From Costa Rica and beyond

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

From Ushuaia to Buenos Aires

I should have known. Just after labelling northern Tierra del Fuego as boring (in my previous blog entry), Nick, Ivanka and I had a great drive through the same area. We left Ushuaia late morning, wound our way through the surrounding mountains and followed Ruta 3 northeast. The wind battered us the whole way to the border. Leaning against gale force winds so as not to be blown over or off the road was exhausting. Cooking up some coffee during a roadside break was impossible, as our cookers' flames would just blow out.

It was in that fatigued and wary state-of-mind that we reached the border, crossed over into Chile and once again faced the loose gravel roads of northern Tierra del Fuego. We decided against the same roads we took going south and so pushed inland a bit more this time. At the first crossroad, we asked a surveyor which way to go. He pointed up the smaller road. Hm. To our great relief, this was a dirt road more than a gravel one, so the driving was much more pleasant. Better yet, the wind died down. We passed only a couple pickups on this road, otherwise it was ours alone...along with occasional flocks of geese (they were also going north), guanacos (one of which ran just ahead of us thinking we were chasing it), and a rancher and his dogs herding sheep. This narrower road felt cozier and turned spectacular in a subtle way as we descended into a shallow valley that seemed very significant in this otherwise flat land. The ride became adventurous again when confronted with a little brook blocking our way. There was no quick way to gauge its depth or seek obstacles, so being on the bike with the lighter load, I shrugged my shoulder and cranked the throttle. Water somehow managed to fly up over my windshield. Exhilarated, I hopped off my bike and photographed Nick and Ivanka doing the same.

We were relieved to reach pavement again and then the Straits of Magellan and to have caught the day's last ferry. The sun had set before we reached the northern shore. We pushed on into the dark hoping to reach Rio Gallegos across the border in Argentina. Just before the border it started to rain and our vision was rather limited. So, at the border we asked where we could camp, as driving was unsafe for us. The boss told us we could sleep in the next building just outside the bathrooms. It was a bit smelly, but it was warm and secure. And free!

In Rio Gallegos, Ivanka needed to Skype with her boss. We needed a cafe with wifi. We parked to begin looking for such a place by foot. Out of nowhere, Mark appeared. He and Kevin and Andre had slept right across the street. While laughing about the coincidence, Adrian drove by.

I was worried about my bike's front end. Something did not feel right, but a quick inspection the previous day turned up nothing. There was a squeak too, but we figured it was just the front brake. I asked Mark to take a quick look and he showed that he could wiggle the front wheel from side to side. My nearly new wheel bearings were shot. Adrian also had to get work done, so we found the local bike shops and ordered the repairs.

The ride up Ruta 3 is a long one...nearly 2000 miles. It follows Argentina's eastern coast and is known for relentless winds and a rather featureless (dare I say 'boring'?) landscape. Indeed, the winds were constant and usually perpendicular to our path or against us, almost never at our backs, and the landscape was flat, flat, flat. There were very few trees but lots of scrub brush. It was during the long hours of driving through here that it dawned upon me that the wind is the reason all the trees in southern Chile and Argentina have such tiny leaves. Bigger ones would simply blow away. Nevertheless, to declare this whole region of steppe boring is a grave injustice to the coast. We visited two national parks (Monte Leon and Peninsula Valdez) with spectacular shorelines, tremendous tides (up to 12 meters!), and wildlife - penguins, seals, sea lions and elephants, whales, and orcas. The whale calving season was way past, but we saw magellan penguins, seals, both sea lions and elephants, and we hoped to see orcas rush the beach to snatch a seal snack. The orcas were a no show in both parks, but we still very much enjoyed the natural beauty of these places.

Rain is a seldom visitor to this region, but we drove through when they reportedly received more rain than in any other single storm in over five years. It still did not seem like all that much, but it was certainly impressive to watch the dark clouds roll by and to see how rain would fall straight down from a cloud and then suddenly turn 45 degrees at the elevation where the wind hit it. On Peninsula Valdez we witnessed heavenly art as distant rain mixed with the purples and oranges of the setting sun.

This treeless land is also nearly people-less in many places. Camping was difficult with the crazy winds and fence enclosed ranches. So, our new campgrounds were the isolated gas stations/truck stops along Ruta 3. This was ideal. We could stock up on drinking and cooking water, get a snack, and sit in the small dining areas (after we had eaten our own feasts) and play scrabble.

Slowly, the land transformed. Just south of San Antonio we encountered cultivated land. Fields of sunflowers welcomed us as did the smell of freshly unearthed onions. North of Viedma, Ruta 3 is lined on both sides by vast green farmland with occasional patches of trees. It reminded me of very flat sections of Michigan or what Iowa might look like. Compared to the unforgiving steppe of Patagonia, I felt very at home here.

One more national park was on our list - the Parque National Tornquist. This park protects a patch of mountains that pop out of the flat lands in spectacular fashion. We spent two nights there enjoying the scenery, a couple short hikes, the campground showers, and a dinner with perhaps the best sausages any of us had ever eaten (available at the mercadito in Villa de la Ventana, if you're wondering).

We left the park for what was Nick and Ivanka's last big ride. Buenos Aires is their departure point for flying home. Our arrival in Argentina's famous capital happened the next day though, after one more night camping at a gas station (albeit a natural gas service station - lots of Argentine's are driving with natural gas that cost just 2 pesos a liter - gasoline costs at least 5 pesos a liter).

We wisely rolled into this city of 13 million on a quiet Sunday morning. The traffic was minimal and considerate. We asked and were directed to a great little breakfast nook where we enjoyed tasty sandwiches and sinfully indulgent churros. Neighborhood men came out and appreciated our bikes and took pictures with us. Soon we were deep in the city, in awe of this urban cityscape with grand buildings overlooking plazas and narrow streets with apartment buildings reminiscent of Paris. With a little leg and phone work from Ivanka, we selected a hostel and made our way there. That short drive put us on Avenue July 9, which, with a total of 18 lanes, is the widest avenue in the world. Our hostel overlooks this avenue, the surrounding business edifices, and the very phallic obelisk.

One remarkable thing about this city`s traffic is the very spare use of horns. New York streets echo incessantly with audibles of frustration and indignation. Buenos Aires` streets are quiet and cool for the most part. This fits with my positive perception of Argentinians. Walk into a store or restaurant and you are greeted right away by perfect strangers. Lots of people ask us about our bikes and the journeys we have made and all wish us well. Many Argentinians are also considerate when speaking to us in Spanish, slowing the pace so we can grasp what they say or even writing out directions as opposed to just pointing and gesturing where we should go.

So far, Buenos Aires has been fantastic. Nick and Ivanka and I enjoyed the enormous San Telmo Sunday street market that teems with shoppers, vendors of all sorts of crafts, and street musicians, some of a remarkable calibre. And speaking of music, Nick, Ivanka, and I saw Roger Waters` The Wall last night. I call it a show rather than a concert because this really was more of a rock opera or perhaps a rock oratorio than a band playing and interacting with its audience. Images and names of dead soldiers and other victims of war and hatred from the First World War up to current conflicts were projected on the Wall. Clearly Water`s anti-war, anti-capitalist, anti-fascist philosophy has not waned. In a country with a history like Argentina`s, especially the latter of those three is very well received. Regardless, it was amazing to see music that has been with me nearly all my life performed live...and under the Southern Cross with 60,000 good people from all around the world.

Aside from the imminent departure of a number of my rider friends, the only bad news to share is that someone has stolen money from my bank accounts...and not just a little bit. Mark, Kevin, and Andre have also been victims of someone we are guessing is in Peru. I will sit tight here for a few days until a new bank card arrives. I was planning on staying here for at least a week anyhow and there is soooo much to see that I am not at all bummed by this imposed wait.

If you would like to see a fun video of our ride through Patagonia, arrival  in Ushuaia, and a debate of the EggGate scandal, follow this link. You might also enjoy the music from New Order.

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