When the Wind Wants
To travel through Patagonia without encountering the wind is simply not possible. On the first stretch of my journey I had felt its power and capability to slow ones journey to a crawl. But this next section travelling between the Chilean towns of Punta Arenas and Puerto Natales came to be completely dominated and dictated by the wind. I originally anticipated the ride taking 3 days, the route was straightforward and there was only one backroad diversion I was planning to take. However I wildly underestimated this timeframe and eventually rolled into a rainy Puerto Natales 6 days later.
After some restful days in the hostel chatting with travellers, fixing bikes, washing clothes and an eating inhuman amount I was ready for the road again. I teamed up with Emma and Julian again. On the Wednesday of our departure we had a relaxed start, slowly packing up, buying essentials and finally rolling out at about 2pm. We cycled parallel with Ruta 9 for some miles, before joining it once we had left town. As the plains opened up, the wind also picked up and we were buffeted by sidewinds that periodically gusted and pushed us off the road. After riding for a few hours we reached a police checkpoint in the evening. There was an abandoned building and after a quick discussion it became clear that it would be possible for us to spend the night. Whilst preparing dinner Emma surprised us with a nice bottle of wine that went down a real treat.
Our next day cycling was one of the most challenging I’ve ever experienced. The wind was absolutely savage, as we slowly pedalled forward it only seemed to increase in force. For many miles we were forced to walk the bikes as it was simply too dangerous to try and ride them with the strong gusts and trucks coming past. In a few hours of cycling we had covered very little ground, but made it to a junction that signified the start of the diversion away from the main road. We cowered from the wind behind a tiny shed and ate lunch. Here we spent some time deliberating over which route to take; the paved and shorter Ruta 9 with traffic or the twisty remote ripio route that meant less traffic but facing the wind head on. We chose the gravel road and worked up the courage to leave our shelter and push onwards.
I covered up every inch of exposed skin as the wind was so strong that it picked up small stones from the road and fired them directly into our faces with such force it was hard to believe. For me, this stretch was impossible to ride and proved a long push, at times gusts almost blew me off my feet. In situations like this you sometimes question your decisions and what on earth you are doing. The battle became a mental one, soundtracked by the relentless howling of the wind, I slowly edged forward against this invisible yet unbelievably powerful force. After many hours of this we reached the Western coastline of the region and there far away on the clifftops was a small structure, a little Refugio, and our stop for the night. A basic structure, but with plenty of room and getting out of the wind was a blessing we were all very grateful for.
Thankfully the next days cycling was significantly easier. The wind remained strong, but compared to the onslaught of the previous day, being able to actually cycle was a marked improvement. The gravel road was a lot quieter and we saw hardly any traffic. After stopping for a late breakfast in a sheltered sunny spot we crested a hilltop and were greeted by the most spectacular view of the road stretching away to the coast and snowcapped mountains in the distance. We enjoyed the vista for a while before cruising down to the tiny coastal village of Villa Ponsomby. Fishermen prepared their rugged little boats and a huge herd of sheep was driven through by a couple of gauchos. It was fascinating to see this traditional Patagonian lifestyle. Springtime was proving a fantastic time to cycle here, the countryside was coming to life, with flowers beginning to bloom, greenery waking up and baby animals in abundance.
In Rio Verde we were hoping to perhaps resupply with a few things here and fill up water. However the place proved an eerie ghost town. The estancia was deserted and we knocked several houses, but there was no sign of life to be found. There was however a great sheltered spot on a lush lawn hidden from the wind. Here we had a long lunch and siesta in the sun, it was the first time in days I’d felt hot and the sensation of snoozing on long grass in a t-shirt was beautiful. After a couple of hours lazing about here we eventually summoned the willpower to move on into the wind. Our water supplies had dwindled to almost nothing and we tried another estancia further down the road to refill. Again though the place was utterly deserted. This time we had some luck and managed to find a hosepipe to fill our bottles. A couple hours more cycling and we reached another roadside refugio. This one was comparatively luxurious. We were spoilt with a woodburner and Julian wasted no time in firing this up. We enjoyed a warm evening of music and food. In fact the small cabin heated up so much at night that we joked it was a sauna and none of us needed our sleeping bags.
Upon waking and stepping out of the cabin I was greeted by a peculiar sound: silence. The wind was no longer howling, the sun was shining and we were overjoyed. Not wanting to waste the opportunity we skipped breakfast setting off at what felt like a blistering pace. Seeing my speedo reading double figures for the first time in days was very welcome. The route twisted and turned with lots of short ups and downs, it took us down to the settlement of Villa Tehuelches where we rejoined Ruta 9. There was one small kiosk here that we promptly raided for snacks and pasta. Ruta 9 was comparatively very mundane after the route we been, the remainder of the day passed in a blur of wind and featureless pampa. In the evening we came through a tiny settlement of Morro Chico and here found a small abandoned building by the river to shelter.
Some situations are so ridiculous that you can do little else but laugh at the reality of things. The wind was up to its old tricks again. We pushed on, spending most of this time either walking or attempting rather unsuccessfully to form a peloton formation against the wind. In the afternoon the wind as usual only strengthened and we hid in a tiny 2M by 2M bus stop. We ate lunch and hoped things would improve, but the wind only screamed all the louder and the gusts increased. You could see trees on the hilltops bending and waves rippling through the fields of grass. It would have been futile trying to go anywhere. The hours ticked away as we ate cookies and played yatzy. By evening it became clear that we would have to spend the night here, there would be no shelter for miles and none of us could summon the willpower to leave our little prison. We bedded down like 3 sardines for the night, laughing at the peculiarity of our situation.
Mercifully things improved the next morning and after a cramped yet surprisingly restful sleep we hit the road. Another day of mundane riding ensued. Punctuated by a heavy rainstorm that we were grateful for as it meant the wind ceased. We encountered two other groups of cyclists headed southbound. I jealously watched as their small silhouettes flew towards us, surely these people couldn’t be on regular bicycles? How were they going so fast? It was immediately obvious why cycling Patagonia in a Southbound direction remains the popular choice. Still it was nice to hear the stories of other travellers and learn about the adventures that awaited in the North.
Later in the day we were passing a lonely yet grand roadside estate and hotel. Outside the gates we noticed a peculiar glass structure. Upon closer inspection it turned out to be yet another bus stop. We bundled in and delighted to find it was massive, perfectly clean and even had working electricity. The remainder of the day passed quickly, we were twice joined by locals who were strangely waiting for a bus in the middle of nowhere. One woman gave us a pack of sweet dates that were promptly wolfed down. The hotel security guard also came to check on us, telling us that he’ had seen us on the camera but we were welcome to shelter for the night, and giving advice for the road ahead.
At about 1pm the next afternoon we rolled downhill to Puerto Natales, soaked from a sudden downpour, exhausted but overjoyed to arrive. Snowcapped mountains flanked the small town and signified a dramatic shift in the landscape to come. Whilst this part of the journey had proved tougher than expected, physically hard and other times mundane, it had also been a fantastic experience. Good company had transformed grim situations into jokes and amidst it all there were insights into an amazing culture and moments of sheer natural beauty.