2011/05/12-13: In Mendoza
We’d always meant to do “the wine tour”, but when it became a real possibility, we were feeling rather “anti tour.” We’d pedalled through lots of wine country, rolling through endless vineyards. We got whiffs of fruit as trucks passed carrying flats of grapes, and smelling a more pungent odour as we passed the warehouses which buy grapes to press out the juice. Behind or near these warehouses there were sometimes dark piles of what I think were the skins that remain after juice extraction. I wondered whether this byproduct was useful as compost or mulch? Enough of the process. Time to sit down and indulge in the end product!
We strolled and relaxed in Mendoza, and perhaps our only notable outing was to the Serpentario (establishment that displays live snakes) to confirm the identity of our roadside friend as a Bothrops alternus or Yarará. We also gathered info for the last leg of our journey towards Santiago.
With at least two days rest needed for Chris’s Achilles tendon and less than perfect arm, and five days needed to cycle the full distance back to Santiago, we’d be left with only a day to prepare our bikes and other luggage for the return flight. There would be no time for museums or shopping, and no margin for dealing with any glitches. We first considered taking an express bus all the way from Mendoza to Santiago, but then we came up with what we thought would be an interesting alternative.
We’d take the more local Upsallata Express bus to Las Cuevas, the last cluster of buildings before the tunnel through the Andes back into Chile. Then, having saved ourselves three days of uphill desert riding, we’d take the more adventurous way back OVER the Andes rather than THROUGH them. The alternative to the tunnel is the old road, now a set of rough gravel switchbacks that climb 1000 m in 9 km to reach the Paso Cristo Redentor. Quite a few cyclists do this as a challenging ride on full suspension mountain bikes. A few fools have done it on loaded touring bikes. And an even smaller minority, which now includes us, have done it while completely ignoring all the basic rules of dealing with altitude.
2011/05/14: Bus to Las Cuevas and 14 km and 1000 m climb to Paso Cristo Redentor Upsallata Express seems to be used to dealing with bikes; there was a flat fee and they were handled well. We reassembled ourselves after the three hour ride to Las Cuevas, which is at 3100 m. In hindsight we should have camped at Las Cuevas and started the climb the next morning. However, the views and the evening light beckoned us onward and upward, so we rode a short distance on tarmac, and started up the gravel switchbacks.
About three hours of riding, pushing, and stopping to admire views brought us to the pass. It’s here that the Argentinians chose to erect a large and unaesthetic statue of Christ in 1904, shortly after a border dispute was settled peacefully. Another roadside shrine? It doesn’t add to the place. There is an old stone refuge building, where we bought hot chocolate from a lad selling artesinias (more knick knacks) and we had to haggle to buy hot chocolate without the ceramic mugs we didn’t want to carry. A fox circled around us in the dusk, wary but expectant. He had become used to handouts from the refugio and easy pickings from the heap of garbage bags piled behind the building.
It was almost dark, and getting very cold. There may have been a spot to camp halfway down the gravel switchbacks on the Chilean side, but we decided to tuck our tent into the lee of the refugio and hunker down for the night at 4000 m. For one thing, Chris-the-photographer was drawn to the idea of mountain photos is the early light.
Chris-the-photographer started to look green as I made supper, and he could only force himself to eat a little. Then I began to feel ill. We spent the night lying awake and feeling very sick, with me vomiting frequently into the vestibule. We’d set up the tent with access only from one side, so any time one of us had to go out to pee –and this was often due to altitude effects– we had to go through the vestibule which was also the vomiting place. I think it is easy to say we’ve never spent a worse night in a tent.
2011/05/15: To Los Andes 75 km
Dawn finally came, we both felt wobbly and unable to eat, but we knew we needed to get down. We felt stupid, knowing we’d completely ignored the high altitude climbers’ rule of “climb high and sleep low.” We’d also broken the rule of ascending slowly by taking the bus to Las Cuevas. Silly us; we thought we were high altitude cycling pros after Tajikistan.
We piled on all our cold weather clothing, packed slowly, and started carefully down the steep gravel switchbacks. By mid-morning we arrived at Chilean customs down at 3000 m or so.
I mentioned what we’d done and how I was feeling to our immigration officer, in explanation for my worse than usual Spanish. He sent us to the altitude sickness clinic in the same building (Chile is very organized!) where a kind lady used a finger gadget on each of us to measure blood oxygen content, and immediately put an oxygen mask on me. This helped a lot, but I was still feeling weak, so we descended carefully another 1 km to the Portillo Hotel for the proverbial “nice cup of tea.” I also managed to down a Sprite, and we were allowed to relax in the hotel’s lounge for a while till I felt able to start down the infamous caracoles.
Margo going Wheeee
These paved caracoles didn’t seem intimidating after the gravel ones, and especially on the way down. It’s fun passing the huge trucks that have to crawl downhill very carefully! We made it to Los Andes, peeling off clothing as we went, and found a hotel for a good sleep. There was also a certain need for laundry after that terrible night in the tent.
2011/05/16: To Santiago 81 km
About twenty kilometres of climbing brought us back to the tunnel that the Chilean highways department had been kind enough to take us through in a truck back in January, on that first hot day of our trip. There was no sign of such a truck at the building before the tunnel, so we briefly tried hitchhiking. A highway crew soon appeared, however, and when I asked whether bike transport was still provided as it had been in January, the jolly crew boss said yes it was, and exclaimed that he remembered us!
The next 60 km was fast riding, either downhill or flat, to Santiago. We no longer had a city map, however, and our navigation into the centre was stressful. The climax was getting ourselves inadvertently into a multi-lane tunnel, an experience we survived but have no desire ever to repeat.
We arrived at the small musty hotel that we had bailed out to on short notice from the nasty party hostel. It is as small and musty as ever, but it seems comfy enough to us after the array of places we’ve slept in the last four months. Our duffel bags were still here tucked away in the basement, so all we’re missing to be able to get into flight mode is bike boxes, and a huge wrench or stronger arms than ours to loosen Chris’s pedals.
So here we jolly well are. Home soon.