Chilean Tierra del Fuego: The warm fires of Gaucholandia

Tierra del Fuego, the land of fire, a far off island that has all too quickly became the ground beneath my tires. Although never anything more than just an exotic name, this island has been locked into my consciousness for longer than I care to remember and it’s been calling me. As I met those calls and rolled off the early morning ferry from Punta Arenas, I not only moved onto a new land but also into a new chapter, one complete with a myriad of tantalising opportunities. Imagine cycling to the end of the world through a sparsely populated land nubbin of king penguins and gaucho culture. Now imagine doing that same ride in early winter… with five years of emotional cycle-ogical baggage.

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Aktimeo… 76 years old and still living the Gaucho dream

After a few weeks easy (but amazing) rolling with a couple of tough ‘old’ birds it was time for me to leave the nest and spread my wings again. I saw Tierra del Fuego as an opportunity to get back to some long and harder days of exploration, a chance to push myself a little and rediscover some of the tour induced feelings I’d let fall dormant. Determined to explore both the Chilean and Argentine sides of this split island I devised a route that would loop south around through the Chilean segment before returning north to San Sabastian, the only border crossing open at this time of year. Spinning over flat lands in mid May when the early winter sun shines through still, sharp air, this was to be my victory lap. Then reality bit: sub-zero temperatures, intense rain, staunch headwinds and thick muddy roads. Those feelings I was chasing hit me like a tsunami, smashing my defenses and leaving me vulnerable and emotionally naked in the rain.

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The wiggle waddle of King penguins in Parque Pingüino Rey

Of the many lessons I’ve taken from the roads of the Americas I think the most insightful have sprung from the journey inwards. I have discovered in myself an ability to focus and a fortitude of mind that I knew was there but had seldom cared to explore. I have also discovered that to maintain this strength my mind needs nurturing: mental health does not look after itself. We’re taught little tricks from an early age that help protect our physical bodies, such as washing our hands and not licking toilet seats, but no one seems to teach us how to defend our psychology. With so much time to ponder on a long bicycle tour there is a danger that your own thoughts will find a way to prise open the small chinks of mental vulnerability inherent in our humanity. This is what happened to me on this short ride through Chilean Tierra del Fuego. As conditions deteriorated and my energy dipped, I rode into a wall of home truths. I could feel my emotions peeling away and had to fight with everything to stop them fluttering off beyond my reach. For a couple of frightening days my sanity started feeling strangely and dangerously hollow. To put it bluntly… shit got real for me out there. It is neither a point of pride nor embarrassment that I found myself teetering precariously on the edge of a totally unforeseen emotional meltdown.

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The calm before the storm… these little beauties captured my attention for an entire blissful afternoon

Flat and deserted, there is nowhere to hide from anything out on the Tierra del Fuego pampa. At this time of year the decision to cycle through the island is a commitment to the mercy of nature. The only ‘civilization’ is a smattering of estancia buildings and their resident Gauchos, latino cowboys who could arm-wrestle the wrist off their north American counterparts. These are good honest men and folks to whom I now owe more than they’ll ever know. As my course swung east and then north the weather quickly took a turn for the worse, forcing me to seek warm refuge. Whilst plugging north up the muddy road towards Rio Chico the elements got so aggressive it was no longer possible to continue. I aborted my ride in the only way possible, dragging my sorry state towards the earthy and hospitable fires of Gaucholandia. Forced to pull the one-armed bandit of survival I struck gold, stumbling into the welcoming home of 50 year-old Gaucho José Gonzalez. And there I stayed for two days and three nights, cowering from an onslaught of wind and rain so oppressive even my hardy weathered host stayed inside. With neither electricity nor distraction I was treated to two full days to focus on pulling myself together, time enough to tie down my loose and flailing nerves and work through the psychological realities of reaching the end of ‘my’ world.

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The equivalent latitude north of the equator to this coast line just out of Porvenir cuts right through the centre of England of Wales… this could quite easily be a section of that British coastline

Normally fiercely independent I found myself reliant on the kindness of others during this short leg of riding through Chilean Tierra del Fuego. It was not the conditions nor the riding that put me there it was my own emotional neglect. I’d been hiding from the realities of an ending tour and when that truth suddenly dawned I wasn’t ready to deal with it. Unbeknown to them the Gauchos saved me from myself and in doing so reconnected me with the value of humanity on my journey. This marked the start of a new phase of my tour, where once again I’m connecting with values more significant than just my hedonistic need to have fun on my bicycle.

Chilean Tierra del Fuego

Route from Porvenir (Chile) to San Sabastian (Argentina)… click here to view the fully interactive map, elevation profile and download the GPX track

Porvenir to Argentine San Sabastian Route elevation profile

Here is the story of my week long journey from Punta Arenas through Chilean Tierra del Fuego to Argentina…

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At this time of year the boat from Punta Arenas to Porvenir, Tierra del Fuego leaves early. After a cold ride across town in the darkness…

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… I wheel my bike onto the ferry and we set sail into the rising sun

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The crossing is surprisingly smooth and it’s not long before my spine is tingling at the first views of  Tierra del Fuego

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Once in Porvenir, the Chilean capital of Tierra del Fuego, I stock up on some last-minute supplies before finding some shelter for lunch…

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… and setting off up the hill out of town

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Before long I’m caught by Simon, Charles and Valentine, three Belgian cyclists who have been travelling at pace from Colombia

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The first few kilometres are tough as we plug away into a savage coastal headwind…

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… but the road soon turns out of the wind and we’re able to start enjoying the coastal humps and bumps

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These lads are fit, strong and to my absolute disbelief, only 18 years of age! It’s amazing the opportunities and knowledge the internet has opened up to younger people. How would I have found out about all this when I was 18?

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Sticking tight to the coast the road takes us on a tour of Tierra del Fuego fishing life…

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… before we leave it to cut in land for a comfortable night in the dorm of a cosy estancia

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Our first morning on Tierra del Fuego is a treat of sparkling frost

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Despite the cold it’s a glorious morning…

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… and we quickly reach the junction where I plan to strike out alone

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As the lads dig into lunch ready for their quick push over to Argentina I leave and head south…

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… through natural road blocks…

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… and past neglected remnants of estancia life…

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… to Parque Pingüino Rey. A quick bite of lunch and I’m skipping down to…

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… my new happy place, watching the beautiful penguins. Something about being with these birds makes me feel really good so I abandon my afternoons riding plans and elect to spend my time in their company instead

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Five hours fly past as I try my darndest to shake the idea of stealing one. The way they waddle out of the cold waters…

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… and parade in formation…

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… back to their friends and family, melts my heart

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Watching the penguin community makes me suddenly very aware of my solitude. Like this fox, I’m a one man wolf-pack. Something clicks out of place in my mind and things suddenly don’t make so much sense

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After a quiet night in the park cyclists hotel (tiny shed), I sit with the penguins for a little while longer before…

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… heading out…

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… into the cold morning sun

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As I spin south along the coast the clouds thicken and a stiff cold breeze builds

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By the time I turn east away from the coast…

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… the breeze has become a headwind. Progress up the slight climb over to Russfin is very slow and indescribably soul-destroying

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The temperature hasn’t broken freezing all day so it’s a culpable relief when I drop through the last remnants of autumnal colour into the estancia hamlet of Russfin

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A brief inquiry leads me to an empty estancia building. As an older Gaucho and I make fun of Argentina a younger lad snaps into action lighting fires in both my bedroom and the kitchen

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They then leave me alone to a relaxing night in my own cosy casa

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The fires go out while I sleep leaving me to wake to a cold empty house enveloped in thick wet cloud. I wait a little while for things to improve before setting out…

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… but the frigid mists are soon back

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The cold and wet combine with a headwind to push my limits. After a couple of hours riding I can feel tears straining to escape and I’m fighting the urge to sit down in the mud and give up. Soaked through from rain I know that stopping for too long would invite hyperthermia but I feel broken, like my resolve has somehow snapped. Sheltering from the wind behind my bike I quickly force some cookies into my face and try to regain some composure…

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… before venturing back out into the exposed bleakness

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Riding hard and focused I push on as far as I can. To my immense relief some buildings appear just as I’m losing energy, they’d make a perfect shelter for some lunch

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My progress up the track towards the shack is met by a few curious dogs who alert the guy who lives there. Aktimeo meets me at the door and ushers me inside, sitting me next to his roaring fire before starting a welcome stream of Nescafe. Thank you Aktimeo, he treated me as if I were his own son

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Revived and rejuvenated I drag myself away from the fire and back out into the quickly worsening weather

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As the sun pokes through a fleeting gap in the clouds I’m treated to a reminder of the beauty of my life. Even though I’m surfing the edge of sanity I know I’m still having fun. Then the gap closes… I won’t see the sun again for days

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In the 15 km from Aktimeo’s place the weather goes quickly downhill. When some more estancia buildings appear I have little choice but to head for shelter. On my approach the door opens and I’m sucked in by the kindness of José Gonzales, a Gaucho from Punta Arenas

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José shows me to the spare bed room and I settle in for what turns into three nights. It’s a simple but very comfortable life, a wood fire kept burning for heat and cooking…

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… and a gas lamp sparked in the evening for light. Save for a battery-powered radio and torch José lives without electricity. In an effort to steady my psychological ship I throw myself into reading, devouring two books cover to cover before falling into a warm fuzzy cocoon of podcasts. It seems to do the trick as I slowly feel a more normal vitality return

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Waking to a third morning in the estancia the weather has calmed enough to get back on the bike. With gratitude filled goodbyes I leave José…

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… and ride out into low cloud and rain

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I had planned on taking a series of tiny estancia tracks through to San Sabastian but have to abandon that plan in favor of sticking to the larger road. Everything away from the totally traffic free ‘main’ road is a muddy quagmire. Although a few degrees warmer than before I stopped with José, it’s still cold and very wet. Thankfully there are now shelters to help me along

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Turning east onto the main road from Porvenir to San Sabastian the mud becomes lighter and traffic returns. Spurred on by the dangling carrot of the international frontier and comforted by the slightly improved weather I can feel my va va voom returning

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Upon finally leaving Chile and entering Argentine Tierra del Fuego I feel a huge weight lift from my chest, as if I’ve come up for air. The toughest test is behind me.

 With the benefit of hindsight it is obvious to me what was happening to me on this struggle through Chilean Tierra del Fuego. Spending time with the penguins triggered a reminder of how incredible a life I’ve been enjoying. Imagine what it feels like to lie in the grass under a friendly winter sun with 80 amazing King penguins. Understand what it means to string such powerful experiences together for five years without any thought they’d ever end and then wake up one morning to the sudden realization it’s all gone. Like a musician losing their hearing or a painter their sight, a long-term cyclist losing their direction is a change that strikes at the core of everything. I’d never thought to take the time to understand the nearing end of my tour down the Americas so when the strain of bad weather weakened my focus I was defenseless against the impending harshness of reality. For a few days I was in mourning for my best friend and the only thing that has ever given me direction in life, this stupid insignificant little bicycle tour.

Don’t worry, I’m alright now, this was just a process I needed to go through. And do you know what, again with hindsight, I have to say it was quite good fun! Some really gnarly dirt road business!

Route Tips

4 days,  330 km ( 205 miles),  2,530 m (8,300 ft.) of climbing

It is important to note that despite my struggles this is not a challenging route, my difficulties were personal. In the right season/weather conditions I’ve no doubt this would be an easy little spin. That said, it is unlikely that much value could be found in looping all the way back up north to Paso San Sabastian in summer as an alternative border crossing is open at Paso Bella Vista, on a road continuing east from Russfin towards Rio Grande in Argentina. My understanding is that Paso Bella Vista closes sometime in April.

No matter what your route plans I highly recommend taking time out to visit Parque Pingüino Rey. It’s only about 14 km of easy riding from the main road directly across to San Sabastian from Porvenir (junction at 96 km from Porvenir). Entry is $12.000 CLP. You can fill up with water, use the bathrooms and there is space to camp.

The original route I plotted from Google Earth differed slightly from that mapped at the top of this page which I actually rode. The only real difference was the network of small tracks leading directly to Chilean San Sabastian that I had to abandon due to flooding and mud. My original planned route can be viewed here.

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3 responses to “Chilean Tierra del Fuego: The warm fires of Gaucholandia

  1. “””””This marked the start of a new phase of my tour, where once again I’m connecting with values more significant than just my hedonistic need to have fun on my bicycle”””””

    The connection with the values more significants will too wither away and new, most likely more painful emotional meltdown will follow.

    This circle will go on as long as you see something more significant than other and this more fun than that.

  2. Pingback: Argentine Tierra del Fuego: Lightly bumping the buffers | Velo Freedom·

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