A Taste of Patagonia: Notes from a Biker’s Journal by Linda Hayek
Linda completed the 2009 ExpeditionPlus! trip across Chile and Argentina — to read her bio click here.
Friday, January 9
6:30 a.m. I was AWAKE. I had been restless since 2 a.m. Shuffling downstairs to the lobby, I hoped my missing bag had been delivered. No such luck. I made a phone call to the number on the lost luggage claim form. "Habla ingles?" I asked. "No," replied the woman on the phone, and she was able to let me know that no one else spoke English, either. This is getting complicated.
Liz, preparing breakfast and covering all roles in general for the hotel, made another call for me to the Lost and Found to explain my problem, and she gave them my itinerary for the next few days. Successful in finding out that the bag was NOT going to get here while I was in Puerto Varas, she was assured by Lan Chile that the bag would be waiting for me in Valdivia when I arrived by bus later today. Yesssss! Liz smiled and replied, "You will probably get your bag, but I’d save the celebratory dance until you actually touch it. After all, it is Chile." Then she added, "Do you need some coffee?"
Taking time for a conversation in the midst of what must have been an endless list of "to-do’s" that morning, Liz asked about about my travels in Chile, and before I knew it, I felt as if we were friends. An Oklahoman and recent college graduate, she had come to the nearby island of Chiloe the year before to become fluent in Spanish before beginning a career in Spanish education. She fell in love with the region and stayed. I could understand what drew her here, and I began to relax about my lost luggage.
As promised by LanChile, my lost bag was waiting for me when I arrived by bus at the hotel in Valdivia, later in the day. I met my bicycle, a mountain bike with a front suspension fork and fat, knobby tires, and I missed my lightweight road bike, Trixie Trekster, the bike I could carry with one arm and my faithful companion. The ExperiencePlus! mechanic, Igor traded out the bike seat and pedals for the ones I brought, and I went for a test ride. The Merida was strong, but it was not Trixie. We had not yet become "one." The bike looks so… ummm…heavy-duty.
Saturday, January 10 Loop ride from Valdivia to the Pacific Coast at Niebla
The expedition started with an out and back ride to the coast with stops at the city market, the botanical garden and a fort. The historical significance of this region, where three major rivers merge into the Pacific, came alive in a tour. Access to the river country (one of a kind on the west coast) meant life or death to thirsty European sailors. The key to controlling the continent was guarding this gateway to fresh water, which became Spain’s most heavily fortified port in the New World. Nearby at Niebla, we ate seafood overlooking the beach and made a ceremonial dip into the ocean marking the beginning of our coast-to-coast trek.
Sunday, January 11 Valdivia to Futrono
Headed away from the river region, we pumped across the Cordillera range toward the higher peaks. The terrain today is different than that prior to the 1960 earthquake, the strongest ever recorded (9.5 on the Richter scale). The collapse caused sunken spots which soon became saltwater lakes when the tsunami brought a 35 foot wall of water crashing inland over 20 miles. Several Spanish forts, once gates to the river country, disappeared under the sea. Disease, starvation, dehydration, and hypothermia stole lives by untold thousands, and the land was devastated beyond recognition. Yet, pedaling near the saltwater marshlands, I was struck by the beauty of the landscape, now healed completely, alive and productive. Riding along brought a rhythmic solitude and thoughts of that event that shook my own world, when cancer took the life of my husband, Dave. Both events destroyed a world that regrew into something vibrant, though forever changed. Still flowing were the rivers, before and after the earthquake, three streams made one in the sea.
The ride ended at Futrono, perched above Lago Ranco, a lake rimmed with ripened wheat fields next to hills of timber like buff on slate patchwork around miles of aquamarine waters. Sitting high above the lake on the deck of the hotel, sipping beer and sampling appetizers with some of the tour group, now friends, I drank in the view of the swimming pool on well-manicured grounds next to the lake and tried to imagine the rest of the expedition. Good workout, good friends, good scenery, good food. Does life get any better than this?
Monday, January 12 Futrono to Lago Ranco
At dawn a flock of birds in the bush outside my window woke me with their racket so I walked out to sit on the deck. The morning light seeped through the mist over Lago Ranco and the fields of wheat higher up. I let it soak in, looking forward the route along the lake’s edge, just 42 miles, a ride that sounded like a short and pleasant journey.
As it turned out, I had underestimated the challenge of "good gravel roads" in Chile: trails wide enough for a full-sized bus (but not two) with round stones about the size of a fist and loose gravel creating an unstable surface on steep hills. Early on, my front wheel spun on a patch of gravel, and before I had time to unclip, I fell to the right. Rosita, a guide on other ExperiencePlus! tours, was one of the riders on this expedition. She cleaned my knee, loosened my cleats, bolstered my spirits, and, matching her pace to mine, coached me all the way to Lago Ranco.
As if to compensate for the challenging ride, the view was spectacular all the way. We were tucked beside steep slopes alive with ferns, hydrangea, pines, moss, alstromeria, and roses against a sky of intense blue above sparkling Lago Ranco far below. I settled in to a slow pace and enjoyed the view, and the day that I thought might be short … was not.
Tuesday, January 13 Lago Ranco to Puyehue
Today’s ride to Puyehue illustrated the purpose of a suspension fork. After a particularly dry season, the soil was packed hard as concrete with rocks the size of softballs firmly planted into the surface. I tried to find a smooth spot to soften the ride, but it proved impossible. After 40 miles on that cobble-stoned surface, my saddle felt like a meat tenderizer, and my saddle-side felt bruised and very tender, indeed. The asphalt was a welcome change. I locked the suspension fork, but I did not take time to eat. This was an error in judgment. I can smell the barn…I’ll just finish the ride. I was keeping pace with Roger, and after about 10 miles of pavement, we began to climb. I could feel my energy dropping. I’m starting to bonk. I hope I am almost there! It was a relief when I heard Roger say, "I see it. There’s the hotel." "Oh, yes! Not a minute too soon because I’m losing steam," I replied. Then I saw it, too. The resort was on top of the mountain, and it looked like another 1,000 feet of climbing. Holy Wow!! We’re climbing to THAT? Seriously? "I have to stop because I have no energy left." I said. Roger stopped with me while I polished off a bag of chocolate cookies. Unfortunately, I had already bonked and the hill was steep! As Roger rode off, I walked my bike for 100 yards…200 yards…waiting for some sugar to kick in. Eventually I got back on my bike and pedaled to the hotel…completely spent! The spa hotel was luxurious, and some might say that the view was worth the climb. On another day I might have agreed, but today I headed straight for the hot mineral baths with power jets to massage anything that ached. And, today everything ached. Ooooooh…that feels better!
Wednesday, January 14 Puyehue to Villa La Angostura
The day was both sweet and treacherous riding over the continental divide. Before we began, our fat tires were replaced with thinner ones promising improved highways in Argentina. That made me almost giddy with relief after the challenges of the past two days. I dawdled through Nahuel Huapi National Park, taking all the time in the world to enjoy waterfalls and the tangle of ferns under the towering trees.
Then it started to rain. Stopping to put on my rain jacket, I remembered the Ziploc bag marked "LAYERS FOR COOLER WEATHER" still sealed and packed inside my suitcase in the shuttle van, safely on its way to the next hotel … another error in judgment. The light rain became a downpour, and I could barely see through my sunglasses as the water dripped down. Eventually I took them off and squinted to protect my eyes from the driving rain. Where’s the road?
Progress was steady on the long, steep climb, and after about an hour, the curly-leaved ferns went missing and trees no longer provided shelter. The wind was whipping, and it seemed to come from every direction on the hairpin turns that pulled my bicycle first one way and then another. My fingers felt numb on the brakes, my bare knees seemed frozen, my head and feet were unprotected, and the windchill was winning. Then, looking up, I spotted the continental divide marker, and the support van, parked in the lot. I made it! I’m at the top!
Leaving my faithful bicycle in the rain, I climbed into the van to warm up before making the cold, windy descent. As I took off my shoes to wring out my socks, my muscles began to shake uncontrollably. Realizing that the exertion on the climb was what had kept me from hypothermia in the first place, I wondered if I should ride the van down the mountain pass. I imagined myself racing out of control on hairpin turns with strong winds of unpredictable direction, numb hands on the brakes, tires on wet pavement, limited visibility, no hat, half-bare legs and soaking feet. I made my decision. "Pack up the bike," I said. "I need a ride."
I felt a twinge of regret as the driver loaded my mighty Merida into the back of the support van. Watching out the window, I thought how jubilant it would have felt on a different day, celebrating the climb and flying effortlessly, wind in my face. Aaahhhh, heck …. that would have been fun.
Disappointed and still shivering, I knew that today’s decision (at least this one) was not an error in judgment. As it happened, 6 of the 8 riders decided to shuttle some of the miles that day. As we huddled together at Argentina Customs, recovering from the morning weather and laughing about our predicament, it triggered a solidarity that lasted for the remainder of the trip and provided an energy of its own.
Thursday, January 15 Villa La Angostura to Bariloche
The ride to Bariloche led us 50 miles around the edge of Lake Nahuel Huapi in a setting so delicious I considered staying forever. Crystalline waters was set between forested peaks, the deep green broken by occasional snowcaps or spots of barren lava. Beneath a dome as blue as the water below and cloudless, the azure surface, laced with white-capped waves, met the rocky beach, over and over until the road met Bariloche. An extra day was scheduled as a rest day at this resort town famous for mountain sports and chocolates. What could be more perfect that white water rafting for a change of pace?
Friday, January 16 Bariloche Whitewater Rafting on the ‘rest’ day
Driving through the mountains en route to the Rio Manso gave us time to share mate, the popular hot tea in Argentina, brewed in a cup crafted from a gourd and filled with loose leaf tea (yerba mate), then sipped and strained through a metal straw called a bombilla. After pouring hot water over the yerba mate leaves in the gourd, the Argentinian guide passed it to me, and I sipped the bitter liquid contents before returning the gourd. The whole process was repeated until everyone was finished drinking. The most significant part of the beverage was sharing it, bringing together 15 passengers without a common language who drank from a common cup.
Turquoise waters greeted us at the campsite on the Rio Manso where we ate a second breakfast before squeezing into wetsuits. It was quite possibly the most beautiful river I have ever seen, glistening below the suspension bridge.
All English speakers were assigned to Juanito with huge expressive eyes and a sense of humor that transcended any language barrier. Besides the six of us with ExperiencePlus was Mark, a New Zealander. As we settled in to the raft, there was some laughter that "Rio Manso," (literally "tame river") was misleading. OK. Just so you know. Uhmmm. I don’t have much experience with a paddle. Then Mark said, "Oh! You’re going in the water, Sunshine. Don’t worry about that." Putting my fears into words, Mark made them seem tiny to me, and the laughter of eight rafters (mine loudest of all) marked the beginning of the voyage on the Rio Manso weaving through the rainforest toward Chile, turquoise rushing against unyielding boulders. The majestic beauty of the mountains and our festive team spirit caused us to take on airs of competence until the craft flipped in the rapids downstream and crushed our arrogance, though not our sport. The chilly immersion, rather, freed us to go overboard on purpose at the next stretch of quiet water. Afterward, we ate barbecued meats and salads and freshly baked breads, washing it all down with local beer and wine. ‘Sunshine’ is back to 100% and ready to ride again!
Saturday, January 17 Bariloche to El Bolson
Today’s hills were notable, beginning with an ascent away from the lake, but later the descents were delightful, sailing down mile after mile with a view that went on and on, and although my tires never actually left the pavement, I had to look down to be sure.
The name, El Bolson, reminded Roger of a song he remembered, operatic in style. Sporadically, he erupted at the top of his voice, belting out "El Bol – SON." For some reason this seemed appropriate. It might have been the setting – remote and immense – that fostered extemporaneous behaviors like this. "El Bol – SON" caught on as a theme song with everyone, perhaps a symptom of spending too much time together.
El Bolson is extremely relaxed in contrast to busy Bariloche and a haven for artists and backpackers and others who appeared to be dressed for a hippie scene of the 1960’s. I took the advice of Javier and went to Jaugo’s for Ice Cream, buying una copa de chocolate naranjita (a cup of chocolate ice cream with candied oranges) and enjoyed a delicious afternoon watching locals do what I doing…nothing much…on a beautiful summer day in January.
Sunday, January 18 El Bolson to Esquel
For months I had pictured today’s century ride, holding it up as THE reason for conditioning, like a motivational poster with a mantra to accompany it, "El Bolson to Esquel: 108 miles, El Bolson to Esquel: 108 miles…" It was the unknown conditions that worried me. I envisioned pumping a mountain bicycle over gravel roads with a strong headwind and plenty of climbing, and it did not look pretty after 108 miles. I breathed a sigh of relief when I learned that the road to Esquel was paved, and prayed for a tailwind on a fairly flat route, knowing that things do not always turn out in my favor.
Energetic in the morning, I enjoyed the diversity of those sharing this, the only, paved road in the region: bicycles, double decker tour buses, tandem trucks, horses, hitchhikers, Patagonian hares-turned-roadkill, chickens…just about everything. One hitchhiker and I played leapfrog for awhile. First I passed him, then he must have caught a ride, then I passed him again, and so on.
The climbing, enjoyable at first, was continuous, totaling about 6,000 feet by day’s end. Then the wind began to pick up. By noon, the crosswind was grabbing my bike and throwing it into traffic as if to test my breaking point. I kept up my spirits and strength for about 7 hours, completing the first 90 miles of the ride. This is more challenging than I thought! The support van pulled up beside me, and Javier asked how I was doing. "Whew," I said, but smiled and gave him a thumbs-up. "That’s great," he replied. "There’s only about 28 km. left, but you’ll be turning directly into the wind." "Oh, man," I said, mentally converting 28 kilometers to 18 miles. "I’ve got to have something to eat. This is going to take everything I’ve got."
Javier offered me some choices, and I settled for half-a-bag of fruity candies, the ones with hard shells and semi-liquid centers, and I ate every one of them before starting again. Then I snapped my shoes into the pedals, dug down deep for whatever grit was left, and started to push – hard and steady – into the wind blowing at about 30 miles per hour. With a top speed of 10 miles per hour, I did the math and knew this was going to take a couple of hours. C’mon, baby, you can do it!
My contacts, caked with dust, were stuck like glue to my eyeballs, and I could barely see. As I was beginning to think I might not be able to finish, Esquel came into view and the chalked arrows pointed the way to the hotel. I dropped into the couch in the lobby, completely spent, remembering the saying, "What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger." It could go either way tonight. I was absolutely exhausted, but I felt a sense of great pride in finishing the ride that had been the focus of my fears last fall. I had faced that demon without defeat!
Monday, January 19 Esquel to Tecka
I woke up, surprised to find that I felt fully recovered from yesterday’s century ride. The day was perfectly clear, the sky was blue to the point of distraction, the temperature was 70-something, and the wind was at our back. The deep green forest was replaced by terrain that reminded me of the desert southwest with rock formations and cliffs. Hugging the desert floor were shrubs covered with tiny flowers forming mounds of yellow. Fascinated by the scenery, I was surrounded by solitude, heading toward the remote village of Tecka.
At sundown we hiked to the top of a hill commemorating significant and painful events in Tehuelche history. A few lights dotted tiny streets, and I tried to imagine how it looked before electricity made its way south, just a little over a decade ago. Igor jokingly called the view "the grandeur of Tecka," but the description fit. Atop the hill that witnessed the unspeakable anguish of a people torn from their land in the name of progress, I could see for miles and miles the vastness of Patagonia in various shades of indefinite colors. Eventually we gazed at the southern cross that became visible among the stars. Barack Obama and the economic crisis, both of which had consumed my thoughts a couple of weeks ago, seemed to be in a universe apart. The Patagonian wind blew strong and steady from the west as it has for countless centuries, and I had the sense that I might have reached the edge of the world, or at least that it was somewhere nearby.
Tuesday, January 20 Tecka to Paso de Indios
A strong tailwind brought me to Paso de Indios from Tecka, over a hundred miles, in a little over 5 hours. What contrast to the century ride two days earlier. While riding at roughly the speed of the wind, I felt suspended in silence, rolling over the desert in a timeless state. Briefly, I considered asking Igor to take me back and let me do it again, because it was so pleasant. Then I realized how absurd that thought was and did not say it out loud! Can I ride it again? Did I just think that?
Ranch homes, marked by long rows of towering poplar trees to break the wind, were noticeable from miles away. Situated in this harsh and remote region was Paso de Indios, our destination for the night, and the site of the only gas stop for 100 miles. Having just bicycled the only paved road in Chubut, I was certain of that! Dinner was a Patagonian lamb asada hosted by proud members of the Tehuelche/Mapuche community. The asador received a round of applause for his skill in grilling the lamb, carefully split and staked, then cooked to perfection over the open fire, and served with vegetables, homemade breads, and fresh pear tarta.
Wednesday, January 21 Paso de Indios to Los Altares
We stopped at a local Estancia for a peek inside a fortress of towering poplars like those viewed from the highway for the past several days, and found a cool breath of greenness sheltered behind the windbreak. The lush lawn, roses, lavender, and lilacs were irrigated by a system that pumped water from a spring discovered after "weeping" rocks gave away its secret hiding place.
Our hosts were Irish descendants of John Daniel Evans who arrived on the Mimosa (a significance similar to our Mayflower) in the late 19th century. The faces of the ranchers were wrinkly and leathered from long years of life under harsh conditions, but beneath the toughened exterior existed an interior as surprising as the garden behind that enormous poplar barricade. Their eyes, as well as their stories, gave away their secret gentleness. Passionate about their regional history and the home they had struggled to build, they found contentment in artwork, rock hounding, and antiques. Their energy seemed to come from the land, rising up beneath the exhausted-looking shrubs and rocks, sustaining them completely. After tasting a platter of guanaco caught on their land and prepared fresh for us that morning, we went on our way, nourished as much by their anecdotes as by the food.
Thursday, January 22 Los Altares to Las Plumas
We began the day with a desert hike, walking over the Rio Chubut on a bridge built for ranchers. The sign stated a limit of 10 persons or 20 sheep or 1 horse at a time, but no limit for bicycles was posted. Then we walked through the arid, rocky region among wind-bitten shrubbery hunkered down, crouched low to the desert floor having trained themselves to survive unforgiving conditions, and I noticed the intensity of the sun, which seemed to soak through my shirt. I picked up a flat stone, resembling Africa on one side, but more like South America when reversed. I stuffed it into my jersey as a memory map marking the way for a return visit.
Traveling eastward, I have welcomed the persistent westerly winds of the past few days. Today, however, the windless sensation of biking with a tailwind left me longing for a slight cross breeze in the heat and gulping water all the way. Sweating in the silence, I entertained myself by naming rock formations. I searched for ostriches, listened for noisy cliff parrots, and watched for guanaco, but the wildlife, having learned the wisdom of afternoon siestas in the heat, kept a low profile and remained scarce.
The hot day was perfect to douse ourselves in the nearby Chubut River where the river current was even stronger than the wind, daring anyone to swim across the to the vine on the opposite bank before being swept downstream. It seemed irresistible to most of us.
Dinner, served ranch style, was a traditional asada, grilled by an asador whose physique indicated that he loved what he cooked. A local group of belly dancers unrolled a carpet onto the parking lot to make a stage and entertained us in flowing costumes, a colorful surprise at the end of a hot and dusty day.
Friday, January 23 Las Plumas to Dique Florentino Almeghino
Leaving Las Plumas behind, we rode toward Dique Florentino Almeghino, a dam built for flood control on the Rio Chubut. There was a 3 km gravelled descent down to the lake, I patted myself on the back for improved braking skills. The lake came into view suddenly at the dam, catching me off guard with its brilliant color against the huge red rock cliffs that walled up the deep blue waters. I stopped to take it in, then turned my concentration once again to the road, passing through a couple of tunnels on the way down to the resort town 40 meters below the dam. I took a long shower, celebrating the feeling that I was unquestionably stronger than I had been 2 weeks earlier. Where’d that come from?
The sun was intense and I found myself looking for shade as I explored the town. Several of us met for ice cream and opted for a float trip down the river, a leisurely ride through the scenic rocky canyon. I went overboard for a swim, but the temperature took my breath away. Flowing from 40 meters under the dam, the river was icy cold even in the heat of summer.
Saturday, January 24 Dique Florentino Almeghino to Gaiman
Today many of us found ourselves riding together and after finishing the ride to Gaiman, we celebrated the end of our last long ride. The hotel manager did not seem to mind the noisy laughter about our adventures.
Gaiman is a Welsh settlement with a tradition of tea in afternoon, and I had to remind myself that this was still South America. Javier shared mate as we explored the town, including the "Junk Museum," the creation of a gentleman who had spent a lifetime recycling plastic and glass bottles into "artwork" for his grandchildren and later for the public. Afterward, we went to dinner late (after 9:00) as is the custom in Argentina and celebrated Roger’s 40th birthday, family style. I felt a pang of regret that the expedition was coming to its end. We planned to ride our final leg to the Atlantic together to celebrate the journey.
Sunday, January 25 Gaiman to Playa Union
The last ride was so festive and beautiful, and the conditions could not have been more ideal. There had been a weather front that knocked out the power the day before, but it brought fresh, cool air … and a tailwind … for the day’s ride. All ten of us, bikers and guides, ate breakfast together, then posed with our bicycles for a group photo before starting this last ride that would bring us to the east side of South America. The hotel manager at Gaiman drove his 1952 Ford Pickup Truck, leading us through the countryside as a "pace car." We wound our way through the Chubut River valley, on a newly surfaced road through verdant sheep farms, a lush green contrast to the thirsty desert of recent days. The blue sky, the beach at the Atlantic, the soaring birds, the camaraderie of the bikers…everything came together to make it unforgettable. When we reached the Atlantic with those white waves on the blue waters, I didn’t know if I wanted to laugh or cry. I ate my empanadas. I took off my shoes. I walked into the ocean. There were other moments along the way that were perhaps more meaningful in terms of cultural experience or physical challenge…but none more memorable to me.