To Punta Arenas

Punta Arenas view

With no decent food sources in Torres del Paine, I had to move in some direction. If I wanted to return to the park, I could ride a short day to Cerro Castillo to resupply, but I felt I had already pushed my luck in terms of not paying for entry or camping, and the weather forecast looked unsettled. I therefore decided to head south for Puerto Natales, with the option to hike Cerro Tenerife along the way. I needed a bit more day-food to do this, so I headed over to the snack bar for some calories. Everything was as depressingly overpriced as expected, with the standard cookie rolls costing three times what they would in an ordinary store. In terms of calories per dollar, the cheapest source was some repulsive raspberry-flavored Cheetos, produced by adding artificial flavor, color, and high-fructose corn syrup to the same basic food-slurry (corn and palm oil) that forms the foundation of other puffed snacks. I bought two rolls of cookies and two bags of those things, then smooshed them down to better fit in my trailer.

Fortaleza and Almirante Nieto

Once back at the main road, the ride west and south started with a long climb on bearable dirt. Thankfully it was not too windy in the morning, and I had decent views of Almirante Nieto and the peaks west of the Torres. As it turns south and heads out of the park, the road passes several large lakes, including Lago Pehoe, where there is a campground and café. The wind was starting to get annoying, so I stopped in for a $12 microwave pizza before continuing south along the Rio Paine. The wind had been mostly helpful or moderate so far, but turned into a vicious crosswind on the final flat to the park exit, where it had a clear path down from the icefield along Glaciar and Lago Gray.

Playing with wind

There was another climb getting over to Lago del Torro, at the top of which people could stop to get a view of the distant glacier and take photos of each other almost getting blown over by the wind. Thankfully it abated and was generally not harmful on the long ride along the lake’s west shore, then up and over to Lago Porteño. Where the hike up Cerro Tenerife starts at an estancia, I turned east on a side-road and immediately found a convenient open gate. I almost set up my tent there, but noticed a horse tethered to a tree and thought better of it. I continued down the road, then doubled back, finding a sheltered spot in some trees between the fence and road. I got my tent set up before the wind got too rowdy, then listened as gauchos rounded up a bunch of cattle in the area where I had almost camped, whistling and shouting wordlessly. They probably would not have minded my presence, but I was glad to be on the other side of the fence.

Cerro Tenerife

I woke to rain the next morning, and sat around in my tent hoping for it to stop so I could climb the peak without too much misery. I finally gave up late in the morning, only to have the sun come out shortly after I finished packing up. Oh, well… The road toward Puerto Natales was remarkably miserable: the first part had been freshly watered by a road crew, turning the usual dust to awful mud that coated everything, and after that it became particularly rough washboard. Tired of the abuse, I pulled into Cueva del Milodon, a small park about which I knew nothing. I was looking around for a place to sit when Robert walked up, having just stopped himself. Together we checked out the enormous main cave, which was home to prehistoric hunters and the remains of prehistoric megafauna including giant ground sloths.

Awesome French family

Weirdly, the park also had several miles of bike trail, so I stashed the trailer and rode it with Robert, who had no trouble keeping up with all his touring gear still attached. As much as I like my bike and trailer, I was getting jealous of his rugged, capable touring rig. We loitered at a picnic area afterward, then he went off to find WiFi while I rode the remaining distance to Puerto Natales. The campground I had chosen at random had Cerro Fitzroy on its sign for some reason and, stranger still, had several signs in both English and Hebrew. The older woman running the place was Chilean and spoke only Spanish, but I think the owners may be Israeli. Most of the visitors seemed to be headed either to or from one of the treks in Torres del Paine, but there was one French family touring on a crazy setup with two semi-recumbent tandems and a child trailer. I also met Seba, an interesting young guy who was inspired by my bike-mountaineering exploits.

Typical Puerto Natales weather

Puerto Natales is a touristy but pleasant town with terrible weather, and I ended up hanging out for a few days to recover and resupply. I made the mistake of trying to ride to the top of Cerro Dorotea one day, only to find that it was ringed in fences and private property (of course), then get absolutely drenched and frozen by a passing squall on the return. I also spent most of an afternoon talking to an interesting Spanish woman working remotely in one of the internet cafés downtown. As Eric Beck said, “at either end of the social spectrum there lies a leisure class,” and the same is true of nomads. They had the kind of high-powered jobs (software and pharma) that let them travel in style and work fully remote, while I travel in a way that requires very little money. Though she worked in pharma, she was interested in cognitive science, which led me to dust off parts of my brain that I haven’t used in over twenty years.

Morro Chico

I was hoping to meet a friend in Puerto Natales, but after not hearing anything for awhile I was starting to feel stale. The upcoming weather was nasty, so I took advantage of a non-rainy morning with a tailwind to head for drier climes and Punta Arenas. After the initial grind away from town, the road turned southeast and aligned with the wind, and I began having a grand old time cruising the pampas. I saw isolated storms roving the plain in the distance, but none hit me. Once the road turned purely east along the Argentine border the wind became even more favorable, and I gained even more speed. I spotted a cyclist in the distance, who proved to be Robert, his top speed limited by his lower gearing. We rode together for awhile, stopping at the gendarmeria at Morro Chico for water. Morro Chico is a broad volcanic plug standing by itself in the plains, and I had thought of climbing it on my way by, but decided to keep going instead.

Occupied hut

The wind became less favorable but not quite adversarial as the road turned south. There are several refugios in this section, built by someone and apparently available to anyone caught out in this harsh and shelterless plain. I was looking forward to staying in one in particular that was supposedly in fairly good shape, but I reached it to find that both it and its older neighbor were occupied by gauchos. Their mumbly, toothless spokesman said I was welcome to camp outside, but the cabin was his. I pitched my tent in the lee of a pile of old wood, Robert pitched his nearby, and we spent a disappointing but not over-windy night.

Punta Arenas view

I had expected to take three short days between Puerto Natales and Punta Arenas, but with the excellent wind I would need only two. I made good time to the gas station at Laguna Cabeza de Mar, then hung out there for awhile watching a large storm pass to the south. Another cyclist, on a road bike, was hanging out as well, and we talked a bit as we watched some rheas or ñandus peck around and take dirt baths outside. We both took off once the storm started dying down, and he quickly left me on his smooth, skinny tires. I caught Robert, and eagerly took him up on his offer to split a place in Punta Arenas. Camping would be tough in the big city, and it would be good to have some dry comfort before braving Tierra del Fuego. Punta Arenas is one of the oldest towns in Patagonia, established around 1850 as a port for wool exports and a stopover on the Strait of Magellan. With the opening of the Panama Canal and decreased interest in wool, there seems to be little reason for it to still prosper, but it seems to be doing well as both a tourist town and a port. I wandered around some, then cooked town food for dinner and prepared to ferry across the Strait to Porvenir in the morning.

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