Work begins before breakfast on Doug’s GS. The axle is removed and with a very big hammer, a couple of boards and some luck; we do the best we can to straighten it. It isn’t perfect but will get by until we get to a bigger town. The brake disc isn’t so lucky. Because it needs to be perfectly flat, there is no way we can get it working. The solution becomes remove the bent disc and insert a wood block between the brake pads held in place with some plastic ties. We figure one disc up front is better than none. What a surprise, at breakfast we have real scrambled eggs.
A mix of pavement and gravel blended with an assortment of interesting bridges leads us to our next stop, Bariloche, where we will spend two nights. We ride past more mountains and volcanoes that seem to reach up and grab hold of the only clouds in the sky keeping them there to guard the precipice from prying eyes. We arrive at another border crossing. This one actually goes very quickly and smooth. Today is a great ride, after all the excitement of yesterday.
The scenery is great, mountains and switch-backs, good weather; life is good. About 30 miles before we hit town, we hit pavement again. We are met at the intersection by Klaus who runs a motorcycle tour group out of Bariloche. On the way to town we pass a bad wreck. Car parts all over the road, just another reminder to be extra careful. Seeing this shakes my wife up and in turn shakes me up as we enter the congested traffic in town. There are cars everywhere passing on both sides of us. My wife’s normal method of letting me know to watch out for something is to squeeze me with her legs. This has escalated to now where she is grabbing my arms. Not a good thing in heavy traffic.
About 8:15 we arrive at the hotel which is located on a deep blue lake surrounded by more mountains. After a quick shower we walk across the road to a nice restaurant. Like many places down here they have a goat or sheep cooking in the fireplace. Debbie has goat while I’m more of a steak guy.
This is the first town big enough for a hospital and this is where it is confirmed that Dan has five broken ribs. Since this is a down day we do some much-needed laundry and catch up on other needed tasks. Hotel has the first email we’ve seen for several days. Parts for Doug’s bike are not available, so a machine shop turns him a new solid steel axle. While heavy, I bet this one doesn’t get bent. A note for any GS riders: you need a special wrench to remove the front axle which isn’t included in your factory tool kit. Luckily two of us brought one. The brake disc still can’t be straightened enough to work, but again one disc is better than none. Our room is very nice and has a hot tub overlooking the lake. The tub and a bottle of wine make for a very nice day off.
The scenery makes you think you are in Switzerland or Germany. The architecture has changed due to the Europeans that have settled in the area. The paved highway passes many lakes surrounded by mountains. Traffic is busy on this two-lane highway. Because of all the turns it has double yellow lines most of the way. Like other signs in South America, this means nothing. They play this leap frog game, each passing the other across the lines and into oncoming traffic. If a car is coming the other way they just pull back into their lane even if there is already a car or bike there. It’s crazy. We pull over and wait a few minutes until the train of cars and trucks playing this demented game pass. It’s a wonder they are still alive down there.
El Bolson is sort of an artsy-hippie sort of place where we stop to have lunch. Little cafes and shops with a town square filled with little booths selling their trinkets. It’s here where one of the guys gets his camera stolen from the bag on his bike. I think this is the only item anyone had stolen on the trip.
Soon after leaving town the road turns to gravel again. Alberto is stopped up ahead. Pulling over we find out he has stopped because we are at Butch Cassidy’s farm house. It is a little shack backed by the Andes Mountains about a quarter of a mile off the road. There is no signage indicating this, although about two miles down the road there is a sign that says Parrilla Butch Cassidy which I think means the Butch Cassidy Grill. Then for 30 pesos each we enter the Lago Puelo National Park. Things are coming together as we now understand National Park means narrow winding gravel roads, but it also means great vistas. We arrive at Trevelin and stay at a hotel in town. It does have cold beer so I’m content. Walking back after dinner in town we run across 3 or 4 Europeans on bikes that are headed the opposite direction we are. Their bikes are trashed and they tell us stories of harsh winds, bad roads, and several crashes. Something we all know is coming but not really wanting to experience.
Another border crossing today, leaving Argentina and back into Chile. It’s about 60°F and cloudy as we climb back over the Andes. The road is, of course, gravel but there is an intermittent light rain, so for a change the road isn’t dusty today. Coming down the other side we are still in the mountains but the vegetation starts to look more jungle than mountains. We come into the little village of Puyuhuapi located on a narrow Pacific Ocean inlet. In addition to the rain, I learn another lesson. Vibration will wear a hole right through a water bottle. Now a bunch of stuff in my pannier is wet. Well, at least it wasn’t a bottle of wine like one of the guys had leak.
This morning it is what you would expect in a rain forest, rain and 54°F. The lady at the hotel tells us to stop at the Bosque Encanatado (Enchanted Forest) about 30 miles down the road. A few stop, but I’m wet and chilled so I’ll pass on this stop and look at their pictures later. I’m on my merry little way and in front of me is a short section of what appears to be some loose rocks. My front end washes left, then right and back again. I’m just about through it and stop, put a foot down and fall over. This action disqualifies me from the rubber on the road contest. Good thing this was a short day, about 150 miles. Everyone found out that clothing manufacturer’s waterproof labels are somewhat meaningless. At the hotel they have a boiler room and they allow us to hang our wet gear in there to dry.
Civilization is getting sparser if you can believe that. We travel through more scenic mountains, and at the start we have a long stretch of good pavement to start the day off. Ah! This is great.
The group decides to take a short-cut from the planned route to shorten the day. Instead of taking the long way around the huge Lake General Carrera we take a gravel road short-cut around the other side of the lake. Short sections of the road are paved with interlocking paver blocks similar to some I’ve seen used as sidewalks here in the USA. They are narrow but smooth and greatly appreciated. I don’t remember seeing another vehicle on this section of road. Coming down the mountain we are at yet another border crossing. There are two crossing guards in a building, and only three of us are allowed to be in the building at a time. It’s really windy and the rest of us take refuge in a half-finished shack across the street while waiting our turn with the guards. It is our understanding the guards are stationed there for a month at a time. They must have done something really bad to be sent there. It takes them about two hours to get everyone through. The scenery has changed; everything is now brown and more of a high desert than the green mountains we’ve been used too. My GPS indicates a crossroad ahead and sure enough I just arrived in Perito Mereno. There is a gas station at the road crossing, and I pull in to find most of the group there eating some late lunch. The Hotel Belgrano is down the road about a half mile. It is also the bus stop and seems to be the local gathering place as well.
Since we took the short-cut we arrive at our destination early, about 3:30 in the afternoon. Spencer’s BMW650 is in real need of rear brakes. Now we are in a town which Randy’s guide book on South America tells us is the end of civilization, and Spencer needs brake pads bad. It turns out that Randy brought a spare set of pads for his R1200GSA, but of course they are too big for the 650, but nothing that a hacksaw, file and C-clamp won’t fix. In no time Spencer’s dad, Mike, turns them into 650 brake pads. Inside, the rooms are sparse. At every place we’ve stayed so far the bathroom has had a bidet. This is the first place that had a combination shower/bidet.
We are in the hotel dining room getting our briefing for tomorrow’s ride from Alberto. We are about to begin the infamous Ruta 40. This section of road is the route to the Mecca of motorcycle adventure riders, Ushuaia, the city at the bottom of the world. The road is known for its high winds, loose gravel, and many wrecks. This is confirmed by Alberto who says on his last three trips someone has ended up in the hospital on this section of road, and the nearest hospital is a long way from here. To top this off we all remember the Europeans from a couple of days ago, their stories, and their messed up bikes. Hell, if it was easy everyone would do it.
We’re up early to get on the road before the legendary wind gets real bad. The first 30 miles are pavement going through desolation. No wonder the wind blows so hard; there is nothing to slow it down. Much of the next section is gravel and is under construction with what appears they are intending to pave several miles. We are on and off sections of road they are working on and the wind is building. Every once in a while the road temporarily bends so the wind is at your back. This gives you a euphoric feeling that is soon crushed as the road turns back south and the wind slams you on your right side. I pass a small construction trailer next to the road and it has timber braces from the top angled to the ground to keep it from blowing over.
Everyone is tense and being super cautious as no one wants to be the first to use their Medivac insurance. You can see forever and there is nothing but straight road ahead. Then all of a sudden we turn with the wind and at the same time the road is new pavement. I think I’ve died and gone to heaven. It’s calm and quiet. Riding is effortless. I can relax the death grip on the bars and rest my neck muscles. This lasts for about 30 minutes and the devil says break time is over, back to work. The road is now narrower with deeper windrows of gravel. The GPS is counting down and I see a sign, “Estancia La Angostura.” Then the old wooden wagon that Alberto has told us marks the road to the ranch where we will spend the night.
We drop off the mesa after a couple of miles into a valley filled with all sorts of critters; flamingos, ducks, horses, cows, sheep, dogs, cats, chickens, peacocks, and other assorted animals. Three pet sheep check out our bikes and notify us that one is missing from the flock. Michael is missing. Others recount that he was in front of them. Michael missed the turn. The guides and Chad go looking for him and figure he can’t be far as he missed the last fuel stop as well and has to be out of gas. They find his bike beside the road. Michael has hiked and hitched to the next town in search of some gas. Michael returns to his bike to find the search crew there waiting for him. Back at the ranch, bikes are being fueled out of barrels and other assorted containers that were prearranged by the tour company. The ranch has cold beer and you just sign your name and put a checkmark for each one you take. Everyone is comparing notes about the day’s ride and the conclusion is, not as bad as it was portrayed. A real gaucho walks down the road with a freshly butchered sheep over his shoulder. This would be our supper after being cooked in the typical fashion, in a big fireplace spread out on an iron cross.
We’re awakened about 3:30 a.m. by violent wind. Everything that can be rattling is. We get up about 6:30 and the wind has died down some. There are branches down and we are surprised to see the chickens haven’t all been blown away. It’s 42°F as we ride back up out of the valley to the road knowing that yesterday was the worst day of the trip. We were WRONG!! Once we hit the road the wind is horrible blowing from our right side and the road has basically 4 tire paths with mounds of round gravel between them. The only good thing is we are leaned over so far into the wind we are getting some use out of the tread on the side of our tires. You fight trying to stay in one of the tire paths. There are many Ohhh! Sheeet! moments as tires gain then lose traction. Several go down, windscreens, fairings, mirrors, panniers, will not survive this day. Dan, Randy and I stop behind a slight hill, and Dan says he is going to slow down because it is so dangerous. He leads the way and is soon out of sight. I come around a corner, and he is down in the middle of the road. I thought he was going to go slower? After about 90 miles of this we regroup at a gas station. Damaged bikes are temporarily repaired, and a couple riders tell how they are blown across all four tire paths.
The wind hasn’t let up, but at least we are now on pavement. You can actually go around a left hand corner leaning to the right. Then one of those quiet times, when the wind is at your back but is not long to last as the road turns to the right and crosses a bridge. A big gust hits from the right and pushes me over a few feet then immediately and unexpectedly switches directions and hits from the left side pushing me back to where I was then continues to buffet violently until I get off the bridge. For the last 30 miles to El Calafate we are greeted to a light cold rain and 42°F temperature. Just the topping I needed to finish out a lovely day’s ride. We arrive at our hotel perched over a huge lake with flamingos standing at the edge. We are greeted with champagne. This is a nice place and we all look like we just survived a war, and believe me we just barely did survive.
We’re here for 3 nights. It is time to take it easy for a couple of days and recover and repair from the previous day. Several of us spend most of the next day on a tour of the Glaciar Perito Moreno. It’s a huge glacier and is somehow escaping all that global warming and the big ozone hole down there and is doing just fine. We don crampons and with a couple of female guides we hike in and out of the ice formations. At the end of the tour they treat us to a chocolate cookie and some scotch. I don’t think any parks in the USA would ever do that. Back at the hotel John and the hotel maintenance staff are building him a new windscreen out of a piece of Plexiglas they bought in town. The maintenance staff has also constructed a chain tensioning shim for Rick’s KTM which has a seized bolt, not to mention the worn out chain and sprockets. It’s off to town the next day with the primary goal to find some warm waterproof gloves. This is more difficult than one would think as let’s just say I’m a giant down there. I can’t even find a tee shirt to fit me. I score and find a pair of Columbia brand XXL waterproof gloves. At least it says waterproof on the label. We’ll see.
Debbie and I leave a little earlier than the rest of the group because we can’t go as fast on the gravel riding 2-up. The first part is pavement and we wind up treeless mountains. Near the top, the road turns to our old friend gravel. We are, and have been for the last few days, in the region known as Patagonia which interestingly means “land of big feet” named after the natives Magellan discovered there around 1520. They were thought to be giants. We see our first three-toed Nandu or Rhea bird along the road. This is a bird that looks like an ostrich but smaller. They get to be about 5 feet tall and up to 88 pounds. This section of gravel is very wide and smooth, plus the wind is blowing but nothing like we have seen. We regroup and refuel where the gravel ends on a paved road at a little gas station in the middle of nowhere. They even have a generator there to power the gas pump. Alberto cautions us to wait on the rider behind us before leaving after the next turn off the highway. Soon we are at the next border crossing.
We are headed for Torres del Paine today. This is a big national park with many tourists and back-packers. The border crossing is busy. Bus loads of foreign backpackers are all trying to get through customs. We’ve been waiting our turn in line when a bus load come in the out door and try to crowd in front of us. Tensions are getting high. Finally a border guard steps in and tells the people off the bus to get out and go back to their bus. The scenery is changing again and in the distance we catch glimpses of mountain peaks. These peaks are famous and well recognized. Entering the park, we pass many guanacos, a type of lama. We cross a bridge so narrow that one car only has a couple of inches on each side. The sign cautions the driver to let the passengers out to walk across so as to not overload the bridge.
The views are the best yet; the tallest peaks are about 8000 feet off the valley floor which surprisingly is only about 500 feet above sea level. Over the next couple of day we relax, hike, read and generally take it easy. The down side is everything is very expensive. It all has to come across that little narrow bridge.
Leaving this paradise we have two options, the scenic route or the faster route that is part highway. We need to go about 400 miles today; that includes both a border crossing and a ferry ride across the Straights of Magellan. We take the scenic route leaving about 7:00 a.m. as the sun spills onto the mountains hopefully warming them up, as it is 29°F. Good decision. Awesome views of mountains, glaciers and lakes. The next fuel stop is at Puerto Natales which is connected to the Pacific Ocean, and we need to go to Rio Grande which is on the Atlantic Ocean. The next fuel stop is at Gobernador Phillippi. The fuel attendant/owner gives us each a sticker and wants us to tell everyone to stop at his station. I’ve got news for him. There isn’t any competition for probably a hundred miles in any direction. The scenery is gone and we’re just interested in getting across. It is sort of like going across Kansas, but more desolate. Arriving at the Straights of Magellan we see the ferry pulling up. We drive the bikes on and tie them down for the short 30 minute ride across. The ferry pulls up, drops its big ramp, and we are on our way. I miss the next fuel stop which is a little town a mile or so off the road. Not a problem for the GSA’s 8.7 gallon fuel tank. I’m riding alone for hours wondering if I’m lost but have come to depend on the GPS; besides there aren’t that many roads down there. There was only one pucker factor moment coming off a hill and around a corner to hit about 100 yards of deep loose gravel. We’ve traveled many miles since we began this trip, and road signs have been lacking the whole way. Now all of a sudden every kilometer there is a sign announcing how far it is to San Sebastain. I finally catch up to John and follow him for about the next two hours until we arrive at the border crossing at surprise, San Sebastain. It’s only 45 minutes on pavement down the road to the Status Hotel Casino in Rio Grande. At 80-90 mph on pavement with almost no traffic this last stretch can’t end quickly enough for me. This place is fancy. They even have an iron gated lot to park the bikes.
The weather report for Ushuaia has been cold and rainy every time someone has checked, so our goal today and for the trip looks to be miserable as far as weather is concerned. Ushuaia is only 135 miles down paved highway, and we plan on leaving later than normal today. Mark’s KLR has a flat and the Walton’s help him repair the flat. We are on the road about 11:00 a.m. and it is cloudy and 50°F. It seems a little unusual to me that the hills are covered with trees and the trees are covered with moss. I would think this would be something one would see in a warmer climate. Getting closer snow-covered mountains can be seen in breaks in the clouds. We cross Paso Garibaldi (mountain pass) and begin our descent into Ushuaia. The weather begins to look better, and when we arrive at the entrance sign to the city, the sun is shining. We all take our turns getting our photo announcing we made it to the world’s southernmost city.
I think the slogan on my pannier says it all for me. “VENI VIDI VICI”
By Jeff Hower
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Way too many photos can be viewed Here