World Travelers: Argentina and Chile

Text: Simon Thomas • Photography: Simon and Lisa Thomas

The weatherworn sign on the outskirts of Ushuaia proudly reads "Bienvenidos a la Ciudad mas austral del Mundo" - Welcome to the Southernmost City in the World. The tires of our heavily laden GS bikes bite into the freshly fallen snow as we excitedly pull on past.

El Fin Del Mundo -The End of the World

By a gnarled and twisted tree line we bear left to take an undulating trail through trees and across a stream. Up on the footpegs, we ride the last mile of the coastal road that has kept us company for 2,316 miles, from Argentina's cosmopolitan capital of Buenos Aires, to this weather-tortured landscape of jagged peaks and freezing waters. We are in Tierra del Fuego, one of the most remote places on earth.

This is a rugged and unforgiving terrain, studded with glaciers and shared between Chile and Argentina at the southern tip of South America. Slowly falling rain penetrates our suits, and an icy wind bites any bits of exposed skin. It doesn't matter. We are lost in a long-imagined moment, posed for a photo aside the famous brown board that denotes the end of the Ruta 3. It's not possible to ride farther south in the world. There is nothing below this windswept place but 650 miles of treacherous seas and the icy continent of Antarctica.

North through the small Chilean port town of Porvenir, the rough concrete road to the dock is a welcome change from the mud-caked track we've ridden for the last two days. The red and rusting Melinka ferry waits to transport us across the historical Magellan Strait, the most important natural passage between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, infamously tough to navigate because of unpredictable winds and powerful currents. As we pay $ 30 for the crossing, the ticket agent enthusiastically conveys today's favorable sailing conditions. Two and a half hours later the large metal door of the bow slaps the port side, spilling us onto the wide boulevards of Patagonia's third-largest city, Punta Arenas. We are still only 809 miles from the coast of Antarctica.

Swapping the busy city streets for the Ruta 9, we are making good progress. The asphalt abruptly ends as we hit washboard and plow into the "rippio," a mixture of thick gravel and large stones. We're bouncing like rag dolls and need our wits about us as our bikes squirm wildly on the track. The sweeping Chilean highway takes us past Puerto Curtze, Villa Tehuelches, and inches us close to the Argentinian border before easing us past Puerto Natales, the gateway town to Torres del Piane. Past Good Hope Sound we flirt with asphalt for 20 miles before returning to the rippio. We're skirting the Patagonian Steppe, a vast countryside comprising 260,000 square miles of barren, gravel plains and wind-tormented plateaus, where the temperature rarely exceeds 53 F and averages just 37 F. This is the largest desert in the Americas and the seventh largest desert in the world. It is truly a land of legend.

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For the complete touring article, including facts & information, map(s), and GPS files, please purchase the May/June 2011 back issue.