Fjällräven Guide Eylene Pirez is a world-traveling photographer and published physicist. And at her core, she is a nature lover and adventure seeker. Even with her years of experience preparing for and leading her global expeditions, there was no amount of groundwork that could have prepared her for the difficult challenges that developed during her latest attempt of cycling in Patagonia amidst the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. We asked Eylene to share her story with its many twists and turns that finally lead her safe at home, although it took a while.
Patagonia contains some of the world's most beautiful terrain. The plan involved riding its entire length, exploring its glaciers, gaucho culture, national parks and wildlife. With a total of 3000 km (1864 miles), it was going to take around 35 days in the saddle to complete the planned route. The team consisted of me, Eylene Pirez, James Bristow, James’s father and uncle. James’s mother, Janet, had passed away 2 months before and we decided to bring his family along to celebrate her life for this once in a lifetime adventure. James and I would bike and they would road trip along our route and meet with us every few days to have a shared side adventure.
The trip would begin from the incredible seaside volcanoes and peaks near Puerto Montt and San Carlos de Bariloche, wind along countless mountains and fjords, skirt iconic glaciers and peaks of the Northern and Southern Patagonian Icefields, cross sections of the Patagonian Steppe, and end in the southern reaches of Tierra del Fuego, one of the most remote regions in the world.
Before heading to South America, we flew from Seattle to Houston to spend a few days in Houston, Texas with my family. We experienced no enhanced health screenings in the United States. However, when we landed in Santiago, Chile our temperatures were screened before entering customs. Hours later, we landed in Puerto Montt, Chile, the first fatality due to COVID-19 in the U.S. occurred. Despite the careless approach from the U.S. government, we realized that in the weeks and months to come after our bike ride in late April we may have issues returning to the States. As we watched Italy and Spain experience massive numbers of infections and implement strong civil health policies, we realized we might need to stay somewhere deep in Patagonia until COVID-19, not yet deemed a pandemic, was under control. We had bought one-way tickets and allowed 2 months for this trip so we thought we were “OK”.
After rebuilding our bikes and taking a day to rest in Puerto Varas, Chile, we started to ride. 40-50 mile days took us to the base of Volcano Osorno, then what was to be the first of many border crossings between Chile and Argentina. Mostly flat lakeside roads led to monster hills, which led to delightful mountain town or lakeside pit stops. The days got tougher and more intricate. I began to love the sport and enjoy each day more than the last. Within the first week, we reached the famous San Carlos de Bariloche, Argentina for a three day break. A few days later, we got the first taste of ripio (rough gravel roughs) at National Park Nahuel Huapi. We went to see Ventisquero Negro, a massive hanging glacier on Cerro Tranador that regularly releases cacophonous calving events over a glacial lake. Along the lake, volcanic ash and ice have mixed to create a beautifully marbled ice front. We camped near one of the many lakes in the park and woke up to a steaming lake and one of the most gorgeous sunrises I have ever seen. The ride continued to push up steep mountain passes with incredible vistas, going down at thrilling speeds, and stopping every so often to stretch our legs. El Bolson, Lago Puelo, and the raspberry farm regions outside of El Hoyo made for the perfect pit stops. As we approached the 1,000km marker, we learned a valuable lesson; you cannot out-bike a pandemic.
The numbers grew rapidly everywhere. New travel regulations and restrictions were implemented all over the world. The Chile/Argentinian border was no different. Our trip required five border crossings between Chile and Argentina. This was going to be challenging. The first misfortune of what became a long series of unfortunate events happened near the town Cholila, a small gaucho village in the Chubut Province of Argentina. One of my drone’s propellers came off while landing and lacerated my face. This “drone strike”, as we came to call it, left me with fairly deep open gashes on my face which is not ideal for cycling. We treated the wounds with our field kit, but decided to call in the family to pick us up. Though covered, the gashes under my nose were bound to get sweaty and dusty with the coming over the mountains and sweeping across the valleys. We figured the best course of action was to rest in a nearby cottage until the gashes on my face closed. We found a magnificent place to stay in Valle del Carrileufu near the entrance of Los Alerces National Park. The park is known for a rare species of trees and world-renowned fishing.
The morning after we arrived, the local police received orders to enforce quarantine regulations imposed by the President of Argentina. The rule was that travelers who had arrived from a country listed as a COVID-19 hotspot, which the United now was, must quarantine for 14 days from the day of arrival before they or anyone working at that hotel or campground are allowed to leave. This is how we found ourselves stuck for three days in this place. Luckily, this gave me ample time to recover and get ready for 2000km left of adventures. Once we met our quarantine, we called the U.S. embassy and local police to ensure we were not breaking any new laws and to ask for guidance. No one advised us to return and gave us the green light to continue our trip along with one warning: In this chaotic time, you may find discrepancies in law enforcement and you may end up stuck. It was clear that many of these new regulations were up for interpretation.
We decided to cross back into Chile ASAP, as we were informed the border would be closing in the next couple of days, and the rental truck we had was from Chile. We were advised that we may encounter some heightened scrutiny on our way from ill-informed authorities. Their warning came true within a couple of hours. At an Argentinian state police checkpoint outside Esquel, they did not respect that we had met our quarantine, refusing us the ability to buy gas in town or get out of the car to use any bathroom as we waited for a police escort out of the country. With one police car leading and another following, we were escorted to the nearest border crossing, which was hours away through a dusty mountain pass. These state police were reprimanded by the Argentinian border police, who said, “If you escort every person trying to leave the area, we’ll have no police on the street!” And, we were able to pee. Fortunately, Chile accepted us without issues. A trip that should have taken hours took us all day. We booked a rental cottage just as the sun was setting in the picturesque mountain town of Futaleufu, Chile. By midnight, the town had a fire and the power was knocked out.
Until that morning, we were still naive enough to think biking the section of the Carretera Austral to the South without crossing back to Argentina was a good idea except for James’ uncle, Steve. He has acute asthma and was on edge about not having the seemingly reliable medical services back home in the States should he contract the disease. With much ado, he made the decision to head home. Our plans had to change, and would day to day, hour by hour. We planned to drive North to the nearest airport and get Steve stateside. The rest of us would then get a cottage for a couple of weeks in or near the nearest Chilean National Park until border crossings would reopen and the situation clarified. This was one of many of the options we discussed.
We hopped on the road North towards Chaiten, a small port town with a tiny airport. We booked a cottage to recharge our energy and bought enough groceries for the three of us remaining to hole up for two or three weeks, wherever that might be after getting Steve on his way. Not two hours after settling into the cottage, I received the news that my grandfather had died. You may not know me, but here’s one thing you should know: He was my everything. With this news, we all decided it was time to go back to the U.S.
This decision unleashed the next adventure, getting back home. With the abrupt daily changes in the travel industry, our chances of being stranded were high. The goal was to send Steve through Atlanta and the rest of us would all fly together to Houston. Neither of these destinations are our homes, but the combinations of getting into the country were limited. With cancellations and changes, we all ended up booking a flight to Houston. This being where my family lives, I would have the chance to mourn my grandfather with them, unlike so many during this time who cannot travel despite family losses. With most flights canceled or sold-out, the only combination we found was a flight from Puerto Montt to Santiago and then a direct flight to Houston. Easy, right? Not exactly. The town of Chaiten does not have a direct road to Puerto Montt. To drive there, the car has to go either through the Argentinian border, which was already closed, or by ferry. Our only choice was by sea. One stroke of luck gave us the last available vehicle space on the long-haul ferry. A 10-hour ferry ride got us to Puerto Montt. Everyone there was on the same boat, pun intended. Bikers and travelers from all over the world were having similar experiences. Their luck had run out and they were attempting to get home before they were stranded. Many of them were left with no choice but to abandon their possessions and bikes. We had a full day before our next flight. We spent this day searching stores all over town for cardboard boxes so we could take our bikes back home. After hours and hours of failed attempts, we managed to assemble some Frankenstein boxes that would get them home.
We are now in quarantine in Houston, and practicing all measures prescribed by the CDC and WHO. The sadness of grieving without being able to even touch or hug my family was one of the hardest moments of my life. Everyone is now home except for me and James. We are still plotting on how to get home during this time, but if there’s something to be learned during this period is that the best-laid plans must be malleable and adhere to the safety of all. Everyday regulations change, understanding evolves, and taking a risk that could harm us or others is just not an option. We are still over 2,000 miles away from our tiny home town, Leavenworth, WA. I will return to Patagonia and finish my ride someday but for now, the adventure ahead is still getting home.