Saturday, January 15, 2011

Friday: escape from Puerto natales

How a day can turn around: One moment we're in a town under siege, the next we're having best day cycling ever on smooth closed road through stunning scenery.

We had conservative expectations for the day, mainly just wanting to get out of town and out of Chile, so didn't hurry to get out first thing. Reading up on overnight developments on the web gave us even less optimism about the situation and so we resolved to just pass by the road block on the ruta 9 turning we'd seen the precious evening - which would have taken us to the Torres del Paine national park - and instead head straight to the nearest border.

As we approached, at around 11am, we were surprised to see no trace of the blockade. Curiosity got the better of us, so we decided to take a little look up that road, knowing there's another side turning a few k up that would take us back towards the border. It was very pleasant cycle along the side of the lake, then a short climb brought us towards this junction, and we could see vehicles all around. Another blockade.

As we got nearer we saw three policemen stood about chatting with an agricultural truck driver, presumably a protester. As we drew level we enquired "Cerro Castillo?" towards the officers one of whom nodded and pointed straight on, through the roadblock. The truck driver realized what we were asking and replied in surprisingly fluent English, yes we were most welcome, come on in!

So we carried straight on over the junction, passed the folks stood around there and squeezed on between the trucks blocking the road, and we were through, without even stepping off the bike! As we negotiated the blockage, several protesters smiled and waved and said "hola", I'm sure the tandem has a big part in this!

We carried on and then found ourselves on 65km of newly paved road to cerro Castillo, with not another vehicle the entire way. The wind was almost still, the sun warm and the road pleasantly rolling. It slowly climbs a glacial valley floor, with numerous lakes along the way and weaving amongst hills that gradually are replaced by mountains. On more than one climb we caught the strong scent of the purple lupins that are abundant along the way. A couple spots the road is bordered by barbed wire and minefield warnings, a hangover from the feared Argentine invasion of 1977. We'd read about these and it was one motivation to keep to the road and not attempt to pass any further blockades by off-road deviation.

At cerro Castillo we were the center of interest from a few groups of stranded tourists, attempting to get back over the border but thwarted by a few minibuses blocking the 20 meters from the mainroad to the border post, and didn't fancy the 14km hike to the Argentine border control beyond it. Several offers for our bike were made!

We popped in to the café and found it pleasantly well stocked so got a couple hot sandwiches, drinks and snacks. As we pondered our next move, east to the border or west into the park, we saw a group of cyclists coming in towards us. They stopped in the café and we established they were two Argentines and two Swiss that had adhoc joined up in El calafate for the ride down. They expected no trouble with blockades, I explained the warnings we received back at our hostel but Damian (an Argentine who's been cycling down from Alaska for last 3 years) was fairly skeptical of there being problems, stating they can't do proper protests down here, they should go to Buenos Aires to see how it's done!

So we setoff as an enlarged peleton of 6 on 5 machines, towards the park. It's useful traveling with others who've been to areas we plan to travel to, to get up to date info on roads and facilities and conditions. And of course for the company too. A few k on it was just pass 4 and they decided to stop for thr night at a river where there's some shelter. We wanted to press on further and did so for 10mins, climbing the next rise. This revealed a view out over 20k or more of exposed plains, with some heavy weather bearing down on it. We took stock, deciding whilst we could push through it we wouldn't make the park entrance before it closed, and we'd likely spend a good chunk of tomorrow on the final stretch in so we may as well make a day of it on the bikes and keep with our new found company. A quick descent and we were soon pitching our tent, and spent a pleasant evening chatting with Phil and Isabel, the Swiss couple, who are just in their first week of a tour that will be at least 6 months - they've not yet decided on how long!

map of route

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