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Tuesday, March 28, 2006
Day 145 - March 28th, 2006: Rio Grande, Argentina to Ushuaia, Argentina
The last stretch towards Ushuaia was very cold and windy so our morning routine consisted of throwing on as much closing as possible before setting off, and ensuring our heated vests were plugged in tightly. I was up to 2 pairs of tube socks (yep, ME in tube socks..I never thought I'd see the day!) overlapped by a pair of thermal wool socks, pajama pants under my jeans, a tank top, tshirt, heated vest, hoodie, fleece sweater, and rain jacket all crammed under my riding suit and a balaclava under my helmet to top off the stylish outfit. The rubber rain boots just added the final touch, but we couldn't have made it without them! We hit a little bit of rain, but thankfully the scenery changed from the flat plains to beautiful mountains which made the driving much more enjoyable despite the weather. It was such interesting landscape. On the mountains you could clearly see the tree line where vegetation is no longer able to grow, then above the tree line you could see the rocky peaks, and at the very tops of the moutains there were ice slates that had the same blue-green colour as glaciers. Once we arrived at Ushuaia we were greeted by sunshine finally! Ushuaia is considered by many to be the southern most city in the world although there is a bit of controversy over this because the city of Punta Arenas in Chile is quite a bit larger than Ushuaia. Some people therefore consider Punta Arenas to be the southernmost city arguing that Ushuaia is the southernmost town....but Ushuaia's sign states that it is the southern most city in the world so we stuck with that. It is in Ushuaia that you literally get to the end of the road. Once you pass through the provincial park you hit the very end of the road which is marked by a large wooden sign and a small billboard. For the entire trip this was our target and now finally WE MADE IT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Monday, March 27, 2006
March 26th, 2006: San Julian, Argentina to Rio Gallegos, Argentina
March 27th, 2006: Rio Gallegos, Argentina to Rio Grande, Argentina
The remaining drive across the pampas was a lot less windy, but just as flat and barren. We passed through many oil fields, but aside from the oil wells there was little else short of the occasional flock of rheas or guanacos. The distances between towns was so large that even the tiniest, most unremarkable area afforded some sort of recognition just for being there at all! In the picture to the right you can see the sign welcoming you to the town of Tres Cerros which was nothing more than one house, a gas station with a hostal and restaurant built into it, and their town monument....the painted tire. We drove a little further and came across a truck stop, which oddly enough was bigger than the whole city of Tres Cerros, but didn't really have the full range of amenities I suppose. They did have nice hot coffee though, and this adorabe little puppy named Bobby which reminded me just a little bit of my "niece" Lily! After having a bit of fun playing with the dog we had to get going again towards San Julian. Shortly after we arrived in San Julian the strangest incidence happened. On a spur of the moment penguin hunt (which turned up fruitless...or rather, penguinless) a lady began waving to me frantically and saying "Ahhh! Good trip!!!!" in Spanish. Rather confused since I didn't have my glasses on, I only gave her a slight wave and kept on my way. I mentioned it to my dad and he said "Hey, maybe its the couple from our hotel last night that we were chatting with over breakfast." I couldn't remember, but said "It's possible, but how coincidental would that be!" Later that evening, on the recommendation of the taxi driver we went to a restaurant only to hear our names when we opened the door. The lady that was waving to me earlier was indeed the lady from our hotel, and now again we ran into her and her husband at the restaurant! They invited us to have dinner with them and we found out over the course of the evening that they had taken the exact same route as us for the last few days. The next couple of days were fairly uneventful with respect to the driving as it was more flat land with little vegetation, a few flamingos, and a whole lot of wind. We got ourselves into a little bit of a snag with the distances, in fact. At 170km's we passed a gas station, but said "It is only 200 more kms to Rio Gallegos, we can make that easy" We normally have about 380-400kms to a tank plus about 40km left on reserve but unfortunately due to the high winds we used SO much gas that we were totally empty at 265km!!! We were left stranded 50km away from the nearest gas station with nothing in site but guanacos and dirt. We tried to flag a few cars down, to no avail when we spotted a luxury liner bus headed towards us. We waved frantically and much to our surprise it actually stopped! We explained the situation to the drivers and they actually offered to give us a lift! I never thought I'd see the day I'd be hitchhiking in Argentina...but at least it was the classy way to do it on a luxury line!!! My dad stayed with the bikes and I hopped aboard the bus. Once we hit the first gas station the tour bus operator was nice enough to even go out of his way to pull into the station to let me off the bus. I gave them a very hearty thank you and frantically dashed into the station's store. Thankfully since the distances are so large here every gas station sells gas containers, so I bought the biggest one I could find. The strangest thing then happened....the couple that was in our hotel (that I ran into by the lake and then again at the restaurant) were in the gas station!!! They started calling out my name when I came in! I really lucked out there because they were able to arrange for a taxi to take me the entire 50kms back to where my dad was waiting with the bikes. We were pretty thankful for all the help we got along the way!
ps. The gas is actually that blue here!
Sunday, March 26, 2006
March 21st, 2006: Talca, Chile to Osorno, Chile
March 22nd, 2006: Osorno, Chile to San Carlos De Bariloche, Argentina
March 23rd, 2006: San Carlos De Bariloche, Argentina to Esquel, Argentina
March 24th, 2006: Esquel, Argentina to Sarmiento, Argentina
March 25th, 2006: Sarmiento, Argentina to San Julian, Argentina
March 26th, 2006: San Julian, Argentina to Rio Gallegos, Argentina
We made pretty good time through the southern part of Chile because the roads were amazing. Along the way there were plenty of Copec gas stations which had Pronto snack bars attached to them. We became regulars there, and whenever we needed a hot cup of coffee and a mascot to cheer us on, the little red dude in the picture, or as we affectionately called him, "Spongebob Pronto Pants" was our man. Other than that, I don't have many pictures of southern Chile. It's not that it wasn't beautiful, it's just that it looks so much like Canada that it was hard to find something "different" to take a picture of. There were a lot of vineyards and apple orchards lining the roads. You could almost swear you were in the Niagara region! After Osorno, we went eastwards towards San Carlos De Bariloche in Argentina. There is a 35km distance between the Argentinian and Chilean border which takes you winding through mountains covered in large pine trees, volcanos, and beautiful lakes. As soon as you cross the border into Argentina there is a very small town which reminded me exactly of a Swiss ski resort. There were all sorts of log cabins and chalets which housed hotels, waffle houses, chocolaterias, cafes and souvenier shops. I later found out that there was actually a ski hill nearby and that it was a bit of a resort town. Bariloche also has a bit of a Switzerland feel to it. We had dinner that night in a beautiful restaurant that resembled a chalet called La Alpina (The Alpine), which served among other things cheese and chocolate fondue. (I can hear Wendy's voice already.... "it should be called FUNdue"). We had to get a little bit used to the culinary culture here in Argentina though. My dad ordered a steak dinner and was a bit surprised when they came to the table with his steak on a plate and nothing else on it! We inquired and the waiter explained to us that if we wanted anything else on the side we had to order it separately!! Once you get used to the idea and remember to order a side dish it's actually a really good system because you can customize your meal to exactly your liking. We had a good laugh over our ignorance on the procedures first try though. Another cool food idea in Argentina is the "submarino" drink. It is really just a hot chocolate made with real cocoa, except that instead of serving it to you as a mixed chocolate drink they give you a cocoa puck in the shape of a submarine. You then dunk the submarine in your hot milk, and as it sinks it slowly melts into chocolatey goo which you can stir into the milk. How fun is THAT?! After leaving Bariloche we planned to head east towards the coast. We started our drive but made absolutely horrible time!!! We got stuck in a downpour and by the time we arrived in Esquel we were totally miserable. Driving through the plains the wind was fierce (about 40-50km/h!!) and with the rain it chilled us right through to the bone. Even the trees and grass grew on slants! We thankfully had a super gas heater in the cabana we stayed in for the evening and were able to not only warm ourselves up, but also hang our clothes infront of it to let them dry off. The next day we came across the strangest (and quite possibly the most disturbing) site. There was a sheep farm that was located 32km in from the road. All that you could see was the rickety front gate covered with dried up coyotes and wild cats. I suppose the farmer didn't like them getting as his sheep, and left them there as a warning to any coyotes that started eyeing his flock!
Sunday, March 19, 2006
March 16th, 2006: Iquique, Chile to Antofagasta, Chile
March 17th, 2006: Antofagasta, Chile to Chanaral, Chile
March 18th, 2006: Chanaral, Chile to La Serena, Chile
March 19th, 2006: La Serena, Chile to Santiago, Chile
I haven't taken all that many pictures over the last while because there wasn't a heck of a lot to see in the northern region of Chile aside from a lot of sand. The distances between the cities are huge too. You could drive for almost 400km between cities (and consequently, gas stations as well!) which required some pretty good route planning. The only thing you see a lot of out here is mining operations. They mine copper by the trainload here, and also nitrates. Remember the movie "Ace Ventura, Pet Detective"? I couldn't get Jim Carrey's voice saying "guaaaaaannnno!!" out of my head everytime we passed the mines or the guano covered rocks in the ocean. For those of you who haven't seen the movie, guano is the term for the crunchy white bird poo that builds up on rocks and can be mined to use in fertilizers and various other things. In the first picture you can see the whole lot of pelicans perched happily on the rock contributing to the cause. The peculiar thing was that it looks as though it should be very hot in all that sand, but it was actually pretty crisp with the breeze coming off of the ocean. Our visors got a little fogged up with salt residue and sand as the day wore on. To give you an idea of how sandy it is, I've added a picture of a soccer field and the "green" of the local golf course. Yep, those pictures to the left.....look closely....that oil smudge in the middle of the sand is actually the golf green!! That wasn't even the driest area either! A little more south in Chile you pass through the Atacama desert region. It is officially the driest region in the world. They have not had rain for at least 400 years (likely more, its just that no one kept records before that).
Tuesday, March 14, 2006
Monday, March 13, 2006
March 13th, 2006: Salinas De Garcia Mendoza, Bolivia to Oruro, Bolivia
Our intention was to head south from La Paz towards a small town called Salinas which was located in salt flats just east of the Chilean border. The first 3/4 of the drive was an absolutely great highway. Smooth rolling curves, flat pavement, gorgeous mountains! We were amazed at what great time we were making when suddenly the road turned into foot deep potholes, mud and half finished walkways. We started to get worried and asked a few people around town how the drive was to Salinas. They told us that the roads were bad in the town, but that shortly after that they would get better, and that we shouldn't worry. Sure enough, the second we left the city the roads were smoothly paved again. We drove a little while longer and arrived in another city called Huari. When we left Huari, we found ourselves driving along a tiny gravel road that hardly resembled the double-thick line on our map. We drove a little way back and asked the first person we saw for directions assuming we were lost, but they assured us that we were heading in the right direction. We then asked how long it would be to Salinas and they told us only 2 hours. We drove back along that gravel road, stopping to confirm with every person we saw if we were going in the right direction and each time they assured us that we were on the correct road. The problem was, that there really wasn't much of a road to speak of. By the time we had asked the third person if we were still on the way to Salinas the road had narrowed to nothing more than two tire tracks in the sand, and we had crossed 6 small rivers, but by this point in the day it was much to late to turn around. Besides, everyone we talked to said it was the right highway and not to worry because the road was bad for a while, but got better eventually. We drove, and drove, and drove....or should I say "motocrossed" and "motocrossed" and "motocrossed" until we hit a giant river. If you look closely to the left and right of the picture (the one that looks like a lake to the left) you can actually see the highway ends descending into the river, and a small line of rocks between the banks that are evidently there to prevent too much of the sand from washing away when cars drive through the river. We opted to take the side-route and instead used a concrete walking bridge to drive over. We kept trekking on until suddenly we heard the rumbling of thunderclouds. The sky began to get very dark and large raindrops began pelting down on the bikes. We gave it full throttle trying to outrun the rain since it looked like blue skies ahead, and as soon as we were out of the rain we stopped the bikes to put on some warmer clothes. We bundled up the best we could, but unfortunately my heated vest was out of commission as a result of a broken wire which caused a hot spot in the vest. It not only melted through the outer layer of the vest, but also my sweater, t-shirt, and tank top before finally leaving a sizeable char mark on my bra. My dad was nice enough to offer me his heated vest instead, and just as we were gearing up the rain caught up to us again! We tried to outrun the rain a second time, but by this time the clay road was turning to a thick slippery orange goo full of barely visible potholes. It was also quite dark out now so it was becoming increasing difficult to see. After battling the driving conditions for an hour we came across a village consisting of a few mud shacks. We stopped and asked a lady how far it was to Salinas. She told us it was only 2 hours away. We were a little worried that after driving for a full hour it was still apparently 2 hours away, but thought perhaps she was mistaken. We would just ask the next person we saw to clarify. The problem was, that we didn't see another person for 2 hours. When we finally came across the next tiny mud shack village we asked the first person we saw how much time we had left before we got to Salinas. She told us 3 hours. This is when the panick really started to set it. It was not only getting dark, and storming on and off, but there was no sign of Salinas and all we knew was that we were supposed to be in Salinas anywhere between 3 hours from now and 1 hour ago. The conditions must have gotten the better of me because the next thing I knew I blurted out in a desperate tone "Well, can't we just stay here? Maybe someone has a llama barn we can sleep in or something...it will just be for one night!" My dad had a good laugh over that one and said that we should just keep trucking along slowly and eventually we would get there. We drove for another hour, now in pitch darkness on whatever remained of the road in hopes that we would eventually find the elusive Salinas, when we came across a checkpoint of some sort. A lady was manning the checkpoint with what I can only assume was her pet alpaca. I certainly hope he wasn't the "guard alpaca." When we stopped at the gate a few more people poked their heads out of the booth to see what the commotion was all about. Slowly the lady came walking up to the bikes, the alpaca shuffling hesitantly behind, and rather inquisitively asked us where we were headed to. We used the opportunity to ask her where Salinas was and we were pretty surprised when she said "this is Salinas". I looked into the total darkness and succeeded in seeing nothing aside from the gate that was blocking our path and the alpaca curiously tilting its head from side to side each time I looked around. We asked if there actually was a hotel in this city as we were promised over and again. She said that there was a hostal in the plaza of the city. Now totally baffled we thanked her and drove a few feet up the "highway" in hopes that the mystery city would suddenly emerge. We stopped at an adobe brick house and asked where the hotel was. Just as the lady suggested, we were directed to the plaza, but again we saw nothing. We drove a few more feet up the road, stopped at another adobe brick house and asked once more where the hostal was. Yet again we were told to just drive to the plaza, but this time we were given directions. He even told us the "good road" to take to get to the plaza. Thank goodness we didn't take the bad road because the "good road" turned out to be a narrow street that was undergoing renovations to install a sewage pipeline and therefore had a giant gorge carved into the middle of it leaving only 2 feet between the hole and the the walls of the houses. We carefully shimmied our way down the narrow path and in pitch darkness arrived in the plaza of the city. The only light in the whole village was coming from one dimly lit neon bulb at the entrance of the hostal and another one from a street vendor's booth. Although everyone we talked to was really friendly and strangers would wish you a nice evening when passing by, the utter darkness gave the eerie impression that people were lurking in the shadows. My dad went into the hostal to ask about lodging and they told us that they had a room available for the night for $1.10. The price was good, but of course that meant that the room probably was not, and since they were the only place in town we didn't have any options left. We were pretty tired at this point, so just about anything would do, and "just about anything" was what we got. To get to the room you had to climb a concrete staircase up to the landing which was little more than some scaffolding made out of bits and pieces of metal piping and rebar welded together. The floor of the landing consisted of wooden planks laid on the piping with little concern as to minimizing the gaps between the boards. The room had only two small single cots and a wooden coat rack in the corner with the same wooden planks as on the outside landing for a floor. The windows were cracked, the doors didn't lock and the bathroom was communal to half the people in the village. A hot shower would have been so welcome after the strenuous drive, but I got one look at the mildewy rags bundled up in shower area resting in a nest of hairs and changed my mind. Then I also realized the shower area was in no way seperated from the leaking toilet and used-toilet-paper-garbage-can area (flushing paper is highly discouraged), and definitely scrapped the idea of the shower. Besides, there was no covering on the window in the bathroom and the door not only didn't lock, but also didn't close properly anyways. I figured using the tap would at least be safe but as soon as I turned on the tap water came shooting out of a pipe that was located directly on top of the faucet but for some inexplicable reason was facing the side of the sink instead of the basin thereby causing water to splash all over the floor and not even remotely close to the sink. By the time we unloaded all of our luggage and got used to the idea of our surroundings we mustered up enough courage to order some food. We only had one small bun in the morning, and after such a hard day of riding we were pretty hungry. We were pleased when the owner plopped down some hot coffees followed by bread, two piping hot bowls of alpaca soup and some sort of alpaca/carrot/rice mush. It actually tasted rather good and after chowing down heartily we worked on our coffees. My dad made a bit of a face when he got to the bottom of the cup because there was a large coffee grind in the bottom of his cup. As he spit it out onto his plate I began laughing uncontrollably when I realized the large coffee grind was, in reality, a large fly. I suppose when things get that bad all you can really do is laugh about your luck, so my dad joined in and we both ended up laughing until we had tears in our eyes. After we finished our borderline mental breakdowns it was time for some sleep. I pulled back the wool blankets and realized you were given one flat sheet which could either be used to cover up the dingy mattress or as a clean barrier between the blankets that had probably been on that bed unwashed for the last two decades. There were no pillowcases either. I decided that for my own mental well-being I would use the bottom sheet to cover up the mattress and pillow, add extra reinforcement over the pillow with my rain suit, and sleep in my riding gear to minimize contact with anything in the room. I'm still not sure if the room was actually worth the $1.10, but then again, I was about ready to sleep in a llama barn, so I suppose it was at least a step up from that.
After a less than stellar sleep we were ready to hit the road again. We had some bread and coffee for breakfast...minus the flies this time....loaded up the bikes and started towards the Chilean border from Salinas. Unfortunately after battling the road for a good 15 minutes we rendered it futile. We were told it was only 3 hours on that road to Chile, but as we learned yesterday, that didn't really mean a heck of a lot, plus we were now wondering if there would even be a proper border when we got to the frontera. In addition, not only were these roads bad, but they also had a heck of a lot of climbing involved. After some deliberation we both agreed to cut our losses and make the 4 and a half hour trip back towards La Paz. We found a little bit of a shortcut to get to Huari, which would save us about 9 river crossings, so we cut our total down from 27 to 18 (that only includes rivers that actually had water in them at the time and omits any that had dried up between rains)!! There was a catch...of course! One of the rivers we crossed in lieu of some smaller ones was a very deep one and we had to blast through it full throttle since the waterline was coming dangerously close to the muffler. The other catch was the river full of quick sand. I had just crossed the first stream of water, and slowed down slightly to turn my wheel to cross the second. As soon as I lost my momentum my bike started to sink in the sand. I tried to give it one quick rev of the throttle in hopes I'd pop out, but all that succeeded in doing was sinking my bike tire further. I put my feet down in the sand to try to see if I could walk the bike out only to find that my feet started sinking into the sand. Suddenly I found myself up to calf level in the muck with sand running into my boots and every time I tried to dislodge my feet all that happened was that I sunk deeper! In a panick I let out a huge "eeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee! I'm siiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiinnnnnnkkkkkiiiiiiiiing!!!!!!!!" to my dad. One look at my bike, and me encased in the muck and my dad just burst out laughing. Using my dad as a support beam I yanked myself up out of the sand and then finally got to assess the damage myself. I got one look at the rear of the bike sunken all the way past the chain and all I could to my dad was "Uh oh. What now?". He replied with "Well, we don't have a rope and there isn't a sign of anything for miles....first we take a picture.....then we'll figure out how to get out of this mess." We unloaded all the luggage to lighten up the bike, and tried a few times to push or pull it out to no avail. I suggested trying to get some rocks under the wheels somehow so that the bike had a base. My dad said we should put a large rock under the kickstand first so we could try to tilt the bike over and dislodge it a bit, then use rocks under the wheels so that the tires had grip. We gathered up a bunch of them, and began the process of carefully tilting the bike over to one side, shoving in as many rocks as we could, then switching sides and repeating the process. It actually worked rather well, and after a few minutes of that we had the bike ready. All we had to do then was walk the bike over to the other bank and we were home free!! I took as much sand off of the bike as I could before loading it up and starting on my way again. Thankfully the aforementioned deep river was the next thing we hit after getting stuck in the sand, so a lot of it probably washed off in that crossing. We stopped for the night in a city called Oruro, rather than heading to La Paz to save some driving. Oruro isn't a very tourist town so we got the usual strange looks at every stop. We spent some of the evening wandering around the market. All of the local markets are sectioned off according to what they sell. The organization of some areas is pretty self explanatory, such as the meats section, the fruit juices section, the pharmacy street, or the clothing block. Other areas are a little less clear. Some of these include the padlocks/paperclips/walkman booths which don't belong in the hardware street, or the whistles/wooden frogs/glow in the dark plastic ants tables which are for some reason separate from the toys area. While we were trying to figure out the organization scheme we stumbled across the most peculiar booths we'd seen yet. The ladies working at the booth would take a sheet of dot matrix printer paper. They would then place various items on it including such things as salt or talc pucks that had images embossed in them, dried egg noodles or beans, small balls of llama fur, herbs, and the clencher, teddy bear golden graham cookies. We inquired and were told that it was for medicinal purposes. We then asked what the shrivelled up alpaca fetuses and dried armadillos were for. The lady told us very sternly, because they are pretty, and then rolled her eyes at the idiocy of our question.