Monday, December 20, 2010

Sailing North

We spent the morning in Ushuaia, sight seeing,and Lisa bought a alpaca wool beanie (toque)…now called the happy hat (for obvious reasons).
We left Ushuaia and headed to Rio Grande. As we went up the pass, it was rainy, cold and windy. We stopped half way en route to Rio Grande to warm up had some hot chocolate. Once again in Rio grande we found ourselves struggling to find food at a decent hour. Restaurants don’t open for dinner until 8:30 pm… we found Posada de la Sauces, the House of Sauces, or something like that. They served nice lamb and steak, and graciously took us in before they opened.

From Rio Grande we made our way through Argentina border and Chilean border and back across the ferry. We stopped for lunch and saw a motorcycle coming down the road. It was Yuki!! We were glad to see him and wished him well!
The wind was bad again and we could see storms brewing in the distance. With the strong winds, we knew it wouldn’t long before it hit us. We decided to go to Punta Arenas, rather than travel another couple of hours into Puerto Natales. The accommodation was terrible, but the nicest lady ever. She also had a litter of kittens so that really made me a sucker!  We found a great restaurant, very posh, by the sea front, Casa Viejo, with one of the walls of the restaurant in a shape of a wooden ship and it had cut outs to store lots of wine, my kind of restaurant… wonderful! I had a Cesar salad with yummy dressing, olives and chicken… the greatest croutons. We headed out first thing in the am.

The next day we headed from Punta arenas to Puerto Natales. There was great scenery, but huge rain clouds.  At one point a huge wall of white was ahead of us and was getting closer by the second. We decided to sit it out. We found a bus stop where we parked the bike up next to the shelter (there were quite a few along the road). We sat and ate cookies and chocolate, wishing we were in a coffee shop. We tried to warm up as well as it felt like 5C! After half an hour or so, we were back on the road with blue sky ahead… and a cafeteria 500 meters down the road!! Ugh! If only we’d known!
In Puerto Natales, we found a great pizza place, Mesita Grande. Had the best pizza, we bought two!! We spent most of the afternoon deciding what to do. Do we try to go north on Route 40, with the wind and rupio? We had heard from a couple of other bikers and locals that there was a lot of corrugation and high winds and the wheel ruts had deep windrows of gravel on either side. One Swiss biker with a Honda Africa Twin said he fell off at 80 km/h! Another Chilean with a KLR 650 warned us that the route was in rough condition. These conditions with the strong winds would make the ride very difficult for two up. Although route 40 conditions can change daily with graders, we felt it best that we don’t do it. If Grif was solo, he wouldn’t have a problem, but with such precious cargo, we decided to book ourselves on a couple of tours and take the Navimag ferry to Puerto Montt. This would save many days of travelling on the bike and potential delays due to weather and road conditions.
 We also met a Canadian couple from Vancouver, Chris and Angela and chatted for a bit. Chris recognized the Alberta plate so came over to talk with us. There are many hostels in Puerto Natales, a mecca for backpackers. The town is very touristy!! We found a lovely hostel, Las Carretas; Very nice décor and tranquil. Suprisingly, Chris and Angela decided to stay there as well. Lisa spotted a down sweater jacket on the way in to town, so went back to the store to check it out. Succumbing once again to the cold temperatures, it was a quick purchase!
The next day we headed to Torres del Paine National Park. Unfortunately, the Towers were in the clouds, as they are most of the year, but we saw lots of wildlife. We saw the Andean deer, mother and fawn, which is quite rare as there are only 60 in the park and the driver had only seen 3 since 1969. We also saw condors, red fox, huemul (emu), pink flamingo, and guanaco.  After the barren Argentinian plains, it was a treat to see so much wildlife in one day!! We hiked out to Grey Lake view point to see the glacier. It was extremely windy; having to hold hands in order not to drift apart. Enormous chunks of glaciar fall off and are blown down to the end of the lake.
 After we got back to town, we went to eat at Pico de Carlitos, where they grill smoke mutton in the window!! We opted for the roast chicken and papa fritas (French fries)!
The following day we headed out at 6:45 am, ouch, for El Calafate and the Perito Moreno glacier. We had food for lunch and dinner as we wouldn’t be back until 9-10 pm. At the border into Argentina, the aduana (customs) took passengers fruit and wanted our ham sandwiches! Grif asked if he could eat them right away. They said okay. Since this hadn’t happened before with any other Argentinian border crossings, we were very surprised. We have had ham before but this time we didn’t have it in a package, since we made up the sandwiches that morning before we left. Grif ate one of the sandwiches and we kept the other three and crossed into Argentina.
During the long drive of over 300 km to El Calafate, it was interesting to see the changes in the landscape. On the outskirts of Puerto Natales, there were several high escarpments with groups of 3-5 condors cruising the thermals, effortlessly. As you go further inland it changes into more of a tundra with wetlands in the valley basins and a big increase in the number of livestock. Some of the estancias (farms), are over 20,000 hectares with imposing houses and outbuildings where the gauchos (cowboys) reside. Elevation gradually increased after the border to over 250 m and as the road descended once again, to El Calfate, we had excellent views of the river valley and Lake Argentino surrounding the town, and the mountains around Perito Moreno, including Torres del Paine, which were shrouded in a thin veil of cloud.

Perito Mereno Glacier

Boat in front of the Glacier

We met up with Claudia, our guide for the afternoon, who was very informative and helped Lisa identify some of the flowers she had taken numerous photos of.  We left El Calafate and headed toward the glacier, about another hour out of town. The front face of the glacier cuts across where two lakes meet. As the glacier pushes up against the shoreline an arch is formed in the ice where water flows to balance the two lake depths. The glacier is enormous, breathtaking. The front face is 4 km across and ice depth beneath the water is over 250 m and 40 m above. It stretches back as far as the eye can see, the size is difficult to comprehend. It is one of the most spectacular natural formations we have ever seen and makes Columbia Icefields look like snow in your back yard.  The Perito Moreno Glacier is constantly changing and moving. In the couple of hours that we were there, we witnessed two big pieces fall off the front of glacier into the water creating big waves and ice debris. The loud bangs of the glacier moving, pushing and falling, is amplified by the face of the glacier.

We spent a bit of time in El Calafate as well. A neat little town, much like Banff with tourist shops and well groomed main street. There were a group of bikers from Italy and one from Colorado. We had passed them before in Terra del Fuego.
Today was errand day; trying to sort out things out for the ferry. We booked the ferry by directly visiting the office at the harbour. We met a really nice booking agent, which booked us in a higher class cabin for a cheaper price, also booking us into a cabin all to ourselves. He said the ferry was only at 40% occupancy. We had our clothes laundered, packed up the bike and stocked up with 4.5 litres of wine (you can get 2 L boxes, but we opted for 3 1.5 L for less than $4 each). We figured the days will be quite long on the ferry… we may not wait until 5 pm! We also managed to skype with Grif’s family which was a nice treat!!  
We will be on the ferry until Dec 24 and will not have internet access.
To everyone, Merry Christmas! Feliz Navidad! We are not sure where we will be for Christmas. We will have some time on the ferry to do some planning.

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