Panini Tour: Chile and Argentina – Andes Crossings to Tierra del Fuego
South America is a fascinating continent offering everything – literally everything – you could ever imagine as an adventure biker. In the face of so many options, you have to make a choice. We go for the “Andes crossing” option: criss-crossing the Andes along as many passes as possible in the saddle of our two KTM 1190 ADVENTURE Rs.
We take a zigzag route along the 4,000-kilometer-long Andes ridge, which forms the border between Chile and Argentina, from the Atacama Desert in northern Chile to southern Patagonia, a region shared by both countries. Our destination is the most southerly city on the Latin American continent: Ushuaia on Tierra del Fuego. In practice, that means numerous border crossings… but thankfully – and in contrast to Central America – the administrative burden of crossing the border from Chile to Argentina and vice versa isn’t too bad.
After several days of sparse and punishing Bolivian highlands, the little oasis of San Pedro de Atacama awaits in Chile. Magnificent! As a globetrotter’s meeting point and the gateway to the Atacama Desert, San Pedro is home to simple mud-brick houses, some enclosed by novel fences made of cactus stems tied together with leather straps. In between them are dusty roads with hardly any traffic and a very good tourist infrastructure. For us that means we can wash our clothes, maintain our bikes, sort through our photos, plan the rest of our trip, and enjoy the best Chilean wine around inn tables teeming with dishes. Rest and relaxation.
The Atacama Desert is tucked between the Pacific and the Andes and is said to be one of the driest deserts in the world. We too didn’t see any rain, but did get wet while bathing in a warm, volcanic open-air pool, fed by the “El Tatio” geyser, all the while curiously eyed by a few llamas.
Tremendous dirt roads guide us through solitary, colorful mountains and past tiny villages with a minute number of inhabitants. Mining, on the other hand, is big in the Chilean Atacama Desert. Fervent digging goes on all around, including in the world’s largest copper mine, with the largest excavation buckets we’ve ever seen! Not to be missed is the most famous sculpture in the Atacama Desert, the desert hand (Mano del Desierto), a monument to environmental protection. We just have to take a photo to remember this moment: our ADVENTUREs in front of the 11-meter-high hand projecting out of the ground.
From the heights of Copiapó, we leave the Atacama Desert and head straight for the Andes. The Paso de San Francisco, which has also featured in the Dakar Rally a few times, is our destination. We stash away extra fuel in the 10-liter canister fastened to the aluminum case, as we can’t quite manage the 550 kilometers without a gas station.
On the varied track that first winds its way between colorful flowers and narrow cliffs, and then towards the top of the pass, with super views, we don’t meet another soul, apart from a few llamas and loads of birds of prey. On the banks of a beautiful salt lake (Laguna Verde), which glistens white and turquoise in the sun, lies the solitary border crossing into Argentina. At this point we tip the fuel into our tanks – the customs official is delighted with the empty canister. On the 4,726-meter-high San Francisco Pass, a stormy, cold wind batters against us, so we keep our stop brief.
Argentina greets us with a play of colors in a class of its own: yellow mountain slopes and fiery-red cliffs – all in all remarkably beautiful natural scenery. It’s a good job that we’re travelers and can ride in “enjoyment mode” here rather than being sportspeople riding in “rally mode”. And even better that there’s hardly any traffic around, as our eyes and attention are drawn to the landscape most of the time and focus far too little on the road ahead!
We celebrate our first Andes crossing in the Argentinian town of Fiambalá, where we let a blissfully warm thermal waterfall patter against our backs while chatting to locals. From here we travel along part of the “Ruta 40” for the first time, Argentina’s longest national road and one of the longest highways in the world. We’ll return to it many times on our journey to the southern tip of the continent and the true variety it has to offer: floods, sand storms, new asphalt, rough track, animals – everything you can imagine.
After a good 700 kilometers in Argentina, we branch off to our second Andes crossing; this time along the 4,780-meter-high Paso Agua Negra back to Chile. And we thought the landscape surrounding the San Francisco Pass couldn’t be beaten in its beauty – what did we know?! The track along the Agua Negra Pass is even more impressive: from the penitentes – snow formations shaped by the wind – and mountains of every color to the panoramic views, and challenging offroad stretches. The Andes really are something!
In Chile, we visit the Pacific port of Valparaíso – the country’s cultural capital – before setting off for our third Andes crossing. The Andes pass Cristo Redentor is the main road between the Chilean capital Santiago and Mendoza in Argentina. It’s completely asphalt-covered, very well-developed, has many bends, and even more trucks. The most beautiful part of the pass is the view of the snow-covered, 6,962-meter-high Aconcagua, the highest peak in South America.
On the way to San Rafael, situated in the heart of the Argentinian red-wine region, we get talking to two Argentinian married couples. They’re passing through and enjoying grilling a piece of meat on a fire on the ground – a bottle of red wine sitting on the hood – less than two meters from the edge of the road: improvised, yet masterful. They let us have a try and experience the Argentinian love of gastronomy in its best light. It tastes better than in a restaurant!
After so many main roads and asphalt we’re craving offroad terrain under the lugs of our tires and weave our way through some Argentinian canyons, before heading for the fourth Andes crossing. At a height of 2,500 meters, the Paso Pehuenche is a lot lower; the Andes are no longer as steep and rugged, and the temperatures are pleasant. We’ve learnt well from the Argentinians, and so enjoy a nice picnic at the top of the pass.
Back in Chile, it’s time for a service: At the KTM importer in Chillán, our two KTM 1190 ADVENTURE Rs get a set of new tires and a comprehensive, “almost 90,000-kilometer” service for the penultimate time.
Andes crossing number five (only 1,200 meters high) at the foot of the Lanín volcano takes us through Araucania, the home of the last Mapuche Indians and the bell-shaped, evergreen monkey puzzle tree (Araucaria), with its spiky leaves. Its seeds taste delicious when prepared by the Mapuche Indian women.
The Seven Lakes Route in Argentina is a picture-book landscape. Among dense forests and countless volcanic peaks, over 40 lakes glisten in two expansive national parks. Ruta 40 passes through here too. It’s awesome to ride on!
Back in Chile again, we stop in New Braunau, which is today quite a dreary village that was founded by Czech emigrants. It’s home to a nice museum containing a number of curiosities from the era of the European migrants. We can see the delight on the face of the son of the museum’s founder at our visit from the “old Europe” and we get a detailed private tour, including Café y “Kuchen” (coffee and cake), a linguistic hark back to the old continent in today’s Chile.
After a short ferry ride, we enjoy two relaxing sunny days (!) in a typical, brightly colored palafito (a wooden house on stilts) on the Pacific island of Chiloé, which is known for its colorful wooden churches, tasty seafood, and 240 days of rain a year.
Welcome to Patagonia! In Puerto Montt we ride on the famous Carretera Austral; it goes through rough terrain into southern Chile, and even after 20 years of construction, it’s still not continuous. We board the ferry in Hornopirén and are delayed, as somehow the captain misjudges the tide and grounds the ship, which means we have to wait for the next high tide.
The partly asphalted Carretera leads us past recently erupted volcanoes, ever more mountain peaks covered with glaciers, through dense cloud forest vegetation, across huge bridges, and through tiny villages on magnificent fjords, with colorful, weathered wooden houses and very welcoming inhabitants.
The vibrant turquoise lake of Lago Carrera is a real highlight, with dense, red dog rose undergrowth along its banks. An extremely rough boat ride is the price you pay to visit the impressive marble caverns. You appreciate a well-functioning WP shock absorber all the more so after that!
We ride round this magnificent lake on a maintained gravel track and meet many fellow travelers – on horses and bicycles. This is unsurprising, as in southern Chile this is the only route; the alternative would be the jungle! And only a few kilometers south of Lago Carrera, the Carretera Austral comes to an end.
Now it’s time to get back over to Argentina on the Ruta 40 once again. While Chilean Patagonia is rather damp, cool, and very green, Argentinian Patagonia is a steppe-like plain in beautiful tones of yellow ocher and orange. It’s sparsely populated, with more animals than people, including a very inquisitive armadillo, who watches us as we repair one of our extremely rare punctures.
On our way south on the dusty Ruta 40, which is rippled like corrugated iron, the steppe landscape is slowly but surely framed by an increasing number of glacial lakes and glaciated mountains – the Monte Fitz Roy massif, which all of a sudden extends across the entire horizon following a bad weather front, makes for the most awesome view. Cinemascope!
The massif’s glaciers are part of the Chilean ice sheet, the largest connected mass of ice outside the North and South Poles and Greenland. So, off we go on a glacier walk! The Perito Moreno Glacier, a little further south, is a particularly good place for this, as you can get close to it on bikes. When you look across the glacier from the observation terrace, you can see how the ice walls of the flowing glacier plunge into Lago Argentino with loud creaking and cracking noises. It’s a fascinating experience; as is walking past electric blue glacier crevasses in crampons!
From the Argentinian Perito Moreno Glacier to Torres del Paine National Park in Chile is only a half-day trip. This is where we get to know the wildest and windiest side of Patagonia, where there are two different kinds of windy. When it blows strongly but evenly you can lean against it and stay on course; but if the wind comes in stormy gusts, you end up doing serpentines, at best. At worst – and this is what happened to us – before you know it you’re being blown off your bike! It’s beyond belief, even when you’ve experienced it yourself.
We take respite from the windy horror in Hotel Lago Pehoe, which boasts the most beautiful location of all the accommodation in the area: in the middle of a deep-blue lake, surrounded by the wild, snow-covered mountain peaks of the Torres del Paine. We ride to Puerto Natales, with its “Wind Monument” (how fitting!), and on over lots of gravel and a little asphalt to Punta Arenas, the last city on the Chilean mainland.
The Strait of Magellan, the ocean route between the Atlantic and Pacific, which separates the South American continent from the island of Tierra del Fuego and was discovered by Portuguese seafarer Fernando Magellan in 1520, stretches out before us. Magellan’s means of transport, the Nao Victoria ship, is not far from Punta Arenas and is definitely worth a look, as is Magdalena Island, which is inhabited by a huge colony of black and white Magellanic penguins. The wind sticks around and brings us a rough ferry crossing, causing our bikes to topple over once again.
We’re all the more delighted to have land beneath our feet (or wheels) again: we’ve reached Tierra del Fuego! Tierra del Fuego means gravel tracks, windswept scrubs with millions of sheep between them, and, fittingly, slaughterhouses and fish factories – the people here have got to live on something. The Tierra del Fuego residents are cheerful outdoors folk, racing fanatics, and are immensely proud of their territory, “the most beautiful spot on the planet”, as they like to point out.
Yippee! We’re so happy and proud, as we see the Ushuaia sign – the other end of the American continent – before our very eyes after our accident-free (well apart from a few topples!) 45,000-kilometer trip from Alaska. It’s a huge Panini Moto Tour milestone and an awesome feeling that we can both enjoy here together: we’ve travelled around the world (just about) on our two KTM 1190 ADVENTURE Rs!
And now it’s time to go home…
Photos: Barbara Kenedi
Info: Around the world – Panini Moto Tour
Barbara Kenedi, a KTM employee in Mattighofen, and her partner Peter are on a round-the-world adventure tour. Why the mysterious name Panini? Because that’s the name of the couple’s cat, which is naturally placed in good hands while they’re away.
The keen travellers, who have been on tour with two KTM 1190 ADVENTURE Rs since March 2013, are completing the round-the-world trip in stages, rather than all at once. The first major stage led from Austria to Ulan Bator, the capital of Mongolia. Then they continued the trip on the Australian continent, starting in Darwin. This was followed by New Zealand and, as the first port of call in North America, the crossing of Alaska to the south of California, before they finally step onto South American soil.
The marathon pleasure trip, entitled “Around the world – Panini Moto Tour” can be followed on Facebook, although only after prior registration.