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?
The best laid plans of cycle tourers often go awry. Usually this is due to tree felling winds, mechanical failures or biblical rainstorms, but every now and then one’s plans are laid aside due to more serendipitous circumstances. My stay at Nant y Fall was one such propitious twist of fate. Had the weather not been so crap, my phone been out of battery or my schedule been ever so slightly different, I would’ve passed right by the signpost to the uncommonly southern vineyard and made straight for the Chilean border. As it was I stopped by with the intention of staying for one night only to be so charmed by the eco-campsite (and the opportunity to stream the Spurs match) that I decided to stay for two. Then Sergio, who has spent the last 7 years transforming what was once forgotten scrub land into easily the best campsite I’ve ever stayed at, offered me room and board for a few hours of daily labour and I thought “Why not?”. I was set to cross the border a little earlier than intended and the weather was rubbish so a couple of days working and practising my Spanish couldn’t do any harm. 10 days later I was still there.
I didn’t think I’d make it this far. Patagonia was a mirage shimmering so far in the distance that I assumed I’d give up or die of thirst before I reached it. At the beginning of my trip I was unsure if I even wanted to go this far. What if I had crippling back pain, got really lonely or my bike exploded? When people asked about my destintion I’d always say Montevideo with an added “maybe via Patagonia…but we’ll see”.
Accordingly I didn’t do much research about the ruggedly beautiful region that draws so many people to this part of the world, nor did I spend hours poring over earthporn photos of the Torres del Paine or the Carretera Austral, preferring to leave an air of mystery around it. Or maybe I was just lazy. Either way, when I emerged from the bus in Pucon it was clear that I was entering a whole other world – one of log cabins, crystalline lakes and the kind of raw, uncaring wild that Jack London wrote about.
I thought my days by the Pacific were over after the unrivaled shitfest of my Peruvian sojourn, but I just couldn’t resist giving it one more shot. There was no way this coastal venture could be worse than that, but then sitting in a bathtub of milk with Piers Morgan would be preferable to another trip to Barranca. I didn’t know a lot about the Chilean coast as it’s not too well traveled by gringo cyclists but after weeks stuck on La Cuarenta I was game for a bit of adventure so off I went.
When I returned to the Casa de Ciclistas it had been invaded by French, Swiss and Belgians. All very nice people I’m sure, but the lingua franca was no longer English and I found myself drowning in a sea of French chatter. Even the one other English guy was fluent in French. It was time to leave.
Deciding not to push on to Cajamarca proved to be a blessing in disguise when Miguel, noticing my beleaguered state, offered me a discounted room at his Tetem Backpackers. He proved to be an absolute mensch and the place, with its huge rooms and heated pool was the perfect place to spend a day off. If you’re in the area check it out!
A couple of days before I arrived in Chachapoyas I noticed some paint peeling on the frame of the bike. It was only later while giving it a clean I realised it was something much more serious. The welding at the join between one of the seat stays and the seat tube had completely cracked and the two were no longer attached. I went online to find out how bad this was and, much like how WebMD can make a mild rash seem like a virulent case of smallpox, the various cycling forums soon led me to believe that I had no choice but to give up on my frame or else suffer the dreaded “catastrophic failure”. There was never any mention of partial or slight failure, it just had to be catastrophic. It was clear that if I rode my bike again it would instantly explode and I would die. On the other hand replacing the frame would be time consuming, expensive and a logistical nightmare. As I lay there in my hostel bed I saw my whole trip flash before my eyes. Surely there had to be a way to fix this.
Ecuador: home of The Galapagos, volcanoes and, uh… Antonio Valencia. It’s safe to say I didn’t know much about the equatorial meat in the Colombia/Peru sandwich and was curious to find out more. The Colombians I’d asked unsurprisingly told me Colombia is far more bacano (cool) and that while Ecuadorians are friendly they’re not as warm as their northern neighbours. Oh, and their food sucks (uh, pot kettle black?).
As I prowled the one and only mean street of Sibundoy I spotted a stall selling really big juicy looking salchichas (sausages) and I simply had to have one. Thus I spent the following day writhing around in bed in a windowless room with a dodgy stomach and a fever. Thankfully after a cocktail of drugs and copious amounts of water I sweated it all out and the next morning I was feeling fresh and raring to go.
If there was one section of Colombia that slightly worried me it was this: riding through the corridor between Palmira and Cali, respectively the 8th and 10th most dangerous cities in the world. While the chances of anything happening were tiny, I didn’t want to end up skirting some dodgy barrio come nightfall so I set of from Walter’s good and early to be sure. In fact I need not have worried. I shot like a bullet down the Pan-American Highway and by 12 o clock I was comfortably clear of both cities. All I had to do was find some lunch.