Monday, February 1st thru Wednesday, February 10th
Having stocked up with more than a week's worth of provisions, we set out on our ride towards Torres del Paine National Park. A mere fifteen or so kilometers outside of Puerto Natales, we said goodbye to the pavement and began riding on a well-maintained gravel road. The scenery was jaw-droppingly gorgeous. The view of glaciated peaks in the distance were like The Sirens, summoning us towards them with their entrancing beauty.
|El Mecánico rides towards Torres del Paine.
For the first time on our trip, the riding was truly enjoyable -- the winds were manageable, as were the quality of the ripio ("gravel") roads. Having felt as though we had finally settled into a steady rhythm of traveling, we all agreed that the ride felt like a true bicycle tour.
My happiness gets especially happy whenever I see snow-capped peaks and glacially-colored turquoise lakes. Suffice it to say that there was a lot of happy happiness going on.
|Brian and me, at the overlook above Lago Pehoé.
As we've made more headway northwards, we've been running into more and more cyclists. When approaching another cycling tourist, the usual routine is to pull over to one side of the road, partake in a standard script (i.e. where did you start your trip?, where are you from?, how long have you been on your trip?) and then share tips'n'tidbits about the respective routes cycled thus far.
As we enjoyed our happily happy state, we had one of our first beyond-standard-script encounters. The encounter was with a German cyclist named Urban Messner. He pulled out his maps and spent quite awhile on the side of the road with us, explaining ferry options, suggesting camp spots, and pointing out the best-of-the-best sights along the way.
|Our German tourist friend, Urban.
When I first started touring, I assumed all cycle tourists were created equal. I quickly learned that wasn't the case; there are as many variations of tourist personalities and interests as there are molecules of water in the ocean. Well, that may be a bit of a stretch; there are, more accurately, as many tourist interests and personalities, as there are varieties of bagels at a bakery...in New York. Fortunately, Urban seemed to be "one of us" -- he shared a similar appreciation for beautiful, uncrowded natural places. And he was frugal, too. As such, we took detailed notes of all of his recommendations. We will surely be referring to these notes for many kilometers into the future.
Eventually we reached the south entrance to Torres del Paine. After shoveling our lunches into our mouths, we registered at the office and paid our seemingly inequitable foreigner fees (more than three times the cost for nationals!) to enter the park. Before continuing on our way, though, my bike needed a look-over.
Though all of our bikes have been holding up well thus far, they are definitely feeling the pains of hefty torques and heavy weights on less-than-adequate roads. Shirley, my Surly, had been making some unusual sounds. It sounded and felt to me as though there was a problem with the bottom bracket. I informed El Mecánico of the noise. He, in turn, informed me that people often think their bottom brackets are causing trouble, when, in actuality, there is a different source of the problem. After giving my bike a look over, El Mecánico confirmed that surely Shirley's bottom bracket had become loose. (Ah ha! Score for me -- I made a proper bike diagnosis!) Thankfully, Tío Ramón was carrying a sizable 8mm hex wrench (length means leverage), and El Mecánico was able to give Shirley some tender lovin' care.
|El Mecánico plays doctor to Shirley.
It's good that Shirley had been rejuvenated, because the surface of the ripio for the first few kilometers into the park was some of the worst we had seen thus far.
Though the views of Torres del Paine from afar had been wonderful, our visit to the park wasn't so wonderful. For one, there was a ton of tour bus traffic. The buses kicked dust up into our faces and made navigating the narrow and unbelievably steep'n'shitty dirt roads about as pleasant as riding a heavy bicycle...well...along a steep'n'shitty'n'dusty'n'heavily-traffic-infested road. For two, the temperatures at the park were uncomfortably hot. We kept removing layers of clothing until there were no more layers to remove (lest we risk indecent exposure). For the first time since our trip, we donned our shorts and lightweight shirts. Brian and I stopped a number of times at various rivers and lakes along the route to take a breather, to soak our feet and bandanas in the cold water, and to apply yet another layer of sunscreen.
Meanwhile, Tío Ramón kept pedaling. He had his eyes fixed on trekking part of the famous "W Circuit," which starts at the far east end of the park. A handful of times, Craig said, "Just a few more kilometers of pedaling and we'll be there." There? Aren't we "there" already? What's the rush? We've arrived. We're here in Torres del Paine. Eventually, Tío Ramón took off on his own. He pedaled ahead and said he hoped to meet up with us on the trail.
In partnering with others for this trip (and for other things in life, for that matter), it is important to me that all parties be comfortable going their own ways if and when travel styles and/or interests differ. Why suffer through a trip (or your life, for that matter) if it is not living up to your intentions? I'm glad Craig was comfortable going his own way to make the trip enjoyable for himself.
Meanwhile, El Mecánico and I continued along, at our own glacial pace, doing our best to enjoy the less-than-pleasant park. The closer El Mecánico and I got to the east end of the park, the more disenchanted we became with trekking the circuits at Torres del Paine. Both El Mecánico and I feel that crowds make it difficult to appreciate the wild -- particularly crowds that aren't experienced in the outdoors and that don't tread lightly.
Once El Mecánico and I arrived at the east side of Torres, the sights of hordes of tourists confirmed that we definitely would not be trekking the circuits at Torres del Paine. Many of the hikers were pulling wheeled luggage behind them, and many were setting off onto the trail with ginormous backpacks on their backs and duffel bags containing oversized car-appropriate tents in their hands. Uh...yeah...no thanks.
|Just a snippet of the hordes of trekkers at Torres del Paine.
Although camping was permitted only in a few designated campgrounds in Torres del Paine, that didn't stop us from finding a most perfectly beautiful and secluded campspot tucked just behind a hill. We would enjoy Torres del Paine our own way.
|Brian enjoys a rainbow over our private roadside camp spot at Torres del Paine.
|El Mecánico rides through Torres.
With its iconic peaks, Torres del Paine is definitely a gorgeous park. My take on the park, however, is that the peaks are best enjoyed from a distance. No matter how popular the circuit hikes may be, no one could pay me to hike them; there are just way too many damn people. And way too many damn people who don't know how to be respectful of nature and others while in such a majestic place. When activities, such as the circuit hikes, make their way onto too many people's bucket lists, the charm of having earned a bucket-list-reputation becomes tarnished.
Having exited the park via a gnarly long and switchbacked gravel descent, we were back on paved roads again until we crossed the border back into Argentina, some 50ish kilometers later. The pavement was covered with white rectangular boxes, each numbered in descending order. At the center of each box was a hole. Surely someone had been tasked with fixing more than 778 potholes. If only the United States were this methodological about its potholes!
|Marked potholes. Hopscotch anyone?
Two days in a row presented us with generous gifts from automobile travelers. The first gift was bestowed as we descended the steep hairpin turns leading to the exit from Torres del Paine. Brian flew down the descent, all while wearing his biggest smile on his face. Being a novice at mountain biking, I took my dandy time enjoying the descent, all while wearing my oh-my-God-I'm-gonna-die expression on my face. Fortunately, my hesitantly slow descent enabled me to spot a gentleman on the side of the road who was flagging me down. He offered me two juice boxes -- one for me and one for the "Speedy Gonzalez" who passed him minutes before. We enjoyed these treats with our lunch.
The next day, a tourist who had been traveling via a big bus, approached us as we approached the Argentinian border crossing to the southeast of the park. He offered us a ziploc bag containing an apple and three plums. He though we might appreciate eating the fruits before they were confiscated by customs. "Appreciation" seemed an understatement; we were thrilled to properly "dispose" of the fruits for the tourist before they were confiscated by customs. We were equally thrilled to have an extra ziploc bag, as we have been unable to find any in the stores thus far!
A word of advice to my dear readers: Whenever possible, offer a treat to a bicycle tourist. Your seemingly minor donation will make a cyclist's day.
Once in Argentina, El Mecánico and I opted to take a 70 kilometer-long off-road "shortcut" along Ruta 40. The detour shortened our total distance by nearly 80 kilometers. Midroute, though, we questioned whether the route was truly a shortcut in time and effort, as the quality of the road was atrocious. In retrospect, we would have been far better off traveling the "long cut," as that route was entirely on nicely paved roads. Once we had reached the far end of the shortcut, we spotted this strange roadside creature, surely warning others traveling in the opposite direction to avoid the shortcut:
|The omen of really, really, really bad roads.
Along the atrocious shortcut, we stopped at a Carabineros (police station) to fill our water bottles. There, we quickly fell in love with a most adorable kitty. I asked the police officer for the kitty's name. The Carabinero said that the cat didn't have a name. A gasp escaped from my mouth and a look of horror spread across my face. A kitty with no name? That's a dire shame!
As it turns out, the day before, I had told El Mecánico that if we ever had a chance to name a kitty, we should name the cat "Guanaco," after the llama-like looking creatures we'd been seeing all along the route in Southern Patagonia. And so it was that Nameles Adorble Kitty was now called "Guanaco."
|Saracita gives Guanaco some lovin', and Guanaco gives Saracita some lovin'.
|Guanaco hops on El Mecanico's bike, clearly communicating "Take me with you!"
Guanaco was such a love bunny! He rubbed against our bikes and pranced across our panniers, surely indicating that he wanted to join us on our adventure. El Mecánico and I got all worked up with excitement, hoping we might have a new traveling friend. Alas, as we pulled away from the Carabineros, Guanaco accompanied us only as far as the end of the driveway before turning around and returning to the building. This resulted in two long faces and two broken hearts.
Having entered Argentina, we were now clearly on the east side of the mountains, in a most uninspiring desert landscape. Sun, heat, and wind were plentiful; shade and water were not. Finding a comfortable place to set-up camp was a challenge...
...until the lightbulbs lit up in our dreary brains, giving us the wise idea to set up our camp in one of the drainage tunnels that ran beneath the road.
As it turns out, our tunnel campsite offered the most luxurious of accomodations compared to all of our previous roadside camps. Aside from two nearly dessicated piles of animal poop located mid-tunnel, we wouldn't need to fling aside cow pies to clear away an area for our tent. And we wouldn't need to tramp through those dang stickler plants that plagued the roadsides; they attached their hooks all over our socks and pant legs with the expectation that we would help them reproduce. Luxury indeed!
The inside of the tunnel offered a cool and shady place to escape the sun. What's more, the tunnel made our camping spot a multi-roomed fortress. There was the wide-open and sunny living room on one side of the road. There was the dark, shady, and cool retreat within the tunnel. And then there was the more overgrown-yet private facilities for wet-wipe-bathing and the elimination of liquid and solid wastes on the other side of the road.
|El Mecánico gets comfortable in our under-the-road home-way-from-home. This was our afternoon setup...
|...and this was our evening setup.
We quite enjoyed the tunnel. We also enjoyed the companionship of this little guy, who wanted nothing more than to hang out by my side:
|My Great Horned Beetle friend. What a fascinating costume he wears!
Heck we even had wall art hanging in our wide-open and sunny living room:
|A dead guanaco, tangled within the barbed wire fence.
Admittedly, I enjoyed repeated chuckles as I thought to myself: "I am a woman nearing my 40s. I used to have a house...and a job...and a six-figure salary. Now I am homeless and unemployed, sleeping in a tunnel under the road. What have I done?" But truth be told, the tunnel camping experience was an absolute blast. I would highly recommend it to all!
Our awesome tunnel campsite helped to melt away the difficulties of the last few days -- our disappointment in visiting the congested Torres del Paine, the atrocious 70 kilometer detour, and the uninspiring Argentinan landscape. We were back to experiencing what felt like a true bicycle tour.