Not a Lonely Road
There are a lot more touring cyclists here than there were is Asia, and it’s fun that there are quite a few South Americans touring as well as the usual mix of Europeans and North Americans. In our first day out of Santiago we met Matt, who’d started from England and had been on the road two and a half years. He looked a bit road worn but very fit, and we were feeling green and soft. The day we slogged up to Portillo, we met seven other touring cyclists: a French couple descending, a Chilean duo ascending, Eric and Al from Vancouver ascending, and a Venezuelan descending. We leap-frogged sociably with the ones going our way for the next few days, and once we were on the Argentinian side, we also met an Argentinian and two Uruguayans heading westward.
2011/01/12: To Los Andes 81 km
It felt good to get moving. There were signs at the entrance to the autopista indicating bikes were not allowed, but we saw plenty of Chilean cyclists ignoring these and did likewise. We worried about the first few honks from passing cars, but soon realized it was cheering! At an empanada stop we met a lovely Chilean- Australian woman who had emigrated in 1973 for political reasons. A fascinating blend of accents! Despite the official warnings against cycling, the highways department provides a free shuttle through the tunnel at the top of the pass, and the descent to Los Andes made us remember the heady lightness of being on the road.
2011/01/13: To Portillo 68 km with total climb of over 2000 m
Our hotel was kind enough to provide the standard minimalist breakfast at 06:00, and started up toward Portillo about 07:00. There were a few ups and downs, but the road soon rose steadily and more steeply, while the sun burned down. We were horizontal under a tree beside the carabineri post when Al and Eric from Vancouver came by.
As we ascended into alpine terrain there were lots of snow-sheds (cubertizos), and these were best negotiated by grunting up the loose gravel around the side if available. to reduce the chance of getting flattened during a two-truck squeeze. It was having just done one of these, and we were recuperating in the shade, when the hard-core descending Venezualan braked to stop and chat. Eyeing my white/grey hair and my paunch, he made various well-intended suggestions of camping possibilities not far ahead, the implication being that he clearly didn’t believe I’d make it to Portillo before nightfall. He also said that making it to the Tierra de Fuego on our proposed route east of the Andes would be difficult in 4 months. We will see.
The road continued to ascend and so did we. A sign warned of 7 km of puente forte and we could see an imposing headwall with 21 switchbacks (caracoles), with trucks crawling upward looking like matchbox toys above us. Thank heavens for really low granny gears! We eventually made it up to a short level stretch above, and to our dismay saw another headwall with a further 4 km of puente forte and another 8 switchbacks. We considered our options as we munched beside a highways building. We thought of putting up our tent behind the building, but instead I offloaded some gear to Chris, and we started slogging upward again.
Not only did we make it to Portillo, but we went 1 km (100 m elevation) too far, and didn’t realize till we got to the check-post to exit Chile that the target lakeside camping spot (Laguna de los Incas) was right behind the hotel in Portillo. Back down we went, with a few choice words about overshooting, to join Al and Eric near the alpine lake. We were too late for dinner at the hotel, and managed to burn our one-pot dinner because we were so bloody tired. The camp site was beautiful, but rockfall rumbled and clattered ominously all night.
As for that Venezuelan …..he’ll be getting an email from me to inform him that we made it to Portillo by dusk. The youthful Chileans, on the other hand, camped behind the highways building below the final headwall. For our second day out, it was a baptism by fire.
2011/01/14: To Upsallata 100 km over pass at 3185 m
It’s a good thing we had the tent down by 07:00, because we were camped right in front of the hotel’s dining room window. We graced the hotel for breakfast, admiring the historic photo gallery of European and North American ski teams who’ve trained here. After scraping the burnt pot and packing, we decided we deserved a second cup of coffee with Al and Eric, before ascending the last 6 km to the Christ the Redeemer tunnel (3100 m) where a shuttle service took us through into Argentina.
In Argentina the road surface was worse and the cars were older. The descent was fantastic, and the landscape dramatic. There had been cacti on the Chilean side, but it was even dryer here and almost devoid of vegetation. We had more time to look around as we flew along, because we were no longer grunting upward. The mountains are steep and jagged, with endless scree slopes, and ochre gravel valleys where only a few tufts of vegetation grow. A strong tailwind wind helped our descent, and sometimes clumps of loose vegetation would tumble by us. We stopped for hero shots on front of Aconcagua, the highest peak in the Americas..
There were various administrative steps for entering Argentina, and at one point were being processed along with a bus load of boy scouts. Six of us (4x Cdn 2x Chilean) camped in a campground at Upsallata: Poplars for shade, hot showers, and wandering dogs looking for friends and food.