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Coyhaique, Chile
January 6, 2005

Puerto Natales and Torres del Paines

The granite spires of Torre del Paines N.P. are clearly visibleThere are three ways that I can leave Ushuaia. One is to retrace my steps up Ruta 3 and fight the wind again for a few hundred miles before turning west and heading for the Argentine city of San Carlos de Bariloche, and from there across into Chile and north to Santiago. However, for some very obvious reasons, the opportunity to ride north on Ruta 3 is not appealing.

The second two possibilities both involve riding to Puerto Natales, Chile, 500 miles (800km) north of Ushuaia. From there, option two means boarding the Navimag ship that spends four days and three nights threading the Chilean Inside Passage to Puerto Montt, some 650 miles (1,000km) south of Santiago. Iíve dismissed this possibility for several reasons. First, itís quite expensive, at almost USD$800 for the bike and me. Second, the ship runs northbound only once a week and the dates just donít fit my schedule. Finally, while every picture and account of that trip that Iíve seen has been beautiful, it closely resembles Alaska and British Columbiaís Inside Passage; a voyage that Iíve made several times on both Alaska ferries and in small sailboats.

So that leaves the third option Ė La Ruta Cuarenta (Ruta 40). Route 40, as we would call it, traverses western Argentina for over 3,000 miles (5,000km) from La Quiaca on the Bolovian border in the north to Rio Gallegos in the south. While being upgraded quickly, much of the route through Patagonia remains unpaved. Iíve chosen Ruta 40 partially because the other two options have drawbacks and partially because Ruta 40 and its counterpart in Chile (the Camino Austral) are a rite of passage, of sorts, for long distance motorcycle riders. With the bikers in Ushuaia it would have been much too brazen to announce that you were taking Ruta 40 and the Camino Austral to Puerto Montt. Rather, when asked by a fellow traveler how you would get to Santiago, you might respond: ďI think that I might venture up La Ruta Cuarenta and the Camino Austral.Ē A sly smile and a nod of approval are sure to follow.

So thatís how I find myself in Puerto Natales, Chile on December 30, 2004.

Gas station close to the Chile/Argentina border crossing at Cero CastilloIíve mentioned Chris & Erin Ratay (www.ultimatejourney.com) often, and since Iíll follow in their steps for most of the next 1,000 miles (1,600km) Iím starting with a hostel they recommended in Puerto Natales Ė Dos Lagunas, owned by Alejandro and Andrea.

When I ring the doorbell at the unpretentious two-story house, Alejandro looks down from the upstairs balcony and says ďThomas HunterĒ, in heavily accented but perfect English. ďSiĒ, I reply. I had made reservations in early-November; the only reservations that I made for the entire trip, concerned that New Yearís Eve might be a tough time to find a room.

As Alejandro shows me my room, I must admit to being somewhat under-whelmed. Along with a chair and nightstand, a single bed against the wall is the only embellishment to otherwise drab surroundings. The baths (2 of them) are down the hall, shared with three couples. A kitchen and common area, both available for me to use, complete the amenities. There is a garage for the bike. It is high season in southern Chile, but the USD$14 seems quite steep.

Over the next two days, though, as I get to know Alejandro and his guests, my opinion begins to change. A Scottish couple stays here for two days then returns after their four-day trek in nearby Torre del Paines. A Dutch couple leaves another hostal when a spot at Dos Lagunas opens up. I see Alejandro in action: drinking whiskey with his guests well into the evening. Along with Andrea, personally cooking breakfast. Want more? Just ask. Want eggs and ham in addition to the standard bread and jam? Just ask. Have a question about a local trip or tour? Alejandro has a brochure. Need a reservation? Alejandroís on the phone. Need an ATM, laundry service or a bike mechanic? Alejandro has a solution. Quickly, the room seems acceptable, and the common areas quite nice. He had visited my website before I arrived, and I never hear him at loss for the name of a guest. In less than two days I evolve from paying boarder to valued houseguest. What a touch.

As I back my BMW out of the garage and pull away on New Yearís Day, bound for Torres del Paine National Park, Alejandro shakes my hand and says ďgoodbye Thomas, have a safe journey.Ē I believe I see a hint of a tear in the corner of his eye. I know that I leave a friend behind in Puerto Natales.

I ride the 85 miles (135km) miles to Torre del Paines (this national park is in Chile), mostly on gravel, have my tent set up and am down for my nap by 2pm. What a life! Iíll be spending the next few days in national parks, and have decided to camp for a couple of nights. I carry a tent and sleeping bag (as well as a small stove and other camping equipment), but while I use the sleeping bag every night, the tent is normally reserved only for emergencies.

To shoehorn the nap into my (busy) schedule I have to pass on a six to eight hour hike to the granite pinnacles from which the park gets its name (Towers of Paine). They extend upwards about 6,000 feet (1,800m) from the surrounding grassland, and are quite spectacular. A beautiful, clear day while riding in, the towers have been clearly visible, so the nap is an easy choice. Anyway, I donít have hiking boots or appropriate gear for such a trek. (So why, again, do I feel a need to justify this nap?)

Beautiful Lake Argentino, formed from the runoff of the Moreno and Upsala GlaciersItís late afternoon when Hans, an Austrian motorcyclist about my age, stops by on his KTM. Our conversation includes stories of his several months touring South America. As an aside, for the motorcyclists reading this material, the KTM 940 (950?) that has just come available in the United States, is a popular choice with many European bikers, particularly the Germans. Iíve seen several of them on this segment of the trip. Corine, a 30-ish Australian backpacker who is heading home to live in Melbourne after a seven-year stay in London, is in the next campsite. She is traveling on an ďaround-the-worldĒ ticket that includes stops in Europe, Asia and both North and South America. We share an informal dinner of vegetable soup and bread. The more I travel, the more I like the company of travelers, and enjoy their stories.

I break camp and pack the bike early Monday morning, hoping to complete the 300 miles (500km) to Los Glaciares National Park, near the Argentine town of El Calafate (350 miles [600km] northwest of Rio Gallegos, for those of you following on a map) in time to camp early. The principal attraction in Los Glaciares is Perito Moreno and Upsala glaciers and their surrounding ice fields.