The Argentinian Patagonia from Bajo Caracoles to Ushuaia – 11 days – 613 metres above sea level

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After crossing the Patagonia National Park and left the border of the Chilean “carabineros”, it was on a track crossing the mountains that we arrived at the Argentinian border of “Paso Rodolfo Roballos”. We were waiting with a Belgian couple travelling the world with their “Fiat Ducato 4×4 Expedition” ; while two English bikers with DR finished their admissions. Here, no computer, all the paperwork was done by hand. 

Once our paperwork were finalised, we were back on track. 70 kilometers of screes and uneven surface. Further away, the Argentinian cowboys were bringing their flock of bulls in the middle of this landscape, which was as great as the “Rohan’s plains” (reference to the Lord of the Rings). After 3 hours on this challenging dirt road, we finally arrived on the Ruta 40 and the small town of Bajo-Carcoles. Around 15 people lived in the few houses of this very windy village. 

We have been welcomed by Juan-Carlos to spend the night in his small hospice. He was the only doctor giving the first aids, within 200 kilometres. 

The next day, we did our first journey on the Argentinian roads. We went back on the asphalt, left a few weeks and hundreds of kilometres ago. Through wind and straight lines, we reached Gobernador Gregores.

To go to El Chalten, we continued our journey on the Ruta 40. A few kilometres after leaving “Gobernador”, we used a last track for 70 kilometres. On this one, and for the first time from the beginning of the trip, we were the fastest! On a track covered of rocks and clay, with an average speed of 70km/h, we overtook cars and motorbikes. But as soon as we were back on the asphalt, four-wheel and two-wheel vehicles reminded us quickly that it was only an exception. 

50 kilometres before our arrival in El Chalten, it has been unexpected but we needed to add our last tank of petrol. With the wind coming from the front, the Urals had a higher consumption of petrol compared to usually. Finally, Julien and Marie’s sidecar didn’t have a drop of petrol left just few hundreds of metres before the entry of the village. With Emilie, we went to the only petrol station of the area and came back with a full petrol tank. The YPF station was surprising. The pump was inside a container to be protected from the wind. Indeed, the area is very windy which means some adjustments are required. 

In El Chalten, during the high-season and without any booking, it was hard to find a good address at a good price in this touristic city. But after researches and patience, we finally pitched up the tents in the garden of a hostel owned by a kind grandpa. The night, as you can imagine, was windy enough to twist our tents. But they didn’t break, unlike the tents of some neighbours who finished their night in the shared room of the hostel. 

The touristic resort is famous for practicing outdoor sports on the surrounded mountains. Around the peak of Fitz Roy, it’s the perfect spot for the ones loving climbing, hiking or “fast-hiking”. On our way, we met a few groups practicing this new concept of walking at a fast cadence. For us, our walking speed was more classic during the twenty kilometres to reach te “Laguna Torre” and its glacier of the same name. 

Once arrived at the first viewpoint, the wind was back and hiking towards the second viewpoint became dangerous. We opted for the safest option and went back to the resort. 

After this hike, we took our sidecars in the aim to reach the city of El Calafate. But there was no petrol left at the YPF station. We didn’t have any other choice than spending another night in El Chalten. The forecasts announced a thunderstorm with strong gusts for this second night. We renounced to pitch up the tents and opted for a new kind of accommodation: the caravan. The petrol station received their delivery, first thing in the morning. We filled up our tanks and went back towards South. 

 We took the opportunity of our arrival in the big city of El Calafate to do some maintenance on the sidecars. After going back and forth in the long streets of the city, we finally found a welder to fix the cracked mudguards of both sidecars (consequences of the Chilean Carratera Austral). This mechanical step done, we went towards the glacier of Perito Moreno, early in the morning. We hoped to arrive there before the buses of the tour operators.

The last 30 kilometres offer an amazing track for bikers. Nice curves with a smooth asphalt alongside the Argentinian lake offering the first viewpoints of the glacier. We had our breakfast in front of this white gold, with the blocks of ice falling in the water of the lake. We walked during two hours on the rolling path offering amazing viewpoints on the glacier. The game was to be the first one to see a block of ice falling off.  

We left this treasure of the nature to go back on the monotonous Ruta 40. This afternoon, we rode over 200 kilometres to reach the isolated little village of La Esperenza. We slept for the first time on the grass of a YPF petrol station. We met an Argentinian retired couple with their little dog. They were traveling in the country with their old fully equipped van. We had a chat with them about the country, the good addresses and the importance of the Falklands War according to the Argentinian people. We enjoyed a delicious “Choripan” (local burger) prepared on a “parilla” (local barbecue prononced here “paricha”) by a grandpa in a corner, wearing a beret and a traditional checked shirt. 

We continued on the straight lines. The flock of guanacos were interrupting the monotonous scenery. On the roadside, we saw many flocks of sheep. Indeed, sheep cooked on embers is a cooking speciality of the Argentinian Patagonia. The only road to reach Ushuaïa requests to pass by Chile. Until today, this border crossing was the longest one, due to the high number of visitors.

Becoming closer to Ushuaïa, we crossed the Magellan strait by ferry which symbolised our entry to the Tierra del Fuego. In the village of Cerro Sombrero, we did some shopping in a little “tienda” (shop) for the evening. The grandpa, owner of the shop, was watching a football match of the Chilean cup on his old CRT TV in black and white. We spent the night in a refuge built by the municipality to offer a roof, protected from the wind and cold, for the travellers. The comfort could be considered basic but there were a bunk bed, a table and even a wood burner. Once we swept the floor and cut the wood in small logs, we felt like home. 

The next day, we crossed again the border to go back to Argentina. The custom officer was laughing at our hairstyles which, we must admit, were not the best ones after three days without a shower. We were back in the mountains for the last 100 kilometres before Ushuaïa. 

The city at the opposite of the world opened its doors. At the beginning of the trip, we didn’t really think about it. After chatting with a traveler and other ones, it became a true goal. Now that we reached it, we met Jean-Luc and Nelly, two biker-friends met a few times on the Ruta 40, at the Dublin pub to share a “Beagle”, the beer of “El Fin del Mundo”. This stage was also the opportunity to recharge our batteries, get a stamp with nice penguins on our passports and do some mechanics. 

After changing the oil, we started to go back towards Buenos Aires. For the first time of the trip, this time we were going towards North…

On the Peruvian roads

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Peru is a country of 1 285 315 km2 and various landscapes and reliefs. Therefore, going with the sidecars from the North-West to the South-East offer various riding experiences.

At the North of the country, alongside the Pacific coast, we crossed for the first time a sandy desert over many hundreds of kilometres. From a side of the road to the other one, the sandy dunes are breaking the monotony of the road; the experience is amazing. The asphalt draws long straight black lines contrasting with the yellow of the sand. Sometimes, the wind is blowing away the sand going on the asphalt before to go under our wheels.

For our itinerary, we chose to cross Lima to reach Ica before to go to Ayacucho. For now there is no road avoiding the capital. The major road crosses Lima from North to South by passing by a few metres away from the historic town centre. In the trafic, from the highway, we can glimpse the bell tower of the cathedral. We needed almost 4 hours to cross the capitale (15 kilometers). We progressed, a few metres by few metres, between lorries and buses, the trafic being jam-packed.

At the South of te capitale, on the Pacific Coast close by the Pisco city, there are vineyards as far as we can see. Vines are very tall and have a shape of arbour over hundreds of kilometres. The parcels are disproportionate and cultivated by big wineries to make the most famous Peruvian drink: the Pisco. This alcohol contains about 40% abv and is obtained after the distillation of grape juice.

For us, this landscape was a breath of air after the deserted scenery of the North and the hard crossing of Lima.

Other geographic area and other scenery, we went alongside the “Cañon del Pato” during 55 kilometers when we wanted to reach the Huascarán Park from the coast. The road is narrow, not wider than a lorry, and weaves in the bottom of a canyon created by the river bed. A breathtaking landscape, we were feeling very tiny between these massive cliffs on each side of the road. Many tunnels with no light or any safety measures were spicing up the journey. As we were not able to see the other vehicles coming in front of us, we needed to play a lot with the horn. We understood at this moment the utility of the big South-American horns. Indeed if unfortunately a car didn’t hear our signal, we needed to go out of the sidecars to push and go backwards. After a nice half-day to follow the curves of the river, we reached Caraz city, the entry of the Huascarán Park.

In Peru, we also enjoyed to use paths again. The first time was to reach the Maras village. We wanted to use a major road but we saw roadworks 10 kilometers after the Izcuchaca city. A worker showed us the path going towards the right hand-side to reach Maras. Cautiously, we asked him the conditions of the road and the relief of the path. The nice guy wanted to reassure us: “the path is not very stony and goes up a little bit before to be flat to reach Maras”. Without a doubt, we used the path. But it’s at this point that we started to put his advice into perspective. The path was going up during over 10 kilometers. The descent was not a lot but the rain of the precious days was making the journey tough. Plus, a flock of sheep crossing in front of us made us stopped for a break in a slope, it was hard to move forward after this stop..

Towards South by going to the Colca valley from Espinar, we used one of the best paths from the beginning of the trip, between Condorama and Yanque. Its good surface allowed us to ride easily over its hundreds of kilometers. Being in the middle of the Colca park, the path offered a breathtaking view over its lake and the “Castillos de Callalli”, which are huge cliffs shaped by the wind.

Sadly and despite the beautiful Peruvian landscapes, we noticed again one of the major issues of our 21st century: the waste management.

With our personal and professional activities, we are very sensitive to this. Our wish here is not to judge a country but only to tell you what we sadly saw. In this fight for the environment, we know the part of responsibility of the companies of mass consumption. However, we wish to tell you the reality of what is happening to highlight the lack of investment by the Peruvian society and specifically by its local authorities.

Indeed, in Pérou there is everything to do for the waste management. We have been chocked to see open-air tips on the road for a dozen of kilometres. As they are indicated by signs, these spots seem to be tolerated by the local authorities. In the urban area, we didn’t see many bins and the recycled bins don’t exist. In addition, the waste is not collected regularly and its not rare to see bin bags ripped widely by stray dogs eating the content.

By chatting about this issue with Peruvian people, everyone was unanimous about the topic and regretted the presence of so much waste alongside roads and paths. In addition, we were not able to count anymore the number of people caught in throwing intentionally a packaging in the nature. In the next few years, we hope the local authorities will be able to invest in the awareness and eduction of gestures of eco-citizen.

We have also been surprised that the most modern building in each city or village crossed is the football playground (five-a-side) covered where the teenagers meet to share the « Pelotta » or simply to chat sheltered from the bad weather or the sunshine.

During our experience on the Peruvian roads, we also crossed symbolic vehicles of the country. From the first kilometres, we got used to the main local specificity: the rickshaw on the Peruvian asphalt. This is the main mean of transport for the inhabitants of villages and big urban areas. These three-wheel motorbikes are everywhere! Each driver plays with the design, the football clubs and superheroes are mainly shown on the stickers. There are more present than Nike, Adidas and the brands of energetic drinks. For the ones who have enough money they will opt for a rickshaw with a covered « cockpit » to shelter from the bad weather or the sunshine.

These vehicles are snaking in each small spaces, creating their own lane between the cars or alongside the sidewalks. The driving rules are subsidiaries. To simply summarize: despite the signs, the rickshaws have the priority even if they are coming in the opposite direction on a one-way street. Last thing to be attentive: the signals being not used, if you are following a rickshaw you need to be aware that he might stop at any moment to let the passenger going out.

On the Peruvian asphalt, we have been many times overtaken by old Volkswagen Beetle. These old models are being refurbished by local garages and get a new life from the North to the South of the country. Each one has its own character depending on the driver’s personality. They are sometimes repainted with funky colours or decorated with cute little flowers. Sometimes, it’s more “showy” with lower body frames touching almost the road, noisy escapes or big speakers in the boot, to draw attention.

Upon our arrival in Tumbes, first city crossed in Peru, we did a “race” with one of them in the traffic of the city. Each one in his own lane, we overtook him before he overtook us and so on… while a red traffic light was creating a trafic jam. We admitted the victory of this Beetle being the first at the trafic light. While waiting the green light, the driver went out of his car to give us a cap as a souvenir of this slow “race”.

The other king on the Peruvian roads is the coach. Main mean of transport to reach a city from another one, they are everywhere on the major and secondary roads to serve the smaller cities. Each one of them has it’s own coach station including a huge hall with a shop for each company saying loudly the next destinations available. Each one offers the same destination, but the times and prices are very different depending on the bus quality. This last criteria can be important as the big cities are usually separated by over ten hours (Lima-Arequipa = 16 hours for example). By going close by these stations, we cross regularly backpackers going back on the road for the next destination.

Maybe they will follow us alongside the Titicaca Lake in Bolivia, our next destination?

Colombian experiences

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During a month spent in Colombia, we had many surprising experiences. We just wanted to share some of them with you along these few lines.

 

Playing Tejo with a local beer

The Tejo is a Colombian traditional game. You can play with family or friends and usually with a “cervecita” (little beer). The Tejo playground has a length of 19,5m. Therefore, everyone doesn’t have their own playground in their garden! Their are usually located in the main places of cities or villages (mainly bars, sports grounds or venues).

We had the opportunity to discover this game in the small village of Salento, in the bar named “Los Amigos”. There are 7 playgrounds in their covered courtyard. When we played, there were no specialists to throw a Tejo, but only other tourists who came like us to discover this game.

The Tejo is the name of the big metal disc that we need to throw. It weights around 700 grams and it’s thrown towards a target of 1 square meter named “Cancha”. This one is angled and covered of clay.

We played just the 4 of us and we were against each other. The winner is the one having a score of 21 points. Each player throws the Tejo by turns.

Nous avons joué une partie à quatre joueurs, en étant “chacun pour soi”. Est déclaré vainqueur le joueur ayant atteint 21  points. A tour de rôle chaque joueur lance son Tejo :

  • 1 point for the player who is the closest to the ring.
  • 3 points for the player throwing its Tejo on a little pocket full of powder which will make an explosion.
  • 6 points for a player throwing its Tejo inside the ring. 
  • 9 points for a player making an explosion and then having its Tejo ending in the ring.
  • If a Tejo is in the ring and one of the next players makes an explosion, it cancels the points of the first player. 

Once the rules understood, the clay playground well flatten, the pockets full of powder in position and the beers open; the game can start! First points are won, until this exact throw by Marie with a Tejo touching the pocket full of powder. There is a banger noise attracting all the attention of the room and our target is hidden by a white a smoke; this is our first explosion!

We keep going the game until we finish our beer. The throws will become more and more accurate and the explosions will be more frequent (thanks to the skills we got with a French similar game!).

 

Getting the beard trimmed on the main square in Pamplona

A month of travelling which means a month without a razor, you can notice it! It could be considered as careless but we prefer saying “adventurer”. It’s not because we do not see many barber shops on the way, but they seem to have more skills for drawing stars in short hairs than trimming a beard with a trimmer and scissors…

Finally, it’s in Pamplona on the main square that I found a barber shop in which I trust. A decoration with a “biker” style, vintage leather seats and a barber using a cut-throat razor. Once the robe put on, the seat a bit up, I just need to express myself in Spanish to explain my wishes. The idea is to avoid the haircut of Neymar or the moustache of Escobar. At the end, the beard is shorter than I thought but it’s nice and soft!

 

Falling into a trap with the Pony-Malta 

Our relationship with Colombian sodas started in Bogota. A quick lunch in the streets of Bogota to taste our first empañadas with the number one of the Colombian sodas: le Colombiana. With its golden colour, we wouldn’t expect a natural flavoring but in reality it tastes only pure sugar, nothing more.

Intrigued by the advertising, a mix up of the graphic guidelines of the the toys “my little poney” and the labels of the beer Coreff (beer from Brittany), we tasted the the Pony-Malta with a pizza. But by wanting to taste the unknown, we finally got trapped. As all the Colombian sodas, the Pony Malta is very sweet. But, its taste is the most surprising. As mentioned by its name, this is the taste of the malt extract which is the most powerful. A flavor which is not enjoyed by the team. There is something to suit all tastes ; but his one would need to be removed from the marked according to us… 😉

 

Going to the Cocora Valley by standing up on the back of a Jeep 

We could have gone to the Cocora Valley by side-cars. But when we saw the Jeep’s on the main square in Salento, we couldn’t resist to do this touristic experience.

The starting point of the hike is 20 minutes away by car on a winding road alongside the Rio Quindio.

All the interest of this experience has been  done upon the choice of the driver in 10 seconds when he called his 10 passengers to leave at 8:30am. The strategy adopted, and which worked for Julien and I, was to leave the 8 other passengers going first to let us having space on the running board on the back of the Jeep. Hair blowing in the wind, hand on the luggage rack, we shared the same spot with a third tourist. Feeling at ease, we’re preening. At the third of the journey, a local farmer on the side of the road waved to stop the Jeep. He threw his bag full of cereals on the luggage rack and took position on the back with us. A foot on the running board, the other one on the spare wheel. We lost a bit of our pride as he was so cool in this position!

After a nice hike in the valley, we adopted the same position on the Jeep on the way back. The rain spiced it up to end a nice experience on the back of a Jeep.

 

Going up the mirador of Pamplona with a Renault 9 

In Colombia, the car brand Renault is one of the most famous. On the Colombian asphalt, as much as in cities as in the countryside, the Renault design is everywhere. We can find a few recent models such as the Logan, 4×4 Koleos or Mégane. But the most impressive is to see a lot of old models being still on the road while these models are not available anymore on the French market. The Renault 9 is the most famous. Often redecorated with stickers, neon lights and boomers, it’s the pride of many Colombians.

It’s 7:30pm on a Friday night, when we decided to enjoy a beer on the heights of Pamplona. Indeed we are 5, but tonight, none of the taxis wants to offer us a ride   which is unusual. Chatting with friends at the corner of a street, the owner of a beautiful blue Renault 9 with red neon lights offered us to give us a ride. With an Aguila (the most famous beer in Colombia) in his hand, he explained that we didn’t have any chance to find a taxi to go there as we had beers with us and the area is not very recommended.

Let’s go for a ride like in “Fast and Furious” in the winding streets of Pamplona.

Try to picture a very old Renault 9 with a front passenger seat unfixed, a fan to cool down the engine making a horrible noise and breaks squeaking in each turn, all of that in narrow streets with hills going up at over 45%. You have here the situation of our ascent.

On the top, the view over the city lights is worth it. This moment is today an unforgettable experience.

Pamplona and the areas of Santander and Norte-Santander – 8 days – 2342 metres above sea level

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The Norte-Santander county is located at the Venezuelan border at the North-East of Colombia.

These areas are keys in the history of the country as this is where many battles happened for the independence of Colombia. The most famous battle happened near Bucaramanga with separatists against Spanish conquistadors and last 1 000 days.

As we arrived from the North, we did our first stop, in the Norte-Santander, in Bucaramanga. Our first impression was not the most positive one as we needed to go through an horrendous traffic to reach the town-centre perched on a mountain. In spite of the link with the Hispanic history, the architecture is not majestic, even with 2 nice squares. But we still had good surprises.

First, the chess players in the Parque Santander at the bottom of the cathedral playing with pawns, bishops and knights on the draughtboard. After starting to chat with a person watching a chess game, we are invited to share a  “tinto” coffee while debating about European football.

After walking a bit in the streets of the city, we enjoyed the cultural spot offered by “El Instituto del Oriente”. Far away from the buzzing city life, we enjoyed listening the music lessons, watching the dance classes, and learning more about the history of the area in the small museum upstairs.

 

A few kilometers away, at the West of the city, Girón offers a more quite environnement than the big city Bucaramanga. Its historic centre with Hispanic influences offers an enjoyable atmosphere. Narrow paved streets, nice houses with white facades and little stone bridges seduced us quickly.

On the way to Pamplona, after reaching the top of the “Cerro Morronagre” col at 3100m above sea level, we made an improvised stop in the Mutiscua village. To go there, nothing easier. On the main road, there is a sign indicating this village. You just need to take this road on the left hand-side, to go down the 2km winding road in bad conditions, and Mutiscua will wait for you! This little village in the mountains lives with cultivation of vegetables and trout farming. We have been seduced by the simplicity and the warm welcoming of their residents. The main square is built around the church overlooking the river. This is the true heart and soul of the village where everyone is meeting to spend time together at the end of the day with a soda, a beer or a glass of Aguardiente with his neighbour, his friends or his colleagues.

Pamplona is a city surrounded by mountains. This was the first capitale of Colombia after the announcement of the independence of the Norte-Santander county. Pamplona kept many buildings with a Hispanic architecture. Its main square is the true meeting point of the city. It’s nice to spend a few minutes to watch the Colombians animating the square by playing frisbee, enjoying an ice cream or chatting on the benches in front of the cathedral. For a first time, this religious building is not that imposing but its Norman design makes the cathedral very welcoming. The second unavoidable spot in Pamplona is the covered market. There is a true labyrinth of aisles where you can find the usual sellers of fruits and veggies, the butchers and delicatessen stalls, plus a few clothing stalls. This is an unusual place isolated from the buzzing life in the streets.

After this small detour by the North-East, we are going towards the South. Next stop: Medellín!


OUR FAVOURITE PLACES 
 

Where to go?    

Raizón thermal baths

A few kilometers away from Pamplona, towards Cúcuta, you can relax at the thermal baths of Razón. These natural pools are full of hot water coming from the volcano next to them.

 

 

Where to have a drink?  

Babel, Coffee & Pub
Carrera 6 # 8B-77, Pamplona

2 floors, 5 little rooms with a different ambiance and a nice small roof-top. A nice bar to enjoy a local beer or a cocktail.