This is part 2 of a trip journal I wrote back in March 2019 during a 5 week bicycle tour in Patagonia. The amazing adventure started with two weeks on the Carretera Austral with a friend. After she went home, I pedaled solo southeast from El Chaltén to Rio Gallegos across the barren pampa, then south back into Chile and took the ferry across to the island of Tierra Del Fuego. From there I headed south on a combination of paved and gravel roads, passing back into Argentina and eventually ending at Ushuaia, the southernmost official city in the world.
I don’t usually post full trip journals here, but I thought the detail might be useful to future cyclists, so I’m experimenting. For related posts, see also:
The full route from El Chaltén south (after finishing the Carretera Austral) is shown here, with blue pins marking my camp locations:
For navigation and camping, I highly recommend the apps Maps.me and iOverlander. For more detail on cycling in the region in general, see my more organized guide on cycling the Carretera Austral.
For those who don’t mind some gravel, I highly recommend the gravel road crossing from Cameron to Rio Grande via the Bella Vista border! It was beautiful and empty, a great alternative to the highway.
Now, on with the trip report!
While I took my rest day outside the tourist office in Cerro Sombrero, the two Canadian cyclists caught up to me. It felt festive pedaling out of town with good company once again. Mostly we enjoyed a speedy tailwind, chatting when wind and traffic allowed and simply riding nearby when it didn’t. In the late afternoon our tailwind morphed into headwind and we stopped at a shack right at the junction where the paved road turned to gravel. It made for a cozy (though still very cold) night as the wind raged outside.
In the morning we battled 15km of stiff, chilly crosswind on gravel to get to the king penguin colony at Bahia Inutil. The penguins were cool to see and they seemed happy, which is what matters, but I personally found the price a bit steep for the short experience. We huddled behind a wooden windbreak, still freezing, and watched a small group of penguins stand around from rather far away.
For penguin connoisseurs, this colony is exciting because it’s the only king penguin colony outside of Antarctica. There are several other places to see penguins in Patagonia though. I’ve heard good things about the Magellanic penguins at Isla Magdelena a bit further north, which you can actually walk among (in a controlled environment that protects their habitat).
After the penguin colony it was time to part ways, as my new friends were headed back to the highway and I had decided – for unclear reasons since I had been so glad to see pavement again after finishing the Carretera – that I would cross Tierra Del Fuego on gravel backroads.
First though, I had to get to Cameron, 35km directly into the freezing coastal headwind on bad gravel. When my friends went asking around the penguin parking lot for rides (the crosswind on their route was going to be brutal too) they found one going my way instead. Did I want to hitch? Already tired and shivering in all my layers, it was a surprisingly easy answer. Five minutes later I waved bye to my friends from the back of a pickup truck occupied by a Belgian tourist and his West African wife. When we pulled over for lunch on a windy stretch of beach he noticed his tire was flat, so I worked for my ride by helping him change it. Still, we were in Cameron by early afternoon.
With a full afternoon ahead and a tailwind heading east, I rode out of Cameron instead of sleeping at the bus shelter where two French cyclists were already setting up camp. The gravel road was in good condition and the riding was surprisingly pleasant as I climbed from the rough ocean into rolling pastoral hills. Some scrappy wind-blown trees started appearing, a surprising sight after so many days of flat pampas plains. After only 35km I found a perfect campsite hidden in the forest away from the road, lots of wild guanacos my only company.
I always try to camp stealthily but one car – of only a handful all day – did catch me walking to the river for water. Like any decent person in this part of the world seems to do when finding a stranger with no vehicle dozens of miles from shelter, they offered me a ride. Of course I didn’t need one but it was nice of them to offer, especially considering their car was already quite full. Aside from that car I saw no one that evening and enjoyed a peaceful, though very cold, night of camping in an idyllic river valley.
The next day was a long one, nearly 90km on deteriorating gravel over a remote border crossing back into Argentina. After a bit of rain the weather was mostly good, and I enjoyed drinking in the vastness of this remote place. When I wrote about solitude crossing Argentina to Rio Gallegos in my last post, I had no idea. To be alone on these rarely traveled backroads, only a few cars each day, was amazing. I felt strong, capable, and at peace. I don’t think I would have had the courage to ride this route alone at the beginning of my trip, but after several weeks of feeling comfortable in this part of the world and gaining confidence in my gear and ability to cope with the roads and weather, I really enjoyed it.
The border crossing, just past the tiny settlement of Pampa Guanaco, was a sleepy place. It took awhile to track down someone to stamp my passport, which made sense once they told me I was the first foreigner to cross that day (it was 4pm). The border guys seemed bored and wanted to chat; I did my best in my horrible Spanish. Mostly what I understood was the ever-common question, “Sola?” and the typical response “Valiente!” I bet they don’t say that to all the solo guys and I’ll never truly understand what they think the difference is, but their admiration and encouragement is always genuine.
Like many people I’ve met in this sparsely populated part of the world, the border officials work a few weeks in this remote place then return to a nearby town for a few days off, then repeat. It’s a schedule that seems very common out here but must make life and family very challenging. As a few people have told me about this type of job situation: “Es complicado.”
With water from the border post I rode another 20km to a magical patch of unfenced mossy forest, far off the quiet road. In between the gnarled trees were dozens of perfect, flat, grassy tent sites. It was hard to choose! It was another beautiful quiet night of cooking my simple dinner (ravioli with lentils) and sleeping soundly in my cozy tent.
When planning this trip I knew I would be starting in the southern hemisphere’s summer, but overlooked the fact that I’d be riding farther and farther south as summer turned to autumn in this chilly part of the world. In other words, it’s been getting COLD! It felt like my fingers and toes had been numb for days. This night I tried a new technique I had read about and it worked beautifully. When I woke from the cold around 2am I used my stove to heat water, poured it into my water bottle and put it inside my sleeping bag. It felt lovely and was still warm when the sun came up five hours later. What a great new trick!
The next day was the last of the remote gravel section. Despite the beauty and solitude the bumpy corrugated road – worse after crossing to Argentina – was wearing on me. There’s a trick to riding corrugated gravel: there’s always one tire track that’s better than the others. It’s never the one you’re already in, of course, which encourages you to weave wildly back and forth across the road until you’re distracted from the fact that everything is so bumpy you can’t see straight. So I did a lot of that.
Near a large estancia I met an Argentinian cyclist coming the other way, just beginning his ride north back home. Headed to the Chilean border, he gave me oranges and peanuts that he knew would be confiscated at customs. We chatted for a bit about campsites and road conditions as a few isolated snowflakes appeared out of nowhere.
At the other end of this bumpy road was the industrial city of Rio Grande. It was nearly 15km out of the way and I didn’t need to resupply my food (I was carrying way more than needed for these remote stretches) so I had a plan to stop at the first gas station I found and use their wifi, then continue on my way. It was time to make the final route decision: ride north to Punta Arenas and my flight, or ride south to Ushuaia – the southernmost city in the world and the classic finish line for journeys in this region – and take a bus back north to my flight. Critically, it would depend on the wind forecast, which depended on me finding wifi.
The gas station was warm and modern and had almost everything I needed to regroup and hit the road again, but their wifi wasn’t working. Long story short I ended up riding into and around town, in the rain, for far longer than I wanted. After the peaceful empty roads of the past few days, Rio Grande with its confusing streets and impatient drivers was a stressful pain in the ass. Eventually I gave up and decided to spend the night in town in a little hospedaje, Black Pearl and I crammed in and gear sprawled awkwardly all around the tiny twin room.
This was when I first noticed how dialed my camping routine had become. After so many nights of wild camping (the term for camping outside a designated campground) little things like not being able to cook dinner or rinse dishes in the room, or needing to walk all the way down the long hallway to use the bathroom, were surprisingly inconvenient. It was novel to be warm without wearing all my clothes and cuddling a hot water bottle all night, but otherwise I would have preferred to camp.
Using the wifi at the hospedaje to check wind forecasts, the route planning decision made itself. To loop back north and ride all the way to my flight would mean five days of direct and brutal headwinds. By contrast two days of mostly tailwind would push me south to Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world, a bit touristy but a worthy endpoint for sure. Who am I to argue with the powerful Patagonian winds? The next morning I carefully found my way through Rio Grande’s busy streets back to highway 3 and let the wind turn me south.
The first few hours were pure cycling bliss. If there’s a heaven for cyclists it would be that ride, zooming along the flat straight road with views over the rough Atlantic Ocean and a pure tailwind motor. While riding the air seemed calm. Only when I stopped was it clear how cold and windy it actually was. I scarfed a quick lunch of five-day-old salami and cheese in the cold shelter of some roadwork materials by the highway, then hustled back on Black Pearl to get the blood flowing again. The riding was far better than the resting.
Eventually the terrain changed, as did the wind. After many days of flat plains and low hills it was breathtaking to coast around a downhill corner and find snowcapped mountains again down here at the bottom of the world. For some reason I had expected the barren pampa to simply taper off into the sea, but here were mountains like on the Careterra Austral once again.
After a speedy 120km in about five hours I camped on the edge of massive Lago Blanco. It looked like a favorite locals spot, full of campfire rings, but the sites were all empty this late in the season. I heard a few faraway voices in the night, surprising after the lovely isolated wild camps of the last few nights, but no one discovered my hidden spot in the trees.
The morning was pleasantly mild, my hands didn’t freeze breaking camp, and I got a late start after enjoying my usual breakfast in bed routine (cooking just outside my tent while sitting in my sleeping bag). As I hauled Black Pearl out of the trees back to the road, I told her “This is it! Let’s ride south and finish this thing.” We had about 100km to go to Ushuaia.
After so much straight flatness this new terrain was endlessly interesting, with hills and turns and changes in wind direction, and increasingly mountainous views. If I hadn’t already ridden the spectacular Carretera Austral the views would have stopped me in my tracks, but I was spoiled and instead they just contributed to my already euphoric mood. I bobbed my head to music, waved at cars, worked the climbs, and grinned on the descents. Sightseers and truck drivers sent the positive energy right back with honks and waves. I felt a bit nuts but very happy.
It’s hard to maintain a high like that all day, and inevitably it started to fade as traffic grew heavier. They passed in long lines of impatient sightseers stuck behind slow trucks, and impatient locals stuck behind sightseers, tailgating each other and passing illegally over double yellow lines. I quickly learned to just remove myself from the scene by edging onto the gravel shoulder whenever a long line approached. With 20km still to go I ate my last cookie in frustration.
Less than 10 minutes later two cyclists waved me over to their roadside picnic. Using my awful Spanish and a lot of creativity we had something approximating a conversation as I gratefully scarfed one of their hardboiled eggs and some of their cookies. They were two Argentinian guys from Rio Grande who had driven two cars to set up a shuttle so they could do a day ride from Tolhuin to Ushuaia. With only day packs they were riding light and stopping to take even more pictures than me. They were kind and generous and exactly what I needed before tackling the last 20km of riding as rain threatened the sunny afternoon.
The end was abrupt. The mountain highway turned a corner and there was Ushuaia, industrial on the outskirts and touristy within. It was anticlimactic even for me, and I’d only chosen it as my finish line two days prior. I wonder how all the long-haul cyclists coming from North America feel. I wandered through the supermarket in a daze, confused by all the choices, and then spent 30 minutes in line to check out (common here, someone told me the stores are understaffed because the economy is bad). Then it was a rainy search for an affordable place to stay in this expensive tourist destination.
I landed in a backpacker hostel. The price was right and they very kindly put me alone in a six bed dorm room with no other people when I asked about private room rates, giving me essentially a private room for the price of a bed. Still, the shared bathrooms and kitchen were bustling and the dorm next door was full of stereotypically obnoxious drunk young men. After so much peaceful camping and paying close attention to my sense of comfort and discomfort (a big part of how I choose routes and campsites when alone) I felt intensely uncomfortable in the hostel.
So the next morning, as soon as possible after arriving in downtown Ushuaia, I left. Up a hill about 6km from town I found a small family-owned campground where another cyclist and some hikers had also taken refuge from town. It’s funny how the brain works – I had ridden hills for most of 5 weeks but now suddenly, knowing I was officially done, it seemed almost impossible to ride up the little hill from town to the campground. But it was so worth it.
I spent the afternoon hiking to Laguna de los Témpanos and Laguna Encantada: 10 miles through ridiculously idyllic meadows and up steep muddy trails to an alpine lake where I literally put my hand on a glacier. I met other people but hiked alone and loved the feeling of fitness that comes from so much cycling, and the way my legs loosened up with the different kind of movement. Then I enjoyed one more night in my tent at the campground and a relaxed morning start before trying once again to deal with town.
Back in town I had some errands to run, including printing my bus ticket and finding some cardboard to wrap around the bike for the bus ride in hopes of being charged less by the bus company. Both turned out to be very easy. Within two blocks of my hostel I found some broken down boxes in the trash bin of some kind of travel agency. The man inside watched with a curious and friendly smile as I gave a grateful wave and made off with his trash.
Later that evening I met up once more with the Canadian cyclists, who had also just arrived in Ushuaia. For them it was the symbolic end of a four year ride all the way from their home. We shared beers and dinner and a quick stroll through the touristy part of town before saying bye for actually the last time (on this trip at least). They were good company and I’ve been glad to leapfrog with them as we all made our way south on slightly different routes and schedules.
The next morning it was easy enough to get Black Pearl on the bus, an expensive 12 hour ride to Punta Arenas in a spacious and comfy tourist coach. About two thirds of the route was rewinding roads I had cycled in the other direction. From the tall bus window the vast plains looked boring, not nearly as magical as I remembered them. We crossed back to the mainland on the ferry where I’d been given a free fare on a cold rainy day, but this time it was sunny and the decks were crowded with tourists from several busses. I got bored waiting for the 45 minute crossing to end. It seemed the spell had been broken.
Punta Arenas is a big real city, somehow surprising after passing only small towns on the Chilean portion of my ride. I headed straight for a hostel known to allow budget travelers to pitch their tents in the yard at a cheap rate, making it popular with bicycle travelers. I was warmly welcomed to wedge my tent in amongst the rest of the motley crew.
Today was bike boxing day, and it was difficult. Cardboard bike boxes for airplane travel are hard to find in this southern city where more people end their journeys than start them, thanks to those south-blowing winds. None of the bike stores had one, but finally an auto parts store that also sold cheap bicycles told me they had one and to wait a minute (I thought – Spanish still not so good). After 45 confusing minutes someone finally brought out a beautiful bike box in perfect condition. Hooray! It looked a little small but whatever, better than nothing. Well, when I got it outside next to Black Pearl I realized it was probably from one of the kids bikes I’d seen in their store display; it was too short for even her wheels. So I went scavenging through people’s trash on the streets once again. To their credit, the good people of Punta Arenas mostly didn’t look twice and one man taking out the trash at a gas station even tried to give me more boxes than I needed.
It only took about an hour, surprisingly, to take Black Pearl totally apart and jigsaw puzzle all the pieces in. Everything had to come off: both wheels, derailleur, rack, fenders. To solve the height problem I wrapped a separate piece of cardboard, which just happened to be the perfect size without any cutting needed, over the top. I’ll tape the heck out of it tomorrow when I finish packing but I’m pretty sure it’s going work!
So all that’s left is one more night in the hostel tent city, taping up the box, and meeting my airport shuttle pickup tomorrow afternoon. Wrapping up trips like this is always a little stressful, especially with the added challenge of getting the bike home, and it’s always a bit of a surprise when things actually work out.
Reflection time… The mood of this trip has been really different than the prior two (Africa and Southeast Asia). The lower population density and gorgeous scenery have put the focus firmly on solitude, camping, and enjoying wild spaces, and less on random encounters and navigating unfamiliar language and infrastructure. The locals I’ve met have been unfailingly kind and helpful, but not pushy or overly curious. There is more ethnic diversity here than in Sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia, and also more local travelers, which makes it less obvious who is tourist and who is local. Though the towns I saw definitely have some rough edges, the level of development is certainly higher than the other places I’ve traveled recently. Everything seems to mostly work as it should and I haven’t seen much obvious poverty, so things feel familiar from an economic perspective. Maybe because of all these factors, I’ve felt quite comfortable and safe here, even (or maybe especially) alone in remote places. No one seems to want anything from me here, and most don’t seem to feel I’m so different from them.
I love beautiful wild places, I love solitude (*waves introvert flag*) and obviously I like not being afraid, so I’ve spent a lot of this trip feeling pretty happy. Enjoying the companionship of Bebeth and our new Canadian friends was super fun and probably helped a lot too, tiding me over through my solo days. Usually my solo trips center solidly around type 2 fun, the kind that’s a slog while you’re in it but perversely becomes a good memory in hindsight. But a surprising amount of this trip has been type 1 fun, the kind of fun that is actually, well, fun. Or maybe type 1.5, but still, pretty good! Despite difficult riding conditions and uncomfortable weather I’ve felt upbeat and happy most days. It’s been an interesting lesson in what I like and don’t like, what comes naturally to me and what doesn’t, and what kinds of value I get out of different types of travel. Lots to think about as I absorb all this and plan my next moves. But first, time to get Black Pearl and myself back home. Thanks for reading!
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