January 6, 2005
Puerto Natales and Torres del Paines
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. I’ve
dismissed this possibility for several reasons. First, it’s quite expensive, at
almost USD$800 for the bike and me. Second, the ship runs northbound only once a
week and the dates just don’t fit my schedule. Finally, while every picture and
account of that trip that I’ve seen has been beautiful, it closely resembles
Alaska and British Columbia’s Inside Passage; a voyage that I’ve made several
times on both Alaska ferries and in small sailboats.
So that leaves the third option – 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. I’ve 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: “I
think that I might venture up La Ruta Cuarenta and the Camino Austral.” A sly
smile and a nod of approval are sure to follow.
So that’s how I find myself in Puerto Natales, Chile on December 30, 2004.
mentioned Chris & Erin Ratay (www.ultimatejourney.com) often, and since I’ll
follow in their steps for most of the next 1,000 miles (1,600km) I’m starting
with a hostel they recommended in Puerto Natales – 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 “Thomas Hunter”, in heavily accented but
perfect English. “Si”, I reply. I had made reservations in early-November; the
only reservations that I made for the entire trip, concerned that New Year’s 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? Alejandro’s 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 Year’s Day, bound for
Torres del Paine National Park, Alejandro shakes my hand and says “goodbye
Thomas, have a safe journey.” 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! I’ll 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
don’t have hiking boots or appropriate gear for such a trek. (So why, again, do
I feel a need to justify this nap?)
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. I’ve 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 “around-the-world” 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.