North to Mendoza

Pampa My first taste of Argentina was for a few days as I rode around Lago Carrera/Buenos Aires (the name changes at the border). Chile Chico is the Chilean border town, Los Antiguos the Argentine. In between was a rough as guts stone road made of river pebbles but with a sparkling new bridge spanning the river itself. Their seemed something deliberate in the roughness of the road, and it wasn't the last time I encountered this at Latin American border crossings.

Los Antiguos had a very different feel to Chile Chico. More modern and affluent for sure, but also somehow friendlier. Argentines just aren't as reserved as Chilenos. Campgrounds too, I discovered happily, were cheaper and more plentiful than in Chile. They charged by the person, not the site, so it was affordable for one person. In Chile, staying indoors was often a cheaper option for me.

Another thing that changed near the border was the scenery. At this end of the Andes the Argentines got the flat dry bits. Semi arid grasslands stretched to the East and a mighty tailwind blasted me to Perito Moreno, a dusty frontier town that I got the feeling had seen better days. The streets were wide windswept and empty, the buildings concrete with shuttered windows. This is the last stop for those heading south on the legendary Route 40. Soon after Perito Moreno the sealed road runs out.

I was heading north though and after a day of rest in the municipal campground with a bunch of Argentine backpackers and German motorcyclists (who I met time and time again over the next 3 months) I plowed back into the wind on an exposed gravel road (pictured). I thought I'd cross back into Chile at El Portezuelo but the road got smaller till it was like a farm track. Fences crossed it numerous times. In the end I backtracked and crossed at Ingeniero Pallivicini. On reading Rupert Attlee's book "The Trail to Titicaca", it seems the original track I'd followed was indeed the El Portezuelo road - "After so many years of closure and neglect, it resembled little more than a farm track, with grass growing up the middle". The instructions he had for the crossing involved no less than seven farm gates. I gave up at the third deciding it couldn't be an international crossing, surely.

A few weeks later after riding North up the Carretera Austral I crossed again into Argentina, this time near Futaleufu and Esquel. I recall somewhere on this road finding an unbelievably well stocked store at an otherwise barren and exposed cross road. This is something I noticed a lot in Argentina. Other than passing traffic, where do these shops get their business from? Anywhere else I've ever cycled with population densities like this would have shops with the most pathetic choice of food. Another thing I noticed - cycle tourists, and lots of them. In Chile you could bet they were probably Europeans - Germans or Swiss usually. But here they were locals. Yes, Argentines love their cycle tours.

The road seemed very rough. It was concrete hard dirt with bone jarring corrugations. My ten year old rear rack had fractured near Futaleufu (damn, knew I should have replaced it before I left!). Although my rough repair was holding I decided to head to Esquel and find a replacement rather than persevere as my map indicated a lot more dirt as I headed to the Argentine lakes district. The only alloy rack I could find was a bit flexy but I figured it'd do for now. The road through the Parque Nacional Los Aleces was lovely and recently graded. popular too. January school holidays were in full swing and the traffic was more than I'd seen in quite a while.

I chugged North through some fairly mountainous roads. Many had been recently sealed and had wide shoulders. El Bolson claimed to be something of a counter-culture centre. Well maybe it was once but now it's an overdeveloped tourist trap/sports mecca sorta place. Best thing I could find about it was the ride up a nearby mountain (view from mountain looking southwest pictured) to watch Hang Gliders take off. Maybe out of season it's not quite so frenetic.
El Bolson

Siete Lagos
San Carlos de Bariloche is an upmarket resort town. the ski resort of Cerro Catedral is right next door. In front of the imposing Ye Olde European style castle in the town centre are St Bernhard dogs with Whisky flagons. You can have your picture taken with them. Chocolate is the other claim to fame of the town. It's all just a bit kitsch.

On heading north around Lago Nahuel Huapi I met a Mexican cyclist going South. He seemed incredibly strong, and talked to me at a million miles an hour whilst thrusting Power Bars into my hands (his front panniers seemed full of them). He'd started in Colombia less than a month before, and, if I heard him correctly had cycled the whole way barring a bus trip to get from the Peruvian coast to Cusco. He also gave me his business card and said to let other cyclists know that they could stay with him in Mexico city. I later passed the address on to Phil Cross who took up his offer and had a great time. Phil sent me a mexican cycling mag with a story about the guy. He was a triathlete and seemed quite happy doing a few hundred km each day. When I met him it was 10.00am and he had already covered over 70 km. He was astonished that not every main road in South America was paved! Outrageous! His ambition was to reach Tierra del Fuego before his month was up!

I stopped for a few days at the crowded Villa la Angostura in a campground with lots of other ciclistas. The scenery here is lush and green just like the neighboring Chilean Lakes District. Pictured is Lago Nahuel Huapi at La Angostura. In the last few days of the school holidays I headed along the Route Siete Lagos - the Seven Lakes Route (pictured). Out of school hols this would have been great. But for me it was a dust choking experience with nose-to-tail traffic at times.

At San Martin de Los Andes I replaced the flexy rack with a Topeak branded one (it lasted only two months and was replaced in La Serena, Chile by a Blackburn Expedition rack I had sent mail order from Christie Cycles in Melbourne, Australia). I passed the older rack on to an Argentine cyclist who'd turned up at the campground carrying a huge backpack. From San Martin I headed through the lovely Parque Nacional Lanin and back into Chile. The crossing was easily the roughest road of my entire trip. It was also the hottest day. The heat and bumpiness conspired to soften the nylon rack clamps on my panniers enough for one of the panniers to jump off. It's the only time I've ever had an Ortlieb pannier part company with the bike.

After revisiting Villarrica I headed off to the otherworldly Parque Nacional Conguillio Los Paraguas. If you've ever seen the TV series Walking With Dinosaurs, then you've seen this park. Much of it is grassless lava flows covered in Arucaria (a.k.a. Monkey Puzzle or Umbrella trees). Australians would recognise the Arucarias as ancient Gondwana relatives of the Bunya, Hoop and Wollemi Pines.

Near Icalma I crossed back into Argentina again and back into a semi arid landscape. Pictured is Lago Alumine beyond some Arucarias.

At the town of Zapala I discovered that local tourist bureau have very complete accommodation listings - and out of season they still seem to list high season prices. The town's campground seemed run down and filthy. I opted for the cheapest hotel and got a huge spotless room for half the tourist office price. Mosquitos too though, something else I'd have to get used to. Where the hell did they come from? Outside is almost a desert.
Chilote Church - Vilupulli

Chilean fjords Riding North from Zapala the wind whipped me along. The road was new, almost free of traffic and twisted and wound through a desolate landscape. I met one cyclist coming south, hunched into the wind. He was stuffed! I gave him some extra water and food as I wasn't convinced he'd reach the next town that night. Then pushed on uphill without effort. That night I camped in as sheltered a spot as I could find. The wind howled all night. But what did I care. In the morning I'd be whipped along again. Wrong. The wind had shifted in the night. Once on the road it slapped me around with such force that I took shelter behind a convenient gravel pile within a kilometre. Bugger. Thought I'd just sit it out and hope for the wind to drop. After an hour or so I started musing on hitching to the next town. A minute later the first car of the day passed - a small red ute. I didn't attempt to flag it down and thought it had driven straight by, but it reversed back into view and the two jolly businessmen inside motioned me to throw the bike in the back. I didn't argue. They said the gale was predicted to blow for another day or two. On the way to Chos Malal we stopped at a road cutting to fossick for fossils. One of their friends had found a whole turtle fossil at this cutting. They picked up some round rocks they were convinced were turtle eggs, and I found some seashells.

Chos Malal was lovely. A simple little town with water flowing in deep channels beside the sidewalks. Bit of a leg breaker should you stumble into one, but it was nice to hear the water flowing when everything else was so dry. I found another nice, big, clean and cheap hotel room with mosquitos and heavily shuttered windows. Again there was something pleasantly relaxed and friendly about this town.

Between Chos Malal and Malargue was some great riding. A lot more of the road was paved than my map indicated. And there was no traffic. The wind had decided to aid me again. Tiny towns had more of those cyclist friendly shops with so much food to choose from and for a while the road ran through a great black lava flow. I could camp pretty much where I pleased.

Malargue is a friendly biking town. Bikes were everywhere. After setting up at the municipal campground an old chap on a moped showed up asking for me. He'd seen me ride into town and decided to track me down and give me a tour. I pedalled along beside him as he putt putted about and gave me a history lecture about the town. We wound up at the town museum at about 9.00pm. Being Argentina it was of course still open and the museum director gave me a tour. It was excellent - on the walls were kitsch painting of local dignitaries. On one wall was a huge stuffed and mangy condor. One room was full of fossils, another had a Indian mummy and jars off all sorts of preserved stuff - including a two headed calf. This is just as municipal museums should be - full of unashamedly local colour. Cleaning my rear wheel at the campground next morning I discovered the rim had hairline cracks around every single hubside spoke hole.

After Malargue came the wine region around San Rafael. A big town, but as bicycle centric as any town I've ever seen. Everywhere I looked were bikes. Many of them carried two people in all manner of permutations. Sometimes the passenger sat on the handlebars, sometimes on the crossbar or on the rear rack - facing forward, backward or sidesaddle. Some stood on the rack. Some sat on the rack and pedalled while the 'rider' steered. The campgrounds were too far from the centre so I opted for a hotel again. A Spanish cyclist, Manuel from Tarragona, was staying there and we ended up cycling together for a week.

In Mendoza I looked unsuccessfully for a suitable rim but decided to bus into Santiago from Los Andes in Chile and have a look there once I'd crossed the Andes.

From Mendoza the road climbs relentlessly to Potrerillos, Uspallata and on to the Tunnel border crossing at Las Cuevas. The picture at right is taken fairly low down heading towards Potrerillos. At the time I was about 1000 metres above sea level. Above the cloud bank can be seen a mountain, possibly Aconcagua, the highest mountain in the Americas, in which case it would be over 6000m above me.

Uspallata had been used as a base for filming Seven Years in Tibet. Many of the props wound up in a Tibetan themed bar and cars used a crew vehicles still proudly displayed their now sun faded "official" stickers.

Beyond Uspallata the landscape is really quite epic. The wind howls and the mountains are bare and red (Pictured below).
Chilote Church - Vilupulli


Chilean fjords
After a day of slow climbing into an ever growing wind Manuel (pictured) and I called it quits at the ski resort of Los Penitentes. We wanted to camp but the wind was just too much and it was starting to sleet so we sussed out the only open hotel. They wanted way too much money for an empty, out of season town. We kept snooping and Manuel found an apartment owner up from Mendoza to do some maintenance. No problems we could have the apartment for a fraction of the hotel rate.

After a restful night it was back to the hard slog in the morning. The day started cold and windy but the sky was blue. We stopped to look at a mountaineers graveyard and for photos in front of Aconcagua (pictured). Beyond the Argentine customs post the road continued to climb. After a short road tunnel we entered a grand clearing that had views to the old pass, El Cristo Redentor, and was surrounded by jagged peaks. The old pass had been replaced by a new road tunnel. The guide books said tunnel guards would arrange a lift for bikes through the 4 kilometre long tunnel but a month earlier a parallel disused railway tunnel had been recommissioned for use as a bicycle tunnel. Yay. What a way to re-enter Chile - a four km underground bike path.

All text and images copyright Syd Winer 2004