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(95) Argentina and the final Frontier!!

January 28, 2015

After the headache of computer issues and now having them sorted we were now in the mountains and looking forward to what we had trained so hard for. It wasn’t going to be easy but then the best things in life never are.

Wednesday 12th April

Waking up to hear the wind battering the trees is never a nice sound when you want to go cycling. We couldn’t tell which direction it was blowing as we were in a gap between the hills. It felt very autumnal here at 3,100 metres and when we stuck our heads out the tent we had a pile of leaves stacked up against the tent and our resident dog stuck his head in to try and lick Tim’s face, he had been a good dog not making much noise and would be treated to a slice of toast for its work. We packed our things and went out to make breakfast.

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 Our guide for the morning 

We were heading for an inca settlement up on the hill and into the museum, It was amazing where the inca’s settled as they were quite often high up in the mountains in remote and hostile environments.

Once open we looked around and were given direction for the site. We climbed the hill behind the tiny village and arrived with our guide the dog and looked around.

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Check out the sun cooker that belonged to the local guide

In its prime there were 3000 settlers on this hill which was incredible so many people could live in such a harsh environment.

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After taking a few pictures of the sight and the massive cacti one we made our way back to the bikes and tent to get going. It didn’t take long but by this time it was already 11am.

We had heard San Antonio De los cobras was at 3,500metres but we had also heard there was a 4,000 metre pass to go over. We slowly climbed following a small river and stopped at a hut to buy a coke. We were both tired and knew we were in for a long day. We asked the owner if he had coco leaves from the cocaine plant which you put under your gum to help with altitude.

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£1 later we had a small bag and went on to find a good spot to have lunch. The wind was howling which was making it even tougher and so we didn’t stop long before continuing up.   Fuelled by the cocoa leaves stuffed into our checks we continued to climb.

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It just went up and up and up. Each time we thought it was the summit it climbed again. We stopped fairly regularly for short breaks just to recover our breath and agree with each other about how stunning the scenery was also another excuse to stop and get our breath back. We were approaching 4,000 metres and it was still climbing. With just another 80 metres to climb we were finally at the top of Abra Blanco  and then descended although into a headwind.

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 Reaching our first of many passes

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Nevado del Acay. 5,751 meters (18,868 ft) and the high pass of Abra del Acay in the back ground

We enjoyed a short section of flat with a tail wind before we saw the dreaded dust of cars travelling along the ripio ahead. Sure enough the Tarmac ended although we were pleased that it had continued as long as it had and got our heads down hoping to make it to the town.

 

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It wasn’t hard to find a good camp spot up here

With the sun setting fast and still 5 miles to go along a rough gravel road we knew we had to stop. The temperature was dropping fast so getting the tent up and the dinner on was our priority. We were cold hungry and tired and set about where we would pitch the tent so the sun would hit it at first light, then work out the size of the tent so Sharon could position herself to cook. Tim could then build the tent around her to shield her from the cold wind that was blowing down from the peaks.

Once wrapped up we cooked pasta and tuna and sat enjoying the night sky of millions of stars before curling up in our bags hoping it wouldn’t be a very cold night.

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Thursday 13th April

The alarm went off but the tent was freezing. Apart from one of the tent pegs coming out in the night and Tim freezing his butt off to fix it we both slept well. As the sun was just about to pop its head above the mountain we cleared the tent and had a light breakfast due out lack of water.

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Descending the road to San Antonio de los Cobres

We got going fairly soon and after an hour of riding enjoying the moon like scenery we arrived in San Antonio de los Cobres. We stopped at a hotel to get some GPS coordinates for our route from the Internet, fill our fuel in the garage and try and work out how much food we needed for a week with no or little shops. The shop owner was lovely and even gave us a discount on some sweets as we were running out of money. We filled our water bottles up and a few other bottles giving us 10 litres of water and a weeks worth of food and rolled slowly out of town under the strain.

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As we hadn’t had much for breakfast and it was now almost 1pm we stopped next to a river and had lunch.

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We could see the mountains ahead and knew we would have to climb one of them. After lunch we slowly followed the stream up a wide valley and slowly started to climb. Being already at 3,800 metres any sort of climbing was going to be tough. We did however have a 4,800 metre and a 4,100 metres in the bag so climbing with overloaded bikes should be ok.

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One of the great things with big climbs is the big views

As we climbed higher more snow capped mountains came into view. Being further north the snow line was much higher so anything with a snow cap would be over 5,500 high. The scenery was stunning looking out over a huge valley of pastille colours and moon like features. As we approached what we thought was the summit a guy stopped on his motor bike. It was the same guy we met 2 days before so we could thank him for recommending the inca ruins. He told us he had seen Yoann almost in the same spot 2 days earlier so we knew he was 2 days ahead. We asked him how far was it to the summit to which he replied about 10km or 6 miles. We were shattered and already at 4,350 metres it was hard going. We knew we still had a long climb ahead but even with the help of the cocoa leaves it was tough.

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A lone truck driver making his way down clinging to the road

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It was hard going being so high up.

We said goodbye and rounded a corner to drop a little in the next stunning valley. The old train line clung to the mountain often on very steep mountains again a lost piece of amazing engineering that would be an incredible train journey. The scenery was stunning winding our way up the gravel road heading towards the real summit. With a few more hairpin bends and strong wind a biscuit break a several stops we finally reached the top of Alto Chorrillos at 4,555 meters.

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Happy to have reached our next pass Alto Chorrillo.

It was a great feeling but with the biting wind we descended steadily following the railway line once again. As we descended a huge volcano came into view with a Luna landscape in the foreground.

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 Taking it all in  

DSC_0380The scenery up here was unreal

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With 22 miles to the next tiny settlement we dropped through an amazing landscape as the moon started to rise. Not knowing where the road went as we dropped into a deep hollow landscape following a river knowing that it had to lead somewhere only to see it river work its way through a gap in the hills.

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As we rode through the narrow gorge a strange animal that looked like a cross between a fox and a rabbit. We rode on and with the sun almost set and the temperature dropping we needed to make camp. It was now 5 degrees and getting colder, we were both shattered but at least we had  2 of the toughest climbs behind us. We did however have another tomorrow but half the amount of climbing so a good nights sleep was needed .

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Friday 14th April  

We woke to a cold tent and to find our water bottles frozen. With the sun just rising Shaz got up to find the temperature was still zero even at 8.30am. We took our time to have breakfast and get ready and after packing our kit we were on the road by 10.30. The sun soon warmed us up but we had to ride with our jackets on to help with the wind chill. We soon arrived at the turn off to the town of Ollacapato which one of the highest towns in Argentina at 4,080 metres with around 200 residents.DSC_0392

What was a busy railway station which we believe is still in use

It was a small railway town high on the alto which looked more and more like the moon then earth. Thinking it must be used for miners but with no one around due to the siesta we bought a coke and topped up with water before heading out of town.DSC_0398

The road was pretty good going and we arrived at some abandoned buildings which were marked on our route sheet. One thing that wasn’t clear was which direction we should take. We seemed to have some text missing on our route sheet and the sign posts didn’t match. We rode on what we thought was the right road for about 2 miles and looking at the GPS but something seemed to be wrong.

 

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We were both unaware we were going the wrong way never stopped us smiling.

We checked our files on our laptop to find that we had gone wrong. Not wanting to make any bad choices we had lunch and made our way back to the junction.DSC_0384

We soon got on the right road which took us along Salar de Cauchari with stunning scenery around us.

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We reached the end of the long straight road and started the climb up to Abra de Arizaro at 4,330 metres. It was good going to start with and were making good progress but soon the road got worse leaving deep gravel/sand in many places. It is hard enough on the flat but on a climb its really tough and at over 4,000 metres it was very slow going.

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Once the road kicked up the climb got much harder. we were already tired but with the increase in gradient this was tough.

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After a few stops and a few sections where we had to push we finally reached our unmarked summit of Abra de Arizaro at 4,330m.

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Abra de Arizaro 

It was now only 14 km to Catua but from the info we had we would have a lot of deep sand and corrugations to go through to get there. It was great to start with stunning red rocks and a hard packed surface but as the road levelled out the sand started. We got through the first lot ok but as we tired and the sand got deeper we started to struggle.

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It was hard gong in the deep sand

We got to within 4 miles of the settlement seeing a good spot to camp out of the worst of the wind we decided to call it a day. We had enough water to cook and with little Argentinian money left it would save what we did have. Even in the shelter the wind was cold as the sun started to set and so was important to get the tent up and cook before the temperature dropped below 0. The day had been much tougher then we thought it would be and looking at the route sheet again we found we had an even bigger climb tomorrow.

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It was hard to find a sheltered spot out of the freezing wind

Saturday 15th April

Tim got up just before sunrise and looked at the temperature on Sharon’s bike computer, it was -3 and It had felt a cold night but with the sun now shining on the valley and moving rapidly to our tent we soon warmed up. We sat eating breakfast enjoying the view from our camp spot and the new and warm rays of the sun on our faces and body’s.  With the bikes loaded we pushed our bikes back to the gravel road and headed on the 5km into Catau.

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As we reached the turn off into town we passed a small salt pan with a load of Alpacas grazing with colourful ribbons in the fleece, they looked so cool. we reached the junction and turned up towards the town.

It was incredible people lived here in such a harsh environment but with the huge demand for minerals it was needed. We stopped to check out the church which looked like it was made from a material that looked like a lightweight block, we always loved looking in different churches seeing how they are built and saying our thanks for keeping us safe. They were always humbling places to visit, some big and bold some small and quant but all held an energy.

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We left the church and headed into town to find a shop, when I say town I mean we went down the other street before finding a small shop. The people in this high town looked a lot different from other Argentinians. They were very shy but very nice wore a local dress and the kids waved to us as we rode out of town. It was hard to imagine what life was like high up in this remote mining region but from what we saw they all lived in harmony with their environment.

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Catua high street

We soon reached the junction and turned right up a short climb, Once on the road west we picked up tyre tracks that we had spotted the day earlier, these were schwable marathon tracks and must be only 2 hours old. Tim had been shown how to tell the age of a marking in the sand from lion prints in Botswana and was convinced they weren’t that old. we followed the tracks and wasn’t long before we had climbed the short hill to see several volcanos and Salar del Rincon in the valley.

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On any climb we would never know what was the other side and that was what we enjoyed!

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salar del Rincon

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One of many volcanos in the distance

Words can’t describe the view in front of us but with whites, yellows, greens, greys to name a few it was stunning. We slowly descended on a rough track which wasn’t as bad as we had expected although needing to go back o pick up bits off our bikes that were dropping off from the corrugations. With the clear bicycle tyre tracks in front of us and a nice gradual descent we soon arrived at the Argentinian Immigration.

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Dropping down to our last Argentine border

As we pulled up outside we saw a young guy on a bike just heading off towards Paso Sico and the Chilean border and wondered if we would catch him.

The guys at the border were nice and let us fill our water bag and bottles along with a sneaky wash before letting us out of Argentina towards the official border at the pass and our completion of our 24th country. With Paso Sico being the official boundary we still had a few miles to climb and with that some more amazing views.

We started out on the gravel road again and reached the short climb that would lead us up to a much easier gradient and the pass.

P1120459Great place to have lunch

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Check out the view

We thought we might catch the lone cyclist but being lunch time we climbed 100 metres in height and with the view being so stunning we decided to stop. Feeling a little tired we cooked up some pasta and soap hoping it would give us enough energy to reach Paso Sico at 4,113 metres then on to Alba Sico at 4,458 metres. The condition of the road made the going slow with deep sections of gravel/sand, corrugations, rocks and the altitude it was really tough.

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We were feeling better now more acclimatised but with the added weight of water we weren’t going anywhere fast.

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We finally reached the pass after 8 miles and the official end of our 24th country Argentina. It felt amazing and a long time coming but being so high up and still a way to go we would absorb our achievement and reflect on where we had been a bit later. For now we would continue the climb towards the main summit of Abra Sico the last of the high pass before dropping into Chile.

 

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Leaving country number 24 and on to the last leg of Chile number 25

The surrounding were literally breathtaking needing to stop to get our breath back and heart rate down giving us the chance to take pictures.

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With only a few miles to the top we turned a corner to see a huge bole in front of us with small volcanos set  with in it and the road stretching far off around the edge.

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Knowing the cyclist we had seen couldn’t have been that far in front Tim tried to spot the Belgium cyclist with his monocular. He looked for ages but with no one in sight we couldn’t work out how he had got so far, then suddenly a voice said hello right next to us. It was so funny and greeted each other and then to seethe he had set up camp up on a bank. His name was Manu from Belgium and was a really nice guy. we chatted for a while discussing the road ahead and decided as it was a little early for us to stop we said goodbye and said we would see him on the road or meet in San Pedro. We wished him luck and with 200 metre still to climb we rode out of the huge bole into the next valley and the next load of volcanos.

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Manu’s tent sat up between the rocks out of the way of the road

With the road getting steep towards the summit it made for really tough going but with some perseverance we soon reached the top in good time.

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Abra Sico  4,458m 

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looking across to Chile

Not wanting to ride all of the next 6 miles to the Chilean border as we had veg etc that we couldn’t take through we descended into the next stunning valley stopping before the next climb and camped at the base of a massive volcano.

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What a day. It had been tough but we felt better then we had on previous days and add in the views we were very happy. Still with more climbs to come we were’t out of the woods yet and it was still 130 miles to San Pedro de Atacama on a gravel road. we  were however thrilled to have ridden for so long in Argentina and had a brilliant Time.

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South America was always somewhere we had both wanted to travel to and having the chance to cycle this great continent and having the fitness and experience of Europe and Africa was a bonus, with it being around 3,100 miles long starting in sub Antarctica with Penguins, glaciers and wind, though miles of pampa, oil fields and more pampa in the centre to deserts, to cacti, wine regions and the start of the amazon forest and the famous 2.7 km wide Iguazu falls in the north we were in for a long ride. 

As we made our way through the final leg of the African continent we had been told that South America would be child’s play after Africa which made us relaxed and excited but how wrong they were.

Arriving in Argentina and getting to our hosts in Buenos Aires was the easy bit but this is when it got hard. Then spending hours in Bus stations battling with corrupt bus drivers trying to get our bikes and us to the southern most tip was tough but once in the south we met the infamous Patagonian wind.

We have never ridden in wind as strong and as constant as here. The wind would blow most days at 30mph and would often increase to 50 or 60mph with no let up or rules. It didn’t seem to die down at night, could start at any time and stop at any time. It was so frustrating and unlike a hill where the effort you put in on one day is repaid on the down hill the next, we wouldn’t get that luxury on flat roads. we would put everything into it at the front then taking turns and hardly need to put any effort in when sheltered. If we stopped in the gravel our bikes would be pushed sideways by the wind even with a load of 60kg.

It was however brilliant fun and an adventure, the clouds were incredible with spectacular formations, snow capped mountains, glaciers, blue and green rivers, wild animals, stunning flowers, ice-cream shops and awesome bakery’s. 

Our experience of the people in Argentina had been tainted by the bus drivers along with the odd person that didn’t like the union flag, other then this we were warmly welcomed by everyone. Border guards were very nice and polite and were always greeted with a smile.

We had learnt not to have anything sent to Argentina due to the high cost of duty which was expensive but also made anything else imported into the country expensive which seemed to be strangling the country.

The official rate for the dollar from the bank was around 7 pesos and yet on the street it was 10-11 due to the restrictions by the government, This in turn seemed to make it even harder for the people to grow which became more apparent when we compared their neighbours over in Chile.

 

We had been pleased with the route we had taken up through Argentina and Chile only missing the odd place that would have been nice to visit but we hadn’t been let down. 

We had never wanted to take the straightest route on our trip as we felt it important so experience each country. With the many passes back and forth to and from Chile we had clocked up 2,222 miles / 3,575km and 36,348 metres of height gain on Argentine soil and loved every minute.

Thanks for reading xx

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. lizzieandjoe permalink
    January 28, 2015 11:40 am

    Hi Tim. Such lovely words! And the photos are stunning too. Thanks for writing and posting this piece for all of us to share. It can’t be easy,but it some ways perhaps you need to do this. You get to relive the amazing moments you shared together again;and what moments they were! Looking forward to seeing you in a few weeks to say farewell. With love from your fellow west country, apple crumble loving cycle touring buddies. X 😍

  2. Sara permalink
    January 28, 2015 6:05 pm

    Amazing photos as always Tim, you are also an accomplished writer. I particularly like the sound of pasta and soap! Great to see the lovely smiling face of Sharon and to share those precious days together, it sounded a tough ride but the scenery and each others determination got you over those passes. Well done, happy memories to cherish. Lots of love xxx

  3. Mum and Dad Pitts permalink
    January 28, 2015 7:00 pm

    Great photos and interesting news on the blog. is there no end to your talents Tim?You are such an inspiration to us all .LOTS of love from Martin and Wendy XXXXXX

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