I do not understand the allure of Bariloche (Argentina). It had been such a topic of conversation among travelers, a destination that always seemed to spark such excitement, but I could not find it. The “Swiss Alps of Argentina”, sits on a rise above Lake Nahuel Huapi in the Seven Lakes area. You cannot deny that it is beautiful, but no more than many other places in the region. Main street is dominated by chocolaterias as big as Best Buy stores, but otherwise lacks any real charm. In fact, the thing that I remember most about the town was how people would park their cars along the seawall so that the crashing waves would shower down on them, giving the car a good power wash. They would sit there for 4-5-minutes and then drive away with their wipers on while another grubby car waited to for their space. Simply fascinating theatre!
The weather finally broke and I headed south in moderate crosswinds down Ruta 258 through El Bolson, then on to Tecka where I would catch the road east to cut across Argentina via the Chubut River Valley. What I did not know at the time was that this would be the last of seeing anything green for a while, and just how remarkable the ride as going to be.
It would have been possible to cross to the Atlantic side in one day, but I did not see the point in that. This was to be my introduction to Patagonia (a word that has sparked excitement for me for over two years now), and I had no intention of rushing through it. Research told me that there was one gas station, and one hotel, midway across the country in the town of Los Altares. From there, it would be on to Port Madryn, and for the first time since beginning the trip, a glimpse of the Atlantic Ocean.
The eastbound two-lane road crossed several rivers before meeting up and following the Chubut River. Almost immediately after turning east I pulled the bike over on the shoulder of the opposing westbound lane to take some photos. It was a flooded river plain with my first ever wild flamingoes (note to self: get that telephoto lens soon). The road eventually caught up with the Chubut just before reaching my night’s resting point, an Automobile Club of Argentina – a gas station/motor lodge combo kind of thing.
In the morning, I ordered a couple of sandwiches from the woman behind the station’s counter, had a cup of coffee while I waited, then got back on the road. The land became more and more barren, but produced some impressive rock formations along the route. The river came and went but never strayed too far. I saw my first of many sheep on this stretch of road, and my first Guanaco (relative of the Llama). The guidebooks tout this stretch of road from Los Altares to Trelew as one of the most beautiful drives in Argentina, and it did not disappoint.
Before reaching Trelew, I stopped for some tea in the Welsh dominated town of Gaiman. There, with the eyes of a dozen or more Princess Di portraits following my every move, I “enjoyed” stale crust less sandwiches, day-old pastries, and, of course, some tea. I wanted to stop and say that I had a proper cup of tea in Welsh-Argentina, and damn it, I did! However, it was one of those places that catered to busloads of tourists while on day excursions from their cruise ships. Based on the expressionless faces on the “been here too long” wait staff, my lone arrival just disrupted their day’s rhythm. Clearly, a tour bus was not scheduled, and my presence meant break time was over (the place was empty). My request to hear some Tom Jones was met with the same humorless expression.
After following the Pacific Ocean for almost the entire trip, it was exciting to see the Atlantic Ocean for the first Time. With the bike stowed away in the hotel’s parking lot, I had three days to upgrade my fading tan, stretch my legs on some beach walks, and try my first Patagonian lamb.
Puerto Madryn is a poplar weekend beach town for Argentines, and serves as a launching point for tours to the Valdez Peninsula, a nationally protected breeding reserve for Southern Right whales, sea loins, elephant seals, penguins, and various land animals, and my next stop.
Historical note: Puerto Madryn was founded when 150 Welsh immigrants landed on its shores in 1865. The immigrant’s arrival was in response to an offer by Argentina’s government in which 100 square miles of land would be give to those that would settle in the still unconquered land around the Chubut River. The settlements were successful and there is still a strong Welsh presence today.