Patagonia - Part 5: Esquel, Bariloche, Ecolodge La Frontera & Temuco

October 19, 2018

Esquel, Chubut, Argentina

We spend the morning riding through purple mountains majesty, through thick forests reaching for the sky until they get to the treeline and can no longer grow, leaving jagged barren rock to touch it instead. By midmorning, we turn to follow the Futaleufú River and are back on the gravel. We meet a hitchhiker from Colorado who’s down here as a river guide. This area is known for its whitewater and as we cross bridges we peer down at emerald green rapids. Going up a steep hill, Hans gets caught in deep gravel and topples over. Joe has an incident in the same place. Fellow travelers help upright the bikes and we continue on to the small town of Futaleufú for lunch and eat more undersized hamburgers. Or maybe it’s just oversized bread—it’s hard to tell. It’s hot now and we shed layers and open up vents for the ride back into Argentina. The line at the Chilean aduana (customs) office isn’t too bad and we get to chat with a bunch of other motorcycle tourers on small-displacement (less than 400cc) adventure bikes, but the Argentine office has a line going out the door and then another 20 meters along the sidewalk to the parking lot. It’s hot and some of the people in line are rather … how shall I put this … ripe. We’re probably quite ripe too but just so used to our own smells that we can’t tell. We wait and wait and wait and the line finally moves enough for us to enter the building. The customs officers have their blank, show no-emotion faces on tightly; one of them even looks a bit perturbed at something, maybe us. The only one with a hint of a smile is the official portrait of the president of Chile hanging on the wall. After a protracted wait, we finally get our passports stamped and quickly get out of Dodge before one of them changes their mind.

 

We charge across the gravel until it turns to asphalt, and then we ride on the plains to Esquel, a nondescript little town with a couple of blocks of eating options within walking distance of our hotel. As a group, we decided several days ago to have meat while in Argentina and seafood while in Chile. Tonight, then, is a parrilla (barbecue grill place) Eduardo has picked out. The restaurant is nearly empty when we arrive around 7 p.m. but nearly full when we leave after 9. That’s just the way things are here. The food is abundant and tasty. So is the wine. We toast to another good day in Patagonia.

 

Bariloche, Río Negro, Argentina 

Diedrik is sporting a nice shirt and jeans as well as combed hair this morning. He’s got a date … with a judge. Yesterday, someone called the police claiming that Diedrik was driving through town recklessly. They obviously don’t know Diedrik like we know Diedrik, but he has to stay in town and sort things out. We leave and head out across featureless rolling plains beneath a gloomy, flat, gray sky. Traffic is very light and the roads are wide open. We leapfrog our way through the otherwise uneventful morning. I’m pensive during these workman miles. The end of the trip is in sight and, while none of us will cotton to it, I think we’re all a little road weary. We still ride with enthusiasm and joy and the banter continues unabated, but we are spending more time in our thoughts. I know I am. We’re like toddlers allowed to stay up late on Christmas Eve, playing and enjoying life even as our eyelids are getting heavy.

 

The skies clear as we approach the Andes again and enter Argentina’s oldest national park, Parque Nacional Nahuel Huapi. The mountains are thick with woods, the lakes are a deep vibrant cobalt, and the small towns are packed with vacationers. We ride on and enjoy the lush rolling landscape and peak-filled vistas until we get to San Carlos de Bariloche, a winter ski town and year-round chocolate haven. It’s easily the biggest town we’ve visited the whole trip so far and it’s crawling with tourists and backpackers. After parking the bikes in the hotel garage, we grab lunch and beers at an outdoor cafe and have the afternoon to explore the area. After so many days on the road and so many days in small towns, it’s a little overwhelming to be around so many people. I wander the crowded streets, check out the pretty Catedral Nuestra Señora del Nahuel Huapi (Cathedral of Our Lady of Nahuel Huapi), admire the distant mountains on the far side of Lago Nahuel Huapi (Lake Nahuel Huapi), and meander the pedestrian street filled with chocolate shops, souvenir joints, and guys offering to change money. Later that evening, we gather in the hotel lobby and walk to a late dinner. As we’ve done the whole trip—we share stories, laugh, and toast to another day in Patagonia.

 

Ecolodge La Frontera, Chile

 The day is already heating up as we battle traffic. Chris gets separated from the group but soon rejoins, and shortly after leaving Bariloche the road opens up. Compared to southern Patagonia, the traffic seems busy, but it’s easy to pick our way around the slower vehicles as we carve our way through the mountains, through the heavy woods and along the pristine deep blue lakes of the national park. At San Martín de Los Andes we sit outside for lunch in a restaurant filled with hikers, cyclists, and other motorcyclists. The sun is strong now and it finally feels like summer. Our conversation is centered on the dirt road ahead. People are telling us that it’s OK to the first lake but then it gets bad. Real bad, some say. It’s hard to tell whose opinions to trust, to know how bad it really is. But there really is no option—Hans and Thijs have an early plane to catch tomorrow and their pickup point cannot be changed. We finish lunch and head into the hills.

 

They were right about one thing - it was pretty easy to the first lake, except for the odd car around the blind corner, or that time we turned a corner and saw a pack of horses coming at us. Beyond, things get a little more challenging, but it’s not the sturm und drang that we were told it would be. The soil becomes silty and slippery, the blind corners become a little more blind, and the forest casts deep shadows that make it hard for me to see with my tinted visor. But that’s not the road’s fault. That’s not to say that it’s a bed of roses, either. Joe pulls over when the going gets rough; he’s been dealing with a failed front damper much of the trip and the gravel is punishing. He and Deidrik load the GS onto the trailer. Ted falls behind when his Guanaco won’t start after we stop for a break, but nobody notices him waving frantically. He catches up after bump-starting his bike. Then Eduardo’s front sprocket gives up sprocketing and he can’t climb a gentle hill. As he’s done reliably this entire trip, Diedrik shows up and they immediately get to replacing the sprocket. Finally, we get to the Argentine border crossing, little more than a couple of shipping containers in the middle of nowhere. We get our paperwork and passports stamped and then jump back on the bikes to ride through no-man’s land, this time over the thickly wooded Paso Carirriñe to Chile. The Chilean border—our last crossing—is constructed of shipping containers too. Much like the first day’s crossing, we have to unload the truck and have all the luggage inspected. But there are no X-ray machine here, so we have to open each bag. It goes quickly; after two weeks, we’re finally a well-oiled machine. From there, it’s a short trip to the Ecolodge La Frontera, nestled in a valley deep in the Andes. This is our last night as a complete group. Hans and Thijs are leaving early the next morning via truck in order to catch a flight. Neither of them had any dirt, gravel, or international riding experience when they arrived. Day after day they pushed their own personal thresholds farther than any of us. We raise our glasses to their perseverance and bid them farewell.

 

 

Temuco, Araucanía, Chile

Low clouds lick the mountaintops as  we warm up the Guanacos one final time. The screech of the starter, abrasive at the beginning of the trip, is now familiar, almost comforting. We never thought that this day would come … the last, bittersweet day.

 

We ride through small towns, past locals walking to church in their clean and freshly pressed Sunday clothes. We traipse between pavement and dirt, drinking in every last mile. To keep things interesting, I ride through a construction zone, several patches of gravel between stretches of pavement, and hit a gravel speed bump at full chatter. In my mind’s eye, I’m leaping into air—not unlike a guanaco—and landing with all of the grace of an Olympic figure skater. And that’s the story that I’d tell if it weren’t for Ted, who’s on my six and sees the whole sordid affair unfold in front of him. I won’t go into details, but rest assured there was nothing graceful about it.

 

Inevitably, ultimately, regrettably, we leave the wild places of Patagonia and get on the highway to Temuco, our final destination. It’s a bustling metropolis, but not too bustling—cows can be seen grazing in the fields by the airport. It’s crazy to think that this morning we were in as remote a place as we’ve been the whole trip, far away from paved roads, far away from internet access, a place where the green mountaintops kissed the clouds and touched the sky. And now we are in a city and it’s just one final meal, one final toast, and one final evening to share stories and laughs before we leave Patagonia. We raise our glasses high.

 

I sit on a plane and stare down at the Andes Mountains, tracing dirt roads as they wind their way across the hilly terrain, wondering where they lead, wondering what they’d be like to ride. And I think about all the roads we traversed, all the borders we crossed, all the places we saw. We made more memories in a day here than in a week of our so-called real lives back home. When we started the trip, many of us were strangers meeting each other for the very first time. All that connected me to the rest was a desire to see Patagonia from the seat of a motorcycle. But we’ve learned each other’s riding styles, learned a little about each other’s lives, shared stories of prior adventures, and shared experiences on this trip that we won’t soon forget. We’ll carry the memories of this trip with us for as long as our brains can hold them, and should we ever bump into each other again, we’ll be sure to share a smile, a laugh, and say, “Remember the cry of the Guanacos?” Until then, write it all down. Write it all down. 

 

Want to take this tour yourself? Visit www.bluerimtours.com for dates and details.

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