There’s no sufficient superlative to depict the landscape, peripheral scenery and vistas from the Tierra del Fuego, the Land of Fire. Bounded on the north by the Martial mountain range and the south by the Beagle Channel, Ushuaia is the most southerly tip that can be reached by road. El Fin del Mundo, the End of the World. Home to a bustling port, a labyrinth of steep streets and locals who wouldn’t think twice to voluntarily stop their journey, pull over and offer you a ride home. The archipelago is where the Andes meet the southern ocean and is quite possibly the adventure hub of Argentina, come rain, snow or shine.
I could hardly keep up with my own thoughts knowing I was in that delicious overture of riding into one of the world’s biking meccas, falling in love with the place immediately. Out of the mountain pass we came and were deposited at our destination. It made me feel alive in seeing the twin entrance signs of Ushuaia, I couldn’t help but go a little berserk having made it all this way. Wildly I ran a couple of circles around my bike whooping in zealous delight, “We’ve made it, all this way to Ushuaia! Oh my God!”
Ten miles beforehand late in the afternoon, we started to think about the search of a cosy nook of the capital in which to stay; we pulled over for the umpteenth time to replace the camera batteries for fresh ones and serendipitously met a local on his bike. Little did I know, Juan Pablo had pointed us to the most affordable accommodation smack in the centre of town, geared up for bikers with everything we wanted and more in which to get some much needed R&R. The hostel was owned by a gregarious guy called Momo, and located on the corner of Argentina Antarctica and San Martin street; next to a cornflower blue beautifully corrugated chocolate shop/café. I made a mental note to hook up with Juan Pablo for a beer later. Lady Luck was clearly rewarding us after the long slog down.
Admittedly, we’d been feverishly rushing from one rest stop to the next, setting off full throttle daily. All the way from Uruguay following heat wave shimmering horizons down to Tierra del Fuego – keen to inch our way down the map. Namely a third of the continent at full tilt. This was simply because we needed to get there before the looming spectre of winter hit us. As well, Ruta 3 on the east coast was largely flat, uneventful landscape; nothing much to do or see. When your body rides the mileage inside the intense timeframe we have, it’s not surprising when you become bone-tired, and the person you’re with will inevitably suffer the same. We were like organic combustion; I was phosphorous and Jason sulphur, my body was telling me I needed timeout or I’d just spontaneously spark up at him.
By the first morning in Ushuaia, we were fresh and full of beans again. We’d recced the city, blown the cobwebs out down by the seafront spotting elegant crested tinamou, harriers, siskins, giant petrels and dolphin gulls in the process. A good start. We were ready for some Patagonian magic from the Argentinian side of enchantment. Those charms in Chilean Patagonia would have to wait. We hiked up a snow-capped mountain, taking us over a picturesque beaver dam where sunlight dappled through the trees, through a forest bursting with every colour of autumn, ascending two waterfalls glittering downwards in the sun and up a rocky climb to the thick snowline. Low and behold, a local dog with stubby legs had adopted us as his travelling companions and accompanied us for the entire day. What a cutie, he didn’t bark not even once. Upon wading through deep snow and reaching the top, we saw what we’d been waiting half a day for; a majestic lagoon, partially iced over with the most commanding view. It was preternaturally quiet up there, and the grandeur of these glacial mountains provided a cinematic backdrop. “Wow!” was all we kept saying.
Having set off mid morning, we completed our descent off the mountain in fading light around 7.30pm – knee deep in mud stains from trudging through peaty bogs – and passed a handful of handsome horses along the way. This was before entering the territory of angry dogville. Big, aggressive dogs took malicious pleasure in charging towards us, flashing their sharp canines ready to ravage limbs should we have moved an inch too close. We had five unwanted miles left before reaching the cosy warmth of our hostel in Ushuaia. We’d both had about enough for one day; there was only one viable solution staring me in the face. I stuck my thumb out into passing traffic semaphoring my succinct intentions and sure enough, the goodness of the locals pulled over in the form of a young woman driving a Clio. Full of that typical Argentinian fervour, Andrea was pleased to let us hitch hike back with her. As the happy trio we were, which included a ready to drop but relieved duo, we spoke enough Spanglish to convey our deep gratitude and called it a day. What a day!
Blessed with days of blue skies and bright sunshine, we wended our way through Tierra del Fuego National Park during one of them, southwest of the island neighbouring up against Chile protecting almost 70,000 hectares of the Andes. It spans from the north of Lake Kami in the Beauvoir range south to the coast of the Beagle Channel. We took an opportunity to have a little play with our bikes on the undulating grassy hills before realising we were falling over stunning spots to wild camp. Gone 5pm we had the place to ourselves, which was glorious. Jason experimented for the first time with the quadcopter – a remote controlled aircraft that enables a GoPro camera to film as it flies – and I lost myself to George Martin’s second book in the Game of Thrones series beneath a sunset bearing gargantuan bands of pinks and vivid oranges. Compensating for the daylight warmth when the sun gave way to a cool crescent moon, we made a comforting log fire that kept the chill at bay. We melted chocolate spread on toasted baguettes over licking flames below a starry sky. Oblivious of the date, day or time, we were immersed in a little piece of Zen-like serenity.
The morning commenced me kicking myself in having created such a golden opportunity for a Fuegan red fox. Full of cunning, he lived up to his name and set up a decoy by emptying the contents of a nearby rubbish bin, littering the place full of trash. I turned my back for a split second to clean up the mess only to see this sly old sneak help himself to my breakfast. Straight in my motorcycle pannier, there goes my cheese. The debacle’s significance dissipated when we spotted a succession of Sheld geese, a black chested buzzard eagle perching up for photos, crested Caracaras alongside Imperial cormorants soaring over the freshwater lake and Megellanic woodpeckers drumming away in the forest. The morning also saw me avoiding serious injury from choosing not to consume the mussels, all about the shores of Lapataia Bay but all tainted by paralysis-inducing ‘Red tide’ contaminating the local waters.
Juan Pablo, the chap we fortuitously met moments before reaching Ushuaia generously took the time to take us out for a rideout with four of his friends. We went off roading up and around Talquin, pulling up at a panoramic spot tucked away from the tourist trail. I found myself getting choked up for some reason overlooking the jagged mountains all around me, as old as the world itself; could feel myself getting a bit overwhelmed but couldn’t tell you why. I wondered if it was may be a by-product of when you start to really feel a place. After lunch at a secluded place high up in the hills, we rode some trails broken up by gently flowing streams and taken to the clearest freshwater lake I’d ever seen – just thirty minutes outside of Ushuaia.
I just sat mesmerized in the saddle. The afternoon sunlight glimmered on the mirror-still emerald water. What a spot to have on your doorstep! Abandoned wooden cabins were dotted around the fish filled lake, you could bring your family here for the weekend and just relax in total tranquility, cast a fishing rod, be at peace. The ride back over the Garibaldi pass – overlooking dense forests in deep rusty reds and terracotta – was a dream of sweeping bends descending into the capital. It was getting increasingly difficult to imagine our departure from this place.
We’ve also had the good fortune of meeting some decent travellers at our backpackers, a trio of whom built an affectionate rapport with us. Chicago born Andrew in his late twenties had the longest main of curly brown hair, a mouth made for smiling and playing some story-telling tunes on his harmonica no less. Ash from Hastings boasted a cracking beard complete with pony-tailed blond locks handsomely accomplishing an aptly nautical image, or tuna boat fisherman as I liked to throw in our repartee. I thought he was a gentle soul.
He’d left his bike up north and crewed on his friend’s yacht down from Puerto Montt to Ushuaia. Ash invited us to spend some quality time on board where we enjoyed watching him and Andrew jam on their guitar and harmonica. This was definitely the life for me. And Hannes, a young German fella full of infectious enthusiasm led the way in showing us Ushuaia’s finest nightlife downtown at a local bar. It felt good to let our hair down with the guys and sink a few jars. I know Jase particularly welcomed the male company.
I am well and truly embracing our trip – loving it more than yesterday, less than tomorrow.