Ushuaia, Argentina: The southernmost drive-to town in the world.
It’s not an easy one to get to. Even when the skies are blue, the entirety of Tierra del Fuego makes you earn it. With winds that routinely exceed 80mph (130kmh,) the stark and vast plains of this archipelago are nothing short of miserable when you’re struggling to keep a 2-wheeled machine upright.
A perfectly normal-sized road, all of a sudden, seems far too narrow when you’re getting rocked edge-to-edge by gale force winds and opposite-direction tractor trailers, also fighting the wind.
Ushuaia lies at the very bottom of Tierra del Fuego, Patagonia which is at the very bottom of South America. It is here that this magical little Argentinean village lies.
Between the quaint downtown and the far reaches of the desolate dead-end road, “Road J,” there is plenty to do and see from whale-watching or penguin spotting to hiking and shopping. It’s a shame that so many Overland-travelers say that this awesome little town should be skipped. I can’t help but squint my eyes in confusion when I hear anybody say, “It’s not worth it.”
Maybe I’m just biased, but making it up and over the Martial Mountains and descending into Ushuaia created a feeling of accomplishment that’s been one of the greatest highs I’ve ever experienced in traveling.
Two days turned into five, exploring the raw beauty of the Martial Mountain Range and the frigid coastal waterways of Tierra del Fuego. The “Dublín Pub” was always the perfect place to end each day with a massive Argentinean burger and an ice cold pint of South American beer.
From the bottom of the world, all that was left to do was flip a U-turn. Since I took the epic “Carretera Austral” south through Chilean Patagonia, I’d focus my attention on Argentina’s famous Ruta 40, north. This time, I’d travel through Patagonia on the eastern side of the Andes. I had new sights and experiences to look forward to.
Did I mention the Patagonian winds yet? For three days, as I traveled back north, away from Ushuaia, I battled winds, that one time, completely blew me off the road and placed me in the dirt. It was like a giant invisible hand came down from the sky and just swatted me like a bug. I just can’t describe the ferocity of the winds across the open Argentinean plains.
Finally, I made it back to the Andes, where the jagged terrain disrupts the winds and finally allows for some less-intense cross-winds and corrective-leaning!
As I made my way north through Patagonia, I was on a scavenger hunt. I was chasing after an old American cowboy tale so legendary that it almost seems fictitious.
…The year was 1901, and every policeman and sheriff in the USA was chasing after the most wanted men in the Wild West. Responsible for robbing banks, trains, stealing horses and cattle, their faces were on posters around the country: WANTED DEAD OR ALIVE. They fled the USA via steamship and eventually arrived in Patagonia to start a new life. The life of crime is hard to escape though, and the gunfights, robberies, and debauchery continued in their new life. Eventually, the 2 outlaws were killed by police in Bolivia. It was a wild land back then and it is a wild land now, still.
Their names were Butch Cassidy and “The Sundance Kid,” and this is the very cabin, at the end of a dead-end dirt road, that they lived.
After a bit of daydreaming about what life in Patagonia was like back then, I pressed on northbound again through the year-round snow-capped peaks of the Andes.
The town of San Carlos de Bariloche is one of Patagonia’s most lively tourism centers. The Aspen, Colorado of South America, it’s a ski resort by winter and an outdoor-sports mecca by summer. An interesting history, just after WWII, lead to its German/Bavarian influenced architecture, European town square, and plentiful chocolate shops. Numerous hostels provide affordable lodging options for homeless motorcyclers like me.
…There’s a level of heartbreak associated with “saying goodbye” to a place that you just don’t know when (or if) you’ll ever see again. I had been in the Andes Mountains, from top to bottom, for the past 8 months. As I eyed Buenos Aires, Uruguay, and Brazil, I knew that my eastbound track would take me away from this mountain range that I had called home for so long. With a heavy heart, I took one last, long gander at the Andes Mountains and let the clutch out, motorcycle pointed towards Argentina’s capital city, and moved on. There really is no fascinating way to cover the distance across the flatlands of Argentina, so I covered the 1000 miles in a day’s time.
Not much but corn, wheat, and grain passed by as I covered about the same distance as between Denver and Chicago.
I rolled into Bueno Aires around 11pm and spent the week because there is just that much going on. From San Telmo Market to the various diverse neighborhoods with brightly colored buildings, Buenos Aires is a happening place.
North and across the giant mouth of the Rio de la Plata, lies the country of Uruguay. Regular ferry service brought me across the body of water and into the heavily Spanish-influenced town of Colonia del Sacramento. Cobblestone streets, colonial-style buildings, and small alleyways could fool one into thinking they’re somewhere on Europe’s Iberian Peninsula.
Uruguay is unique. Life moves slower here. For a while, I was struggling to pinpoint just was it was that made it unique. There’s something here that induces a feeling of comfort and familiarity with “home.” As I rolled through the quaint country (I can’t think of a better word to describe it), I’m brought back to times spent in the southeastern parts of the United States.
Many of the tree-lined streets that I rode along brought me back to rides in the Carolinas and Georgia. It is the culture here to hang on to items from the past. Old cars and trucks aren’t just kept as antiques, but everyday vehicles. It’s not uncommon to see an old Mack dump truck from the 1940s still hauling dirt to a nearby construction site or an old Ford pickup truck, delivering milk. There was just something special about this laid-back country, and I really liked it.
Up next, looming on the horizon: Brazil.
Believe it or not, Brazil wasn’t even on the agenda when I first started in South America. The visa application process, which required a visit to an embassy, was a bit inundating and expensive. Just recently though, the whole process was changed before my arrival into the country. Brazil’s State Department has moved the visa process to an online location and can be found by searching “E-Visa” on Google. The visa is $40 USD plus a $4 processing fee. Once a photocopy of your passport and a recent photo are uploaded to their website it’s a one week wait period. Boom. Brazilian visa obtained via email!
I crossed into Brazil, from Uruguay, on the coastal highway near Chuy. It was an easy crossing (like every crossing since the circus-act of Central American borders), and there I was: Cruising through the State of Rio Grande do Sul on the Atlantic Coast.
Throughout my travels, as my photos and stories have gained outreach, social media has opened my networks in the most incredible ways. To a world-audience, we can share experiences and offer varying perspective. It allows people to connect with us. Over the past 20 months, complete strangers have opened their homes to me, and some have even become lifelong friends. At the same time though, social media can be a forum for unqualified advice. I truly feel that this advice comes from a good place in the heart, but really, it can be detrimental. Throughout my travels, I have been deliberate in directly addressing unfounded social-media comments that monger unnecessary fear. It is this mongering that is unnecessarily hurtful to the touristic-economies of many of these developing countries.
Brazil was not exempt from these comments. I had heard everything from, “They’ll behead you in the streets” to “The whole place is a war zone.”
I learned quickly that Brazil is far from that, and it’s one of the reasons that the country remains at the top of my favorites list. I spent almost two months in Brazil having the time of my life.
It was a beautiful mid-April afternoon as I rolled north toward the beaches of Florianopolis in Santa Catarina. Merging onto a highway, I rolled on the throttle: 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th…. Redline. Damn it! I back off the throttle and roll it on again. It’s sticky. Then it slips and hits redline again. The clutch: I know a fried clutch when I see one.
Just finding the proper brake pads and rear tires down here is challenge enough. “Where the heck was I going to find a clutch for this German cow,” I thought.
Clutches for these bikes aren’t cheap and are made even more expensive by S. American import duties and taxes.
This is where the people of Brazil showed their heart.
Knowing that this was going to have a huge impact on my total budget, likely cutting the trip short, I was stuck. I needed the parts one way or another so I stopped into the “Top Car” BMW dealership to order my parts. My original plan was to get the parts, just tear into the motor in a hostel courtyard and do the work myself.
This company, who had been following my photography and journey for months, informed me that they would be replacing my clutch free of charge at the dealership. The word “generosity” does not serve appropriate justice to just how big these people’s hearts are. Nothing but generosity is what fueled this act of kindness.
While I waited for parts to arrive from the factory in Germany, I spent 2 weeks testing the coldness and tastes of various Brazilian beers (for science purposes.) The clutch itself is an easy install and only took a couple of hours. The completion of the work marked the end of my time in Florianopolis. In a place like this, just two weeks is enough time to make friends and establish what feels like roots. It was hard to drive away from here, and I owe a lot of that to the generosity of the Brazilian people but it was time to hit the road again, and each mile that passed brought me further north and just a little bit closer to the equator again. Curitiba, Sao Paulo, and many coastal beach towns left marks on my heart as I made it north to the cobblestoned streets of Paraty, Brazil. Here, colorful fishing boats pack the harbor and houses back up to the river.
Next stop, Rio de Janeiro. Anticipation had been building as I inched closer.
Arguably one of the prettiest cities in the world, Rio is…well, a funny place. I’m trying to find the appropriate way to describe a unique clash of sheer beauty and… crime.
Rio de Janeiro has some issues, and there is no denying that. A city long plagued by drug trade-related violence, which when combined with poverty on a massive scale and corruption at the highest levels of government, make Moto-travel (exploring) in Rio a bit more of a strategic adventure than exists elsewhere. Straight line and shortest-path travel between Point A to Point B isn’t always the best option here. Google Maps, GPS, and Waze can’t be fully trusted here to keep you out of to-be-avoided areas.
With that in mind, and an appropriate level of situational awareness maintained, Rio is an amazing city that shouldn’t be missed. Calendar worthy photos can be taken on Cococobana Beach while sunsets atop Sugarloaf Mountain are almost impossible to beat. Downtown offers some of the most diverse dining options in South America and even boasts a few of the best steakhouses in the world. And the nightlife… The nightlife in Rio is everything that the rumors suggest it to be. Wild street parties exist outside the row of bars that dominate the Lapa neighborhood.
At the end of the day, Rio is an absolutely wild time. After a week, another city and another experience were in the books. This place is unique, that’s for damn sure.
I made it north to the picturesque beach community of Buzios before some unintended factors required me to turn around. The original plan was to continue pushing north along Brazil’s coast, but simmering political unrest began to rise as the government initiated a rapid hike in fuel tax to counter a loss in revenue due to years of corruption. With prices increasing, truck drivers across the nation started to protest the atrocious hike in the cost of fuel. To make you scratch your chin more, fuel is solely controlled by a monopoly owned by the Brazilian federal government. Brazil doesn’t have many trains, so literally, everything from gasoline to toothpaste to toilet paper is shipped by truck. Without trucks moving goods around, the country effectively shuts down.
To avoid getting “trapped,” it was time for me to start heading towards Argentina and Paraguay.
I continued to get turned away at gas stations so when the opportunity allowed, I’d load up Gatorade bottles and windshield washer fluid bottles to stretch my range!
From afar, protests began to resemble scary and dramatic war scenes, inclusive of black smoke and fire. But they were far from that.
You see, I got to the front of the protests and backups by weaving, splitting lanes, and even riding down the median. Once at the front, friendly protesters waved me right through every time! No questions asked.
The goal of these protests was to temporarily disrupt commerce by halting trade…NOT disrupt the everyday schmuck like me. In countries without strong Unions, this is often the only effective way to get your government’s attention. And you know what? While I’m not endorsing burning of tires, I do support these guys rebelling against a government that has no ability to use tax money ethically.
The last day was the longest. I had 400 miles to cover to get to Foz do Iguaçu, on the border of both Argentina and Paraguay. I left Curitiba with nothing more than 1/4 tank of fuel and a little bit of faith. I stretched my mileage by keeping it below 50 mph (80kmh) and checking with every gas station on the way. At one point in the day, I even stopped at a small airport to buy 2 gallons of aviation fuel (100LL). I drove away with my motorcycle smelling like an idling Cessna 172. For those curious, normally aspirated engine can run perfectly off this high octane, leaded fuel. In modern, computerized machines, you may get an emissions-related check engine light, but it has never happened to me and mechanically speaking, there is absolutely no risk of damage to engine components by temporarily running “AvGas.”
It took nearly 13 hours to cover 400 miles, but I rolled into the city of Foz do Igauçu on nothing more than fumes and prayers!
Based on the recommendation of fellow overlander, Neill Drake who is rolling around South America in a
Volkswagen Bus, I stayed for a week at “Tetris Container Hostel.” With secured parking for motorcycles, its own bar, swimming pool, and bustling social scene, I highly recommend this place to other travelers.
“Foz” is home to the biggest waterfall system in the world. It’s difficult finding words to appropriately describe these waters. Shared with Argentina, there are two separate National Parks to gain access to epic views. The Brazilian side offers a bottom-up view falls from the base while the Argentinean side offers views from the rim. It’s impossible to make a recommendation of one over the other. The only reasonable solution is to visit both!
Nearly 6 months had passed in South America. I spent 45 days in Brazil…45 days in a place where 45 years isn’t enough.
It was time to go, and I went through the process of my last border crossing in all of Latin America. I canceled my Temporary Vehicle Import Permit and got a Brazilian exit stamp in my passport. I glanced in my mirrors, one last time, leaving Brazil behind as I was bound to return to Buenos Aires.
It was in Buenos Aires that I put my entire life, everything I’ve known for 15 months, on a pallet.
The motorcycle, for the fourth time, would be loaded onto an airplane and flown at 37,000 feet.
It’s always a funny feeling: Leaving.
I keep looking at the dirty wheels on this scratched, dinged and dented machine; thinking about how long they’ve been spinning and how many different environments they’ve carried me through…And how many times we’ve tested fate together.
South America Part 4, in Upshift Online, marks the final chapter to this continent.
I end with words that ring true to me as I leave so many memories behind:
“For I must be traveling on, now…Cause there are too many places I’ve got to see” – Lynyrd Skynyrd