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Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego, Argentina
December 28, 2004

Ruta 3 Ė on to Rio Gallegos

To Camarones

Argentina Ruta 3 in eastern PatagoniaI write and enjoy a walk on the beach with my free day, but Iíve added a penguin colony south of Trelew to my itinerary and Iím planning an early start on Tuesday morning.

As I pack the bike, a man emerges from a 90-ish, yellow Mercedes sedan and stops to talk. His baby is in a stroller while his attractive young wife continues to pack the car. Admiring the bike, he wonders about the places that Iíve traveled. He is a petroleum engineer from the Patagonian city of Comodoro Rivadavia, in the heart of Argentinaís oil fields, which I will pass through in a day or two. In the course of our conversation he advises me with some pride that Argentina is self-sufficient in petroleum production, and even exports a little to neighboring countries. He also notes that the price of gasoline will drop in half as I enter the petroleum region; a welcome relief I note, even though gasoline prices are not unreasonable in Argentina. (Note: outside the oil regions, the price for Super unleaded is approximately two pesos per liter. That translates to about USD$2.50 per American gallon.) In a quick poke at my New England friends, he speaks excellent English in spite of having lived in Boston for three years. He doesnít say why he was there. However, he offers that he owned a motorcycle for several years and sold it to raise a family. What a strange concept.

As I clear the pueblo of Las Grutas and nose the big twin south on Ruta 3, Iím headed for Trelew, about 250 miles (400km) south, and from there down sixty miles (100km) of gravel to the Magellanic Penguin Colony at Punta Tombo. I hope to continue south on gravel to the very small village of Camarones, and then back to pavement north of Comodoro Rivadavia. It appears to be a 120-mile (200km) detour on gravel, but itís not every day that you get to visit penguins.

A penguin convention?The wind, blowing directly from the west, and hitting me on the ride hand side as I ride south, has picked up considerably. The bike is starting to move around with the gusts, and even the steady wind has the bike heeled to the right at an angle of ten degrees or more. I continue the long, monotonous ride through the scrublands that are eastern Patagonia. (Note: Patagonia is not a political district, but rather an area of southern Argentina below the Rio Negro and above the province of Tierra del Fuego. It encompasses three Argentine provinces. Spectacular in the west along the Andes, Patagonia is a virtual wasteland in the east.)

As an aside here, for you non-motorcyclists, we need to talk about the effects of the wind on a bike. In any vehicle, the wind tries to push you in the direction that itís blowing. Itís just more pronounced on two wheels. Obviously, if itís blowing from west to east, it pushes you east. To compensate on a bike, you lean the bike into the wind. So if the wind is blowing from the west (in this case) you compensate by leaning the bike to the west to ensure that it continues south in a straight line. Although the effect of the wind is different, the lean is essentially the angle of heel that you experience on a sailboat. As the wind picks up, then, you are going in a straight line while the top of the bike is slightly to the west (several inches, depending on the velocity) of the wheels where they make contact with the pavement. At low velocities itís no big deal, but as the speed increases, riding gets a bit dicey.

We also need to temporarily leave the road for three quick geography lessons. This first lesson has little to do with this story, but itís interesting. Most of us living in the United States and Canada think of South America as being directly south of us. Thatís not correct. The west of South America is actually directly south of the United Statesí eastern seaboard. Lima, Peru, on the west coast of South America is directly south of Miami, Florida. The time zone for Buenos Aires is five hours east of Seattle and Los Angeles, but only three hours west of London. Of course, you geography buffs will already know all this.

These are strange birds!The second and third lessons have direct bearing on the story. First, the continent narrows dramatically as you move south. At least 3,000 miles (5,000km) wide at Brazil and Peru, it narrows to less than a few hundred miles in southern Patagonia. Second, other than Antarctica, South America is the landmass that juts furthest south in the world. Cape Horn (South America) is at 52 degrees south, while the Cape of Good Hope in southern Africa barely exceeds 35 degrees south and the southern tip of Australia doesnít exceed 40 degrees south. Only the southern island of New Zealand, a small landmass and far away, is close to this extreme latitude.

Sailors speak of the area between 40 and 50 degrees south as ďthe roaring forties.Ē There is virtually no landmass to stop the winds, and once they get going, they roar around the world, unimpeded. Patagonia, much of it situated in the roaring 40s, is known to have some of the highest winds on earth. Frommerís Guide Book says that velocities of 100 mph (160kph) are common, and 120 mph (200km) have been recorded. Here is an explanation from the web site Weathernotebook.com. ďThe scientific explanation for the strong winds is that Antarctica, close by (and a huge landmass), is covered by ice and snow that produce very low temperatures; much lower than in the Northern Hemisphereís polar region. The extreme thermal contrast between Antarctica and the equator produces intense winds between 38 and 50 degrees south latitude.Ē

Letís get back on the road. At Trelew I miss the road signs for the gravel to Punta Tombo, but with my small-scale map, itís 25 miles (40km) before Iím sure. There is another penguin colony at Cabo Dos Bahias near Camarones, and at the end of a paved road. Never all that interested in riding gravel when I donít have to, itís not hard to talk myself into continuing south on the pavement. In due course, though, I come upon a second road, and a sign that says 30 miles (55km) to Punta Tombo. Embarrassed at how quickly I have abandoned my plan I turn right, onto the gravel, and toward my original destination. The gravel is just horrible; loose and as deep as six to eight inches between the tracks.

I stop to consult my Lonely Planet guide. As I read further it says that Punta Tombo is over-run with tourists, while you get Cabo Dos Bahias (near Camarones) virtually to yourself. Iíve already reduced the air pressure in my tires, but I quickly turn around and pump the tires back up using the small compressor that I carry. Itís an easy decision. The wind is brutal now, easily gusting to 40 or 50 mph on occasion, but Iím careful and continue south to the turn-off and the 40 miles (70km) of pavement into Camarones, where I spend the night, and visit the penguin colony in the mornng.

View of the South Atlantic Ocean from the colony(By the way, the penguin colony, at the end of 16 miles [30km] of gravel road is very interesting. I have it to myself except for one couple. Iíll send two pictures for Scott to post to the web site. They are strange little creatures.)

At Camarones, Iím still 1,100 miles (1,800km) from Ushuaia and after seeing the penguins itís almost noon on Wednesday before I pull out of town. I plan to be in Ushuaia by Christmas Eve to allow myself four days of rest and relaxation before leaving for Chile. I need to keep moving. I check my tires before I leave, and assure myself that Iíll easily make the city of Rio Gallegos and plan to install the Continental TKC-80s that Iíve been carrying since Buenos Aires.