Date: 3rd November – 12th November 2012
Where: Mendoza – Lujan – Potrerillos – Uspallata – Punta de Vacas – Chilean Immigration Office (Chile) – Los Andes – Santiago
Distance: 6150 to 6322 miles
Mendoza proved to be a lovely stop-over point, and we’re glad to be returning with Stavros in a few weeks to appreciate it fully. Ancient irrrigation flowing down each street, has made it one of the most verdant cities we’ve visited since Ecuador. The only thing of note we did here was to find a good ‘parrilada’ (grill) and stuff ourselves full of every type of meat we could find.
Meat cravings sated, we left Mendoza all too soon, dawdling through its tree-lined streets, and eventually ending up in a small town on the outskirts called Lujan. We were excited to be on our way back to the mountains…‘Once more unto the Andes, my friends!’
The thing about a tailwind is that you very rarely notice that you have it. Suddenly you feel like all this cycling has paid off, your muscles feel strong, as you whizz along, and in no time you’re relaxing at a peaceful campsite. The day to Potrerillos followed this pattern. An uphill you hardly noticed, and then an unexpected downhill that swept us down to a beautiful blue reservoir and the small town on its shore. Whilst looking for a campsite we were confused to hear shouts from the side of the road: ‘Over here, it’s still hot!’ (In Spanish of course). We trundled over and met Juan Carlos, and his mother Beba. It was her Birthday and our Luckyday. They’d had a huge BBQ and cooked far more meat than they could possibly eat, and it was up to us to help reduce the deficit. In addition, they had a cold beer left over. A cyclist’s dream if ever there was one!
The next day, after retracing our tracks and climbing up the steps to the main road, the wind continued to push us onwards. One or two tunnels gave us no trouble, but reminded us of the big one at the border with Chile we would have to negotiate later. Early enough to find a carniceria and leña (firewood) and have another asado, we arrived in Uspallata municipal campsite, and slept soundly that night.
What a difference a day makes. The winding route up to the frontier continued its shallow gradient, but now turned South again, and with it came a ferocious headwind. The battle with the wind and gradient would continue for two days until the gradient became significantly more favourable in Chile, the other side of the Andes. We made slow progress reaching the preliminary border post in Punta de Vacas late in the day, water bottles empty. The usual conversation soon started:
Border guard: ‘De donde son?’
Border guard: ‘Oh’
Geoff: ‘Tiene un poco de agua limpio, por favor’ (Do you have some clean water please?)
Border guard (jokingly): ‘Tengo solo agua sucio si te gusta Thatcher. Te gusta?’ (I only have dirty water if you support Margaret Thatcher. Do you support her?)
Evidently some people will never forget the Falklands :-). Our water bottles were soon full of crystal-clear glacial water, and we camped nearby behind a building to protect us from the wind.
As we put away the tent the following day, our tent zip broke irreparably. We’re now really looking forward to Stavros arriving with the new tent! A lull in the wind allowed us to reach the Puente del Inca early in the day, so we stopped for toasted sandwiches and saw the bridge. It was a really surprising splash of colour in the mountainous landscape. Next on the tourist trail was Mt Aconcagua, the highest mountain in the Americas, nearly 7000m. The clouds parted to allow us a clear view, and reaching the viewpoint seemed like an achievement to both of us. It made us think back to setting off in Mexico ten months ago, and we both realised how far we’ve come. The next sight was not so welcome, a ~400m tunnel. Lights shining, and reflective bibs donned, we set off into the perpetual wind. The wind’s effect was magnified by the tunnel, occasionally disappearing as a lorry’s vortex sped past us. The going was slow and scary. We escaped the tunnel just as another truck thundered past, they all gave us space, but nowhere near enough to avoid their bulk affecting our balance and literally sucking us into the middle of the road, and thus closer to them. Glad to be rid of the tunnels we had to ride, we settled down for a spot of lunch at Las Curvas. A km more and we were at the big tunnel, we knew we wouldn’t be allowed to ride through it, but were surprised at the efficiency of the alternative service. As we rode up, the lady had already called Chile for a truck, and five minutes later we were scooting through the tunnel in a lorry. Those five minutes were some of the most memorable of the trip though, as a black speck in the sky came closer and closer, before swooping low in front of us and down the valley. For Sarah especially, who watched the condor throughout with her binoculars, it was a special moment.
The weather 4km later in Chile was atrocious, the wind still howled, and now there was the beginnings of a blizzard in the air. By the time we reached the immigration office it was late (made even later by the most ridiculous bureaucracy to get our bikes through and passports stamped), we couldn’t feel our fingers, and we were both tired. Not expecting much, we asked for a bit of floor space to sleep. To our delight we were led down into the basement where the heating was being generated, and had a perfect night’s sleep in the warmest place for miles. We decided to sleep with our legs in Argentina one last time, whilst our upper bodies savoured the new country: Chile.
The next day the downhill began and was rarely interrupted for 30km. A series of hairpins proved tricky to negotiate as we kept stopping to take photos of the snowy peaks all around us. By 11 o’clock the temperature had warmed up considerably, and we stopped at a petrol station to change wardrobes and have a spot of ‘onces’ (the Chilean equivalent of the English ‘elevenses’). Soon we were in the town of Los Andes and happy in a hostal. One day of complete rest later, and we were in Santiago, with Ricardo, a friendly warm showers host.
We’ll now be taking time off the bike to travel with Stavros and maybe reflect a little on what we’ve done thus far, and perhaps what the future holds. So, in short, time for a break from the life we’ve learned to live.
Date: 25th October – 2nd November 2012
Where: Cachi (Argentina) – Molinos – Angastaco – Cafayate – Tolombón – Amaicha – San José – Hualfin – Belén – Mendoza
Distance: 5914 to 6150 miles
Nevermind ‘Route 66’, this is the road if you’re in Argentina. Ruta 40 runs parallel to the Andes all the way down from top to bottom of the country. We joined the road in Cachi at km marker 4496. The countdown to Ushuaia, el ‘fin del mundo’ has begun! Pietro kept our pace up for the first half of the day, before leaving the dirt to ourselves as he took a detour to a lake. The promised downhill was rather more like a rollercoaster, and the route gave its fair share of kicks to our bum. Sore and tired, we rolled into Molinos and found the heavenly municipal campsite. Most of these campsites have BBQs all ready to go. This night Sarah found some nice slabs of beef in the carniceria and a local bottle of wine. Combined with a pasta salad, we both agreed life camping in Argentina was going to be quite good fun!
A tiring day in extreme heat took its toll as we pushed South. The scenery changed quite dramatically, from cacti to lush green river-banks to vineyards and fields full of purple flowers. By the time we reached the 1km sign to Angastaco we had stacks of anger inside us. Tired of the bumpy sandy road, we then reached the second 1km to go sign and somehow managed to keep it together to get into town. At the campsite, we paid £1 more to get a bed for the night. Another cycle tourer was in there, Miguel from Rosario is traveling down the whole of Ruta 40, whereas we’ll be detouring into Chile at Mendoza.
Later in the day Pietro turned up and quickly agreed to team up with Miguel for the road South. This suited us, as their speed was so much greater than ours.
That night an old man asked us the same question everyone asks:
‘¿De donde son?’ (where are you from)
‘Inglaterra’ (England) comes the reply for the umpteenth time.
Usually this is followed by ‘En bicicleta!?’ (you can guess)
We then have to explain that we took a plane to Mexico and then by bike, as you can´t easily ride a bicycle across an ocean.
Inevitably, this is followed by an even more disbelieving ‘Mexico!?’
This time, however once we explained we were from England, he just waved his hand and said ‘¿Oh, Las Malvinas, por que?’ (Oh, the Falklands, why?). He later found us in town and apologised, but it is worth noting that on the whole Argentina doesn´t seem to care that we´re from England and are really friendly. The ones who do, don´t bear any grudge, but just want to know why the UK still has them! We don´t know the Spanish for ‘oil and gas reserves’, but as soon as we know the word for penguins we´ll start using that!
The quebrada de las flechas (canyon of arrows) awaited us the next morning. A relaxed breakfast and we were on our way and immediately halted by a steep hill. Pushing so early in the day was a first for us, but we had no other choice. A second hill arrived, and this time we forced ourselves to ride up, mainly because there were tourists in cars hanging about taking photos. We didn’t want a photo in their album with the caption: ‘Look at the stupid cycle tourists, they have to push their bikes up most of these roads!’ Later in the day we were glad for car tourists as a couple who ran marathons stopped and gave us extra water and a banana, much needed at that stage. Finally we reached tarmac and spent a good half hour with a local beer and ice cream watching the ‘superclasico*’ in a bar in the plaza of San Carlos (*Boca Juniors Vs. River Plate football match). Refreshed, on tarmac, and with a tailwind, we flew into Cafayate just before the rain started. It poured for half an hour and when we left cover and cycled through town, the streets were a good 6” deep in water. One big river crossing! The rain and river did a good job of cleaning our bikes leaving us with little else to do but be late for dinner with Pietro and Miguel, which we managed in fine style.
We slept soundly that night and had a lovely lie-in the next morning. We heard rumour of a goat’s cheese farm nearby and just managed to get there before it closed at 1pm. So many goats, so little time, so after a short tour we settled down for some cheese tasting. We bought some spicy cheese and set off for the next item on the dinner list…a bodega (vineyard, winery). We chose Bodega Etchart for no other reason than it was free, and learnt all about the Cafayate wine region with its high altitude grapes and sandy soil. A little bit too much tasting and we wobbled onwards making it as far as the small village of Tolombón before dark clouds encourged us to stop. No sooner was the tent up then we were cowering inside with cycle helmets on as golf-ball sized hail-stones pummelled us. A brief reprieve allowed us to cook, but as we snuggled down to sleep a huge rain-storm hit. Now is probably a good time to talk about our tent…so basically, all the tent pegs have bent in half (and were replaced in Huaraz in Peru), the inner and outer zip both broke in the cold, dry, sandy atmosphere of Bolivia, and now in our first serious rainstorm for four months, we discovered that the tent leaks. Luckily after the zip failure we had already ordered an entirely new tent to be delivered by Stavros in Santiago. For more info and thoughts about other gear that has succeeded or failed, have a look at our gear page: click here
Still tired from our dirt excursions, the next day was short to Amaicha where found a campsite a step up from the others in that it had a swimming pool. Another BBQ (asado) of chicken and goat satisfied our carnal desires that seem to have only got stronger since entering Argentina. However, meat is not great on giving energy, and so we were happy to stop early again the next day just before a 65km of nothingness and enquire about the large ‘helado’ (ice cream) sign by the side of the road. Two takeaway coffee cups full of ice cream swiftly came out and were devoured, and at this point we noticed a bicycle sign on the wall. We asked if we could camp and were told that many other cycle tourers have asked the same question. Our kind hosts set us up on the patch of land opposite the shop with electric lights, a table and chairs. Perfect heaven (apart from the tarantula-type spider that invaded our space for ten minutes mid-afternoon).
A hearty breakfast inside us, a deadly snake avoided, and we turned the corner to find a hill and a headwind! A typical morning for the cycle tourer! We made slow progress up the hill, and reached the top early afternoon for a well-deserved downhill. Without warning the perfect asphalt turned into atrocious dirt, and we spent the next three hours fighting our way to Hualfin where we hoped to stay the night. The less said about the lady in the hostal in Hualfin, the better, ‘rude’ isn’t a strong enough word. Luckily the next day, having passed an implausible river valley which cut through the seemingly impossible mountain range we had confronted, we reached Belen and a warm host from warm showers. Antonio and his family make beautiful craft goods, especially ponchos, and provided us with the perfect haven to kick back and reflect on this leg of cycling.
We’re now in Mendoza after a 15-hour bus marathon, and ready to set off over the Andes to meet Stavros. High altitude and hairpins here we come!
Date: 19th October – 25th October 2012
Where: San Pedro de Atacama (Chile) – Salta (Argentina) – Cachi
Distance: 5914 to 5914 miles
San Pedro de Atacama was a weird place. In the hostal, we could spend hours over a fruit-filled breakfast browsing the internet, in a tranquil setting of flowering hollyhocks. Outside, on the other hand, the people of the town seemed to be acutely aware that the only people who came here, were only here to spend money. Rude doesn’t even come close to some of the behaviour we saw. We were glad each time we made it back safely to our little sanctuary without having to interact too much with them.
On the evening of our first day we made it out to the Valle de la Luna on our bikes with Jörn. Purportedly, ‘one of the best sunsets in the World’, it was a little lame frankly, but the scenery of salt and sand made for some nice photos. As the sunset got good, we experienced our first taste of developed countryism. There has to be a law for bloody everything. ‘It is 8pm’, the lady said, ‘visitors have to leave now’, as she ushered us out of the park.
The rest of our time spent in San Pedro was all about recuperating and awaiting a visit to the largest opencast mine in the World. It was due to be on Monday, Geoff’s 31st Birthday, and really the only things we seemed to do in the preceding two days were to make a meal which Sarah had been dreaming about making ever since we started the Lagunas route, and go out for a spot of star-gazing. The Chicken Cacciatori was absolutely amazing, but unfortunately the star-gazing was a little under-whelming. The Atacama desert is one of the clearest places to see the stars and galaxies up there in the sky, but when there is a half-moon you can’t see much. The presentation was interesting enough and the hot chocolate fabulous, but when we looked through all the telescopes they had rigged up all we really seemed to see were the stars, but maybe a little closer. To be fair we saw a few vague colours, but not the red and green clusters we’d expected from the posters in the office in San Pedro. We’re glad we went though, and it was an excuse not to go to bed early. At midnight, the apple Birthday pie was duly presented and devoured…one year older. This year has flown by!
Early the next morning we catch the bus to Calama for the mine tour. Luckily Calama is down-to-Earth and friendly. It seems not all Chileans are going to be as rude as those in San Pedro. We find Jörn and he treats Geoff to an enormous apple Birthday pie which we then have to carry around all day, eating chunks as we go. The mine tour is not terribly interesting, but the mine itself is a sight to behold. Enormous doesn’t do it justice, and so crazily dangerous! Most of the miner’s work seems to be reinforcing the sides of the big hole. Apparently now they’ve started tunnelling as it is much safer. The hole is already 1Snwdn deep and they project there is copper for another km…that would be a very deep hole!
The next day we board a bus for the Argentinan City of Salta. We would have loved to do the spectacular Paso Sico, but for the first time on this trip we have a deadline to keep! Blimey, this means planning! Sarah’s Dad, Stavros, is meeting us in Santiago on the 15th November, about 3 and a half weeks from when we left San Pedro! We decide to spend time on the famous Ruta 40 in Argentina rather than do another 4000+m pass (we’re also still knackered from Bolivia!).
Salta is beautiful and better than San pedro de Atacama on every level, and for the first time Geoff found himself regretting something on this trip.We wish we’d come here sooner. Everything we need to do is a short walk from the main plaza, giving us time to sit and relax with beer and ice cream as we go about our tasks. We change chains on the bikes again, fix Geoff’s pannier, get our hair cut, the list goes on. We leave the next day though, taking the bus again up and over to Cachi. Here we are amazed to find a campsite. It turns out that all these little towns in Northern Argentina have municipal campsites like France. What is more they all have BBQs…that means we are simply going to have to buy some BEEF, mmmm!
The following morning, we don’t buy beef, but a tent. Our tent did not cope too well with Bolivia, and a new tent will now be arriving in Santiago with Stavros, fingers crossed. On leaving the internet café we find another cycle tourer relaxing in the park: Pietro from Switerland, and we quickly agree to ride off together down Ruta 40 which goes all the way to Ushuaia, ‘el fin del mundo’!