Across the Andes
†It was June 1999, and my first day in South America, which included a short ride from the airport to the River Plate in Montevideo. An attempt to get money from a cash machine failed so I wandered off to find a hotel.
The next morning I tried to again get money from cash machines that seemed to have been designed more to protect the bankís money from ram raiders than to assist tourists in getting their money out.† Again I failed, gave up, and attempted to find a bank where they would let me take out money at the counter. Eventually, I changed hundred dollars US, and bought some breakfast. Breakfast gave me a taste of things to come. There was more meat with my breakfast than I would normally have expected on a carnivoreís feast day.
It rained, and I made a late start to my cycling day. At first running parallel to the River Plate on route R1, as it seemed to be the only road heading in the right direction, westward towards the Andes.
Old British made steam trains were evident all the way across South America
I hadn't ridden far when I came across signs that forbade cycling. Local cyclists were ignoring these, and so did I. However, for safety reasons, I frequently resorted to riding on the gravel hard shoulder at the side of the busy road. I did eventually find smaller roads, often with gravel surfaces as I made my way westward, and headed slightly further north, towards Colonia.
Colonia proved to be an interesting place, but not only because it was here that I would turn more northerly still, continuing parallel to the river, and head towards Mercedes in order to find a crossing point, but it was also a place where I would see the most astonishing collection of 1920s cars in everyday use. Many, Iím sure would have modern engines installed, but the whole town did still look like a prewar movie set.
The road, heading north over a gently undulating countryside, often with a back wind, and with cattle and horses in the fields, was extremely pleasant cycling. Uruguay had enough places to stop and eat, and enough small towns to find a bed each night. I was starting to like South America.
Once Mercedes had been reached I then had to go through customs, and cross the River Negro into Argentina. The last bit was much more difficult than it sounded. There is a perfectly good bridge but cyclists were not allowed to use it. I was told I had to persuade someone to carry both myself, and my bicycle, over the river on the back of their truck. The 1982 Falklands War ensured a frosty reception from many Argentinians, and I had long wait before I finally crossed over, and even then I was taken a few extra kilometres to a suitable signpost.
I was dropped off at this sign!
This part of Argentina is a sort of island, trapped between two major rivers. The starting point, once over the River Negro, is familiar to everyone of my generation, Frey Bento's, the town that once featured on every can of corned beef.
Once in Argentina, there was an improvement in the money situation for me. ATMs were now common, and although these were supposed to dish out both pesos and US dollars, the US dollar bit didn't seem to work, but I did have enough pesos to press on without too many money problems. In theory, at that time, the Argentinian peso was tied to the American dollar. So in this theoretical world, if I took my pesos into the bank I should have received the equivalent amount of dollars. Shortly after my trip, this policy proved to be partly responsible for the financial crash in Argentina, and there was a huge devaluation of the peso.
My so far limited South American cycling exploits had caused some interest, and I was stopped by a journalist who wanted to interview me. I suggested it would make a much better interview once I had ridden all the way across South America, but this didn't put him off, and he took a photograph for the local paper.
I was having no trouble finding reasonably priced hotels, but places to eat varied, and sometimes the best option was to eat in the small restaurants attached to filling stations. One day, I was given some very pleasant tasting cheese called Kasa Rockford. It tasted like a very soft stilton. This made quite a change from the heavy influence of meat dominating almost every meal.
Sometimes, the days were a little colder, and my hands became numb in the mornings. But it was midwinter, so it shouldn't have been too much of a shock. However, by mid morning it was often both sunny and very hot.† As I reached Parana my tyre went down with a bang. It wasn't a puncture, or not a new one anyway, a patch had blown off the innertube, perhaps because the tyre got hot in the midday sunshine. Annoyingly, my small pump failed to work properly and I bought a new one as soon as I reached the town centre.
Ahead of me on the road was a massive fire, which at first I took to be a major disaster. As I got closer I soon realized it wasn't a huge multi-vehicle pileup, but protesters burning tyres in the centre of the road. Road haulage drivers were on strike and stopping trucks from using the road, and from then on there would be less of them, and less danger for me.
Just beyond the town of Parana is the River Parana, and this proved to be even more of a problem than crossing the River Negro had been when I entered Argentina. There is a tunnel between Parana and Santa Fe, and I went there to see if they would let me through, and was soon turned away and told to go to the ferry crossings. At the ferry crossing point I was told it was only to be used by large trucks, never bicycles. Back at the tunnel, my only option was to cadge a lift in a pickup truck, and this took some considerable time, but I eventually found a kind man to take me through the tunnel.
Once beyond Santa Fe, and again out in open countryside, I was to find a friendly hotel with a lad who was a keen triathlete. As I had spent a large part of the late 80s competing in triathlons, we had something in common. At this stage of the trip, people were becoming much more friendly towards me than they had been when I first entered Argentina. Coming down after breakfast in one hotel I found my bill had been paid for me, oddly people now seemed to be encouraging me on this cycle ride. I never did find who paid the bill.† On another occasion, a truck driver insisted on paying for my lunch. I must have †been telling a very good story!
At times vehicles were being stopped at toll gates, but I was to pass through without a problem. Now, I was reaching the centre of Argentina and the climate was getting colder in the early mornings: sometimes a frost, and at other times even freezing fog. This would normally disperse quite early, but on a few occasions lasted beyond midday. Now away from the towns, with still the drivers strike having some effect, the roads were often pleasantly empty, especially at the weekends.
Some small towns even had cycle paths
The open fields of Argentina not only had, as expected, lots of cattle, but also goats, sheep, and pigs with piglets scratching around close to the edge of the road. Often squashed on the road, and occasionally living by the roadside, were skunk like black and white animals. Birdlife was plentiful, with lots of parrots that would fly out from the fields as I passed by; the occasional eagle, and a bird I didn't know the name of, which too might have been some kind of eagle, it had a white spot on each wing and a whitetail. Twice in one day, I saw a circle of birds in a field; they took off as I passed by landing in nearby trees, before heading back to the fields again. I got the impression they were hoovering up insects on the ground by closing the circle to reduce the number that escaped.
Santiago Del Estro was the first big city for some time. I met students who were keen to take me around to help improve their English. We walked around a museum with the usual swords, firearms, Indian art and pictures of important people etc, There was also some very good wrought iron work. In a nearby church was a replica of the Torin Shroud, which had been given to the church by an early Pope. The town had a statue of Gen Belgrano in the square, and I was reminded of all the sailors who died in the ship named after him during the Falklands war, quite a few came from this city. I had a wonderful meal with the lads - a very good steak, and their excellent choice of wine at a very modest cost for myself.
Occasionally I had to ride on main roads, but more often was finding roads made of concrete slabs on the minor roads, sometimes with broken surfaces. Trucks ladened with sugar cane were becoming more common.
As Conception was the last big town before the Andes, and before heading for more remote areas, I splashed out on a more expensive hotel.† At 45 US this was the most expensive so far, (I had been paying between 12 and 15 most of the time). I had a huge great meal knowing the time of plenty might well be over.
My day started well with both a good surface and a back wind for the first 20km.† Then the good road surface started to break up as the climbing started.† It was soon raining hard and I was riding around big loose boulders.† As the rough road climbed higher the rain became sleet, then higher still, snow.
After 53km, there was a bit of a descent and I was again, for a while, below the snow line. Not marked on my large scale Argentinian map, was a very big village called El Amito.† The next place that was marked was still a considerable distance away, and when I saw a sign for a campsite and lodge, despite having only ridden about 65km, I stopped.† There was room in the Lodge so I didnít camp in the snow.† Despite there only being a cold shower, the place was warm and friendly.† The total cost, which included a main meal and breakfast, was 22 US.
It was a cold sunny day as I headed towards Andalgala† - †a place that was on the map.† The climbing was more gentle, and once again the wind was helpful.† Looping around the mountains in front of me were several condors Ė the first I had ever seen.† Ahead was a rock, in front of, and close to, where they circled around.† I reached there, settled down with my camera, but they didnít come back. Sitting around was cold, so I was soon on my way again pumping the pedals to get the blood circulating.
Heading towards Belen, after a very cold start, the sun was so hot the backs of my legs were getting burned and I had to stop and put on some sun lotion.† At times I was riding on a dirt road. While these roads were well graded, it was good, but too often the surface was corrugated.† †There were plenty of domestic animals along this stretch including horses, donkeys and goats. For the first time I was seeing live foxes, not the usual roadside kill.† There was a bigger than usual eagle with black feathers, and also two rhea running away from the road.† The rhea were yet another first for me, but there was more to come, these two were small, the next day I was to see lager ones Ė a different type perhaps?
There was something I didnít like, and was to become more common as I cycled through the Andes, a few km outside each village, dumped by the side of the road, were piles of rubbish left to blow around in the wind.
As the evenings were getting colder with altitude, I bought a track suite top in Tinogasta.† It cost 30, but it created allsorts of trouble for the staff who were trying to find change for my 50, and I needed that change for my hotel bill.
Icy river crosses the road outside Fiabala
In town I was given what sounded like wonderful news. The San Francisco Pass, my route to Chile, had been converted from a dirt track to a new tarmac road.† On top of that I was told it was possible for me to stay at police stations along the route.† As it turned out, none of these people had ever crossed over the Pass, relatively few people did, especially in mid winter.
The first 100km worked out pretty well, in that there was a police station, just as I had been told, and whatís more the kind family there put me up and fed me for a very modest cost.† What was not so good was the road.† In parts it was a first rate new surface, and other parts of it would be one day, as it was still a project in progress. But in the meantime dirt, and more often sand roads, were the order of the day on long stretches between the good bits.
There was another major concern, all the little places marked on my map didnít exist, and there were no more police stations, I would have to go a very long way indeed over a difficult mountain road without being able to buy food or get water.† I filled my three bottles to the brim at the police station.
As the road climbed higher, the wind became stronger, and the bits of road not being resurfaced became more and more difficult to ride over.† The day wasnít all uphill, at times there were wonderful stretches where I could flow over new tarmac; sometimes snow covered, where all the height gained on the climbing was lost.† Rocks were multy-coloured and no doubt rich in minerals.
Once in a while a vehicle would be seen.
Trail winds between the hills.
Occasionally I would see a distant mining camp.
The climbing was to get tougher and tougher as I climbed higher and higher.† The peaks around the pass were all between 6,000 and 7000m, but it wasnít just the height, or even the effort of climbing that was the problem, it was the wind.† I have encountered strong wind in many places, but this was exceptional.† There was a constant very strong wind, but on top of that as I got higher, a gusting gale that would roar around the mountains. It could be heard coming from a distance, and the only option was to cling onto my bike until it had blasted by, and then ride on before the next blast.
After fighting upwards all day I still had failed to reach the customs post near the top of the pass.† I had only covered about 70km despite all the hard work, and with the sun dropping below the mountains it would soon be very cold indeed. There was no chance of finding any form of shelter, so I got as far out of the wind as possible behind a big rocky banking, and with a great deal of difficulty, put up my tent. As the tentís pegs were likely to be ripped out of the ground by the wind, I put a large rock on each, and then the whole tent was streamlined with smaller rocks and sand to try and stop it being blown into the distance and over the mountains.
Drinking a little out of each bottle in case the water froze, but foolishly leaving the bottles in the outer tent, I insulated my body the best I could, got into my sleeping bag, and had a very cold nights sleep.† Despite all my experiences of sleeping out in the open in snowy areas, sleeping in snow shelters, and generally having more knowledge than most about existing in extreme environments, this one night changed my thinking when cycling through high mountains.† More information will be given in the comments at the end of the article.
First light the next morning I was up to find that not only had my bottles frozen solid, two had burst, †and on one the top had been forced to unscrew by the ice.† Condensation from me had ensured the tent had frozen into one solid lump.† Quickly packing everything away, getting moving on the bike, stopped my blood ending up like the water in the bottles.
By pushing hard to get to the customs post I was making good time before the wind reached full force again.† It was still -20C when I reached there.† Had I made it to the customs post the previous night the one man there would not have had anywhere for me to shelter, he didnít even have any spare water. He was waiting for his supplies, and they were late. It was an extremely poor existence for this man living on top of a mountain with almost nothing to support him. He was able to stamp my passport, and let me know that I had a further 40km to the top of the pass, then 40km down to the Chilean customs post.†
Despite this part of the pass having a decent road, it was very hard going, as the wind was still a gusting gale.† At times it was so windy it was quicker to walk over some headwind stretches, and by the time I reached the top my feet were sore.
The top of the passís good road didnít last long on the descent, it was soon again a rough track where the hope of the bike flowing downwards on a smooth road at breakneck pace ended in reality, with me winding between rocks at a maximum of 20kmh.† As the border post was reached I had a stunning view of a turquoice coloured lake in front of me. My attempt to take a picture failed, it was too cold for the camera to work.
The Chilean customs post was bigger, and seemed to be better supplied.† I met some drivers there who said it was possible for me to stay the night at a hut they had a little further on by a saltpan.† It was a sort of fuel supply and sleeping place for the few truck drivers that crisscrossed this route.
Two of drivers from the customs post at the saltpan.
By comparison with the previous night in the tent, a night spent in the hut, on top of a pile of mats and blankets, inside my sleeping bag, was warm and wonderful. I was dehydrated because my water bottles were still frozen lumps, and the drivers had a big container of coffee on the boil Ė doubly wonderful.
The next day, with my one good water bottle full of coffee, I set off on what I hoped would be a long descent to the coast.† It didnít quite work out like that.† The saltpan was on a high plateau, and there was still a lot of hard winding climbs on gravel surfaces before there would be a downhill of any kind.† Once I did start the descent, despite it being a rough track, I made much better progress.† After several hours of riding the road became more corrugated, a sign of more vehicles and perhaps people.†
In the distance I saw a large mining camp, it was Mina La Copa, and people came out to see me.† They were very surprised to see a cyclist, and brought me bottles of water, bananas, pears, and a big lump of cheese.† At the same time as talking to me, some of them were throwing stones at a rare fox.† A type I read about as being endangered. †While eating the fruit, I put the water and cheese on my bag and turned around to shake hands and thank these miners for their help, when they shouted and pointed behind me Ė the fox was running off with my newly acquired cheese.† I was tempted to through a stone myself!
From this point onward, it really was downhill all the way to Copiapo, a big town where I found a decent hotel.† My feet were badly swollen and I had to give myself a couple of days rest before I was able to put my cycle shoes on again.
Being back in a place of plenty was obviously confusing for me.† I had managed to get money from the bank without trouble, but seemed confused with its value.† Sitting down in a restaurant, and ordering a large meal for a hungry cyclist seemed the obvious thing to do.† But how big a meal?† I hadnít noticed where the decimal point was on the menu price list, and had ordered enough for a regimental dinner.† What came was a Desperate Dan Pie minus the crust Ė it was a whole bull.† All I could do was offer a feed to anyone who stepped into the place, and eat more meat myself than Iíd eaten in the previous two weeks.
My body felt as if it was seizing up with too much meat, so the next evening I decided that a Chinese meal would be the best option.† I like their food and it tends to be a mixed diet.† In the event it was the most meat biased meal I have ever had in a Chinese restaurant.† I like meat, but in South America it was getting to be too much of a good thing.
Out on the open road again, cycling gently because of the still dodgy feet and a leg that kept cramping up, I came across a cycling couple, with massive loads on their bikes, who were planning to ride all the way to Alaska.† I was some distance down the road before I realized I didnít take their picture or get their names.
While the road was still hilly, the surface was excellent, often with a hard shoulder, and warnings, I no longer needed, about high winds.
At long last I was to reach the coast, and it was well worth the wait.† One wonderful spot after another would open up before me.† Chile has a fantastic coastline.† I wish I could do it justice.
At a stop for a coffee, I realized that I was not going to get the wonderful coffee I had been drinking before Chile, every coffee was now instant.† To make up for the poor coffee, I had the pleasure of watching humming birds drinking nectar from the flowers.
My next wild camping was better prepared for than it had been in the mountains.† Just before looking for a camping spot I found a large cardboard box, and was able to flatten it out on a ledge to make a well-insulated surface.† Most of the days along the coast I was able either to find a decent hotel, lodgings, or proper campsite.† Coastal campsites often had the advantage fishing boats bringing their catch to local restaurants, and providing me with some of the best seafood available. In one place where I stopped for lunch, the restaurant owner suggest that I should come back in the evening for a meal.† He wasnít sure what it would be, as it depended on the catch.† He didnít disappoint, Iím not sure what the fish was, but it was exceptional.
Most, if not every day, was bright sunshine with glorious views over the sea.† Once in a while there was a bit of mist and it was a little cooler, but this was, I kept having the remind myself, mid winter. No wonder dictators such as Gen Pinochet had their country homes along this coast.† The person who features most of all on statues is a very Irish sounding (for good reason) OíHiggins who dominated political reform in the early 19th century.† I doubt if Pinochet will be so admired in 200 years.
I had time to spare on the coast as I still had more than a week to spare before my flight from Santiago, so I slowly made my way to Valparaiso, feasting in as many of the wonderful fish restaurants as I could, before heading inland to Santiago to catch my flight home.
A different sort of pet!
The ride between Valparaiso and Santiago is relatively short, but it did have its problems Ė tunnels.† They were always a problem to get through, I was supposed to get a lift each time.† I had managed at one tunnel to walk my bike along on a raised path alongside the tunnel wall, but when I reached the Tunel Lo Pialo, I used a different ploy.† It was getting late so I camped on a banking just outside the tunnel entrance, had my tent packed at first light, lights on, and made a dash for it.† I was overtaken by just one car, and the police were waiting for me at the tunnel exit!
I had a bit more trouble with the police, this time the feared security police at the airport.† At the Chilean side border post on the San Francisco Pass, despite spending ten minutes taking down all my details, had not put a stamp in my passport. †Fortunately, the guy on the Argentinian side had, so it was clear how I arrived in the country, so they were willing to let me leave.
Mistakes made, and what I would change:
To ride anytime over the Andes is difficult, in the winter, life threatening.† I would not do that part of the ride again in the winter.
I would take water bottles into the inner tent to reduce the likelihood of freezing.
Any mountain trip I do now includes:†
A self-inflating matrass Ė the cold of the mountainís rocks suck away body heat.
A stove Ė ice and snow, and frozen bottle can all make water for drinks.
Oats Ė a lightweight emergency food when a stove and water are available.
In winter† - a double sleeping bag.