El Fin: Into Ushuaia via the Backdoor

At last, the publication of my arrival into Ushuaia. About time, I’m sure you’ll agree… Punta Arenas (7th Sept 2017) – arr Rio Grande (10th Sep) – dep Rio Grande (18th Sep) – Tolhuin (18th Sep) – Ushuaia (22nd Sep)

Tierra del Fuego – a name that had been embedded into my psyche for so long finally became a reality…

The ferry is waiting for me at the dock when I arrive with wide open doors

The same mountain range that I rode back in Bucaramanga (Colombia) thousands of kilometres away welcomes me into the ‘Land of Fire’ as I cross the ‘Estrecho de Magallanes’.  The Andes has been my most consistent companion for the last couple of years.

A sense of peace and fulfilment. A plan that I’ve been married to for so long will finally come to its natural end.

Tierra del Fuego. At last ground beneath my wheels. It’s undeniably a special moment rolling along the coast and an amazing sense of completion fills my bones. What a feeling to finally get there.

Galloping guanaco – understandably fast – one of the few obvious food sources out here.

The alpha male (probably) stares me down.

An unavoidable part of bicycle touring accompanies me to the very end – barking dogs; sending me off their land when I stop to take photos.

Soon after, I slash my tyre and struggle to repair it as my fingers freeze.

This makes me later than expected and I realise I will fall short of the planned refuge hut. The sun is setting and I have no where to hide from the howling wind.

I spot some trees several kilometres ahead on my map that offer some basic wind shelter.  After clearing away the broken beer bottles I set up my tent in the dark and wake to this:

Not bad for an emergency night spot although clearly non unknown to those who like a drink or five.

Shortly after leaving I make it to a well used refuge hut by a crossroads to enjoy some temporary relief from the wind.  Graffiti capture moments in time of previous wandering nomads filled with the excitements and joys of past Patagonian adventures.  Although now just letters and scribblings on a wall their characters become alive in my mind and offer welcome company as I ponder a 30 kilometre round trip to a local King Penguin colony. After more time that I care to admit I decide to skip it due to the threat of a hideously strong headwind.  But the decision doesn’t sit well and after arriving at the small dwellings of San Sebastian I find myself rather bizarrely retracing my route back on a truck. When will I ever be here again?

It’s dark when I reach the refuge hut for the second time, the colony will have to wait until tomorrow…

An early rise at my temporary home.

Sunrises and sunsets down in these parts rarely disappoint.

 

After a few kilometres I manage to hitch a ride to the penguin colony on an old truck:

The penguin colony premises are closed. However, too much energy and time has been spent to turn back empty handed so I stash my bicycle and climb over the low fence. I’ve not made it ten yards when someone comes out of the house.  Fortunately, they’re remarkably understanding and allow me a special visit.

Pingüino Rey – up to one metre high. (The brown ones are the chicks.)

Viewing platform prevents close contact – bring a zoom lens.

A short history lesson- according to the caretaker

The King Penguins were not seen in Bahia Inutil for 5000 years after the local people hunted them off their land. During the European settlement, the hunting ceased and from 2010 onwards the penguins gradually returned. This reserve was formed for their protection.  Overall the numbers have been increasing and generally there are more in summer (~200) and only ~20 in winter since the juveniles migrate to Antartica during Winter. This is the only colony of King Penguins in South America.

The genocide of the Selk’nam (the local indigenous people) – further history lessons from the caretaker:

The normal food sources of the Selk’nam had ben depleted as a result of European settlers taking their lands. Since the concept of private property was not part of the Selk’nam culture they resorted to poaching sheep.  The European settlers turned to bounty hunters as a counter measure and used a severed ear or other body parts of the victims as proof of kill. I shan’t repeat further details here to avoid accidental misrepresentation of the facts.  A quick search on wikipedia explains one version of events.

After my short and rather shocking history lesson I re-mount and cycle back the way I came. The somewhat distant viewing platforms and a 15 kilometre slog into the wind has me I questioning whether it was actual worth it.  I decide that it was.

Finally back at the refuge hut by midday, a quick rest and then on to the Argentinian border.

Not far after the border I find a night indoors at an estancia, courtesy of the outsourced contracted sheep shearers.

Bonus sheep shearing tour.

Diego and Julio. My hosts in Rio Grande who find themselves putting up with me a few days longer than anyone expected (eight!).  That’s what happens when you make things too comfortable for a cycle tourist in Patagonian Winter.

Then I continue south where I experience a side wind, a loose bottom bracket, a headwind and a heavy, but short, snowfall. But I arrive in Tolhuin to this…

I am saved a trip back to Rio Grande after some helpful folk fix my bottom bracket.  A couple of nights in the Casa de Ciclista bakery and it’s on to the final leg and Ushuaia’s backdoor!

Almost getting the hang of this self-timer photography. The hardest part is actually bothering to do it.

The final off road adventure before Ushuaia has me heading down a dirt road after the steep descent from Paso Garibaldi.  As I run out of light, I chance upon a designated and very appealing empty camping spot by a lake 10 or 11 km from the main road.  I bed down for a peaceful rest behind a few trees offering useful wind protection.

Continuing towards Puerto Almanza the next morning…

…along a pleasant coastal road…

…to meet the expected naval “no entry” zone.  Just look at it.  It looks abandoned right? I don’t even need to climb over a gate.  I later discover the contrary (see end notes) but I am fortunate to not encounter any military personnel.

I find a shack for the night and struggle up a small hill  by foot through a surprisingly challenging maze of brambles but finally find what I’m looking for…

…and there it is folks, Ushuaia in my sights!

Far more beautiful than I ever imagined it to be.

The last breakfast

Wondering what the hell I’m going to do now that this is nearly over, but undoubtedly excited about getting there.

The delightful Beagle Channel

A reminder that I’m in a military zone. My shack provides useful cover, best not to be seen.

Ripped merino leggings from my Torres del Paine lunacy (which I may publish at some stage).

A glance back and I’m on my way

I pass a small estancia with no one home, cross a small freezing stream and take the high path…

…before dropping back down.

Do I really want to get there?

Previous reports of the “path” turning into a nightmare overgrown bushwhack have me formulating alternate plans.  This will be my final obstacle…

I decide to hike and carry my loaded bicycle along the rocky shore. My erroneous plan is to meet the path a few kilometres later and cut out the famous bushwhack. The terrain is not easy and after 1 kilometre I am not only exhausted but find myself rock climbing.  Not ideal with a loaded bicycle.  I neither want a nasty fall nor a wade through the freezing Beagle Channel.  With the threat of an incoming tide I consider my options.  Hiking back does not appeal.

I decide to abort, separate my kit and rock climb up with separate loads through the vegetation to intersect the path about 50 metres above.

And the hike a bike bushwhack through brambles officially commences. The path doesn’t fail to match it’s reputation.

Clearly quite a treacherous path, some aren’t so lucky and unhelpfully add to the obstacle course.

But I make it through and after another toe freezing river crossing to contend with the path becomes rideable all the way to Ushuaia.

I share a peaceful moment with a horse before meeting the paved road and a short ride into town.

Fin del Mundo!

Thank you to the peoples of the Americas for letting me ride through your lands…

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Thoughts on crossing the military base:

The military zone was empty and looked abandoned due its neglected gates. A bikepacker coming from Ushuaia to Puerto Almanza, later informed me that he was stopped by a soldier and told to turn around just before making it through the entire section. After rightly refusing the absurd order, he was eventually let through by the soldier’s superior…

King Penguin colony – worth contacting them beforehand to ensure it’s open.

Ushuaia – Refugio del Mochileros (backpacker hostel): cool owner helps cycle tourists

Route notes – pioneered and well documented by Cass and Taneli

9 thoughts on “El Fin: Into Ushuaia via the Backdoor

  1. The visit might have been easier by boat but preferably a lifeboat!
    Well done Nick! Have enjoyed it and glad not to have been with you! John R

  2. What a man you are Nick! Having been to Ushaia I am not so sure it was such a lovely place to get to(!) But the achievement was truly amazing. Wonderful photographs! Have you read The uttermost part of the Earth by Bridges if not you should try to get it.Where are you now?

    • Thanks for the kind words David – sorry for slow reply I get a lot of spam in my inbox so didn’t see the alert. I’m in Malaysia right now, but have been living in Bali 🙂 (I’ve not read this book, but will take a look!)

  3. Hi Nick. I have followed your blog off and on for awhile now. I am currently in El Encanto in Colombia enjoying the coffee and generous hospitality. Antonio told kept telling me stories about you. Thanks for the inspiration and sharing your knowledge through your blog!
    Next stop El Trampolin de la Muerte.
    Luego,
    Trevor

    • Oh wow, loved my time there – such a great family. Say hi from me if you’re still there! I’m in Malaysia right now and have been living in Bali.

      Did you make it up to Cuevas de Los Guacheros? TEMBR next? I’m jealous 🙂

      • Malaysia, cool! I wasn’t able to go into the park. It was closed due to extreme rain and flooding since May. Not going to Ecuador because I was already there and my visa extension expired. Just finished the Trampolín de la Muerte – amazing route! My plan is to turn around and head towards Medellin villa Cali. I also camped at Jardin del Lago and enjoyed a delicious trucha frita. Thanks for the tip!

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