back in drizzling Britain. My body was tired though, even if I didn’t want to admit it I knew that it was time to stop.

Our next stop was the famous Bakery la Union in Tolhuin. It was a famous place, in an otherwise sleepy village, that hosted passing cyclists. There we met an interesting array of characters. There was a Swedish couple just starting out on their world tour with hordes of sparkling brand new gear – everything I owned was totally falling apart. There was a lone Russian girl who had spent one year cycling down from Colombia, everything she owned was very old and worn, like her shoes which had been stitched up several times. She spoke in excitable but jumbled Spanish. Then there was the Uruguayan guy who had come down here on his motorbike and just stayed, the first traveller in years who had got a job at the bakery. He had just crossed the border and returned, to renew his visa. There were parrots in the hallway where we left our stuff, while we all slept on mattresses on the floor of the gym downstairs.

At the bakery we had heard about an even more unusual character and the next day, on the road to Ushuaia we had the opportunity to meet him. He was Martin from Manchester, known as the Bombero Caminante (the walking fireman), he had spent the last 8 years walking here from Mexico. Not in a straight line of course but wiggling around all over the place, through the mountains, along the coast and into the jungle. He had written in that book back at the police station in Morro Chico, and now I understood…”34000km, 8 years, 30 pairs of shoes”. He wore a bright yellow vest with patches of numerous fire stations and talked non stop. He ranted about the Falkland Isles and Argentinean officials. He recounted stories of being robbed or sleeping in a mental institute. He described trying to teach young people here about the environment as ‘pissing in the wind’. I laughed out loud, just because It had been a very long time since I had heard English words spoken from an English mouth.

Sitting in the door of our tent, behind the police station just before Passo Garibaldi, over a cup of hot tea, his monologue continued. It seemed as if he had travelled for so long there was no going back. And it made me feel good to be ending my trip here.

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Passo Garibaldi just before Ushuaia

There was still along way to go as we climbed to the Passo Garibaldi, our last pass of the trip, in bright intense sunlight. Jagged rocky peaks surrounded us along with a whole bunch of day tripping tourists. The lake shimmered behind us while the final kilometres to Ushuaia, through forests and meadows, beckoned before us. Down on the other side of the pass we met  Martin again, he had set off from the police station at 6am. Along with him we bumped into Silvio who we had met way back in the Los Alerces National Park near Bariloche. 2 more cyclists then appeared from the USA and Germany, both heading to the Carretera Austral. A spontaneous roadside meeting of wandering travellers, eagerly sharing stories and advice.

We kept prolonging the ride as much as we could, stopping for more roadside chats, more final photographs. I didn’t want it to end and I couldn’t believe that it would until this is…it did. We arrived, at the gates of the city and I knew that there was no going back, no point in resisting, and I let my pedals and my wheels and my final scraps of energy gently take me to the end.

Flip Flops in Patagonia.

I was still stomping around in the pink flip flops I had bought some 4,000 kilometres previously in the hot deserts of northern Chile, but now I was here, in stormy cold Patagonia and about to go even further South.

We bought 2 kilos of homemade bread from Flor on New Years day, before heading out into the windswept pampas of Patagonia where we were expecting to come up against strong head winds, while battling across the vast, open plains. On leaving town we saw Jean-Marc on the bridge, trying to hitch hike. He would now go to Brazil to hit carnival season in February, but was sad to be without bike and unsure of what was to come next on his journey. The fog and clouds had finally gone and looking back the view of Cerro Torre and Fitz Roy was dynamite. 50 kilometres later and the view hadn’t changed – a vivid, technicolor mountain mural. Ahead, was only flatness.

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Thankfully there was no wind, no need for shelter, we hopped a fence and camped in the open. Deep fatigue was setting into my body. The feeling of dirtiness and tiredness was constant. However much you washed you were never really clean. Our jam tub exploded in Fabian’s bag and we tipped it slowly into my plastic bottle, mislaid blobs making it sticky to handle. This really was a sign we had been on the road too long. La Leona was a hotel and restaurant on the road side in the middle of nothing. Coaches stopped here and tourists stared at us in confusion as we emerged, like foreign creatures, from the desert, windswept, homeless and smelling. They asked all the same old questions, “From Colombia? by bike! wow!”

Later, roadside, we met Danny from England. Cycling in the opposite direction, he was heading to Colombia. “That’s where I come from!” I piped up proudly. Then, as it was late in the day, there was the hurried exchange of information on water supply and possible campsites. At an emergency, government run house, they give us more gasoline for our stove and water for cooking. It was the only house for miles around. The men of the property were doing an Asado – a typical Argentinean BBQ – with assorted hunks of red and purple meats, while the women were doing tai chi exercises on the front lawn. We camped in the car park.

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Long roads curled gently through fresh and windy spaces the next day. We saw the tourist trap town of El Calafate across the wild waters of Lake Argentina, 70km away. It’s sole reason for existence was the world famous Perito Moreno glacier, named after the Argentinean explorer. Another cyclist turned up, also from England. He was heading for Alaska, “But it’s a long way” he added, ” we will see how it goes”. Hmm…I pondered…that is exactly what I used to say back in Colombia, many months ago. While Fabain and I were completely relaxed and cracking jokes, thoroughly acclimatised, he seemed rather nervous. We cooked lunch at the junction for El Calafate, under a big road sign that said “PATAGONIA”, feeling lucky with the pleasant and wind-free weather.

Meeting cyclists going in the other direction, I felt jealous. They had so many wonderful adventures to look forward to. In a romantic way, I wanted to live it all again: the suffering and the excitement. How did I feel about going home? Excited. Nervous. Positively terrified. It would definitely be a new start but right now I couldn’t help think about all the things I was truly going to miss: camping out, the fresh air, the spontaneity, the adventure.

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In my opinion El Calafate was a tourist dump. I couldn’t understand why people flew all the way down here. So very tacky, expensive and touristy. We met John and Kayla again, sitting on the sunny terrace of an expensive restaurant; aching muscles, tired legs, rather dehydrated, I felt that my brain was slowing down. However, the next day on the tourist bus to the  Glaciers national park, a big chunk of white suddenly appeared on the horizon. This was the Perito  Moreno Glacier. Undeniably spectacular. It’s icy sea stretched far backed into a horizon of misty mountains, while big blocks of ice cracked from it’s violent face, plunging dramatically into the lake. Of course we were not alone and all the tourists surrounding us were making sounds like, “Ooooooooooh” and “Aaaaaaaaaaah”, while an impressive assortment of digital gadgets were recording every second and snapping many, many glacier selfies.

Soon, Fabian and I were back on the road alone. All our cycling friends from the Carretera Austral had sadly now moved on or gone home. We tried to hitch hike back to the main road to avoid repeating ourselves but we failed along with the many backpackers trying to do the same thing. Bus tickets in Patagonia seemed expensive. But a strong head wind speeded us up and flew us back there very quickly. We had a quick lunch in the store house of a farm, hiding from the wind, which was one of only three buildings we would see all day. After a 500 metre climb onto a big high plateau, a crazy side wind threw me about and into the lane of oncoming traffic, but luckily the roads were still quiet and traffic free. I felt like a very small cyclist in the middle of a very big and empty landscape. A new and totally different riding experience. Still we were crazy, people in cars stared at us, “What are they doing all the way out here!” I was starting to worry that we wouldn’t find water. But at the next junction we found another one of those emergency houses where the man in charge lent us a pink shack in the car park. For us this was the height of luxury and had clearly been a temporary home to many wandering cyclists before. I loved sleeping in random places.

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Next morning we found 5 German cyclists camping by the main building. The day before they had done 180km and arrived at 11pm. We now had the challenge of seventy kilometres on the worst dirt road ever surrounded by completely flat and lifeless landscape. We knew it was going to be a struggle. Our wheels rolled over big stones into strong head winds and after 40 kilometres we were collapsed on the roadside resting when a motorbike and sidecar pulled up. The couple inside, from California and Italy, wanted to check that we were alright. The next 6 kilometres took 45 minutes as we battled on into the wind. We were tempted to hitch hike but no more cars passed by. Neck aching from a new and strong side wind, which also went ringing in my ears,  I finally saw the buildings on the next junction coming up ahead.

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After a painful last ten kilometres, arrival felt so blissfully good. At the next emergency post we were invited to sleep in on old white caravan, again, many, many cyclists passed by here. The tiny gas station over the road was covered in stickers displaying the logos and names of passing travellers while inside they only sold rolls of Mentos and three litre bottles of Coke. We bought all of the above immediately in celebration of our long, tough day. Huddled inside our little caravan, watching the red sun set behind distant spikey peaks, we ate more pasta, drank more coke and ate more biscuits.  Life was so simple on a bike.

For our ride towards Villa Cerro Castillo, back over into Chile, we were lucky to have no headwind. In the morning we found a French cyclist camping in a shed next to our caravan. He had arrived at 11pm, taking advantage of a windless evening. He took our photo. Ten minutes later another cycling couple from Russia, pulling their one year old in a trailer, also took our photo. This long and desolate road really seemed to be a cyclists hot spot. And along came some more, a Chile-USA couple going to Coyhaique.

The landscape wasn’t completely empty. We saw flocks of sheep and gaggles of flamingos sharing the land, along with fat ugly bulls being herded along by stern gauchos on horse back, faithful dogs yapping by their side. We descended through a meadow of white flowers to the Argentinean immigration office where we met a young Israeli man with a huge black backpack. He asked us many questions but couldn’t help repeating, “Cycling…ALL the time…ALL THE TIME???” Yes, we cycled all the time and it was totally and utterly brilliant.

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New Year Fitz Roy.

The boat from Villa O’Higgins dropped us off at Candelario Mancilla by Chilean immigration, a long white cabin overlooking the intense blue waters, where we got our exit stamps. We paused here to have lunch with Pablo and Noah, 2 Spanish cyclists. He had been on the road for nearly two years, dragging along behind him a box full of puppets. He was a street performer and did shows in the communities he visited along his route.

Onwards, the dirt road climbed steeply away from the lake and then through a forest to the “Welcome to Argentina” sign, situated in a tiny clearing. Along the route there was a scattering of travellers, on foot or on bike. Some of the bikers looked rather exhausted, as the next section of the route, down towards Lake Desierto in Argentina was 7 kilometres of mud, river crossings, steep gradients, narrow ditches and chunky roots. We pushed, carried and squeezed through it all, arriving on the shores of the lake with wet feet, muddy bikes and cold chills. We checked into Argentina at this rather secluded immigrations office and set up camp under the rain.

The next morning, we looked out onto wet forests, the pale grey lines of the lake and the layers of mountains before catching the second boat. The ticket lady on the boat, Melissa, had clearly seen it all when it came to cyclists, and we discussed the wild Patagonia weather while sailing past tall, skinny waters trickling down into the lake. DSCN1565 DSCN1566 It was 40 kilometres of bumps to El Chalten. I was so looking forward to some rest and some civilisation, proudly announcing, “I don’t care what I eat tonight, as long as it comes with French fries.” With low clouds covering the town and cold air gushing through the streets, El Chalten was a tiny windswept settlement lost between the great plains of Southern Argentina and the icy spines of the Andes, a very remote location with very little phone or internet connection to the outside world. Despite this, a thriving tourism industry had developed with plenty of hostels, stylish cafes and pricey ice cream parlours. Only founded in the 1980s, as a military outpost to protect Argentinean soil from possible invasion from Chile, mountaineers had arrived in the 1990s with their eyes set on the peak of Fitz Roy, while general tourism had hit after that. The place now seemed to be brimming with people from all around the world, all coming to gaze upon the mightily impressive and dramatic rocky spines of Cerro Torre and Fitz Roy. The hordes of tourists and the high prices led me to think that we were stuck in a bit of a tourist bubble. Quite a change from the authentic little villages of the Carretera Austral that had been home to communities and real life.

However, we soon joined the stream of trekkers going towards the Glaciers National Park. As we climbed the easy trails towards Fitz Roy I felt very happy for the change of pace, and to be using my legs for once rather then my wheels. And we were lucky with the view, Fitz Roy was pointing out the clouds right in front of us. However, the free campsites were all packed to the brim, quiet different to the lonely spots we had always enjoyed – this is why, yet again, I knew I loved travelling “off the beaten track”. Thick fog and rain came in and we trekked over to the Piedras Blancas glacier. Scrambling over big grey and prickly rocks, the milky blues of the glacier crumbled down into the lake right in front of us.

We woke up to a heavy storm and had a lie-in until 11am, eating porridge tucked up in our sleeping bags. After sitting, freezing wet under a tree, somewhere along the trail near laguna Hija, eating dulce de membrillo, biscuit and apples for lunch, I headed up to Laguna Torre alone, passing hundreds of trekkers, it was like walking down the high street.  Then the clouds lifted and a spectacular view was gradually revealed to me, silver spines illuminated in the bright white light. DSC_0296DSCN1685 We soon found ourselves drinking coffee in Flor’s tiny kitchen. “Something to share”, she smiled, handing us dulce de leche cakes from a jar, cooked by her mother, as kittens scurried around our feet and water dripped from the ceiling into her teacup. Flor was an exceptionally kind and welcoming local woman who opened up her home to travelling cyclists, proudly boasting of one occasion when she had 15 tents in her back garden and 20 people in her kitchen. She told us about the history of the town and the mountain, how the Argentinean academic and explorer Francisco Moreno had discovered Fitz Roy in 1877, naming it after the commander of the expedition of the HMS Beagle of the 1830s. The first settlers in the area were Danish, who aided early mountaineering expeditions, and their descendants still lived in the area today. She also spoke of the first ascent of Fitz Roy by an Argentinean team and the North American climber who had recently caused controversy on the mountain by removing all of the fixed rope, with the goal of restoring the mountain to it’s natural state.

So It was in the Casa de Ciclista of El Chalten where after 8 months of cycling, I would spend New Years Eve. A concrete structure, missing a top floor, covered in graffiti, with a messy back garden housing many travellers’ tents, not forgetting a very warm and friendly atmosphere. Cyclists from around the globe crowded around Flor’s tiny kitchen table, sharing pumpkin tart, Japanese noodles, red poached pears, wine, smarties. 2 Japanese, 2 North American, 1 Swiss, 1 English, 1 Belgian, 2 Spaniards, and about 5 Argentineans (Flor, her mother and her children) all toasted to the new year and many more happy adventures. DSCN1696 DSCN1699

Miracles and Disasters.

Picture postcard views and busy roads marked our lazy ride over to Lican Ray, another holiday resort in the Chilean Lake District. We munched on chunky chocolate bars while passing below pointed volcanoes and long sun rays. Hidden between dark, dense trees were Mapuche communities full of rustic cabins and dusty, empty streets. These were the indigenous people famous for fighting so hard against the Spanish conquistadors.

In Carriringue, we camped in a big, soft field and cooked a delicious dinner under the wide branches of an old tree. Despite the idyllic setting, on the edge of Patagonia, I thought about all the things that I missed from home: family, watching movies, English comfort food, my nice and normal clothes.

After a lazy morning, we had to hurry to Puerto Fuy to catch the 1pm boat to the border. Racing over steep and rocky roads, we overtook a gaggle of holidaying Argentinean cyclists. We had no food, so I rushed into a local café to buy 12 hot empanadas and only just jumped abroad in time. From the port it was a 2 hour boat journey along a narrow lake, bordered by steep forested mountains. The jolly captain pointed out the ancient Mapuche paintings on the cliff walls and then chuckled at our efforts to steer the boat.

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A deserted border crossing led us to Lake Lanin and a free camp spot. Lying on the beach in the sun, we ate sandwiches bought from the nearby luxury hotel, the only food we had left until town.

An early morning ride along steep, rough roads led us to San Martin de Los Andes, found on the edge of sparkling waters and hewn in by tree clad slopes. Modelled on a European style resort, it was full of elegant outdoor shops and stylish gourmet cafes. In a remote corner of Argentina I was reminded of my visit to the high class Austrian ski resort of Kitzbuhel, found right in the centre of Europe.

On leaving town, the road climbed above the perfect surface of the lake water, smooth and glistening brilliantly like a sheet of glass. A Canadian couple who had started cycling from Cusco in June stopped to say, “You have quiet a climb in front of you” But, in fact it was easy, a mere blip. After the trials of Bolivia and Peru, anything on asphalt was easy. This was the famous 7 Lakes route, traversing the Nahuel Huapi national park. A wilderness full of forests and deep blue waters like, Lake Falkner, where we arrived 20km later. As a very popular and famous national park, the official campsite on the lake shore cost 80 pesos. Unthinkable on a cyclists budget, so, instead we hid in the trees for free, behind a “No Camping” sign.

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I felt fit and strong on the rest of the 7 lakes route, powering up many short, sharp climbs, winding my way through green mountains and glass lakes swimming between them, covering 80km on the way to Villa Angostura. Here, we paused to eat a simple lunch of bread and cheese, while all around us there were luxurious shops and expensive cafes. This was touristic Patagonia.

During that time I thought a lot about arriving in Ushuaia, at the end of the continent. It had become much more then just a physical destination. It was a mental goal too and it would be a moment for great change. Tired, constantly on the move, my legs were just going on automatic pilot. They would take me there, keep me going. It was just too important. I had been so involved in this journey.

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Resting in Bariloche, I realised that walking was no longer normal, it was too slow, too much hard work, while cycling felt so comfortable, so easy and natural. Bariloche was a strange place, a touristic merry-go-round, full of over priced chocolate shops or tacky souvenirs. The town, I had found quiet ugly but the setting was still spectacular and we hiked up Cerro Campanario to take a look. Here I met an older Colombian man who had also cycled down from the start of the Andes. We would all be taking the same route south, just days or weeks apart.

Passing through the deep valleys, the bulging peaks, and the shimmering skies of the Nahuel Huapi national park, we soon arrived in El Bolson. This was a mountain town and a hippy hide out with musicians playing on the street and barefoot children running between the artisan craft stalls.

From here I was lucky to continue riding south with Fabian, the Swiss cyclist, and Virgil and Marion, the French cycling couple we had met in Quito and then in La Paz. It was great to ride in a team, with a fun, friendly atmosphere. In an open field, roadside, we set up camp and made a fire to cook a feast of fresh home made bread, mash potatoe, sausages, turron and dulce de membrillo, accompanied by two bottles of wine. We went crazy in every shop and enjoyed long, sociable lunches by sunny riversides. Another free camp spot was hidden between tall swaying trees, with a muddy trickle close by for washing.

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In the Parque Nacional Los Alerces we followed rough routes along the lake shore and stared at the bulging distant glaciers, while discussing past and future adventures. Here we met Silvio from Argentina, also cycling south. We would eventually bump into him again, hundreds of kilometres down the line, on Tierra del Fuego. A hard and fast ride took us to Trevelin where we camped amongst dry bushes, hiding on the edge of town and enjoying the new camp fire routine of wine and good food.

10km before returning to Chile, the unthinkable happened. A jeep narrowly overtook us one by one, travelling very fast, and as we turned the corner we saw the accident. Virgil was lying on the floor in pain, hit by that careless speeding vehicle. There was some confusion and a crowd of locals quickly gathered. He and  Marion were soon shuttled off to the Trevelin hospital in a basic white van, passing for an ambulance. For me, it was a cyclists nightmare come true, after such a long road, so many safe kilometres travelled,…Then this.

A man approached me and asked for all the details of the accident. “But who are you?” I asked in confusion. It was the local police officer, dressed in worn out boots and a tattered checked shirt. He looked more like a farmer. After storing all the bikes at the house of a kind local woman, the farmer policeman gave us a lift to the hospital. His car was a wreck with paper covering broken windows and everything loose, broken or missing. But still, he wore a gun on his belt. Virgil was more or less ok but it had been an extremely lucky escape. It would take some time for him to recover from the collision so Fabian and I had no choice but to continue on alone. Over into Chile and down south, along the rocky and remote Carretera Austral.

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Volcanoes Bubbling…Monkey Puzzling

Apricots, peaches, bananas and apples gave us heavy bags for the road to Bardas Blancas. I was struggling in the hot desert weather and then again on the long downhill towards the village. Yet another fight…against another strong head wind. I was ready to leave the Ruta 40 and Argentina! Luckily we would soon be on our way to Chile, via the Paso Pehuenche.

We spent the night in Barbas Blancas sleeping in the garage of a police station. Our host there had welcomed many cyclists and talked enthusiastically about the travellers he had met. We cooked on the dusty floor, talking about our random day dreams on the saddle and then slept with a vicious wind blowing sand all over us.

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They had said, “No wind in the morning, only in the afternoon”.  But it couldn’t have been more wrong. There was incredibly strong wind from 8am, as we made a right turn and headed to the Chilean border. In many places I could not stand up, the howling, violent winds blowing me over,…while the bike went tumbling upside down. Progress was slow and painful.

Arrival in Las Loicas was a relief and we recovered with more coke, then biscuits and jam. Stefan suddenly appeared and we check out of Argentina together, pedalling towards Paso Pehuenche. There was less wind but 800 metres to climb between snowy mountains and pinnacles of rock. The dramatic climb continued through a narrow valley as a storm rumbled overhead. Several cars stopped and asked if we were OK, offering us water. I knew that we would never make it to the pass and eventually we camped in a derelict building between icy slopes and fast flowing streams.

We made the pass early the next morning, now in sun. Large chunks of snow were piled on the roadside and a big, cold, blue lake lay in a desolate landscape. The way was punishing with steep gradients and constant ups and downs. The air was freezing and still.

By the time I reached the Chilean border post I was wind swept, dizzy and buzzing from the tough morning ride, with no idea what was going on. There were two windows and two forms to fill out. Someone asked me if I was from the UK or England which led to an interesting discussion about my country. Another young man searched my bags for fresh goods that were not allowed into Chile. He seemed distracted as he asked a million questions about my trip, “Where do you sleep? How far do you go each day?” He then dropped my pot and it clattered to the floor. “Look!” I joked with him, “You broke my pot!” Then we begged them for some food as we had already run out, yet again and the nearest shops were still 40km away. They, very kindly, handed over some biscuits, one packet each, and we were off, down into Chile.

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Chile felt like a holiday. We cooked by some hot springs, after buying pasta from a local, eating in sun, and then bathing in the clear waters. At the first roadside cafe we ate again, a big fat juicy burger. After 110km, we camped at a deserted riverside campsite, at an altitude of 400 metres! The lowest I had been since the jungle in  Bolivia. Camping had become a true feast, with crisps, biscuits, pasta and fried vegetables then more biscuits for desert. The way to Linares the following day took us along small dirt roads and trails, hopping fences and gates, passing big spiders and perfect tranquil villages, farm houses, meadows and football pitches full of sheep. All in all, Chile was peaceful, calm and easy.

After some bicycle maintenance, French fries and generous portions of ice cream in Linares, we said goodbye to Fabian as he went speeding off ahead, but as we were all going the same way, there was no doubt our paths would cross again.

Our return to Chile had highlighted some key changes in our South American travels. Here there were rules, receipts and security guards telling us off for cycling here and there. A policeman told me off for listening to music on a quiet forest dirt road. So different to the high Andes, Chile was trying so hard to be civilised and it wasn’t always fun.

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Here the houses were elegant and stylish chalets rather then the gloomy, mud brick constructions of the altiplano. In Peru and Bolivia, an old lady walking down the street with a bunch of alpacas, llamas, donkeys and sheep was a common sight, animals were allowed to roam free, but here the police were called to round up any escaped animals on the loose.

We took a train between Linares and Chillan to avoid a 100 kilometre stretch of main road. The service was streamline, professional and efficient with smartly dressed ticket collectors who helped you on with your bags and even someone mopped the aisle as the train was moving! Cleaning on the go!

In the supermarket in Chillan, I was overwhelmed by the choice on offer, everything and anything I wanted was available…I hesitated over 5 different types of blackberry jam. Shopping was easy now, no longer an adventure as it had been back in Bolivia and Peru.

Out of the crowded streets a man approached and after apologising for disturbing me, he asked, “Are you cycling around the world?” Feeling sorry to disappoint him,  I said, “no…only across South America”. The busy streets and the stress of the city actually made me miss the empty, windy pampas of Argentina.

We camped in a clearing in the woods on the edge of town. For us, this was great but a dog walker passing by was surprised to see us there, “Why can’t you find somewhere nicer to camp?” He said in amusement. Then four young men on good quality mountain bikes appeared, waved at us and then pedalled on. Here, people had hobbies, interests, ideas about leisure time and comfort…all so, so different to the past 5 months of Andean travel.

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A waitress in Santa Barbara was instantly warm and friendly, and it turned out that she was from Colombia. She had been working there for four years, but she had not seen her children, back in Colombia, for the last two years. Then, despite Chile’s clear development, I had a reminder that we were still in South America. The Colombian woman went outside as a horse and cart pulled up. She then exchanged an empanada for a coke bottle full of fresh milk.

Two old men on a street corner asked me, “What do you think of it here?” I looked around at the rain, the low clouds and the wet scenery of green forests and said, “Well actually it looks exactly like England here!” 30km down the road, in the village of  Ralco, we befriended the owner of the supermarket who said to us, with sheer shock and surprise, “My goodness, you cycled here all the way from Santa Barbara!!!” If only she knew the truth! We then left with three heavy bags of shopping, as much as we could carry, back out into the pouring rain.

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After a wet lake side camp we began our ride along the monkey puzzle trail, named after the oddly shaped and spikey leaved monkey puzzle tree, that was prevalent in the area. Along the edge of Lake Ralco we came up against many steep gradients and many rocky ups and downs. Mountains covered in green surrounded us and then suddenly above…there was a mighty snow capped mountain…or below there was a giant gushing waterfall. Lake Ralco had the shape of a spider and the road took the long way round, curling in and out of nearly every leg. Our route then led us across a bridge and straight up a steep and narrow path for a 500 metre vertical climb. Tough and crazy yet again, we seemed to love a challenge. Then the way down was just as steep and rocky. I felt frustrated, we had worked so hard that day, yet hardly any progress has been made and I had eaten nearly all of my supplies.

It took a long time for me to wake up on the shores of Lake Ralco. Everything was so smelly and dirty, I felt exhausted knowing that there was a long and bumpy trail ahead. Having already spied a supermarket on open street map in the next village of Troyo, I was eager to arrive and enjoy a big lunch. On the road ahead, I often had to get off and push, the gradient and rough road surface causing much difficulty. After a windy fight, more dust, gravel and bumps, we finally arrived in Lonquimay and celebrated with ice cream and coke, while chatting to the locals and their kids playing on the plaza. And then…we bumped into Fabian yet again and exchanged some stories from the road. His chain had snapped near Troyo, forcing him to hitch hike into town and find a bike shop to do repairs. But his usual good luck had won out yet again, as he had met a friendly Swiss/Chilean family who had helped him through it, moreover they had cooked him a traditional Swiss feast!

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Between Lonquimay and Melipeuco we crossed the Chilean Lake District under beautiful sun and monkey puzzle trees, along green valleys, lost and untouched, with smooth flowing dirt roads and a few deep river crossings. Big snowy volcanoes hung on the horizon, the only traffic…horses and dogs.

Towards Villarrica, everything was fenced off. Boundaries were clear between the network of narrow dirt roads and the private property of large farms and elegant chalets. But there were also good meals, long, lazy breaks and peaceful riverside camp sites. Everything reminded me of the English Lake District back home, except of course the occasional site of a giant volcanic cone. Some tourists stopped to ask, “Why here? Why do you choose to visit Chile?” Not visiting, I replied, cycling, only passing through this quiet and peaceful place full of dark chocolate, soft cakes and creamy ice cream.

Villarrica’s town centre was full of German cakes, Swiss cheese, wooden toys and woolly hats. A town very much still influenced by the European settlers who had arrived many years previously. We stayed in Torre Suiza, a wooden chalet and cosy mountain refuge…it felt like home, a quiet place to relax as rain poured down outside.

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Lost and Lazy on the Pampas

Cheeky good luck had come to Fabian yet again. Mendoza had a slight reputation for muggings and bike thefts,…so when a car stopped on the edge of the city, he had expected the worst, only to be greeted by a big plate of rice and chicken. The good luck always seems to continue… The three of us sat on the terrace of the hostel doing not much but comparing routes, plans and ideas, surrounded by backpackers who were constantly going off to do stuff, activities, like horse riding or wine tasting. Our priorities were quite different. We came to cities to rest, do our chores, eat a good meal and clean our bikes…Moreover, to catch our breath and relax our muscles after the never ending rhythm of the road. Fabian later told me that whenever he enters one of those typical, backpacker style hostels he always wants to make himself known as a cyclist. Cycle travellers have the tendency to think they are different, special, kinda cool…to a certain extent this is true but everybody had their own path and their own priorities. While backpacker hostels were the norm for some, to us they were the pinnacle of luxury. A comfy bed! A real kitchen! Somewhere to relax! He had done a good job of establishing his reputation in Mendoza. When I arrived at the Hostel, the receptionist automatically said, “Ah! So you know that crazy Swiss cyclist!” After some sun soaked days full of coffee, ice cream and wine. Stefan headed off to Santiago for more mountain biking, while Fabian and I left for the south. South, always South. We would ride the traffic free pampas and find a quiet mountain pass over to Chile. We fell into an extremely leisurely mood heading out of the city, despite the warnings of passing motorist that we shouldn’t linger – later we would hear several stories of gang culture in Mendoza involving gun slinging teenagers and knives. But we managed to escape the boundaries of the city unscathed, spending a large portion of our time marvelling at the vineyards and the snow capped line of mountains on the horizon, before settling down to a mammoth picnic lunch session in Ugarteche. As the temperature cooled off we pushed on towards Tunuyan, pedalling along a wide and busy road. The closest thing I had seen to a motorway in months. The roads of South America had been rather empty so far. DSC_0802 Ice cream was the first thing on the list when we arrived in Tunuyan. In this moment, I felt far away from home. I felt as though I had no idea what was happening in the outside world. Enjoying total oblivion. Our world was full of ice cream parlours, remote campsites and friendly locals. It was our bubble…and I never wanted it to burst.

The campsite in Tunuyan was apparently not a campsite, after having been directed there by two old ladies. Then a man in uniform gave us another warning. Like in Mendoza, people seemed worried when they saw foreigners here. Despite the super friendly nature we met at every turn, this still gave us a reason to look over our shoulder. They told us about a park across town where we could camp for free and the important looking chef rang the warden there, Walter. Following his instructions, we continued down a long country lane. There was another warning, “be careful” some local dog walkers reminded us. But, instead of heading right into a trap, we found the amiable Walter, there to meet us, along with a couple of yapping dogs and curious teenagers. So at 8pm, we set up camp between the trees, all for free, and stored the bikes in a local house. This is the happy-go-lucky, ‘it will be ok in the end’ attitude of cyclists. By a gas station the next day, we asked a local woman about the location of the next shop and she ended up telling us her whole life story. Another car stopped to ask if we need help with anything. The rumours about the local crime wave seemed to be totally untrue. Naively we forgot about the bloody siesta. That annoying Argentinian custom, so damaging to the continuation of a cyclist. We can’t go on without food! But one tiny shop was open, and on the sparsely filled shelves there was just about enough to feed us. Another incredibly long lunch break later, including another litre of ice cream, the heat of the day was over and we set off again. Since Mendoza we have done only about 90km. It seemed we were getting a little lazy. DSC_0810 Then came a head long dive into total nothingness and our suspicions were correct. It was another long, hot, tough dirt road. We spectacularly miscalculated the distance, maybe we didn’t even look at the distance to the next village, and we took nowhere near enough food. But choosing to think about that tomorrow we set up camp by a little stream, jumping in to have a bath, eating dinner under the stars in the vast empty plains of Argentina, with the type of total silence we may never hear again. By the next morning a trickle of water had diverted itself from the stream and channelled itself under the tent, soaking Fabian’s shoes and filling one of my panniers with water,…a chilling reminder of the night in Colombia when we nearly got washed away, cementing my fear of camping by water.

And we set off again into the pampas, with the occasionally ostrich or its foot print following us, but definitely no humans. We fell into a little happy bubble of pampas desert riding, revolved around rationing our meagre supplies, drinking so much water I lost count, bumping over rocks and dreaming of an iced cold coke. But we had 80km to go until the next shop, on the worst road surface you have ever seen? Would we make it? Nope. But Fabian had half a bag of polenta and half a bag of porridge in the bottom of his pannier. He always seemed to carry this, and I always said, “What a waste, too much extra weight!” but now it had paid off. Of course we could also have eaten his emergency muesli…bought all the way from Switzerland! DSC_0814 In the miniscule settlement of Jaula, we lazed on a stone bench by a chomping horse. Hot, tired, no desire to do more. Emergency muesli aside, I asked around at the few houses to try and buy some food. I found only a fat, old man, who said he had no food. “But what do you eat then?” my stomach begged. It must have been a 4 hour drive along these crappy roads to the next shop and a supermarket. But I imagined that the locals went hunting for their meat instead of buying it from a chilled refrigerator at the local supermarket. He then took the chomping horse and rode it off into no mans land. We dragged ourselves along on the next slow, hard climb and then realised there was no way we would make it to the main road that day. Fabian shouted in frustration as his narrow smooth wheels went sinking into the deep sand. He was done and we camped behind some bushes full of fury orange caterpillars clinging to the branches. Even though it had been a tough day with little food, when I admired our camping spot, all I could do was marvel. Bold and big…with empty vast lands and mighty distant snowy peaks. We sat outside until midnight, experiencing the type of solitude that is just not possible at home.

The never ending battle with the mean Ruta 40 continued the next day. Would we ever get out of there? Sweating so profusely, muscles powering on, calories dripping off my blistered body, I felt as though I was melting away, disappearing into the hot, desert air. A rumbling stomach, a dry throat and my aching limbs gave me motivation. We only had 4 pieces of bread left to get us to the main road. We stopped by a wooden roadside shack for water. 3 friendly men lived there and give us fresh cool water, their doorway framed with animal skins, their grounds loud with an army of barking dogs. DSC_0817 On the last small climb, we saw our road connecting to the main road 20km away. It was a miracle when we arrived. We thought we would be lost on the pampas for days. Collapsing at the local service station, we consumed a whole pile of junk food. It felt so good, It felt so good to arrive. A coach load of fat tourists pulled up and one of them abruptly asked me, “Where are you from?” Another took a photo of us on his phone. There were “oohs” and “aahs” of amazement when we gave our rather over-used responses. Tired. Always Tired. But somehow we completed the 50km in two hours to reach the town of Malargue, arriving in the throws of a huge parade. Crawling through the streets, sun burnt and starving, wobbling legs from the 50km dash, it was the desperate search for an affordable hostel. A bed felt so luxurious. We then passed the evening eating fast food and sharing secrets among the throngs of the lively town fiesta.