We took our fourth and final ferry across the Strait of Magellan from Punta Arenas to Tierra del Fuego which will be the final segment of our South American journey. Once again we were the only cyclists on board and have been surprised at the lack of bike tourers we've seen along the way. We were expecting to see hordes between the Carretera and Ushuaia but have only briefly encountered about 2 dozen, all but 4 heading in the opposite direction as us, which only gave us the opportunity to chat and exchange logistical information for a few minutes before going our separate ways.
We were not entirely enthused about riding Tierra del Fuego because of the abundant bad reviews that had been passed on to us from other cyclists heading north. "It is nothing but pampa. There is nothing; no houses, no people, no trees. Pampa, pampa, pampa. It's horribly windy and the section of road that's gravel is crap." (Finally someone told us a gravel road was is a condition other than "good.") Needless to say, with reviews like that, we arrived to the island with pretty low expectations.
Much to our surprise we found Tierra del Fuego to be an incredible section of riding, which undoubtedly had a direct correlation to the weather. I'm positive that, had we been riding in the other direction, we too would have felt frustrated and miserable, looked bedraggled and had an opinion similar to everyone else who had to battle the wind across the pampa. Warm, sunny days and a wind that, more often than not, helped us more than it hurt us, made the gravel road seem not too bumpy and the endless pampa seem pleasant and beautiful.
Trying not to get blown off the sign.
The western side of the island was extremely desolate with very little traffic and only an occasional rancher's house set way off of the road. There were a whopping 2 clusters of trees in the first 150 miles and we were smart enough to stop at the first one we saw to camp rather than pushing on and ending up unable to find a place out of the wind. Other than those groups of trees, the pampa was an endless vista of rolling hills, small shrubs, rocks and fields of grasses of varying shades of yellows, greens, purples and reds that contrasted beautifully with the brilliant blue sky, made a soothing swooshing sound and looked somewhat like a choppy, though mis-colored, lake on a windy day. We saw more guanacos on Tierra del Fuego than we've seen on our entire trip. Herds of them could be spotted, often times very close to the road and those that didn't take off running towards the horizon as we approached either stood frozen and stared at us or galloped alongside of us, parallel to the road, keeping pace with their awkward gait until they got bored and watched us disappear over a hill.
Cari on the pampa.
We had very interesting and noteworthy accommodations for our middle 3 nights on the island. It is half Chilean and half Argentinian and by the time we reached the Argentine border crossing the wind was howling, we were told there was nothing for the next 60 miles, we knew we couldn't make it to the next town and so we asked the border patrols if we could camp there. They were wonderfully friendly, showed us to the waiting room which was complete with bathrooms and a kitchenette and told us we could sleep there for the night. It was perfect so we set up our tent inside the room for a little privacy from all of the people going in and out all night and called it home.
Camping at the border.
In the town of Rio Grande we found a couchsurfing host to stay with, enjoyed the luxuries of a shower, bed and kitchen and were hugely entertained by 18-year old Miyan who is a magician. He's the only one on the island and a rather good one as well. We're looking forward to seeing him again in Ushuaia where he works at a bar that we'll have to visit for a celebratory drink.
Miyan, the magician.
About 100 kilometers from Ushuaia there is a little village called Tolhuin. We had seen signs for its panaderia (bread shop/bakery) ever since leaving Rio Grande and were also informed by other cyclists that it's a must stop. Having a desired destination made for a somewhat long day of riding by the rewards at the end were well worth it. We could smell the fresh baked bread wafting throughout the streets long before we arrived. Inside was packed with eager customers checking out the room filled with various tropical birds (very random) and buying homemade chocolates, pastries, empanadas, cookies and breads. We indulged ourselves in perhaps a few too many empanadas and treats but they were so good we simply couldn't resist. The owner of the baker is a cyclist himself and though there is no advertising, only word of mouth, he has built a small bunk room in one of his warehouses where bike tourists can stay for free when passing through. We parked our bikes in the store room amidst the 110-pound bags of flour, boxes of cooking oil and shelves of eggs, sugar and various other baking supplies. Next to the bedroom was one of the kitchens where someone was frying empanadas for most of the night so we got to enjoy the fabulous smell of fried food as we drifted off to sleep. The hospitality was fabulous, the staff was extremely friendly and even though at that point there was plenty of trees and opportunity for wild camping, I would highly recommend staying at La Union Panaderia for the night.
Staying at the panaderia.
As we continued to ride southward and back west towards Ushuaia the terrain transitioned from pampa to patches of moss-covered trees to big mountains and forests. Our final 2 days (which we turned in to 3 days because we're so far ahead of schedule) were absolutely spectacular, rivaling the beauty on the Carretera Austral. Tierra del Fuego has been spectacular and an awesome place to end our South American bike tour.