Saturday, February 18, 2012

Travelers on the Road to El Calafate Oct 27-30

Our night of revelry in Trevelin was not without consequences, but luckily we hadn't been planning on an early morning departure (imagine that...) Once we did get up and around, it was back through Esquel and southeast toward Commodoro Rivadavia, all the way across the country, and most of the way across the continent. Luckily, this far south that's not really all that far. Our next actual goal was El Calafate glacier, around 880 miles away, so we checked the maps for good stopping points and set out.

I guess it's still kind of far...if you're not used to riding 500 miles a day...
I made this little map to show what we were up to. We started out for Comodoro Rivadavia at around 11am, for an easy 320 mile ride to the other coast. We would arrive at a decent hour, spend the night there, and ride to Rio Gallegos the next day - a short ~500 mile jaunt along what was rumored to be the windiest stretch on the continent. On the third day, we would ride the last 160 or so miles to El Calafate, to see the glacier. This route was as circuitous as it looks, and yes, there is a road that goes straight in between. Route 40 would have taken us right along the eastern edge of the Chilean Andes, close to the famed Torres' del Paine range and through some of the most remote, breathtaking territory in the western hemisphere. It is also known for it's outrageous winds and horrendous road conditions. A fresh, first hand account from another motorcycle traveler near Esquel sealed the deal for us.

"500 miles unpaved, very few other vehicles, very little gas, 60 mph cross winds and six inch deep tire ruts with softball sized rocks on each side."


I'm sure it would have been amazing, and people who had done it in 4x4s have told us as much, but six months into a largely problem free trip, two up on an 800 pound bike, was not the time to push our luck. The riding between Comodoro Rivadavia and Rio Gallegos made us feel even better about our decision to take the flat, straight paved road...

TREACHEROUS CONDITIONS (not pictured - 60mph crosswind)
The wind was at our back as we headed east for most of the day, but when we turned south we got a taste of what awaited us further south - the notorious Patagonian wind. As we approached Comodoro the Atlantic ocean came into view, a common sight in Central America, but one which we had not seen since July, in Columbia. We quickly found the downtown but finding a place to stay was another story. The only reasons people come to Patagonia are mining and tourism, and lodging comes at a premium. We spent an hour talking to every hotel in town, and finally broke down and paid the $50 it seemed to cost. The "El Refugio" motel was back out on the highway, and turned out to be about the best appointed room we had on the trip - WiFi, Cable, great beds, a BATHTUB with HOT WATER, the list goes on... The next morning we were well rested and ready to continue south down the east coast. As we were filling up I saw a rather strange looking machine - it had all of the makings of a Suzuki DR650, but something was a bit strange...oh, that's an eight gallon BMW GS fuel tank. Inside the station we found Wilson, an Irish adventurer and inventor of this Suzuki DRGS 650 Adventure. It turned out that he was heading south as well, so we set out toward Rio Gallegos together.

Wilson, a fellow traveler
A strange resemblance? Maybe it's just the helmet head...

That day the road might as well have been I-70 through Kansas, perfect pavement, great visibility and straight, straight, straight. By 11am things had started to change, though. The wind was coming up, and it's power had Wilson and I, both seasoned riders, sweating and fighting to stay on the road. Jill and I had been impressed and a little unnerved by the wind in the northern Peruvian desert, but it had NOTHING on the wind in Patagonia. For most of the afternoon it came from our right, constantly threatening to blow us into the steady stream of semi trucks coming the other way. We spent most of the day going between 40 and 50, and even at those speeds I was leaning and turning so hard into it that the front tire was on the edge of losing traction; there were times I HAD to go into the other lane to avoid leaning so hard that the front tire slid out. I still can't believe it, and looking back it was easily the most dangerous day of the trip and probably our lives. But we're alive, so there's no need to talk about that! 

The wind was taking a toll in more ways than one, and all day I watched in horror as the notches on the gas gauge disappeared at nearly twice their normal rate. Fighting the wind was costing us serious fuel consumption, and between Fitz Roy and Tres Cerros, for the first and only time on the trip, we RAN OUT OF GAS. Not in Colombia, not in Peru, not lost on a sandy back road in Bolivia. Well, at least I got to use the spare gas we had been hauling around for the last 3,000 miles, and it was plenty to get us the remaining 30 miles to the station. Wilson was right behind us too, and his backup was a luxury we hadn't known since we last saw Andy and Cass in Peru. Miss you guys! Anyway, at 40 miles an hour the 500 miles to Rio Gallegos wasn't happening, especially considering that my arms (and everyone's nerves) were like jelly after about 200. It was getting dark by the time we hit 300 miles, and it was time for gas yet again. At the YPF station in Comandante Luis Piedrabuena ("Commander Louis of the good stone?") the attendant told us that there was a great free campground five miles up the road. We checked it out, and it was great. The official camping season didn't start until the next day, so it was open, but free instead of $15 a person. The first free lodging since Costa Rica! We set up camp next to Wilson and we all crashed out early in hopes of beating the wind in the morning. 
Cherry Blossoms! 

Free camping, but B.Y.O.C.P. (Bring Your Own Communist Propaganda)
After a good night's rest we were off again, and so was the wind. It was pretty much as bad as the previous day, but we didn't really have any choice. Rio Gallegos was only another 200 miles, so we set to it and were there by two. At that point we bid farewell to Wilson, as he was continuing south for Ushuaia, and we were turning northwest for El Calafate. The days were getting pretty long, so we figured we could hang around Rio Gallegos for a few hours, and try to make the 164 mile ride to El Calafate in the early evening, after the wind had died down. It was time for an oil change again, so we started looking around town, and eventually found the Honda dealer. I bought four quarts of oil for $15US each, and when I asked about getting it changed, the owner told me that he could do it in four days, and it would only cost $140US for labor.

"Thanks anyway, is there anywhere I could do it myself?"

"Oh, sure, go on back in the shop and do it!"

Well, that was easy enough!

It was sort of a shop...but it worked.  Last oil change of the trip! 
Alright, new oil and filter, $60 lighter, let's finally head for the glacier!

Waiting for the wind to die down actually worked pretty well, and suited our particular sleeping habits much better than trying to get out ahead of the wind in the morning. Halfway to El Calafate we stopped for gas and saw this monstrous camper:

Which I will write about in the very near future, I promise!