08 February 2011

Puerto San Julian

I opened my eyes and did not hear the wind. The light was just beginning to show through the tent walls. I packed up the panniers, one in each corner of the tent, its contents spread out directly in front of it. I had a system for where things were distributed in the tent and I could pack the panniers and the tent, load the bike, and be on the road in 10 minutes. Putting a pannier in each corner also helped to stabilize the tent when it was windy.

It was a fine morning, cloudless and silent and not so cold and I needed only to wear my wool sweater. I could feel that later it would be hot and that I would ride in only a tshirt. The thought of the wind appearing, maybe a headwind, motivated me and after a 15 kilometer warm-up I began to really turn it in a high gear of the large chain ring.

It was flat and fast and I was eating kilometers and I began to have thoughts of Puerto San Julian. The name was pleasant sounding to me and the town had a long history. The town square was famously the spot where Magellan executed a number of mutineers, one after the other, each in a different and creative way, and the mutiny was put down. Viedma and Darwin would come there later. I imagined the town was clean and bright with cafes and restaurants along the blue waters and sandy beaches of the bay. I imagined myself sitting at the outdoor table of a restaurant and ordering a large Quilmes. Then after watching the people pass on the boardwalk, or the cormorants feeding on the water, I would order another. Another Quilmes would be too much but I would do it anyway.



The plain I was riding broke away and I dropped down sharply, the road fast and winding and I moved down into the drops, up shifted, and fell with the road to sea level. As I descended I could just see the sea beyond the white, dusty valley and in the distance a range of mountains, blue in the distance. But there were big headwinds when I hit the valley. I was getting closer to the town but this last part would be difficult.


By 11 o’clock I stopped at a sign that indicated I was 27 kilometers from the town. The more than 100 kilometer ride could be over by lunchtime. I passed a billboard advertisement for Puerto San Julian and a smaller sign with an arrow reading “Circuito Costera 27km Puerto San Julian”. I knew of a secondary road along the coast but that was said to be ripio. My head was down and I did not even look for the road.


Ruta 3 ascended out of the valley and into the mountains and it was slow going into the wind. And fighting the wind up the passes I began to have doubts. I stopped and got out my map. Ruta 3 did not actually pass through Puerto San Julian. An access road connected Ruta 3 to the town. I had not seen a sign for Puerto San Julian for about 12 kilometers now and began to wonder if I had missed it. The access road was at least 15 kilometers in distance which meant I should have seen it. I was hungry from imagining all the food and beer I would have along the bay, and my mind was probably a bit addled too from not eating a proper dinner the night before. Could that Circuito Costera I passed have been the access road?

I decided to climb further and see if around the next bend there was a road. I reached the top of the turn and looked across the next couple of passes and saw nothing. Ruta 3 seemed to be turning further inland. Clearly I had missed the access road. But that was no big deal. I would have the wind behind me to ride back the 12 kilometers to the access road and I crossed the pavement and headed back.


Coasting down the mountain with the wind at my back I started again to think about sitting at a table in the shade with a 750ml bottle of Quilmes. It was not a great beer but I found the white and powder blue label very attractive and everyone drank it. I would be drinking one very soon. I saw the back of the Puerto San Julian billboard ahead. Yes, it must be the access road.

As I rode closer I looked but did not see asphalt. I saw a gravel and sand path leading off through a fence and into the dusty fields towards the sea. It was ripio. My heart sunk. It could not be the access road. I felt a reaction against turning around and riding the last 12 kilometers a second time, ascending into the wind, to look again for the access road. And maybe this was the access road after all? Maybe this ripio ended beyond the first hill?

I turned onto the ripio. It wasn’t so bad at first. There was a good, hard-packed line in the sand and the rocks were not so large and jagged. Going east the headwind was gone and it felt warmer and I rode over a series of hills until stretching out below me was the sea. Ahead a second road broke off down to a beach of smooth pebbles beneath a huge cliff. It was very impressive coastline.


As I ascended the hills along the coast the ripio worsened into deep holes and sharp, jagged rocks. I realized I must be on the 27km coastal road that was entirely ripio. It could not be the access road. I had already ridden a few kilometers and remembered what the ripio had done to me at Punta Tombo. There would be no cold Quilmes for quite some time if I did not turn back. But I could not ride back to Ruta 3. It was too late for that. That was too much going back. I had water and food and it was written that this stretch of coastal road was very beautiful. The sky was bright blue and cloudless and it was not too hot. It was a wonderful afternoon to ride the ripio. The Quilmes can wait.


There was much ascending in the lowest gears, and the tires slipped and from all the movement in the saddle and I could feel the beginnings of the irritation that results in saddle sores. Tomorrow would be a rest day though, I assured myself. At the top of a long, steep hill was an abandoned lighthouse and down the coast the cliffs fell off into the blue water and further south I could just see Puerto San Julian. It did not look so far away.

I rode another hour and at the top of a hill a sign read “Puerto San Julian 30km”. Aghh. I looked and saw the road stopped following the coast and ran off westward into the foothills. I had ridden well over 100 kilometers now on the day along with an hour of riding on ripio, and I had at least another 30 to go if the distances were correct.


I was disgusted with myself. The access road off Ruta 3 must have been just beyond where I had turned back. I was a fool and now instead of drinking cold beer along the bay I was out on the ripio suffering. Maybe I wouldn’t make it. I guessed I could camp here if I needed to. What a bollocks I had made of it. That was what an Englishman would say. It sure is scenic though, I said aloud sarcastically. A beautiful day.

It would be three more hours of riding before I made Puerto San Julian. There were stretches along the water where the road was large smoothed stones and unrideable, and I had to struggle to push the bike through. A plastic nut that attached a rear fender stay popped off somewhere and was lost and I had to stop and duct tape the metal stay to the plastic fender. I was sweaty, dusty, and tired when I rode onto the asphalt at the edge of town.

Puerto San Julian was a long boulevard of brightly painted shops and houses to the sea. At the end of the boulevard in the water was a black and yellow-trim reconstruction of Magellan’s famous ship. The boardwalk of caf├ęs and restaurants along the bay that I had imagined did not exist and there was much less to the town than I expected. It was after 4pm and the shops were still closed, the main avenue empty. I rode through to the campground and paid 10 pesos for two nights and laid out my ground pad and took a nap.

Before going for dinner I stopped at bank. A woman coming out of the ATM vestibule told me there was no money. There was one other bank in town and it too had no money. There would certainly be no money tomorrow either. There was no paper money in the town. She felt embarrassed that foreigners should have such an experience in her country. But the banks were often without money in Argentina; they were either being robbed or simply ran out of paper money.

I had 200 pesos and figured I would only shop and eat at places that took Visa. There was one gas station on the way to Rio Gallegos where I would need to buy supplies and 200 pesos would be more than enough. But if Rio Gallegos had no money I would need to stay there until more was delivered.

I had a dinner of breaded mozzarella and raviolis and a half bottle of wine at the restaurant of a hotel. The girl continued to refill the breadbasket and I ate 3 baskets of rolls, spreading onto the bread the delicious aioli with bits of ham. It was dark now and I drank a coffee and watched the bike through the window and I felt very full and very happy. The day’s ride was finished and I would rest tomorrow and I was excited to go shopping at the large supermarket I had seen on the way into town.

I rode back to the campground and put up my tent and crawled inside. A young family was grilling at the neighboring spot and the man came to my tent door and called out to me. His name was Marco and he had two large chorizo sandwiches in his hands. They were for me, he grinned. I was stuffed from dinner but I could not turn him down and accepted the sandwiches. Along with the sliced sausage there was tomato and a white sauce and it tasted delicious.

I walked with Marco back to his grill and met his family and he and I talked and passed a large bottle of beer between us as we ate. He was born in Mendoza but they lived in Ushuaia. We talked long enough that his family went to sleep inside their tent and I could feel room opening up in my stomach for the second sandwich. It was one o’clock when I said goodbye to Marco and went back to my tent and fell asleep with a full stomach.

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