Cycling to the End of the World: One Massive Glacier and The Land of Fire

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Perrito Moreno glacier

Punta Arenas marks the end of continental South America. Beyond it lies the island of Tierra del Fuego – the Land of Fire – so named for the rising smoke that the settlers spotted upon arrival. By this point all of Patagonia’s greatest hits are behind you. Beyond lies only pampa, bone shaking wind and sadness. Excusing penguin enthusiasts and masochists, to brave this island and continue to Ushuaia is an act of ego (“I cycled to the end of the world”), lack of independent thought (“everyone else goes to Ushuaia…”) or something done simply because it’s there, like eating that final slice of pizza against your better judgement when you’re already stuffed. As an egotistical, penguin loving conformist who always drinks one too many, how could I say no?

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But backtracking a bit first I had to visit this gigantic glacier called The Little Brown Dog. Woof.
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Nico and Daniella were the best hosts and were so kind, offering me all sorts of stuff and only asking me to walk their dog in return.

Walking a stranger’s dog in a strange town is an unusual experience. You’re paranoid that something terrible will happen to the dog while simultaneously being dragged down the kind of streets a tourist never normally walks. Me and Ren made our way past weekend revelers drinking on the corner, teenagers playing football in the park and someone watching porn on a 50″ TV in their living room. Good times.

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From El Calafate I was back into the windy pampa…
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…with nothing for company but guanacos (pictured) and hundred of orange caterpillars – fuzzy fingers with a death wish inching their way across the road.
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After a night at El Cerrito – which is basically a warehouse run by a bloke who has clearly become jaded by the hundreds of cyclists that ask to camp outside – I took a gravel shortcut. “WELCOME TO HELL”
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This 65km road got pretty rough at times. About half way through the tailwind became a headwind and I was glad to reach…
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…this little petrol station. But it was only 2 o clock so, despite being knackered, I decided to push on directly into the wind towards the Chilean border. While the wind was strong I knew it could get a lot worse if I waited around.
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By the time I reached Cerro Castillo 5 hours later I was borderline catatonic.

At the border control:

“Do you have any fruits or vegetables?”
“Nah just noodles”
“No wonder you look like such a noodle”

For ages I’d had an emergency $20 bill in my passport. I got it out to exchange at the border as I was fresh out of Chilean pesos. While the woman processed my details I put it down on the counter and stared like a zombie at the Shakira video on the TV which, after almost 11 hour on the bike, I found completely mesmerizing. I walked out and cycled down the road before after 30 seconds I realised I’d forgotten my money and went back to retrieve it. Only it wasn’t there any more. After 10 months on the road I’d finally been robbed, and by a border guard too. Bet it was that prick that called me a noodle.

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At least I got some snug free accommodation at the bus stop waiting room. When I awoke I thought I must’ve slept in as it was so bright outside. Turns out it was 5.30am.
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The winds were indeed brutal the following day and I was extremely glad when the road curved south and dipped down into a calm valley. From that point on my only issue was cow traffic jams.
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Before long I rolled into the very Oregonian town of Puerto Natales. I really liked the town which, despite being touristy, had a lot of character.
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There I hooked up for the 3rd time with my cyclist mates Tony and Sarah who introduced me to their friend Bill who runs the excellent hostel Erratic Rock. A consummate gent, Bill invited me over to have breakfast at the hostel 2 days in a row. If you’re ever in Puerto Natales pay him a visit.
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90km of tasty tailwind later I camped with an old french cyclist on a recumbent bike (the French love ’em – I’ve met like 8 recumbent Frenchies) and an old German bloke. 3 European strangers sharing a barn in the middle of nowhere.
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Wait in style.
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The next day the wind got really rough and started pushing me into the road so I hitched the last 100km to Punta Arenas. I’d come too far to die so close to the end. I got picked up by Jose “Nahoko” Marquez – a mini bus driver whose life’s purpose is to improve that of others. Amazing guy.
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Punta Arenas was alright.
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Hosteria Independencia was run by a really cool guy who ran around like a Duracell bunny and was packed to the brim with French people.
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I aimlessly wandered around the town and found myself in a museum. My favourite part was the bath which I stared at for a good minute trying to remember what it was like to have one.
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From there I crossed the Magellan Straight and entered the Land of Fire.
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On the ferry I met Olly and Emma from Manchester who have also been cycling Colombia. We spent a great day cycling with the wind at our backs.
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It’s tricky to capture the strength of the wind on camera but I think this picture about sums it up.
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We spent the night in this little bus stop shelter…
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…where some kind soul (or someone desperate to shed weight) had left an unopened box of red wine. Drink it we did.
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Olly and Emma woke up early to push onto Rio Grande while I decided to sleep in, missing the good tailwind in the process. On a sunny day the landscape takes on a kind of sparse beauty but when the grey skies descend and the rain kicks in it’s suffocatingly bleak
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At the Argentine border I slept with a band of hitchhikers and bikers in this cosy ante room. In typically blunt fashion the first thing the Russian hitchhiker said to me was “WHAT HAPPENED TO YOUR HAIR?”
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From there I cruised down to Rio Grande. The quality of the town is represented by their choice of billboard photo.
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The town was filled with tributes to the fallen soldiers in the Falklands war.
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But that didn’t stop the Argentines from treating me like a prince. Rodrigo spared me waiting 3 hours for the bike shop to open and picked me up an inner tube and a tube of glue which he then handed to me down the road.
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After my biggest day of the entire trip (150km) thanks to forgiving winds I camped round the corner from this lovely abandoned police station where a friendly homeless man lives and gave me the fright of my life when I went exploring.
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In Tolhuin La Union bakery provides free accommodation for travelers.
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“Welcome to the House of Friendship”
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The owner is an avid backpacker and a bit of a local celebrity. In a back room he’s set aside a room especially for passing bums like me.
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Here I met a Russian couple who are travelling by bike with their 2 year old son. The drivers round here speed like maniacs and accidents are rife – I really wouldn’t feel comfortable cycling with a kid.
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Getting closer…
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Only 50km from Ushuaia I spent the night at a lakeside cabana besides this abandoned hotel.
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Someone had to do it.
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Of the 10 cabins in this once swanky resort only one remains well preserved (not this one).
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Passing travelers have made it into a cosy little home and even constructed a makeshift urinal.
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It was a memorable place to spend my last night cycling south. At one point I went outside to find a few cabins along a couple were taking wedding photos. I’m not sure who was more surprised.
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I may have done Tierra del Fuego a disservice. The last 50km were lovely.
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And I was blessed with great weather much of the way…
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…seeing no less than 3 rainbows on the road south.
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And suddenly I turned the corner and there it was…
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Ushuaia: the most southern city in the world

Over those last 50km my entire trip passed through my mind. So many people, so many memories. I’d often wondered how I’d feel when I reached the end of the road. Would it be an overwhelming sense of elation, or would I feel numb, unable to accept that it was coming to end? As it was, when I saw the water peeking out from the end of the road I started welling up. After about 20 seconds of intense sadness, something I really hadn’t expected, I smiled and started laughing. I took a few photos, took a deep breath then found myself utterly indignant at the realization I had to cycle another 5km before I reached the town proper.

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There I was pleasantly surprised to find my Bulgarian chums Vassily any Zorry waiting at the hostel, having arrived the day before. I also met up with Olly and Emma, Charlotte who I met in Villa O Higgins, and some other fellow cyclists to toast the end of our trips at the local Irish bar.
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Done.

Well, not exactly. From here I’m planning to hitchhike up to Buenos Aires and end the trip spooning around Uruguay on my bike and fulfill my goal of reaching Montevideo.

Still some life in this old blog yet.

Tunes: Interpol – Turn On The Bright Lights, The Strokes – Room On Fire, Bruce Springsteen – Tunnel of Love, TV on The Radio – Dear Science

Reads: The Old Patagonian Express – Paul Theroux, The Mighty Franks – Michael Frank, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold – John Le Carre, Lonesome Traveler – Jack Kerouac

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