We left Puerto Natales fully loaded with 10 days worth of food and a prayer for kinder weather, for 60km it seemed that the cycling Gods had relinquished; barely a breath of wind and I was beginning to remember just how good this cycling game can really be.
Before we knew it we had reached Cerro Castillo and made the turn towards the national park, this is where our luck ran out. The cycling Gods realised they had been caught napping and released hell. Back into the winds that seemed to materialise out of nowhere and for 15k of worsening road we struggled on before admitting defeat and diving into the nears estancia. Not before Jessica took a tumble on a steep climb with ferocious winds knocking her down. She appeared at the top with her pride beaten and her knee bruised. With our finest Spanish we asked the estancia if we could camp in the shelter of a building, turns out we are getting really good at Spanish as we were offered a bed in the
bunk house for workers that are there during the summer months, not the cleanest of establishments but it did mean we didn't have to spend a night in the wind, it was as good as any 5 star hotel to us.
We left with an early start in the hope to outwit the winds and get as many km done before they jacked up to un-ridable again. This time we came 17km short of our destination before we were once again relegated to pushing; up step friendly local number two who offered to throw our bikes in the back of his truck and give us a ride the rest of the way. The whole time we were doing battle with the winds the main thought I had was how much I couldn't wait to ride back down this road, these winds were going to make our exit amazing. Here I learnt a valuable lesson I will come to later.
We paid our entrance fee, typical Jess and Danny style we are in the off season so it was half price, we didn't even know there was a season, and we were in. The next morning we quickly found somewhere to store our bikes and it was time to go.
The Towers of Paine have always been somewhere I have wanted to go and see, ever since i first got into climbing and the outdoors. These iconic pillars have been in every magazine I have ever read. I could only hope that the weather would be kind and we would be gifted with a clear day to see them.
The first day was spent trekking higher and higher into a cloud, the higher we went the more ferocious the wind became, it is telling when a skill I have been doing since the age of 2 (walking) became a struggle when the wind began to blow, it's no wonder we were struggling on our bikes and it's comforting to hear other trekkers talk about how much they struggled. We made it to camp Torres and contemplated on a further plan, betting on a weather forecast to be accurate out here is a fools game.
We had a quick stroll to a view point where I got a giddish excitement at finally seeking the towers, Jess was far more calm than myself at the sightings and couldn't really see what all the fuss was about but was happy for the dawn assault, ok, not happy but she agreed to the early morning start!
The dawn hike was well worth it, the towers light up as if set on fire. No pictures as we were on the last minute due to a slight navigation error and it ends as quickly as it starts. I can now finally tick it off my bucket list an it didn't disappoint. A few hours later with the wind raging war we retreated back to the tent to pack and make our way to a lower camp. To be honest I would of been happy to go back and get on the bikes from there, I didn't really know much else about the park but thought it only fair to give the rest of the place a chance.
The trek was a mixed bag in forms of weather, from a day of rain to a day of snow to walking out in glorious sunshine. This was a trip that was very much the top of my list of things to do in South America and going in off season did have its disadvantages, the weather wasn't great; areas being closed, mainly due to extreme weather, the lack of people and the tranquility of it all made doing it at this time in my opinion better, granted we are getting a little bit sick of constantly waking up to ice and snow on the ground!!!!
It's a funny feeling leaving the trek, chatting to the one or two other happy campers we share some of the communal facilities with. Their talk of going back to the hostel, getting their clothes washed; we are going back to carry on living in the tent for another few days in the same thermals that by now offend even ourselves. It's at this point, hearing other's remarks we get some idea of the adventure we are undertaking. We take it for granted, getting up cycling, cooking, going to bed. It becomes the norm and we forget how unusual a trip like this is. It's a nice feeling when people think it's pretty cool and that even hardy outdoor folks find it impressive what we are attempting and what we have achieved.
Getting back on the bikes felt good, least of all for my shoulders that were well and truly done with carrying the weight, it was time for our trusted steads to take the weight after their few days off. Riding out was amazing, the towers were clear and at every bend there was a new photo opportunity, I could have spent all day on just the 7km track to the registration office but with pressing matters of finding accommodation in Cerro Castillo at hand we eventually had to leave the towers with just a few cheeky glances over the shoulder as we descended.
Now to the lesson I learnt. Never expect anything in terms of wind. The whole ride in, the whole trek, all I could think about was how the wind was blowing the way we would be going, how the tail wind would be amazing, how quick an easy we would find it riding out, today was not the case. It was gut wrenching to find myself being battered by a side wind when I thought I would be sailing, luckily the wind was not in 5th gear so cycling was still possible and we did get a few stretches of boost, just not as much as I had been dreaming of. The age old quote, "to assume makes an ass out of 'u' and me .
After a night camping in a playground we made an exit for Argentina, a painless transition and finally the tail wind materialised. We sailed over the rough gravel roads, barely put a pedal stroke in on the rolling hills, it was bliss. We had waged war for a month and now it was all turning in our favour. To top this day off we were given probably our best accommodation yet. With very little English we spoke to the roadside workers who put us up in some dormitory style trailer complete with scantly clad women posters, a heater and even a hot shower. The icing on the cake though was when we went to cook our usual slop. The workers, taking pity on the poor excuse for a meal served us a hearty portion of stew. This is probably the best meal we have eaten on the road and our moral was sky high after such a great day. Funny how the smallest things really make all the difference when on the road.
The next day was Jess' birthday, probably not her most exciting birthday, waking up in a trailer with half naked women on the walls knowing we had 65km of rough road ahead of us. However the cycling Gods had a gift for her, a gift of a second day with a tail wind, this really was too good to be true. Someone had also given Jess some new legs for her 25th birthday as she flew over the rough road leaving me to chase behind in her dust! Probably the best day on the bike with some scenery that really felt like we were taking the road less travelled. It had us giddy as we rode endless gravel roads with minimal traffic, this has been our best day on the bikes yet, it was everything we have been looking for out here, no tarmac, no busses or lorries charging past us, just a few llamas, some flamingoes and the occasional cowboy.
We finally rolled into El Calafate after 11 days of minimal civilisation, not after spending a night with our first camp fire of the trip, again a real moral booster on the freezing nights we have been having, we could sit outside in relative comfort enjoying the surroundings rather than retreating to our sleeping bags as soon as food was finished. If the rest of the trip follows on from these last two days we really will be having the best cycle trip imaginable. We have already learnt some harsh realities about the difference between this trip and our Asian adventure, the challenges are worlds apart but we are still loving life out here with our bikes; so far I wouldn't want to do this continent any other way!
El Calafate is huge tourist trap but we are looking forward to filling up on food, having a real night for Jess' birthday and generally making the most of not doing much. We can't wait. We may even play at being real backpackers and do some organised trips...
Danny and Jessica living the nomadic dream.