Category Archives: Argentina

And Back to Santiago

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.

The Plan
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.


Fox looking for a handout

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
P1020492P1020493Dawn 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.


¡Viva Chile!

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.

Closing the Loop

Back in Mendoza
We began this journey in January by crossing the Andes from Santiago to Mendoza. After some 4,400 km through Chile, Argentina, and Uruguay, with a month off cycling due to Chris’s arm injury, we now find ourselves back in Mendoza; we’ve closed the loop. The fall weather makes for great riding temperatures, but whether we go back over the pass (3,100 m) back to Santiago by bike or by bus remains to be seen. Chris has recently developed an Achilles tendon problem.


Point of sale advertising

2011/05/09: To La Paz GNC Service Station Camp 117 km
We rolled west out of San Luis on a straight road across flat terrain, and decided to keep cranking out the distance rather than stop at a hot-spring. At the boundary  between San Luis and Mendoza provinces, we ate a hearty trucker’s lunch.


Truckers Stop

We rolled into the natural gas service station at La Paz for a 5:00 p.m. coffee break, and the friendly staff invited us to camp in their picnic area. We’d planned to go a little further that evening, thinking we might be able to reach Mendoza the next day, but we accepted the kind offer instead. With picnic tables, a shower, clean bathrooms, coffee shop and even WiFi, how could we refuse?


¡Gracias! Carlos y Betty. Saludos de los ciclistas Canadienses.

2011/05/10: To San Martin 105 km
We had good coffee and media lunas (croisssants) for breakfast in the gas station coffee shop.  When we set out, at times riding on a newly paved portion of the highway that was not yet open to normal traffic, and at times on a small parallel side road as we began to move into the wine growing area.

At a lunch stop, a man came up and asked where we were from. This was unremarkable, but when I said we were Canadian, his response was not the usual. He went on to ask whether we’d been further south near Bariloche a few months earlier, because his brother had talked to “a white-haired Canadian woman who was down that way pedalling around South America with her husband.” It’s quite likely that it was indeed us that his brother had met. It’s a rather odd feeling to be some sort of road legend! I wonder if they’ll erect a roadside shrine to us next, endow us with miraculous powers, and leave us piles of offerings? I hope not.

We found ourselves battling strong side-winds for much of the day, and so did not reach Mendoza, but stopped at a hotel in the satellite town of San Martin.


Tent tucked between BBQ and table. A good windbreak.

2011/05/11: To Mendoza  57 km
We continued toward Mendoza, passing through Maipú. It was good to see the Andes again! Once in the city centre, we found digs at a hostel where we’ll contemplate how to wrap up this journey.



The Andes beckon across the vineyards of Mendoza

Early Birds

Birds of Sierra de Comechingones
These are the birds we saw outside our window, when waking up at the sun-filled conservatory of the comedor (see previous blog section: 2011/05/04: To Las Rabonas 88 km). The owners put seeds out on the wall of the veranda outside our room for the birds. I sat on the ground by the wall, and the birds seemed to accept my presence. All the pictures were taken within a five minute period, during sunrise. Only due to digital wizardry (in Picasa 3) have I made acceptable photographs, because they were all taken into the rising sun. Only the sunrise picture is untouched. The picture of the red breasted bird on the telescope has had only minimal wizardry applied.

I was struck by how different the “common bird-feeder” crowd was to the crowd you would see at a feeder in Canada or Northern Europe.


long-tailed meadowlark on telescope

Male long-tailed meadowlark

Female long-tailed meadowlark

Male long-tailed meadowlark

Juvenile long-tailed meadowlark

My favourite and he was very shy


Any takers on identification?


The Central Sierra

There is more bumpy topography than the Andes here. The Central Sierra lies in the centre of the continent, roughly midway between Buenos Aires and Santiago. It is made up of several distinct ridges, as well as high rocky plateaus. The area may not be as celebrated as the Cordillera, but we found the scenery stunning, and the cycling exhilarating.

2011/05/02: To Alta Gracia 41 km
The ride out of Córdoba was bland, but Alta Gracia has it’s attractions. There is a Jesuit estancia which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but it wasn’t open on Mondays. We strolled around the reservoir that was built in the XVI century to provide irrigation to the area surrounding the estancia, and spent some time at the house where Che Guevara spent his teen years. A display chronicled his life, and artifacts included the motorcycle on which he made his pivotal journeys around South America. In the kitchen, we read the housekeeper’s recollections of “Ernestito”, as she called him. Apparently he was such an empathetic lad that he refused to eat meat because he felt sorry for the chickens, pigs, and sheep. He would eat beef however, having conveniently placed bovines in a separate category.

2011/05/03: To Dining Room Floor Camp 52 km

We toured the Jesuit estancia now that it was open, and then started up the Sierra de Comechingones in late morning. Just as we began to climb in earnest, we met two local cyclists descending. One was coasting; his chain was broken. Did we have such a thing as a chain tool? Yes, in fact we are a veritable travelling bike shop! An hour of sociable roadside bike repair ensued, culminating in Juan Pablo being able to pedal again rather than simply coast, as he and Sergio continued to Alta Gracia.

Our late start and our stop to repair the chain meant we arrived late at a comedor about 15 km before the summit. Here we were invited first to put up our tent on the terrace, and later the invitation was upgraded to an offer to occupy the floor of the second dining room –no longer used in late season. We’d already located a camping spot nearby, but they were concerned that we’d be cold as it might drop below freezing at night. The dining room was actually a cool but sun-filled conservatory where the geraniums and other houseplants were overwintering. If it was good enough for the geraniums, it was good enough for us.

Our morning view

2011/05/04: To Las Rabonas 88 km
In the morning it became clear that we hadn’t been in any danger of freezing, because there was a temperature inversion. We looked down through a streaky dawn at Villa Carlos Paz and Córdoba well below us. They were likely suffering frost while we enjoyed a balmy 17 degrees.

After the crest of the ridge we began to descend through a devil’s garden of boulders. We stopped often to look down across the plain, and could see condors perched on outcroppings or soaring on the updrafts. This part of the sierra is a reserve for condor nesting habitat, with certain gorges being key areas.

Once down to Mina Clavero on the plain, we turned south onto a built up road where signs every few metres advertised cabañas for rent, but most accommodation was closed for the season. We finally found digs in Las Rabonas, Señora brought crisp white sheets which I put on the bed, but when Chris climbed in first later in the evening he noticed mouse droppings on them! We think field mice, looking for autumn warmth, had partied in our newly made bed while we were out buying groceries. We collected the droppings carefully in an ashtray before falling soundly asleep.

2011/05/05: To General San Martin 115 km
Our hosts had already left on their own holiday, so we departed with no formal checkout. We’d been told the owners’ son would come along later, so we left a note along with the mouse droppings saying “¡Hay ratones en las sabanas!”

The built up area continued, and we stopped for coffee and WiFi at a gas station. Soon after, though, we found ourselves on an empty road heading into mountains again, and realizing we had nearly no water left. The transition from built up area to empty land had been sudden. We stopped to beg water from a tiny homestead, where an arthritic old man amiably fetched us first one and then another dipper full of water. He said it was from a stream, though we’d been unable to see any surface water. “You’re not from here?” he remarked. We were very grateful to him for saving us from our lack of foresight in this land of dry gullies.

We threaded our way through rocky hills and up onto a high plateau. Isolated farms advertised goats and suckling pigs for sale, and even provided roadside tables and BBQs for you to cook and eat your purchase right away,once they’d killed it or you. The evening light turned rocks and dry scrub forest to golden, but by the time we descended to General San Martin and found a welcoming hostería it was getting dark and cold.

Hostería Eva Duarte Perón, General San Martin, San Luis (No sign but the homemade bread is delicious)

2011/05/06: To La Carolina 101 km
Over breakfast, we asked Enzo, our kind host, which of two possible routes was mas bonita — prettier. His response was sure, so we followed his advice as we headed straight south. The landscape has been compared to the Scottish Highlands, a high plateau of rough pasture, divided here and there by stone walls. Every rise seemed to hide yet another climb, and yet another stunning view across open land. Pampas grass bent in the wind, and poplar windbreaks stood out in bright yellow.

The edge of the plateau was marked by sharp peaks, probably volcanic in origin, and we dropped down in sweeping curves to La Carolina, a pretty town that once had an active gold mine. We considered camping as dark was quickly falling, but the habitacíon that we found was easier on the weary old bones. and it had a tiny restaurant  with excellent roast chicken. The days are short and the nights are cold, so we’re happy to spoil our weary old bones.

2011/05/07: To San Luis 86 km
It was payback time. We’d done a lot of climbing over the past two days, and now we got the descent. We did a few short climbs, but there were long, sweeping, looping, smoothly curving, descents, as we came off the plateau. A cyclist’s nirvana!
We stopped for empanadas in El Trapiche , where we sat at outdoor tables beside a weir. There was municipal WiFi, as there is in many towns in San Luis Province. San Luis has a policy of universal access, and is putting into place a policy of giving every child a laptop by the end of middle school, and providing WiFi to remote villages and tiny rural schools.

Margo poses in Tour de San Luis sculpture

The road became a divided highway, and the land became more open as we continued to San Luis, the provincial capital. We saw lots of other cyclists, and saw a sculpture of a stylized road cyclist beside the highway that we later learned was the logo of the Tour de San Luis, a staged bike race that we are told is the Latin American equivalent of the Tour de France.

Chris stopped for several bird photos, but I screeched to a halt for a snake, and called him back to take a photo. Any takers on identification? It quickly turned and slithered away. A road cyclist stopped to join us, peering at  it from a respectful distance. “Puede ser peligroso” he warned us.  It could well be poisonous.

Once in San Luis, we found our best option was the Hostelling International hostel — a bit archaic with segregated dormitories, but an excellent kitchen.

2011/05/08: In San Luis
We’re having day off here. After six travelling days, our bodies need a break. The road to Mendoza from here is a straight 260 kilometres, and the chances of a tailwind are high. The wind builds early, so we may skip breakfast tomorrow.


To Córdoba

2011/04/28-29: In Paraná
We spent two days in Paraná, hoping to manage a day’s kayaking down an arroyo or backwater of the Rio Paraná, actually more of a broad wetland than a river. We spent a quiet day on Thursday, having booked the kayak outing for Friday. When we woke to torrential rain, however, a joint decision to cancel the outing was made. We re-booked for Saturday, but the company cancelled our outing on Friday evening. We were the only clients, and the guide had another commitment.

Basically, we strolled and drank coffee for two days, and were entertained by the high jinks of the hockey team lads, who ranged in age from mid-teens to thirties. The younger ones were travelling to a big tournament for the first time, and had their heads oddly shaved as an initiation rite. They were loud at times, but went to bed at a decent hour.

2011/04/30: Bus to Córdoba
We managed to get ourselves and our bikes onto a bus from Paraná to Cordoba, so as to avoid what would have been a very boring four day ride across dead flat cultivated land. On the bus, we realized the road had no shoulder and would also have been quite a dangerous ride. Our management of the bike loading scenario was somewhat better than the last fiasco, but I still stressed about it.

The bus took us under the main river channel through a tunnel to Santa Fe, and then across a causeway from which we could see the wetland. The water level was high, and cattle stood belly-deep as they grazed. I bet we could have kayaked through flooded forest, but it was not to be.

The bikes emerged unscathed in Córdoba, a huge relief. Any further logistical moves will be at the end of our journey, and by then bike damage will have minimal impact. Chris calms me by explaining his perspective, comparing the risk of minor bike damage to the risk to our bodies if we’d chosen to crank for long days on a straight road with buses and trucks passing us far too close. The rational scientist ….but it’s for him to detach himself when his lack of language skills means he doesn’t have to try and talk to the baggage loading muchachos. We found a hostel listed in Lonely Planet. The resident Labrador retriever is friendly, but we are starting to suspect the place has fleas.

2011/05/01: Labour Day Holiday in Córdoba


Basilica roof, far more impressive than the "El Papamóvil"


"El Papamóvil" outside Basilica

Everything is closed because of the holiday. We walked, took photos, and drank coffee. Outside Basilica de Santo Domingo, much attention was being paid to an odd-looking vehicle we later confirmed to be el papamóvil used during Pope John Paul ll’s visits here in 1982 and 87. (Apparently he is being beatified in Rome today.) So now we can say we’ve seen a Pope-mobile at close range. Such excitement?

The weather is bright and clear, but it’s getting downright chilly. We’ve moved into a southern fall at higher altitude. Tomorrow we hope to ride as far as Alta Gracia, a town with an historic estancia, dams and an irrigation system built by the Jesuits in the 17th century. It’s also where Che Guevara spent his teen years, since the climate of the Central Sierra was deemed to be better for his asthma that that in his birth city, Rosario.