It was like a homecoming of sorts entering Argentina from Bolivia. The roads were in excellent shape. We met groups of motorcycle riders out on tours and we felt like celebrities wherever we stopped. At gas stations or wherever we parked our bikes, people came up to take pictures with us. The bikes were an immediate attraction. For a change along the way we met dozens of other local bikers out for a weekend ride.
We felt like we had gone through a time-warp and been transplanted back to where we had started months ago. The contrast of having spent the last weeks of our journey in countries dominated by indigenous people, to arriving in a land where obviously European descendants dominated the population, was rather startling at first. Not only were the people different, but also other things, like gas stations filled with chocolate, ice cream and other junk food were suddenly everywhere.
At our first overnight stop in Salta, a large city in Northern Argentina, we even found new tires for the bikes and used the opportunity to change oil before continuing South. The dramatic change upon entering Argentina made us rethink the original route planned for our continuation South. We were definitely not in the mood for large cities and double-lane highways, so we diverted to smaller, more remote roads to the West, following the foothills of the Andes.
Beautiful landscape with tight canyons, colorful mountains, wide-open pampas and excellent roads made for long days in the saddle. However further south, the most incredible mountain pass, with winding dirt roads, had us spell-bound as we passed from Argentina to Chile. I have crossed this border on three previous trips, but on those journeys, we passed through a tunnel on sealed roads at the foot of the mountains were we were to pass this time. But even before we came to this turn-off from the main road, we did another detour.
We were about 10 miles from the border when we turned off the main road, parked the bikes, and went for a hike to take a closer look at Mt. Aconcagua. Peaking at 6,962 meters (22,841 feet), Aconcagua is the highest mountain outside of Asia. Impressive in size, the white snow-covered top begged us to come closer. It would have been tempting to leave the bikes behind and go for a hike up the mountain; perhaps next time.
After the hike, we continued riding towards the border, taking the bypass over the mountains. The weather was perfect and the vista was as clear as it could be. At the top of the 3,000 meter pass, we had a break as we crossed from Argentina to Chile. There were no border crossing formalities, but rather a simple sign telling us that we were about to enter Chile. "This is what motorcycle riding is all about" I thought to myself as we started to wind down the steep gravel road. After a trillion switchbacks, we eventually made it back to the main road, where the Customs and Immigrations formalities finally caught up with us.
Just a few kilometers after the border formalities, we stopped for a nice lunch at the famous ski center of Portillo. Pictures of national ski teams from all over the world lined the walls of the hotel, reminding us of how important this place is for out-of-season downhill ski training. Mid-winter in this part of the world is mid-summer for those of us living north of equator. From Portillo we headed for the capital city of Santiago
In order to catch-up with our writing and picture editing for the Live!Journal's Chapter Three, we decided to stay one extra day in Santiago where, we finally had a good Internet connection. This turned out to be a fateful decision. . . .
On our last evening, I worked long into the night and packed everything, ready for an early escape the following morning. Three hours later, I woke up in my bed, which was shaking uncontrollably. Later, I learned it was at 3:24AM, I had been roused by an 8.8 earthquake that was to last for 1-½ minutes.
The four of us had rooms on the 20th floor of Crown Plaza Hotel, with a beautiful view of the city. As I woke to the shaking from the earthquake that morning, the night-time lights of the Capital suddenly extinguished as if someone had thrown a giant switch. However, I could still see the outline of the city from a few emergency lights, and that was just enough to make me realize that I was high up in the sky, being rattled around.
It was the combination of the vigorous movement and the deep groans of the building, mixed with debris flying off the shelves and tiles popping in the bathroom that scared me to death. I did not dare try to stand up; simply holding onto the bed was enough of an effort. At first, I expected the whole ordeal to be over in a few seconds, after all, this is not my first earthquake, and they all stop after a short time, right?
Soon, I understood that this was not coming to an end; rather, it was getting worse, and that was when I conceived the notion that no building could withstand the violent movements we were experiencing. With that realization, all I could think of was my wife, Karen, and I hoped that the collapse of the building would happen quickly, and my end, painlessly. Unless you were there, it's difficult to understand how long 90 seconds can seem. It felt endless when you had no idea of when, or how, it would all end.
Of course, it finally did all came to an end, and fortunately unharmed, we walked down 20 floors to join the rest of the guests outside. Some were dressed in their underwear and even barefoot, dodging broken glass and debris. We had been lucky this time, and 5 hours later, we were allowed back into our rooms to collect our belongings. It was a relief to leave the hotel behind, and ride our bikes South out of the city.
We were amazed by the damage the earthquake had done to roads and bridges. Large cracks and sinkholes in the road, 10-20 feet deep and several feet wide, demanded all of our attention as we headed south. Being on the road so quickly after the damage had occurred made it easier for us to pass, as barricades had not yet been set-up, and being on 2 Wheels made it possible for us to pass where wider vehicles could not advance.
Fortunately, we did not have to go through Conception, the costal city that was hit hardest by this earthquake, but rather followed the main highway south to Osorno. It took us two days to reach Osorno, and by that time, a gasoline rationing system was in place. Luckily for us, after a pre-arranged tire change, we crossed into Argentina and were able to leave the difficult situation in Chile behind.
Knowing that the strength of this earthquake was 8.8 and that it was the 7th-largest earthquake in recorded history, it amazed us how well the country was able to fare in this difficult situation. This, compared to Haiti, where a much less-potent earthquake leveled vast areas, with an overwhelming loss of life. Regardless, our thoughts are with all of those who lost their lives, and also with those who survived for all of the hardship that lies ahead for everyone affected.
South of Bariloche, Argentina, we found a great place to put up our tents, relax, swim, fish and to have a great big bonfire. If memory serves, I think that we might even have had a little wine that evening. We were emotionally taxed by all that we had been through, so it was great to camp out and enjoy some fantastic nature.
In the coming days, we had a lot of great riding on good dirt roads, surrounded by wonderful scenery. We passed in and out of Argentina and Chile several times and enjoyed the ease of the border crossings. Green valleys led us through deep fjord landscapes, where mountaintops were covered in snow and glaciers reached towards a blue sky. We were lucky and dodged the rains that are obviously very common in this fertile environment.
Riding along, my bike died suddenly, as if the ignition had been switched off. Lucky for me, I was on a straight-ahead course, and not flat out in a sharp curve. As I came to a halt, my brain started to trouble-shoot what the problem could be. We were riding on the infamous Ruta Quarenta (Route 40) in Argentina. Infamous for its deep gravel and the rough riding through Patagonia’s windy plains. That day I had had a few good hits on my Touratech engine bash plate and was glad that I had upgraded to this extra protection.
Riding at speeds of 50-60 MPH over rough gravel roads while listening to and feeling the abuse the bike was taking makes me really appreciate the great engineering BMW has done with this wonderful bike. But what had happened to stop me dead in my tracks on Route 40? I did a few fast tests, turning the ignition key off and on. All the lights came on, but the starter would not turn when I pushed the starter button.
I put the transmission in neutral, and then the engine would start. However when, I disengaged the clutch and put the bike in gear, the engine died. Well, that explained what was going on - a bad side-stand neutral safety switch. Looking under the bike, I found the side-stand switch in pieces, most likely hit by a rock. I whipped out my Leatherman knife; cut off the switch, and shorted two of the wires, leaving the brown ground wire alone. Dan gave me some electrical tape, and soon we were back on the ride again.
Patagonia is wonderful when the sun shines and the wind is at a minimum. We were lucky and experienced some wonderful days with clear skies and very little wind. Mt. Fitz Roy greeted us in its majestic splendor, and so did the great glacier called Perito Moreno. We even had a few good days as we rode into the national park of Torres del Paine. Roger and I spent a whole day hiking up to the Torres to get a better look at these incredible mountains. It was a strenuous 9-kilometer hike each way, up steep rocky hills, but worth every effort. Dan and Vincent had taken a more relaxed approach for an activity that day - riding horses on the plains nearby our hotel.
The following day, we had set off to take some pictures and shoot video riding with the Torres as a backdrop. We started out in the morning with a little wind that soon picked-up speed. After lunch Roger, Vincent and I decided to ride to one of the park's glaciers. By this time, we knew that we could experience wind gusts of 60MPH or higher; not an easy quest to stay upright on a gravel road with those kind of forces testing your riding skills.
After a few miles in, because of the fierce winds, we eventually came to the conclusion that it would be better to turn-around and head back to the hotel. On the way back, we were in the middle of a great long, flat plain, when I reminded myself that we needed some video of this event. The wind was kicking us all over the place when I stopped to tell the others about my plans. With legs planted firmly on the ground, I raised my left arm to motion to Roger and Vincent to stop so that I could film their struggles with the wind. As I lifted my hand, a good gust of wind knocked me and my bike flat to the ground.
It all happened so fast that I had no time to try and fight the sudden meeting with Terra Firma. I hurried to get the bike upright and on its side-stand, and that was when I realized that Roger had been taken down by the same gust of wind. As I helped Roger to get his bike upright, I saw Vincent struggling to get his camera out to take a picture of us. This was my first time to have my bike fall over, but according to the group rule imposed earlier by Dan, "it does not count since the event was not photographed", thanks Dan!
We had a wet and windy ride the day we hit Tierra del Fuego and crossed the Strait of Magellan. Actually, it was the first day since very early in the tour (back in Mexico, I think), that we had the rain gear out. These two last days of riding to Ushuaia, The End, really reminded us that we had come a long way South.
This was it, The End of the Road. Snow-clad mountains surrounded Ushuaia, the world’s most southern city, as we secured the bikes in a container and prepared to fly back home again.
We had been on the road for almost 3 months, traveled through 13 countries, and my GPS told me that I had done just over 14,500 miles since I left Seattle, Washington, USA. An incredible ride in so many ways, and one day soon, I hope to be able to share this experience with all of you in form of a new DVD that I plan to put together before the end of this year.
Thanks for your companionship and, thanks for all of your email and good wishes. I hope you can join us on one of our upcoming journeys one day soon!