After two weeks of waiting on Chloe’s knee to reasonably recover, it was evident nothing was happening fast. So, to break up life in Rio Grande a little, we headed for Punta Arenas in Chile for five days where Chris had an appointment with a mechanic to check out his suspension. With Chloe still unable to ride, we had the tiresome journey of travelling ‘two up’ which for the passenger is unbelievably boring. Not recommended for a round the world trip!
We headed to the sleepy town of Porvenir where we caught the ferry, (four hours later than expected due to Chris’s inability to read a timetable), over to mainland Chile and Punta Arenas.
In punta Arenas, Chris spoke to two mechanics who both said his bike was fine, which was a relief… no waiting on parts and being stuck for another few weeks with no movement. Budget for two weeks completely blown within four days in Punta Arenas after meeting Horacio, owner of PatagoniaRiders, (and one of the mechanics), and dining out with him at lunch and dinner time in exotic restaurants. He did help with the bike however, and was a complete hoot!
With Chloe still mostly immobile, we only had short opportunities for walking, but still managed to catch up on the rich architecture of the by-gone past. Historically, the town was an integral stop off and trading point through the Magellanic Straight, hence Puntas Arenas enjoyed an affluent past and this was reflected in the historic buildings which remain today.
After a few days in Punta Arenas, we thought we had better get back to Rio Grande to prepare for leaving and heading west again for Christmas. We had a vague idea of being in Punta Arenas or Puerto Natales for Christmas, but had a sneaky suspicion all would be quiet with restaurants closed and families keeping themselves at home. Hmmm…. We needed a party!
With only one week to go, we were discussing our dilemma with a fellow traveler who had just the idea. His friends had booked a trip that left on the 23rd December and consisted of whale watching, a trip to a glacier and a stay on an island in the Chilean fjords for the four days over Christmas. Perfect! As quick as lightening we were on to it. Down to the booking office that afternoon we managed to (luckily) squeeze ourselves on as the last couple on a 10 person trip. We would be shipped off to the remote Carlos III island, wined and dined with a spot of whale watching from the veranda and a little extra kayaking ‘treat’ to top it all off.
Okay, with our Christmas trip booked, we had to now get back to Rio Grande quick sharp-ish, pack up all our stuff, make some moderations to Chloe’s bike for a leg rest, buy ‘thank you’ gifts, and get back to Punta Arenas in a matter of days. The next morning we off, back to Rio Grande with a touch of penguin spotting on the way.
Friends had previously told us that it was possible to visit a recently discovered King Penguin colony which had re-established itself on the Chilean-side, west coast of Tierra del Fuego. Passing simple fishing villages, we took the ubiquitous Camino de Tierra (road of earth) and battled against the strong westerly winds where we found the small, but growing, colony of penguins waiting to be photographed.
Back in Rio Grande, we made all the necessary arrangements, packed up our things and said our final farewells after three weeks.
So, with 7.5 lives left, (1 minor accident and several soft tumbles = 1.5 lives), Chloe clambered back onto her bike for the first time and we headed back west to mainland Chile and Punta Arenas. Again.
On the morning off the 23rd we were picked up for our trip. We were chauffeur driven to the end of the coast road where we set about kayaking for three hours to the San Isidro Lighthouse. A guest house accessible only by sea or foot awaited us on the bay below where we would meet our fellow Christmas friends.
Two of the guests had managed to go astray thus reducing the party to 8; not only making for more room in the hot tub but the ability to remember names was significantly improved. This small sized group was an energizing mix of Germans, Spanish, US Americans and us. Plus we had one scientist and our guide, Marcelo. A perfect mix for a Christmas celebration!
Our boat arrived the following morning – ahead of us was a 11 hour trip, (that should have only been about seven hours, but was dramatically lengthened due to the weather), across the Magellan Straight to Carlos III Island and the Scientific / Eco camp which would host us for the 3 days over Christmas.
Leaving San Isidro behind we passed the most southern tip of Continental Chile. The very point where the Pacific meets the Atlantic and where we were warned of rough seas . . .
. . and it was almost inevitable who would suffer . . .
Well, after everything Chloe had been through, she had to get even somehow!
With breakfast involuntarily thrown overboard and lunch avoided (by some), arrival at the camp meant one sure thing – food! We were all shown to our domed tents and then invited to the main tent for Christmas dinner of Ceviche (fresh raw fish marinated in citrus juices such as lemon), followed by King Crab lasagna. All washed down with several varieties of cake, Chilean speciality cocktails and fizz, interspersed with scientific chat about humpback whale populations, glacial melt water and the lack of hair dryers in the female USA contingent’s tent!
Over the past 15 years, the island has established itself as a pioneer in the research and understanding of the Humpback Whale. A colony of around 125 whales return to this very location, known as Whale Sound, due to its rich sea waters fed by the Pacific, Atlantic and three sources of glacial melt water. The rich marine life, and the fact that the area had now been designated as a National Marine Park, allows sea lions, penguins, whales, innumerable species of birds and scientists (and 10 temporary tourists) to live together in relative peace. Only fairly recently have tourists been allowed to visit, the income from which helps fund the continuing research and maintenance of the camp.
Christmas morning was a typically early start(?!). After a quick round of presents we were back in the water chasing whales and penguins before returning to shore for a quick lunch before heading back out onto the water.
The highlight of the day was going to be an afternoon kayak at the nearby glacier. People and kayaks were loaded onto the boat and we set off in search of 11,000 year old ice.
Leaving the safety of our boat behind us, kitted up once again to kayak the last 5km, bringing us within 300m of the glacier. The sheer scale of its southern most face is overwhelming, even humbling, particularly when it starts creaking and shedding of chunks of ice before us, echoing thunderous growls around the bay. The photographs do not do the thing justice – there is no concept of scale… we felt just so small and insignificant.
On returning to the boat we toasted Christmas and, like true tourists, we drank from a glass chilled with some 11,000 year old ice scooped up from the lagoon.
Before our departure from the island, there was still time for a last minute kayak in search for more whales on Boxing Day morning. The 6.30am start was hard, but was worth it as we were lucky to find some humpback feasting over breakfast in the bay right next to us. Amazing.
Packed up and back on board the boat, we made our way back to Punta Arenas, taking only six hours on the return with the wind behind us. Much calmer waters meant that Chris refrained from turning green and in fact slept most of the way back… it had been a long few days!
Back in Punta Arenas, Christmas over, we set our sights on where to go for New Year. Heading north, Torres del Paine seemed the logical answer. The most stunning of Chile’s National Parks, the ‘towers of pain’ are rocky mountainous outcrops atop the southern-most section of the Andes mountain range. The guide book warns that “nothing can prepare you for the spectacle that is Torres del Paine”. Great – Torres del Paine here we come!
All set to leave and Chris’s bike wouldn’t start. The lights had been left on all the previous day – doh! Leaving for Torres del Paine was left for another day until empty battery was re-filled with acid and charged. Which was fine really because the Patagonian wind was blowing full force and it was proving difficult to walk, never mind ride, so we would have had to delay anyway. Next day – set off successfully this time, riding the 400km past Puerto Natales, to a campsite right next to the park entrance. Although the ferocious winds had subsided a little, they had by no means released us, and we had to battle with them for several days to come.
The black smoke that hung over the park was not difficult to miss. The wind was blowing a mass forest fire across the landscape. The fire, apparently set off by an incompetent tourist making a campfire in a national park where fires are strictly forbidden, started two days previously. Upon our arrival, most of the park was still open so we hoped to ride through the park the following day and find a nice camping spot overlooking the lagoons and mountains, ready for new year celebrations!
At 11pm that evening the campsite manager visited all his guests with the news that the fire was spreading and was now only 15km away. There was a risk that if the fire closed in, we would be cut off from the main road by the nearby river. If we wanted to leave, we could get half our money back! Both our neighbours on both sides urgently packed up and left. As we watched, cars and motor homes drove out of the campsite one after another.
Slightly concerned, we quelled our fear by convincing ourselves that the wind had dropped and if the worse came to the worse, we would be woken up in the night and made to evacuate. We went to bed, hardly slept, and when we did, dreamt of being chased down by fire. In the morning we woke. We were still alive, the fire had not advanced and we safe and un-burnt. The park however was not un-burnt. In fact the fire spread over the entire area and the park was now completely closed. Dreams of New Years eve overlooking the Torres del Paine and glacial lagoons went up in flames!
Next plan – Pack up, again, and make the long-ish ride to El Calafate and the Perito Moreno glacier. Arrived in El Calafate town, pitched the tent, ate and slept.
Next morning – New Year’s eve – we packed up the tent again and rode out to the glacier where we braved the boardwalks and got up close and personal with a huge amount of nitrogen filled ice.
The campsite we had planned on staying in was no longer there, so we opted for the municipal park where anyone can camp for free if they are willing to go without a bathroom. Overlooking the park, the lake, and with a view of the mountains and glacier (if you squint), we set up home. No sooner had the tent gone up, the clouds came in and the rain set in – at least we felt at home! A few hours later it cleared and we were able to bring the New Year in, outside the tent. Along with a family from South Africa, we chinked glasses filled with Sider, (Chilean fizz, made from apples… possibly fizzy cider!?!), before being in bed by 12.15am ready to wake up in January 2012, thankfully to blue skies!
First day of 2012 we had decided to travel the long distance to El Chalten, another 400km.
Another almost alpine-like town with the backdrop of Mount Fitzroy towering above all else. Plus another glacier or two. A campsite at the head of Lago Desierto was beckoning, the road to which wound alongside a stunning turquoise river fed by the glacier above. The day on the bikes was full of fun, adventure and amazing scenery from first to last thing!
The next morning Chris took a hike up to the nearby glacier while Chloe rested up the knee.
In the afternoon we rode back to El Chalten village where we rested the night in yet another campsite, but did manage to make it out to a restaurant for dinner with a couple of fellow bikers from Australia, Geoff and John. Discussions were had about fuel ranges and where to get petrol between El Chalten and Perito Moreno town, some 500km north.
Next morning we were off again, in search of petrol, without a drop to be had in Tres Lagos (only empanadas and coffee) which took us to Gobenor Gregores, leaving behind the mountains and traversing the flat expansive planes of Patagonia. Quick pit stop, welding repairs/ modifications to the bikes, food, sleep (in a hostel this time), then back on the road the next day.
We were aiming to reach Bajo Caracoles by early afternoon, giving us time to go and visit the Cuevas de Manos, (cave of hands) – painted as far back as 9,000 years ago by indigenous Indians. Although Chris is holding out for the revelation that they are fake.
Endless wind is still blowing making riding off-road on gravel difficult. Now we’re heading north west, again to Chile, were we will take our chances on the Carratera Austral. Hoping the wind will not favor the west side of the Andes!
Days too scared to ride (strong winds) Chloe 1 v 1 Chris
Days scared to ride but rode anyway Chloe 4 v 2 Chris
Flat battery after leaving lights on Chloe 0 v 1 Chris
Near burning to death Chloe 1 v 1 Chris
Times chased by seals while on kayak Chloe 3 v 3 Chris
Glaciers seen Chloe 3 v 4 Chris
New trousers bought Chloe 1 v 1 Chris
New jacket bought Chloe 1 v 0 Chris
Help required from strong German Chloe 0 v 1 Chris
(to unscrew a water bottle!)