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Pucon, Chile
January 10, 2005

Ruta 40 Ė Part 2

At Perito Moreno Glacier,
Los Glaciares NP, Argentina

Moreno Glacier at a distanceIn the foreground are small trees that resemble a huckleberry, but with a smaller leaf, and grow to a height of 10 Ė15í (3 Ė 4m). They soften the glare of brilliant sunshine reflecting from solid ice.

Just beyond the trees and far below, lies an expense of rock, 500í (150m) across perhaps, and scoured clean by the advance and retreat of the glacier over the years. It must have covered them recently because no vegetation presently grows there. And beyond the rocks the face of the glacier rises to the advertised height of nearly 200í (60+m), although a middle section appears much higher. A small section where the glacier has carried gravel with it is a dirty gray; almost black in spots. The rest of the face is so purely white, although with a distinctly blue tint to it caused by eons of pressure, that when I remove my polarized glasses, I canít view it for some time.

Every few minutes a crack like a rifle shot shatters the silence, and tons of ice falls to the rocks and water below.

Huge fractures define the face of this immense wall of ice. From my vantage point, perhaps 1,000í (300m) away, they appear no wider that half the width of my fist extended at armís length, but knowing the height of the wall, surely each section is as large as a house. Some blocks are pinnacles soaring to the sky; the size of a 20-story office building. Others appear as the spires of an exquisite cathedral.

The 200-foot tall face of Moreno Glacier from about 1,000 feet awayOverlooking this jumble of ice, rocky peaks with vegetation to half their height pierce the blue sky. Close to the summits, bowls hold snow deposits, substantial in their own right, but that pale in comparison to the immense and spectacular wall of ice in the foreground. In the furthest views, the glacier climbs like an elevator to the stars, its movement imperceptibly slow, far up the flanks of the very highest peaks; peaks that could be 5 or 20 miles (8 Ė 30km) away. Itís hard to tell. Cirrus clouds occasionally fill an otherwise clear blue sky.

It was 75F degrees in the parking lot, but the temperature has easily fallen 15F - 20F degrees as I approached the viewing area. Tourists of all ages speak a dozen tongues. Colorful backpacks are ubiquitous, as is the camera equipment from Kodak, Nikon and Canon. Weíve all come to partake of natureís visual feast that is Perito Moreno.

While in Puerto Natales, I determined from my map that the 280 miles (500km) north from Torres del Paines N.P. to Perito Moreno Glacier will mostly be gravel, but as Iíve mentioned previously, the roads in South America are being rapidly upgraded, and all but a 100 miles turn out to be paved. What a treat. Even the wind cooperates for a change as it is relatively calm for at least half the distance, with the blowing not starting in earnest until mid-afternoon. I camp near Perito Moreno Glacier, then spend a night in El Calafate before continuing my ride north up Ruta 40 and on to the Carretera Austral.

North up Ruta 40

Itís 460 miles (750km) from El Calafate (the town closest to Los Glaciares N.P.) north on Ruta 40 to the Chilean border at Los Antiguos, then roughly another 400 miles (700km) north up the Carretera Austral. [Note: I previously called this road in Chile the Camino Austral, because thatís the name that Lonely Planet uses. However, locally, the term Carretera is used. Iíll use that term as well.) From the discussions that Iíve had with other travelers, virtually all of this is gravel.

The featuerless landscape of Ruta 40, north of Tres Lagos, western Patagonia, ArgentinaThe distances are much too far and the conditions too unpredictable, for me to approach this in anything but sections, and the first piece is to the Chilean border at Los Antiguos. I buy a 10-liter gas container in El Calafate, because itís said that thereís no gas in the 240-miles (400km) between Tres Lagos and the settlement of Bajo Caracoles. Under normal circumstances I could just make that 240 miles (400km) (six gallons x 40mpg) but Iíve been averaging around 37mpg in the wind. Itís Tuesday morning when I head north, not to Bajo Caracoles, which I think is a stretch for a one-day ride on gravel, but to Las Horquetas about 50 miles (80km) closer. On my map by Las Horquetas is marked Hotel cerrado, and I hope to spend the night there, although interestingly enough, Chris and Erin stayed fairly close by, and didnít mention the hotel.

When the pavement ends at the intersection of Ruta 40, less than 20 miles (30km) east of El Calafate, I drop the pressure in both tires and point the Beemer toward Tres Lagos and gas, another 80 miles (130km) further north. The road winds around the east end of Lago Argentino and parallels Rio La Leona, before enjoying views into glaciers at the west end of Lago Viedma. The wind picks up. This is the only road from Los Glaciares N.P. to the town of El Chalten, and Mt. Fitz Roy, a major tourist destination nearby, so even though the surface is rough, itís well traveled. Buses and 4x4 ďoverland tour vehiclesĒ mix it up with the odd rental car. At least a half dozen vehicles per hour pass by; freeway-level traffic on these roads.

There is precious little out here except some nice rock formations, an infrequent sign pointing down a dirt road to an estancia many miles away, or the occasional building abandoned as a hotel or restaurant. The latter are surely someoneís dream, which fell victim to low traffic counts. It seems all so inevitable. But by 2:30pm Iíve covered the 100 miles (160km) to Tres Lagos, and have taken the time to both gas up and eat lunch. Iíve also remembered to fill my extra 10-liter tank. I should be able to ride the 150 miles (250km) to Hotel cerrado by 7pm, and at about 250 miles (400km) total, that will make a nice day of riding on gravel. I press on.

Iím counting on Hotel cerrado because there are very few places to stay out here. Eric and Gail Haws (my friends from Oregon, introduced earlier) stayed at an estancia named La Siberia (just the very name conjures up a warm fire and comfy bed!) on an earlier trip, but at only 80 miles (130km) north of Tres Lagos, itís a bit soon for me and I continue on. The road changes from packed dirt, to washboard and back. I adjust my speed to reflect the current conditions. The wind howls. Iíve heard that camping may be possible another 40 miles (70km) further on at Estancia La Verde (The Green Ranch, but the Spanish is so much more poetic), but Iím making good time on the rough road and not only am I shooting for Las Horquetas, but Iím starting to think that I can make the additional 55 miles (90km) to Bajo Caracoles. Besides, a nice hotel room seems like more my style tonight. To mitigate the danger of the 20-pound fuel bomb that Iíve strapped to the back of the bike, I empty the 10 liters into my gas tank in two separate stops.

North of La Siberia Ruta 40 traverses a particularly flat and desolate part of western Patagonia. The foothills are far away and the land is featureless. Rarely is there a view west to the snow-covered peaks of the Andes. This landscape defines forsaken.

Looking backwards on Ruta 40, south of Bajo CaracolesChris and Erin pitched their tent in an abandoned building at Casa Tamel Aike, a town marked on the map. I had been warned that not much was there, and I can confirm that a house is all that exits. A man waives as I pass by. A few head of cattle graze on a nearby hillside. Chris and Erinís abandoned building still stands across the road. If it was later in the day and I was more tired, it surely would work as an emergency campsite. At least you would be out of the wind. But gosh, what an awful place.

For the past few dozen miles, the road has changed back and forth from packed dirt on which I can sometimes exceed 50mph to the worst washboard with grapefruit-sized stones, on which 10mph is barely possible. By now my mind is set on Bajo Caracoles. The hotel, my original destination, is less than 10 miles (15km) away, and itís not yet 6pm. An Africa Twin rider that I met earlier in the trip made it from El Calafate to Bajo Caracoles in one day. Iím starting to believe that I can do likewise.

Itís almost 6:30pm when I arrive at Las Horquetas, and find nothing but an intersection that points me to Estancia La Oriental and Perito Mereno N.P., both over 50 miles away, to the west. Iím surprised by the absence of the hotel but maps are sometimes wrong, and of course, things change. Iím clearly shooting for Bajo Caracoles now, which Iíve been told has gas and a restaurant, although thereís been no mention of lodging. Iíve decided that Iíll pitch my tent any place that I can find thatís out of the wind.

Cloud cover has settled in, and itís gotten cold, even though the sun wonít set for at least three hours. Iím wearing five layers on top, and three on the bottom. My handlebar heaters are set to full on. The wind is howling, and with the sun hiding, itís a lethal combination. Although Iím in no danger, it is quite uncomfortable. By focusing on just the next ten miles, I count down the distance. When I check my odometer, perhaps two miles have passed. A few minutes later, perhaps two or three more. Usually I check the odometer four or five times before ten miles (15km) passes. At 60 miles (90km) I focus on getting to 50 (80km). At 40 miles (70km) I focus on getting to 30 (50). The road continues north, one rock and pothole at a time.

Of course I make Bajo Caracoles. Iím in by about 8:30. It takes ten hours to ride the 320 miles (500km) north from El Calafate. It turns out that there are two places (I just canít bring myself to describe them as anything that might pass for a hotel) that provide lodging, but both are full. I camp, but at least I get out of the wind. Dinner with a Brazilian radiologist is the high point of my day. He is in the middle of a 25-day tour of Patagonia with a colleague, two 4x4 Land Cruises and two drivers. He attended a year of high school in the United States as an AFS participant.

I donít remember undressing when I crawled into the tent at 10pm, but the next morning Iím in my sleeping bag. I guess I did. Who would know?

North of Bajo Caracoles

The settlement of Bajo CaracolesWhen I leave Bajo Caracoles on Wednesday morning, the road is actually worse than it was on Tuesday. The saving grace is that itís also a much shorter trip. It takes me 4 Ĺ hours to complete the 80 miles (130km) to the town of Perito Moreno, although that includes stopping on the roadside and talking to a Swiss motorcyclist for 20 minutes. He is headed south from Alaska to Ushuaia on his Honda Transalp, after leaving Alaska in August. That all sounds vaguely familiar. Heís surprised when I mention that Iím an American, and says that Iím the only American motorcyclist that heís met during his travels through Latin America.

I catch another break. The road west to Los Antiguos on the Chilean border is paved. I clear customs, catch the ferry across Lago Buenos Aires with minutes to spare, ride in the snow for a few minutes over the high Andes pass just west of Puerto Ibanez and arrive in Coyhaique, Chile by 8pm. Itís the following day when it finally occurs to me that cerrado is the Spanish word for closed. No wonder Hotel cerrado wasnít capitalized on my map.