Friday, October 10, 2008

Argentina the road south.

(Old town Colonia de Sacramento, Uruguay)

The time in Uruguay finally came to a close. After leaving Montevideo we headed to Colonia where we spent a night before boarding a ferry to Argentina. Colonia by the way is a great little town. Pretty touristy but well worth a visit. In particular the old part of town is really very scenic with plenty of little cafes and bars to hang out in (should you so be inclined). There are also ruins of the old city here which make for some interesting sightseeing. Otherwise I really enjoyed the beach promenade on the upper side of town which runs for miles along the river.

(Buenos Aires Skyline)

In the morning it was time to head for the ferry. Even though it was before 6:00, there were already people in line. The procedure was fairly simple, get your passport stamped, and at the customs get the Carnet stamped, It is a three hour ride to the other side, which ends in the middle of Buenos Aires.
The buildings could be seen for miles away, and it basically gives the impression of a normal cityscape. Unfortunately other than just riding out of the harbor and straight out of town there we didn't see much more of the city.

(A roadside shrine to Gaucho Gil, seen all over Argentina)

The harbor area has been refurbished and seemed to contain plenty of restaurants and bars as well as upscale housing nearby. With only a slight detour we managed to find the right road, and by 10:00 in the morning we were on our way south. There is a large well maintained highway heading south so we made good time. As soon as we got out of the metropolitan area it was basically pasture land all around.

(Mar De Plata skyline)

Our goal for the day is the coast, so we made all haste to get to a nice little beach town. The one we found was called Pinamar, which had all the trappings of being very popular holiday destination for the people of Buenos Aires. Nevertheless this is the off season, as all vacations were now over, and it was therefore nearly deserted. So we found a campground and spent our first night in Argentina in relative quiet. One thing I really liked about this town was the little cottages everywhere, very similar to what we had seen in Uruguay. The water is too cold and dark, and there is way too much stuff to do here (discos, shopping etc.), so I doubt I will be planning a return here, but for one night it was fine.

(Along the southern coast of Argentina)

Onwards, south, south, south... We followed the coast road, which did not have any vistas, or went along the coast for the most part. Through places like Mar de Plata, Bahia Blanca, Viedma and so on and so forth. Not much to say about all this area, it is basically flat, flat, flat, shrub land, punctuated by the occasional town or gas station. We were getting into the pampa, although we were still pretty far north. In San Antonio Oeste, a non-descript town on a bay, we got to see some Southern Right whales for a few minutes before they disappeared. A lot of people camp along the sea shore here, but we elected to camp at a campsite in town.

(Puerto Madryn bay)

The next stop was Puerto Madryn. A major tourist stop for tourist from Cruise ships as well as people who fly in to visit Peninsula Valdez with it's walruses, penguins and sea lions colonies and to visit the very large penguin colony of Punta Tomba a little further south. Riding into town you come down from the plateu into a large bay in the middle of which sits the very picturesque town (for me most towns on the coast are picturesque in one way or another!!). The main industry here is a fish packing plant, and of course the tourists, with the tourists probably being the most important. We spent a few days here, using Puerto Madryn as the base to explore the peninsula to the north and the penguins in the south. First we visited the penguins in Punta Tomba to the south, which was very amazing. If for no other reason, than, although it is a national park, they have a trail which goes through the middle of the breeding colony of Magellanic Penguins. Oh, and they have right of way, but if you stand still sometimes they will come up to you and peck on your shoes. They build or dig holes in the surrounding hills and the female lays her eggs in these small caves. The whole area is covered in small caves and holes, and if you take a peek in there is usually a penguin looking back at you.

(Penguins & Guanacos, Punta Tomba, and Sea Lions, Peninsula Valdez)

The following day we headed to the Peninsula Valdez national park, which contains breeding colonies of Seals, Sea Lions, Walruses and Penguins. It is a pretty long ride all around the peninsula, but very interesting. When we got there early in the morning we heard that there had been sightings of Orcas hunting the Sea Lions on the beach to the north. Unfortunately by the time we got there they were gone. But of course the Sea Lions and Walruses were there. Further south we also saw the another colony and also colonies of Penguins. The vantage points are well up on the cliffs so the animals are not disturbed, but you are still near enough to smell and hear them, and boy do they stink. My favorites where the young sea lions as they walked up and down the beach on some unknown errand. Oh, one thing I have forgotten to mention. Once we passed San Antonio Oeste, on the flat plains we started spotting Guanacos (a type of Llama). And they were also plenty of them around Puerto Madryn, Punta Tomba, and Peninsula Valdez. In fact, they seemed to share the same space as the penguins on Punta Tomba.

(The Pampa, long, flat, featureless...)

One day coming back from a tour, we were followed to the campground by Carlos. A local who is absolutely nuts about everything German. He has a Mercedes Benz, and has been dreaming about getting a BMW like mine for years. So the first thing he asked when he came up to us was "Is the bike for sale?". Unfortunately it wasn't but nevertheless we chatted for a while and he invited us to his home for dinner the following evening. Just one example of the openness and generosity of the Argentineans. We spent a wonderful evening with his wife and son, discussing biking, all things German of course, and his dream of one day getting his hands of one of the "old" BMWs.

There is also a story about bike problems, starting with the fact that I had to replace an engine stud here. It took a little over a day, as we messed up the heli-coil and in the ned had to fabricate a whole new stud. In addition, during our tour of Peninsula Valdez, we had a couple of flats. The fairly new tire had gotten ripped and the tube kept peeking through the carcass. The second patch held as I put some material between the carcass and the tube, and with this we limped home at around 50km/h. Back in Puerto Madryn, I really lucked out, in finding a shop who had a tire my size and of all things still open, as we got back pretty late. So the following day, as planned we managed to get back on the road.

The further south we got, the more barren the landscape. For the most part, the road ran straight through the Pampa, and only on a few occasions ran along the coast, such as south of Comodoro Rivadavia, at least for a while. This is also the main petroleum producing area of Argentina, topped off by the most souther refinery in the world which is in this area. To our great surprise there was little to no wind. It seemed that when there was wind it was a tail wind, and certainly nothing like what we had been warned about. Everyone we had talked to about going to Ushuaia, had told us the same thing, wind, wind, and more wind. Oh, and rain too of course. Basically they all said that on the way down we would have wind from one side, making you ride at an angle and on the way back the same thing. So far so good, no wind, great weather, and plenty of open country.

(Petrified forest and area)

We made a quick detour to check out the Petrified forest national park, and spent the night next to a camp of oil workers. They had their own trailers for sleeping, eating, cooking etc. and looked a lot like a gyspsy camp. The park itself was ok, nothing too spectacular, lots trees made of stone. If you haven't seen these before it might be worth the time, but what I really like was the area where the park was. In the middle of nowhere (like everything else around here), with spectacular vistas, wide plains, empty desert, and small mountains in the distance.

(Peter Roemer)

Continuing south we were astounded to find Peter Roemer coming in our direction. Peter is an old friend from Germany, as a matter of fact he made the aluminum boxes on my bike 18 years ago! I knew that he was down here, but we had failed to make any arrangements to meet on the road, and yet here he is. We spent an evening with him in a nearby campground, catching up and talking about South America traveling. The following day he continued north and we south.

A few more nights on the road before we finally made the border to Chile at Monte Aymond. As we got there early it was no drama, and the piece of Chile that we had to pass through was not to big, so we did two border crossings in a day. The way to Ushuai goes through Chile as there is no land connection to Tierra Del Fuego from mainland Argentina. So we crossed the Straights of Magellan and took a little detour through Cerro Sombrero, as someone had told us that the best way to get to the border at San Sebastian was not the normal road that the buses and trucks use, rather the road that goes through this little village. Once across the Straights the road is a dirt road, but this one was in good shape and was a lot of fun, at least until we joined the road going to the border, where it was in pretty bad shape, and the situation was made worse by the large amount of trucks and buses who use it. Getting back into Argentina was no problem, and in a short time we were back on good roads and headed south. We made it from Rio Gallegos to Tolhuin without much drama.

(Crossing the Straights of Magellan)

Once across the straights of Magellan the country starts to change, less flat pampa, to forests and hills with mountains in the distance. Very similar to Norway or even Switzerland in places. So for a chance the distances seemed to shrink as there was always something to look at. In Tolhuin we found an excellent camping right next to the lake, and in town the Panaderia had some of the best bread and empanadas that we had tasted. Finally, we were in Tierra del Fuego. Only a few hundred kilometers way was Ushuaia, and tomorrow we would get there, the end of the world!!

(Heading to the border at San Sebastian, Tierra del Fuego)

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