Patagonia - Part 2: Puerto Natales, Parque Nacional Torres del Paine & El Calafate

Puerto Natales, Última Esperanza, Chile

​The sky spits at us in fits and starts as we leave Porvenir but not enough to tamp down the blinding dust that makes passing all but impossible. We pick our spots though and manage to work our way around the smattering of cars and construction vehicles on the gravel road. We skirt alongside the Strait of Magellan as sheep and guanaco graze on the scrubby roadside brush. The sheep scurry off at the first sound of the bikes, but the guanacos wait longer before jumping over low fences to safety, their heads remaining level as their long necks and bodies bound beneath them.

By the time we catch the ferry across the Strait of Magellan, the clouds clear to reveal a sky of deep cerulean blue. The water is calm and the crossing is peaceful. Many moons ago in grade school I wrote a book report about Ferdinand Magellan, the Portuguese explorer who led the first circumnavigation of the world and along the way colonized my ancestral homeland (the Philippines) in the name of King Philip II of Spain. It’s crazy to think that nearly 500 years ago he sailed these very same waters.

The roads in this part of Chile are as smooth as mantequilla (butter) and practically empty. We run the Guanacos flat out across the broad, windswept plains to keep pace with the BMWs. When I am in a full aerodynamic tuck, my Guanaco pulls enthusiastically to 70 mph, doggedly to 80 mph, and stubbornly to 90 mph. Beyond that, things start to go all Millennium Falcon as time and space begin to distort, and at around 95 mph my Guanaco shakes so violently that every screw and bolt threatens to back out in a mass revolt. In an act of self-preservation, I roll off just enough to keep the bike in one piece.

We cover ground quickly but drink a lot of gas. One by one, the Guanacos sputter to a stop and we stand on the roadside scratching our heads until we remember to flip the tank valve to Reserve. For many of us, it’s been a long time since we’ve had to do that. For good measure we tilt the bikes and slosh the gas over to the left/intake side of the translucent tanks and continue on. A couple of the BMWs run out too, and one by one we wait on the side of the road for Diedrik and Eduardo in the sag truck. They have the gas cans.

​​ It starts to rain just as the road leaves the plains for greener foothills. We arrive in Puerto Natales on a gust of wind. Several gusts, actually. It’s so windy here that as people walk and bicycle along the shore they grimace and hunch over as the wind pulls at their clothes and threatens to toss their bikes into the sea. It’s so windy here, in fact, that the town has more or less turned its back on the scenic waterfront, placing its town square and downtown farther up the hill and away from the stiff breeze that comes off the water. We end the day with surprisingly good pizzas (at Base Camp, a joint owned by Americans), beers, wine, and toasts to another adventurous day.

Parque Nacional Torres del Paine, Magallanes Region, Chile

The windy and winding road to Parque Nacional Torres del Paine cuts across fields of green and gold bordered by soft, green mountains. The road turns left and becomes gravel as it points straight up a long, steep hill. My Guanaco scrambles for traction on the corrugated gravel, digs in, then vaults ahead of struggling cars before hitting the next plateau. The next several miles across wide open grasslands are a curious mix of pavement interrupted by short 100- to 200-meter sections of gravel. After a while, I stop slowing down for the gravel bits. And then I start accelerating over them, letting the Guanaco float across to the next stretch of asphalt.

The pavement eventually ends and we ride alongside impossibly blue lakes and the sharp-edged silhouettes of the Andes. Every mile brings us deeper into the park and closer to the snow-capped mountains until they fill our visors and tilt the road skyward. The gravel road dips and climbs and weaves from one jaw-dropping vista to the next, and it’s hard to choose between going quickly and reveling in the road or going slowly and taking it all in. It’s blustery and cold and we seek shelter in a campsite lean-to for our picnic lunch before turning around and riding through the majesty all over again. Chris and Ted forge ahead. I ride slower on the way back to appreciate the view. The skies clear as we leave the park, and Thijs and I find his father Hans sitting on the side of the road at the edge of a big field with a flat front tire. Like a personal roadside assistance program, Diedrik and Eduardo show up and fix it. We head back to Puerto Natales and share stories of what we saw. I have guanaco for dinner. It doesn’t taste like chicken.

El Calafate, Santa Cruz, Argentina

We wake to good news: Lyndon’s BMW is repaired. Back on his Guanaco, Eduardo leads us out of Puerto Natales, back into Argentina, and onto Ruta 40, the longest route in Argentina and at over 3,100 miles long, one of the longest roads in the world. In some places it’s a proper highway, but here in southern Argentina it’s more often than not a gravel road.

We ride under the skies of giants, beneath clouds that sometimes are a steely gray and at other times look like cotton candy. The land is as big as the sky, a rolling steppe that stretches to the far horizons. We stop for gas at a station whose picture windows are covered with the stickers of past travelers. We add our own stickers to the collection and head back onto the gravel.

The gravel eventually ends, putting us back on perfectly smooth tarmac. After stopping to take photos, I remount my Guanaco and rush to catch up. Tucked behind the windscreen and with the throttle pinned, I see a bike on the horizon and slowly catch up to Joe on his GS. He’s loafing along effortlessly with a Go-Pro in one hand and one foot resting on a crash bar like a highway peg. I, on the other hand, tuck in my elbows, stretch the throttle cable, and hold on as my Guanaco thumpers past. The road climbs a sandy landscape in a series of gentle curves to a panorama of the Santa Cruz River Valley. We stop to admire the vastness. Chris, Ted, and Martin pose for a photo. I ask them to look at the valley with awe; they say “Aww” repeatedly as if they’re watching a cat video. The road drops down into the valley and we arrive in El Calafate in the early afternoon. It’s a touristy town thanks to the nearby Perito Moreno Glacier, and the main drag is filled with restaurants, tour outfits, souvenir shops, and helado (ice cream) shops. In the waning hours of the day we have a wonderful dinner at a parilla (barbecue) restaurant with big picture windows and a commanding view of the sunset.

To be continued...

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