For almost two decades, I’ve dreamed of traveling to the southern end of South America and exploring the Patagonia region. Earlier this year, I spent two weeks fulfilling that dream by bikepacking in southern Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego after passing my dissertation defense, studying how pancreatic cancer cells evade immune clearance, and graduating in December. Completing my graduate degree while trying to keep an imagination (easily distracted by the call of adventure) at bay made for a hell of a ride. But with this trip, I would finally get to scratch that itch.
Such transitional periods between major life chapters are rare opportunities for self-reflection: on the past, the present, and the uncertainties of the future. Graduate school was both physically and mentally taxing. Often times, I would search for different ways to motivate myself to pursue this career as an aspiring academic, especially since the profession is filled with an abundance of challenges and uncertainty.
But taking a step back and being able to clear my mind through travel has given me a renewed sense of purpose that has helped reinforce my personal career goals. The reason I wanted to get into this profession in the first place became apparent once again after moments of self-reflection. The mysterious, transformative powers of nature and just getting to ride a bike all day (for many days) felt emotionally cathartic and enabled me to unload personal stresses while becoming more aware of my own strengths and shortcomings.
Southern Patagonia and the “Land of Fire”
It was an adventure-filled two weeks marked by expectations and uncertainties, along with metaphorical—and literal—peaks and valleys. Traveling during the ongoing global pandemic made navigating the unknown difficult, but I lucked out by having two remarkable friends, Emily and Sam, as travel partners. Emily, who I met through San Francisco’s cycling community, and I had been scheming a bikepacking trip since 2020. Once traveling again felt reasonable, we ultimately decided on Patagonia with possible routes including the Carretera Austral in Chile, El Chalten in Argentina to Torres del Paine in Chile, or el Fin del Mundo in southern Patagonia.
Given our two-week time constraint, we decided the second option was most feasible. Emily’s co-worker, Sam, decided to join in on the fun a month before departure, which brought our small yet mighty team to three. We all had our own personal reasons for going off the grid and our own mental burdens that we were seeking relief from – which ultimately brought us closer by trip’s end than we could have anticipated. I couldn’t have asked for a better crew of aventureros to travel these lands with, especially with all the flexibility and uncertainty of what was to come.
Part 1, Days 1-5: El Chalten to El Calafate, Argentina
I’d read on blog posts that the stretch of dirt connecting the southern end of Carretera Austral to El Chalten was one of the most scenic sections of ripio (gravel) in Patagonia, so it seemed obvious to plan our trip around it. Setting out from El Chalten, as the tarmac turned to dirt, the scenery opened up to reveal sweeping views of snow-capped peaks, rivers and glacial waters painted in vibrant blue, forests blanketed in beech trees, and windswept clouds. With the occluding fog ringing the mountain tops and obscuring the distance, the landscape before us felt like a pleasant mystery waiting to be discovered. The adventure itch that had been nagging at me started to get some relief, and I couldn’t help but beam.
Of course we had our fair share of mishaps. On Day One, Emily and Sam resorted to plugging Sam’s sidewall puncture with a clif blok after an unsuccessful reapplication of sealant and failed plugs (turns out clif bloks are highly malleable and solidify into a strong adhesive when dried).
The flexibility that comes with a multi-day bikepacking trip allowed us to make game-time decisions based on how the group was feeling. But a lack of a schedule could also be stress-inducing when having to plan things on the fly in a foreign country. A major perk of traveling in Argentina was having the ability to legally wild camp almost anywhere, which helped alleviate the pressure of planning campsites ahead of time when we weren’t sure what our pace would be. Even amidst the uncertainty, we continued to dance, to smile, and to make the most of the experience.
Fitz Roy and Sunrise
One of my favorite moments was deciding to camp at the Poincenot campground on a whim, in hopes of catching sunrise the next day at the base of Fitz Roy. Because we hadn’t packed true hiking gear, we turned our bikepacking bags into makeshift hiking gear and stashed our bikes at a nearby hostel. I even used my X-Alp Summit mtb shoes to hike over to the campsite and summit a climb comfortably!
To catch first light, we woke up the next morning at 4am to patchy clouds and flurries falling. The higher we got, the heavier the snow fell. We could see the sun starting its daily ascent in the distance, the eastern sky painted in hues of red, orange, and pink. Nearing the summit, clouds shrouded the ten jagged peaks of the Fitz Roy massif. You’d think we’d be disappointed not to see the peaks in full, but this was probably one of the most memorable sunrises I’ve ever seen—the Patagonia sky was on fire, the peaks lay cloaked in pristine snow as flurries completed their free fall into a dazzling blue lake below. Speechless.
El Calafate and Plan B
As we ventured 200+ kilometers to our next destination in El Calafate, we experienced the wrath of the notorious Argentinian winds. Patagonia is an enormous, mostly treeless plateau which gets blasted by relentless polar gusts that continually blow in from the west. I remember staring at an Argentinian flag tenaciously blowing in the wind while feeling completely demoralized and severely wind-swept. Even with pacelining, our movement felt almost stationary as we inched slowly to the day’s finish. At one point, a kind-hearted Argentino in a red Duster SUV slowed his car just ahead of me to give me some relief in his draft.
We had originally planned to ride south into Torres del Paine, as the Chilean embassy stated that borders would reopen on January 4. But with Omicron cases exponentially increasing worldwide, the Chilean government revised this policy to safeguard against an outbreak such that only major cities with international airports could serve as entry points, meaning we would not be able to ride across the land border from Argentina.
Distraught (but not completely surprised) by the news, we came up with a contingency plan as soon as we arrived in El Calafate. Pen to napkin for notes; phones out for research, we hastily searched the web for points of interests, gravel bike-friendly regions, and affordable flights. We considered traveling north to Bariloche, the Lake District in Argentina, but ultimately decided to go south to Ushuaia after finding several blogs raving about the dirt routes in Tierra del Fuego, an archipelago at the southern tip of the continent. We packed our bikes, bought last minute flights, and landed in Ushuaia hoping it would live up to our expectations.
Part 2, Days 6-9: Ushuaia to Tolhuin in Tierra del Fuego, Argentina
Tierra del Fuego really was something special! Sampling some of the single track in this region took us through glades of beech trees and evergreen forests, open meadows surrounded by snow-capped mountains, and swampland speckled with colorful moss. We wanted to take the roads less traveled and find as many gravel thru-ways along the way to our final destination, Tolhuin. This meant backtracking after taking wrong trails, relying on offline GPS navigation, and trusting that the blogs we’d read online wouldn’t lead us to dead ends. Even after getting lost several times trying to find the right trails throughout our four days in Tierra del Fuego, the surrounding landscapes and just being in nature felt like a much-needed salve.
Perfectly Not According to Plan
And it wasn’t just the terrain that made this place special, everything in between added to our memories: friendly dogs on dirt tracks, jumping into frigid lakes, seeking refuge in an abandoned cabana after the hairpin-riddled descent down the rocky and muddy Paso Garibaldi dirt trails, stopping in a 90s-era motorcycle rest top for a game of chess—there’s something special about the beauty of the unplanned, and how the serendipity of one action or decision can impact our experiences. And importantly, I felt safe around Emily and Sam – they kept my mind at peace and I knew I could put my trust in them. Our “everything is fine” attitude has gotten us this far and I knew it would get us to the end.
Our contingency plan to travel to Ushuaia far surpassed our expectations. Los Montes Martial and the Andes, the Beagle Channel, plentiful lakes, diverse landscapes with picturesque views, spectacular marine wildlife—these were a few of my favorite things that I wish we’d had more time to explore en El Fin del Mundo.
Last Stop: Tolhuin
On our final leg to Tolhuin, we got to experience a little bit of every terrain, from riding smooth ripio along Lago Fagnano to concrete frontage roads along the highway. As we’ve learned, it’s not all smooth sailing when it comes to riding in new places. There were a fair amount of obstacles we had to bypass on this last day – a lot of river crossings, detours from broken bridges, and passing through closed gates.
The closer we got to Tolhuin, the more reality started to settle in. This dreamlike world we’d been living in the past two weeks was coming to an end. It’s hard not to feel sentiments of dread & sadness at the end of a Homeric adventure, but the memories are things I will always hold near to my heart, for we cannot relive them. This was another reason I was so adamant in documenting this Patagonia series, so that I can remember those experiences and share it with my loved ones and the community. Even though you weren’t there, I hope you could get a sense of all the emotions we went through and feel inspired to get out there for your own adventures. Afterall, “the purpose of life is to live it, to taste experience to the utmost, to reach out eagerly and without fear for a newer and richer experience.”
And to Emily and Sam – ha sido un placer y espero que tengamos muchas más aventuras juntos en el futuro. Que el viento te acompañe y un millón de gracias por todo.
Photos: Emily Cheng and Anthony Venida