Riding South – From Brazil to Ushuaia

I was sad to be leaving Brazil after almost 4 months of non-stop fun, but the time had come that I had to move again. The Dakar Rally had started and would be passing through Villa Carlos Paz and I wanted to go see it and catch up with my biker friends there. With the bike’s rebuilt engine broken-in and the new tyres that I’d gotten in Paraguay I was ready to start my journey south to Patagonia and Ushuaia.

I crossed back over into Argentina through the same border at Puerto Iguazu. It was very difficult speaking Spanish again, and I managed to speak Portuñol at best. Customs at the border claimed that my documents hadn’t been canceled since I left 4 months ago and I passed through quickly. I had been warned by Ludo that there are many corrupt police in Missiones and I got stopped at one checkpoint by a couple of them who wanted 200 dollars, claiming that a police car had seen me overtake in a no-overtake area and had radioed ahead. I probably had overtaken illegally but it was still a shake-down. In Argentina, fines are given out and are paid later in police stations, never on the spot, unless of course a bribe is being paid. Anyway, I pretended to not to understand a single word of what the police had said, giving them a ‘no entendo’ (deliberately misspelt). They even tried speaking portuguese with me, which I guess is how they get most of their money, by stopping passing Brazilian riders. After a few minutes they gave me my licence back and I road on to Corrientes to see Laeticia who had gone to stay with Ludo and company.

Ludo and Xime had had a son, Arandu, while I was in Brazil and had moved to stay at a sort of hippy commune by the Parana River. The commune is very basic, with no running water or electricity but the inhabitants are completely happy with the simple living, getting by by baking bread to exchange and making musical instruments to sell in the local town.

After two days chilling at the commune, I went south through the wet lands of Corrientes and Entre Rios towards Rosario to see Matias and Pamela, who had also had a daughter, Matilde, while I had been in Brazil. It was nice to see my friends with their new families, especially since many of my friends at home have been starting families while I’ve been away and I wont get to congratulate them in person until I’m home, when the kids will be 2 years old, or older! On my way through Entre Rios the local police got to make up for the corruption of their colleagues in Missiones by letting me camp behind a police station. We shared some wine and they showed me the wild animals they had killed with their service pistols to put on the asado!

I got so carried away hanging out with my friends in Rosario that I completely missed the Dakar! Cordoba is 6 hours from Rosario, but with a hangover I just couldn’t be bothered riding there late in the day. I went to Villa Carlos Paz the same day that the Dakar left, but it didn’t matter. I could catch the end in Santiago in Chile, when I would go to see Fletch. Of course this plan also fell to the wayside, when I couldn’t leave Villa Carlos Paz either. My friends had all told me that Carlos Paz was different in the summer and it had totally transformed since I had last been there. In the summer, Carlos Paz is a huge tourist destination for Argentinians. Most of the locals, my friends included, hire out their houses for the summer and are pretty busy working with the seasonal tourism. The tranquil river that passes through gets transformed into a huge beach party that is on every sunny day. I completely missed the Dakar, but I got over it pretty quick, besides I never go to watch motorsport in UK anyway! Still, I had to get to Santiago. Fletch was going to ride to Ushuaia with me and David was on his way north on his 200cc Chinese bike (now without a functioning 3rd gear!). The ride out of Carlos Paz took me through more touristy towns with fantastic mountain views. I stopped to buy a sheepskin to pad my seat out. I’d been looking for one ever since leaving UK and it was great to be able to ride in comfort for at least 3 hours in the saddle. The mountain views turned into desert, as is the case with Argentina’s varied landscapes. I stopped in Mendoza for the night before heading into the Andes again. I had been half way through the mountain pass between Mendoza and Santiago before when Ben had come to see me in the winter. The asphalt road had been closed with snow when we were there but it was nice and warm in summer and I found a campsite in Uspallata to stay for the day and enjoy the views.

The crossing the next day turned out to be a completely unexpected pain in the arse. The ride up to the border was great, clear skys with views of Aconcagua, the highest peak of the Andes but as I got closer to the border, there was a huge queue of trucks that went on for many kilometres. The Chilean side of the pass had major road works and had been reduced to a single lane of traffic. The border was a complete pain too, with both Argentinian and Chilean formalities being handled on the Chilean side. What had previously been a straight forward process was now a time consuming mess, made much worse by the number of vehicles present. I met two Spanish riders in the queue who were on newer Teneres. They were heading to Santiago too but I lost them in the bad traffic leaving the border. The single lane of traffic was really narrow as the other lane had been dug-up for maintenance. I could pass the cars , but it wasn’t wide enough for to pass the trucks and buses with panniers on the bike. The traffic had moved a little but then stopped for about half an hour. I’d had enough, and with encouragement from the road workers I off-roaded past the trucks and buses till I could squeeze ahead. A broken down truck had been the problem but after I had passed it, I had the super twisty roads to myself. I later met the Spanish guys in Ushuaia, and they told me that they get stuck there for hours because of the truck! It was late when I rode into Santiago but everything else had gone great. I had money left over from my last trip and I navigated to Fletch’s hotel where he had fajitas and cold beers waiting for me.

Fletch had been staying in Santiago for two months. His bike’s head gasket had gone again and he was waiting on parts to arrive from the US. In the meantime he had been working at the Ventana Sur Hostel, which is a great place to stay with parking for motorbikes. I’d love to have gotten out and about and seen more of Santiago but I largely spent my week there looking in motorbike shops, cooking, and hanging by the pool. Since Fletch had been there so long, he couldn’t go without a leaving party or four! David had arrived too and was getting ready to sell his Chinese bike which he had become very attached to over his 21,000 km trip around Argentina, Chile and Brazil.

Fetch’s bike was finally ready to go, with an up-rated rear shock and new head gasket. We rode out late in the afternoon, heading south for Patagonia. I hadn’t ridden with anyone for ages and it took me a bit of getting used to at first, but as we rode on it started to become apparent that Fletch’s bike wasn’t as it should have been. It was eating lots of oil and the rear shock was way too soft. After 250 km we turned east and found a campsite by a river. I went off for a swim, but Fletch was understandably pissed off with his bike problems and went for a walk to get his head together. The next day we had decisions to make. Fletch had to return to Santiago to get the bike fixed. I offered to go with him, but considering the history of this engine, he knew that it wouldn’t be a quick fix so we split up after breakfast and went our separate ways. Its a shame we didn’t get to ride together. We had been talking about it for months and I was looking forward to having some company on the road for a change. He left Santiago about a month later with the shock properly adjusted but with the engine’s knackered barrel still eating oil by the km. He jokes about it being a two-stroke!

Back on my own, my plan was to smash it south to Ushuaia as quickly as I could. For many riders it is the ultimate destination for their south american motorbike adventure, and you can see the stickers from various trips at all the petrol stations down the rutas 3 and 40. Thing is, many riders have told me that there isn’t actually much point in going to Ushuaia other than to have said that we have been there. The scenery through the Patagonian pampa is flat and boring and high winds make riding tiring. I’d decided to go anyway, just so that I would know what the other riders were talking about, but I would get it done quickly, so that I could enjoy all the mountains and lakes of the Patagonian Andes further north. After one day of riding the Panamericana ruta 5, the boring multi-lane road that runs nearly the whole length of Chile I decided to take a break on the island of Chiloe, where many people I met in Santiago had recommended for its unique culture and fantastic food.

By the way, food in Chile is way nicer than Argentinian food in my opinion. Sure Argentinian meat still takes some beating, but Chile with its chilli sauces, seafood and heavy use of coriander gets my vote every time. My stay on Chiloe actually turned out to mostly about the food. I went for a few trips around the ripio roads passing through the costal grasslands, actually getting lost a few times! but I mostly spent my time there stuffing my face with seafood.

Chiloe is a short ferry ride from Puerto Montt and the start of the Carretera Austral, the road connecting all the communities of the south. The route was built by General Pinoche, who contrary to what I had believed before, is still highly revered in Chile. Although he was a dictator who murdered his opposition, the general belief of Chileans is that he was very good for Chile and transformed Chile into the developed country it is today. As one guy said to me, ‘He was very good for the country, it’s just a shame he killed so many people’. The Carretera Austral stretches 1200 km down through Chilean Patagonia and is a must for any motorbikers traveling in south america. Its roads are a mixture of ripio (gravel) and asphalt with many lakes and mountain passes to enjoy. Several sections are serviced by ferries, some frequent, others not, as I found when I rode into Hornoripen (Rio Negro) at 4 in the afternoon, to be told that there were no ferries until the next day.

Although beautiful, I have to admit that I didn’t like Hornoripen, that was probably just cos I got talked into staying in a awkward campsite and I got ripped off by the place selling tickets for the ferry. The ticket company require that you buy a ticket for the bike and a ticket to be a a passenger, which is complete bollocks as all the ferries operate under the same rules. Still at least they were ripping off everyone, and not just me. The queue of riders who couldn’t buy tickets that day convinced me to shut up and get on!

It took two ferries to get to Chaiten, the one out of Hornoripen was 5 hours long, and I killed the time as we passed through the fjords by drinking mate with 3 Argentinian riders I had met on the road. The ripio roads of the Carretera where loads of fun and I couldn’t help myself from overtaking everything and sliding around the bends. I met up with the Argentinians again in Chaiten, a small town famous for being devastated by a volcano. Rumour is that the town will be completely moved at some point to another location but for the time being, you can still see where the lava flow ploughed through the town. I stayed at a campsite in Chaiten where I met load of young Chilean tourists who were super kind to share some of their beers with me. All the way down from Santiago, through Chiloe and the Carretera I had been seeing loads of travellers heading south. Some on cycles, but the majority were hitchhiking. Its easy to see why the place is such a magnet for people who love the outdoor life. I saw two cyclists from the campsite 25 km further down the road where they had decided to stop for the day by a bridge. The river was full of fish and they were going to stay there for the rest of the day to catch them for their evening asado.

The further south I rode, the longer the days were becoming and I rode all the way from Chaiten to very near Coyhaique in one day. I could have stopped, but I didn’t want to, I wasn’t tired and I was enjoying the ride. Eventually I went to stay at a campsite where the owner, Nacho sorted me out some food for an asado. Their were two other families at the campsite with loads of children, one of the fathers warned me that the kids are noisy and wake up early, but I wasn’t bothered, and I ended up drinking and playing guitar with the families till 4am. Nacho had loads of info about the local area and he really got me interested when he said that there was a new pass at the very southern end of the Carretera Austral in Villa O’Higgins. This would be great as the final section of the carretera from Cochrane to Villa O’Higgins is a dead end, and as such is ignored by most riders. I was intending on passing all of the ridable passes on my way back north so I got as much info from Nacho as I could before I rode on to Coyhaique. As Chilean patagonia’s major city with about 50,000 people, it is a great place to restock, especially as their ‘Sodimac’ home improvement store is kind of like a UK B&Q and was full of all sorts of useful stuff for the trip.

To keep heading south quickly, I decided to take the ferry from Puerto Ibañez to Chile Chico. The ferry crosses the General Carrera lake (Lago Buenos Aires on the Argentinan side). I met two riders at the ferry ramp, Florien from Germany works for a motorbike tour company and has been to Ushuaia a couple of times sometimes with groups of up to 12 riders, all of who have paid thousands of dollars to ride in the tour. A potential future job for me perhaps? He told me that I wouldn’t like Ushuaia either, but he was very interested in the pass from Villa O’Higgins too.

The boat crossing of the lake was an unexpected bonus. The weather was great and the light blue lake, dreamy clouds and spectacular scenery made for amazing views. Chile Chico is just a small tourist town with not much going on, I camped the night and decided my next move. Florien had told me that the quickest way by far was to cross back to the Atlantic coast and take the ruta 3, which is asphalt all the way to Tierra del Fuego, and after I went through the border I rode east until I hit the town of Fitzroy, so small that it almost isn’t anything at all. I’d started to feel the famous Patagonian winds and they were in full effect by the time I arrived in Fitzroy. I chilled out for the night with a very windy asado and got my head together for a day of being battered by the winds.

Luck was on my side the next day as the winds were behind me for most of the journey. The scenery was pretty boring and I had to resort to new morale-boasting techniques to get the kilometers done (I could listen to music after 300 km and NOT before!). I was a caffeinated mess by the time I arrived at the border with Chile 700 km later (my longest day since the beginning of the trip and Western Sahara). Tierra del Fuego is split between Chile and Argentina in such a way that you cannot get to Ushuaia without passing through Chile. I stayed at a small hospedaje 30 km past the border, which wasn’t cheap, but had comfy warm beds in private rooms and great chilean food.

With over 400 km, a boat and a border left to go to Ushuaia, I made an early start the next day. The winds had died down a bit and it was very tranquil morning waiting for the ferry over the straights of Magellan onto Tierra del Fuego island. 20 or so Km after the ferry, the road became ripio for 100 km or so before reaching the border. Being the principle route into Argentinean Tierra del Fuego, the border was pretty busy with huge queues but as I was leaving Chile, it was all straight forward. As i was riding further towards Ushuaia, there were more and more references to the Falklands Islands and the war. Every city I’ve been to in Argentina has its memorials to the war and has signs declaring ‘Las Islas Malvinas’ as being Argentinian, but in the south the feelings are much stronger, with Ushuaia actually being considered the capitol of the islands. I had been warned by friends that I should probably remove my UK flags from my jacket (I only put them there to tell curious Brazilians were I’m from), which I wasn’t going to do, but I definitely got some funny looks from guards as I rode past military bases in Rio Gallegos and Rio Grande. It was more boring flat landscapes, although now with views of the Antarctic ocean until Tolhuin where the landscape changed to mountains and lakes. The last 100 km to Ushuaia was great and almost made the journey there worth while for the road alone, but I did feel a sense of achievement when I finally arrived at the town.

I have to say that all in all, Ushuaia wasn’t that bad, and all of what I’d heard was a bit harsh on the place. True it is expensive, very touristy and very difficult to find anywhere to stay (and no Telos!) but I had a good laugh there. I met a fun bunch of backpackers and enjoyed a few days off the bike and in the pub. A lot of tourists go there to take cruises over to Antarctica but they are super expensive, like £3K! so I restricted myself to a day trip to see the penguins in the Beagle channel. I would have left sooner though, but with the national holidays for carnival I couldn’t change the bike’s oil until several days later. Ushuaia is said to be the most southern city in the world, but to be fair to Chile, there is another town, Puerto Williams, further south on the other side of the channel. Its mostly a military base, with the inhabitants either being military or family of military and you cant only get there by boat from Punto Arenas. Still the road ends in Ushuaia, and that was good enough for me.

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3 thoughts on “Riding South – From Brazil to Ushuaia

  1. Hi Andy,

    Looks a s though you have just notched up another goal for your epic ride, keep up the blog, lovely to see where your at… take care and enjoy the next leg of the journey.
    Best regards
    Pinchy

  2. Still jealous… spring is coming very late here so maybe that’ll mean autumn will hold out longer for down there? Guess it’s a dash for the equator now before you end up wearing more clothes than you have in the panniers?! Cheers, Mark & Sue

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