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Discussion in 'Ride Reports - Epic Rides' started by ThePackTrack, Sep 23, 2015.
Thanks for the feedback, sometimes it's hard to know if anyone is reading it.
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This is great stuff, I'm enjoying your story.
LAND OF WATER - GUYANA
August 11, 2014
After the intensity of the World Cup we were looking forward to a slower pace. From Brazil we were free to travel wherever the road would take us. A few days in Boa Vista, Brazil, gave us some time to discuss our overall plan for South America and we decided that it would be best to travel anti-clockwise around South America, reaching the bottom (Ushuaia) around the end of November. It gets very cold down there so for riders its recommended to head there in the warmer months, December to February.
We picked Guyana for our next stop, an English speaking country and that was the limit of our knowledge of the little South American country with population around 800,000. It was a pleasant ride to Letham, the border town of Guyana, and we stopped along the way to grab a few snaps, easing into our new routine (taking our time). The border crossing wasn't too complicated, there was some paperwork for both Skyla and the motorbikes. What did surprise us was the temporary permit the immigration officers gave us for the motorbikes. This permit gave us 2 days to ride to the capital, Georgetown, to seek permission at the Guyana Revenue Authority (GRA) office (on Camp St) to continue riding our bikes legally in the country. We were assured the ride was possible in two days. No way!!! The road from Letham to Linden was the worst road we'd experienced so far. Its 500km of dirt, mud, sand, water and potholes and it took us 4 days. Luckily we had no rain and a fantastic experience, camping along the way. We called this experience our crash course into off-road riding. There were plenty of falls on the first day, a couple of the second day then we were good. Letting our tyres down to 16 PSI really made a difference on the sand and wet ground.
Georgetown is an interesting city and you can do your own self-guided walking tour to see the highlights, museums, markets etc in one full day. The St. George's Anglican Cathedral is worth a visit and you can hide from the heat of the day while taking a seat in one of the pews. Its a beautiful structure and the tallest wooden church in the world. Georgetown also offers a variety of different cuisines so we had a couple of days just chilling and eating before investigating our next challenge...getting to Venezuela by boat.
Our first lead was to get a 'ferry' from Georgetown to Mabaruma. From Mabaruma or nearby Ports of Kaituma and Morawhanna its possible to ask around for a boat to Venezuela. We waited a week in Georgetown to get the ferry and were excited when we finally boarded. It was not a pleasant experience but an eye opener to the conditions some people endure with no avenue for improvement. The boat was severely overcrowded with no room to move inside. Hammocks were slung anywhere and everywhere. The toilets were so primitive and the stench spread through the boat. Fortunately for us, the Captain would not let us inside with Skyla so we set up camp on the deck, surrounded by fresh air. Nonetheless, the crew and passengers were very friendly and curious about what we were doing on that boat.
We spent a week in Mabaruma searching for someone to take us to Venezuela. The two difficulties we encountered was running out of money and transporting the bikes; passenger boats went fairly regularly. We severely underestimated the cost. We got two quotes to transport The Pack Track and both were around US$1500. If it weren't for the feeling of being stranded in Mabaruma and the frustration of finding a boat we would have enjoyed the town a lot more.
When we had no luck in Mabaruma we got the ferry back to Georgetown. Back in Georgetown we followed our second lead from advice of our new friend, Mark, and his family. We rode to and got a ferry from Parika to Supernaam. Marks Mum lives in Parika and she got us showered, changed, fed and booked in to a hotel to rest. From here we rode to Charity. Here the search started again to find someone to take us to Venezuela. Charity is a nice place with nice people. It was a pleasant five nights in Charity until we sailed to Venezuela.
The boat was so much smaller than we expected and to the horror of the driver our bikes were so much bigger than he expected; and this time we were in an English speaking country! Oh well, the bikes were getting on that boat one way or another. No more messing around, we stripped the panniers off the bikes and began lowering them in to the boat. It took 5 men to handle each bike in to the boat. Once they were in there was not a lot of room left for passengers, only 2 other people came on the boat with us.
It was so exciting when we left Charity the following morning at 5am. It was dark and quiet, sort of felt like a covert operation except we had got our passports officially stamped out of Guyana the day before so no illegal activity. The trip was going smoothly until we turned in to the river in Venezuela that leads to San Felix. We made a fuel stop and we think the family that pumped the gasoline phoned the military water police as we were soon after pulled over and taken in for questioning. The driver had prepared us for such a circumstance so the US dollars we had were spread between Janells bra and underpants; being an international the police would not strip search her like the locals or Guyanese. Next all our belongings expect the bikes were removed from the boat and searched in detail with many questions along the way. There was no damage to our belongings but the other people on the boat had their bags ripped, bottles smashed etc. We just had to stand and watch, there was nothing we could do to stop it. Finally the threats came. The police wanted US$5000 or they would withold our motorbikes and stop the boat from proceeding. Of coarse we didn't have that kind of money and certainly weren't negotiating with corruption so after 3 hours of threats and bullying they gave up and set us on our way. That was not the end however as every military water police checkpoint stopped our boat and made threats to our driver. A trip that should have taken 10 hours ended up taking 16 hours. It was a long and very tiring day.
We spent that night in the home of the boat driver and the next day our friend Carlos from El Callao met us (we were so happy to see him) and we travelled to his home, so glad to be back somewhere familiar.
Looking back on this experience through a rose-tinted visor, it was definitely an adventure, however, we wasted a lot of time and in short wouldn't recommend this route to other motorbike travellers. The process is unpredictable and on the water you can easily be stranded and held at the mercy of whoever is trying to take your money.
We support World Animal Protection and raise money and awareness for their cause, if you enjoy this article please consider donating at ThePackTrack.com/WAP or see how else you can get involved at www.worldanimalprotection.org.au.
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Anyone planning a trip through Guyana please contact us, its a great experience but hard work culturally. A lot of fun though and an experience you can't get anywhere else in the America's.
GUYANA TO VENEZUELA BY BOAT
August 16, 2014
The MV Kimbia, a 70 year old dilapidated ocean going passenger and cargo transport ferry, is said to be one of the oldest ships in the maritime public transport industry. It services the communities in the Northwest region of Guyana, a region only accessible by boat due to the whole area being a marshy swampland interspersed with river systems. The ferry ride is usually around 25 hours but inclement weather can extend this voyage to 30-36 hours. The trip is very much a third world transportation experience; grossly overcrowded, terrible sanitation, all kinds of animals and next to no consideration for safety.
Guyana is a developing country on the north coast of South America. It has a population of around 750,000 and is the second smallest country by land mass in South America. By the time we reached Georgetown, the capital of Guyana, and had spent a few days exploring the city, we had seen everything we wanted. This took us about a week in total and from this point onwards, we were ready to move on.
From Georgetown, The Pack Track decided to investigate a direct route to Venezuela. Here say lead us towards the border town of Mabaruma, Guyana, where we were told we'd easily find a boat to take us along the maze of rivers to a major city within Venezuela. Mabaruma is only accessible by boat therefore it was necessary for us to suffer the discomfort of travel on the aforementioned MV Kimbia to head into the unknown.
The ferry schedule was haphazard to say the least. Passengers were advised to call up each morning to see if the ferry was to leave that day. After six days of calling every morning, the ferry would finally leave on Sunday 10 August 2014 at 1pm.
Thanks to a benign sea state, we reached Mabaruma by 4pm on Monday, 27 hours after departing Georgetown. All three of us were in desperate need of a shower and hopeful for a clean toilet but we had no idea about accommodation, no contacts and no plan. Speaking with fellow passengers on the voyage had not been as fruitful as we had hoped. We received conflicting ideas and information about how to get to Venezuela and nothing concrete.
We waited until the ferry cleared before beginning our disembark. The tide was high and with the wharf low the gangway was very steep, not an ideal situation for riding a motorbike; however we wanted to have our bikes on land ready for any potential boat to Venezuela as soon as possible. Just before we started to disembark, a young man introduced himself to us, his name was Andrew and he said he could help us with anything we needed. We told him we were looking for a route to Venezuela, and to our delight he responded that his father had a boat leaving this afternoon or tomorrow morning and would help us out.
With the help of the crew and Andrew, we handled the bikes down the steep loading planks. We'd like to say that once off the ferry, both bikes started first time and off we rode to the hotel but this wasn't the case!! Janell's bike decided it wasn't going to start without some attention, attention we really didn't have time or patients for. Luckily the hotel was only a couple of hundred meters away but the mud and potholes on the road made this a little more challenging but nothing we weren't accustomed to.
The town of Mabaruma was pretty run down. It had little infrastructure with rubbish and stagnant water everywhere. The hotel however, was a welcome relief with comfortable beds, air-conditioning and big bathroom, certainly more than we were expecting. The only downside was the power; government supplied power only ran from 5pm till midnight at which point the hotel switched to its generator to carry on until 8am; so no power during the day. The generator would only power fans and lights (not air-conditioning) but it was better than nothing.
As soon as we had freshened up Andrew took us out to start looking for a boat. He introduced us to a friend who was the electrical engineer in charge of the government power station. This friend had a government provided car which he used to run a taxi service during working hours for personal gain. We wondered if the power would be able to stay on throughout the day and night if certain people were taking their responsibilities more seriously. The 'taxi' took us all to see Andrew's father, Alan, who's boat often went to Venezuela to 'smuggle' fuel. Unfortunately Alan had changed his operation such that he picked up fuel barrels dropped off by a partner on the beach at roughly the halfway point, this way he did not need to travel all the way into Venezuela. However, Alan said he would speak to people in the morning and find us a ride. He asked us to come past his bar (Bar Latino) the next morning and he would have some news for us. After speaking with Alan, our 'taxi' driver took Andrew and us for a tour of the airfield and a few other sites but it was dark so didn't see much. On our way back to the hotel we stopped for a beer to say thank you the Australian way to Andrew and the driver for taking us around. The driver accepted the beer and then charged us $20 for the taxi ride we didn't even ask for. After that experience we decided that in future we wouldn't accept any more car or 'taxi' rides.
As instructed, we visited Alan at his bar first thing. Unfortunately he hadn't been able to find anyone going to Venezuela with a boat big enough to take our bikes. His suggestion was to keep asking around at the wharf, so that we did. On our first day of asking we were offered to be taken to Venezuela for US$1500 but this offer quickly reduced to US$1000. Alan had told us to expect to pay around $100 per person. The vast difference in these prices was due to the exclusive charter of the boat rather than 'hitch-hiking' on a boat already heading to Venezuela.
We had a problem, our main constriction was money. Mabaruma has no ATM's and the nearest town with a bank costs US$70 per person for a round trip. Add to this dilemma that we could only withdraw a maximum of US$300 a day and it makes a very expensive ATM trip. Later that day we were offered to hitch-hike with a boat that would be leaving on Thursday for US$200 total. This sounded great but to ensure we had the funds Stuart took the one and a half hour boat ride to Port Kaituma (the nearest ATM) to do some banking.
The boat leaving on Thursday changed to the boat leaving on Saturday changed to no boat arriving on Saturday and everyone involved disappearing with no information. We knew that on Sunday the ferry (MV Kimbia) was to return to Georgetown, so Saturday was our 'go' or 'no go' day. With our organised boat nowhere to be seen we frantically asked around for any information of any other possible boats we could jump on. Being the only white people in town we were easily identifiable and had become known as the people wanting a boat to Venezuela. We finally found a Venezuelan, Lawrence, who had some good information about a scheduled boat which left from Charity, a short bike ride from Georgetown. Lawrence made a few calls on our behalf and before long he had us booked on a boat to Venezuela for a total of US$500. To our relief we finally had a solid plan.
We now find ourselves in Charity, a couple of hours ride from Georgetown waiting for a second boat to take us to Venezuela after the first boat fell through. It just seems people keep promising us something that doesn't exist. Check out our blog or Facebook page to see if we ever make it.
We support World Animal Protection and raise money and awareness for their cause, if you enjoy this article please consider donating at ThePackTrack.com/WAP or see how else you can get involved at www.worldanimalprotection.org.au.
Be part of our journey.
visit our website | ThePackTrack.com
like our Facebook page | Facebook.com/ThePackTrack
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These guys are living the dream! They stayed with us thru the Tent Space thread and are on quite the adventure. Some 5+ year on, they are still traveling!
Thanks Austin and MJ for being such amazing hosts. And for highlighting just how behind this thread is.
I'll update it over time so please bear and I'm sorry to restart with such a sad story but this is the very reason this thread was left hanging the way it was.
On the 10th of September 2014, in the small town of El Callao, Venezuela, our hearts broke as we said goodbye to The Pack Track's most popular member. Skyla lost her long fight with cancer.
Skyla fought hard to the end. 10 days earlier she was wiggling in the grass and chasing her ball as she had always done. Then over night she fell ill and required daily visits to the vet for intravenous fluids and vitamins, surgery to remove a couple of lumps and a late night blood transfusion.
The vet in El Callao, Alicia, went above and beyond to help Skyla. She treated Skyla morning and night for three weeks, made late night visits to our hotel to check on her and always had time to receive our phone calls and meet us at our hotel or clinic when required.
Being the only white people in the small community of El Callao, our presence was quickly noticed and people learnt that we were staying in town due to our sick dog. Alicia mentioned that people in town were asking after Skyla and her progress; how the 'Gringo Dog' was doing. This meant a lot to us.
During this time there were political protests in El Callao and an influx of military and police personnel. Despite the obvious tension in town we felt safe and many members of the community empathised with our situation and wanted to look out for us. Our motorbikes are always a target for thieves and we were told that if someone tried to steal them we were to hand them over, the community would know who had taken them and assist us with returning the bikes. Other guests at our hotel would ask us daily about Skyla and how they could help, one guest told us to knock on her door any time of the day or night if we needed help and was genuinely concerned every time she saw Skyla, who got weaker and weaker with each day.
The 5 days before Skyla passed Stuart had been at the Brazil border trying to organise vehicle permits for the two bikes. Janell stayed in El Callao caring for Skyla tirelessly by herself, waking every hour during the night to feed her food and water through a syringe, take her to the toilet and reassure her with cuddles. Of course Janell had her on the bed with her, only leaving her for short periods to get food and check emails. During the nights Skyla would wake her with a little whimper and Janell would jump out of bed to get her what ever it was she thought Skyla needed.
Stu returned in the evening of the 09 September and that night Skyla passed away; it seemed Skyla held out as long as she could so we could all be together again one last time. That night the three of us went to bed with Skyla in the middle being cuddled by Janell and resting her head on Stuarts arm. Around midnight she was moved to the single bed, half a meter from Janell, as her temperature was up. Janell continued to wake hourly to feed Skyla but at this stage she was no longer interested in anything we had to offer. Moments before she passed, Janell was tending to Skyla and woke Stuart to assist so both sat holding her tight as she drifted peacefully away.
Alicia described a place we could bury Skyla and organised everything for us in the morning, even coming with us. Skyla was buried in a beautiful field surrounded by mountains and wrapped in the Australian flag. We covered her grave with rocks and Alicia broke one for us so we always had a piece of where Skyla lay to rest.
We will always remember our little furry angel and we will always hold dear the country of Venezuela, in particular the small community of El Callao.
Rest in peace sweet Skyla,
In foreign land, 'near field of green,
Dream of countries visited,
And all the many sights you've seen,
Think of all the friends you made,
And people that you met,
So many laughed as you rode by,
And they will ne'er forget,
Take with you the Ozzie flag,
Remember those you knew,
And most of all, the ones you loved,
For they both loved you too.
HIKING MOUNT RORAIMA
Nothing clears the mind like physical activity and spending time with nature. What better for The Pack Track to recover from the recent loss of Skyla than a 6 day 5 night trek in the Gran Sabana, destination Mount Roraima.
Mount Roraima is one of the table top mountains, most famous of all due to its relatively easy climb (no equipment required) and proximity to other frequented sites. The table top mountains have been the inspiration for books and movies due to the early belief that the isolation atop of these ancient mountains had species long gone extinct in the rest of the world. The book 'The Lost World' is the most notable of these but more recently the childrens movie 'Up', which we made sure we watched to get excited about what to expect on top!
Stu investigated packages for the trek when we were in Santa Elena de Uairen. Most guides take groups of four plus people so if you are travelling alone or as a couple you will likely be grouped with other people to bump the numbers up and obviously make the trip more financially worthwhile for the tour operator.
There are lots of tourist centres that can organise the trek in Santa Elena, all of which include the 4WD transport to the starting point of the trek in Paraitepuy, around 100km north of Santa Elena and the quotes were around $350 for two people. As we planned to head north after the trek and therefore didn't need to return to Santa Elena we'd save by avoiding the 4WD trip and so took the risk of riding to the nearby town of Kumarakapay (also known as San Francisco) and searching for a guide to take just us. A friend of ours suggested we ask for Kendall. He and his wife own a restaurant in San Francisco and Kendall had done over 330 guided tours to Mt Roraima. We struck the jackpot with Kendall. He agreed to take just us two on the trek, organised a safe place to leave our motorbikes and he spoke perfect English so we could ask him heaps of questions on the trek. The itinerary for the hike was as follows:
Day 1 – register for the trek in Paraitepuy (passport details, nationality etc.) then walk 14km to Rio Tek and set up camp for the night.
Day 2 – walk 8km to base camp.
Day 3 – trek 4km to the top of the mountain (a lot of climbing).
Day 4 – explore the top of the mountain.
Day 5 – descend back to Rio Tek (equivalent walking of day 2 and 3).
Day 6 – return to Paraitepuy.
Most of each day was spent walking (and talking for Stu) for around 4 hours but when you include toilet breaks, drink breaks, food breaks and all the fun of camping the events of the day drag out to around 8 hours. This still leaves plenty of time in the day for taking photos, swimming in rivers and drinking camp coffee. Its got to be the simplicity of the trekking experience that frees your mind and spirit. You are essentially going back to the basics of eating, sleeping and moving, there is no WiFi, no money and no worry.
The excitement of getting to the top drives you for the first three days. You really have no idea what to expect when you reach the wall of the mountain and then getting to the top. Mt Roraima definitely didn't disappoint when we reached the top, it was really like walking into a lost world. The rocks are black with the most unusual formations, you could spend days walking around making out different objects and animals from the rock shapes. Kendall pointed out the 'turtle,' the 'alien' and 'Fidel Castro' just to name a few. The sand is a pretty pink with quartz crystals and plenty of spots to take a swim or 'shower.'
At certain times of the year there can be lots of people visiting the top of the mountain. We think we were lucky that it was the off-season. For starters, we were able to set up camp in one of the 'hotels,' a sheltered area under a cave. And secondly you don't have to be on the lookout when using the toilet, which by the way is behind a rock in a designated toileting area (one of the most spectacular toileting experiences we had in our life!!)
Kendall accommodated for our dietary requirement really well. We don't eat meat or diary products (Janells a bit like Leonard in the Big Bang Theory when it comes to lactose) so it made things more interesting for Kendal. We had:
breakfast - dumplings or arepas with free range eggs;
lunch – bread and sardines with freshly chopped tomato, onions and cucumber;
dinner – pasta or rice with tuna and tinned vegetables.
Unfortunately on Day 5 of the trek we had to pack up and make our way back to where it all started in San Francisco. With approximately 31km2 of surface area to explore it was hard to leave after only spending one day seeing such a tiny portion of the mountain. We chose not to do too much walking on top but rather see the native flora and fauna. There are options to trek to the highest point or to trek 10km to visit the triple point where Guyana, Brazil and Venezuela meet. It's up to you and the group you are with as to what you want to do. Because we didn't have to do too much walking we were able to spend lots of time taking photo's, flopping around in the natural Jacuzzis, looking at quartz crystals and making quartz crystal angels (that was Stu).
The early beliefs of a lost world was not entirely incorrect, a few species of fauna and flora do exist that are endemic to the table to mountains and Roraima specifically, including the Oreophrynella quelchii (A.K.A. the Roraima black frog). These little frogs are adorable and easy to find after the rain. There are also plenty of plant life you won't find anywhere else in the world.
The path you take on the descent is the same as the ascent but you do it in two days instead of three. It's certainly less tiring but your thighs get a massive workout and we couldn't walk properly for two days after we got back to the bikes. Watching Stu walk down stairs was hilarious!!! When we finally got our things together back in San Francisco after a feast at Kendalls restaurant it was back on the road. We looked back nostalgically in our rear view mirror at Mt Roraima hoping one day we'd meet again in the clouds.
INTRODUCING NEGRITA (A.K.A. WEETI) THE BIKER DOG
This is Negrita, or more affectionately known as Weeti...
We've known Weeti for a little while now. Our paths first crossed during Skyla's treatment in El Callao when Weeti donated blood to Skyla for an emergency blood transfusion.
We were very grateful to Weeti who had herself not had an easy start to life. She was a two year old rescue dog that hds been living with the local vet in El Callao (Alicia) for nearly two years. Weeti was born a street dog. It's a tough life, a constant battle to find food and learn to be 'streetwise' as so many of the drivers in Latin America don't care if they hit dogs. It's heartbreaking to watch and Weeti was a victim of this.
As a young pup, Weeti was run over by a truck near the Plaza Bolivar of El Callao, pushed off the road and left to die. A passing driver, Luis Lazar (and friend of Alicia's) grabbed her off the road and took her to Alicia's veterinary shop to see what could be done to save her. Alicia could see that she had a broken hind. Her two legs were completely destroyed; bones were broken and fractured and muscles were cut. Without access to X-rays it was a difficult situation for Alicia, she couldn't determine the extent of the fractures and damage into Weeti's spine. Despite the extreme pain Weeti would have been feeling, Alicia could see hope for her. Luis agreed to pay for the surgery and adopt Weeti so with a little help from Reinaldo Rojas (Nano), Alicia successfully performed extensive surgery to both rear legs, inserting pins and plates in the bones.
If there is one thing we know about Alicia from personal experience is that she is very determined. Her devotion to helping Weeti paid off after three months of intensive care. Alicia did not expect the most severely affected leg to ever hold any weight but Weeti surprised everyone, standing on both legs and walking.
Her story does not end here. While she could walk and even jog a little she was disabled. Due to her disability, Luis was not able to adopt Weeti as she could not defend herself against the other dogs he owned, should a disagreement occur. He discussed options with Alicia who finally decided to keep Weeti herself until a suitable family came along. Alicia knew of a farm where Weeti was able to spend periods of time and enjoy herself. Unfortunately this was not the case, some workers were ill-treating her. When Alicia found out she had these people fired and kept Weeti close to her from then on. There are unfortunately some very cruel people in this world and Weeti has seen more than her fair share.
Why are we going into so much detail about Weeti's life? Well after our trek to Mt Roraima we went back to El Callao for a few nights. We got a few more things done to our motorbikes and visited our friends including a visit to Alicia's shop to see Alicia, Fanny, Daniel, Nano and all the dogs. While we were catching up with Weeti, Nano asked us if we would like to adopt Weeti. Being so soon after the loss of our Skyla it was a hard decision, but with her connection to Skyla, loveable nature and need for caring and dedicated parents we happily said yes.
We want to officially introduce Weeti as a new member of The Pack Track and we look forward to getting to know her and sharing her with you.
MANAUS TO PORTO VELHO BY RIVERBOAT
What can you expect from a boat trip in this part of the world? This wasn't our first and was likely not our last. Our experience on the MV Kimbia in Guyana was still fresh in our mind, and if the 5 nights spent in the Brazilian Amazon river system on riverboat Dois Irmaos-I between Manaus and Port Velho was going to be anything like the Kimbia then we were in for 5 days of hell.
The river system is the highway of the Amazon. With roads only opened seasonally, and only then to capable offroad vehicles, the river picks up the slack and does a very good job. The Amazon river itself is vast, capable of being navigated by the largest ocean-going ships. It allows trade into and out of Manaus, the capital of the state of Amazonas in the north of Brazil and nearly 1,000 miles inland, most practical. We sighted many large barges carrying semi-trailers as well as what seemed to be floating warehouses. There are many communities along the riverbanks ranging in size from an isolated house to the 2 million inhabitants of Manaus itself.
We had planned to take one of the seasonally opened roads from Manaus to Porto Velho, the famous BR-319. Once completely sealed, the BR-319 was built in the 1960's to open up the Amazon to the rest of Brazil but was shortly after abandoned due to high maintenance costs mainly due to poor engineering consultation during construction. Over the past decade the road has been partly revitalised with the installation of telecommunication towers along the route and the requirement for their maintenance has resulted in the road being kept to at least a standard which would allow technicians access to the sights. Funding for this however is tight, so bridges are fixed as required and provided the offroad-capable maintenance vehicles can negotiate the road nothing else is done.
Riding a BMW GS motorcycle qualifies as offroad-capable, right? And taking the road through the Guyanese jungle just after the wet season had given us much of the experience we needed to take on such a challenge, right? So why did we take the boat? Well the reason was mostly to do with timing. We had expected to be in Manaus months earlier. Had we reached Manaus even a month earlier we would have been attempting the BR-319 well before the start of the wet season. But holdups in Venezuela resulted in a late November arrival in Manaus. Not ideal but it was still looking possible to tackle the road, knowing the wet season starts in November so the conditions would not be too bad yet.
During the ride to Manaus we hit a huge storm. We were about 50km out of Manaus when the rain poured so intensely it had us pulling over and rushing for cover at a well positioned roadside hut. We waited for about an hour for the rain to pass and as we waited we discussed how unpleasant it would be to ride muddy roads in this kind of weather even if the road had not yet become waterlogged. Our discussion also included the desperate need to change the chain and sprockets on both bikes. If we couldn't get the parts in Manaus then we most definitely couldn't ride the BR-319. Stuart's sprocket was in particularly bad shape. So there and then, we decided to take the easy way out and have a nice relaxing (we hoped) trip through the rivers of the Amazon.
Once in Manaus we booked our boat trip and went investigating parts for the bikes. We had hoped that we would find the spares in Manaus, but after a morning of looking around (including a visit to the BMW dealer and the BMW factory in Manaus) with our friend Elvis from the Almos Livres Motoclub we came to the conclusion that the parts were not available in Manaus. We would need to wait until we reached another big city like Cuiaba or Sao Paulo to effect the repairs. Uh no!! It was a relief to know we had the boat to take us that part of the journey.
We booked our trip at the boat terminal near Manaus Centro on Saturday, 22nd of November 2014. There we found a ticket vendor named Fredson who quoted prices just as we'd read on the Internet; R200 per person for hammock class or R700 total for a 2 berth cabin and R400 per bike. There was no charge for dogs so Weeti was coming along for free. Because we have so much stuff and a dog we decided that a cabin would be best option for The Pack Track.
Time was tight and we had our bikes serviced the day of boarding the boat (Monday, 24th of Nov), in preparation for our journey south. This took a little longer then anticipated and had us arrive at the boat terminal at 5:30pm. We were told we could board the boat any time after 4pm and luckily Fredson was still on the street, waiting for his bus home. We asked him where we needed to go and he gave us directions which seemed simple enough, but there is always some adventure to be had.
His directions took us to the boat terminal vehicle entrance. We stopped at the security gate, answered some questions and told that boats going to Porto Velho departed from a different wharf, further along the river. It's always possible we misinterpret directions so we rode off in search of this other terminal. With no luck on our search we returned for better clarification; it was getting dark and we didn't want to waste any time following a poor or ambiguous lead. We showed the security guards the GPS and asked them to show us the location of this other wharf. After about 20 minutes of scrolling through the streets and being told a variety of different nonsensical locations (we think they didn't know how to read maps but liked playing with the device) we knew we were wasting our time and ventured off in search again.
Not too long into our second search we stumbled onto a crowded area by the water and asked a mototaxi (motorcycle taxi service which are everywhere in Latin American countries) for assistance. To our frustration, he pointed us back towards the terminal from which we had been toing and froing. Out came the Google Translate App so we could explain our dilemma to the mototaxi. Once we were on the same page, he got us to follow him to the terminal where he spoke to the security guard to get directions to the other location.
With diminishing enthusiasm, we all rode to the other boat terminal. Our mototaxi did all the talking for us at this security gate and ascertained that our boat, which they knew of quite well, was leaving from the main terminal. The mototaxi had a little chuckle and looked at us sympathetically, aware of the run around we'd been given. The security guards very kindly made a phone call to clear the matter up for us and then the three of us, with a big sigh of relief, rode back AGAIN to the main terminal.
The mototaxi stayed with us until we were through all the security check points and ready to ride down the ramp to the boat. He shook our hands and wished us a safe voyage, not asking any payment but we insisted, knowing how much time we had taken from his work.
Two long hours it took us to get from point A to point A and now we were boarding the boat in the dark, something we had tried very hard to avoid. There were about 12 boats lined up all looking the same. A very helpful security guard on the wharf was able to point us to the correct boat and even spoke to the captain to let him know we had arrived and would need to load our bikes. The Captain, to Janell's relief, told us the bikes would have to wait until the next day to load.
We spent our first night on the boat and the excitement slowly returned. The boat was scheduled to leave the next day, Tuesday, at 6pm. We took advantage of our day and bought supplies for the trip (water, fruit, alcohol). Bikes loaded and strapped, cabin organised and drink in hand the expectant 6pm came and went. We watched, with the other passengers, as the boat continued to be loaded until dark. Dinner was served and the bar opened, so we sat down to a couple of beers and our meal, happy to just be on the boat and settled. By 9:30pm it seemed the boat wasn't going anywhere so we retired for the night, a little disappointed that we might miss the departure should it occur while we were sleeping. Not to worry, stores continued to be loaded until midday the next day. We finally departed just after lunch and it now seemed unlikely we would reach our destination by the scheduled 6pm Saturday.
The boat itself was quite nice. There were three levels, four if you include the hull where the majority of stores are placed. The 4 cabins were on the middle deck along with the majority of hammock space; travelling 'hammock class' requires you to bring your own hammock. We had so much stuff ,plus a dog, so decided a cabin would be best to contain everything and be locked. As far as comfort is concerned, the hammock class wins hands down. The hammocks were strung up in a covered area occupying the majority of the deck and it was so well ventilated due to the open sides. In comparison, the cabin was small, only had a bunk bed and a fan with no windows. With all our gear spread out on the top bunk, we shared the bottom single bed. Door open was a necessity otherwise it got hot and smelly. Weeti liked to sleep right at the entrance of the cabin so there was no worry of anyone sneaking in at night, she made sure no one entered the room uninvited.
We set up our camping chair with the hammocks so during the day we we just locked up the room and enjoyed the view and the breeze. There was a friendly couple on hammocks near our chair who took a quick liking to Weeti and gave her their leftovers and other treats. She was such a good girl and stayed near our seat during the day, or perhaps near her new friends in anticipation of food.
Stu didn't sleep well on the boat, not like Janell and Weeti. There were a few mosquitoes hiding within the cabin that came out to play at night and specifically targeted Stu. His other problem is that Janell is a bed hog and on a single bed, it was a constant battle to stay on the mattress and not end up with Weeti on the floor. When it got too much he toddled out to the camping chair and passed out. In the morning Janell woke him up and tucked him in to bed to catch up on the lost sleep.
Its truly amazing waking up and seeing the Amazon floating by. It's so serene and untouched. The route had us follow the Amazon river proper for about 100km before turning right to head upstream along the Madeira river and towards Porto Velho. Stu would turn the GPS on regularly to get a position update and determine speed. While on the Amazon river we were maintaining around 19km/hr but once we turned onto the Medeira river we slowed to about 11-13km/hr, this was understandable due to the opposing current we were now fighting. To compensate the boat hugged the shoreline where the flow was at its slowest.
Aside from the sleeping conditions for us, the experience was excellent. All meals were provided and chilled drinking water was on tap and always available. Breakfast was simple, biscuits and coffee, but was followed a few hours later by a big lunch. Lunch and dinner were nearly the same meal everyday including rice, pasta, vegetables, beans and some kind of meat. There was a bar which played the same songs over and over but the sound didn't travel to the other decks so you could easily escape it and listen to your own tunes on the lower decks. The boat was old and wooden, but was certainly a huge step up from any of our previous experiences. There was a cleaner who kept the floor swept, toilets and showers clean and stocked with toilet paper and soap at the sinks. The river was flat so there was no cases of sea sickness and the scenery kept us entertained with peculiar traffic and animal sightings such as crocodiles and plenty of dolphins (unfortunately no jaguar).
We had time to do some work on our bikes, including installing the new GPS on Janell's bike, setup the new helmet comms, make some Christmas decorations for the bikes and even do some hand washing. We were expecting the trip to be long and boring so we made sure we had plenty to do and we would recommend to other travellers to consider blogging, watching movies on a laptop, taking a book or two to break up each day; as interesting as the river is, after nearly 5 days you will go mad with nothing to keep you busy. After a days work it was always nice to have a few drinks at the bar and meet some fellow travellers in a nice peaceful environment.
We reached Porto Velho at midday on Sunday more than happy with our trip through the Amazon though happy to get off the boat and back onto our bikes. Our first stop, breakfast!!
You guys have had quite the adventure! I like the optimism you showed trying to find the boat terminal. Being in a similar situation, many folks would be frustrated to the point of giving up. One of the things that I keep in mind is that every day, folks who don't speak the language and don't have any more info than me still find their way and it's important to be patient and persistent.
MOTO CLUBS OF BRAZIL
Brazil is a beautiful country with a passionate motorcycle community under the banner of AME-BR. The members of the clubs that make up this community are all extremely friendly and welcoming, regardless of how well you speak Portuguese. We had intended to travel quickly through Brazil on our way south due to the high prices of absolutely everything. But the lovely people in the motoclubs not only made it more affordable with their generosity but made us want to spend more time with them so it took us a little longer to reach Paraguay that anticipated.
After we disembarked the riverboat that took us from Manaus to Porto Velho we were keen to hit the road and get as many miles under our belt as possible. Being late however, we weren't able to get too far, but as we always say "every mile ridden today is a mile you don't have to ride tomorrow". We pulled into a reasonably priced hotel (for Brazil) and started unloading the bikes. As we did, another couple riding two-up pulled in for the night. At the time we were very tired and other then saying 'hola' didn't speak to them. The next morning as Janell was taking Negitra for her morning walk she got to speaking with them. Beicola and Bere were on their way home to Cuiaba and insisted we stay with them when we pass through. We swaped contact details and graciously accepted their offer before saying our farewells for now.
Two days later we arrived at Cuiaba. We decided to locate the nearest McDonalds to utilise their free WiFi. On our way we ran into a biker who was yelling at us in Portugese. We had no idea what he was saying and thought he was a little crazy so politely said "No Falar Portugese" (No speak Portugese). He took off at the lights, a little frustrated. We arrived at a McDonalds and checked to see if we needed a password for the WiFi, but before long the crazy biker returned and on the back of his bike was Beicola. Big hugs all round, we were in a little shock how it all happened but so relieved that it was so easy.
From the McDonalds we all rode to a local motorcycle shop and were introduced to members of Beicola's club. Tired and ready for bed, Beicola took us back to his house where we met with Bere again and were made feel right at home. We couldn't believe our luck when we found out Beicola was a motorcycle mechanic and would have a look over our bikes. It had been our intention to get some work done in Cuiaba and he insisted on doing it all.
We stayed with Beicola and Bere for three nights and as well as having some minor bike repairs, we were taken to a number of moto club gatherings in the area and a riding tour of Cuiaba. We were sad to leave Cuiaba but needed to continue our journey south. Our next stop was to be Campo Grande, 700kms south from Cuiaba. We had been given a contact within the Moto Club community for this beautiful city of which we knew absolute nothing of until we arrived.
Beicola fixing Stu's bike
More group photo's
Henrique contacted us through Facebook and assured us he would look after us when we arrived. Henrique certainly did as he said. When we arrived we located a Walmart and hoped it would have free WiFi. Unfortunately no such luck, but we were able to top up our local Sim credit (something we should have done days before) and were able to contact Henrique. He told us to stay put and he would come to us. We waited by our bikes and before long a pickup truck turned up with Henrique and some other members of a local Moto Club. We were taken back to a friends home for drinks and then out for pizza before retiring for the night to Cheila's house. The next few destinations were with other friends in Campinas and Rio de Janeiro.
The beach, the flare, the statue of Christ and the mountains, Rio de Janeiro has to be one of the most beautiful cities in the world. We had booked our accommodation in advance using AirBnB and were to be staying with a young lady called Pracilla in her 2 bedroom apartment. She messaged us some rough directions to follow, so we entered them into the GPS.
It was an expensive but pretty ride through the states of Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. We had previously spent two months in Brazil during the World Cup. During this time we got to see a lot of Brazil but also took a hit to the back pocket with the costs of accomodation, food and fuel often going over our daily budget. Taking this into consideration we decided to take motorways as much as possible to move quickly south.
The motorways on which we had been travelling up until the state of Sao Paolo didn't require payment for motorbikes at toll stations. Motorbikes were provided a separate lane on the outside of the road with a little obstacle coarse to prevent other vehicles from passing through. With our wide 45L panniers it could sometimes be a little challenging for us. Unfortunately for us in the states of Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro motorbikes had to pay. The cost was always half what a car paid but to be fair, the quality of the roads in the southern states were excellent so in this case, you really did get what you paid for!
As we approached the city of Rio de Janeiro, we dropped in elevation from the raised plateau down to sea level. For weeks, Janell had been singing the song "I go to Rio" by Peter Allen and Adrienne Anderson. Janells excitement quickly rubbed off on Stu and he started singing his own version "we're going to Rio, de Janeiro." The song has a real broadway show feel to it so that's what we were expecting, Fred Estair and Ginger Rogers to be tapping in the street with crowds of brightly coloured back up dancers around them.
Needless to say our arrival into the great city was the opposite. It was a miserable day with rain obscuring anything above 5 storeys off the ground, even the statue of Christ the Redeemer towering over the city from Corcovada wasn't anywhere to be seen. To add to our dismay, the directions we received for the apartment were not exact enough for us to identify the building. We expect problems like this whenever we have accommodation prearranged but we are always hopeful for a smooth arrival. We stopped to try and find WiFi to contact our host but before long a local gentleman approached us to see if he could help the very obviously lost tourists. He tried a few times to describe the route we needed to take then decided it would be safer to get his motorbike and have us follow him. Brilliant plan!
The kind man led us straight to the address, and waved goodbye. Then waiting for us at the gate was our host. Yay, we'd made it. Janell was back to singing again. The apartment block was built within a secure compound-like area at the base of one of the western favela's (slum districts). There was some serious fencing around the perimeter of the site with 24 hour security at the entrance gate. Our host, Pracilla, cleared us with the security guard and directed us to park our motorbikes in one of the car parks. The bikes were safely inside, but was inside safe? To be honest, we were a little uneasy about it, the bikes were completely exposed and even a simple thing like stealing a number plate could cause us all sorts of problems with the police and border crossings and delays we just didn't need at the moment. No point worrying about all the things that could go wrong so we got on with unpacking the bikes with Pracillas help.
The apartment block was in fact one of 10 identical buildings each with about 10 floors and 6 apartments on each floor (we didn't actually stop and count). We think there were around 3 or 4 of these complexes centred by a ring-road with a large field in the middle; a bit like a community or government housing scheme. We were the only white people in the complex and our presence drew a lot of attention from the children who insisted on practicing their English on us every time they caught a glimpse of us. This is always lots of fun for everyone, only the brave children have a go while the others sit behind giggling. Then we throw in a new word, generally Australian, to give us a chance to giggle.
As we were unpacking, the central field was being setup for a Christmas concert. We saw people in their flats having family Christmas parties and really getting in the festive mood. Everyone we saw was very welcoming and seemed happy to have us around. One particular apartment, located below ours, was very memorable as there were so many family members they had to put chairs out the front door just to fit everyone. These guys said hello and smiled at us everytime we did a trip from the bikes to the bedroom.
Pracilla was an excellent host. Her apartment was on the third floor and she helped us move our things from the bikes up the three floors to her apartment. When that was all done we quickly showered to remove all the sweat and grime from a days riding and then she took us for a walk to the nearby facilities; shops, supermarket, train, buses etc. After that we decided that to make the most of Rio, we should head out straight away and see the night life. Weeti made herself right at home with Pracilla and her brother and seemed happy for an afternoon siesta at the apartment.
We are always trying to learn from our travel experiences and improve so to head in to the city after a big riding day was unusual for us but we knew that we would probably leave Rio de Janeiro wishing we had more time to explore. We hopped on a train and 15 minutes later were in Copacabana, a place we'd heard so much about.
There was still a little sunlight so we took a walk along the beach front and admiring the various sand sculptures and restaurants deciding where we'd like to have dinner. Cities offer us a chance to eat a lot healthier than small town takeaway but all the nice restaurants on the beach front were out of our budget. We found a bar a street back from the beach with reasonable prices and got something to eat and a beer. We sat and talked about the amazing things we'd seen to date and how surreal it was to be sitting in a bar in Rio de Janeiro.
The next morning we were up early and out to get supplies for breakfast; home-cooked eggs on toast, just how we like them. Our host was out early but had given us instructions on how to leave the apartment and that she was happy for Weeti to roam around. The sun was shining, so we decided to return to Copacabana, this time for a swim. On the way, we stopped in the city centre just to have a walk around and see a bit of the architecture. It was a Sunday so everything was pretty much shut so we continued by foot along the waters edge and watched other tourists riding bicycles around the city, what a great idea.
The detour in the city worked out well as things were just starting to get lively down at the beachfront of Copacobana. More and more people were setting up on the sand but not many people were in the water and we wondered why as the water looked so inviting. It certainly wasn't going to stop us going for a dip so we found a place to sit.
We'd no sooner got our swimmers on show when a young man approached us selling cocktails at a reasonable price. We weren't really ready to have a drink so turned him down, but he just kept dropping the price, not realising that we just didn't want a cocktail. Initially he wanted R15 each, but settled for R5 for the both of them in the end. We pretty much took them in the end so he'd leave us alone, but they were really good cocktails, he certainly didn't hold back on the alcohol content.
After our drink, we walked down to the waters edge (we weren't carrying anything valuable, just enough money for the day which was kept in Stuart's swimming shorts). With just our toes in the water we realised why everyone stayed on the sand. Even though the atmospheric temperature in Rio can reach over 40°C in summer, the ocean currents, being predominantly from the south, keep the water at an icy temperature comparably. Janell was in first and it felt great after everything went a little numb, so refreshing and shocking at the same time. Back on the sand and soaking up some sun we joined in with the locals and other tourists relaxing in the cool breeze.
If you're not a fan of laying around in the sun getting sandy then there are plenty of beachside bars. Janell gets bored of just laying around so we moved to the nearest bar, ordered a beer, and pulled out our Footprint South American Handbook to figure out what to do over the next few days. A Favela tour was top on our list. Favela's are found in all the large cities of Brazil (and similarly across Latin America under different names). In Rio they have become a tourist attraction with guides taking groups throughout the streets and alleyways and into houses to give an idea of what that world is like. Using WiFi we booked one for the next day and were really lucky to get a guide all to ourselves. During our tour we were pleasantly surprised at how much infrastructure was in place; in recent years the government had assisted in upgrading these areas with water, electricity, sewage. We're reasonably sure the places we were taken presented the best parts of the Favela as we compared with similar places, but in much worse condition, that we'd witnessed in both Asia and Africa.
We dedicated one of our days to riding around Rio de Janeiro; 'we' means three up on Stuarts bike with Janell and Weeti enjoying the views and Stu doing all the work. It's a pleasant city to ride around but the mountains can be a bit challenging. The road up Corcovada to the statue of Christ is narrow with cobblestone sections and rail tracks. It's also very steep in sections. The statue is located in a national park, something we weren't aware of, and we were denied entry with Weeti. We took photo's from a nearby lookout and when we saw the queue of people lining up for the Statue of Christ, made the decision to settle with getting close enough. Our next stop was a cable car ride near Ipanema beach. Weeti wasn't allowed on the cable car and when we tried to take the walking track up to the viewing platform we yet again were denied entry, even with her on the leash. By this time Janell was getting really upset about it all, coming from Australia with really strict rules about pets in national park etc. we could understand the rules but we just really wanted to get pictures of Weeti with some of the famous landmarks.
After four full days exploring the city it was time to leave. Our departure coincided with Stuart's 34th birthday, so Janell decided to attach yellow balloons all over his bike as we rode out of town and took him out for breakfast by the beach. As if riding around with a dog on the back of a bike doesn't attract enough attention, with balloons the fascination was ten fold. Considering how hot it was the balloons performed better than expected until we hit 60km/hr then it didn't take long for them to pop.
FALL AT SPEED IN PARAGUAY
Paraguay is one of the smaller countries in South America. The capital of Paraguay is Asuncion which is located near the western border of the country. It is a small region but is home to the vast majority of Paraguays population. To the Northwest of Asuncion is a different story however, this region is known as Chaco and is a hot, arid land. In contrast, the eastern portion of Paraguay is full of agricultural lands.
The Pack Track entered Paraguay on boxing day with the intention to stop in Asuncion for a couple of days before continuing on to Argentina, specifically Buenos Aires for New Years Eve. From the Brazilian border to Asuncion is around 300km, so comfortably a day's travel. We made a booking at a hostel in Asuncion and left our hotel in Foz do Iguazu at a reasonable 10am.
The border crossing at Ciudad del Este was straight forward, a couple of stamps for us, nothing for the bikes or Weeti. We were through in about 15 minutes and back on the road. Our first stop was an ATM to withdraw some local money and then back on the road, it would be nice to be having lunch in Asuncion we thought as we departed.
Reaching Asuncion before lunch was ambitious and our stomachs told us well beforehand that we needed to stop. We'd rode through many little towns and made the decision at about the halfway point to stop at the next restaurant to get something to eat. We found a Brazilian style buffet with plenty of options and reasonably priced.
Back on the road and we ran into some rain passing through a town. It didn't warrant stopping but clearly was the tail-end of a much heavier shower. The traffic was moving unusually slow through the town, the results of a super slow moving truck. Riding in Latin America had resulted in some bad riding habits so Stuart, riding in front, decided he'd overtake along the paved shoulder. As he overtook the truck on the shoulder, a car overtook on the otherside. Janell saw this and warned Stuart through the comms. Taking this into account, Stuart was very cautious as he merged in front of the truck, making sure there was a large gap between him and the truck as well as being conscious of the car. Checking his mirrors there was plenty of room so began the manoeuvre. What he hadn't realised was the shoulder lane dropped over an inch from the road so there was a large bump to overcome on the wet and slippery surface, a combination of rain water and oil. Furthermore, Stuart had been having problems with his front tyre and the pressure was constantly dropping, so would easily have been around 20 P.S.I. at the time. All of these factors together led to a disaster. Stuart hit the bump, the front tyre bounced up and with the bike leaning and the acceleration being applied slipped out of control and onto its side. Stuart, Weeti and the bike slid across the lane and into the oncoming traffic. The car and truck behind slammed on their brakes and came to a rapid stop. The oncoming traffic did likewise and Janell couldn't get off her bike quick enough to run and make sure Stuart, Weeti and the bike were OK.
Stuart was very much in a daze when he came too, not sure what had happened but knew the bike was down and the engine still running, he reached over and turned off the ignition. He sat up and looked to Weeti, she was in her Pillion Pooch and seemed perfectly unaffected by the fall. Before he could put much thought into the situation, a couple of people grabbed him by the arms and pulled him to his feet. Janell arrived and asked if he was OK and then checked Weeti, unclipped her from the bike and gave her to Stuart to hold on the side of the road. Two bystanders and Janell got the bike up and dragged it off the road. With the clutch lever broken and the bike stuck in gear it really did need to be dragged.
Other then the clutch lever, bent handlebars and some scratched paintwork, the bike was fine. Janell rode back to the nearest town to try and locate a new clutch lever. Where do you even start in an unfamiliar country with her very poor Spanish? She found a tyre repair shop with two elderly men sitting outside. She stopped out front and approached the friendly men to explain the predicament and ask for advice. To her surprise, she was standing next-door to a motorbike parts shop which the men politely pointed out. The owner of the shop was very helpful and found a lever to suit, then found a mechanic to go out to the broken bike and fit it on the side of the road. The mechanic made the necessary repairs so Stuart could ride back to his workshop. After all the work was complete, the mechanic charged less then $10 for the labour and the shop owner insisted on giving us the lever free of charge. We were so very grateful for their help and the repair was perfect.
It would have been nice to just stop at the town and stay in the nearest hotel, but we had made a booking in Asuncion so we continued, riding the remaining 100km to Asuncion. So at a much reduced pace, we finished what we had intended to do that day and got to Asuncion with plenty of sunlight. Once we were unpacked we went looking for the nearest bar to have a couple of beers and unwind after an extraordinary day.
CHANGING MONEY IN BUENOS AIRES
January 10, 2015
Entering Argentina meant returning to a country with a black market exchange rate significantly different to the government official rate. We had learned a lot from our experience with parallel rates in Venezuela so there were no feelings of apprehension this time and we did our research online to find out what we should be getting.
At the time, the official rate was ARG$8.5 to US$1. Research online and chatting to travelers indicated a good black market rate was ARG$13.5 to US$1. To be able to change money on the black market you have to have all the US dollars you need before entering the country. Paraguay has banks with ATM's where you can withdraw US dollars but only in lump sums of $300, every time charging a 6% transaction fee, ouch!! We'd also heard something similar about Uruguay which was our Plan B if we had difficulties in Paraguay.
We first crossed in to Argentina from the Paraguay border near Asuncion. The Cambio's at the border were all working together and wouldn't negotiate which forced us to accept a much-reduced rate of AR$12 to US$1. Anything is better than the official rate (what you get when you to any ATM) so we changed only enough US dollars to get us to a Buenos Aires where we knew we'd be able to negotiate a better rate.
As luck would have it, we took a wrong turn on our way south and ended up taking the road that ran along the border with Uruguay. This mistake was a blessing in disguise. We didn't have enough US dollars for the amount of time we wanted to be in Argentina. Our plan had been to take the ferry to Montevideo, the capital of Urugauy, to withdraw funds but as we were so close to Uruguay now, it made more sense to cross by land now rather than be tied down to a ferry trip later on. In fact we never returned to Urugauy again. The one night we spent there was really expensive (food, accomodation and fuel) then when we looked in to the cost of the ferry to Montevideo for 2 people, 2 motorbikes and a dog it was hundreds of dollars both ways.
We crossed over the border into Uruguay near Salto, as it was an unplanned border crossing it was late in the afternoon and nearly dark when we finally pulled in to the nearest town in Uruguay so we found accommodation first. The banks were all closed so the three of us went for a walk through the town to get some dinner. It was a really pretty town with
After breakfast the next morning we went back to looking for banks. Because of the holidays the banks were all operating reduced hours and would not be open until 1pm. So we decided to ride south within Uruguay and exit the country at Paysandu after withdrawing money (assuming the hours would be the same elsewhere).
After visiting a few banks and asking about withdrawing US dollars, we were eventually pointed in the direction of Banco de la Republica. There was a long line leading into the bank, but closer investigation showed that this was for the ATM just inside the door, what we wanted was face to face contact to allow us to withdraw a large sum of money (rather than the US$300 available at the ATM).
Inside the bank was like going back in time. The building was from early last century, the tellers sat behind glass screens and behind them were offices housing the managers with large glass windows overlooking processing. The lines were long but moving quickly. Stuart lined up with everyone else and was served before long, the teller didn't speak English but using Google Translate on the mobile phone he understood what Stuart was after. Stuart was referred to another line. This line was much shorter and he was served more or less straight away. Again Google Translate was used (even though signs were posted everywhere prohibiting the use of mobile phones), the transaction was simple but needed to go through a number of people to get the required rubber stamp before the funds could be released. After about 20 minutes of standing back watching the paperwork make its way around the office from in-tray to in-tray, Stuart was called forward and the money handed over. Before going anywhere the money was counted, with everything in order The Pack Track could continue the journey south the Buenos Aires.
Street Art in Buenas Aires
We arrived in Buenos Aires as night fell. The hostel we were staying at had not reserved a room for us, but were very apologetic and freed up a bigger room with en-suit for the same price. We were more then happy with this, but to make sure there was no hard feeling they gave us a litre bottle of beer. We grabbed a quick dinner in one of the many restaurants nearby and got our heads down ready for a big day to follow.
The next day we made it our priority to change money and so headed to Florida St. We'd been told to change a little to start with and ask around. We knew US$100 would last us for the day and so started with that. We took the first offer of 13:1 which would allowed us to get a coffee and see a few things while asking around some more. We'd been told that 13.7:1 was achievable so for large amounts this was our target.
We set our target high, asking for 14:1 to test the water. Most people laughed at us and that was fine, but we had time. Eventually a lady offered 13.8 and we were a little shocked but said yes we'll change $2k please. We went into a small office and told no dogs, so Weeti (our security dog) and Janell had to wait outside. Stuart went up alone. The lady spoke to a man inside the office and discussed the rate, he clearly wasn't happy. The lady returned and said he wouldn't take any less then 13.75, Stuart wasn't happy that the agreed price had changed but it was still better then anything else offered. So we agreed. Stuart went to the counter and handed over the money, he watched very closely as the money was being counted. As the man counted, Stuart clearly saw a $100 note being dropped under the table and when he finished he said he only had $1900 and started to calculate the Argentine Peso's based on that amount. Stuart quickly accused the man of throwing the money on the floor but couldn't get into the cubicle to prove anything. There were other people in the room now waiting for their turn to change money and Stuart was starting to make a scene, the man counted again and apologising saying it was all there, but clearly this was not true as he did not retrieve the money he had dropped and just wanted to calm the situation before he lost potential business. Stuart was told to wait as there was not enough Peso's present in the office and so he took a seat. After a long wait the man came out and said he could not change the money and handed back a pile of money. Stuart counted it to make sure it was all present, the notes were not the same that he had initially handed over but the amount was correct. He counted twice just to make sure and then left. On the way out, the lady took him to another changer, but only offered 13.65. Being annoyed at being brought in on false pretense, he refused.
Once back on the street and together again, we continued to ask. The initial lady caught up with us very quickly and said there was another way. She said to follow her and she could get 13.7, just 2 blocks away. After walking about 7 blocks we finally came to a bank, we were told that only Argentine citizens could change money here and if we gave her friend the $2,000 they would change the money and come straight out. We said no, we would not hand over that kind of money on trust. They offered their phones and bags as insurance but we still were not happy and rather then trust this lady who had been so dishonest on a number of occasions that morning we just walked away.
Eventually we accepted a rate of 13.65 in a safe environment (Weeti allowed) and continued our exploration of the city.
On the day we left Buenos Aires we decided to change some more money, unfortunately it was a Saturday, and we had been told that the rate always dropped over the weekend since no one could predict what would happen with the US dollar come Monday morning. The difference was more than we had expected and we changed at 13.35 after some negotiating. This was still much better then waiting around until Monday so we made the change and started the next leg of our journey, the ride to Ushuaia.
Note: every .05:1 is AR$50 per US$1000, that doesn't seem like much but it can be enough for dinner for one person (or almost two, we paid AR$55 for a pizza in Buenos Aires). It just depends on how much your time is worth and how realistic it is that you can get a better rate. There were plenty of people that day changing large sums of money at 13:1, they would have been very well looked after and not cheated I'm sure.
That was very persevering of you guys, especially when confronted with folks trying to cheat you.
11 January, 2015
Buenos Aires, the capital of Argentina, is home to the tango and it's no wonder when you walk the streets of this romantic city. The Pack Track arrived in Buenos Aires on the 30th of December 2014. What an amazing year 2014 had been and what a fantastic place to say goodbye to the old and bring in the new year.
We booked in to Hostal Tercero Del Sur. It was perfect for us at $40 a night. We had a room with en-suite and air conditioning, it was very pet friendly (the staff really loved Weeti) and located on a street lined with restaurants and host to markets on weekends. There was always lots happening!
New Years Eve has always been an important event for us in Australia, getting together with as many of our friends as possible. We had one friend in Buenos Aires, Pablo, so we messaged him to see if we could tag along with his plans. Turns out, New Years in Argentina is a bit different to Australia but just as special. Pablo's extended family gathered in the home of his brother-in-law. What followed was a perfect evening commencing with a three course dinner, followed by champagne and street fireworks then dancing in the backyard. It was around 2am when we got back to our hostel but everything was closed New Years day so we didn't feel guilty hanging around the hostel relaxing the next day.
Buenos Aires is a very tourist-friendly city. There are lots of attractions and a good way to familiarise yourself with the city is to take one of the many free walking tours or hop on-and-off the double decker buses. We like to take any opportunity to get some exercise and move at our own pace (Weeti has to smell every pole and bush on the footpath) so most days we would have breakfast at the hostel (fresh croissants, bread rolls and coffee) then the three of us would head to a different area of town.
Its always worth chatting to a local to get their perspective on the local highlights. Pablo mentioned some must-sees based on the time we had in town and he was spot on. Not on that list but our very first stop was Starbucks so Janell could get the soy latte she had been craving since her last one in Mexico 10 months earlier! That done, we headed to our first site, the Obelisco. This 67.5m structure was built as a monument to the cities 4th centenary of the founding of Buenos Aires. Weeti found the grass far more interesting, indulging in an extended wriggling back scratch, much to Janell's opposition.
Next on the agenda was the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes and La Recoleta Cemetery which are located quite close to each other. Pablo gave us some history on the cemetery and told us Eva Peron (Evita) was buried there so we decided to watch the 1996 movie Evita the night before, having both seen it years ago so our memory was a bit fuzzy. The next day, when we stood in front of her grave, we felt a deep respect for the person she was and the difference she made in her short life. Eva Peron's life story is extraordinary and somehow watching the movie in the city where she became famous and made history intensified our experience, it was very moving.
Florida street by far had the most activity. Shopping and restaurants line the sides of the street while local traders cover the footpath advertising tours and selling money. Yep you guessed it, Argentina has a black market rate but nothing like Venezuela. The official rate is around $1 to 8 Pesos. The black market rate we found to be around $1 to 13.5 Pesos. Changing money is a hassle we'd rather not have to do but with that difference, its definitely worth your while looking around for a good rate; more spending money for Starbucks coffees!!
Some other highlights of our visit included the El Ateneo Grand Splendid bookstore, a 1920's theater turned in to a bookstore with a cafe. We visited this place twice, first to have a look around in the evening and second to sit on stage enjoying a coffee and croissant. It wasn't all culture highlights though with the start of the 2015 Dakar rally a few blocks from our hostel. It was purely coincidence for us but we joined in on the festivities and waved our Aussie flag as the team took their truck on stage.
Hiring a bicycle is another good option for getting around. We used La Bicicleta Naranja and hired for an afternoon with Pablo and his girlfriend Rebecka to explore the Reserva Ecologica Costanera Sur and Puerto Madero. The ecological reserve is a big park bordering the gulf with different tracks and areas with markets. It was a lot of fun and we finished the day with a picnic and wine on the roof of our hostel.
Our last night in Buenos Aires corresponded with Janells 29th Birthday. She wanted a night to remember so we booked a dinner-tango show. There are many to choose from at different prices and offering slightly different experiences but we chose Gala Tango which was only a five minute walk from our hostel. Doors opened at 8pm and the three course meal was served until 10 when the show started. We were seated with two lovely ladies from the US travelling to Ushuaia on a cruise ship. It was a small theatre and we were seated in front of the stage near the grand piano. The dancers entered from beside and behind us in glamorous costumes. The dancing was full of energy, the company was delightful, the food was delicious and the red wine kept coming throughout the show so Janell tango'd all the way back to the hostel. It was a fun night and great way to say goodbye to Buenos Aires.
It sounds like you guys had a great time. That was neat to see how Skyla was providing protection for you even during her final days in Venezuela.
INCREDIBLE ENCOUNTERS IN PUERTO MADRYN
18 January 2015
Even travellers need inspiration and motivation from time to time. It can come in a range of forms from a chat with a stranger, to marvelling at nature, to grand designs. Travelling as two (or two and half with our little friend) we often draw on each other for strength during frustrating situations and when we feel weary from simply long days of riding. The Pack Track had been on the road for nearly 11 months by this stage and found inspiration in the form of a young couple living in Puerto Madryn.
Puerto Madryn is situated on the east coast of Argentina in the state of Chubut. We were taking Ruta 3 from Buenos Aires to Puerto Madryn and the two words that came to mind for this route are flat and windy. The landscape was bland, characterised by a sandy-dirt with little prickly-looking shrubs. Riding at 100km/hr, no faster because of the strong winds, we would look to the horizon for a sign of something different but even 5km from Puerto Madryn the landscape was unchanged with no sign of civilisation. Entering Puerto Madryn was a pleasant surprise as we looked down to see a flourishing city with a 6 km long recreational and highly utilised beach.
A few days before arriving in Puerto Madryn, Stu had made contact with a registered member of Horizons Unlimited. Stu had been having problems with his front tyre, specifically his rim, since Venezuela. There was a tiny crack in the alloy rim that was leaking air. In Venezuela we got a welder to repair the crack. This worked well until we reached Paraguay and from here on in, we had to stop every 3 or 4 days to top up the air; the tyre was dropping from 40 P.S.I. to around 25 P.S.I..
Something had to be done before the situation could get worse. We had been trying all through Brazil to source steel spoked rims and this continued into Buenos Aires with no luck. We visited the BMW dealership there but all they could do was offer to have the crack repaired again. Oh okay then, let's give it another go. What a disaster! now the tyre was dropping from 40 P.S.I. to 16 P.S.I. in an hour, so once an hour we had to stop and top up the air.
Buying a rim for the 650GS in Argentina was proving impossible so we started looking online. There are plenty of rims for sale on eBay and other similar websites but we needed an address in Argentina to have the rim posted to. Stu hopped on to the Horizons Unlimited website to see if anyone in Puerto Madryn could provide an address for us to ship to. A young couple, Hernan and Noelia, very kindly responded to our plea for help. Following their response we had been in contact with an old friend, Hank of Motohank, to see if there were any other options available to us. He suggested converting the rim to an inner-tube system. This seemed perfect in theory so we let Hernan and Noelia know the change in plans. They met us when we arrived in town on Friday, 16 January, and took us to their home where we spent the next 3 nights.
First thing Saturday morning Hernan and Noelia took us and our sad tyre out to get fixed. The solution was so simple and priceless. A mechanic friend of Hernans drilled a hole in the rim for the valve and another friend put it all back together for us. It took about 2 hours in total with the shopping and we were done, ready to do some sightseeing.
We swapped the car for the bikes (3 up on Stu's) and headed off-road to explore to the northern and southern regions of the area. Hernan had a heating element that plugged in to his battery so we had hot water to drink the typical 'Mate' tea with local pastries. We took advantage of the long daylight hours and didn't get back to the house until 8pm. The best part of the day was the dinner. Noelia made pizza's from scratch and we sat outside under the stars until 1 am eating pizza, drinking wine and talking about the adventures ahead for all of us.
Although we couldn't believe it, Sunday was even better than Saturday. Back on the bikes, we headed to Peninsula Valdes. This area is a UNESCO World Heritage site and a national park so Weeti had to stay home for the day. Entry for internationals was 180 pesos (currency in Argentina is the Peso and the current black market exchange rate is around 13:1). Once you get in the Peninsula you have access to various tourist stops. We visited the information centre, Sea Lion lookout (this was amazing) and went to Puerto Pirámides for lunch. After a big day out we headed home for another delicious home-made feast and only a little wine as we were leaving the following morning.
Our language barrier has so often stopped us from having any meaningful conversations with people we meet. Hernan and Noelia knew only a little English but with our laptops and phones on Google translate, we all made the effort to dig a little deeper in each other. Over the course of the three days in Puerto Madryn, Hernan and Noelia's enthusiasm to travel, their passion to live life to the maximum and their appreciation of the importance of human relationships reinvigorated us from where little things like the rim problem and the strong winds had been wearing us down.
Hernan and Noelia left home together at a very young age and moved to Puerto Madryn with nothing but a dream. With no support or help from anyone, they began building a business of their own. Eight years later they are successful and have achieved their goal. But, like us, over recent years they have realised that there is so much more to life than work; there is adventure! They are now planning their own trip around the globe and described our encounter as incredible and a sign that their adventure is waiting for them. We couldn't agree more; we needed them at that exact moment in time as much as they needed us. Sitting under the stars eating Noelia's amazing pizza and drinking red wine is a memory we will cherish forever and remind us of the incredible encounters you make while travelling.
26 January 2015
Nearly 150 years ago a ship load of immigrants from Wales landed in Puerto Madryn, Argentina. Their intention was to set up a welsh community with no English influence. In fact they ended up establishing a number of these communities but today, the most notable is a place called Gaiman where there is still a strong Welsh culture and the Welsh language is commonly spoken. Stuarts boss in Australia, Dave, was of proud Welsh decent. So when Stu talked about his upcoming world-wide adventure, Dave mentioned the Welsh history in Argentina so The Pack Track starred the towns of Trelew, Gaiman and Trevelin on Google maps so we'd remember when we eventually reached Argentina.
Janell was a little confused about where exactly we were going to see dragons and drink tea, probably because she hadn't been listening to Stu when he was describing the Welsh history of the area. Trelew was the first town encountered as its situated on the main highway Ruta 3. Trelew sounded really Welsh to Janell who insisted on The Pack Track stopping for photos at the entrance. Unfortunately her excitement then confusion resulted in a little disappointment when she realised she had to get back on the bike and ride to another town before unpacking. About 20km due east of Trelew is the city of Rawson - also the capital of the state of Chubut - and 20km west of Trelew is Gaiman, the destination.
Adjacent to the volunteer fire brigade station in Gaiman is a campground also administered by the fire brigade. Its a really pretty spot next to a river with all the necessary facilities including power so we set up our tent there. Before we did anything else, we took ourselves for a nice long run, a good way to see the town and the surrounding landscape. We took note of the supermarket, fuel station, bakery, cafés, restaurants and bars (or restaurants that advertised beers as that didn't seem to have pubs or bars). We'd been spoilt in Puerto Madryn by Hernan and Noelia with some great home cooked food and sweets so made a point of pushing ourselves extra hard on the run.
Once all the exercise was out of the way it was time to undo all the good work, so off we went to the famous tea houses of Gaiman. Noelia had given us a recommendation so we went straight there. Ty Gwyn is the teahouse and we were not disappointed. They had a set menu so we just went with the flow. In hindsight we should have ordered one set menu and another tea only because the amount of food was phenomenal and it was so rich that sharing would have been sufficient. The teahouse had WiFi so we sat there for 3 hours making our way through the array of sandwiches and cakes while slowly sipping our tea. There was no dinner that night!
Later that day we met a retired couple from Wales, John and Jane, who had visited Gaiman annually for the past 5 years swapping the cold Welsh winter for the warm Argentine summer. They confessed that this would probably be their last visit as they knew there was so much more of the world to see. They took us to see the canals that ran through the town built by the original settlers, the Dutch, and designed by a woman, so are still in use today. We bumped in to them a few times not just in Gaiman but when we visited Trelew for the day they were in a restaurant we decided to have lunch in.
Our day trip to Trelew and Rawson was fun, we rode three up on Stu's bike. Rawson is located on the Atlantic Ocean and has a nice fishing port and beach, had we been more prepared we would have gone for a swim but unfortunately we didn't have our swimwear. Instead we decided to enjoy fish burgers at the port. Again we ordered two servings thinking they would be small, but no, each serving was made up of two rolls each around 25cm long and 15cm wide filled with fish and salad, had we known this we'd of ordered one serve. To make it worse, Stu thought we should order a serve of hot chips, so again we found ourselves in a situation with too much food. Stu wasn't going to be defeated and kept going until every last mouthful was gone. Janell, however, ate one roll, plus the fish from the other, and took the bread back to Weeti as a treat, but being the picky little dog she is she simply sniffed it and walked away.
Three nights in Gaiman was enough to soak up the culture and experience a little Welsh in Patagonia. So the next day we took off for Comodoro Rivadavia where our new tyres should be waiting for us. We had a contact in Comodoro, through our friend Pablo from Buenos Aires, and had advised them that we would be arriving that day. We decided to take a short cut from Gaiman to Ruta 3, the national highway down the east coast of Argentina. This shortcut was about 60km long and probably saved us the same distance again. Unfortunately the road was slow going, it had been a long time since wehad been on gravel and this section was throwing us in the deep end. The road had little traffic and therefore little maintenance to match, but we were able to travel comfortably at 60-70km/hr for the most part. So a little over an hour later we were relieved to find paved road again.
The famous Patagonian winds had started by this section of Ruta 3 although they would get worse as we headed south. We had full tanks as we left Gaiman, confident we'd make it to Comodoro without the need to stop. We did however need to stop for lunch and to get out of the weather. The towns are not so frequent heading south with distances around 300-400km between each, just enough luckily for a 'normal' motorbike fuel tank. We stopped in the small town of Garayalde about half way between Gaiman and Comodoro. Garayalde had a couple of service stations but otherwise not much to offer. There was very little shelter anywhere in the town as the winds tore through, we zipped Weeti up in her Pillion Pooch while we took refuge in the service station shop and had yet another service station meal (crackers and jam)!!
The road into Comodoro involved descending from the plateau, on top of which the majority of eastern Argentina is situated, to the sea. At the sea level the winds are almost non existent for the majority of the time and when the sun comes out it makes for beautiful days. We were meeting Lucas and Flor who, with their family, would look after us for the next few days. Lucas met us at the beach in Rada Tilly (an adjoined city to Comodoro), he informed us that this was the first summers day they had experienced this year so everyone was at the beach.
Lucas and Flor were staying in their family studio, a large hall with a bedroom up stairs built by Lucas' father for family events. Its a very cool place with musical instruments, amps and microphones and on this day Lucas was having friends over for a 'jam'. Nothing beats real live music with friends. Stuart even got involved by shaking a tambourine in time, well sort of, to the rest of the music. Someone had to be an audience and cheer so Janell sat back and enjoyed the sounds while sipping her glass of red wine.
The next day we got to know each other better and shared in our adventures. Lucas and Flor had set off just over three years ago with the plan of driving their 1989 Cadillac limousine from Ushuaia to Alaska in one year. Subsequently they extended their trip, wrote a couple of books, did some modelling and worked as required to allow them to keep travelling for years.
Just imagine travelling the America's in a limousine! How do you even come up with an idea like that? Well before travelling they ran a limousine hire and chauffeur company, the initial plan was to sell the limousine and purchase a camper van. However, the limousine was actually geared up for off-road tyres and it wasn't long before they figured out that with some internal alternations, they could convert it into a great camper; double bed, kitchenette, curtains. Their adventure is called America Sin Limites and you can read all about their travels here.
While in Buenos Aires we'd arranged to have replacement tyres for both bikes to be sent to Comodoro using an address provided by Lucas. Our first full day in Comodoro we spent at the beach, it was a Thursday and it seemed the tyres would arrive on the Friday according to online tracking. On Saturday morning Lucas and Flor drove us to the shipping office to check if the tyres had arrived. Luckily they were waiting for us and we were able to take them straight away.
Being a Saturday, we were unlikely to find a place to fit the tyres. Janell's rear tyre was the only one that really needed to be replaced as both of Stu's still had plenty of tread so the decision was made to carry Stu's until it was time. Lucas suggested a better alternative, Flor's Father was visiting from the west of Argentina, and since we'd be returning from Ushuaia via that route, he said that he could ask for the tyres to be waiting for us there. In fact Lucas and Flor had planned to visit her Fathers during this time anyway, so would probably be there when we arrived. This made so much sense to us, so we graciously accepted the offer.
We still however had the issue of fitting Janell's tyre. With 12 flat tyres already repaired on this trip, we felt more than comfortable doing it ourselves. So we pulled out our tyre irons and got to work. With the help of Lucas and his brother Diego, the job was completed in less than an hour, and we could sit back and enjoy the rest of our stay. That afternoon we went to a beach just south of Rada Tilly to take a boat out for a test run with Diego, unfortunately there was a problem with the boat and it was back out of the water before we arrived, but that didn't stop us all going for a swim and enjoying some 'mate' (a herbal tea enjoyed all over Argentina) while watching quad bikes race up the dunes.
Sunday already! We were guests at the usual Sunday family barbecue done Argentina style. The whole extended family was in attendance, Lucas's father took us for a tour of the grounds, showing us the children's playground he had made and explained his vision for the property, a place where his family and friends would be welcome to come and relax. This retreat was very well located just outside the city and only a short ride to the beaches and shopping. We were made feel extremely welcome by our new friends and told to return anytime.
As much as we wanted to stay, we had to keep moving. So the next day we were up early and on the road. Unfortunately someone didn't want us to leave just yet. Stuart was riding in front as we departed the property and a few kilometres down the road Stu had a fall. The road was a mixture of gravel and sand. Roadworks were underway in one section and a road watering truck was wetting the road surface. This water on top of gravel brings any oil present to the surface and makes for a very slippery mud. With our tyres inflated for paved roads, the tread quickly caked up and Stuart slid out even before Janell hit the wet section. As Stu went down, his left pannier dug into the gravel and acted like an anchor but with the momentum of the bike, the pannier simply broke away leaving a twisted bent pannier in the middle of the road.
What to do now? Lucas had said that if we ever needed help to give him a call, I'm not sure he expected it so early. We made a temporary repair and continued to the Walmart supermarket as we had intended, from there we knew we had internet and so called Lucas and told him what had happened. Lucas and his brother Diego were over to us straight away to see what could be done. Diego took charge and said he could easily fix it. We could only watch as Diego worked his magic back in his workshop and returned the pannier to near new condition, bashing the pannier into shape and fabricating new brackets to hold it in place. With only a couple of hours delay we were again ready to go. We said our goodbyes once again and thanked Diego for all his help before taking off for our next destination. Thousands of kilometres later and the pannier is still holding strong.
JOURNEY TO USHUAIA
02 February 2015
Puerto Deseado is a little coastal town located 125km off the main highway south, Ruta 3, on the east coast of Argentina. It has a latitude of 47˚ South so gets quite cold and of coarse windy like most of Argentina. The town itself is situated on the north bank of the Ria Deseado at the mouth of the river. The rivers name is interesting in Spanish, its called a "Ria" and not a "Rio", in other words, it is a female river. To be completely accurate its not even a river but a tidal estuary taking the form of a river. Long ago it once was a river with water flowing down from the Andes on the other side of the continent but this flow has long since ceased. Now the riverbed is below sea level and the inlet ebbs and floods with the tides quite dramatically; around 6m we were told at certain times of the year.
While the geography of Ria Deseado is extremely interesting, the reason we visited the town of Puerto Deseado was to see the marine life. Abundant but seasonal penguin and sea lion colonies lie nearby off the coast and our friends Lucas and Florencia highly recommended the detour to visit the little town so on the ride there we discussed staying for two nights with one full day for a tour out to the islands.
Our first stop when we arrived in town was the tourist information office. Most towns that we have visited in Argentina have at least one office and they are always extremely helpful with information on accommodation, sites and tour packages. This office had a spreadsheet with all available accommodation with corresponding costs so we checked into a very reasonably priced hotel. Being a little off the main route made Puerto Deseado much more affordable than most of the tourist cities we'd seen so far in Argentina. For 300 Pesos (around $30) we had a 2-story apartment with bedroom and en suite upstairs, and kitchen and lounge room downstairs. We had a nice view out the window and heating to keep the apartment toasty warm while outside we needed to wrap up.
Settled in, unpacked and connected to WiFi we had a look at the tours available. Before booking anything our Argentine friends encouraged us to always check Wind Guru ; it's a great website for determining winds in specific locations with additional climate information. The next day was looking great for a boat trip but the following day was looking nasty so we booked an additional night in the hotel to wait for better riding weather and in the meantime, enjoy the cosy apartment.
Our day trip was fantastic. The tour was with Darwin Expeditions and cost 900 Pesos per person (around $90). It took about an hour to get out to the islands after a little delay getting the boat started. We looked a bit dorky wearing our matching wet weather riding gear but it kept us dry and our layers underneath kept us warm. We saw two sea lion colonies, the first from our boat but very much up close. Here was the one dominant alpha male was surrounded by all his females. The guide explained that the male would defend his position aggressively, but no contest was witnessed during our sighting. The other sighting was on land and was a stage colony where all the other males lived in hope, taking their aggression out on each other at random intervals. We had to creep up to this colony so as not to disturb them. The smell and sounds that came out of the group of males was interesting but not pleasant, probably not too dissimilar to human males when no women are around to impress.
Between the sea lion viewings we went walking through the enormous colonies of penguins, both the Rockhopper and Humbolt varieties. The Rockhopper has yellow feathers on its head. When we arrived on the Island the guide took us through some housekeeping and rules including no touching the penguins. We were able to go right up to them for photo's and sit and watch as they played around in the rock pools and jumped in and out of the surf with ease, well in most cases, as there were a couple that looked like they were showing off and topsy-turvied during their fancy acrobatics.
After a late lunch and more time for photos we boarded our boat, all really satisfied with what we'd seen so far. The guide explained that we would go for a spin on the water looking for dolphins next on the return trip. Awesome! We spent about 20 minutes speeding around in search of the particular dolphin that frequented these parts and just as we all thought we'd missed out, along came the first black and white figure jumping over the water and into our view. Dolphins are very playful animals that love riding the bow wave of boats and ships so are easy to attract to your location provided they are around. Before long there were around 20 dolphins crisscrossing through the water under and around our boat. We remembered to bring our GoPro with the waterproof cover so it got a good workout as we recorded them above and below the water line. For us it was this experience that really made the day, even though the penguin and sea lions were amazing, it was so much surpassed by these amazing little dolphins only 1.5m long.
We departed Puerto Deseado on a near perfect day, very much by design, light winds as predicted by Wind Guru , a cool temperature for riding and no rain clouds. Our plan would be to make it to Rio Gallegos but we weren't in any great rush. Passing through the province of Santa Cruz we decided to pull in to a town called Puerto San Julian and see what we could find in the way of accommodation.
We easily found camping on the waterfront and met another adventure riding couple traveling north having just been to Ushuaia. Mike and Claudia invited us over to have a drink so after dinner we joined them. Mike had been on the road for nearly 8 months while Claudia had only just joined him for the last section. Its always interesting to hear peoples stories if they're willing to share so Mike told us how back in Germany he is a paramedic, who works hard for 3-4 years then takes a sabbatical which equates to around 6 months leave. He's fortunate to be able to have this arrangement with his work however the down side is lack of rest during the working period. His wife Claudia was not in the same position with her work so she flies in to meet him on his travels around the world. Understandably it's difficult for business when an employee is away for such a long period of time however it does get you thinking about whether people should have more options with how they take their leave and the type of travel that is possible only with longer term holidays.
We sat with Mike and Claudia drinking and talking until late that night, exchanging experiences and vital bits of advice for the roads ahead of us. The next morning we packed up and said our goodbyes at a reasonable time, but before leaving Puerto San Julian we made sure to get a photo with the real scale replica of the Nao Victoria. A visit to the museum will tell you that the ship arrived in March 1520. It was captained by the famous Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan and was in fact the first ship to circumnavigate the world. When you have the information as you stand before the ship it's really hard to believe how, since it looks so small!
Next stop was Rio Gallegos in 360km, a good distance to ride in a day on good roads for us travelling at 100 km/h. Rio Gallegos is the last town on Ruta 3 before crossing into Chili, a compulsory border crossing to get to Tierre del Fuego and then back to Argentina to reach Ushuaia. Rio Gallegos is a city ready for the dark months, leading into the city is a dual carriageway with streetlights akin more to floodlights for nearly 20km. It was getting late and we couldn't find any camping so we checked in to a reasonably priced hotel accepting of dogs and with a good movie channel. Janell and Weeti just couldn't seem to make it past 11pm but Stu stayed up late watching 3 movies while working on updates for the website. He wouldn't admit it the next day but definitely regretted the lack of sleep.
The next day was the big one, we were expecting 2 border crossings, 170km of gravel road and a ferry ride. We checked Wind Guru and the synopsis wasn't good, but we were tired of waiting and decided to go for it. So into 60-80km/hr winds we went. We had 70km of sealed road all the way to the Chilean border. This border was one of the busiest we'd experienced for a while but luckily we were at the front of a wave of cars and buses. Perhaps this worked in our favour because we had some troubles getting Weeti cleared and the staff didn't have time to be messing around with us.
So far all the border crossings were satisfied with her vaccination certificates and proof of ownership. Chile wanted stamped and approved documents from the Argentinian government body, SENASA, responsible for the regulation of plants and animals. We were told to return to Rio Gallegos to obtain the required documents. No way! Sorry but we weren't riding in those winds twice again for a piece of paper that said nothing more than what we already had. Stuart very politely highlighted all the problems with this request, he pleaded with the officials to help us out and as luck or fortune would have it, a manager agreed to let us through provided we got the correct paperwork in Ushuaia for our return trip north. Phew!
Now to the ferry. Sealed roads again but the winds were really strong. We didn't know what to expect from the ferry except that if the conditions were bad it may not operate. There was a small café located at the top of the ramp so we went in to get a drink and some information. The wind was very strong and there was a ferry clearly struggling to pull in, we asked how often it ran and were told to expect a ferry every 30 minutes if conditions were safe. We decided this was a good time to get lunch. We ordered eggs on toast with avocado, yummy, and sustaining for the day we were having. Once the cook got sight of Weeti, he headed into the kitchen and returned with a pile of meat scraps asking if he could give them to her. Of course he could, so off he went to the bikes. The cook was fascinated with the sight of a dog on a motorbike, he was so happy to be feeding her and she was a most obliging customer.
Motorbikes are often last on the ferry, we squeeze in to the gaps around the cars and trucks but it doesn't really matter because you're waiting somewhere, on the boat or on the ramp, until it departs. The trip was fine, nothing much to see and a bit cold. Getting off the ferry was the exciting part, we were in Tierra del Fuego. This is the very bottom of South America and is made up of lots of islands, the largest being Tierra del Fuego which means land of fire. The ferry crosses the Magellan Strait, named after Ferdinand Magellan who was the first explorer to circumnavigate the world. A bit of history for you!
We grabbed some photos then had to move on but the winds just got worse the more south we travelled and we decided to ride to the next town and stop for the night. Cerro Sombrero is a little town but with a few hostels on the hill. We asked around for camping but were only told of wild camping up the road, by this time we wanted a hot shower so kept looking. We saw a sign for a hostel and followed it down a steep gravel road, unfortunately it was closed for renovations, we asked them about camping but got the same answer. We were pointed towards the center of town, up the hill, where we found a couple of hostels at exorbitant prices. We considered our options, it was still early but we still had a long ride to the border along gravel. We decided it was best to have a restful night and attempt the ride refreshed in the morning so 600 pesos was handed over for bed and breakfast and shelter from the wind. From here Ushuaia was one long days ride away and once there we would do it cheap (at least that was the plan).
It turned out the road to the Argentine border was far less gravel then expected; in total we encountered about 50km of gravel and the quality was good enough to travel comfortably at 90km/hr. To e honest we had mixed emotions about this. We were ready for the challenge of riding on gravel but also relieved that we could look around and move quickly.
Crossing the border back into Argentina was much easier than Chile, but this crossing we had done a couple of times already so there were no surprises. We reached Rio Grande by lunchtime and stopped for a bite. Rio Grande is also a city with plenty of accommodation, restaurants etc. set on a very flat landscape but we now had less than 200km to Ushuaia so continued riding.
The terrain changed drastically about 100km from Ushuaia; the flat planes we'd experienced for so much of the eastern route gave way to mountains and trees and the winds dwindled away to a light breeze. We stopped on numerous occasions to take photos of the scenery getting excited at every snowcapped mountain we saw as if it would be our last. The excitement was so unbelievable as we rode down the last hill with the tall Ushuaia inscribed towers indicating our arrival standing at both sides of the road. We stopped for the obligatory photo that signified the end of a long journey to "el Fin del Mundo" (The end of the World).
The ups and downs of traveling continued. The ride in to Ushuaia through the mountains was magnificent and we were feeling on top of the world but then the accommodation we had organised through Counchsurfing fell through on arrival so we were back to searching on the internet. Physically riding to places and asking for a room and none of the campgrounds in town existed anymore. There was wild camping out of town but it was in a National Park where Weeti was not allowed entry. Okay, stay calm and try to keep your sense of adventure we told ourselves.
For those interested in the campsites we looked in to, the first was supposedly located near the Ushuaia Rugby Club, but after 15 minutes riding around we couldn't find it. The next campground had coordinates in our GPS which we followed up the mountain side, with a great view, and along a dirt track. There was even a sign outside this place indicating camping but someone came out to see us speaking very quickly in Spanish and we were politely told the site was no longer a campground.
We'd been checking at each hostel we passed but none would allow a dog to stay. Our last resort was to log into booking.com and book a room in the only pet friendly hotel we'd seen. It would do for tonight but at $80 we couldn't afford to stay there again. We made a booking and checked in for the night, when we arrived with Weeti however, they seemed very surprised and wanted to say no, but we didn't give them the chance, the website said she was welcome and we weren't leaving. It was 11 pm and we were tired and hungry.
The next day we went about finding accommodation again. We got really lucky and a different Couchsurfing request had a positive response. Dana frequently hosted travellers and was very interested in our story and wanted to help us but could only put us up for one night. We were so grateful and this gave us more time to look into another alternative. We visited the Tourist Information centre and were told that no camping existed outside the national park. They provided us with a list of hostels and prices but we'd checked a lot of them already and most were not pet friendly or were well out of our budget considering we wanted to spend a bit of time in Ushuaia. We had exhausted all our usual avenues and spent all day doing so. Feeling a little frustrated, we turned in for the day and spent the evening with our host Dana and some Israeli backpackers she was hosting. It was a great evening, we'd never met anyone from Israel before and they were happy to talk to us about their compulsory military service and explain the complex political issues of their country.
Good nights sleep and we were feeling positive again over breakfast. A response came through from the local Horizons Unlimited community with information on a hostel in town where the owner had a dog. Rejected again, the owner used to have his dog at the hostel but customers complained so he had to keep it at home and wouldn't accept dogs. He was very polite and told us about another hostel with a dog and even camping in the yard. Hmmmm, maybe this was the camping people had told us about. Momo's Hostel was not listed anywhere and when we turned up to the address thought we must be at the wrong place because it just looked like a private house from the street with no signs or indication that people were welcome to enter the property. We hadn't even parked the bikes when the owner, Momo, met us on the street. He asked if we would like a bed and smiled at Weeti, this was our place. The only issue was that he wouldn't let dogs in the rooms but when we asked about camping he said it was okay because of the dog. Usually he only allowed camping when all the beds were filled but he was very considerate of our situation and we ended up camping in his yard for two weeks as we waited for a parcel from Australia to arrive with a new sleeping bag. But the sleeping bag is another story for another time.