Beach riding at the bottom of Patagonia

Bitter at having spent too much time on paved highways, slogging in the wind, since El Chaltén, I spent a considerable amount of time staring at Google Earth in Puerto Natales. If you ask any locals, there is only one way to get to Punta Arenas, short of crossing back into Argentina: the highway. We hate the highway. I quickly lose interest in my surroundings as trucks blow past at 120km/h, and even a slight cross-wind has me gritting my teeth, slogging forward thinking only of arrival. Cycle touring is meant to be about the journey of the moment.

Unfortunately, my searching yielded no alternatives to the highway for the first 150km. But, after Villa Tehuelches there appeared to be a network of gravel roads that could be linked into a continuous route to Punta Arenas by way of a 12km stretch of surf-pounded beach on the shore of Otaway Sound.

We slogged 30km along the highway out of Puerto Natales before we decided that our time was too precious to be spent like that. We stuck out thumbs out for about 30 seconds and the first passing pick-up track whisked us away to Villa Tehuelches. We wouldn’t regret this decision in the slightest. In fact, the next two days revived our enthusiasm in cycle touring. I felt an intensity of experience which I’d missed for weeks.

Back on the ripio, with the prevailing winds on our team.

Back on the ripio, with the prevailing winds on our team.

Our first night was spent in a lovely road-side refuge, build by the municipality, near Estancia Rio Verde. A place to sleep out of the cold, wind and rain is invaluable to our happiness in Southern Patagonia.

Our first night was spent in a lovely road-side refuge, build by the municipality, near Estancia Rio Verde. A place to sleep out of the cold, wind and rain is invaluable to our happiness in Southern Patagonia.

We followed the shore of a narrow channel connecting Seno Skyring and Seno Otaway.

We followed the shore of a narrow channel connecting Seno Skyring and Seno Otaway.

When the road turned inland, we went through an unlocked gate down to the beach, past a few clam-diggers' shacks. The kettle was still warm in this one.

When the road turned inland, we went through an unlocked gate down to the beach, past a few clam-diggers’ shacks. The kettle was still warm in this one.

A trail from our dreams. We followed this track along the shore for a while.

A trail from our dreams. We followed this track along the shore until it was blocked by a locked gate…

So we went down on the beach. First we rode on the firm high tide mark.

So we went down on the beach. First we rode on the firm high tide mark.

Then we ventured out onto the sandy flats.

Then we ventured out onto the sandy flats.

And it was glorious. The sand here is hard enough to be ridden on almost any touring bike, but light loads and fat tires made it more enjoyable, as usual. Panthea's 26x2.25" tires we more than enough for the job.

And it was glorious. The sand here is hard enough to be ridden on almost any touring bike, but light loads and fat tires made it more enjoyable, as usual. Panthea’s 26×2.25″ tires we more than enough for the job.

Then Panthea spotted a lone penguin!

Then Panthea spotted a lone penguin!

And not just any penguin. It was an Emperor penguin, rare outside Antarctica, with one or two colonies on Tierra del Fuego, and very unusual to be spotted in Seno Otaway, a long ways by sea from Tierra del Fuego.

And not just any penguin. It was an Emperor penguin, rare outside Antarctica, with one or two colonies on Tierra del Fuego, and very unusual to be spotted in Seno Otaway, a long ways by sea from Tierra del Fuego.

A storm-sculpted shoreline.

A storm-sculpted shoreline.

Looking back at 12km of beach goodness.

Looking back at 12km of beach goodness

At the end of the beach, we passed through another unlocked gate, and turned right onto an abandoned mine road. When we reached the edge of a giant open-pit mine after a few kilometers, we were blocked by a gate ahead or a gate on our left. Ignoring the rusting No Pasar signs, we lifted our bikes over the locked gate on the left, and continued around the mine (and over two more locked gates.

A closed road leading the the mine. Closed roads are the best way to avoid all manner of motorized traffic.

A closed road leading the the mine. Closed roads are the best way to avoid all manner of motorized traffic.

Out over-gate method: we both lift the bike onto pedal and pannier, Panthea holds everything in place while I hop over, then I attempt to direct the bike slowly to the ground. We're getting pretty fast at this.

Our over-gate method: we both lift the bike onto pedal and pannier, Panthea holds everything in place while I hop over, then I attempt to direct the bike slowly to the ground. We’re getting pretty fast at this.

We passed some ostrich-like nandú (Patagonian rhea).

We passed some ostrich-like nandú (Patagonian rhea).

And continued back to the sea-shore on the other side of the mine to discover that the penguins had already all but vacated the Seno Otaway penguin colony.

And continued back to the sea-shore on the other side of the mine to discover that the penguins had already all but vacated the Seno Otaway penguin colony.

But we found a decent place to camp, sheltered from the wind by a rusting shepherding shack.

But we found a decent place to camp, sheltered from the wind by a rusting shepherding shack.

In the morning we continued back out to the public road from the penguin colony. A few kilometers on, right before the first roadside buildings on the right, my GPS indicated that we should head over a cattleguard and onto a small farm track.

We followed the track passed windswept Magellenic forests until it intersected with a slightly larger, and completely abandoned road.

We followed the track passed windswept Magellenic forests until it intersected with a slightly larger, and completely abandoned road.

Past windswept Magellenic forests the farm track intersected with a slightly larger, and completely abandoned road. Here we took a left and followed this officially closed road over a 330m pass, and down to the Strait of Magellan, hitting the coast in the northern outskirts of Punta Arenas.

The Strait of Magellan with one of Punta Arenas' many sea-side sculptures.

The Strait of Magellan with one of Punta Arenas’ many sea-side sculptures.

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18 thoughts on “Beach riding at the bottom of Patagonia

    • I can’t recommend it enough! It would be worth scoping out the details on Google Earth yourself, since this route is a bit of a maze. If you have a GPS unit, all the small roads we linked up (everything except the beach) were in the Proyecto Mapear ‘Extremo’ (free) map file. Failing that, I can share some more specific directions.

      • Hey, Skyler. I’m anti-tech, so no GPS (but I might have to rethink this stance one day… it might help on some of the routes I find myself on)… I’ll check out Google Earth but any specific directions you have would be very much appreciated if you can be bothered emailing me with them : -)

        • Leaving the highway 2km south of Villa Tehuelches, 22km of ripio brings you to Estancia Rio Verde. At the junction at Rio Verde, there is a lovely refugio owned by the municipality. Its door is unlocked, and this a great place to sleep.

          12km further, south along the ripio, there is another municipal roadside refugio, but I didn’t check the door. You’ll pass another mini version of these refugios, but you don’t want to sleep there, and then 32km or so from the first refugio is the third proper one. It is locked, but marks the (unlocked) gate that provides access to the amazing beach. Go down the track to the beach, past a nasty shack on the right, and another (much nicer) shack on the shore could provide a decent spot to sleep. This is where Cass and Myles camped.

          We rode about 3km along the track that follows the shore, then when a locked gate blocked the way, went down and rode along the hard sand on the beach. At the far side of the beach we went through another unlocked gate and turned right. After a few kms we arrived at the mine and two locked gates, one ahead, and one to the left. We lifted our bikes over the one on the left. I think going straight ahead would lead right into the mine. They both are private mine roads and say no tresspassing.

          We rode aroud the mine until another locked gate where it joins two parallel roads separated by a big fence. The near one is mine property, and has a control where it joins the main road. The far one is on a private estancia. Follow the estancia road to the right to the Seno Otaway penguin colony, which has no penguins after mid-March. They gave us water though, and we found a shack to camp behind, sheltered from the wind, a few kms east of the penguin entrance. Follow either road out to the left to the public road. We got scolded at the mine road control booth. It is best to take the estancia road, especially to prevent problems for other cyclists later. The estancia normally charges people to use their road (as access to the penguin colony), but a simple explanation that you are lost and came from the beach should be sufficient.

          At the main road, eadh left, and follow it for 5km (plus or minus a few, I wasn’t paying attention). Ten meters before the first house on the right, directly on the road, there is a small track that crosses a cattle guard and goes past some fields. Follow this for about 4km past cool forests and with decent camping potential and through one unlocked gate, till you hit a bigger, empty gravel road. Take a left and this bigger road will lead you to the northern limit of Punta Arenas. There will be one final locked gate to cross arriving in Punta Arenas, which is why you won’t see any cars on this entire strech.

      • Hi there, just reporting back… all good but a few more locked gates than you experienced. The one accessing the beach was locked. The one exiting the estancia with the penguin colony was locked. And there was a big unbudge-able steel barrier over the cattle grid that ended up deterring me from the last section, sadly. I probably should have persevered but a sixth barrier to lift my bike over, solo, in one day proved too much for me. Mind you, the long way round on the public roads was a demoralising end to an otherwise lovely adventure.

  1. I didn’t go past El Chalten on my trip in part due to timing and in part due to the worry that it would be all roads all the time, and I wasn’t interested in that. But this is brilliant! Thanks for scouting the route (and the update, Anna). Makes it much likelier that I’ll return.

    Bravo!

    All the best,
    Joe

    • Also worthy of mention is the powerline service road heading south from the highway 20km east of El Calafate. We very nearly followed it, not knowing where it went. Turns out it joined the main road again at El Cerrito, right where it goes back to ripio, avoiding another 100km of pavement.

  2. Your route notes were spot on. I got through easily navigating with just them and my odometer. Three gates and the steel barrier at the farm turn. (really to bad Anna did not find that all she needed to do was lift up the wire and slid easily underneath and there were no more after to put a challenge) Beautiful route though! Thanx for stringing it up.

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  4. Thanks Skyler, great notes and a cute little route. I’d never really considered riding beaches before so a bit of an eye-opener. My dreams have gone from being flavored by thoughts of 29+ to becoming saturated by them!

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  7. FYI, when we passed in April 2016:
    -The refugio marking the turn off the main road was unlocked, even had mattresses inside!
    -When we reached the mine, there was no longer a gate blocking the left (there was one straight). There is also an unlocked building at that junction that could provide a cozy place to sleep – look for the blue roof.
    -The gate upon reaching the double road was unlocked. 2.5 km after this, there is an unlocked gate between the roads that allows passage to the estancia road – it’s just after the estancia’s (locked) control building on the right.
    -The cattleguard gate was open, but there were a few more more locked gates and fences on the approach into Punta Arenas.
    -We found no good water sources after the Rio Verde municipality, only tiny streams running through herds of cows.

    Thanks for the route! We had a great time riding it.

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