From Costa Rica and beyond

Thursday, March 1, 2012


Patagonia in southern Chile and southwestern Argentina is a remote area. People come here to enjoy the amazing scenery and wildness and to get away from civilization and all its trappings including the internet. As much as I enjoy those aspects of this amazing region, I am now very happy to have reached Punta Arenas and to be staying at a hostel where I can access my blog. The backlog of photos I need to upload is enormous, but all I can hope to do now is to share some highlights from the last couple weeks.

My last posting was from a very rainy Chaiten, Chile in northern Patagonia. This is where I feel our adventure on the Carretera Austral (The southern highway) really began. My friends and I headed out the next day and were rewarded with blue skies and a warm sun. We drove past gorgeous mountains through green valleys and along rivers gushing with glacial melt. Rain returned the next day and what a shame. That day's drive took us past some stunning scenery...and that was just the parts we could see through the cold fog and rain. At one point, we stopped for a break in a mountain pass where we could seen dozens of waterfalls dashing down from their hidden glacial sources. It was really cold and I was soaked to the bone. I have known since the beginning of my trip that my rain gear would not protect me from the elements we would encounter down here, so I resolved to do some shopping in the next big town.

While Patagonia is known for its nature, it was its people who made the biggest impact on us for the next couple days. As we pushed south, we started encountering roadblocks. "Patagonia sin Represas" was a message posted in many locations. I had forgotten what the word 'represas' was since I had first learned it in Ecuador. Patagonia without dams. There are plans already being put into action to build a major dam in Patagonia and the locals don't like it. Environmentalists from around the world are also upset. We encountered our first road block at La Junta. A small group of indigenous peoples blocked a bridge. We met a German heading north from the bridge on his BMW bike. He told us about the blockade and suggested a very long way around it. We decided to check things out on our own. We concocted a story about needing to deliver meds to a friend south of us, but when Ivanka and I walked up to the people we were rather surprised. First of all, these people were more interested in getting government support for a new school and bank in their town (other protesters express frustration at the high cost of living in Patagonia - think Alaska). Second, they pointed out a path around their blockade that motorcycles could take, but not cars. Perfecto! We hopped on our bikes, cleared the path of obstacles and went around their blockade.

The next road block was the same day as the terribly rainy and cold day mentioned above. Tires were burning across the road and a band was playing oom pah pah music for the participants. We warmed ourselves in front of the fire and waited until they let traffic through, which they were doing every couple hours. Things were more grim in Coyaihaque. Here the problem was a bit different. Protesters in this city of 40,000 were blocking trucks bearing gasoline and diesel meaning there was a severe shortage of fuel in the town. We arrived in the evening, found lodging and then planned our next day. At about 9am, we rode our bikes to the line forming near the station that was supposed (according to rumor) to get gas that day. We waited patiently in line for over 13 hours. By that time, the gas trucks had arrived, but protesters would not let people go to the pumps. At about 10:30pm, a riot started. A small number of young demonstrators started throwing rocks. We were warned to get away, but we saw the kids run past us and start throwing rocks at the local grocery store windows (probably the most appealing glass target in the vicinity). The gas station was also cosmetically damaged, but that still crushed our hopes of a reward for our marathon of a day. Fortunately, Nick and Ivanka were up at the crack of dawn and found a line to a station that was pumping an hour way to early for the protesters. We filled our bikes and our additional canisters. I had a total of 15 extra liters strapped on my bike. We had a long way to go and weren't sure where we could refuel again.

The next grand natural highlight and the next roadblock coincided at Lake General Carrera, South America's second largest lake. The incredible blue waters were a lovely reward for our perseverance in Coyaihaque. Our progress was stopped though by another small group of protesters. No riots here, just music and dancing. Ivanka and I walked past the protest to shop for dinner fixings while the others waited with the bikes. After a couple hours, we were allowed to pass. We rode just another couple miles before settling in at a beautiful campground with awesome views across the lake.

Buying gasoline (or benzina, as they call it - just like in Germany) was not an issue. Getting to it was. We were now about to head south on the famed Ruta 40, a road infamous for long stretches of gravel, fierce winds, and its lack of towns. Again, we filled our bike tanks and all our canisters and headed south. Surprisingly, more of the Ruta 40 was paved than we thought. Still, we traveled close to 300 miles of gravel in two days...and were not able to refuel until after 372 miles in El Chalten. Driving on gravel is exhausting. The bike wobbles and the driver has to be totally focused all the time. The road typically has three to four narrow channels (a couple feet wide) that all vehicles stick to. Their wheels throw most stones aside so that each of these lanes has gravel piled three to four inches high between them. If you drift unawares into one of those piles you better hold tight and be ready to crash. Nick, Ivanka and I managed not to crash, but they were not quite able to make the distance to El Chalten. I drove the final miles to get gas for them. They managed to get fuel first though from a Czech couple in a van.

Patagonia's mountains are the product of two tectonic plates colliding and the Pacific one pushing under the South American one. A number of spectacular parks protect the results. One is in El Chalten, Argentina. After two hard days riding through treeless brown steppe, the abrupt appearance of El Chalten's granite towers blows the mind. To a boy who grew up in the flat Midwest, mountains always seem majestic, but these narrow towers of light-colored stone are just eye-popping. We spent two nights there and took a seven hour hike to a glacier and a glorious close up view of the Cerro Torre (the highest peak is the Fitz Roy, which attracts climbers from around the world).

A few hours away is El Calafate and an hour beyond that is Argentina's Glacier National Park. Nick, Ivanka and I spent one night at that park, but it was a night to remember. Following a couple tips that Nick and Ivanka had gotten, we drove to the viewing platform for the Perito Moreno Glacier. We cased the premises and then left and waited until 8:30pm when the park closes. When we arrived at the parking lot, only a couple cars remained and all the employees had left. We unpacked our sleeping gear and set up camp on the viewing platform right in front of one of the world's most active (and not shrinking) glaciers. All night long, under the Southern Cross, we listened to the pop and crack of compressed, advancing ice. At 5:30am we were awakened by an earth-shaking mass of ice tumbling from the glacier. It was an amazing night!

The next day we headed further south to the Torres Del Paine National Park - back in Chile! As in El Chalten, Torres Del Paine is known for its torres - towers. We set up camp just outside the park where we had a view across a small salty lake (including pink flamingos) of the towers. It was an perfect campsite...until the police arrived. We were told through a translator that our fire was forbidden and that we were on private property. Perhaps not so coincidentally, the owner of the land also owned a campground just four kilometers up the road. So, at ten at night, we were forced to pack up, move, and then set up camp again. We were upset that there were no signs, no fences, not even anything telling us if we were in the park or not. Plus free camping is so common in Chile that this took us by surprise. The fire ban, however, was not a surprise. Torres Del Paine suffered from a terrible fire, possibly set by an arsonist, just a few weeks before our arrival. The damage is enormous. Some trails now require face masks if it is a windy day. But nothing can obscure the majesty of the Blue Massive, another product of incredible tectonic forces and of the glaciers in the last ice age some 15,000 years ago. Nick, Ivanka and I spent two nights in different campgrounds inside the park. We simply enjoyed the scenery and the relaxed, quiet atmosphere of the campgrounds peopled by hikers from around the world.

Right now, I am sitting in a hostel in Punta Arenas, a former penal colony, and now home to some 150,000 plus people including a sizable number of ethnic Croatians, which is very exciting for Ivanka (half English, half Croatian). Punta Arenas sits on the Magellan Strait - and that is very exciting for me (history teacher). Magellan sailed past here in 1520 just to get himself killed in a stupid skirmish in the Philippines.

You might wonder what it looks like down here. Driving from Torres Del Paine, we left the mountains behind today. It was almost sad to look back at them. The three of us sat in a wonderful cafe in Puerto Natales with views west over a bay to the snowy mountains which extend farther south to truly remote regions and islands. Then the land levels out thanks surely to the last ice age. The sky is big, not even trees get in the way. Much of what we saw today had only patches of rather stunted, twisted trees. Land is enclosed by fences and signs announce the name of each "estancia" or ranch. The weather has been gorgeous for at least a week now, but it looks like rain is in our immediate future...or snow. Ushuaia has already had a couple small snowstorms. Fortunately, I have invested in rain gear and am ready to go.

Tomorrow we begin our two day ride to Ushuaia...and the end of our journey south. Stay tuned. Hasta luego.

1 comment:

  1. Everything you have done seems really amazing Mr. Ehrean. I hope everything continues well for you. I look forward to reading more about your adventures.
    -- David R.