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.

Road to the end of the world.

The southern tip of Chile is like shattered glass. Wild and empty pieces of land splinter off into the murky, grey depths of the ocean that lies at the bottom of our world. On the map these shards are hundreds of islands, which in real life appear as mysterious grey and icy humps on the horizon. Deserted and cold, far out to sea. On leaving Puerto Natales, the road sign ominously says, “The road to the end of the world”. What would we find there? Or would we simply topple off the edge? It would be a mentally tough day with long, flat and straight roads. Hard to keep going with a good pace. The crooked, withered trees grew in the direction of the wind, like claws reaching out to the east. There were few buildings on the roadside except for these small cabins with ornate roofs and archways that acted as bus stops. A local necessity to hide from the howling gales. Down here, at the end of the continent everything was wild and empty, as for ourselves, we were tired, dirty, all our equipment falling to pieces, I couldn’t help thinking that it was about time to finish the trip.

We asked to camp at a farm to hide from the winds. The workers then invited us into the kitchen for some coffee and bread. Another man walked in, wearing the typical Gaucho dress: long black boots, thick green cord trousers, a woolly jumper, a thick leather belt and a black beret. His face weather beaten and tough, his skin like thick worn out leather, but his shy smile obviously friendly. Curious about the many border crossings in the region,  I asked, “Is there any competition between Chile and Argentina in Patagonia?” “Only for women” came the gruff response from the dark skinned man slouching at the table. The rest simply laughed. That night we camped among twisted trees by the river, in a little depression hidden from the wind. I knew then, as we cooked again over a fire, I would miss this. DSC_0511 We hopped over the fence and were soon back on the road again. A quick and windy 25km later, a single building stood on the roadside: Morro Chico police station. The jolly round-faced police chief invited us in for coffee and bread in their comfy living room with sofa, TV and wood burner. A recruitment poster for the carabineros of Chile hung on the wall, displaying them as heroes, James Bond like figures. However these men I saw before me, eating biscuits and hot chocolate in their cosy living room definitely didn’t seem ready for any action or emergencies. We signed his book of cycling travellers, apparently he had met many, they were always passing by. Then we talked about Chilean history and the story of Bernard O’Higgins whose picture hung on the wall. Under the Spanish rule, he had been the illegal son of the Spanish governor and a native Chilean woman. Resentment had built when his father chose to hide him from the world, ironically, this illegal child eventually went on to achieve independence for Chile.

Some windy kilometres later, we had lunch in a bus stop. Under the blue arched roof, we were grateful for the shelter. The wind gradually changed direction which meant we had to fight a strong headwind for the last 20 kilometres. Nothing but distant, bellowing clouds floated through the air. Far away estancias dotted the plains. We asked to camp at a worksite near Villa Tehuelches and the men there offered us the use of an old caravan. The floor was dirty and dusty, covered in tools, the mattresses were old and grimy but after some minutes of cleaning we were very pleased with our home for the night. It was heaven to relax there,…in a dirty tool shed. We had definitely been on the road for too long. We cooked a huge, delicious meal of ravioli, parmesan cheese, diced carrots and chopped green peppers. The bathroom in the nearby workhouse was the nicest and most luxurious bathroom I had seen in many, many months.

At 5am a drunk man from the worksite creaked open the door, waking me from my deep slumber. After a jumbled conversation with him in Spanish, we fell asleep again until he returned at 7am. “Leave us alone!” I sleepily shouted. Eventually we got back on the road to continue the struggle with the wind. After only 3 km we stopped in Villa Tehuelches for a nice coffee and pondered over the last section of the map. It was turning into a relaxing morning. But then we had to return to the fight. The wind. It made me super tired, tired, tired, tired. And then the side winds would push me across the road into the other lane. The empty kilometres felt long. We ate lunch in a tiny bus shed. It was so grubby but at least it had a door so we could hide from the wind.

Soon, with the help of a massive tailwind, we arrived at the straits of Magellan, and enjoyed our first view of Tierra Del Fuego. A distant smudge, faint on the horizon. An Australian couple travelling by motorbike stopped to say Hello and give us biscuits. They had just cycled from Canada to Panama. Then they donated their bikes to the local fire station, worked on a farm in Colombia and then flew to Buenos Aires to buy this motorbike. It had already broken down many times but they were hopefully on their way back to Colombia. We camped in a park 20km before the city of Punta Arenas, overlooking the ocean. Realising we had no water, Fabian went off to find some and returned with 2 hamburgers, all courtesy of the Air Force, just down the road. We ate the hamburgers and then consumed our normal portion of pasta – 500grams – apparently our cycling stomachs had no end! DSCN2016 We were slow to leave and finally rolled off at 11am. Through the grey drizzle, heavy traffic and industrial estates that lined the road heading into Punta Arenas. We met a North American couple on bikes wearing many yellow reflectors and washing up gloves. They had just cycled from Alaska to Mexico and now they would cycle from Punta Arenas up and back to Mexico. They recommended Hostel Independencia to us. It was full of French backpackers and many other cyclists. It was located beyond the main square, through the red light district with hookers parading on the corners, amongst the painted houses worn by the sea, by the air, peeling and crumbling. We cycled down to the coast and looked out over the seas, filled with wonder, filled with awe. This was the end of mainland South America. The hot pot of jungles, deserts, Indians, markets and mountains all trickled down to this point, this city at the end of the road. Black and white birds crowded on an old wooden jetty that stretched out to sea.  There was a statue of the Portuguese explorer Magellan who first sailed these waters hundreds of years ago. Blue ships were perched on the big horizon. We kissed the golden foot of Magellan in the main square, which, according to legend, meant that one day we would be back in this city at the end of the world. DSC_0558

Escape from Torres

Back in Chile, we took refuge from the winds and wild landscapes, hiding in a touristic café that seemed out of place on the empty pampas. Red eyed, windswept and exhausted we had a well-earned rest on comfy fake white fur seats, enjoying blueberry cake and hot chocolate. Yet more cyclists approached us…they seemed to be everywhere! They were north American and complained somewhat, of the rough riding conditions of the Carretera Austral.

A little old man ran a shop on the corner. I asked him if there was anywhere we could camp. He said, gently and politely, down by the playground, giving us clear instructions on where to pitch our tent. Apparently that’s where all the passing cyclists camped. A Scout group visiting from Punta Arenas had temporarily taken over the entire and otherwise empty village,…noisily playing catch around our tent until late, totally indifferent to these cycling nomads.

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It would be 60 kilometres the next day over to the Torres del Paine National Park. Unfortunately heading in the wrong direction, north not south. It was a long detour on terrible roads and I knew that we would never make it that day. Along with this and the big signs saying “Danger – strong lateral winds”, we were very tempted to hitch hike. We then tried, to no success. Contemplating our options on the roadside we watched two stern-faced gauchos, riding dark horses, pull together their large flock of sheep and drive them across the road, with the aid of their energetically wild dogs. In the swirling strong winds it was a rather surreal event.

The traffic came to a halt. Then, suddenly, we saw a vehicle ideal for hitch hiking with bicycles, a bright-red and large truck with ample boot space. Wasting no time we rushed over to ask for a ride. An old, very fashionable Parisian couple clambered out of the truck and helped us to throw everything into the boot, somewhat flustered and surprised by this unexpected change in their planned day. But soon they warmed up and chatted to us and between themselves excitably as we caught our first, far off, but staggering glimpse of the rock towers that give the famous views of Torres del Paine. The roadside was teeming with wildlife: guanacos roamed and flamingos lazed. At the busy park entrance, cooking lunch, we met Benjamin. He was a pro down hill mountain biker from Austria, now on an infinite and unplanned adventure through South America. He had recently bought a bicycle from a traveller in a youth hostel and was about to attempt an unofficial crossing over to El Calafate in Argentina on an unmarked trail. Wishing him luck, we continued through the park, fighting ferocious winds, battling over rocky roads and gasping at the larger then life mountain scenery. Great rock walls, dark menacing rock and deep empty valleys rolled out before us, all under chilling rushing winds.

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Given that the park is highly protected, you had to stay in an official campsite. Prices were extremely high for cyclists used to sleeping rough. The next day we woke to a raging storm, rocking the tent. Disappointingly, the beautiful mountain vista was long gone behind an impermeable wall of dense grey clouds. We decided to get out as soon as possible. Hiding from the heavy rain in the gift shop, we were ominously told by the cashier, “there is no summer down here in Patagonia”.

Eventually we hitch hiked out with a Chilean group on holiday from Talca. Firstly, dropping by the wet and windy Lake Grey home to a few bobbing ice bergs. Then it was a long journey all the way to Puerto Natales on the coast, in the back of a very warm and cosy car. The two women up front joked, “we are like wine! we get better with age”, while the young couple squeezed in the back with us carried on smooching away obliviously. They all smoked, and were in high spirits, with cigarettes dangling out of the window and cheesy Latin music blaring from the speakers. The storm ravaged the land outside the window. In town, they dropped us off outside Hostel Josemar. A haphazardly constructed hotel with rooms like sailors cabins, tiny windows and tilted floors and doorways.

We bumped into Austrian Benjamin again, here in town to by more supplies for his epic and kind of illegal border crossing. We drank the famous Puerto Natales beer with him in the Bagual Cerceveria on the main plaza, while he told us about sneaking onto a luxury Antarctica cruise liner in Ushuaia and his ambitions to buy a horse in northern Argentina. We aimlessly wandered the streets staring at the old wooden buildings soaked by the sea and antique, rotting ships floating in the cluttered harbour. Abandoned boats were crumbling on the pavements. An old, smartly dressed Canadian couple in a busy café jumped into our conversation to softly ask, “So, How long have you been travelling for?” So tired of this question, so bored of the response, of the typical tourists on the Patagonian tourist circuit, going to all the same places, doing all the same things. We then bumped into Ramiro. He was the Colombian cyclist we had met on our first day of riding on the Carretera Austral. Old clothes, a worn bicycle, hanging out in the rain, making a stove out of two coke cans, he had been on an epic adventure, but still he did not know how he would be returning home, to Bogota, at the end of his journey. “Maybe I will hitch hike” he happily suggested.

Depressingly, the living room of the hostel was always full of loud Israeli backpackers, faces glued to smartphones or lap tops, while rain poured down outside. We were soon glad to leave that cramped hostel where everything was smelly and broken and face the beginning of the road that would eventually lead us to the end of the world.

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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

A Cyclist’s Highway

With violent winds shaking the tent and strong storm clouds gathering, we were quick to leave for Coyhaique. At first the rain was refreshing but after 50 kilometres it was very cold. 85 kilometres later, on arrival in Coyhaique, dripping wet, it was quiet simply miserable. Purple, cream, yellow flowers crowded the dripping green roadside. At a bus stop, soaking wet, we met an Israeli backpacker who said he loved the rain, they didn’t have much of it where he was from. Coyhaique was the largest settlement we had seen in ages, cars were floating down the street, people were swimming along the grey, sodden pavements. We took refuge inside the ovejita cafe for hot chocolate and then rented a warm…and dry! room in the house of an old local lady.

Our first Patagonian snow storm arrived the next day. Big round snow flakes stung our cheeks along with a chilling wind. Violent clouds thundered all around us and I worried that it would be like this for the rest of the trip. I hurriedly stopped to put on all the layers I had. Wrapped up tightly, I blindly continued into the mist. But suddenly it all disappeared and the sun came out. Only a light layer of mist was left hanging over the road. The Belgian guy we had heard about from the Australian family suddenly appeared. He seemed surprised when I said “I know you!” Apparently word quickly gets about. He had no tent and very little luggage so had no choice but to make it to Villa Cerro Castro that night. A photographer, he took our picture before he cycled on, moving in very closely to get the shot. As for us, we camped by the roadside in lightly falling snow.

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On our descent to Villa Cerro Castro, the temperature dramatically dropped yet again, as we flew past grey cold jagged peaks. A winter palace of dark rock towers. We found our Belgian friend, Jean-Marc, in a quaint old café in the sleepy village. He was deliberating over what to do next, as a 120km of wilderness lay between him and the next village. Tricky when you have no tent. In the mean time he told us his story. A graphic designer in Brussels and then in Barcelona, along with a stint as head of audio-visuals in the same company; It had all led to a full stop when the crisis struck in Spain, and then a fresh start as a free lance photographer. He was now here, in Patagonia, taking portraits of everyone he met. After enjoying coffee and hot soup we invited him to join our camp that night, and take up the last free space in Fabian’s giant tent.

From here on, this was the Carretera Austral getting serious. The first half had been nothing compared to this. This was wilder, colder, bleaker and altogether more dramatic. A bumpy dirt road found it’s way through snow encrusted peaks. Every corner shocked us again with another view more epic then an artist’s canvas. Stormy, moody mountains glared down on fresh wide valleys. All the colours were grey, cold and snowy with a splash of dark, dark green. We shared a glass of wine and some sweet bread with a small tour group huddled on the roadside.

The Carretera Austral is known for being fenced along nearly it’s entire length but any cyclist would tell you that it is very easy to hop a fence and find a tranquil space to camp between empty trees, which is what we did that night. Fabian and I went about our usual evening routine, making dough, chopping vegetables, while Jean-Marc, with never-ending enthusiasm, documented the whole experience in pictures.

Delicate cream, white and dark purple flowers lined more long dirt roads. The very occasional jeep speeded by throwing up a cloud of dust. An amphitheatre of steely grey mountains rose above the sky blue waters of lake General Carrera.

We rode into the very tranquil, Puerto Tranquilo, with 6 other cyclists, we were almost blocking the road! Jean-Marc, three French and two German, who we camped with that night. They had previously cycled and climbed in Peru and Bolivia, and this was their last trip before they started working as doctors. They had a very different style of travel. Their front panniers held only food, including 10 jars with treats such chocolate spread or peanut butter! I nearly hyperventilated in shock! (So much unnecessary weight!). They also confessed to never riding in the rain. While I felt that we were on a cross-continental mission, they were definitely on holiday.

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The intense blues, sheer whites, dark greys of the larger then life glacial scenery continued to amaze us as we followed the lake edge towards Puerto Bertrand. Diving in and out of several silent valleys, the only traffic, friendly locals riding horses roadside, we found Puerto Bertrand perched on the side of a steep river valley. An extremely quiet place with practically no cars and very few people about. The big, wet leaves of the forest dripped steadily over peeling antique chalets and a tiny shop. By the river we found a perfect campsite, although, it was already occupied by yet more cyclists. John and Kayla, serious bikers and climbers from Seattle who were on their honeymoon, riding the Carretera Austral in five weeks. They announced, with some amusement, that they had been riding that day with the guy with one shoe. “Who is that?” we questioned them. Jean-Marc! He had stayed in a hostel in Puerto Tranquilo and had left his shoes out to dry. The next morning, one of them had disappeared. The owner of the hostel said there was a sneaky dog in town who liked to run off with things and hide them. Rather struck, he had taped a flip flop to his foot and continued like that. He was now in Cochrane, by far the biggest town in the area, to try and find some replacements. The five of us would share many memorable moments together over the coming days.

Cochrane was a blemish of activity on an otherwise empty map. Siting in a restaurant, resembling my granny’s living room, I felt rather out of place; knives! forks! tablecloths! This was all so posh, so luxurious. We then did our Christmas shop in the big supermarket. We wouldn’t see another shop for the next 200km, so definitely spending Christmas in the wild, having plenty food was paramount. Camping that night was on the windy lake shore.

Early in the morning, Jean-Marc overtook us, quickly stopping to say “Hey” and proudly display his new shoes, before continuing on an epic day of 120km, through the wet jungles of Patagonia to the next village of Tortel. That day, It would be a tough road through a maze of contour lines and many tiring climbs. I was starting to feel truly exhausted after not a single rest day since Bariloche. Firstly, Fabian stopped for water at a little wooden house and the farmer there gave him some homemade rhubarb jam and pointed us towards a dramatic waterfall hidden away on his land. Massive amounts of water went collapsing into a deep and gloomy chasm. Onwards there were endless winding stony roads, confusing geography with twisting valleys. Water as fresh as the air and as clear as the sky flowed freely in every direction while swampy marsh lands displayed every shade of green.

Counting down the kilometres we eventually spent Christmas eve camping with John and Kayla, eating cake and cooking sausages under a bridge, while drinking wine from a plastic bottle. Certainly a Christmas to remember.

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A steep climb along the brink of a deep valley took us to Puerto Yungay. The small lake side restaurant soon developed a festival atmosphere, gradually filling with wandering travellers all waiting for the 11am boat to deliver us across the misty waters. Jean-Marc was back with us as we boarded the ferry, hiding from the steady downpour inside the comfy cabin.

Constant rain gave for muddy roads, cold chills and gushing roadside waterfalls. Everything was boggy and green, mud sprayed all over me and the bike. Three tents were pitched together that night and a host of cyclists crowded under another bridge to share Christmas day. Stoves blaring, hot tea cups, sharing biscuits, hanging of the riverbank to dip dirty bowls into the running waters.

A wet road went on and on to Villa O’Higgins, through endless twists and turns, and finally a serious and silent “At the end of the world” type of feeling when we arrived in town. However, the El Mosco hostel was a warm and buzzing cabin full of chatty travellers waiting to take the boat across the waters to the border with Argentina. It would be a border hopping, lake jumping route with plenty of mud, river crossings and spectacular views, stretching out over two days. We stocked up on supplies, ready to dive into a new adventure towards the deep south in Argentinean Patagonia.

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Still South. Always Wild.

Hitch hiking back to the site of the accident with a local woman, she told us about the Welsh influence in the area. Her grandmother had been raised by Welsh settlers and much of the community, including herself, still spoke the language. We picked up our bikes from Antonia’s house, the local woman who had helped us out after the accident.  She ran a fly fishing business on the local river. Bi-lingual in English and Spanish, she spent half the year here and then half the year in Colorado where her husband was from. After discussing the accident with the fishing guides, we thanked them for their help and headed off to Chile. At the border post, my eyes were full of dust and the immigrations officer told me that it could be caused by the volcanic ash, still floating in the air, after the Chaiten volcano had erupted two years previously. Sitting on a bench in the border town of Futaleufu, It felt like it had been a very long day indeed. So, we headed straight for the comforts of the tourist campsite and enjoyed a perfect pitch and picnic spot.

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Travelling down to Villa Santa Lucia we were accompanied a gushing river violently  reflecting the bright white light. We cooked our new lunch time recipe in the shadow of a giant tree: a smooth mixture of mash potato, polenta and semola, with a few roasted vegetables. Houses were like museums, of life gone by in Chile, as we entered their quaint interiors to collect water from their old frail occupiers. There was glacier on top of every mountain, as if they had each been dipped in icing sugar.

During the tough last kilometres, I found myself swimming in sand, fighting gradients and rocks, battling with passing trucks on the narrow roads. I arrived in town covered in dust. Villa Santa Lucia marked our arrival on the Carretera Austral. Work on this famous road started in the 1970s, under the orders of Pinochet, the Chilean dictator. He wished to unite the country and protect it’s lands from invasion. Connecting just a handful of tiny settlements the 1200km long route only opened in the 1980s, with many men loosing their lives in this ambition construction project spanning the wild depths of Chilean  Patagonia. The last section of the road, towards Villa O’Higgins was opened only fifteen years ago.

So far I found it to be a very silent place that felt so far from civilisation. A Large Chilean flag hovered over the huge grassy square lined by wooden chalets. All the shops were closed, so we had nothing else to do but wait. Our first few metres along this famous way were exciting, finally we were here! I had waited so long for this and felt it to be a real milestone in my journey. Then, climbing through the undergrowth we found the best camp spot ever: hidden from the road, the perfect view, wind sheltered and a clear river nearby for a swim. We cooked sausages and ate fresh warm bread with melted cream cheese on top.

On our first full day on the Carretera Austral we met 7 cyclists: five French, one North American and one Colombian. After months of seeing hardly anyone this came as quiet a surprise! Some had traversed the whole of the Andes, while some had only just started out, some were on year long adventures, while some only had a few weeks. We ate lunch with the French ones down by the river, jumping in again for a refreshing wash. It would be one of the last truly hot days before we entered cold Patagonia. In La Junta we bought a box of good food and hopped a fence to camp for a free in a private field, toasting marshmallows on the campfire.

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Puyuhuapi…and the first sight of the sea since Colombia, so many days ago. It was another silent village but the salty air was a refreshing feeling along with the sight of the old, rotting boats and the grumpy fishermen. Cold air gushed into the bay and the weather certainly felt on the point of change, here at the end of the world. A kitschy Christmas tree occupied the main square, a strange place to see it, riding through Patagonia had made us completely forget about the seasons, it certainly did not feel like Christmas. The road on hugged the steep cliffs, balancing on the edge of the grey Patagonian waters.  After 20km, through high winds, we checked in with the ranger at the national park campsite and cooked lentil empanadas for dinner.

We hiked through the Ventisquero Colgante national park the next day to see the famous hanging glacier, passing through an enchanted forest, full of vines, creepers. and deep green mosses. The road continued to be a very sociable place. We shared a roadside lunch with the French cyclists, eventually heading to Peru, and then a vertical 500 metre climb, through tight hairpin bends, below wild white mountains and endless green forests, brought us to a very busy road block. An Australian family felt sorry for us. They had cycled around Iceland and had found it extremely tough. Then they told us about a Belgian cyclist some kilometres behind us who had bought a bike in Puerto Montt and was planning to sell in at the end of the road in El Chalten. A local Chilean man gave us a bag of fruit and then I also met some English teachers I knew from  Madrid. What a place to bump into someone you know! At the end of the world in Patagonia. Everybody patiently waiting for the explosions to stop and the road to open.

We then snaked down the narrow road between the rocky remnants of the explosions and met even more cyclists coming up! The next valley was lost and magical with tall skinny trees spread out across a wide flat basin. Above this there were rolling forested hills and even higher up, stood pointed peaks, piercing the oncoming twilight. Farms were dotted about, but certainly not many, people living in real silence and seclusion. There would be many cyclists sleeping roadside this night, that was for sure.

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Villa Amengua appeared at 8pm. The few people in the shops and the streets held blank and vague expressions. The village of 200 people, with many kilometres of nothing surrounding it, had a slightly backwards feel to it. We stayed in the strange little Hospedaje el Indio. A blue tin shack run by a kind and helpful woman, along with her grumpy father wearing a bright pink shirt and asking loads of stupid questions. We shared the living room and kitchen, cooking up a huge meal of meat and fried potatoes. I loved the fresh air to be found along these roads and enjoyed the feeling of hiding away at the end of the world.

We hit the road to Villa Manihuales after a huge plate of fried eggs and relished the silent, empty road that greeted us. Gliding along by massive rivers and a never ending chain of wild mountains, we met a fresh batch of cyclists. Michel from Munich started in Ushuaia and was heading to Colombia. After a Europe to India bike trip he was now addicted to the cyclists way of life. I knew I would feel the same. Another French cycling couple were heading south to El Chalten and then north to…? Who knew where? As far as they could go. In Villa Manihuales, a lady in the street handed me a bag full of cherries from her garden. Then, we met 3 French hitch hikers and even more cyclists. There was a gathering of wanderers on the high street, surely a common sight along this famous route. Only 60km but a lot of ups and downs had left us tired, so we found a windy spot between the road and the river to rest. And made sausage rolls for dinner, we were definitely getting more inventive. Another memorable night on the wild Carretera Austral.

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