North from Ushuaia to Mendoza and BA

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South America » Argentina
February 13th 2010
Published: February 13th 2010
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Pictures that accompany this story can be found at my Argentina Flickr Site , and the Carrera Austral Flickr Site

It´s been a month since I´ve blogged, I need to get busy. I´m sitting in Buenos Aires as I write this. I think my trip north has, perhaps, been a little less purposeful. In my mind, I may be thinking that I have already accomplished my goal in getting to Ushuaia, and so I am now feeling somewhat directionless. Even though I have a pretty full agenda: meeting Mariette in Santiago, Megan and Andrew in Peru, and visiting my friends again in Ecuador. The feeling I had going south: the anticipation, the adventure, perhaps, is not as acute. That said, I have seen some incredibly beautiful scenery on my way north! It took me a while to get re-started I guess. Southern Argentina, particularly on the Atlantic side, is pretty featureless. A desert really. Once you are north of the mountains at the south end of Tierra del Fuego, it is pretty much flat and more flat. I got to Rio Gallegos in a couple of days ride from Ushuaia, then headed west towards the Andes to El Calafate.

El Calafate is very much a tourist town, and the jumping off point for the Perito Moreno glacier park. I stayed for a number of days in El Calafate so I could see the sights. The Perito Moreno glacier is one of those natural wonders on this earth that people travel long distances to see. The glacier is a river of ice that is flowing into a lake, and large chunks of it are constantly falling. The glacier is huge, with a face about five kilometres long facing the lake. The geography is also excellent for a park, because there is solid ground, a hill in fact, immediately across from the glacier where you can watch the action. Just about every park I have visited in South America has had some kind of entrance fee, and I have always been left wondering where the money is being spent. Most parks have very poor infrastructure, terrible roads. The Perito Moreno park is certainly the exception. This is probably due to the fact that it has to be the major tourist attraction in Southern Argentina. The park has built about 3-4 kilometres of raised, metal floor walkways, all along the opposite side of the glacier. The walkways move up and down the face allowing many different vantage points. Given the number of visitors the park deals with, I thought this was an excellent idea. It protects the ground from erosion from so many feet, and allows easier access for people along some very rugged country. My visit to the park took up the better part of a day. At one point I sat down on a bench to enjoy the view and wait for some pieces to fall in. It was a sunny day, a few clouds around. As the sun moved in and out from behind clouds, I started to hear the creaks and groans caused by the heating and cooling of the ice in the glacier. I tried to predict when the next chunk would fall in. I enjoyed the changing light on the ice and the lake, every few minutes it seemed there was a new view to enjoy. Somehow in all of this, over 2 hours disappeared before I arose to continue my walk.

The next day, I took a day trip to see El Chalten. Another small tourist town nestled in the mountains. I gather it owes its existence to a border dispute with Chile. Argentina figured they needed a town about there to justify their version of the border location. The town was really not much more than a few hostels and restaurants. There are apparently lots of good hiking trails into the mountains from there, with grander views to be seen. My trip afforded me the time to have a nice lunch before I turned around and headed back to El Calafate. It turned out to be quite a trip for a day, I think I drove close to 500 kms that day. The ever-present Patagonian winds came at me from all sides, as usual making riding in that country a challenge.

The next day, I had some visitors. Stuart Endsley and his girlfriend arrived on their BMW 1200GS and stayed at the same hotel where I was. I had met Stuart via my email list for motorcycle travellers. It turned out that Stuart and I had both lost our wives to ovarian cancer. We had kept in touch via the list and managed to cross paths in El Calafate. We had a lovely supper at a parrilla restaurant. It turned out that Stuart´s girlfriend Marian lives in Argentina, and doesn´t speak much English. Stuart doesn´t speak much Spanish. Certainly an unusual start to a relationship! We had a lively supper with all manner of communication going on. Marian seemed to have a pent-up desire to talk to someone who understood her, and at the speed she spoke, I wasn´t necessarily the one she needed!

Now, before I started my trip north from Ushuaia, I did some planning on the roads I would take. The main road north along the Andes in Argentina is called Ruta 40. It is renowned for its length (about 5000 kms) and difficulty in many sections where it is not paved. I had some warning from Javier, my host at the hostel in Ushuaia, that the section north of Tres Lagos was not great, and I should find another way. This meant heading to the east coast and taking Ruta 3 north (which is paved) and then heading back to the Andes further north. Without backtracking completely to Rio Gallegos, there was a “better” gravel road that went direct from just east of El Calafate and joined Ruta 3 around Piedrabuena on the coast. Well, that “better” gravel road turned out to be pretty much a nightmare on a motorcycle. It took me about 5 hours to go less than 200 kilometres, and I dumped Motosan in some loose gravel at one point. I suspect it would have been no worse to have stayed on Ruta 40. It had everything that makes motorcycle riding a nightmare. Driving on big exposed boulders in the road. Driving on loose gravel. Driving on sand. Driving on loose boulders. Driving on all of the above, but in deep stuff! I really was questioning my sanity. My route had me going on another 1200 kms of gravel as I headed north to Mendoza, my furthest northerly point in Argentina. I was wondering what I had set myself up for.

I rode north on Ruta 3, and after another day´s ride north, turned inland and headed back to the Andes. I was heading for the Carretera Austral (CA) in Chile. Southeastern Chile is a fairly remote area, with the only road access through Argentina, and ferry access from the Chilean side. The Carretera Austral (translation “southern highway”) was an initiative of the Pinochet regime to connect the communities in that remote area of Chile. The CA is a gravel road that extends for over 1000 kms, and follows Andean valleys, rivers, and lakes through some of the most beautiful country in Chile. I chose this route to travel north for all of the beauty offered, and to avoid the parallel section of Ruta 40 in Argentina which didn´t offer much scenery or good roads (While the CA is mostly gravel, I was assured that it was in better shape than Ruta 40). I stayed overnight in Los Antiguos, a small town on the border with Chile, and on the shore of Lago Buenos Aires (known as Lago General Carrera on the Chilean side). For the next few days I would be following around the shore of this large lake. The border crossing into Chile was a quiet place, with a small building at the roadside. The usual paperwork was done without problem, then a customs agent came out and did the most thorough search of my luggage so far on the trip, which was still pretty cursory. He was most friendly about the whole thing, and, as there was no other traffic about, we stood and talked for some time. He relieved me of an orange I had not yet eaten, explaining the dangers of transmitting disease or parasites into Chilean fruits. I wound my way around the southwest end of Lago Carrera, then turned north. After a couple of days ride, I arrived in Coyhaique, which is the largest city in the area, with a population of about 50,000 people. The town is located in a river valley, surrounded by snow-capped mountains, typical of the scenery along the CA route.

The climate along the CA was an interesting assortment of micro-climates, that changed quite rapidly as the road wound its way closer to the ocean, and back inland. I experienced areas that would reasonably be described as rain forest, and within an hour, I could be in areas that were semi-arid. The thing that continued to impress me was the abundant fresh water resources that were along that route. So many clean lakes and rivers; huge rivers with large volumes of water, virtually untouched by human development. Most of these waters have their source in the vast glacier fields in the Patagonian Andes. As I was at the northern end of my trip up the CA, I headed back towards Argentina, staying in the town of Futaleufu, about 5 kms from the border. Futaleufu is a tourist town that services a white-water rafting business. The rivers in that area are spectacular, high volumes, clean, untouched forests, and they have a natural incline that makes for exciting rafting. I met tourists there who had arrived from all over the world to sample the rivers. I hadn´t realized until then that white-water rafting has a clientele that will travel the world looking for their next great experience. I checked into what turned out to be a pretty nice hotel (and a price to match), after striking out at the hostel recommended by other moto travellers. There I met a couple of Americans from the San Francisco area, Frank and Frank. They had left the wives at home and flown to Chile, rented a car, and were in Futaleufu to sample the rafting. We enjoyed an evening talking over supper, and breakfast the following morning. I wasn´t in a rush to leave, my goal for that day was Trevelin, across the border into Argentina, but only about 30 kms away.

From 1996 to 1999, I built an airplane with my friends Dave and Loretta Puckrin. I set up a blog on the internet to document the construction process (you can still find this from my web site at, complete with photographs from my first digital camera. I remember it was an expensive and crude camera, very low resolution compared to today´s technology. Through this blog, I attracted a number of followers who were enthusiasts in the Fieseler Storch, after which our project was modelled. One day, I received an email in Spanish, and after I found some help in translating it, I found that there was a fellow in Argentina who was building a similar plane, but out of wood. This started some ongoing communication, somewhat slowly due to our respective deficits in each other´s language. I can probably credit this experience as giving me my initial interest in learning Spanish. Mervyn Evans is a fourth generation descendant of Welsh (or “Galesa” in Spanish) immigrants to Argentina in the mid-1800´s. The town of Trevelin was founded by one of Mervyn´s ancestors, and was for many years the location of flour mills. I gather the name “Trevelin” means “mill town” in Welsh. While there is no longer an active flour mill in Trevelin, the town prides itself in this heritage, and the local museum is inside the old mill building. Mervyn has capitalized in his heritage, and over 15 years ago, built a replica of a Welsh flour mill on his property about 10 kms out of Trevelin. Demonstrating his many woodworking skills, he built a mill powered by a water wheel, entirely from wood from his property that he (wood) milled himself. This mill is on the road to Futaleufu, a major tourist attraction in the area, and from which Mervyn and his family earn what seems to be a decent living.

I left Futaleufu late, and crossed the border into Argentina. It was the third time I had entered Argentina, and so I was quite familiar with the process. I even told the guy in aduana (customs) where to find a copy of my vehicle import papers in his computer to save himself some typing. Mervyn had no idea I was coming. I had tried to send him an email, but it bounced for some reason. He opens his mill for tours at 2 PM, I arrived at about 1:30 not knowing this. I parked Motosan and hung around waiting for the gate to open. Shortly before 2, a car arrived and Mervyn got out. I called him by name, which got his attention, then told him who I was. Well, Mervyn was thrilled to see me. It almost seemed like he was expecting me to show up some day. A number of other people had arrived to tour the mill, and he invited me along. In his much-rehearsed talk to the group, he kept telling them about me and my airplane, and how I had ridden all the way from Canada. This prompted interest in the group about his plane, so we all had to walk down to the barn where Mervyn keeps his plane so he could show them as well. Along the way, Mervyn invited me to stay overnight with him, longer if I wanted. Mervyn´s skills with wood showed up in his aircraft construction, he did quite remarkable work in his plane. He has also built a replica of a “primary glider” which was the first generation of glider aircraft built in the early 1900´s. He hopes to fly this using a car to tow him up. His Storch is not yet finished, but looks very close. The fuselage is complete, the motor installed. Mervyn even carved his own propeller! The wings are complete and only await covering before they are mounted on the plane. I think one of Mervyn´s problems is that once his wings are mounted, he won´t have anywhere to keep the plane inside as his barn is not big enough.

That evening, after his last tour, we drove into Trevlin for supper. I invited Mervyn and his family for supper, and we sat down at the usual Argentine hour of around 11 PM to eat. A young woman who worked part-time for Mervyn joined us. Belen is a single mom, about 25 years old, who lives in Bariloche and works as a dance teacher. She was spending her summer holidays with her parents in Trevelin and working for Mervyn. When I expressed an interest in seeing the national park outside of Trevlin, she volunteered to take me so I wouldn´t have to drive the gravel roads with Motosan. The next day, I packed up, said my thank-you´s and goodbye to Mervyn and left for Trevelin. Belen, her son Agustin, and I left for the park in the afternoon. We had a pleasant drive through the park, enjoying the mountains, lakes, and waterfalls. That evening I checked into a hostel, then had supper with Belen and Agustin. Belen offered her apartment in Bariloche to me as I was planning to spend a few days there, and I accepted. She arranged with a neighbour to give me the key.

I found, as I headed north from Trevelin, that any town in the lee of the Andes in Argentina is a tourist town. It is easy to understand why, when the rest of the country to the east is so featureless. The mountains and lakes are simply stunning. I planned my trip north to follow the Andes as much as I could for this reason. From Trevelin, I went north through Esquel, and on to San Carlos de Bariloche.

Bariloche is a town surrounded by lakes and mountains, and is an all-season resort with a large ski area, Cerro Catedral, nearby. The setting very much reminded me of Switzerland, and I think the town has emphasized this with their architecture, which has lots of wood and rock. There is also an abundance of chocolate to be found! The main street downtown has a large department store selling mostly chocolate. It turned out that Belen´s apartment was conveniently located at the end of the main street downtown (Mitre), so it was easy for me to walk everywhere. I stayed for two nights in Bariloche, then left for the next mountain tourist town, San Martin de los Andes (SM).

SM is another town that could be confused for being in Europe. It too is close to a ski area, is on the shore of a lake, and surrounded by mountains. I also saw a few golf courses, which are unusual down here. The road from Bariloche is still gravel, surprising considering how much tourist traffic it has. It was one of the more difficult roads to ride, not from the condition of the gravel, but for the amount of dust stirred up by all the traffic made visibility and breathing a challenge. The road is called “Siete Lagos” or seven lakes as it follows the shores of a number of lakes as it heads towards SM. It was finally at SM that I noticed a significant climate change towards warmer weather. For the first time, probably since Santiago on my trip south, I was able to sit outside in a T shirt and have a meal.

From SM, my next goal was Mendoza, the heart of the Andean wine industry. My investigation of the route showed that it was about 1200 kilometres, with about 100 of that gravel. It turned out to be a pretty bleak ride, going through enormous areas of older volcanic activity, the landscape mostly covered in volcanic ash, and largely desert. I had planned on taking three days to cover the distance, but after a good first day, decided to push on to about half-way (but still short of the gravel stretch). I rode north from SM through Zapala and Chos Malal, before stopping for the night in a small down with dusty streets, Barrancas. The next day I hit the gravel about an hour north of Barrancas. The road was poor, but fortunately nothing that was unfamiliar from my travels so far. I just took my time. The gravel turned out to be about 60 kilometres long, taking me about two hours to negotiate. Around a small town called Bardas Blancas the road turned to good pavement and I breathed a sigh of relief. I was finally past all the gravel on my trip, no more! So I thought. The pavement took me up to the town of Marlargüe, and then promptly quit. Shit! I had really hoped I had seen the last of it. I guess as retribution for my optimism, I also hit the worst roads I had yet ridden. The road turned to sand, and it was deep enough to make Motosan unstable all of the time. I spent a lot of time riding with my feet dragging in the sand to catch me if the bike decided it wanted to fall over. I rode like this for a couple of hours before I hit pavement again southwest of San Rafael. I was a little less optimistic this time, and was paid off with no more gravel.

You may recall from previous blogs that back in Quito I met a fellow Edmontonian, Eric Stiglitz. Eric and I met again in Peru, and spent Christmas together in Ushuaia. Eric was in the process of heading from Chile to Paraguay and Brazil, and our paths would cross again in Mendoza. Keeping in touch by email, I arranged to arrive in Mendoza the same day he did, and we spent a couple of days there catching up before he took off. I stayed in Mendoza for a little under a week, taking in some wineries and tasting product.

Mendoza is in the heart of the Argentinian wine district. I learned on my winery tour that there are over 1200 wineries “bodegas” in the Mendoza region. Both Chile and Argentina have serious wine industries, and on my trip I have taken advantage of this, sampling a lot of wines in both countries as I have travelled. I made a personal discovery of Carmenere in Chile, and Malbec in Argentina. I can´t say that I ever paid much attention to either of these wines in the past, but now have new favourite types of wine to enjoy in the future. If only the Carmeneres and Malbecs were as inexpensive in Canada as they are here!

Mendoza is also a very beautiful town. All of the streets are lined with huge trees, affording lots of shade from the sun, which has picked up a fair amount of heat as I have headed back north. Despite the huge wine industry in the area, apparently the biggest source of local income is petroleum. The climate in the area is very dry, but they seem to have done great things with irrigation. The vineyards are a testament to that. One other interesting thing in the city is all of the open ditches running down the streets, probably to provide water to all of the trees planted there. I would have to say that the city was well planned by those who did so, all those hundreds of years ago.

I decided that while I wanted to see Buenos Aires (BA), I did not want to take Motosan there. Largely due to my fear of riding in huge cities. I arranged for my hotel in Mendoza (Nutibarra) to store my luggage and keep Motosan in their secure parking lot, and I bought a return ticket on a first class overnight bus to BA. I also booked a hotel for week (Cuatro Reyes). The bus turned out to be a great way to travel, with the seat folding absolutely flat into a bed. With blankets and pillows, I actually slept fairly well. The bus arrived in BA at 8 AM, and I got a rude welcome to the city.

I caught a taxi at the bus terminal to go to my hotel. The taxi driver passed the time of day with me, then about half way to the hotel, he asked how I was going to pay. I gave him a 10-peso note. He said the money was no good and had to be exchanged at a bank for newer currency. Then in the midst of this, his engine "died". Computer problem he said. I asked him to find me another taxi. He jumped out of the cab, and hailed another cab for me. I got in, and a short time later got the same story about the money. OK, I thought, same story, must be true... He pulled over and asked to see all my pesos and he would see if any were OK. I was watching him like a hawk, then there was a loud rap at the window beside my head and a guy opened the door and was screaming something about an emergency and he needed to go to the hospital, could I give him this cab? I grabbed my money back from the driver and got out. As the cab pulled away I found was that while my head was turned, the driver swapped my notes for a pile of 2 peso notes. I don´t know how much he took me for, but probably about 200 pesos ($60). Welcome to Buenos Aires!

Back in the late 80´s and early 90´s I worked for a software company, and did a lot of travelling. It was a novelty in the beginning, but that wore thin after a while. One of the things I didn´t particularly like was how often I woke up in some random hotel room and did not remember where I was. It has been a long time since that happened to me, and the other morning I awoke with the same question. In my groggy state, I slowly went through a time line that led me to Buenos Aires. I´m in Buenos Aires! A smile came to my face, how could I forget that?

My next scheduled event of any kind is to meet Mariette in Santiago in a week from now. I have had time to kill leading up to this, so I scheduled a week in BA. So, what does someone do in BA for a week? Well, for me, lots of walking and looking. I have a guide book for BA that divides the city into a number of neighbourhoods, so I´ve been trying to hit a different one every day. That, and eat somewhere nice every afternoon or evening. I´m staying in an area called Congreso, which is close to the national congress building, I´ve been to Microcentro, where the presidential palace is located. Retiro, where the bus and train stations are, as well as an up-scale nieghbourhood. Recoleta has some parks, and a famous graveyard I stumbled upon by following hoards of tourists. Evita is buried there. Palermo has more parks, and a kind of bohemian atmosphere. San Telmo has a street that is shut down on Sundays for pedestrians, and an enormous garage sale takes place. They call it an “antique market”, but I know a garage sale when I see one!

My usual interest in architecture has been well fed here. There are examples of the many influences that have built this city and country. The lifestyle in all the neighbourhoods I have seen are apartment based. Everyone lives in high-rise apartments, well 10-15 stories or so. It reminds me a lot of Manhattan in New York, and somewhat of the west end in Vancouver. I visited an art gallery, “Museo de Bellas Artes” where I was treated to original works by some pretty famous artists: Many paintings by Degas, others by Picasso, Rembrandt, Goya, Gauguin, Van Gogh, Renoir, Monet, Rivera. Lots of sculptures by Rodin. An amazing collection of art by Argentinian painters I had never heard of (but this only emphasizes my lack of art knowledge). Unfortunately pictures were not allowed inside the gallery, I would have liked to have had a better record of all the things I saw. I did sneak one picture of a Monty-Pythonesque picture I found with no security guard around.

Talking about being well-fed, the food here has been fabulous. I´ve been eating a lot of beef, which Argentina is famous for. You haven´t had good beef until they bring it to your table and proceed to carve it with a spoon!

I´ve been getting around on the subway system here, or “Subte” as they call it. Very cheap to ride, only about the equivalent of about 30 cents. It is very heavily used, the cars are packed all the time, and impossible at rush hour. I got crammed into a car once and literally saw people being pushed so the doors could be closed! I had a time getting out at my stop, I just gritted my teeth and started pushing people out of the way so I could get to the door! Canada could learn a bit about ticketing, it is all electronic. I bought a pass for 10 rides, and every time I use it it prints a summary of my trip on the back, and how many more trips I have left.

I didn´t get into the night life here at all, but I did get a glimpse into it on the way into town on the bus last Sunday morning. I saw a big group of young people standing outside a building at around 7:30 in the morning and wondered what they were all doing up so early. The answer was that the night clubs don´t get going until 1 or 2 in the morning, and they were just getting out! I guess that is why people take naps in the afternoon.

I´m heading back to Mendoza tomorrow night, arriving Monday morning the 15th. I have a few days to kill before I head into Chile to get ready for Mariette´s arrival. I suspect my next blog will be later in March.


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