Friday, June 22, 2012

Beyond "Ushuaia": no longer cycling, but still travelling (April 13 - May 3, 2012)

Ushuaia acted as both meeting place and scene of many goodbyes.  Doug and Chris returned to Philadelphia; Sonja flew back to Switzerland after several years on the road; Tom headed to Norway via England; Guillermina returned to Buenos Aires; Greg set off to visit Peninsula Valdes on the Atlantic Coast and Buenos Aires before returning to New York; Jason and Craig headed to Buenos Aires and soon after back to the States; Cat and Jeff headed towards Peninsula Valdes before Cat would return to Kenya and Jeff would pass through Mar del Plata and Mendoza before heading back to the States...

But Ushuaia, having been the destination for so long, is not actually the end of our trip.  There is some irony in this... Ushuaia itself is located over 2500km (over 1500 miles) from Buenos Aires and the nearest airport of any importance.  Which means, of course, that one must get from Ushuaia to Buenos Aires (or further) to REALLY end the trip.  Even more complicated with a bicycle. 

Most travellers go by air, which is an expensive flight (at least $250 plus extra baggage/bike fees).  Since Jason and Jeff haven't worked in nearly 3 years, Tom is broke, Craig hasn't worked in nearly 2 years, and Cat and Greg are on limited budgets, dropping hundreds of dollars for a minor flight before a major flight is not an attractive option.  So we all decide to hitchhike from Ushuaia to Buenos Aires, albeit in separate parties...    

the road to Buenos Aires starts right here, Highway 3 at the entrance to Ushuaia.  Those tractor-trailers are our first and greatest hope, as we have heard rumors that with a little luck and patience you can find drivers who will take you from Ushuaia to Buenos Aires in one fell swoop.

...We left Ushuaia on a gorgeous and majestic morning, snow-capped peaks rising above the Beagle Channel...
using the bike to get to a good hitching spot (photo: Cat Magill)

Jeff and Cat got picked up here at the entrance to Ushuaia.  This first ride would take us to Rio Grande, a good start.

(photo: Cat Magill)
Unfortunately, Rio Grande is kind of a hitching nightmare.  We stuck out 6 hours of hitching (spread over 2 days) in really cold temps and wind before we got out of here.  The problem is, with two loaded bikes, the only possibilities are empty pick-up trucks, open-bed trailers, and truckers.  Which means you need a lot of patience.  We nearly lost our minds here, but we were saved in the end.

the shield of the province of Tierra del Fuego

just after sunrise in Rio Grande

a glance towards the Atlantic as we head towards San Sebastian

arrived at the border at San Sebastian, this truck picked us up and took us beyond Tierra del Fuego up to Rio Gallegos

our passports were abused by so many crossings of the Chile/Argentina border (13 in all since December)

the friendly driver (Diego) who took us to Rio Gallegos.  Like many Argentine truck drivers (as we would learn), he started trucking at the age of 16 or so.

crossing the Straits of Magellan again

chatting it up with the Chilean ferry crew

awesome silhouette (cab plus two loaded bikes!) backed by Argentine pampa

From Rio Gallegos, we hitched out from the police post.  The Argentine police, in what is an incredible surprise for any American accustomed to abusive and harassing American police, actually HELP hitchhikers to find rides.

the long Highway 3 as it parallels the Atlantic Coast northbound (photo: Greg Altman)

From Rio Gallegos we got really lucky.  We were picked up by a beer truck (empty bottles), which would take us all the way to Puerto Madryn about 1200km north.

Jeff, Cat, and Christian

Christian runs bottles between Bahia Blanca and Rio Gallegos

He is also a prolific mate drinker (mate holder mounted on dashboard near steering column)

Christian heats his mate water just forward of his stick shift, on a portable heating pad.  He does this as he drives - no small feat - which involves steering with his forearms and elbows and a delicate balancing act while he pours almost-boiling water into his mate cup.  While this may appear dangerous, it is common among Argentine truck drivers.

It must be said that flying down the highway, drinking mate, listening to Argentine folk music and sharing travel and life stories while sunset unfolds over the pampa is not a bad way to go.

From Puerto Madryn we cycled the 100km east to Puerto Pyramides (seen here), located on Peninsula Valdes.

Our first stop on the peninsula is the sea lion colony outside P. Pyramides

...these sea lions are snorting, grunting, and bellowing ceaselessly (photo: Cat Magill)...

... sunset skies on Peninsula Valdes... Puerto Pyramides we were welcomed by the local fire company...
 (photo: Cat Magill)

 Sergio, the most outgoing of the firemen, prepared us meals of fish and shrimp and regaled us with stories and local lore (photo: Cat Magill)

Peninsula Valdes, located on the Atlantic Coast of Patagonia, is legendary for its wildlife populations.  Southern right whales (unfortunately we are in the wrong season), elephant seals, orca whales, sea lions, Magellan penguins, and loads of sea birds are all found here in abundance.

the singular shape of Peninsula Valdes.  The red box is Caleta Valdes, our (unplanned) next destination...

intending to hitch to Punta Norte, instead our first ride took us to this estancia at Caleta Valdes (photo: Cat Magill)

 our host, Parmer (photo: Cat Magill), helps maintain the estancia, which he has been doing for over 40 years. 

Parmer shows us around the sheep pens and shearing facilities at the estancia  (photo: Cat Magill)

the owner of the estancia owns 30000! sheep on the peninsula (photo: Cat Magill)

 many-decades-old buildings at the estancia

one of Parmer's pals

the sublime setting of Caleta Valdes

luckily for us, the Magellan Penguin colony is located just next to the estancia

Unlike our quest to see Magellan Penguins in Chile, we got lucky here, as some of the penguins hadn't migrated yet (photo: Cat Magill)

...expressive penguin waking from his nap and stretching (photos: Cat Magill)...

The penguins nest in small burrows in the hillside, just meters from where we are standing

Caleta Valdes is also known for its incredible Elephant Seal viewing.  Although these pictured are juveniles, full grown males can attain 5 tons in weight and 20 feet in length.

When we returned to the estancia, Parmer had generously caught and prepared us a meal of fresh fish:

 (photos: Cat Magill)
breaded and fried and absolutely delicious

luminous sunrise over Caleta Valdes

armadillo seen at Punta Norte

  Punta Norte is famous for its onshore sightings of orca whales attacking juvenile sea lions.  We saw an orca approaching a sea lion colony, but no attacks.  Greg on the other hand, who was here two weeks before us, saw a series of repeated (and successful) orca attacks one afternoon.

...back in Puerto Pyramides, Sergio gives Jeff detailed instructions on how to prepare mate correctly  (photos: Cat Magill)...

Sergio decided Jeff's pants - used clothes bought in Antigua, Guatemala's public market 18 months previous and taken through hell and back - were worthy of display (photo: Cat Magill)

father-and-son truckers picked us up at Puerto Madryn, heading north

...we made it 45 km before the truck broke down after a series of spasms...
...stranded roadside, truck status: BAD... 
we decided to move on and leave dad-and-son behind

...this trucker plucked us off the road and took us forward...

another pampa sunset seen from cab windows

At midnight in Bahia Blanca, Cat heads off in this truck to Buenos Aires and on to Kenya

Jeff continued towards Necochea, getting a ride in this pickup truck

Luis Ugolini, father of Santiago Ugolini, Jeff's former flatmate in Barcelona.  Luis has agreed to watch Jeff's bike for the next 5 months...

now reduced to a backpacker with a guitar

hitching from Mar del Plata to Mendoza, Jeff saw this "hot water" machine at a truck stop on the road.  Nearly every trucker refills their thermos at these points so they can drink mate while resting and while driving.

This friendly trucker took Jeff from Mar del Plata to Bahia Blanca.  Hitching with truck drivers in Argentina is an excellent way to learn the culture and diversity of the country.  These guys are from all corners of Argentina and often know the country like the back of their hands. 

a kindred spirit.  Juan is a young Argentine who is hitching north to Missiones.

...street dog hanging out with us friendly hitchhikers...

visiting friend Jesica Sarmiento in Mendoza

finally, on May 3rd, 2012, the flight back, an emphatic end to 34 months of travel... this leg from Mendoza to Santiago, Chile passes over the highest peaks in the hemisphere... passing close by Aconcagua and Tupungato and over the phenomenal Andes...