(88) Devils and Angels
After being baked to a crisp and soaked to the skin we hoped the rain would stop for the next section as we had a long ripio and sand road to ride.
It’s never nice waking up to yet more rain with everything damp. The tarp had done its job keeping the worst of the rain off the tent making it easier to pack. Yoann came up to see if we were leaving and told us he would wait one more day because of the rain.
It was midday by the time we left but the road heading north was flat and straight passing nothing but pampa giving us a good distance to aim for.
It was still raining lightly and at around 10 degrees it felt cold compared to the 36 degrees only a couple days before. We have been told the pampa is boring and monotonous – on a wet cloudy day it felt strange making us feel like we were in a hamster wheel moving forward and yet nothing changing. We would see the odd gate or fence post that was leaning over yet somehow we felt content in what felt like time standing still. We decided to ride until 2 before having lunch which coincided with a bridge and a river.
We pulled off the road and found a good spot under the bridge to have lunch. It was a great spot but with a light breeze blowing throgh it felt chilly. We rejoined the road after an hour and reached the junction town where we stopped for a coke and some snacks. It was nice to have a ´pick me up´ before heading out to get the water bag filled for the next big section where we knew it would be hard to get water. Tim made friends with a cat when a few locals turned up with a few tourists. They told us they were heading west to where a plane crashed many years ago with a team of Uruguay football team members on it. The plane was slowly moving down the glacier and we remembered reading about it. It was a great tragedy.
We stopped again to ask for information on the ripio road ahead and were soon surrounded by a group of tourists asking about our trip and taking our photo! The shop owner kindly gave us a ‘ruta 40’ sticker each for our bikes -it is the road connecting south to north in Argentina and is popular with motorbikes and the odd cycle tourist of-course.
We got going on an even longer and straighter road only broken by the odd rise or dip. We passed a building with washing hanging inside and then noticed a bike. We rode back to say hi only to find it was Alex. He had got so wet the previous day he had to spend the whole day trying to dry his things. We felt so sorry for him and asked if he needed anything. He said no and with us both wanting to get closer to the turn off to the 75 mile gravel road we said good bye.
We made good progress and with big dark clouds forming behind us we were glad we kept going. We got to within 10 miles of the junction and called it a day 30 minutes before sunset. The clouds were already getting dark full of rain so with the damp tent up and tea on the go we cleared what we could and retreated to our little shelter.
Tim braved the cold and rain to have a wash which Sharon found unbelievable but it was a good way of saving water. With the alarm set and a good 61 miles done despite leaving at midday we were happy. We just hoped it would dry up a little tomorrow.
Saturday 15th February
We both slept well despite heavy rain and a leaking tent and woke up damp but not as bad as it could have been. The sun was still being illusive but it was dry enough with a breeze to dry most of the fly sheet and inner. We aired what we could while we sat and ate breakfast when Alex arrived. He didn’t stop long and we wished him luck. We had 10 miles to do before the turn off but with a head wind coming from the east it was slow and frustrating as it normally blows from the west. We reached the junction and slowly plodded along through the soft sand and gravel slowly climbing with the usual view of flat pampa and bands of rain hugging the mountains keeping them out of sight.
With a cool wind blowing we stopped on a ridge next to a high bank and made lunch while watching an army of ants all in a line going to and fro carrying bits of grass. We added the odd bit of cracker to see how much they could lift which made us feel quite weak. We can lift a cracker above our heads but probably not 4 times our body mass.
We continued on passing many horses and cattle when the road dropped gently past a large mountain that stood on its own and on down into a gorge.
It was stunning and we even found we had to go through a tunnel. The tunnel was a couple of hundred metres long and brought us out right in front of a huge dam wall.
We stopped to check it out before climbing up a short hill to find Alex at the top.
He told us that there was a small shop to buy biscuits and a drink. We joined him for a short break and rode on together. We climbed slowly along the sandy road and after a mile or so it levelled off and headed like an arrow off into the distance.
We were talking with Alex about his mountain climbing in the Andes when in the distance a wall of water was coming towards us. It was moving slowly but fast enough to make us camp early and try and get every thing out of the rain. We managed to get the tent up before the worst hit us and luckily it was only a short shower. It was however a good choice to camp as the next wave of water was on its way – we loaded the tent and Tim quickly replaced a snapped spoke. We had covered just short of half way on the road but that was good enough for us. We were carrying enough food and water so if the road got really bad we could survive. However our back tyres on both bikes were now through to the puncture strip and with spares in case we hoped they would make it to Mendoza where we would finish servicing the bikes before our first big climb over the Andes. As the rain began to clear and the clouds lifted and we saw a glimpse of things to come – a long line of jagged peaks all covered in snow rose up from the flat plain. We stared in awe as we had no idea they were there!
Sunday 16th February
In the night the rain started to get heavy producing the first drip from the roof. Tim hung a kettle from one of the hanging points which worked well and we drifted off to sleep.
As each rain storm finished we thought it was the last but an hour later another would push through. We woke at 8 to more rain and no sign of it stopping. We lay in bed and after an hour put the kettle on only to find the fuel had run out. Tim popped out and got more fuel from the bike and we cooked breakfast. By the time we cleared the tent loaded the bikes the rain had finally stopped. It was hard going on the soft sand road as it had now turned into treacle.
We continued to climb and turn one of the only bends in the road as it levelled off. The ground dropped away in front and with the weather clearing to the north it exposed Cerro Platta a stunning 6,000 peak – being surrounded by other high peaks added to its charm.
From now on it was down hill to the ´pavmento´ but the ripio soon turned to deep corrugations. It was horrible and really tough going. Finally the road improved and we reached a river and being lunch time we stopped for a short lunch break.
We rode on and after another short climb we slowly descended to the town of Pareditas. Alex was having problems with a slow puncture so while he went off to get it fixed we found a place to buy a coke. The town was quiet but we wanted to get further north so we all rode on another 15 miles to pick up supplies and find a campsite. We didn’t want to camp but know we were getting close to Mendoza we had to start to be careful as we had heard there was a lot of petty crime and we were particularly vulnerable especially at night. We found a good but slightly overpriced camp and made ourselves at home. It was a huge camp ground but with no campers. It was like everyone had deserted the place all at the same time. We headed to bed early as we wanted to get an early start to ride into the city of Mendoza 65 miles away.
Monday 17th February
It was a clear day with the snow on the high peaks from the recent wet weather clearly visible. We got going and it was clear from the start we were going to get there a lot faster than we thought due to a flat road.
We had thought Mendoza was around 2,000 metres but as we rode the altitude dropped. We stopped on the highway to have lunch as Alex was having more punctures and it gave him time to sort the problem out.
We continued on along the highway ignoring the ´no bicycles ´sign and all went well apart from one of Alex’s panniers flew off almost getting run over by the passing traffic. Tim valiantly retrieved it. We always felt the safest of these kind of highways due to the wide hard shoulders especially as in Argentina the road builders clearly have a disliking to them as they are rarely found.
We soon arrived in the city and made our way into the centre. We called in at a tourist information centre and after a few calls to campsites and hostels it was clear a hostel was the best option. It was only £1 more expensive per person including breakfast to stay in a hostel and it was in the middle of the city. We spotted an ice cream parlour to treat ourselves when Sharon picked up a wifi signal for a different backpackers. It had to be close so we looked around and soon found it. Being the same price we wheeled our bikes in sorted out our things and headed out for dinner. We brought a beer each and relaxed back at the hostel. It had been a good day and so great to have made it to another great land mark. Mendoza.
Tuesday 18th February
We spent the day off recovering from lack of sleep due to a very, very loud snorer in the room – how we missed our quiet tent. He did apologise in the morning but we were so relieved to see him pack his bags! We did the usual chores including eating ice-cream which wasn´t really a chore and chatted to Alex who was leaving the following day as well but in a different direction to us. With Tim having problems with his back wheel it was tim to fit the new rim. with the correct spokes inpossible to find he changed the spoke pattern and successfully built a new wheel. With new chains, tyres and a bit of a polish we were all set and ready to go.We got an early night and were grateful to quieter room-mates.
Wednesday 19th February
We joined Alex for breakfast before heading out with him to find a good exchange for US dollars. A few more jobs later we spoke to Tim´s sister Tracey and nephew Kai before carrying our bikes and kit out onto the street. We started to head out of the city using the GPS cycling through what seemed quite a poor area of town then through a rubbish tip. It felt strange and we slowly started to climb on a quite good ripio road. We were passed by 2 cars and as they did the road got worse. The cars returned and the second stopped to ask where we were going. We showed them on the map when they told us we were on the wrong road. After some discussion and finding the area we were in wasn’t safe we decided to continue on as we hated going back. Although it was stunning we soon came to a crawl with the road still pretty flat. With large rocks and soft sand which meant we had to push it soon became apparent we couldn´t continue.
Knowing it would get very steep and we didn’t have the food or the energy to push our bikes for 30 miles, we decided to turn around and find the correct tarmac road north. According to the car driver we were already in a dodgy area and we wanted to get clear of it before dark. We soon joined the right road and spotted some cyclists having a break. They were local guys and very friendly. When we asked to buy a coke one walked in front of us to pay for it. He was so kind and we tried to chat the best we could in our slowly improving Spanish. We topped up our water and got going. No sooner than we had covered half a mile, a couple in a pickup stopped and warned us it wasn’t safe to continue on the road ahead. They told us that there were 2 guys on motor bikes ahead who had just robbed them. This made us nervous but not wanting to go back into an already ´bad´ area of the city we wanted to get as much distance from us and the city as possible. The road in front was straight as an arrow for mile after mile and as cars approached we waved and got smiles and waves back. Maybe we had misunderstood. We rode on passing other local cyclists and started to relax.
We passed a Saint Martin memorial when two motor bikes suddenly appeared from behind us. We hadn’t heard them coming and wondered where they had come from. We soon realised they had been hiding behind the memorial. We kept riding and noticed their lights go out but their engines continued. It felt weird and pretty scary with the road so straight it was impossible to duck off the road without being seen. We kept going hoping the bikes wouldn’t follow – it was difficult to tell if they were and we finally reached a bend where we found a great spot in the bush out of sight. We could no longer hear them so we assumed they weren´t interested in robbing cycle tourists.
It had been a frustrating day making mistakes on leaving the city and our minds working overtime. We sat and cooked tea trying not to make any noise and watched a great lightening display over the city. We could at least relax for now but hoped the road would be kind to us the following day.
Thursday 20th February
Knowing we were well hidden we both slept better then in the hostel. With the sun lighting the tent we got up and had breakfast. Tim had to do some adjustments on his back wheel having had to use poor quality spokes when Sharon realised her hat was missing. Tim went to where we had looked the night before coming back with it in his hand. We cleared up and joined the road. It was a nice concrete road that slowly climbed but looking at the GPS we were in for a big one. With large sections of tight hairpin bends it would only mean one thing a mountain to climb over. We climbed to a visitors centre and filled up our water. We met a lot of very nice people but the hill was still there.
We continued to climb until we reached the entrance to a hotel. The road had a barrier across it saying ´road closed’ we assumed due to the fog that had rolled in but we had to go on. We rode on climbing slowly and stopped for lunch at 2,100 metres.
The cloud was thick leaving us soaked with the light rain. The odd car would descend past us looking surprised to see us – we were glad to see that other people ignored the road closed sign too and it gave us confidence we could get through. We met a very anxious Mercedes driver who had punctured 2 tyres on the sharp rocks that lay on the gravel road and was driving very slowly with 2 flat tyres. We assured him he didn’t have far to go before the hotel and let him pass by a huge land slip leaving only half the road behind. We stopped for lunch and started to feel frustrated that the beautiful mountain range was covered in cloud.
We met a lovely Argentinean couple on a motorbike on their way down and got chatting. They were patient with our Spanish and it was a well needed rest for us. As the time went on we reached the summit at a little under 3,000 metres feeling quite hungry.
We descended out of the clouds past a large group of guanacos and into sunshine. There in front of us was the Andes and the famous Aconcagua proudly standing gently above the rest. With the sun slowly going down behind it we would have to wait till the morning to see it in its full glory. We spotted an old mine works and found a nice spot to camp. It was a little early but we wanted a good view in the morning as long as the clouds didn’t come in.
Friday 21st February
Waking to find a ton of condensation above our heads wasn’t great but looking outside to see clear blue skies was. We cleared the tent and put it in the sun which by the time we had eaten breakfast was pretty much dry. We had picked a great spot to camp.
Now with the sun up it lit the whole of the east side of the Andes showing its full glory and it was stunning.
Aconcagua stands proudly at 6,962 metres and is the highest mountain in the southern hemisphere naturally staking its place in the ‘7 summits’ list. It was a pleasure to see it and we were going to get even closer.
We packed our things and Tim went off to check out a mine tunnel that was open and walked in about 400 metres. He returned after half an hour saying how cool it was seeing all the different tunnels lead off but with the head torch battery dying he made a swift exit.
We continued to descend and what a fantastic descent it was with different coloured rocks, huge red outcrops and the flat green valley with the town of Uspallata nestled in the bottom surrounded by 6,000 metre peaks rising almost vertically up and standing proud with their white hats on. The view we were looking at was the same view in the film ´7 years in Tibet.´
We arrived in the stunning town and it looked like a great place to hang out but with Rafeal expecting us in Santiago we went to the garage to top up our fuel and picked up some supplies from the supermarket.
Tim got chatting to a friendly guy called Walter from the US who now lives in Brazil. He invited us for lunch and before we knew it we were sat eating a ´parillada´ a selection of sizzling meat, chips and salad with a bottle of red wine for good measure. It was so kind and what a great change to cheese sandwiches. We thanked him a million times and wished him luck with his new camper.
We headed out along the long deep and fairly level valley and were instantly stunned by the colours and the height of the mountains each side.
Although it was undulating it was hard going with the short sharp hills that would drop to the same level but worst of all was the wind. It was beating us back and with the many trucks that passed made it tricky – of-course there was no hard shoulder for us to hide on. We decided to stop at 7 to cook dinner behind a large rock. We still had a long way to go to the pass which stood at 3,100 metres so we pushed on for another hour passing through a few short but stunning tunnels cut out through the rock.
With it almost 10pm we saw a derelict building and pushed our bikes up the slope to take a look. It was perfect. The floor was clean and with no roof we could sleep under the stars on our thermarests. We were both tired but happy with our progress.
Saturday 22nd February
After us both drifting in and out of sleep which wasn’t a bad thing with the night sky having more stars then we could imagine we woke to a colder morning with clear blue skies.
We loaded the bikes and sat in our shell of a house to make breakfast before making our way out to the road.
We had heard police sirens going past and wondered whether there had been an accident. As we were just about to join the road a large group of cyclists rode past at speed followed by a convoy of vehicles. It was such a surprise but great to see. The support vehicles waved excitedly to us as they passed.
We rode on for the next 45 minutes and were ´caught´ by small group after small group of cyclists with the odd loan rider to which Tim would try catch him.
We would cheer as they passed until it was just us left at the back. On the way up we passed our 19,000 mile mark (30,500 kilometres) and in the usual tradition stopped for a photo.
We continued to climb through stunning scenery until we saw a sign for a view point of Aconcagua.
We turned off the road and sat to have lunch with this majestic mountain in the background. We finished our lunch and rode up to take a closer look. We locked the bikes up and walked around a short circuit to get a better picture passing a guy taking a load of kit closer to the mountain.
We headed back and dropped back down to the main highway and continued to climb. It got much steeper towards the end as we passed over 3,000 metres.
We went through a long tunnel to arrive at a police check point. We saw an old road that led even higher but when we asked was it the old pass we were told no –and there was no access into Chile except via the 2km tunnel which we weren´t allowed to ride in as it was too dangerous. They kindly provided us a lift but we were disappointed to get in a vehicle even if it was only for a few minutes. We reached the other side now in Chile once more and descended down to the immigration building. It took a while to get through but we did at least get to speak to Rafeal to let him know where we were.
We had been told that the descent from the border had a lot hairpin bends but we weren’t prepared for the amount of them. It was incredible. We have seen many mountain roads but not quite like this – it had such a close network of bend after bend that the large trucks coming up the hill looked like a kids toys.
You can imagine how fun it was to descend with massive mountains towering high above us and seeing the old railway track weave its way slowing dropping as it contoured the steep slopes. It would have been an amazing trip on the railway line. What a shame all that hard work is now eroding away if only they could start it again.
We probably descended one of the longest descents either of us had ever done. Once down through the main descent, we freewheeled through village after village all wedged in this deep valley with the railway cutting its way along the old road and hydroelectric plant after hydroelectric plant. Where there was room there would be a few trees or a house. Tim spotted a disused road above the new highway and after finding a way up we found a good place to camp ready for another day. It had been a hard morning but the whole day was full of amazement at natural and man made wonders. How can it get better?
Sunday 23rd February
We woke in our secluded spot after both sleeping well. We were however woken in the night by a squealing noise which turned out to be a train slugging up the hill to a mine.
We packed up and were on the road by 9.30 and enjoyed a downhill ride. We pulled in at a lay-by to take a photo and were soon surrounded by a lovely group of English and American tourists who were on a wine tasting tour. We enjoyed chatting with them and were even treated to a wine sample and then given a bottle of wine! We thanked them for their kindness and waved goodbye and continued to descend.
We stopped as the road flattened and bought a cold drink and food for lunch before heading out onto the highway towards Santiago.
All the road signs said no bicycles but with no other optin we rode on. The heat was almost unbearable reaching the mid 40’s making it hard work. In this valley though it was green and we really loved the pretty scenery.
We soon reached the point where we would need to do a detour to avoid a long tunnel. With the amount of traffic on the road and not really meant to be there we figured it would be suicide to even try. We had seen a road on the map which went around the tunnel but the 3 sides of a rectangle didn’t really show the endless hairpin bends and the height gain of 700 metres. It was tough in the heat and even when we did reach what we thought was the top it continued to climb to the next summit almost as if the person who was building the road forgot what they were doing and decided to go for the highest bit.
Once at the top we were in for a treat of a down hill. It was amazing zig zagging around endless bends and curves making us think what a great road for the UK series Top Gear. We finally reached the bottom and took a short cut along a ripio road to join up with another highway. With this road much quieter we rode on in the heat and stopped to have a light snack.
We saw some police on a bridge and wondered if they would stop us but with only one way to find out, we rode on waving and smiling (without looking like we were mad) as we passed. They waved back and soon we had covered the distance we needed and turned onto a quiet road towards the area where we planned to meet Rafael. As we got close we needed to ring him but our phone battery had died. We asked at a house if we could use their phone but with no luck. Then a couple of girls stopped and asked if we needed anything – they were sisters from Santiago – Pilar and Francisca. We asked if we could use their phone to ring Rafael. We managed to speak to him but as it was late in the day and we arranged to meet the following morning. No problem, we just needed somewhere to stay. We said thanks to the girls and headed for the supermarket. We were about to get dinner when the girls arrived and said they would help us as they were concerned we wouldn´t find anywhere. They told us that the area we were in had no accommodation as it was only shops and residential houses so after some phone calls and waiting we were told we could stay at the fire station where their friends were volunteers. It was amazing. We called them our guardian angels!
Before we knew it we were shown to a room for the night and were chatting to the girls and the firemen. Just as we said good night a call came in and they were quickly in action, getting their protective equipment on and suddenly they were gone with us being the only ones left in the building. With car doors left open and stuff laid everywhere it felt quite surreal yet highlighted the importance of the job they do. In the morning they told us it was not serious, just a small electrical fire.
In Chile, fire fighters are called “Bomberos”. They are solely volunteers and they finance the acquisition, maintenance and operation of their buildings and equipment (including fire trucks) rather than rely upon government funding. ‘Bomberos’ is the given name in most Spanish speaking countries (‘bomba’ is the name of the water pumps). They have huge respect from the people of Chile for what an incredible job they do and we felt honoured to be in their company for the night. What a day and what a great bunch of people.
Excited about where we were and finally in Santiago we were looking forward to seeing Rafeal again and his family along with a few days rest.
Sorry for the delay in posting this; we had a nasty virus on our computer and are now working hard to catch up 🙂
Thanks for reading!