What I did for Christmas

29 12 2007

And my birthday.

Mendoza to Santiago isn’t all that far. On leaving Mendoza, the road starts out heading south, before curving back westward to the north and heading into the Andes once again. The map (lying, cheating, stealing map) suggested that there might be a secondary road that ends in the same place just south of Mendoza. So we took it. Unfortunately there was a thumping great river not on the map, without a bridge. Turns out it’s impossble to cross at the end, so we burnt 30km retracing our steps. Not happy Jan.
But we found a train bridge, and after several goes asking for directions from the police, we got across – not the train bridge, but a dam wall. Just down stream. The nice river valley, complete with trees and nice temperature, gave way to desert, an oil refinery and an industrial sector. So we pushed on, up the beginning of the Andes to Potrerillos. I was a bit frustrated at the days outcome, we’d traveled around 37km as the crow flies, despite riding all day. It turns out I haven’t relaxed into the “travel today and we’ll see how tomorrow turns out” mentality totally, yet. But it was the first day with a bad direction decision – and we escaped Bolivia without the normal touring cyclist outcome of having to follow a train line at some point, so I can’t be too unhappy.

Up in the mountains again, the scortching heat of Mendoza fell away. It’s asy to see why it’s popular up here in the summer – you can sleep at night again.

The next day had no difficult roads to chose, just the main one toward Chile. We followed the river Mendoza, and at times watched the rafters below us hurtling downstream. To be honest it looked like more excitement on the road, but the kayakers supporting/guiding the rafts looked like they had fun. We got held up in Uspallata, by talking (phone and other tourists) and buying food for the next days (this was the 23rd and we expected a general closure of shops around Christmas).

So from Uspallata there was a relatively simple matter of climbing to the top and rolling down into Chile. So we split it into two days. The first (24th December) we rode up a valley aided by a super tail wind. The valley narrowed and the rocks started to display all sorts of colours. The land also had green grass (kept green by the rediculous amount of snow they get here each year). So we had colours ranging from green to reds, yellows and browns of the rocks, and an impossibly blue sky, with some white fluffy clours as well. And towering mountains everywhere. It was pretty hard to deal with (especially since I like mountains – if you hadn’t worked it out).

On the way up we met Doreen, a German out practicing for a Caraterra Austral ride beginning in late Jan. She was planning to ride down in 2 days what took us 4 to come up. I gather she made it since she’s back in Santiago now.

We had a Christmas Eve / 30th Birthday lunch in a basically close skiing resort in Argentina, and continued up to Puente del Inca (a natural bridge across the river Mendoza – flowstone out of a cave, a bit strange). Decided that this was a pretty poor place to overnight, and rode up to the entrance to the Aconcagua national park. The park ranger wouldn’t let us camp in the park, but we snuck around the corner and camped in a small clearing on gloriously soft grass (just outside the park). Luckily the grass was soft, because there is an absence of trees at this altitude, and the hammock was (again) used as a hutchy / tarp tent. It works, so long as the weather is fine (no wind OR rain).

For birthday dinner we cooked a special pasta and tomato salsa. Ok, so it was basically the same as all the camp food we cook, but I got a special big serving as Rahel wasn’t hungry. Yumm! The stars came out, we were almost in the shadow of Aconcagua (we would have been if the sun set to the north – we would also have been in all sorts of trouble if the sun setto the north…) – what else could you want from a birthday campsite?

So the next morning I did what all children do on Christmas morning, woke up before sunrise to unwrap my presents. Except I misjudged sunrise – by anhour or so, and I sent myself back to sleep for a while.

But still before sunrise I jumped up, grabbed all the warm clothes I could lay my hands on (cleverly all made ready the night before), and rode back to the park entrance and lookout for Aconcagua. I was rewarded with a brief glimpse of the first rays of sunlight hitting the top of the big mountain, through the clouds, before the clouds moved in and covered the top for the next hour or so I stood there, camera in hand. Perhaps the altitude again, but another ‘take your breath away’ moment.

“Wow” was generously used. The Austrians we met yesterday, who claimed they would brave the overnight temperatures in their car were not to be seen. I was cool in my sleeping bag. Perhaps they froze, or chickened out and headed for warmer climes in the night.

I went back to the campsite and fell asleep in the sun, waiting for Jörg and Rahel. The cold night had given way to a beautifully warm morning. Just right for a Christmas breakfast of stale bread, and half a teaspoon of honey. Travelling with style!

The tunnel (and the top of the pass) was close, so we didn’t rush. Except I got it into my head that I should go over the top instead of the easy way, through the tunnel. So I left Jörg and Rahel on the nice concrete road, and headed up and over the 8km and roughly 1000m climb pass.

Why? Don’t know. Why didn’t I turn around when I started to snow? Don’t know. Are you crazy (like the English couple I met in a car on the way up suggested)? Don’t know. Has your brain frozen, since it got down to 1°C with a pretty strong wind, and was about 4000m? Don’t know. What day is it? Don’t know. Must cycle. My fingers hurt. Why can’t you talk properly? Jaw is really cold. Stop bugging me with questions, the top is only just there – I can see it.

I was hoping that the snow and clouds would clear as I approached the top. The thunder reminded me that it probably wouldn’t. But after 2 hours of freezing fingers and toes (the rest was fine under several layers of high tech clothes) I got there, and rode down the other side. The view was, contrary to the suggestion of a Norwegian I met a few days ago, poor. Lots of mountains, I assume, behind the thick cloud. The weather really changed quickly – but that should not be surpising, this is the mountains. Real mountains, not that stuff we have in Australia.

My 2.5 hour, err, stupidity had take Jörg and Rahel 15 minutes, so they were understandably ready to get out of the cold (and a small amount of snow) when I met them on the other side. So we rode down hill into Chile. Having a Merry white Christmas.

The Chilean immigration was a total farce. It must have taken us two hours to get through, and I lost my patience with one of the officials, which is generally not considered wise when wishing to enter a foreign country. I would explain the saga, however it would involve several expletives and possibly get quite detailed. And make me angry again. Lets just say there were several improvements I could suggest, and indeed did so, but they were taken the wrong way. The upshot was we ate Christmas lunch / dinner in the customs station of two sticks of metwurst and the last of our stale bread (suppliment by some fresh bread things that Rahel managed to find).

Chile didn’t dazzle us with it’s initial impressions (as Argentina had done). There was talk of just going back.

But we proceeded, rolled down the biggest set of switchbacks so far and were battered by a rediculously strong headwind, and a horribly cracked concrete road. Did I mention we weren’t impressed by Chile initially? It continued when we got to Los Andes (quite a long ride later). Ordinary, expensive campground, everything closed (we didn’t actually make it to the city we found out later) and no vegetables to cook with! But we cobbled together a pretty tasty pasta concoction with TWO bags of salsa (a real treat, let me tell you). Cooked extra spaghetti (hey, it’s Christmas!) and ate standing around a table in the camp ground while fixing a flat tyre.

Couldn’t be better 🙂

Riding into Santiago meant following an autopista (#57), with frequent “no bicycle” signs, but there was no other option. The only time the authorities actually cared was going through a 2km long tunnel – they wouldn’t let us ride, and took us through by car. First car ride for me since Cusco. We braved the city chaos, and jumped into central Santiago. Looks like we’ll be here for a few days, so we took a nicer hostel, slightly more expensive, but worth it I think. It is also around the block from a Massive supermarket, so we may have found some Black Forest cake to celebrate a(nother) successful Andes crossing, a Birthday, Christmas and my six months in South America. And just becase it was there.



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