Cycling above the Clouds

Riding the Andes by Bicycle

Heading to Tierra del Fuego

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I had one last day before leaving Punta Arenas so after doing my usual chores to stock up on supplies I made a short walk to the cemetery, which had some very impressive memorials. There was a lovely extract from a poem by Pablo Neruda on a memorial for people who were killed under Pinochet’s dictatorship.

The cemetery in Puerto Arenas – noticeable are the many British names on the headstones, inherited from the original military settlers at ‘Sandy Point’.

Extract from “Siempre” – from what I can understand it means something like the following (if anyone can provide a more eloquent translation please comment below!!): “…and nothing will extinguish the moment you fell, even though thousands of voices cross this silence. The rain will soak the cobbles in the square but will not put out your names of fire.”

I mentioned I stayed in a really nice hostal called Endless Sky in Punta Arenas (it was clean, spacious, comfy beds, a nice social spirit and for a nice change, people weren’t getting up at 6am every day to go trekking). When I arrived I met a wonderful Italian man called Giancarlo who was in the bunk next to mine. He was in his mid 60’s and had returned to Patagonia to complete his ride to Ushuaia, after making his way down much of the Carretera Austral last year. He had a fabulous moustache that gave him the look of a slightly eccentric Albert Einstein, a cheeky grin and a twinkle in his eye. Sadly I missed the chance to take a photo of us, but I really enjoyed chatting with him for the couple of days.

Giancarlo had a great sense of curiosity which reminded me not to start taking this journey for granted (it’s easy to get used to a routine of cycling, eating and sleeping, and stop making the effort to go and explore new places).

Giancarlo found this very apt bottle of wine! I’m pretty sure I rode past the vineyard back near the Colchagua valley.

On my last night I treated myself to a wonderful dinner in this restaurant in a lovely house, returned it to its grandeur of days gone by.

Crossing to Porvenir, Tierra del Fuego

I got up early the next day to catch the ferry to Porvenir, my starting point in Tierra del Fuego. Despite arriving at the port more than an hour before departure, there was a huge queue for tickets and I started to get worried I wouldn’t get mine in time. After some anxious waiting, I saw that the queue for cars and lorries was moving much more quickly (presumably they were prioritised to get them onto the boat), so I nominated my bicycle for ‘vehicle’ category (technically correct at least;) and jumped queues. Safely installed on the ferry, it was a 2 hour crossing to get to Porvenir and yet more very flat landscapes.

The quiet ferry terminal in Porvenir

Riding round a bay towards the coast just outside Porvenir

Estancia Armonia

I had a good gravel road to ride which was a pleasant surprise after some of my previous experiences of Chilean ‘ripio’ roads. It rained on and off in the afternoon, at one point threatening to hail, but the sun soon came out again and with the wind I always dried off quickly. I checked the side of the road for shelter. Having seen a number of fishermen’s shacks along the waterfront that looked like good options earlier on, they then disappeared as I made my way slightly inland. The wind was whipping up and I had a choice: I could keep pressing on to get to a famous bus stop where cyclists often shelter for the night, or try my luck with one of the estancias along the route. I opted for the latter, as I knew there were a few cyclists ahead of me and wasn’t sure how many people the refugio could accommodate.

As has become a general theme these days, there wasn’t much (any) shelter from the wind – sleeping out there in a tent would not be advisable – you’d just end up holding on to the tent poles all night hoping they didn’t break with the force of the wind.

Fishermen’s shacks I saw along the coast – basic, but they’d definitely do the job if needed

I rode up the track to Estancia Armonia where they had sheep and chickens. Their horses were grazing by the side of the track. A farmhand came and spoke to me and invited me into the yellow worker’s house where a lady who lived there and cooked for them plied me with tea and freshly made hot bread with jam and butter. Perfect! The ‘dueño’ (owner) then told me there was a good spot under their pine trees at the back of his house where I could pitch my tent, hidden from the wind and rain.

Nicely sheltered from the wind – the branches and ground had already been cleared for a tent. I definitely wasn’t the first cyclist they’d helped out!


Yes, it was to be another bendy tree day.

I enjoyed amaaazing tail winds for most of the following morning, coasting along the gravel road at 30kmph plus. I passed the big bus stop at a junction where there were road works. Sticking my head round the door to see if any cyclists had stayed there, I met Pablo, a Mexican guy, who’d just started out from Ushuaia a few days earlier. It was midday but he hadn’t left yet, stuck in a bit of indecision and paralysis. He’d run out of food and water and still had to cycle into the headwind to get to Porvenir. I suspect starting this ride from Ushuaia into these crazy headwinds would be the making or breaking of many a cyclist!

I gave him a pastry and a litre of water I could manage without to tide him over for a bit. It was still clear he’d need to hitch a ride with a truck or pickup, as he’d have zero chance of making it all the way to Porvenir that afternoon – especially given the wind only gets stronger later in the day. There was no opportunity to re-supply inbetween. When I left he was still hiding from the wind in the shelter whilst the (precious few) pickups drove past. There should have been a few more passing later in the day as people travelled over for the afternoon ferry back to Punta Arenas. I hope he made it!!

Just after I rode on, I got treated to this wonderful sight of gauchos and their dogs herding a huge flock of sheep across the road.

After making my way to San Sebastián, and crossing the border from Chile back into Argentina one last time, the road took a 90 degree turn to the south. Wow, the cross winds! I’d originally planned to sleep at the border (there’s also another heated (!!) shelter on the Argentinian side that cyclists can sleep in), but (a) I saw the wind forecast was even worse for the following day and (b) it was still very early in the afternoon, as I’d been able to cover the first half of the day so quickly.

I was concerned about the strength of the wind, as it was a good road with fast moving traffic (albeit still not too busy by my standards), but the cross-wind would push me directly into their path. There was a gravel hard shoulder but that would take a lot of energy. I decided to see if I could hitch a lift towards Rio Grande and get there a day earlier. Some people like to have an unbroken cycling line, but I’ve already broken that rule a couple of times (once due to food poisoning and twice more for safety’s sake) so don’t feel too precious about that any more.

After an hour of trying to hitch a lift from the (very small number of) passing pickups, I was still feeling optimistic when two police officers offered to drive me part of the way to town – until the start of a gravel side road where I could ride safely. They probably weren’t technically supposed to help me, and I suspect this is another example of where being a solo female cyclist has helped me out.

My view from the back of the police car – the two officers up front shared a cup of maté all the way into town.

Rio Grande

I was glad to be able to ride the last part of the day into Rio Grande, not least because they actually had a great cycle path that ran along the Atlantic coast (which I was seeing for the first time on this trip!) and right through the centre. Rio Grande is now quite a commercial and industrial city as there are oil refineries along this part of the coast. It turns out that Rio Grande was also quite involved in The Falklands War (‘Las Malvinas’ to the Argentinians) and had lost a number of soldiers. There were some huge memorials, some old military tanks on show, and plenty of signs saying ‘Las Malvinas are Argentinian’.

Las Malvinas memorial along the Atlantic coast

I stayed in this old hostal, where I ended up for an extra night because it was too windy to ride the following day

I met this group of Argentinian bikers who’d ridden down Buenos Aires. As with all good Argentinians, they cooked a mean parrilla (meat grill) that evening and made me a refreshing cocktail of Fernet Branca and coke (a herbal tasting spirit originally from Italy but which seems to be drunk all over Argentina, and that I’d been curious to try for some time). It was good to have some company.

Nodding donkeys pumping oil alongside the road

The Bakery at Tolhuin

The wind had dropped massively when I checked it two days later, so I decided to do a 110km day and ride to the town of Tolhuin. This place is also marked down in cycle-touring folklore as it has a famous bakery, ‘Panaderia La Union’, with a ‘Casa de ciclistas’ where cyclists can stay for free.

I met this wonderful octogenarian ‘Pepe’ from Argentina on the road. He just ambled his way along, stopping often to take photos and chat to people. His Argentinian flag was definitely a hit with the passing drivers.

More pastries than you could shake a stick at in the bakery!

The factory at the back – this is a store room where all the flour is kept. There’s a small room and a little bathroom with a shower coming off it that cyclists can use.

I shared this little room with two other solo guy cyclists. With no window for ventilation and years of cyclists sleeping on the mattresses, it was rather fruity, and I don’t mean in the pastry-making sense of the word!!! But with four other (Colombian and Venezuelan couples) cyclists staying in another room out the back, the place had a good spirit and it was a nice way to spend my last night on the road before reaching Ushuaia. It was also a fantastic opportunity to get some advice from the Colombian couple before the next section of my ride.

And so to the following day – possibly to be my last day of riding down in the south!

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