Southern Patagonia is one of the stupidest places to ride a bike.
Granted, there are the picture perfect poster boys of this region on both sides of the border. The vertical Pillars of Mont Fitzroy and Torres Del Paine are some fine examples of rocks that deserve attention and a day or two spent exploring, regardless of how my knees hated me for doing so afterwards.
It boasts unbeatable views of immense glaciers that you can spend hours just staring at and listening to. Every so often the creaking gets louder and then a section breaks off, cascading into the lake below to the applause of everyone watching.
And in between all these sights, these points in the map that break up the journey, you have sweet sweet isolation in the windswept grasslands of the pampas. Here comes respite from the crowds that overwhelm every town that acts as a base for the must see bits rock and ice. After the claustrophobic experience on the Carretera Austral, it was nice to be back in open, empty spaces.
But all this comes at a price.
Whoever said “There’s no such thing as the wrong weather, only the wrong clothing” never tried cycling in Southern Patagonia. You can’t dress for wind and down here you get gusts that earn these latitudes the monikers of the “Roaring Forties’ and ‘Furious Fifties’. It’s an absolute blessing if you’re going the same way as the wind but hell on earth if the road takes you in any other direction. A headwind draws you to a head-down crawl no better than staggering pace. The relentless gusts drown out any music or audiobook, so you’re left to entertain yourselves with the infuriatingly slow passing of the white lines under your bike. You don’t want to look up to see that the spot you were at 20 minutes ago is still in the foreground. When we were served a side wind, it reminded me of a time when I had stabilisers on my bike and still managed to fall off. Tantrums were frequent and I asked myself, what on earth am I doing here? You don’t really ride a bike here. You push, wobble, or fly faster than the speed of sound without even needing to pedal. There’s rarely a day or regular cycling.
The wind dictates everything. An unexpected lull may change any plans to have an extra rest day, as a ride without the above is more merciful than a day lazing around a hostel. The ‘campsite’ was dictated by the presence of abandoned buildings. Each has been the sanctuary for cyclists over the years. Whether they are abandoned police stations or cattle sheds, the walls are covered in notes of appreciation and rules for future guests. No matter how shabby the building was, the contrast between the oasis within four walls and the wind tunnel outside, that building counts as five-star luxury and you’re grateful it’s still standing.
When you can’t safely ride amongst traffic, or when 30km can be a 4-hour ordeal in first gear, whenever the wind is blowing in the wrong direction this part of the world just seems the last place anyone would want to go for a bike ride, especially out of choice. It’s a necessary evil for those beginning or ending a Pan-American epic. It’s their baptism of fire or raging crescendo. But when I met people that came here specifically, just to cycle here for a few weeks, part of me begged to ask ‘Why?’ It’s even more baffling to see card carrying masochists doing it south to north, which dooms them to face the prevailing north-westerly winds when they had a choice to do it the other way by simply booking a ticket to a different airport.
When these same people meet someone who’s been on the road for almost four years, they may ask the same question. Why would you ever wish to inflict that on yourself?
People are odd, they do simultaneously spectacular and bloody stupid things.
I always ask “why?” when I see those poor people heading north purely out of choice, but part of me already knows the answer. When those winds are a distant memory, it’s an inevitable law of type-two fun that means these people will look back at this wind swept land with a rose-tinted nostalgia and think of it as a rewarding challenge beaten or the luxury of a wall that stands between them and the wind. With that blissful amnesia, they’ll go and recommend their friends should go and ride it, too. They’ll show them the pictures and that will be enough to convince anyone to go and ride Southern Patagonia because it’s absolutely stunning and because photos never show the wind.
Some people never learn. Go and ride it. It’s a terrible idea and you’ll look back and love the whole experience.