On the Road Again
After a busy, boring and tarmac ridden stretch of cycling to the Chilean coast and through more populated areas we reached Santiago. For the past few months I’d barely stayed in the same place for more than a night for two, so resting up in Santiago came as a welcome break. I waited patiently for a new set for tyres and a rear rim to replace my cracked one, praying that they wouldn’t get stuck in the black hole that is the Chilean customs and postal system. My stay in the city alternated between a couple of AirBnbs and the wonderful Hostal Providencia. Being in Santiago also offered a great opportunity to get some new gear sorted.
Through great timing and no shortage of luck there happened to be a great group of bikepackers in the city at the same time. Taneli (www.gonebikefishing.com), Iohan (www.bikewanderer.com), Rhi and Adam from Australia and Arnold a friend we’d met down South in Patagonia . Hearing about the road North from all these guys was great, and picking their brains for tips was incredibly helpful. It felt wonderful to be part of such a community.
Three weeks in Santiago flew by. I loved the city. Meeting friends old and new, hanging out with locals and travellers alike, my time spent here was great fun. The city itself was incredibly cycle friendly and being totally honest I really enjoyed some of the mod-cons after a few months in the mountains. Nathan was ready to leave before me, and he cruised out of the city one afternoon headed for a remote crossing to Argentina. We made loose plans to reunite further North in Argentina to cycle the Puna together. Finally, my parts had cleared customs and my bike was setup tubeless and with a new rear rim, ready from whatever the road ahead held. Or so I thought. I dragged my heels making final preparations to leave the city, sharing beers with my friends Dale and Arnold, and even finding time on the last evening to go out dancing with a beautiful Dutch girl.
Rolling out of town the next day with a heavy bike and a heavier head from one too many beers the night before, I was a little nervous about being on the road again. I’d grown comfortable in the city, and the route ahead would face me with some of my biggest challenges so far. At this point the Andes really kicked up in elevation, with far longer climbs than I’d previously tackled and altitude gradually becoming a factor.
My planned route followed an almost 4000M pass through a mine North East of the city. I weaved my heavy bike through the chaotic city traffic and up out of the smog. The climb was a long and hot affair. I sweated under the suns merciless rays, taking shelter under a few shrivelled trees for lunch and some shade. Only after reaching high up the pass late in the evening did I discover it was closed to the public. I tried to reason with the miners for almost an hour but with no success. I had to backtrack.
The following day after a night spent camping with some friendly dogs I found myself back in Santiago once more. After navigating some truly terrifying roads around the city I was on the highway heading North. BANG!! A huge noise shattered my daydream and I came skidding to a halt. I surveyed my bike in disbelief; a giant nail had pierced straight through my new tubeless tyre and rim. Sealant sprayed everywhere. Despite initial feelings of rage, I had to laugh at the absurdity of the situation. After some time I had a tube back in the tyre and filed the hole in the rim smooth. I couldn’t face returning to the city, awaiting new parts and the cost that would invoke. Choosing instead to gamble and keep rolling with the hole in the rim, I pushed onwards.
A day later I found myself at the foot of my first large pass in the Andes; Paso Cristo Redentor De Los Andes. The climb begun gently, a tarmac road winding its way through beautiful canyons and past increasingly tall and intimidating peaks. As I gained height the road became steeper and the switchbacks begun. There was less traffic than I expected. Occasionally a truck would crawl past me, their powerful engines straining in low gears. Several groups of road cyclists passed me; the paved climb is a popular weekend ride for groups from Santiago. I actually ended up riding with one of these cyclists for some time; Daniel, a young cyclist from Santiago riding the big climb for his first time. We kept pace together and between laboured breathing chatted away. High up the switchbacks I started to feel very tired and hungry, I said goodbye to Daniel, finding a perch to cook lunch and rest.
Feeling revitalised I carried on cycling. I couldn’t believe the views and sheer mountains flanking the pass. After maybe another hour of riding I spotted a secluded spot and decided it wasn’t worth the struggle to try and complete the climb in one day. I’d rather set camp here and just enjoy being still in the mountains. The ground was totally solid, so I pitched my tent supported by large rocks. I spent a relaxing few hours wandering around taking in the views, cooking dinner and then reading in my tent. That night I was awoken by a thunderous gust of wind that came bellowing down the pass, I heard it coming before it reached my little tent, whoosh! It crashed into my tent with a violent force, and then the winds proceeded to batter me for the remainder of the night. A fitful nights sleep followed, even having to get up once to re-tension the tent.
Leaving the shelter of my tent I continued on up the pass. The sun had yet to peek over the mountain tops and things were very cold. Cycling hard and fast seemed like my best option to warm up. I enjoyed the physical challenge and soon found myself in a nice rhythm, with my blood pumping and breath forming clouds in the frigid morning air. I passed the Chilean customs, pausing to ask if I needed to get a stamp here, they assured me that I didn’t and that the immigrations process would be taken care of in Argentina. Soon I came to a juncture. There were two options; take a lift in a pickup through the newer tunnel or leave the tarmac and continue on up the old pass. I obviously opted for the old pass; a series of picturesque gravel switchbacks stretching up into the sky a further 650M.
It felt great to be free of the traffic, I was happily enjoying the solitude of the climb and the constantly shifting and improving views. A little way up I started to hear the sounds of a peculiar engine from below. Soon enough an ancient looking car appeared, and then another, and another. A group of classic car enthusiasts were out for their weekend drive and had chosen to take on the pass. I waited and watched whilst they passed by me, it made for interesting viewing whilst I munched some biscuits. They all waved and honked encouragingly.
After cycling on for a little further I heard one more engine, a lone straggler bringing up the rear, a 1950’s American pickup truck. The engine was straining harder than any of the others seemed to have and then with a loud clunk it stalled out on a steep corner. I saw the owners eyes widen in horror. Behind him a perilous drop, certain death guaranteed if he was to roll off. “Piedras! Piedras! Necesito Piedras!”. He wanted rocks placed behind his wheels as chocks. Hastily, I gathered the biggest rocks I could find and placed one behind each of his wheels. He then opened the drivers door and undid his seatbelt, incase he had to bail out, then he turned the key and the engine spluttered into life, he revved the engine hard and when he released the handbrake the wheels spun for a second on the steep incline before finding traction and he shot around the bend. On the next flat he stopped the truck and shook my hand gratefully.
The rest of the climb passed uneventfully. I stopped occasionally to take some photos or to stare down at the dreamy switchbacks, near the top I could definitely feel the effects of the altitude, I was unacclimatised and my breathing was laboured. The classic car club returned back down the way they’d come. My old friend in the pickup truck waved animatedly and beamed a smile at me. As I crested the final hill of the pass I emerged onto a flat plateau, with breathtaking views of the Andes all around. A large statue of Jesus dominated the area, along with a ramshackle selection of buildings and groups of tourists who had come up from Argentina in mini-busses, many of whom started to applaud me, I bowed my head in embarrassment and after a few handshakes and the usual questions I slinked off to a quiet corner to relax and take in the vista.
I put on extra layers and a buff over my face for what I expected to be a cold descent into Argentina. What followed was one hell of a ride, I worked my way down the bumpier gravel road, twisting and skidding my way around the switchbacks in dense clouds of dust. Tourists in a minibus gawped at me like I was an alien. I tried to stay off the brakes for as long as I could, attempting to carry speed through the turns and avoid the potholes and rocks. At the bottom I found myself deposited into a wide valley. I rejoined the tarmac road that had passed through the tunnel, and cruised on down the valley, stopping only at the immigration control to get my entry to Argentina legitimised.
Despite occasional traffic the road was great fun; a gradual downhill, not requiring pedalling and following a string of beautiful canyons and valleys, the mountain painted shades of earthy browns and muted reds, fierce rivers of snowmelt charged along beside me and views of South Americas largest mountain Aconcagua presented themselves. Angry grey clouds hovered to my North, suddenly rain spat down fiercely, I put on my rain jacket which hadn’t seen action in some time. Ahead though the sky looked clear and I figured that with some hard cycling I could be out of the storm. After a while the incline steepened and before I knew it I’d cleared the stormy weather. I sung The Doors - Riders on the Storm as I cruised cheerily down towards my evenings camp spot.