The Road to Patagonia - Part 1
Article words and images by Matt Bailey
Episode One: We was robbed
A bit like the opening scenes of a classic feature, the characters of the story gradually get to know each other, asking similar questions, and nervously wondering what lies ahead. The cast of this particular road movie has gathered in Santiago, Chile for a Globebusters motorcycle tour of Patagonia. Together we’re a bunch of random bikers of varying ages and skills, thrown together by the desire to ride through Patagonia, one of the most beautiful and remote areas of the planet. Our ride will take us south through Chile and Argentina, along the beautiful Careterra Austral, and the infamous and treacherous Ruta 40. We'll get to Tierra del Fuego and Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world, before returning north to Buenos Aires.
First, though, we need our bikes, which have been shipped from England to Valparaiso in western Chile. On a grey and cool Monday we take minibuses to the port, passing giant ‘Paris Collection’ lingerie adverts, which fail to lighten a subdued atmosphere caused by BBC World Service warnings of severe weather on our route South. In Valparaiso, things take a turn for the worse when one of our team has a bag stolen, the thief escaping with laptop, mobile telephone, cash, bike keys and documents, and worse of all, his passport. What followed was a frenzy of bureaucratic gymnastics, conducted elegantly by the British Consul. The Policia, Policia Internacional, and the hotel were all brought under control by the Consuls calm confidence. The passport was replaced, and photocopies of bike documents were legalised. All without fuss.
On the walls of the Consul's office were large paintings of the Royal Family, the Queen as a young woman, and large brass plaques from former offices of the consul. The whole experience was a reassuring antidote to the theft itself, and our victim was able to tentatively accept that he could continue his adventure to the end of the world. Our bikes were liberated within a day, and our happy troupe began to prepare for the journey ahead. The bikes are almost all from the BMW GS stable, complete with knobbly tyres and some very unnecessary brushed aluminium accessories that will probably fall off en-route anyway. However, there are interlopers in the shape of two fine Honda Africa Twins, posing the question “Why did Honda stop building them?” My own steed is Jess, an 1150 GS Adventure (in the slightly faster black), with just shy of 100,000 miles on the clock, but still a fine filly.
So, one morning we roll gently away from the hotel, and merge into the early morning Valparaiso traffic. It feels quite peculiar, suddenly riding again, not in the gloomy damp English winter, but in a South American spring. The crystal blue sea glints brightly in the sunshine, and tense nerves ease as the miles go by, and we pass by the port and head inland. We are instant celebrities, and faces squeeze out of the windows of cars and buses, straining to see these over-dressed astronauts on big motorcycles. Rounding the headland we take Ruta 68 East briefly before turning south towards the port of St Antonio where we thread our way through the industrial hubbub and onto Ruta 66 (yes), before picking up speed on Ruta 5 south. Ruta 5 is essentially a motorway, and the road and the rolling wine country scenery resembles Spain although there are Peage tolls that initially cause glove fumbling delays, but after the twentieth or so we develop a system, and slip through quickly.
After every one hundred miles or so we stop and take tea in one of the excellent Copec service stations. Here fuel pumps still have attendents, and everything is clean, betraying the strong German influence in Chile. Our celebrity status grows, and groups of curious people gaze at the bikes and the stickers adorning their panniers from far-flung places in the world. Everyone wants to know where we’re from, where we’re going, and if we like it in Chile. People of all ages are enthusiastically friendly and we are made to feel very welcome, as young women drape themselves over the bikes and their friends take photographs that would worry their parents.
Our journey end for the day is the idyllic beauty spot of Salto de Laja. Huge waterfalls thunder hundreds of feet over a curved cliff, and spray billows up from the plunge pool below. Our cabins overlook the falls so closely that the noise of the water almost (but not quite) drowns out the noise of my roommate snoring. The riders nerves have calmed, and a day on the bike has brought grins to the fore. Tomorrow we head south again towards Osorno, and the gateway to Patagonia.
Episode Two - Steaks and Warm Welcomes
Patagonia has a reputation for wild weather, and as we awoke next to the falls at Salto de Laja, there seemed to be as much water coming down from the sky as there was in the falls. Just a moment outside resulted in complete saturation, but being adventurous types we breakfasted, donned the waterproofs, and headed south again for Osorno, gateway to Patagonia. Osorno is a medium sized Chilean town with a strong Germanic influence though for us it simply represented our last chance to buy any tyres and spares that we might need on the road ahead. The further south we were to travel the more rural it would become, and parts would not be available. Consequently we bought some spare tyres of the knobbly variety, and relaxed in a pleasant café.
The following morning I had another impromptu photocall. This time a beautiful dark haired Chilean model wanted her photograph taken with the bikes to impress her friends. (Yes, really) Tough life, adventuring. Our onward journey on a cold and damp morning provided our first real riding challenge. The border, 100km East of Osorno, had been closed on the previous day due to heavy snowfall, and there was serious doubt that we could make it through, but we weren’t easily deterred, and besides, some of us had nice new knobbly tyres, so we were bound to be ok.
On we went, up into the mountains. Lush green fields and warm air gave way to pine fresh air and brown and white scenery, and as we gained altitude, the temperature dropped. At the Chilean border post it was mountain quiet and raining steadily. Fingers and chins were already numb with cold. There was little traffic, so no queues at the Aduana desks thankfully, and we spent longer talking with a carload of Chilean women who were curious about the crazy people riding motorcycles in this weather. They were heading the same way as us, and so we all proceeded carefully ever upward, away from the Chilean border post, and across the range to the Argentine post, 20km away.
The rain gave way to sleet, then snow, and an eerie silence fell over everything, but on we went. The snow began to settle on the screens of the bikes, then freeze on visors, and we were riding through settled snow and ice on the winding pass, and proceeded with buttock clenching caution. Some of the riders fell behind, and I stopped to allow them to catch up. With the engine off there was complete silence. Nothing stirred. When the others caught up they couldn’t stop and simply went on, afraid to apply any form of braking at all. Somehow we made it through the snow, and arrived at the Argentine border post to enjoy the shelter it offered. Our Chilean friends, astonished at our survival, offered us hot coffee from their flask in exchange for photographs with the bikes. Not to be outdone, the young Argentine border officer climbed aboard one of the bikes and had her picture taken too. Border formalities were straightforward and fast, and we spent far longer taking pictures and talking than filling in forms. Welcome to Argentina!
After only a short distance we had our second riding challenge. Now out of the worst of the snow, we rejected the paved road, and opted for the far more rufty tufty dirt road to the small lakeside town of St Martin de Los Andes. This is the Siete Lagos route, and offers spectacular lake and mountain scenery, which is all the better for the little traffic that manages to get there, since the dirt road deters tourist coaches and the like. Along this route I stopped to take tea with my little stove only to find I had no cooking fuel but it had been such a fantastic day that even the absence of afternoon tea couldn’t upset things. We all arrived at St Martin without incident, and there were “I made it” grins all round - a fantastic day with snow riding, dirt riding, and beautiful scenery, and a hot bath in a comfy hotel at journey’s end. Our host couldn’t have been more welcoming, and even made a decent cup of tea, which rounded everything off nicely.
The following morning she requested a photograph with the bikes. I kid you not. It was a beautifully fresh sunny morning with a deep blue sky. We headed down a route we’d spied on local maps the previous evening. Admittedly it hadn’t been on all the maps, and those on which it did appear showed it as just a vague dotted line, but we took it anyway, and headed for Caleuu. Although it could be described as ‘challenging’, the pass we took through Caleuu to Confluencia rates as one of the best rides I have ever survived. The scenery was strangely reminiscent of the buttes and mesas of Arizona, but surrounded by snow capped peaks. The tracks went from smooth mud and sand to hard dusty gravel, to unpleasantly rocky and deep water crossings, but Jess the GS seemed to know what to do, so I hung on and we got through unscathed. It was truly beautiful, completely empty of people, and provided excitement way beyond what we’d expected. We stopped to catch our breath at the top of a high section and laughed and screamed as if we’d just injected something illegal. I’ll have an eighth of Class A motorcycling please.
At the fuel station in Confluencia the more daring of us decided to complete another off road circuit via Traful and Villa Angostura to San Carlos de Bariloche. This route was much easier than we anticipated, as it was well maintained gravel, until we attempted to stop and take photos, and realised that we couldn’t actually get off the bikes because the wind was so fierce it would blow them over. No pictures of that then, but on the way to Bariloche we paused at the roadside and were immediately joined by a young family of Argentines who wanted to know about our trip. The young mother, who refused to leave their car because of the wind, shouted through the window that we were ‘heroes’ to be riding in conditions like these, and the father posed for the now inevitable picture by the bikes, before shouting “Welcome to Argentina!”
Later that evening, while enjoying a huge Argentine steak, and another Quilmes beer, I watched the huge lake waves crash over the rocks and thought about Argentina, and how beautiful and welcoming she is. I romp through this beautiful country and am repeatedly humbled by the warmth, kindness and enthusiasm that greets me at every stop. Raise a glass of good Malbec to Argentina. Better still, come here and see for yourself.