Off Route

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.

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.

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 until it was blocked by a locked gate…

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

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 26×2.25″ tires we more than enough for the job.

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.

A storm-sculpted shoreline.

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.

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).

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.

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.

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.