Thursday, 13 October 2011

Ghost towns, wild horses and snow capped peaks

We have made it safely to Santiago de Chile, after crossing Argentina east to west.  The last few days were shorter than those on some of the previous sections due to a combination of police pulling us over, snow storms at the border and traffic that was considered too heavy to cycle in.

After leaving San Juan the first day was meant to be fairly flat according to the riders notes.  This soon turned out to be "just a little inaccurate".  After lunch it was one long continuous gradual climb.  If I had known the climbing would not cease, I would not have attacked the hill in the beginning like I did.  I finished the day exhausted.  We were following the route of an old disused railway line, and some of the towns along the way had died with the railway line.  We stopped for lunch at a place called Talacasto - it was basically a ghost town, except for a truckers cafe.  It was strange for me to see a whole town of disused buildings as we don't have that kind of thing in the UK.  In the end it was just the first of several ghost towns that we would pass through.

The second day we left the bush camp bright and early as usual, and headed towards Barreal.  Until the sun came up it was very cold.  It isn't the first time it has been cold though, and I am sure it will not be the last time either.  The day started with a long descent and people easily reached speeds of 60km/h just freewheeling down the mountain.  When we reached the bottom and cycled along the valley it was like being in heaven.  Wild horses, lush green forests and snow capped mountains were everywhere.  Further along the valley there was a sign indicating there were some rock formations, so Eric (a Dutch guy) and I decided to take a look.  When we got to the bottom of the rock face we decided to climb to the top but we soon realised it was a mistake as the rock was loose and fell away in our hands.  By the time we reached the top we were exhausted and decided that we would need to find a better way back down the rock face.  In the end we had to circumnavigate the face, and it took us over an hour and a half to get back to our bikes.  Luckily noone had decided to ride off with them, and we cycled back to camp at a leisurely pace.  Later in the evening we arrranged to do a winetasting session at a vineyard that had only recently opened.  Despite the wines being young they tasted great and had even won a couple of awards.  The wine was accompanied by lots of delicious cheeses and chocolates and it was a great end to a great day.

Gorgeous scenery
The rock formation we climbed up but couldn't get down
Winetasting at a newly opened vineyard

The third day was mostly dirt road and it was very bumpy.  For around 10km on the paved section at the beginning of the day, we managed to draft behind a truck going at 35km/h and the driver gave a thumbs up in the mirror to let us know that he knew we were following him.  Once we hit the gravel/ dirt section it was impssible to keep up with him, so we had to start working again.  By lunchtime my back was aching a lot from all the bumps and I was happy to take a break.  After lunch we had another section of gravel/dirt and then suddenly the road switched to a paved section that was so smooth it felt like the bike was just hovering in the air.  The road was also going downhill, and within a few minutes I was whizzing along at 80km/h and loving every minute of it.  The whole remainder of the ride was downhill and it was 20km shorter than the riders notes had mentioned, which was a pleasant surprise.

The fourth day was another section with a fair amount of climbing.  The road passes from Uspallata to the border with Chile and over 1,800 trucks a day use the road to ferry goods across the border.  The ride was only meant to be short - around 70km, but after 41km one of the tour leaders passed me in the pickup and told me the police had stopped him and told him that we are not allowed to cycle any further on the road and that I needed to get in the pickup with him and be driven up to the hostel.  I was the lucky one, because the other riders behind had to wait for hours in the cold for the big truck to go back and get them, whilst I was able to stay nice and warm in the hostel.  It was a shame that the police decided not to let us continue, but I could also understand their concerns as there were a lot of trucks, and one passed me so close I had to get off the road.  The tour truck was just behind that truck and managed to get a photo of it passing me.  It looked too damn close for my liking.

We spent the evening chilling in the hostel, and then the manager to decided to torture us with several hours of his karaoke singing.  Then it was time for bed.  The plan the next day was to bike 20km to the border and then all cross the border together, but when we woke up we found that the border was closed due to snow on the Chilean side.  The border guys thought that it would take about 4 hours for the Chileans to clear the snow and for the border to be reopened.  In the meantime we just had to chill in the hostel and hope that we didn't get tortured by yet more karaoke.  Around 11am we got the news that the border was reopened and the tour leaders decided that they would drive us all from the hostel to the border in 2 groups rather than to cycle there, in order to avoid any further issues with the Argentinian police.  I was in the first group to get trucked to the border and when we got there we were warned it would take ages to get through the immigration control and all the checks.  In the end it took us all as a group around 5 hours to get through all the controls.  The main reason for all the checks is to prevent people bringing in plant and vegetable products to Chile.  They are very serious about this and confiscated all our fresh food.  They even had sniffer dogs not for drugs but for fresh fruit and vegetables.

Once we got over the border it was time to start the cycling.  The temperature was 1 degree above freezing and it was snowing so we wore as many clothes as we had available, and prepared ourselves to still be cold.  The descent is around 20km during which time you lose around 2,500m in height.  It would have been a lovely fast descent with lots of nice switchbacks, but due to the earlier border closure and the backlog of lorries, combined with the icy cold conditions, it was a very slow cautious descent stuck most of the time behind crawling lorries.  Towards the bottom of the descent the lorries seemed to be pulling off the road and stopping left right and centre, and I figured they were having some kind of issues with their air brakes caused by the constant braking.  After the initial steep downhill section we had to continue about another 40km on a gradual descent towards San Felipe where a bus was waiting take us the rest of the way to Santiago.  It was during this gradual descent that a dog decided to try and bite my back tire whilst passing it at 45km/h. It missed by just a few inches thankfully, otherwise that could have ended in a nasty mess for both me and the dog.

Snowy bike

Once we reached San Felipe we got on the bus and headed full speed towards Santiago de Chile.  By the time we reached Santiago it was early evening.  And here we are, 2 days on still enjoying this lively city.