Train, bike, train. At least that’s the plan as we make our way south, then west in Argentina (which, by the way, we’ve figured out, is much, much bigger than Uruguay).
We night-biked from our hotel to the outskirts of Monte, arriving at the train station1 about an hour and half before departure (we wanted to find someone who worked there and confirm that there was space for our bicis!).
Cat poked around the platform while Kale waited nearby with the bikes. A sinister looking hombre, smelling of beer and decorated with dreads and face tattoos, emerged from down the tracks. The super cute toddler by his side made him a lot less intimidating. Cat gave them a smile, said “hola” and followed them to a window where someone train-affiliated sat. There, Cat proceeded to ask (with a huge smile and fingers crossed), “Tenemos boletos a Bahía Blanca. Y tenemos dos bicicletas, está bien?”2 To which the employee immediately replied: “No, no bicicletas.”
Ah! As Cat began to plead, Señor Face Tats overheard and intervened: “Noooo! Puedes …[speaking too quickly for Cat to understand]…” He followed up by pointing to the man behind the window. “Bah!” he exclaimed, with a wave of his hand, clearly signalling that Cat should disregard the man behind the window.
Out of options, Cat turned toward Face Tats and requested more info, “mas despacio, por favor.”
Face Tats smiled and replied, “Necesitas hablar con persona en el tren. Explicas tu situación, y ‘por favor!’”3
Not promising, but it was something. With a tiny glimmer of hope, Cat returned to report to Kale. That’s when Face Tats saw our fully-loaded LHTs.4 He began to laugh.
“Ahhhh!” he exclaimed. “Por favor! Por favor! Por favor!” ? ? ?
Basically, he was telling us we would need to beg the people on the train to let us on with our bikes. Turns out, he was a cyclist as well (a unicyclist, in fact), and according to him, if the bikes were empty (without panniers) then maybe they would allow them aboard. Yikes!
We anxiously awaited our departure time with our bikes still loaded (taking our panniers off would open a-whole-nother can of worms), unsure of what would happen next.
Around 9:30pm a train pulled up. Our train wasn’t until 10-something, but seeing the approaching lights, we scrambled (“Is this our train? Ahhh!”). It wasn’t. This train was headed north to Buenos Aires. The physical condition of this train reduced our optimism even further: it was old, with passenger cars only — no apparent space for any sort of luggage whatsoever. To make matters even more distressing, the train’s doors were high off the ground and too narrow for our wide steeds, at least while fully loaded.
We began wondering: Should we unload our bags from our bikes now? Each bike has five bags — six if you include our handlebar bags. Conundrum.
That’s when Betty appeared. Sweet, sweet Betty. While she was also uncertain if we would be able to get our bikes on, she provided some distracting, light-hearted, comprehensible conversation. She also explained that when the train arrived, our car (502) would be much further down the platform…
The lights of an oncoming train appeared so we gave Betty a hug and hurried off in the direction she had pointed, frantically searching for our car. We located car 502, and with forced smiles we asked a young conductor (seemingly about our age) about our bikes. He asked us where we were headed; “Bahía Blanca” we responded. “Un momento,” he replied, before scurrying toward the front of the train. Wide-eyed, we looked at each other. “Holy shit, this might be possible.”
A painfully slow minute later, he returned and beckoned us to follow him toward the train’s caboose. Bingo!
As we struggled to lift the fully-loaded bikes aboard the last car of the train (our steeds must weigh 100 lbs. each), we learned that the train usually does not allow bicycles (let alone loaded bikes) aboard – since we were headed to the train’s final destination, they were making an exception for us. We jumped aboard and were escorted forward to our seats in car 502.5 We sat and began to giggle in disbelief. We were en route to Bahía Blanca, having trimmed our ride to Ushuaia by 700 kilometers.
The train ride itself was more pleasant than we had anticipated; newly redone, functioning AC, comfy, and calm. We got a little sleep and pulled into Bahía Blanca the next morning around 9am.
Upon arrival, we were sleepy and in no shape to begin biking to Viedma, which lies 280 kilometers to the south. Thus, we decided to spend the night in Bahía Blanca, where we could clean our bikes, reorganize some of our gear, pay homage to NBA legend Manu Ginobli (born and raised in Bahía Blanca), and mentally prepare for the next portion of the tour.
Our game plan? We’d heard rumors of a train that runs from Viedma to San Carlos de Bariloche (“Bariloche”) every Friday evening. Tickets weren’t available online and our efforts to buy tickets over the phone had been fruitless.6 In fact, we were getting mixed opinions from locals of whether or not the train was still even operational.
Since neither of us had gotten great sleep on the train, we needed a nap; by the time we awoke, it was time for dinner. We went to a German-Argentine restaurant and jowled on some delicious wurst. Bon provecho!
Biking through the Pampas
Day 1: Bahía Blanca to Mayor Buratovich
It was Sunday, so technically we had five days to reach our destination. Our goal, however, was to complete the journey in three days in order to (hopefully) secure train tickets in person at the Viedma station. If tickets were sold out or the train was no longer operational, then we would initiate Plan B.7
The night before, we had vowed to leave early to beat the heat — naturally, this didn’t happen (we blame the free breakfast). Fully stocked with enough water and food for three days, we pedaled out of town at around 10am and hopped on ruta 3 — the route that would take us all the way south to Viedma.
We had researched the route and learned (from journal entries from Crazy Guy on a Bike (“CGOAB”) blog, here and here) that the initial part of route 3 would be a heavily trafficked, narrow highway with no shoulder. To our surprise, the route began with a respectable shoulder — sure there was considerable traffic (for a Sunday), but the shoulder felt safe. Nonetheless, we were
dreading prepared for when the shoulder would disappear… Fortunately, that moment never came! Woo hoo! At some point between 2008 (when the CGOAB blog post was written) and today, the road had been refurbished. Awesome!
About 30 kilometers in, we reached a checkpoint zoofitosanitaria — a barrier to prevent fruits, vegetables, and meat from being carried over into the “protected” region of Patagonia. We knew about this in advance (#research), so we weren’t carrying any fruits, veggies or meat (our plan was to sustain on pasta for three days 🙂 ). We told them that we had been informed of the restrictions and they didn’t ask us to open our panniers. After wishing us “buen viaje,” we pedaled on.
Shortly thereafter, the road forked — ruta 3 continued south while ruta 22 (along with most of the traffic) veered westward, toward the Argentine lake districts. Open road! We pedaled, still full of energy from the free breakfast and eager to cover as much ground as possible.
The road was flat and the land, open and dry. Thankfully, every 20-30 kilometers or so, we found turn offs with patches of shade. On these breaks (about one every hour) we would sit in the shade to rest, drink some water, or nibble on a snack. During one such break, Kale couldn’t resist lying down, and just as he was telling Cat how great it felt… “OWWW!” Kale was bitten on the hand (which had been cradling his head) by at least one ant. Our first, first-aid emergency! Cat grabbed the first-aid kit, dabbed a little hydrocortisone cream on the hand and we were back on the road.
For most of the day, we were able to maintain a speed in the range of 15 to 20km per hour — which for us is lightning quick, especially considering our pace a few days prior on the dirt/sand roads between La Plata and Monte. We didn’t see many autos or camiones on the road, but many of those that did pass gave us a honk and a wave, providing a great motivational boost! There was little wildlife to be found… Unless you count the roadkill, of course.8
We did spot a sneaky coyote hiding in the shadows, a handful of wild wabbits (surprisingly large), and a flock of rheas on a hillside (ostrich-like birds, which scattered and ran when we pulled over in hopes of snapping a pic). Of course, there were cows eyeing us every few kilometers and plenty of bugs (Kale took a bug in the back the throat, Cat in the nose). And last, but not least, at one point we shared some shade with a horse rockin’ a Mr. T hairdo.
After 60 kilometers, we felt accomplished, yet decided to dig deep and press on; the cross-wind wasn’t too strong and it was meant to be even hotter tomorrow. We continued forward until we reached the next town along the route (the first since Bahía Blanca), Mayor Buratovich — named after a croatian engineer who (in the early 1900s) had advocated for the development of rail service to the area. This put us at ~94km on the day — our longest ride yet!
We pedaled into Mayor Buratovich via a tree lined street. Once we hit the town, it didn’t take us long to reach the end of it — luckily, this is also where we discovered a signless, logoless gas station. Pulling in, we could see tables inside, so we parked our bikes, bought cold water and a Gatorade (!) and quenched (after drinking warm water all day, a cold beverage is heaven).
Our Spanish skills are improving: by our estimates, we currently have the conversational skills of a three-year-old native speaker and the listening skills of a well-trained dog. After 90 kilometers in the saddle, however, they’re back at N00B level. Still, the two people working at the gas station were very patient and, with ample use of hand gestures, we were able to make some new friends. Our new amigos informed us that there was one restaurant in town, which opened at around 8pm. With a few hours to kill, we hung at the gas station, enjoyed AC, wifi and even scored a camping spot next to the gas station (one of our new friends assured us that it was the safest spot in town for us to camp).9
At 8 o’clock and we pedaled around the corner to La Vieja Estacion and were greeted by two very friendly ladies prepping the restaurant for opening. (Sidenote: Dinner time for Argentinians is around 10pm, so we are consistently the first to arrive.) Even though the restaurant didn’t actually open until 9pm, they seated us and let us store our bikes in their garage. Dinner was awesome — we tried Quilmes (cerveza de Argentina) for the first time, and wolfed down a delicious meal prepared by one of the chicas.
We returned to the gas station by moonlight and prepared to set up camp. Upon arrival, we examined the area where we thought we’d been told to camp (an empty lot next to the station); however, we had misunderstood the location. Our amigo (who by this point was in the process of closing the station for the night) pointed us to a slim strip of grass, bordering the station’s parking lot. It was bumpy terrain, and would be a tight squeeze for our (deceptively large three-person) tent. We held a band meeting and after some
arguing discussion re: our options, we decided that it was too late to relocate. Thus, we pitched the tent, locked up our bikes, and prepared for bed. Before we climbed in ourselves, we noticed a putrid stench. Sure enough, each of our right shoes had fallen victim to dog shit (cute right?). Shoes outside and smell lingering, we crawled into the tent, praying that our movements weren’t squishing our beloved tent into doo-doo. Despite the bumpy terrain, our wonderful air mattresses provided support and we were able to get some much-needed shut eye.
Day 2: Mayor Buratovich to Stroeder
5:30am. Kale wakes up to the alarm.
5:32am. Cat wakes up to a face-full of air being released from Kale’s deflating air mat.
So begins, day 2 on ruta 3.
Groggy, we packed up and started to get ready for the day. Things took longer than expected — as they typically do. We packed up our gear and flipped the tent to examine: somehow, miraculously, it had evaded the dog shit — whew.
Three kilometers into the day’s ride, Cat hailed Kale, requesting to check the air pressure of her tires (Kale carries the pump). Sure enough, they were low.
Pumped up! Onward! Cat led with Kale trailing.
Gradually, Cat began to creep further and further ahead of Kale. Ten kilometers later, she was well ahead. Like any egotistical male, Kale began searching for excuses to explain the ass-kicking. He narrowed it down to the following:
- Rage, as converted into power pedaling. Kale had sassed Cat (a little) for not checking her tire pressure before that morning’s departure. She hadn’t appreciated his sass and was using this rage as fuel to administer an ego-shattering, ass-kicking;
- The aerodynamics of Kale’s steed. Kale straps his guitar to his rear rack pack (the big bag that sits just behind our saddles) making his steed more susceptible to unfavorable gusts of cross-winds; and/or
- The 6.5 L water jug that was bungee corded to Kale’s front rack (a relatively new addition to Kale’s steed). In addition to the extra weight, from Kale’s POV, the jug seemed to be misaligned (leaning heavily toward the right pannier) — leading to some handling issues. “It must have come loose on a bump,” Kale rationalized. “I”ll fix it when we stop for water next.”
Cat was getting further and further ahead. Kale’s water jug was now so far to the right that it was pushed up against his right hand brake. He was also finding it increasingly difficult to keep control of his steering. His steed felt wobbly. Stubborn as ever, Kale kept churning his legs.
With Cat out of sight and the wobbles, relentless, Kale decided he needed to stop and recenter the water jug. That’s when he noticed the front tire. Flat as a pancake. Kale’s first flat tire… ever.
Now is probably a good point to remind you of our amateur-ness. Wisely, in the months leading up to the tour, Cat had signed herself up for an REI class that focused on basic bike repairs — which included a lesson on dealing with a flat tire. Kale had skipped the class10 — “it’ll be a good exercise for you to teach me!” he’d explained to Cat at the time. When Cat got her first (and second) flats of the tour, he’d watched her swap out the tubes, always bragging that “superior handling skills” kept him flat-free and that he’d “figure it out – can’t be that hard” when if the time came.
I don’t get flat tires and you can put that down to superior handling” – Kale
Whelp, that time had come. Clumsily, Kale followed his instincts. By pulling from memories of watching Cat do the task, he was able to change the tube and get back on the road. The process took ~15 minutes. Not bad, eh? 😉
Meanwhile, Cat had reached a gas station (a natural water-break point) and when she couldn’t even see Kale, began to realize how far ahead she was. Ten minutes later, still no sign. Assuming that he’d fallen victim to his first flat (and knowing how unprepared he was to deal with such a set back) she turned her bike around and doubled back.11 Sure enough, she found him a few kilometers back — peddling on a fresh tube and wearing a bearded grin that clearly screamed “I’m proud of myself.”
After about 30 more kilometers, we approached another gas station where we stopped for sandwiches and a Gatorade (#coolblue). Fifty kilometers down and it wasn’t even noon. Not bad considering our delays.
Our maps told us that the next gas station was roughly 20 kilometers away. The weather forecast had shown peak temperatures of 95°F from 2pm through ~5pm. With that in mind, we decided to grind out 20 more then seek coverage in the (hopefully AC’ed) gas station until the heat subsided.
The next 20kms were hot, sweaty, and exhausting, but a slight, diagonal tailwind helped. We reached the gas station, crushed some bread and juice, and waited. It was about 2pm. The heat should begin to wane in a couple hours — plus, the sun wouldn’t set until 8:30pm. We had time…
Enough rest. It was 4:30pm, and though the heat had not yet given way, we were uncomfortable and restless. Listo? Listo!
Hardly five brutal12 kilometers into the afternoon session and Cat was toast. We had now gone 75km on the day and her body was telling her “no mas, por favor.” Alas, it didn’t make sense to turn back. Exhausted, we decided to just try and find the next good camping spot.
We searched and we searched for a spot to camp, but to no avail. Roadside trees, which appeared to be solid camping spots from a distance, might as well have been mirages: inevitably, they would end up being fugly shrubs13 or on the other side of a fence. Somehow, 5km turned to 10km. 10km to 15km, and before we knew it, we had gone over 20kms and were within striking distance of the next town, Stroeder. There, we could surely find some place safe and shady14 to camp.
A few kilometers before taking the exit toward Stroeder, we hit 100 kilometers on the day! It was our longest day yet (besting our previous record of 94km, set the day prior) — we were now proud members of the Century Club 🙂
As we like to do upon arriving in a new place, we pedaled our way to the town’s central plaza and introduced ourselves to a couple taking a stroll. When prompted with the question, “Do you know where we can camp?” the friendly lady made two phone calls right away. Hardly two minutes later, a man zoomed up alongside the plaza in his little car, parked and introduced himself. His name was Carlito; fast-talking, chain-smoking Carlito, a local who (luckily for us) seems to run shit in Stroeder. Taking us under his wing, we were escorted to the police station where we answered a few questions and showed our passports. Carlito then led us to the “municipal” building — which seemed to be some type of government office. Carlito said we could camp anywhere in the property, use the hose, and some more stuff we didn’t understand.
As soon as Carlito left the premises, Kale stripped down and seized the hose. It felt amazing. However, more people seem to know about this hose. To Kale’s shock and surprise, a man pulled up (mid-soap) intending to use the hose to wash his car. Kale dropped the hose and sprinted around the corner out of sight, wearing nothing but the soap he hadn’t time to rinse off.
Dressed again, we cooked some pasta for dinner, inhaled it, and passed out.
Day 3: Stroeder to Viedma
Here it was: the last day! We woke up with a positive outlook on the day, inspired by our recent achievement of joining the Century Club and knowing we were within a day’s ride of Viedma. We shared some mate with Carlito (who had arrived at around 5:45am), said goodbye, and set off.
The day began with a challenge. Stroeder was two kilometers off the route and with two access points: one from the northwest (from which we had entered) and one from the southwest. We went out via the southwest exit (rather than backtrack) only to be greeted by a sandy, dirt road. Nooo!
Though it wasn’t nearly as bad as our experience in Laguna de Rocha and only lasted two kilometers, it was a time and energy suck — not a perfect way to begin the day. Once we reached the route, we were rewarded with… wait for it… a tailwind! They do exist! We had yet to experience a true tailwind on our entire tour thus far. Simply glorious.
Alas, this bliss was short lived… Eight kilometers later, the road veered and we lost the tailwind. As the sun creeped higher in the sky, a headwind emerged. Curses.
The high temperature for the day was forecast at 102°F and by 10am, we were roasting. Unlike the first day of the journey, where we found turnoffs with shade, and the second day of the journey, where gas stations provided oases, on the third day we were met with vast pampas and unforgiving heat. No trees. No gas stations. No civilization.
We took more breaks — one about every 10 or 15 kilometers — usually where there was some sort of sign that we could lean our bikes against. We would then guzzle some water and proceed to squat behind our bikes/the sign for a brief break from the sun.
Around noon, we reached the turnoff for Carmen de Patagones, the city adjacent to Viedma, and said goodbye to route 3. Only 10km left! The road took us through the outskirts of Carmen de Patagones15 and onto a bridge leading across the Rio Negro and into Viedma.
With no immediate prospects for lodging or agua, we asked a trio of policia de bici (bicycle cops) for help. One of the policia escorted us to an intersection and pointed out a mercado de chino16 and the way to a hotel. However, with tired brains, we didn’t fully comprehend the directions we were given. Lost in translation, we proceeded to give ourselves an unwanted tour of the town.
We eventually stopped for water at a mini-mercado. The family that ran the place was extremely interested in our bikes and our adventure. We explained that we hoped to board the train to Bariloche, to which they responded with extreme doubt — certainly the train was completely sold out “porque navidad,”17 they informed us.
We stumbled upon a reasonably priced hotel (~$40/night) and took a much needed cold shower. Now in higher spirits, we decided to figure out Tren Patagónico once and for all. We hopped back on our bikes (sin bolsas) and scouted out the train station. It was muy tranquilo — contrary to what we expected, given the constant busy signal we consistently received when attempting to call the station. Answers: The train leaves Thursday this week, not Friday (due to the holidays); Yes, there is a room available; Yes, you can bring your bikes.
Giddy with relief, we sought out the closest cervezaria to celebrate. Salud!
Viedma to Bariloche: Tren Patagónico
Awaiting departure day, we spent a few lazy days in Viedma.
On Thursday, we rolled down to the train station about an hour before our 6pm departure. A couple of train-affiliated hombres stopped us as we tried to load our bikes into the cargo carriage ourselves; turns out there is an extra cost for bicis! Lame. We paid our luggage-fee and they helped us load up our bikes.
Aboard the train, we found our private cabin (when we purchased tickets, the only remaining seats were in “camarote” class) and settled in. As the train started moving, a man came knocking and asked what we would like for dinner. We put in our order and he gave us a reservation slip for 9pm.
At dinner time, we made our way into the next carriage and were stoked. Food, a bottle of wine, free?!?! Amazing! It was almost too good to be true.
As the dinner was winding down, we noticed people were paying. Hold on. We were under the impression that the meal was included in the price of the tickets (like on an airline). We hadn’t been asked if we wanted dinner — rather, we’d been asked what we wanted to eat for dinner. Plus, we hadn’t seen a menu and hadn’t been informed of the price of anything we’d consumed. Bummer. It turned out to be our most expensive meal so far in Argentina. Grrrr…
With a somewhat sour taste in our mouths, we retreated to our cabin, folded down the beds and tried to get some sleep.
Morning came and we wondered how far we had gone. Peeking out the window, the landscape outside didn’t look all that different from the day before (pampas, pampas, pampas). It was then we realized we had no idea how long the train was meant to take; we had figured we would arrive early morning. We read/dozed for a few hours, growing more and more grateful for indulging in a solid dinner the night before. Around noon, the landscape began to change — desert gave way to trees and, all of sudden, we spotted some mountains. The Andes!! We rolled into the Bariloche train station at around 1pm — 20 hours after our departure.
Our hosteria was a few kilometers away. We biked along the lake, enjoying the crisp air and beautiful scenery. Unfortunately, Kale’s bike seemed to have been roughed up on the train — the gear control was acting up. Fortunately, Bariloche has a few bike shops so we made plans to take ‘er in for a repair consultation.18
To pass the time on route 3 (did we mention how long, straight and deserted the road was!), Kale began snapping some vids. So here’s a compilation of those, set to a song by one of our all-time fave bands, Dawes. Enjoy!
We are super excited to be in Bariloche and will be spending navidad / festivus here. Thanks to a generous gift from Cat’s fam, we’re enjoying the comforts of staying in a charming hosteria (our room has a beautiful view of the lake and they serve scrambled eggs for breakfast!!!). Additionally, Mama and Papa Kale are shouting us a boat tour of Lago Nahuel Huapi — scheduled for Monday — which should make for some awesome pics.
To our friends and family (in the U.S., New Zealand, Uruguay and elsewhere), we love you and miss you.
Felices Fiestas 🙂 xoxoxoxox