Ushuaia: Rest day at the bottom of the world
Sunday, December 4th: Ushuaia is a busy little town at the bottom of the world and seems to exist because of itself. As a popular stop-off point for cruise liners the hotels are full with tourists from many countries eager to add the “end of the world” to their list of places they have visited.
A walk along promenade also reveals a military purpose as many bronze busts of naval characters celebrate Ushuaia’s history.
But it is also a prominent container port. Given its location, hundreds of miles from any other centre of consumption or population, it is not clear why there is such a large container handling facility. Certainly we saw a number of trucks hauling containers along the gravel road to the Chile border, but given the larger town of Punta Arenas which is better connected to the road network, I don’t think the truck traffic accounts for the number of containers in the dock.
As well as the larger cruise ships there are a number of smaller vessels which are used as adventure/expedition cruises to Antarctica side by side with the container ships. A number of smaller vessels also handle day trips to the near islands in the bay to go to the penguin colonies and also spot dolphins and other sea life.
Being Sunday morning and a typical tourist town of souvenir gift shops, restaurants and bars, it is noticeably quiet. The surrounding mountains, still snow capped in late spring, make an attractive backdrop to Ushuaia.
Ushuaia to Rio Grande: 130 Miles: Retracing our steps and heading north
I have often observed that although travelling along the same road, it is often quite different in reverse. I have seen this in Spain where in one direction one is looking at mountains, while in the other direction one is looking at the coast, and so my favourite rides are in fact two rides on the same road. So it was leaving Ushuaia this morning and heading back along Ruta 3 to Rio Grande through which we briefly passed two days previously. The road rises quite quickly through the mountains surrounding the town, but with quite good roads and little traffic there were no real challenges.
Yesterday and the day before when we arrived, we saw Ushuaia in probably at its best: warm, mostly sunny and dry. Today it was cool, hovering around 10C, and started to rain as we left. Passing through the mountain pass and heading towards the lower, tree clad hills of the central area of Tierra del Fuego we gained a much better view of the Lake Fagnano than we had seen on the way down to Ushuaia.
The rain was enough to justify wearing the waterproofs, but never enough to wash away the dust which had accumulated on our clothes and bikes from the final drive to the End of the World two days before. With just an occasional light drizzle the dust turned to a muddy veneer which later when the rain stopped, cemented itself to both surfaces….I need a laundry and a bike wash!! The last 20 miles along the coast exposed us once again to fierce head and side winds which with passing trucks created a very unstable ride to our destination.
Arriving in Rio Grande and taking more notice than on our prior brief traverse, it is clear that this is town is based around a very large military installation with barracks, married quarters and enough military memorabilia as street furniture to indicate its prominence. But it is also clearly a tourist destination of sorts with apartments and attractive houses lining the sea front. Though I suspect that there is rarely, if ever a time when one can swim in the sea between the cold water and the strong South Atlantic winds. Nevertheless, a stroll along the well-constructed promenade was a refreshing way to finish the day.
Rio Grande – Rio Gallegos: 240 Miles: Argentina-Chile Argentina, dirty and windy
Today was not a long day in distance terms, but was one of the more tiring roads. Continuing north from Rio Grande, retracing our path towards the Argentina-Chile border, the mountain of yesterday far behind us and now the low, rolling hills diminishing to a gently undulating plain of poor grass over a sandy soil, the road was mostly straight and followed the east coast of Tierra del Fuego. The wind picked up as the morning wore on and made driving quite tiring.
Tierra del Fuego is divided between Chile and Argentina, so in order to get from the Argentinian territory of the island into the Argentinian mainland, one has to pass through Chile. So a moderate day in terms of distance involved two border crossings: Argentina-Chile-Argentina, with a complete set of documentation, official stamps, bike inspections for agricultural produce in Chile etc. Each crossing took about an hour thus taking time out of the day.
In addition to the border crossings, we also had the same 75 miles of gravel roads between the border and Cerro Sombrero where we had stayed on the way down. Or it was intended to be the same, but as most dirt roads look very much alike, what was a very clear and well signposted dirt road heading south, was less so heading in the opposite direction and so we made the return drive along a different dirt road which came out about 10 kms north of Cerro Sombrero instead of south. This would not have been an issue, and in fact may have been to our benefit had it not been for two things: firstly the track which was generally good for all but the last 10 miles, suddenly turned to deep unconsolidated mud and then deep gravel and a temporary detour due to upgrading road works. One of our riders fell here, but was not injured. The second was that fuel in this part of the world is quite scarce and with the energy sapping high winds, we planned to stop in Cerro Sombrero to re-fuel, so therefore had to turn back on ourselves. As it happened the Cerro Sombrero fuel station was closed, thus reducing our tank range even further. But the alternate road was richer in wildlife and we saw rheas, Llamas, Guanacos, condors as well as the ubiquitous sheep.
Apart from two border crossing and 75 miles of dirt roads, we also had the ferry crossing between Tierra del Fuego and the mainland. Once again the fun of driving the bike down the ramp and on to the ferry which was slowly moving while trying to retain its position with bow thrusters. This foto was taken of me on the way over – thanks David K for sharing it!
The remaining Ruta 3 to Rio Gallegos was a constant battle with the gusting wind constantly pulling us to the side of the road.
Rio Gallegos to Comodorro Rivadavia: 490 Miles: A long day by the coast
Today was a day to move us north by a substantial distance, nearly 500 miles. Heading inland from Rio Gallegos and its estuary to the Atlantic we then turned north along Ruta 3 all the way to Comodorro Ribadavia. This area is known as the Pampas and continues the same landscape as yesterday: flat lying grassy plain, never more than 100-200 metres above sea level with occasionally gently undulating hills culminating in a low ridge, then dropping back into the same landscape from horizon to horizon. Occasional small herds of Guanaco and Vicuna stood along the side of the road, a suicidal Rhea or two, rabbits chancing the crossing, but apart from that just 500 miles of flat, straight roads all the way. I was told an Argentinian joke…What is the definition of nothing? answer – the Pampa!
Our concerns about high winds were unfounded when we had a brisk breeze all the way, but nothing like high force gusts of the past few days. With a starting temperature of 8C and ending in the mid 20’s and sunshine all day, it was a great day’s ride at 10 hours.
Comodoro Ribadavia – Puerto Madryn: 280 Miles: More of the same
My sleep was disturbed by the 2:30 AM “boy racers” who decided to hold a drag race outside our hotel with 20 year-old small capacity cars, but with all silencers removed from the exhaust system. Add to this their in-car stereo systems at full power with over-driven base and it was clear that I was not going to make an early start today.
As it was not a long ride and the wind had still not risen to the level we experienced a few days before, I set off into a carbon copy landscape of yesterday immediately rising over a low sandstone ridge and back onto the flat, featureless plain of the pampas. Today’s challenge was to be fuel and with a fairly stiff headwind for most of the day the fuel consumption was significantly impaired.
The recommended fuel stop was lined on both sides with cars waiting up to an hour to fill up. We were told that we had been lucky to find fuel where we stayed last night since as this was a 4 day weekend and beginning of the school holidays for some, the demand for fuel was much greater. Deciding that I did not absolutely NEED fuel I carried on and found another fuel station just 35 miles further north which was not only devoid of any cars waiting in line, but also had a choice of fuel grades and excellent coffee…. I assume that the existence of a line at the prior fuel stop created a panic buying sentiment and hence people “topping off” for fear of running out.
We had driven through oil and gas producing areas all day and just 30 miles short of our destination at Puerto Madryn we passed through an oil town. Stopping once again for fuel the statue in the roundabout was impossible to resist….. two oil men?
For most of the drive north from Tierra del Fuego I had seen oil and gas wells producing into tank batteries or low pressure gas lines to treatment and compression stations. There was also a sign a couple of days ago on the exit from Rio Grande that a methanol plant was planned to be constructed. The construction dock was already in place. Judging by the size of the well heads the production volume is modest, and I am guessing each well is measured in hundreds of barrels a day at most.
Arriving at Puerto Mardyn this is clearly a larger city than I had expected. Established by Welsh settlers in the 1860’s it is now a city of 80,000 inhabitants. Although it is a tourist town, the largest employer is the aluminium smelting plant, employing 6,000 and then a stone-works processing granite for domestic and export market. But we were here to visit the Valdes Peninsula and see the wildlife.
Puerto Mardyn: Welsh Whales?
A day off in Puerto Madryn is for seeing whales. Although it is late inthe season, whales are still to be seen in the two gulfs (san Jose and Nueva) which straddle the isthmus connecting the Valdes Peninsula to the mainland. Whales come to give birth here in June, raising their young till about 4 months old, then head north to Brazil before heading south again to the Antarctic. The babies stay with the mother for up to 3 years, learning the ocean routes from them. The primary whale is the Southern Right Whale, weighing up to 50 tons when fully grown, and at around 17 metres in length are pretty impressive. The young are up to 2 metres in length at birth and can weigh more than a ton.
Using a minivan transfer from the hotel we boarded the inflatable boat in Puerto Pyramides.
We found the last whales, a mother and calf, about 6 miles or so from the port. Seemingly this pair was late to migrate because the calf was born late in the season and not yet large enough to survive the long journey. The males had all left in October.
Protected in Argentinian waters since the 1960’s, conservationists have identified more than 2,700 individual whales in the Valdes Peninsula by the unique markings each one has of barnacle growths on their skin. I just wish we had been able to see the larger numbers of whales!
The mother whale seemed quite relaxed with the tour boat just a few tens of metres away and she rolled on to her back with pectoral fins in the air, floating serenely as we watched.
Puerto Madryn – Viedma 310 Miles: Summer is here again
It was warmer this morning when we left Puerto Madryn, at least 15C, and with lighter winds and sunshine, became a very pleasant ride as I headed north. I was riding alone today as are many of the riders and I suspect as we are nearing the end of the trip we are each savouring the ride in our own ways and while the scenery of the pampas of Patagonia is not very inspiring, enjoying some personal moments of reflection on all the places we have been, people we have met and diverse climates from the north to the south.
The pampas, as I have remarked before, is essentially a flat plain, just above sea level, and for the last 1,000 miles I have seen perhaps only 5 trees which appeared to be self sown, with others planted around farmhouses or in the villages through which we have passed. The coarse, dry grass and rough bushes about knee high have populated the landscape for 4 or 5 days. Apart from a few horses, cattle, occasional vicuna or rhea, there is little wild life.
Stopping for the first fuel stop and finding some excellent coffee it had warmed up enough to shed the riding jacket and don the florescent sleeveless vest I wear over my armour. I have not worn this for probably 2 months since we left Central America…
Turning east towards Viedma, today’s destination, the landscape suddenly changes. The scrubby pampas has been cleared and large farms with ploughed fields take their place. Irrigation from the Rio Negro turns the dry and mostly barren landscape into productive farms, and just as we have seen in many areas, just a little water goes a long way in farming terms. There are suddenly trees too. After more than 1,000 miles of no trees at all, there are now trees almost everywhere.
Viedma is a town of perhaps 50,000 people on the Rio Negro. It is twinned with Carmen de Patagones on the other side of the river, though there are few bridges. Francisco Viedma built a fort here in the 18th century to protect and open up the lands to the south, but a major flood washed much of the settlement away, so the opposite bank was populated as it was higher, and hence the two towns. Carmen de Patagones retains its old charms of cobbled streets and old buildings while the new town of Viedma has wider streets and square blocks.
With temperatures in the low 30’s, a 4 day weekend at the start of the summer holidays and Christmas just around the corner there was a definite buzz to the place today. People swimming in the river, walking along the bank and no shortage of teenagers cruising along the road with noisy motor scooters.
Viedma to Sierra de la Ventana – 280 Miles: Mountains at last?
Viedma was a buzzing little town on the banks of the Rio Negro and within a short (30 kms) drive to the coast. Last night, as we are approaching the end of the trip I went out for a drink with my roommate, Drew, and as is often the case the bars only start to liven up at after 1 PM. I was in bed by 1:15 with a long-ish day’s ride ahead.
Heading north on the Pampa again, the scenery barely changes as we encounter the same flat, rough grassy plains as before. After about 200 miles of almost mind-numbingly boring landscape, the hint of mountains appears out of the hazy horizon – The Sierra de la Ventana or Window Mountain in the national park of the same name. A brief stop in Tornquist, the nearest town, for a cash machine and then on to the resort hotel, el Mirador, for the night.
Sierra de la Ventana is so named for a hole in the mountain created I suppose, by wind action against the sedimentary rocks, exploiting a weakness.
Today was not an inspiring drive but it was nevertheless easy and essentially traffic free.
Sierra de la Ventana – Buenos Aires – 370 miles: Heading to the Big Apple (“BA”)
The Mirador resort was a pleasant, quiet hotel, though the rooms were small. The restauarnt was good and as the final night before arrival in BA was almopst like a “last supper” experience.
Today is a fairly long day at 370 miles, but the first 100 miles was through low mountains with winding roads and little traffic in the early morning cool temperatures. Riding along and continuing the reflective mood of the past few days, I was thinking through the highlights of the trip in terms of scenery, riding experience or people I have met who have made an impression on me. We were to regroup at mile 280 so that we could ride the last 70-80 miles of motorway as a group. This not only creates quite a spectacle, but also creates a formidable line of large motorcycles to intimidate local drivers into letting us weave in and out of the traffic and arrive at our destination together. Which is what we did to the Scala hotel in Avenida 9 de Julio, supposedly the widest road in the world!
An obligatory photo, beer in hand, to mark the accomplishment of 23,000 miles of riding the Americas, and it was off to a well deserved shower and later the group meeting to learn the arrangements for the shipping of bikes home.
The end of the journey is a bitter sweet experience. After nearly 5 months I am ready for some rest, but at the same time I am not yet tired of discovering new parts the world or meeting new people. My experience on this trip has been very positive. A Saturday drive with the bike club will still be enjoyable but does not come close to the experience of the past few months.
My last post as I enjoy a few days of rest in Buenos Aires will be somewhat reflective. To all who have followed by journey through the blog, thank you for sharing it with me. If you would like to send me any questions or comments, please feel free at MD@IRConsult.Co.UK or firstname.lastname@example.org and I will try to cover them in the last post of this blog.