With a few weeks until our flight home, we had plenty of time to explore Tierra del Fuego and Ushuaia, the southernmost city in Argentina.
Tierra del Fuego: Road Trip!
The ferry crossing across the Beagle Strait from Isla Navarino took us about a half hour. Despite some choppy waters and one full stomach of cerveza artesanal,1 the crossing went smoothly.
Our Français amigos, Fred and Bass, met us at the tourist office near the docks. There was something odd about seeing them pull up in a old white rental car, rather than on their traditional two-wheeled steeds. The plan? Drop off our bikes and gear at the house of some locals where Fred and Bass had been staying, then hit the road (in auto) to explore some of Tierra del Fuego. Since Bass wanted to stretch his restless legs, Kale jumped in the rental car with Fred while Bass and Cat pedaled through the busy city and up a few steep roads, to a quiet neighborhood about 4 kilometers from the city center.
Fred and Bass had been crashing with Niko and Clau since their arrival in Ushuaia three days prior. The couple and their 3 year old son, Ciro, had cycled the northern portion of the Carretera Austral a few months prior and spent New Year’s Eve with our French connection.
We enjoyed some much needed coffee, grabbed our tent and camping gear and with Fred behind the wheel (duh), set off north on Ruta 3, the only road out of Ushuaia. We had 30 hours before we needed to return the rental car. If possible, we wanted to make it 400 kilometers to Bahia Inútil, where a colony of King Penguins visits each summer.
On our way out of town, we made a quick stop to pick up Marcelo, a fellow traveller and a new friend of Fred and Bass. Kale, Marcelo and Bass squeezed in the back, while Cat, with her guanaco-like legs, sat up front. On the outskirts of Ushuaia, in traditional Argentinian fashion we passed through a military checkpoint and Fred was questioned (Where are you going? Why? How long?) before we were permitted to proceed.
In an hour, we’d made it to Tolhuin, a small town on the eastern shores of Lago Fagnano. There, we grabbed some grub at Panaderia Union, the local bakery. We’d heard about this bakery from northbound cyclists — apparently the owner is fond of cyclists and provides free accommodation to two-wheeled passers through. After eating, we headed down to Lago Fagnano and explored its shores, which are covered in smooth, shiny, wonderfully-colored piedras.
Stomachs full of bread, we consulted iOverlander (the application we’ve used throughout the trip to help locate good wild camping spots) and decided to drive for another hour and make camp on the Atlantic Coast, just north of the city of Rio Grande. A few kilometers before passing Rio Grande, we passed a flock of flamingos. Kale, Bass and Marcelo approached the flock, cameras equipped.
Back in the car, we navigated around Rio Grande, through another military/police checkpoint, and arrived at the beachside camp identified by iOverlander. We pitched our tent amidst some sand dunes and had a late dinner under an (almost) full moon.
We were still over 150km away from the penguin colony, and given that heading there would require us to wake up early and spend all day driving (including a sizable portion on ripio), we began to have second thoughts. Plus, Fred needed to get the car back before the rental company closed at 8pm. So instead, we woke up late and enjoyed a morning at the beach, going on a short hike up a nearby cliffside for some killer views. We also checked out an impressive Gauchito Gil shrine (we’d seen these iconic red shrines along the roadside throughout Argentina… Marcelo filled us in on what we were looking at: think Robin Hood meets patriotic soldier meets protective Saint and you’ve got Gauchito Gil).
No penguins this time, oh well.
En route back to Ushuaia, we passed through the city of Rio Grande. From the car we saw Caídos en Malvinas, a group of monuments paying homage to the Argentine soldiers and their dogs that fought in Guerra de las Malvinas (the Falklands War). A perfect segue into some history!
Guerra de las Malvinas (the Falklands War)
Guerra de las Malvinas was a ten-week war fought between Argentina and the United Kingdom over two British overseas territories in the South Atlantic: the Las Malvinas (Falkland Islands) and South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands.
In the period leading up to the war, Argentina had been in the midst of a devastating economic stagnation and large-scale civil unrest against the military junta that had been governing the country since 1976.
The conflict began in April 1982, when Argentina invaded and occupied Las Malvinas (and, the following day, South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands) in an attempt to establish the sovereignty it had claimed over them. The location of the islands (off Argentina’s east coast) led many Argentineans to believe that the territory was part of Argentina. The Argentine government hoped to use this patriotism to it’s benefit and divert public attention from both the country’s chronic economic problems and the regime’s ongoing human rights violations of the Dirty War (more on this below).
A few days after the Argentinean invasion (and somewhat surprisingly to Argentina’s leaders whom, by some reports, had calculated that the British would not respond militarily), the British government dispatched a naval task force to engage the Argentines and then made an amphibious assault on the islands. The conflict lasted 74 days and ended with the Argentine surrender on 14 June 1982, returning the islands to British control. In total, 649 Argentine military personnel, 255 British military personnel, and three Falkland Islanders died during the hostilities.
Diplomatic relations between the United Kingdom and Argentina were restored in 1989; however, no change in either country’s position regarding the sovereignty of the territories was made explicit. In 1994, Argentina’s claim to the territories was added to its constitution.
The memory of this conflict burns brightly in the minds of many Argentineans. Each time we exited or entered Argentina from Chile, we saw signs emblazoned with the words Las Malvinas Son Argentinas (the Malvinas belong to Argentina). In southern Argentina, similar signs were prominent on roadside billboards and plastered on the windows and walls of local businesses.
In 2013, Falkland Islanders took part in a referendum, voting by 1,513 to three to remain a British overseas territory. 🤔 2
Argentina’s “Dirty War”
The “Dirty War” was a term that we hadn’t heard of before traveling in Argentina. It refers to the period of state-sanctioned terrorism in Argentina (between roughly 1974 and 1983), during which military forces and right-wing death squads in the form of the Argentine Anticommunist Alliance (Triple A) hunted down and killed left-wing guerrillas, political dissidents, and anyone believed to be associated with socialism. Conservative estimates suggest that over 20,000 dissidents and alleged sympathizers were killed or simply “disappeared.” It’s also worth noting that the offending regime was supported by the United States government. Then Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, congratulated Argentina’s military junta for combating the left, stating that in his opinion the government of Argentina had done an outstanding job in wiping out terrorist forces.3
Goodbye Fred y Bass!
Back in Ushuaia, we headed back to casa de Nico y Clau. Clau and Bass made us all a delicious dinner while we were entertained by Ciro. After dinner, the musical instruments came out and we had a nice evening of wine and music.
After 1000+ kilometers of cycling,4 almost 40 hours of boat rides and one bus, we said goodbye to Fred and Bass. They had a bus back to Punta Arenas (where they would be reunited with their steeds), followed by a flight to Arica, the northernmost city in Chile. From there, their plan is to begin biking north toward Arequipa, Peru where they will continue their journey. We learned a lot from our Français amigos and know we’ll be seeing them again.
Parque Nacional Tierra del Fuego
We packed up, said thank you to Nico, Clau, and Ciro, and hit the road. We had 10 days until our flights home, and decided to spend a few nights camping in Parque Nacional Tierra del Fuego, the nearby national park. It was the first time we’d ridden our bikes fully-loaded in a while, and they had never felt heavier (which makes sense, given we’d started collecting rocks). We stopped at a grocery store and loaded up on lots of goodies (peppers, radish, beets, apples, pears, tomatoes, avocados…) before we pedaled out of downtown Ushuaia. After 10 kilometers we reached the entrance to the park and made our way around the line of cars that were waiting to pay the 350 peso ($23 USD) per person entrance fee. We leaned our bikes against the guardaparque building, unsure of where (or if) we should pay. A tour bus pulled up next to us, and a pack of tourists disembarked and entered the adjacent building. We followed, but after seeing the line inside, decided to jump back on the bikes and pedal on. Nobody stopped us. Yet another perk of traveling on a bike! Ten kilometers (or so, Fred wasn’t there to give us the stats 😜) later, we reached Laguna Verde, one of the park’s free camping spots. The area was tranquil (when the wind wasn’t howling) and on the banks of a calm river. There were two tents already pitched and we made our way about 200 meters past these before finding a secluded and beautiful spot for ours.
We called Laguna Verde home for the next four days. We relaxed, biked around, enjoyed some decent weather, cooked, ate, Cat finished the fifth book in A Song of Ice and Fire (#GoT), and scoped lots of birds. A caracara family, our favorite bird and one that, for us, symbolizes our trip, made an appearance, along with some woodpeckers, and some bold hawks. We became well acquainted with one juvenile hawk in particular, whom continually squawked while watching us eat, seemingly unafraid of humans… Perhaps he could sense Kale’s unconditional love for feathered creatures 😉
On the fourth day, we decided we were ready to head back to town (read: we had eaten all of our food). We pedalled back toward Ushuaia and found a great, laid back (and cheap!) hostel through iOverlander (MoMo’s, ftw!).
Packing Up and Heading Home
With our flight a few days away, we searched about town for two bike boxes. We’d heard that these could be tricky to find and may even cost us a few bucks, so we gave ourselves plenty of time.
After acquiring two boxes (in OK condition), we began the process of packing up. Kale cleaned our bikes while Cat used some scrap cardboard to reinforce the boxes. Next came the disassembly. One by one, we began taking the bike apart, starting with the pedals, then the racks, fenders… This time, instead of using pipe insulation and bubble wrap, we planned to use clothes and other items we’d been carrying. We were thankful that it didn’t take as long as it did when we first boxed everything!
In between prep, we enjoyed chilling at the hostel with a fellow Californian, Joe. He’d biked the Carretera Austral as well and, at times, was probably just a couple days behind us.
With two bike boxes stuffed with our bikes and gear, we set off for the airport early Sunday afternoon. Thankfully, Diego, one of the hombres living in the apartments at MoMo’s, gave us a ride in his van (we’d been told that it would be difficult for both of our bike boxes to fit in one taxi). Diego helped us load up and unload our boxes when we arrived at Malvinas Argentinas Ushuaia International Airport.
We approached the line with smiles — you never really know how much the airline may charge you for bikes — and everything was smooth until we set our boxes on the scale to weigh. Over 46 kilos each. We were informed that the weight limit was 32 kilos max, no exceptions. Yikes!5 We moved aside, ripped open our carefully taped boxes and began unloading some heavy items — our locks, the piedras we collected — spilling everything out onto the floor.
We filled three of our panniers (they’d also been in the boxes) with the random assortment of gear, and went to weigh our boxes… Cat’s was still 33 kilos. Not acceptable. Finally, after filling one additional pannier with some shoes and a bundle of clothes, each box dropped below 30 kilos. Since we were out of tape, we forked over 240 pesos and had both boxes shrink wrapped shut.
Back at the baggage counter, with two boxes and four panniers to check, we were informed that we were over the checked baggage limit of two bags per person…😓
Strategically, we returned to the shrink wrap station and used our last pesos and a couple US dollars to have our panniers wrapped together into two sets of two. Woohoo!
Alas… we were stopped once again at security.
Kale had packed our tent in his carry on and forgotten the stakes were still inside. Cat jumped back through the metal detector and ran the small bag of stakes back to our friends at baggage claim and, after some more Spanglish-pleading, the staff retrieved one of the “pannier bundles” and Cat stuffed them under the plastic wrap. Fingers crossed!
After all of that excitement, we boarded our flight — we’d be back in the Pacific Northwest in 42 (long) hours!
Chau for Now!
We’re leaving South America with full hearts, more muscles, too much hair, one less iPhone, two stitches, a handful of battle scars, and many new lifelong friends.
We’ll be back on our bikes again soon… in the meantime, check out our tour video.