We have arrived in Ushuaia, Argentina, the southernmost city in the World, known to many as “The end of the World.” Although the road continues a bit further beyond the city where a few tiny villages can be found and an occasional ferry can be taken to islands further south than here, this is the ending point of our South American bike tour. It truly is amazing that we made it here given the amount of doubt and difficulties we faced along the way.
If I had to choose one word to describe the past 4 months it would be “challenging.” There was nothing easy about it, ever. We were terribly spoiled in the US with fabulous roads, comfortable weather, gentle terrain, endless conveniences and accommodating people and our biggest mistake was arriving in South America expecting a significantly down-graded, yet similar experience. This is, after all, an extremely popular place to bicycle tour, but how naive we were to think such things! It was an endless battle of extremes that tested us in every way imaginable. Physically we faced the daunting and often times, seemingly impossible task of crossing the Andes. There were climbs that were so insanely steep and long that it took us literally all day to complete one mountain pass. Socially it was challenging not knowing Spanish, making it impossible to have conversations with locals and whenever we tried to ask questions, rather than getting a simple answer to the simple question that we asked, like how many kilometers to the next place we can fill up water, we'd get a lecture where there was never any mention of a distance of any sort that lasted 15 minutes and we didn't understand a single word spoken to us. But most of all it was a test of our mental toughness. Dealing with the monotony of the endless, barren landscapes, injuries, grungy, run-down towns in disrepair, crummy roads, the lack of fresh fruits and veggies, insane winds, swarms of tabanos, the unavailability of showers for weeks at a time and an overall, ever-present feeling of discomfort really takes a toll on a person's mind. It will drive you crazy if you let it. There were many battles that we lost, situations and circumstances that brought each of us, at times, to utter rage, tears and wanting nothing more than to flat out quit. Fortunately we complimented each other perfectly. When I was screaming and crying about something that I hated or my incompetence at riding off road, Mike was calm, let me blow off my steam and reassured me that by slowing down we'd make it. When Mike was fed up with the tabanos, wind or was finally taken to his breaking point with dealing with the washboard roads, I had come to accept those obstacles and was able to keep my cool while he questioned our sanity.
There were many, many times we both were almost certain we wouldn't make it to Ushuaia. There was too much stress, all too often feeling miserable and not enough fun, comfortable and easy moments. I don't know why there is such an allure to ride to Ushuaia, but there is. That and our stubbornness kept us going and we're happy we didn't break down, give up on South America and go somewhere else or give up on bike touring altogether and go home. There are many things from our time here that I will not miss. I am more than happy to be getting away from the incessant honking horns and outrageous driving; cars in the cities speeding through intersections, honking instead of slowing down, terrifying truck drivers, whom my hatred intensified towards daily, whizzing down the highway without moving over and blasting their horn right when they were even with our ears. I will not miss the lack of fresh food available to markets. We ate a ton of carrots, potatoes and onions, which was essentially the only “vegetables” available. It amazed me that we could walk into a grocery store and find crates full of wilted produce, looking like it had been sitting in a compost pile for a week, far beyond the point of being consumable. Also the fact that the prices of things were never posted, anywhere, so we were never certain that we were paying the same price as the locals or paying double because we were tourists. People here love their televisions and radios and they want the whole world to hear it. Whether we were in a restaurant, store, someone's house, on a bus or in a hotel, one or the other was always blaring at a deafening volume, so loud that it was difficult to have a conversation with someone standing next to you without yelling at the top of your lungs. It drove me crazy that there was never silence. We will not miss the inconsistency of information. Ferry or bus timetables would tell you departure dates and times but when you'd arrive, ready to go, only then would you be informed that the ferry wasn't running that day or it was leaving 10 hours later than posted. Or it just didn't show up and there was never an explanation. Then there were the road signs. We'd pass one that said the next town was 150 km away, the second we'd pass would tell us it was 98 even though we had only gone 10 since the last sign and the next could quite possibly state it was 200 km to the town. What the heck? Who's taking these measurement and putting up these road signs? We never knew when we'd get the next town and our map wasn't much better at providing that information either. The final thing we won't miss is the lack of cleanliness and state of disrepair of this place. At one time, streets were paved, sidewalks were made, buildings were newly and nicely built with functioning and clean facilities. But it seemed as though that was as far as anything ever went. They were built and then left to break down and deteriorate without anyone ever paying attention to them. Streets were crumbling, sidewalks had gaping holes, covered by a an old sheet of plywood waiting for someone to fall into, businesses that were jam packed full of customers, clearly making a profit, yet every surface was so grimy that you didn't dare touch anything, showers didn't drain, doors had broken handles and the list or simple repairs goes on, leaving us wondering why nothing was ever maintained.
Of course there are plenty of things we will miss as well. We will miss the reasonable prices of everything, a few dollars could go a long way. It wasn't insanely inexpensive to travel here, but more so than in the US and probably anywhere else we decide to go. We will miss these lemon cookies we discovered in the supermarkets. They were crunchy yet melted in your mouth and every time we found a market that sold them, we'd stock up, buy 4, 5, 6 packages and uncontrollably chow through them in no time. They were oh-so good! I will miss the panaderias, the smell of fresh baked bread and buying homemade bread almost daily. South Americans love their bread. And then the avocados to go with it. We've never had such consistently perfect avocados, nor have I ever consumed so many of them, eating them almost every day of our trip. But mostly we will miss the vast openness, the rural and undeveloped land that we rode through. It was wonderful being able to ride for days without seeing more than a few houses spread over the plains, or through the mountains where there are no people, only wild, untouched nature, pristine, quiet, vast and beautiful.
Now that we are done cycling here, we've had some time to reflect back on the experience, look at our pictures and remember our journey through South America. Like any endurance activity, the path to the finish line is often long and painful, forcing you to question why you would willingly put yourself through such torture. But then you achieve your goal and realize exactly why. The undesirable moments quickly fade, you forget the times you were miserable, or at least in retrospect they don't seem all that horrible and you realize just how far the human spirit can be stretched. All that remains are the millions of times we smiled and laughed per every one bad experience, the fabulous memories of a once-in-a-lifetime adventure and the invaluable lessons we've learned about ourselves, the world and life. We've asked ourselves if we'd recommend bike touring in South America to other people or if we, ourselves, would do it again. The answers are yes, in a heartbeat. However, I would recommend doing things a little differently than we did, like riding a mountain bike with front suspension and beefy tires, learning to speak Spanish (very well) before starting out because it will make the whole experience much more rich on a social and cultural level, sticking to safe countries because there is a direct correlation with safety and enjoyment and most importantly expecting and accepting the fact that it will not be easy or comfortable.
So here we are the finish line of another chapter, in somewhat of a state of disbelief, thrilled to have made it, in ways sad that it's over yet terribly excited about the next phase of life on a bike. We have another month remaining in South America where we will travel without our bikes with Mike's parents (we're looking forward to cruising around in a car for a while!) and then we're off to Japan to continue the bicycle tour in a world very different from where we've been these past few months. So stay tuned...the adventure goes on.