Patagonia - Part 3: Perito Moreno Glacier, Estancia Santa Thelma & Puerto Guadal
Perito Moreno Glacier
In the morning, we spend a half-hour getting gas. It’s not uncommon to find long lines at gas stations in Patagonia; sometimes the station’s tanks are empty and people have to wait for gas to be delivered. We’re lucky this morning, it’s just a line. Bikes topped off, we leave El Calafate and ride alongside the deep turquoise Lago Argentino, a long, thin, glacier-fed lake that is so vivid it looks like someone took a photo and turned the saturation up to 11. The source of the water, the Perito Moreno Glacier, is our day trip.
The landscape is barren and cold, and I wait impatiently for the morning sun to peak over the distant hills and warm the land. I brought some colder weather gear with me (for high 40s/low 50s riding) but it’s been cold longer than I expected.
The park road winds along the southern arm of the lake and then rounds a bend to reveal the Perito Moreno Glacier. It’s still a good distance away, so it doesn’t look all that big, but you can tell that it fills the broad valley between several mountains. We get closer and board a tour boat that glides alongside the terminus, a wall of ice three miles long and more than 200 feet high, with fissures and cracks along the face and white slivers of ice reaching skyward. I’m taking pictures of one end of the glacier when I hear a cheer rise throughout the boat and glance up just in time to see a large chunk of ice slough off and calve into the water.
Back on the bikes, we head over to the other face of the glacier for a picnic lunch on the rocky shore of the still impossibly turquoise Lago Argentino and then climb the extensive system of stairs and walkways to get a closer view of the glacier. It looks even bigger than before, or maybe it’s just that we look tiny beside it. Same difference. We head back to El Calafate. After a nice dinner and toasting to another memorable day, we get some helado and then get a good night’s sleep.
Estancia Santa Thelma, Gobernador Gregores, Argentina
There’s a chill in the morning air as we load up the truck with our luggage and start up the bikes. The fuel-injected BMWs spring to life but the carbureted Guanacos require some coaxing. After a couple of days on the road, I’ve learned my particular Guanaco’s preferences—no choke, a light touch on the throttle, a long press of the starter button, and some verbal encouragement. The starter churns and wails for seconds, a plaintive, scratchy, metallic sound, until the engine springs to life. This is “the cry of the guanaco.”
We ride on Argentina’s Ruta 40 through some of the most desolate parts of our journey, across plains of brown, patchy, ankle-high grasses, up and around low, flat, tabletop mesas, and alongside fast moving, snow melt rivers. It feels a bit like the American West here, except more barren. Two cars in an hour counts as traffic.
There’s a gas station at Tres Lagos, a petroleum oasis in the middle of nowhere, where Diedrik performs some on-the-road maintenance while others fill their tanks, snack, and chat with fellow motorcycle adventurers from Brazil on their way down to Ushuaia. Like all modern adventurers, they place stickers on the nearly filled window to mark their passing and share their Instagram account. I pause for a moment to take off my 18-pound backpack, lean against a wall, close my eyes, and feel the warm sun wash over me.
Up next is a 44-mile stretch of dirt with what we’ve been told are deep patches of gravel. They weren’t kidding, especially if you deviate from the line established by other vehicles. In a moment of inattention, I wander and the deep gravel grabs my front wheel and throws me and the Guanaco to the ground. Hans, who was riding ahead of me, loops back when he realizes that I’m no longer in his mirrors, and helps extricate me from beneath the bike. Besides a small hole in my pant leg and a snapped boot clasp, I am unscathed. The Guanaco suffers some minor flesh wounds and a broken radiator bracket that Eduardo will fix later with zip ties and bailing wire. But for now, it’s rideable.
I’m not the only one caught out. A bit farther up the road, we pause for a truck and wounded trailer. Half of the trailer axle is ripped from its mounts by the rough road. But faster than you can say “Team Canada,” Ted and Dennis jump off their bikes, assess the problem, and get tools handed to them as they lean over and lie beneath the trailer, repositioning the axle and jerry-rigging tow straps to hold it in place. It’s an act of great charity, but being a humble Canadian, Dennis simply says, “You just don’t leave someone stranded out there in the middle of nowhere.”
Our reward for a long day in the saddle is Estancia Santa Thelma, an old ranch that’s been converted to a rustic bed and breakfast. Herded to a large table beneath a sprawling shade tree, we sit on sheepskins as someone starts opening bottles of beer for us with a machete. The French couple running the estancia are straight from central casting for the French version of Green Acres—he, wiry and tall in farm boots and a tilted beret, and she, a tall, slim, blonde in an angora sweater, and a city sophisticate (she misses the Paris art scene). Dinner tonight is served in the barn on a long table, surrounded by animal skins, horns, and empty bottles of wine lining the walls. We toast to another unforgettable day, chow down, and add more than a few empty bottles to the walls.
Puerto Guadal, Chile Chico, Chile
In the morning, we cross a 100-mile stretch of dry featureless land. Hans, Thijs, and I ride as a trio, taking turns at the front to draft against the ever-present wind and to stave off boredom. At Bajo Caracoles, we refuel our bikes, chat with other two-wheeled travelers, and sit down for a simple lunch. Afterward, we head north and then turn off a perfectly good, billiard-table- smooth road and onto the gravel again, on a tiny road that winds its way up into the mountains. It’s a roller coaster, with blind crests leading to who knows what—sometimes a sharp downhill left, sometimes a sharp downhill right, sometimes a jaw-dropping vista, and always a rush of adrenaline. After a morning of tentative riding, I loosen up and let the Guanaco dance. Lyndon is behind me when I head down a hill and lock the rear tire as I take evasive maneuvers around a foot-deep, 10-foot-long gash in the dirt. I think it’s graceful, but Lyndon disagrees.
Slowly the air warms and moistens and the land turns green. Low scraggly shrubs emerge from the red soil, then grasses and trees, and eventually woods. We’re strung out along the road and a handful miss the turn for the border crossing. It’s a bit like herding cats. Chris and Martin have a lot of dirt riding experience and are always at the front, while Hans and his son Thijs have none and often ride sweep. Everyone else is somewhere in between. A group of us head to the Argentina border and wait for the others to arrive.
The Argentina crossing is a tiny brick building sitting in a narrow valley surrounded by sharp-edged peaks. Chickens wander around a small satellite dish; I don’t think they have passports. One at a time we enter the dimly lit room and sit on a hard, wooden chair across from two customs officers while the official portrait of the President of Argentina, Mauricio Macri, looks down upon us with his perpetual half smile. The officers wear well-practiced masks of bureaucratic solemnity, and fearful of sparking an international incident, I play it straight and they do too. The fellows outside—one guy in a loose-fitting uniform (I think it’s his job to stop an invasion from Chile) and another guy with a soccer ball (I’m not quite sure what his job is)—are more conversational, but just. Under different circumstances I can see all of us sitting around a table drinking cheap beer, telling stories, and laughing, but there’s something about border crossings that are just so … serious.
Regrouped, we cross no-man’s land to Chile, whose border office is a bit bigger, and instead of chickens they have kittens. They don’t have passports either, but they lighten up the joint. Otherwise, when you sit in the lobby and fill out the entry forms in duplicate, there’s nothing within eyesight that suggests you’re in the 21st century; it feels like 1975. I watch the officer stamp and sign 50 million documents before handing my passport back.
It’s a winding dirt road to our port of call this evening, and I get stuck behind a giant white tour bus kicking up a category-1 cloud of dust. It’s moving with some brio so I back off and let it careen in front of me. I catch up with the group again and Eduardo tries his hand at passing the white bus, but it deliberately drifts over, reducing Eduardo’s passing lane from around five feet to three. He wisely backs off and we get to our night’s accommodations intact. Before dinner, we sit on the main deck of Terra Luna Lodge, the calm, deep blue waters of Lago Gral Carrera framed by the angular, snow-draped Andes, and raise our beers to another great day.
We get a day off the bikes and the bikes get a day’s rest from us. In addition to the redline abuse we’ve heaped upon them, the gravel roads are tough on the Guanacos and BMWs. The gritty dust kicked up by the bikes and other vehicles finds its way into everything, the long miles on gravel chews up the tires, and when we hit the corrugated/washboard gravel, it’s like holding onto a paint mixer at the hardware store. Thank goodness Diedrik and Eduardo know their way around a toolbox and have a day to do some needed maintenance and tire swapping.
In the afternoon, Eduardo, Thijs, and I join Chris and Joe on a helicopter tour. We zoom into the mountains, land on a giant iceberg in the middle of a glacial lake, and then fly along a glacier and land at its source at the top of a mountain. It felt, as Chris and Joe said, like being on top of the world.
To be continued...
Want to take this tour yourself? Visit www.bluerimtours.com for dates and details.