The Cuernos del Paine stop us in our tracks. One rider after another pulls over to gaze at the chiseled peaks jutting up like deformed teeth in a Tolkien monster’s mouth. Gliding into the scene on motorcycles only enhances the experience. We slalom down a canyon road that reveals new vistas at each turn until the entire mass of the Cuernos (horns) stands before us. I’ve dreamed of this moment since a rock climber friend showed me a poster of them 20 years ago. Dick left this earth without seeing the Cuernos, so I close my eyes and thank him for planting the seed. The group exchanges thumbs-up before moving on, but few words. “Wow” is the only thing that comes to mind anyway.
We’re on the eighth day of an industry invitational edition of RIDE Adventures’ nine-day Patagonia tour. Designed to fit a two-week vacation, including travel to and from Chile, The Patagonia Experience includes eight days of riding and a well-earned rest day. Our industry group of nine, including tour leader Eric Lange and support truck driver Ulli Witt, are from Heidenau tires, Macna clothing, Kaoko cruise controls, Rox Speed FX and Twisted Throttle.
We start in Osorno, Chile, an hour’s flight south of Santiago, with a rider’s meeting and sumptuous dinner at the Sonesta Hotel. Eric lays out the plan while we get acquainted with Patagonian refreshments. The next morning, we sort out motorcycle paperwork—accuracy is critical for border crossings—then pack up and follow Eric to Argentina. Leaving Chile’s dairy land behind, we transit the Andes through a volcanic wasteland created by the 2011 Puyehue eruption. Free pumice, no limit. We lunch in Villa La Angostura, where Pierre’s order of empanadas—pastry stuffed with meat or cheese—disappears into greedy gullets. In bustling San Carlos de Bariloche, dinner (yes, we’re hungry again) is a huge variety of asado, or barbecued meats, served on a tabletop charcoal grill.
Caution: pavement ends ahead. Eric gives the signal to turn off ABS as we hit the gravel road through Los Alerces National Park the next day. Sandwiched between forested canyon walls and the deep blue water of lakes and rivers, the road cuts a twisty path that delights everyone. Group energy skyrockets after our 70-kilometer romp. We open the throttles again when Eric gets news that the Argentine border will be closing early. I’ve got the holeshot on a freshly graveled road and enjoy a dust-free ride until having to pass a bus. Our reward for a swift return to Chile is a throat-cleansing beverage at the comfortably rustic El Barranco Hotel in Futaleufú, where our German innkeeper pours just what we need.
The Carretera Austral, our route for the next two days, was one of the last stretches of the Pan-American Highway to be completed. At the Futaleufú River bridge, a sign in Spanish says, “The landscape painted by God.” They’re not exaggerating. In ranching country now, we find that not all of the animals are behind fences. A startled stallion tap dancing in the roadway is Patagonia’s signal to slow down and enjoy the scenery. Good advice, caballo. Farther on, we join the queue at a road closure. Eric was forewarned and gauged our progress to match the opening time, but he couldn’t foresee the nail in Nic’s rear tire. Halfway through plugging the hole, the road opens early. Sweating in the heat, Eric finishes up as traffic rolls by. A tour leader has to constantly monitor progress, re-plan and deal with whatever comes up to keep the ride a seamless experience for everyone, and Eric is a pro at it. At sunset, we catch a water taxi to the Puyuhuapi Lodge (meeting time adjusted by Eric on the fly), cramming into the small boat for a ride across the fjord. Our waterside refuge radiates tranquility.
An early start puts us on a damp road in 39 degrees of chill. The carretera is narrower and rougher here; the riding more technical, more fun. Steep switchbacks catch two riders off-guard and they pay the price by dead-lifting their GSs from the roadway. The scenery here never stops—high mountains on all sides, tall trees overhead and a brilliant blue sky above. We hit smooth tarmac before noon and blast to busy Coihaique, passing the Dolbek brewery, source of a well-tested throat cleanser. Germans began moving to Chile in 1845, encouraged by a new immigration law, and brought their brewing talents with them. Lucky us.
Lunch is a feast of homemade fajitas, served in the home they were made in. The best eats yet. More pavement brings us to a set of sweepers that look stolen from the Alps. Erik shoots action photos before we leave the tarmac to follow the Rio Murta, bright blue and glistening in the sun. I snag the lead again, ready to challenge the give-no-quarter Chilean drivers. You can only ride a motorcycle so close to the edge of a crowned gravel road before you slide off the side, so maintaining position is everything. Unless your adversary is a large truck, then slowing down starts to make sense. I pull over for a break and Patrick flies in right behind me.
“Move the motos.” That’s the gist of the caribinero’s speech to us at a gas stop in Puerto Tranquillo. Our randomly parked bikes block the driveway, upsetting his sense of order. I push mine toward the pump, asking in broken Spanish for someone to pump the gas. A grinning old Chilean appears, deftly handling the pump in spite of several missing fingers. He tops off a tank, waves in another bike and sings out, “More diesel, more diesel,” his eyes laughing at his own joke. The day ends with a surreal ride through flat scrubland as the sun slips away. The road is clear for a ways, then disappears into a corridor of backlit dust thrown up by the bike ahead. I half expect a serape-clad Clint Eastwood to materialize out of the haze.
How could a rest day be better? At Hacienda Tres Lagos we have our own lake, patios, sauna, horses grazing, dogs wandering and several possible activities. While some of the gang take a boat tour, Nic, John and I ride horses to a mountain top for the big view. Later, we stuff ourselves on cordero asado, lamb slow-roasted in front of a fire. And we’re supposed to ride tomorrow. Maybe a swim across the lake is in order….
But ride we do, back to Argentina and the “other” Patagonia, leaving alpine scenery for vast plains and plateaus. Partly due to easier access, Argentina has aced its neighbors in marketing the region. Argentine Patagonia is impressive in its vastness and, as a desert rat, I enjoy the wide-open spaces, but still prefer Chile’s mountains and water to the brown scrub landscape we’re riding through. What Argentina does have is Ruta 40, the only continuous north-south road in Patagonia. It’s considered a rite of passage for travelers due to long distances and nasty crosswinds, which we’re lucky enough to miss. We lunch on fresh greens and lamb Milanese at an estancia four kilometers off Ruta 40, where flamingos feed in a shallow lake. Miles later, we unpack at another estancia, sharing the dining room with local miners.
Their enthusiasm for soccer on TV is infectious.
The next day, we dodge construction on Ruta 40 all the way to El Calafate, a touristy town where we have a good Italian dinner. The following morning, I’m the center of attention when my passport goes missing. Eric calmly works the phone, formulates a plan and sends the group to the Perito Merino glacier with Ulli while he and I make a police report and retrace my steps from last night. Chris suggests checking the bag of postcards I had at dinner—bingo! And a darn good thing; replacing the document would mean a flight to Buenos Aires. Feeling like a fool—but one with a passport—I follow the group to Torres Del Paine National Park and our encounter with the Cuernos. After a night at the Hosteria Pehoé, with its expansive view of the mountains, we ease into civilization with a pavement run through Puerto Natales to our final night in Punta Arenas.
The trip has been amazing. I feel I’ve seen the best of Patagonia with an outstanding group of people, just as Eric intended. He started RIDE Adventures to share the country he loves, and does a great job of it. Where we could have taken Ruta 40 south from Bariloche like some tours; instead we spent three incredible days on the Chilean side. The Patagonia Experience includes lodging from Osorno to Punta Arenas, all meals, a BMW GS twin, gasoline and a support truck. There’s also a self-guided option. RIDE Adventures avoids the crowds by running tours in the shoulder seasons. We had excellent weather at the end of the Austral summer, though a little rain would have been welcome. Patagonia is must-see territory. Riders with limited vacation time would especially enjoy this tour and its comfortable lodging, delicious meals and out-of-this-world riding. No one in our group was untouched by The Patagonia Experience.
The Patagonia Riders
- RIDE Adventures, rideadv.com
(Eric Lange, Ulli Witt) – Made our Patagonia experience the ride of a lifetime.
- Macna Clothing, twistedthrottle.com
(Erik Stephens, Patrick Kant) – Kept me cool or warm as necessary, comfortable always.
- Rox Risers, roxspeedfx.com
(Chris Olin) – Made the GS a perfect fit for long stretches of standing on the pegs.
- Kaoko Cruise Control, kaoko.com
(Nic Mentis) – Gave my wrist a rest when it needed it the most.
- Heidenau Tires, heidenautires.com
(John Bettencourt, Pierre Shäffer) – Kept the front end planted and the rear end pushing in the deepest gravel.
(This article The Patagonia Experience was published in the August 2013 issue of Rider magazine.)