Cycling above the Clouds

Riding the Andes by Bicycle

Penguins!!

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A Magellanic penguin on Isla Magdalena

I rode out of Torres del Paine National Park and again took the cyclist’s prerogative of skirting some barriers and riding down a road that was ‘closed’ whilst being re-laid. Being a Saturday I thought it was worth the risk to avoid having to add another 10km on to the ride. The ‘Ruta del Fin del Mundo’ took me to Puerto Natales next – the capital of this wonderfully named region ‘Ultima Esperanza’ (Last Hope). It started to pour with rain for the final few kilometres so I arrived at my hostal soaking wet – always a great way to endear yourself to your new dorm mates.

I thought Puerto Natales was a really nice little town. It was originally a smallish fishing port that also traded lots of wool and yarn. There are old tin houses and cottages with quaint lace curtains in the windows. More recently it’s become the usual starting point for trekkers heading out to Torres del Paine (cyclists like to ride in the opposite direction to the trekkers because of the prevailing winds), so also has a few home comforts – outdoor shops, restaurants, nice hostals, artisanal breweries – to cater to all the trekkers passing through.

The view out over Seno Ultima Esperanza from Puerto Natales

I took a rest day whilst I planned the final leg of my trip. I knew the days ahead had the potential to be extremely tough due to the windswept and unpopulated pampa (grasslands), so figuring out where to stay and how much food and water to carry would take a little thought.

The municipal building had some really nice ‘graffiti’ art of themes typical to the area:

Horses

Drinking a maté (a bit like herbal tea. Water is poured onto the Yerba Maté at 90 degrees (strictly NOT having reached boiling!), and the maté sucked through a metal straw. After a couple of sips the drink is shared around. Some Chileans and Argentinians have a special maté temperature setting on their kettles and most cafes and restaurants will fill up a thermos flask with hot water for free. It’s an important social activity and even more of a ritual here as a good cuppa is to us back at home.

Now I’m further south, I’m seeing more and more sheep out in the pampa

Rolls of dyed yarn for sale reflecting the past wool heyday of the town

Pretty corrugated tin buildings

An unusual and tasty dinner of Andean Hare with mustard sauce

Local artisanal beer – fun label!

Back into the pampa

After my break in Puerto Natales I had a 250km ride out over the pampa to reach the city of Punta Arenas. There was little shelter around, and the few warped trees provided good evidence of the strength of the cross-winds. There were little wooden bus stops every 10km or so which offered the potential for shelter for a night if needed. I’d heard of plenty of cyclists having to use them as a last resort when caught out by the wind – although some had been used for rubbish (or worse), so I was hoping not to have to do that. For now, there was a lot of rain (pretty solid for 5 hours) but thankfully very little wind so I could make my way unencumbered.

Not much shelter out on the pampa

Hunchbacked trees permanently disfigured by the wind

Small bus stop shelters were dotted along the road – some in better nic than others. I stopped at this one to eat a sandwich out of the wind as it started to get stronger during the afternoon.

I spotted a salt flat in the distance

I knew there was a tiny town called Morro Chico after about 100km where the local police let cyclists sleep in an abandoned house, but as I reached the place it looked rather grey and sad. It was still early afternoon so I decided to keep going another 50km to the next town called Villa Tehuelches. For a small town pretty much in no-mans land, it was a surprisingly nice place with a lovely little wooden library and school at the entrance.

I found this cute cabin to stay in – it was cheap as there was already someone staying there but they were away for the night, so the owner let me sleep there if I covered my tracks a bit! (Kind of an odd set up!).

I crossed paths with this amazing French family who were staying in a room in the rodeo stadium in the town (free accommodation – which I thought I’d let them keep for themselves). They’ve cycled much of the same route that I have (albeit a lot slower) – quite a feat with 3 young children. What a fantastic experience for them all!

I decided to do another 100km+ the following day to get all the way to Punta Arenas in two days instead of the three I’d originally planned, which would then give me an extra day to explore the town. More relatively flat views over the pampa but still a few interesting things to spot along the way for those paying attention.

A ‘Darwin’s Rhea’ (thought it was an Emu until I googled it!) running along the side of the road with its offspring

Local Ñires trees decorated in moss and ‘Wise Man’s Beard’

More sightings of the famous hoards of Patagonian sheep

I enjoyed a tail wind for the middle part of the day, sometimes being pushed at over 30kmph. This turned into a far less pleasant and stronger cross-wind for the final 30km into Punta Arenas so I got my head down and pushed away on the pedals to reach my next hostal as soon as I could.

Punta Arenas

Punta Arenas sits on the edge of the mainland, before taking the ferry across the Strait of Magellan to the island of Tierra del Fuego. It seemed like a cross between Berlin and Barcelona, with the faded glory of mansions built during the wool trading boom in the late 19th and early 20th century, and the port’s tin warehouses that have seen better times. With better wifi than pretty much all of the Carretera Austral, its relaxed and quirky atmosphere and abundance of red brick and graffiti-daubed warehouses made me think it would be a classic home for Chile’s next start-ups.

Punta Arenas actually got its name from English maritime charts that date back 150 years or so, where it was originally called ‘Sandy Point’. There was a military garrison and penal colony in the area and some very basic survival-standard living, until the governor approved the purchase of 300 sheep from the Falkland Islands, from which point sheep ranching and the wool trade took off. There is now also significant growth from the petrochemical industry, but sheep farming remains a key element of the local economy with millions of sheep now in the region.

Beautiful mansions built by local business men and women (!) during the boom times of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Old warehouses near the docks – sometimes still in use and sometimes abandoned

I stayed in a superb hostal called ‘Endless Sky’. The next door neighbour’s four kittens were hilarious, going crazy playing with a tent that someone was drying out in the back garden.

Moody skies over Punta Arenas – the weather is reputed to be very bad here, but I was quite lucky with sunshine and relatively light winds

Penguins!!!

I couldn’t leave Punta Arenas without making a trip to Isla Magdalena to see the Magellanic penguins. This is Chile’s most important penguin colony, with an estimated 120,000 nesting penguins. I was lucky to have a dry and relatively wind-free day, and it was a brilliant experience walking alongside the penguins on the island for an hour. They are such comical birds and wonderfully fearless of human presence, often bumbling about in front of me to cross the pathways.

You can view a few short clips of them on my YouTube channel here:

In the meantime, here are a bunch of photos to keep you entertained:

The island was dotted with penguins and their chicks (of which they have 1 or 2) nesting in their burrows. There are also plenty of gulls the penguins have to share the land with.

A penguin with its two chicks, which start off with a fluffy down coat.

These two chicks are malting their ‘baby coats’. All the burrows with chicks are labelled to help keep track of the penguin population on the island (which is growing). Penguin couples return to the same burrow every year. Meet the Guntram family!

Feeding time – the adult penguins regurgitate food to feed their chicks

Once the down coat malts, you can see a much more waterproof layer below. Sadly these penguins are often found coated in oil due to their long migration for breeding (from Rio in Brazil all the way down to Southern Chile & Argentina) through busy shipping lanes.

I liked this guy’s mohican!

There’s more activity down on the beach where the penguins come and go from their fishing trips

The gulls and cormorants on the island are predators – they can eat the penguin eggs and young chicks

Sailing back to shore – we saw a couple of dolphins and ‘blow’ spouting up into the air from two nearby whales (sadly no pics of that)

More penguins just for the hell of it!

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