ROUTE PLANNING FOR SOUTH AMERICA
Here, I look at what I think are the main issues that will shape your trip. Obviously, it’s based on both my own experiences and my own interests – thereare places I have not seen which other riders may recommend, and you may have another view – but at the least I hope it will help get the ideas flowing…
Dirt v tarmac? I’ve read several posts on the HUBB and Advrider by riders asking whether they can stay off the dirt in South America. Firstly, in my opinion you would be crazy to want to do so. South America offers an abundance of fantastic dirts roads – without question, my best riding has been away from the hard top. But more importantly, even if you did your utmost to avoid the dirt by sticking to the principal routes, I don’t think it is feasible. Even the major routes like Ruta 40 occasionally and unexpectedly turn to dirt. And when roadworks are underway, the standard procedure is to simply create a temporary route on the dirt beside the road and divert traffic on to it. So my advice is be ready for dirt. You don’t have to be a Dakar rider (the sum total of my experience riding off-road before I set off was a weekend with the Yamaha Off Road Experience team), but it’ll find you no matter how hard you try to avoid it. Better still, embrace it, be prepared to drop your bike a few times, and reap the rewards.
North to south, or vice-versa? I am riding from south to north, having arrived in Buenos Aires. Would I consider going the other way? No. Chile and Argentina are very European. Patagonia is beautiful but you can’t help but feel that you are on a tourist trail. Bolivia and Peru, however, are for me ‘the real South America’. Thus the cultural experience has progressively got richer as I have headed north; going the other way would be an anticlimax. Also, the distances in Patagonia are long and there is lots of nothing down there. Better to get that done when you fresh and eager.
Getting to the bottom. If you choose to start from the south, you will be riding up Ruta 40 and the Carretera Austral (Ruta 7) in Chile. Ideally, you want to avoid retracing your steps. The easy option is to ride 3500km from Buenos Aires to Tierra Del Fuego along the east coast on Ruta 3 – but this is spectacularly dull. So here is the alternative. From Buenos Aires or Santiago, ride to Puerto Montt on either the Argentine or Chilean side of the Andes. Then take the Navimag ferry south through the hundreds of islands off the Patagonian coast to Puerto Natales. From there you can ride north on virgin Ruta 40 / 7 until Bariloche, from where you can continue on the other side of the Andes from which you headed south. I’m told the ferry trip (4 days I think) is a memorable experience in its own right if the weather is good.
The Andes. For me, a trip through South America is really a trip along the Andes. I’ve met very few riders who have come through Brazil or central Argentina. The Andes offer an amazing backdrop – beautiful scenery, constant variety and some stunning riding. My advice is to plan a route which zigzags across the mountains a few times, for the best riding is when you are in the heart of the mountains. There are some wonderful passes between Chile and Argentina: Paso Vergana south of Santiago is an spectacular ride, and to the north you have Agua Negra, San Francisco, and the ‘must ride’ Paso Sico – 300km of dirt and virtually no evidence of human life along most of it. There is also an extra, special quality about crossing the second largest mountain range in the world – see my post Farewell to Santiago… Again for more thoughts on this.
The Panamecicana – coast v mountains. North of the Santiago – Mendoza line, I’ve ridden the entire length of the Andes up to Bolivia / Peru on both the Chilean and Argentine sides. I’ve also seen most of the Panamericana Highway in Peru, which follows the coast. My advice here is simple – avoid the Panamericana in Chile and Peru. Ruta 40 and the side roads through NW Argentina offer a beautiful and ever-changing ride; Ruta 5 through the Atacama is mostly ugly and monotonous. In Peru, the route through the central highlands is wonderful; the dusty and hot Panamericana…. dull and windy.