Argentine Tierra del Fuego: Lightly bumping the buffers

Reaching Ushuaia and running out of land to explore south could have been so many things. What it actually turned out to be was typical, ordinary and completely ‘normal’. Ushuaia: not the end of the world, my world or anything remotely as dramatic. Ushuaia: just another city in a long line of rest stops, the end of a not especially inspiring route and the cracking of a new door of opportunity. I cannot deny a fleeting pulse of emotion as I rolled into town, but nothing remotely as powerful as the intense feelings that routinely rush me on my roads of choice. Having emerged from the emotional crisis that haunted the ride through Chilean Tierra del Fuego I’d already tamed the end-of-an-era demons and processed much of the uncertainty that feeds them. This little psychological wobble drained away most of the emotional detritus that accompanies moments like this and allowed me the clarity to ride towards Ushuaia the only way I know, with passion, for fun and completely free.

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The dirt track up to Paso Garibaldi gave me a small dose of what I love on my final day riding south

The gods of cranks and sprockets work in mysterious ways and on this occasion threw some salvation my way in the form of Mr. Paul The Ride South Griffiths and Mr. Sam Steeling Away Hochheimer. They arrived in my life for real in San Sabastian, the first stop in Argentine Tierra del Fuego. As I stretched out in a popular (and extremely warm) cyclists salvation at the Argentine border post they stumbled in out of the darkness and two virtual friendships became real. As members of the same dirt road touring tribe/clique, bonded together through the blogosphere and with mutual (real) friends, we’ve been very aware of each others lives the past year or so. It takes a lot to gain my respect and a hell of a lot more again to impress me, Sam and Paul have won bucket loads of both. Some of the stuff these guys have been doing recently is truly next level. They are aware of the opportunities currently available to cyclists in the Americas and to their credit they have reached out and grabbed them with both hands. Aside from Nick Gault (who is still trundling around somewhere in Colombia), I see Sam and Paul as the last of my generation of pan-american dirt riders. It’s going to be interesting to see what routes the next generation is going to come up with… no pressure guys (no pressure Nick)!

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Sam (red) and Paul busting out their lightweight touring styles

Once I’d managed to pull myself back from the brink of breakdown and sorted my head out, riding towards Ushuaia evolved into a time of peace and an appreciation of new opportunities. Sam and Paul were a massive help in inspiring the positivity back into my ride, they shifted my focus towards an exciting future.  I still ride a touring bike, I ride a touring load, I know my limits and I know how to have maximum fun with my set-up. Sam and Pauls appearance reminded me of one of the big promises of my future, the chance to find a different level of the same fun on a more appropriate bicycle with more extreme limits. This hope and the feeling that I’ve taken this ride as far as I wanted makes me excited for the future rather than wistful for the past. I have evolved beyond my ride, the bike I trust has become both a literal and figurative anchor, holding my cycling dreams back. The lightweight ‘Steeling South’ crew are already living that dream; they got to bike-pack into Ushuaia along the coast, I got to pump my way in on a slight variation of the standard highway route. No guesses who won on this occasion… I don’t like being a route loser.

San Sabastian to Ushuaia Route elevation profile

 The ‘Steeling South’ crew had different route ideas to me so unfortunately we only got to ride together for a day or so. Paul’s take on their fun little bike-pack along the coast into Ushuaia can be found here and Sam’s here. Despite taking a long hard look at that route I decided it really was for bike-packers and wouldn’t work with my load, so I took some variations on one of the standard routes south. Here is that story…

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Feeling a bit weight shamed Shermy hides around the corner from the two sleek dirt roading machines that join us at the Argentine border post in San Sabastian

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Miserable weather easily persuades me to abandon a two day dirt route I had planned to Rio Grande, instead I join the back of the ‘Steeling South’ speed convoy down Ruta 3

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Thankfully Rio Grande arrives soon. First impressions are that it’s a shit hole of grim Falklands war glorifying nastiness

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There they are, Paul (left) and Sam! After a slightly surreal visit to the local casino to get some money we stock up and settle in

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Nothing to do with the magnetic delights of Rio Grande, we don’t leave town until past 11 the next day

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Avoiding the main road out of Rio Grande takes us onto a traffic free piece of gravel…

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… and over a couple of inconvenient gates… not a problem for those who can lift their fully loaded bike above their head

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After joining up with Ruta 3 Sam and Paul speed off towards a brighter future…

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… as I turn off onto a slightly more seductive surface

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It’s the best days weather I’ve had for a while…

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… so I make the most of the limited daylight…

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… and right deep into the cold…

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…misty evening

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High humidity and low temperatures make for an uncomfortable night in camp

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The moment I wake up I don’t feel right. Wracked with nausea the return to the bike is anything but dynamic. My lack to energy soon combines with heavy and persistent cold rain to bring on the misery

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Soaked to the skin, it’s too cold to stop and eat so I get my head down and give it everything through clinging mud to reach the safe haven of Ruta 3. By the time I reach the junction I’m feeling more than a little broken

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Thankfully Tolhuin and the welcoming La Union Bakery is only 18 km down the road. The bakery owner has built a very welcome room for passing cyclists. Too weak to ride out I decide to rest up for a day at the bakery, which unfortunately isn’t ideal. The strong smell of empanada that hangs in the air of the cyclists quarters is not the best when you’re fighting intense waves of nausea!

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Driven out by a sickening cocktail of odor and boredom I’m still feeling dodgy on the ride out of rainy Tolhuin

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Any illness is soon forgotten though as I route down to the shores of Lago Fagnano, past long abandoned signs of industry…

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… and glorious morning views…

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…out over the water

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After this fun little traffic-free route out of town I speed a couple of kilometers down Ruta 3…

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… before turning off onto another dirty detour…

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… along the lake shore…

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… and down some sexy winter two-track

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Just before rejoining Ruta 3 I’m hit by this stark reminder of my road preferences…

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… but I there’s no choice but to spin a few smooth kilometers on the asphalt

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As I turn off onto the third of my planned dirt detours the rain starts and I duck under shelter for lunch

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The road is already a quagmire before the days rain sets in… I find myself with decisions to make. Reluctantly I concede to being in the wrong season and drag my heavy heart back to the asphalt

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The rain soon gets heavy before progressing into bona fide deluge… congratulating myself on the decision to abandon the dirt I speed onto the abandoned Hosteria Petrel. Here there are eight disused cabins, one of which has been maintained for fishermen. After fighting my way in I start stove drying my soaked clothes…

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… and relax with a well earned cup of Earl Grey

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Dawn calls over Lago Escondido and I’m relieved that my last day on the road to Ushuaia is at least going to start with good weather

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Leaving my little private castle behind…

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…I start climbing the slippery track away from the lake…

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…up towards Paso Garibaldi (450 metres elevation)

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The sun is shining…

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… and the steep dirt track winding. It’s the best end of tour present I could have hoped for

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The snowy mountains around Paso Garibaldi offer the perfect tonic for too much flat pampa riding…

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… and the quick icy descent…

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… into the valley below…

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… clears a few cobwebs. After a few days feeling under the weather I’m finally feeling strong again… it’s amazing what a steep dirty climb can do for a man!

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All that’s left is an easy paved slide between spiky snow-capped mountains…

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… so I stop by the road to eat some lunch…

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… and meditate on the significance of my situation

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Much sooner than expected the gates to Ushuaia appear…

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… where I take the customary and rather mundane ‘look how big my balls are I cycled to Ushuaia‘ photo

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So this is Ushuaia…

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… a city of charming undulations, sandwiched between the imposing Martial Mountains…

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… and the historic Beagle Channel

Ushuaia Sam Paul

It’s fitting that Paul is the first person to welcome me to the ‘End of the world’, someone who understands more than most what my journey means. Having obviously failed to eat enough dried pasta over the previous few years we celebrate with Pasta à la Hochheimer and a bottle of wine… extreme riders with a taste for extreme partying… we’re in bed before midnight… it was crazy… you should have been there (photo courtesy of Sam)

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As I hang around Ushuaia figuring a few things out and planning my next route, temperatures drop…

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… snow falls and the transition to winter is complete. It’s time for me to head north where more adventures and loving friends await.

So that’s that then, I rode my bicycle from the top of Alaska to the bottom of the Americas. It was my life for five years and involved many unexpected twists and turns. And what have I learnt? I learnt that there are no individual trips, there are no one-off rides, they’re all just chapters in one big journey. That journey is life and it is us who control it, our choices alone dictate what our story will be. My journey got interesting when I decided to fight for ownership of my own life, I made the choice to live and resolution to stop giving a fuck caring about what is expected and accepted by society. These are the best decisions I’ll probably ever make, they won me my freedom.

Route Tips

5 days, 343 km (213 miles),  2,835 m (9,300 ft.) of climbing

As I mentioned above I originally intended to ride a series of dirt roads from San Sabastian down to Rio Grande but was thwarted by the weather. To check out that route see the route map available here.

I had intended to throw four dirt road detours into my ride from Tolhuin to Ushuaia but only managed to ride three after rain made the third one unrideable. I mapped all those detours on my original route plan which is available here. For the detour I missed take the right turn signed Laguna Kosovo about 25 km out of Tolhuin.

Many choose to gun it down the highway from Tolhuin to Ushuaia in one day. That sounds like a miserable idea so I’d recommend a night in the fishermans cabin at the abandoned Hosteria Petrel. This is by Lago Escondido on the dirt road route up Paso Garibaldi. To reach it turn right off of Ruta 3 just after a Police building (at about kilometer marker 3002) and ride 4 km. The first of the eight cabins after the abandoned hotel building is the best but some of the others would be fine to camp in too. The lake water is crystal clear, I drank it without any problems.

If you ride a really light load I’d recommend investigating the coastal route into Ushuaia via the Pto. Harberton road that Paul and Sam took.

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3 responses to “Argentine Tierra del Fuego: Lightly bumping the buffers

  1. Would have been awesome to have shared that experience with you guys, just reading it evoked some unexpected emotions. Well done on both the trip and a most excellent blog.

  2. hey nathan! we thought all the way through patagonia we might bump into you again, but finally reached the end of the road a few weeks earlier. hope your southern part of southamerica was as diverse as we experienced it. well done!
    …and what’s next?
    saludos

  3. Great to see your photos of the ” old road” over Garibaldi Pass. I rode over that way in the 1970s, long before the paved route. Such nostalgia. Many thanks.

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