Touring South America: Out of the Frying Pan and Into the Fire
Chapter 20: April 21st, Sarmiento, Argentina.
I woke up feeling almost at 100% thanks to last night’s giant dinner. Since we had negotiated our room without breakfast (which were two pieces toasts and a cup of coffee), I whipped up something generous for myself. I didn’t want to leave any uneaten food behind so I fried four eggs and four sausages, and ate them with the rest of my loaf of bread. Not even Michael Phelps eats breakfasts that big.
At this point in the journey we decided to abandon Ruta 40 due to personal safety. My bike was not designed to cross hundreds of kilometers of dirt roads and Fernando still did not feel comfortable crossing these unstable paths while being lashed by strong winds and possibly rain. It was simply not convenient.
We set off from Esquel towards Comodoro Rivadavia in order to go down Ruta 3 the rest of the way South. We left behind picturesque lakes and prominent snowy summits and welcomed the endless expanse of the Patagonian plains.
The weather on our way out did not bode well. There were dense, low-hanging clouds that cooled the entire surrounding. There weren’t any spaces through which sunlight could pass. It was very menacing weather, and to make things worse, it was toying with us. It was making us believe that we’d be hit with a torrential downpour at any moment. It would start with a few drops and little by little more water would fall. Then, all of a sudden, it would stop. It was very stressful to constantly be bracing myself for heavy rain every 20 minutes.
Luckily, there seemed to be an end to the clouds in the distance and the road was leading us that way. The only problem was the wind was also going in that direction and with it, the clouds. It essentially became a race against the elements; trying to go faster than the wind and everything it carried. The end of the clouds seemed so close but it took some time for us to get there. When we finally entered the sunny area, we stopped for a while to absorb some rays, almost expecting our bodies to start photosynthesis.
Some kilometers back, I had covered my feet and hands with newspaper in an attempt to add insulation to my extremities. At first, it worked wonderfully, but after a while it felt like the paper had disintegrated and was getting wet. It was failing to retain warmth.
What was distracting my mind from the cold was the new flora and fauna surrounding us. There were daisies along the highway, whole families of guanacos which were crossing in groups, birds which seemed to be stuck mid-flight unable to move against the wind, and even a recently dead horse. Cause of death: arrow to the neck. We even saw two sheep racing each other, running down one side of their fence to the other.
What struck me as most interesting was the behavior of the guanacos. When we got close to a group, one of them would raise its head to keep guard. It would stare at us and if it saw we slowed down, it would warn the others to be on the lookout. Whenever we stopped next to them, the biggest one would signal the group and they would all run towards the horizon, jumping over fences with a unique grace.
From time to time there would be an extremely brave guanaco that would not move in spite of our stopping too close. We would simply stare at each other straight in the eyes until I took out my camera. They don’t like the paparazzi either. Fernando found the bravest guanaco of them all, which was not at all bothered by the presence of the motorcycles. It saw him, acknowledged his presence, and continued eating not caring about us at all.
Eventually, we reached a part of the road being repaired and we had to take another detour through the dirt and gravel. It was a bit wet but not too complicated. Once we were out of it, we took a break and started talking about how lucky we were to avoid the rain. We both swore some of the raindrops that had fallen on us looked more like snowflakes that melted as soon as they touched our helmets. The weather had decided to put an end to our doubts and some more snowflakes began to fall while we were talking. We laughed thinking we could now say we had even crossed snowy areas, and rode on thinking the snow was behind us. We thought we had escaped it.
The truth of the matter was that we were at the snowfall’s outer edge and moving towards the middle of what we were trying to avoid. Within 10km, the temperature had dropped 7 degrees (14 degrees in Fahrenheit) and the sky was covering us with snow.
A month before I would have never imagined crossing areas with snowfall. The only thing I had considered was riding next to snowy peaks in the distance. Now here I was. There are things you only notice when you’re in the middle of the situation. Snow is not like rain that simply streams down the windshield. The snow accumulates and limits your vision, especially when you don’t have windshield wipers. I didn’t want to take my left hand off the handlebar because I needed as much stability as possible, but it was necessary so I could wipe the visor every 10 seconds. Otherwise it was riding blind for me.
The only benefit of the mess was the igloo effect caused by having a layer of ice on me. I wasn’t as cold as before and in spite of the conditions, I was having a lot of fun. Overcoming unexpected situations is a prize in itself.
We crossed the snowfall at a prudent speed, making sure to balance caution because of the conditions, and getting to a town or city before nightfall. We couldn’t see the sun but we knew we didn’t have much daylight left. In the end, when we got out of the bad weather, we arrived at Sarmiento and decided to stay there instead of continuing to Comodoro Rivadavia, which was our original destination. There were no hostels available and we ended up having to stay in a hotel, but you can’t put a price on a hot shower when you really need it.