A Tale of Two Winds
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.