I left our campsite in Mendoza by cab the night of our barbecue celebrating JR’s birthday and saying goodbye to Rien who is returning to Holland from here to help his niece open a new store. He will be missed by all of us. Arriving at the Nutibara Hotel I found my room and the Hotel to be first class – I had stayed here 10 years ago with Gary Tabor and John Wood when we came here to climb. King sized bed, hot shower, ample room, swimming pool, great service and wi-fi that works. For someone who has been in bush camps and some less than satisfactory campsites this is heaven. I luxuriated in it that night taking a long hot shower and climbing into that big comfortable bed with my laptop and that great wi-fi catching up on everything I could as long as I could keep my eyes open. Also a nice cool drink from the bar on the bedside table. I awoke the next morning with the computer still on flopped to one side of me and light streaming through the outside window. What a great feeling being able to close your eyes again and just lay there with the sandman still partially in control. No breakfast at seven and no biking at eight. Just the whole day to yourself. When I did get up I delivered my laundry to reception, had a nice long breakfast and headed out to the plaza area to get the few chores I had done.
That evening I met my climbing buddy from our Aconcagua trip in 2004, Lucas Dauria, for drinks, dinner, and a lot of catching up. It was great to see him again – the same quick smile and easy going personality. He is now 34 and built like a rock from all the climbing he does – both commercially and for the sheer love of challenges. He guides in Peru, Patagonia and Aconcagua. He and his wife have a climbing school together with a climbing wall. I had hoped to meet his two children, both boys, aged nine and nearly four but his wife was busy with clients at the school so it didn’t work out. Lucas is heading to Yosemite for some wall climbing in March
as well as a few other locations in the western US. No walls for him in Minnesota.
My good friends Deb and Brian Bennett arrived at our campsite during our rest days in Mendoza. It was great to see them. They are biking with us the rest of the way to Ushuaia. Delta Airlines managed to lose one of the two bags they checked in at the Minneapolis Airport so there was a little stress around their tent with many things missing for the start of cycling in two days. After a number of calls and a few trips to the Mendoza airport it became obvious that the airlines had no idea where that bag was so a few things borrowed in camp, a few extra items Bike Dreams came up with, and a quick trip to a camping store in Mendoza left them with just enough gear to make it all work. Since then it appears that the bag has been found and should catch up with us at our next rest day in Chos Malal.
On our first day back on the bikes we had a 144K paved ride to a campground in San Carlos. Only 1000m of climbing so it looked like a pretty good day yet fairly long. I cycled with Brian and Deb for most of the day but after our lunch stop we caught up with Terry and Barry and latched on to them to make a more complicated trip through one of the towns easier. Barry and Terry both have Garmin GPS units which make navigating through a lot of turns in town much simpler than pulling out our day’s paper map every five minutes. And it did as we buzzed through all the turns there, however, a little later in the ride we had a turn at a T junction to make. Terry’s Garmin said to turn left on a side road prior to what I understood it to be from my paper map. Brian later told me he had the same concern at that point. We have come to trust the Garmin so totally from three months of it never failing so off on the initial side road we pedaled. A few K’s on we realized we had gone astray and before we knew it we had added 10K’s to our trip. We got back on Ruta 40 and moved up the 20K’s to our campground in San Carlos. Brian and Deb’s first cycling day with us became about 100 miles (155K). Whew! We were treated to views of the high white-capped Andes to our west for most all of our ride. Pretty spectacular!
The next day looked like a tough one as Rob handed out our info sheet, map and profile sheet. Only 18 percent of the cycle was to be paved and about 1200m climbing would make for a difficult day. We still had memories of our trip through Tacota and that horrible loose sand and rock track which took so much out of all of us. Off we sailed the next morning down 20K’s on paved Ruta 40 to our westward bound gravel road . I was biking with Brian, Deb, Michelle and Barry past a small village when Barry suggested we go back the 2 K’s for coffee and rolls – Michelle flew past to the gravel hollering back that she wasn’t hungry – Deb and Brian looked a little hesitant but when I looked back they had decided against the coffee detour. When Barry and I arrived at the coffee shop we found it surrounded by bikes as most everyone behind us had stopped. A fun little gathering as the grouped wolfed down sandwiches and rolls and slurped coffee. Off we went to the gravel with more than a little dread in our psyches. What we found just a couple of K’s into our turn was new pavement as far as we could see. Couldn’t believe our luck. New construction! Wow, a smooth track and no traffic. We have had very little traffic since arriving in Argentina. We moved along swiftly and covered 55K before we spotted the lunch truck to our left just after a detour that we had by-passed as it was unpaved. We pushed our bikes through the sandy dessert terrain the short distance for lunch, then heard that the track we were on would have taken us in the wrong direction while the unpaved old road led to our next camp. The terrain here is best defined as pampas – flat desert terrain with tufted grass and yellow blossomed thorn bushes who are not loved by cyclists as the long stiff thorns are hard on bike tires. Eroded mountains lined both sides of the desert valley but some distance away. After lunch we headed out for the 40K remaining and found the old road to be a loose sand and rock mix – not as miserable as Tacota but disheartening none the less. Also the temps had been dropping all day, a bit windy and now I found a wet mist had joined in the fun. Not a good day for cycling at all. When we get on the bikes in the morning we have to decide what to bring for extra food, clothing and water. Most cyclists carry all extra gear in their cycle jersey pockets so not a lot of room for error. On this day the lunch truck was busy hauling riders with freezing hands and chilled bodies. It is the first of November – late spring/ early summer here in a warm climate. We found out later that this was the coldest November day recorded here in over forty years. It was a cold wet slog up and down hills through both sand and washboard gravel but late in the afternoon I found myself riding with JR into rocky canyon land. We were tired, wet and cold but still pedaling and hoping our bush camp would be just around the next corner. Around the bend in front of us came Walter with the lunch truck. He informed us that camp would be at a remote police facility just 7K’s ahead. Go through a tunnel past a big dam then up a hill to a gate on the right side and into a grassy area. Walter and Annelot were off to search for two of our racers, Yoost and Alfred, who had continued on the new road after missing the lunch truck. Who would think that a detour road and a new unopened road would not just meet at some point. These two didn’t. JR and I continued past a huge dam and a new bridge in the middle of nowhere. The bridge was curved and led to a 500m long tunnel. Neither of us had lights in the back and as I was half way through a vehicle approached me from the rear at an alarming speed. We hadn’t seen a vehicle other than the lunch truck on this whole section of road. Alarmed, I hopped off my bike to pull both it and myself to the side of the tunnel without being sure just where that was. My bike cleats hit the pavement and down I went landing hard on my hip, shoulder and helmet. It was just like slipping on glare ice. Stunned, I lay the for a few seconds, then scrambled to get over to the side. The small four-wheel truck stopped next to me and out popped a burly man who was jabbering at me in Spanish and motioning to me to put the bike in the truck. As I started to see better in the lights of the open vehicle I could see he was a policeman and into the vehicle I went. He picked up JR as well – we had a ride to camp. We were tenting in the grounds surrounding the small police facility and they were allowing us to use their little equipment shed to cook and dine. Given the weather this was a wonderful happenstance.
JR and I were dropped off at the small police compound on top of a sandy desert hill which now had cyclists tents spread out helter skelter anywhere free of bushes. A light cold misty rain was still coming down as we each found a patch of ground for our little homes then headed into the equipment shed where the Bike Dreams crew had set up kitchen and dining. A small space, it was soon crowded with raucous bikers reliving their tough cold day and enjoying a bit of wine, then a great hot meal that our cook Gert had put together. Our lead driver Robert had talked the police into letting us use this crude but dry location – otherwise we would have been 10K’s further up the road eating outside in this miserable cold wet weather. Bike Dreams Rob then made an announcement that Michelle had won the stage that day and everyone got up and cheered. She is now the first female to win a stage on the trip. Alfred and Yoost had been found and were at dinner having had to take shelter in a container until a truck came by that they had flagged down for a ride. They then met Walter in the lunch truck out looking for them. Quite a day. Wet clothes for everyone and a night with a new record low temperature for November.
The following day we had to be out of the makeshift cooking shed by eight so all up, packed and at breakfast by seven. It was cold. I dressed in my sleeping bag. My biking shoes were still wet as were most everyones and it was cold. Two below C when I got up. At least it was not raining. Since we had stopped 10K short yesterday we now had 157K to pedal to reach our campground in Malarque. This was day three of six before our next rest day. It started off with 40K of unpaved before finding the highway again. This section was much better cycling as the sand was not a factor but the misty rain started again – our hands and wet feet were freezing when we came to the lunch truck. with 95K still to ride. Barry announced along with his favorite Australian adjective,” @uck all, I can’t ride another 95K in this cold wet crap. I’m freezin’, man.”
He’s a tough guy but freezing feet and still cold rain is a lot for anyone. Hardy announced that he too was riding on the truck. I decided to keep going and heading back on my bike. Within a half hours time the rain disappeared with brighter skies and the ride looked more doable. The terrain was still unimpressive – pampas. Within an hours time I heard the familiar “Hey Mate” from Barry. The clearing skies convinced him to get on the bike and right behind him Hardy followed. It was a long long day but our campsite in Malarque brought sunshine, a hot showers and even a swimming pool! Not really warm enough to swim in but it still felt good to us that it was there. The best part was that we could dry our wet gear before tomorrow’s ride. Everyone was in high spirits.
Day four looked like a piece of cake when Rob passed out our maps/instructions/profile. Although we had some climbing, there was only 115K’s all paved. We left camp feeling pretty confident of an easy ride. There are no easy rides on the Andes Trail. This section was much more scenic than the last few. Snow-capped mountains again peeked out from between the eroded hills as did a couple of volcanoes we would see for several days. Our climb began early and as we worked our way along we were suddenly greeted by a type of headwind we didn’t expect to experience until further into Patagonia. At times it would literally stop us in our tracks. Down to sixK/hr and pedaling as hard as we could, we forged our way along the long switchbacks up the mountain. It was extremely hard work. As the winding way put you into crosswinds it was difficult not to get blown right off your bike. Deb was swept into a metal guardrail part way up and hurt her ribs and side. On a switchback curve near the top we found the wind behind us actually carried us up the hill for about a block. I’ve never experienced anything like that before. Thinking that the top was going to bring relief from the tremendous winds I was very disappointed to find pedaling downhill still a frustratingly difficult chore. At one point I pulled to the side and got behind a rock for shelter to drink and eat a little. You didn’t dare try to drink on the bike as letting go with one hand would surely put you on the ground. Back on the bike and moving further down the slope the wind slowly abated. By the time I got to the lunch truck it was a pleasant day and a good ride into our bush camp at Buta Billon. This little village consisted of a homestead where were camped in a nest of trees plus a small hostel about half a K beyond where Terry, Barry and I had a cervesa with an smiling grandmother and her two little grandchildren. One of the girls had a toy giraffe taller than herself from behind which she peeked at the three gringoes. Grandma handed us her guest signing book to look at. We found an entry, map and photo from a fellow who pulled a wheeled cart all the way from Columbia to Ushuaia in 2013. Wow. What the hell was he thinking. Here was someone crazier than we were.
Day five brought us a 101K ride with 49K of it unpaved – this time I found the gravel very rideable, much like the gravel roads we are used to in Minnesota. I had lowered my air pressure in the tires for a more comfortable ride and only had a couple of places where I had to peddle hard through sand. The scenery was great with big white topped mountains interspersed with buttes, deep valleys and colored rock. While the climbs made this less than a cruiser day it was very doable. I rode with Terry towards the end of the day and we were joined by the Norwegians, Kristen and Hilde, on the way in to camp in Barranca, a very small village along Ruta 40. We set up our tents wherever we could find room in hostels back yard. This night we were treated to a chorus of dogs most all night. This is a nightly event here in South America. Dogs are loose and roaming during the nights which leads to barking, howling, crying and fighting during the time when tired cyclists are trying to get a little shut-eye after long days. After three months of this I’m getting pretty used to it but some nights it is just too much to sleep through. Here at the hostel the dogs seemed to be right in my tent. A little rough when I arose with very little sleep.
On the last day before our rest day in Chos Malal we were given a choice of routes. We could either ride Ruta 40 on pavement or travel backroad 37 on gravel. The gravel route was 94K and Ruta 40 was 122K to Chos Malal. My behind and rattled bones said take the pavement. There would be no lunch truck or support on the Ruta 40 route with the only village being just 32K from camp so we had to carry extra water and food. Rob warned us that when we turned west after the summit of our climb at 80K we probably would have head winds. About 15 of us headed out on a beautiful morning for the most enjoyable cycle I’ve had for awhile. Smooth surface, no traffic, nice grades on the climbs, big downs and wonderful mountain scenery. When we got to the top of the pass and turned the corner, it hit us. Head wind. Strong. From this point until we got to within 20K of Chos Malal we struggled against this unforgiving element. We formed a pelaton and proceeded up and down a series of climbs and descents. The winds made the descents an event too. At the end of the day, though, it was all worth it. Talking to the gravel route riders later in camp we learned that we had dodged a bullet. This road had a 43K climb that took a very good cyclist, Terry, four and a half hours to manage. Terrible surface. Very hard work and the descent was a bone jarring rattle down corrugated rock and sand. The wind made it hard to stay on the track, it wanted to blow the bike out from under the cyclists. We would no have been spared wind here at all. It took JR six and a half hours to get to the lunch truck – he didn’t get into camp until five thirty. Yuck. Brian and Deb had joined me on the pavement. Brian is having some trouble with one of his knees and Deb is still beat up from being blown into the guard rail and bouncing off her bike on the gravel the day before. We came into the campground here in Chos Malal happy with our day’s ride.
Two days ago we entered Patagonia after crossing the Rio Barranca. This is a place I have dreamed about. A vast wild place of rugged mountains, roaring rivers, kayaking coastlines and wilderness. We are not yet into the lake district of Bariloche and El Bolson. The promise of these places is what brought me back to South America. I am finally approaching this place of my imagination after biking through Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, and northern Argentina. It’s gonna be great.