From Costa Rica and beyond

Monday, March 5, 2012


In terms of latitude, Ushuaia is about as far south as Calgary is north, but Calgary is nowhere near the end of the road in North America. South America's travellers reach the fin del mundo in this blustery tourist magnet where the southern shore of Tierra del Fuego meets the Beagle Channel.

Setting out from Vermont, Ushuaia was not my primary objective. It was and still is my goal to settle for a couple months in some major city so as to satiate my urban cravings before returning to Vermont, that most bucolic of states. That is still my plan (and Santiago, Chile will be that city), but Ushuaia has long been in my sights. Almost all my fellow riders planned on coming here and curiosity has also made Ushuaia appealing. As a teacher of history and geography, how could I not seize the opportunity to cross the Magellan Straits and explore this contested tip of the Western Hemisphere? Even the Beagle Channel is significant, being named for the historic HMS Beagle whose crews surveyed this area on two separate voyages. Darwin was aboard during the second voyage and wrote many observations about Tierra del Fuego in 1833. So, it seemed I should go.

Nick, Ivanka and I left Punta Arenas, Chile around 9am (our typical departure time) and drove along the north shore of the Magellan Strait for a couple hours until we reached a ferry crossing to Tierra del Fuego. We were not alone. There were trucks, cars, and about a dozen riders from Sweden on rented BMWs. The thirty minute crossing was over almost before we were able to take pictures and appreciate what Magellan must have seen as he cautiously entered what he hoped would be a southwest passage to the Pacific.

We hit the shore, headed inland and were very soon riding gravel roads again. That part of Tierra del Fuego belongs to Chile, but most of the people passing on that road are going to Ushuaia in Argentina. It seems Chile doesn't care to pave roads for the benefit of Argentina...nor for our benefit!

I was happy to fixate on the road both for my safety and because the scenery was boring. In the first couple hours I counted a total of three rather weakly trees. The landscape was mostly flat with a few very gently rolling hills...probably ancient moraines from the last ice age.

Rain soon dampened our ride and our spirits. We found temporary shelter in official buildings as we crossed from Chile into Argentina. We pushed onward and arrived in Rio Grande after a couple hours. Camping didn't seem very palatable in such weather so we looked for lodging and found nothing affordable. However, after sharing a couple pizzas and another hotel search, the rain had stopped. So we left town determined to find a place to the dark. After an hour of riding, we saw a home behind a fence and stopped to see if we could camp behind the fence. The owner was already outside and immediately said we were welcome. Indeed, he apologized repeatedly for not being able to offer any hot water or other amenities. We were just happy to set up camp and sleep in a safe location.

The next day's ride was considerably more interesting. Soon there were trees and then bigger hills and then mountains and lakes and herds of guanacos (like a mix between llamas and vicunas) and even a ski resort (closed for the summer). Ushuaia is nestled between these mountains and the Beagle Channel. At the city gates, we stopped for photos and did another dance routine for Nick and Ivanka's Ushuaia video.

There are lots of bikers here. I'm sure some of them party like crazy when they get here. I suspect though that a lot of them feel like I do - it's great to be here, but it is a bit of an anticlimax and even a bit sad as this signals the end...even if that is still months off. Nick and Ivanka will be heading to a home in Croatia (Ivanka has a big chat with her boss coming up and Nick is looking forward to being a house husband - only partly tongue in cheek.). Andre will soon return to Switzerland. Carole and Laurent (who I met in Palenque, Mexico) will ride up to Rio before flying home to France. Kevin, who has ridden all through Asia, and Mark who rode with his wife for three years around the world...both of them will be going home to their women in Australia. Other riders I know are scrambling to find good rates to ship their bikes home from here. So, to be sure, we have thrown back some drinks, toasted with champagne, and eaten our share of Argentine beef, chicken and mutton, but the mood is not necessarily jubilant. Almost all of us would keep riding and exploring if the money and circumstances would permit.

What have I done in Ushuaia? Not a lot really. I have slept well in a nice hostel with a very stern caretaker (n.b. I am NOT sleeping with the caretaker!). I have visited with friends and cooked much more than eaten out. I have changed the oil of my bike and had the pannier rack welded for a third time (this job was very well done and should last.). I have not visited the very good maritime museum nor the national park. Both are simply too expensive. I understand why food and many things cost a lot in such a far-flung location. However it is also clear that tourists are being fleeced here. I am keeping my fleecing to a minimum.

Tomorrow we will leave this nice little city and Tierra del Fuego. It is extremely satisfying to have been here and to have a greater understanding of this place...and of course the getting here has been amazing, both in the last couple weeks and ever since Vermont for that matter.

I am very grateful to all of you who have made this trip possible and who have supported me even if it's just been a kind comment on Facebook. Now keep that love coming for a few more month and I will do my part not to let my guard down - there are still a lot of miles to go!!

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