BUENOS AIRES, 10/04/2020
El Calafate to Puerto Natales
Part 3 of Patagonia should have been El Calafate to Ushuaia. When coronavirus changed everything I had to cut my continental journey about 600km short of Ushuaia in Puerto Natales on 15 March 2020.
As I said in my previous post, if I’d known that my time in Patagonia would be cut three weeks short I’d certainly have done the whole thing more quickly in order to reach the end of the world before the end of the world. But as it was I actually put the brakes on in order not to arrive in Ushuaia (which is expensive) more than a few days before my flight back to Buenos Aires. To this end I spent a whole week in El Calafate just chilling, looking out at the lake, letting my knee heel, catching up with folk, planning my summer in Europe and planning for the final slog down to Ushuaia, which I knew would be hard.
I had recently written on Facebook that I was done with cycling; that I just wanted a door I could close, a chair, and a cat. Ha! Having failed to persuade the French family to sell me one of their unused Helinox chairs, I took the slightly rash decision in El Chalten (given the stage of the journey!) to order a cheap imitation to be delivered to La Anónima supermarket in El Calafate. It took something like 11 days to arrive from Buenos Aires! And it’s too big to fit in any pannier - but I love it!
Before leaving El Calafate I visited the excellent ‘Glaciarium’ interactive museum and the world-famous Perito Moreno glacier. It is said that no amount of photographs prepare you for the sight of this glacier, and that was certainly my experience. Well-constructed wooden walkways enable you to get quite close with minimal environmental impact. Every so often a sound like a gun going off reverberates around and if you’re looking in the right direction you may see bits of the glacier dropping into the lake with an almighty splash.
When I think back on this final leg of the journey it has a certain atmosphere or mood which is hard to describe. At the time I might have said it had to do with approaching the end of the world. Little did I know! The flat, empty, dry steppe landscapes, bad roads and high winds don’t make for easy cycling, to be sure.
It’s virtually impossible to wild camp because of the winds and fencing, so one must plan ahead in order to camp inside or at least sheltered by one of a handful of well-documented abandoned buildings. My first night out of El Calafate was spent under a bridge. The problem with many of these heavily-used cyclist ‘campsites’ is that everyone wants a fresh spot for their morning shit, so you have to move around with extreme caution because there is shit everywhere. I’m pretty sure this would have been Nony’s least favourite part of the ride through Patagonia!
The second day was a long, tough one wind-wise. I barely made it to the famous abandoned police station in the middle of nowhere before dusk, eventually pushing my bike as it was impossible to stay on it, “why the f—k am I here?” going round and round in my head. Standing outside the abandoned building was a spooky male figure who didn’t wave. I had absolutely no choice but to approach anyway. Luckily there turned out to be two young North American lads who were fine to share the space with. They’d taken a rest-day there which I also decided to do, so exhausted was I by the previous day’s adrenaline surge.
Full of cyclist graffiti the police station is otherwise quite tidy and I did my bit with a broom. I also got my period there. I hate periods at the best of times but imagine having your entire period in a context where you cannot bathe? Thank goddess for baby wipes and hand gel. Due to the wind I stayed inside all day, climbing out of the window only to fetch water from the river upstream of a guanaco corpse. In an outbuilding there were a load of partial rhea corpses as if someone had hunted and plucked them. I imagine they’re good protein.
Nowadays I’m seldom at all scared when wild camping, but I did notice a level of alertness in these well-documented cyclist camping spots. Not that there is anyone for miles around, but the likelihood of someone appearing feels higher, if only other cyclists. In fact a French couple stopped and ate their lunch before continuing in the opposite direction to me. They were hoping to continue as far as Colombia :-/
The next day the wind was not quite as bad but the road surface was one of the worst. When a sweet Argentine family in a camper van asked if I had water I asked if they had room to take me and my bike to the end of that road. They weren’t going much faster than me on account of the surface but it was a relief not to have to ride. At the junction they shared their lunch with me - a simple stew made by the 15 year old daughter - before I headed off into another headwind regretting I hadn’t asked them to take me a bit further.
I was aiming for an abandoned hotel but it was so well fenced I couldn’t get in. So I kept going until almost sunset when I found a road-maintenance hut that wasn’t locked - see blog image. It’s hard to convey the relief of finding somewhere to get out of the wind.
The following morning, Tuesday 10 March, I crossed for the second and final time into Chile. A sign at the entry window read ‘Let us know if you’ve recently travelled to China’. In Cerro Castillo it was critical that I get online for the weather forecast, as there would be little point looping around the Torres del Paine national park in cloud. Sun was forecast for Friday 13th but not before. The next task was to buy enough food and fuel to get me through the park and down to Puerto Natales (five days). There is only one shop, but I was able to get enough pasta, powdered milk et cetera to get me through. The problem was fuel. The village health centre, which was supposed to be open, seemed my best bet for alcohol. It was a while before I managed to rouse anybody and when I did get the attention of someone he said no at first. Eventually, after I explained that without fuel I would have to forego the National Park, he relented and filled my bottle. I was all set.
Though I’d only been riding for a few days since El Calafate I was really looking forward to a couple of days rest at an abandoned farmhouse, and hoped it wouldn’t have been made inaccessible like the derelict hotel. I was in luck! It was not only accessible but I had it all to myself for three nights! What a find. Even without the drama that followed, my days spent in this silent place were really something special. Though I think it must have been abandoned quite a long time ago it is still in pretty good nick and very tidy inside. I set up my tent in one of the bedrooms but spent most of my time in the dining room which has a large table and an ancient stove made in Dover, England! I didn’t light the stove because I didn’t want to draw attention to myself and besides, it wasn’t particularly cold. The place even has an outside loo complete with seat! The lack of graffiti makes me suspect that few cyclists stop here. Perhaps they all bypass it and head straight into the National Park.
I spent my days reading the whole of “CPTSD: from surviving to thriving” by Pete Walker while sitting in my new chair, drinking vast amounts of tea, eking out my food, and enjoying the calm if slightly eerie atmosphere of the place.
On the Friday morning I got up at 4 am and cycled for a couple of hours in the dark in order to enter the park before the ticket office opened. I wasn’t going to pay $25 (foreigner price) just to ride through in one day! I was genuinely quite scared about pumas so I wore all my fluorescent yellow stuff and put on all my lights to make myself look as inedible as possible. I even put my yellow arm warmers on my lower legs. Success! I got in for free, wasn’t eaten by a puma, and the weather was absolutely stunning.
Having enjoyed my two long walks in the previous National Park I decided against another hike. Instead I stopped regularly and enjoyed flasks of tea, mate and my lunch while gazing at the famous ‘towers’ and ‘horns’. A truly spectacular day, and the traffic wasn’t nearly as bad as I’d feared. Once it was daylight I really wanted to see a puma, but they’re very shy unfortunately.
It just remained to ride for a day and a half south to Puerto Natales where I was looking forward to a long shower and some good food. On arrival I had a beer and got online to look for somewhere comfy to stay. I found a good deal for two nights at a super comfy studio type place with a kitchen and fantastic shower. On Facebook, friends in the UK were mostly talking about loo roll shortages as people got swept up in panic-buying in anticipation of a coronavirus pandemic. I smugly posted a photo of loo rolls piled high in Puerto Natales, where all was calm.
On Sunday 15 March I set out to have something delicious to eat (having eaten nothing but boiled egg sandwiches and spaghetti for days) and chose a seafood stew, having not had any fish or seafood for ages. It was totally delicious. Unfortunately, as is always a risk with seafood, it also made me sick. For most of my life my stomach seems to have passed nasties through for my guts to deal with, but since being in Latin America it seems finally to be taking some responsibility! I was extremely sick, but felt completely fine again almost immediately! Phew!
The following morning I planned to take a bus quite a long way to the southern Chilean city of Punta Arenas where I would spend a couple of days stocking up before crossing by ferry to the end of South America: the island of Tierra del Fuego and eventually Ushuaia. Unfortunately this final furlong was not to be. I received a message from Ana that Sunday evening which said “I have some not very good news. Have you seen the news?”