A highlight of the trip so far!
There are many moments when you question what you are doing, cycling for 4.5 months through South America, these usually occur when you pack up your wet tent at 6.30am and set off in the rain on a flat paved road flanked by non-descript fields or when you are cycling on a jutted gravel road with sand patches and surrounded by thorn bushes.
There were no doubts in our minds as to what we were doing as we left Cordoba and entered the Central Sierras (the second highest mountain range in Argentina). The road followed a river valley and then started to climb and changed to gravel as it twisted and turned along the mountain range. We travelled north west from Cordoba and then south to San Juan with the scenery changing from cattle pastures, to barren craggy dry mountains, down a hair raising pass to flat thornbush veld, thick at first and then as the terrain turned more desert-like, with only the thorn bushes surviving in this harsh terrain. We arrived in the fertile (although dry in winter) valley of San Juan with kms of vineyards and orchards, keen to taste the products of the vineyards! From San Juan we started to climb again, back to desert, mountain terrain, a steady slow ascent out of town and then a long road, flanked by mountains, lunch at an abandoned train station and then the start of some more serious ascents….the days to come would entail steady increases in altitude from 640m in San Juan to our peak of 3200m at the border crossing with Chile. We dont necessarily know what the exact terrain and extent of the climbs until the day before, the next day we had an exhilirating 20km descent down to a river and then followed the valley through the foothills of the Andes, at last catching our first glimpse of the sow peaked Andes range.
We continued on good gravel road through small towns of Calingasta and Barreal, a fertile valley and a small oasis after 100´s of kms of little life (human, animal or plant) and overnight accommodation at a homely hostel, a pleasant surprise considering we thought we were bushcamping! We set off the next day in good spirits taking the back roads out of town and then a good gravel road with snow capped mountains our prima vista…..and then it changed to jutted gravel road for 80km with a few patches of bad paved road. At lunch time there were a number of us who questioned whether to carry on but I thought I would continue a little longer and jump on lunch truck when it came past. We cycled in silence for some time, holding back the urge to curse or cry and then I looked up and saw my cycling parter silhouetted in front of the Andes and thought, wow, this is beautiful, this is why we are here, there is no reason to complain. I continued the full 80km on gravel, with a fabulous tail wind, a long head thumping/butt grinding dowhill and then silky smooth paved downhill, pushing us at 40km+ down to Uspallata.
The next day we were heading up the Andes to Parque de Aconcagua, staying at Puenta del Inca, a ski resort, at 2700m and the base of the Aconcagua Trek (in summer). We were on a busy truck highway, being the main thoroughfare between Chile and Argentina. It was tough going mainly due to the cold, as there were plenty of descents to allow us to rest from the ascents. We had set off early to avoid the potential strong winds and only had 70kms planned for the day. After lunch (before 10am!) it was more of a steady climb and I could feel the affects of the altitude (I am a coastal girl after all), my legs felt heavy so frequent stops…for photots were necessary. We stopped at Lamas Biancas ski resort for coffees and watched the skiing – what were we doing cycling??? A short climb up to our hostel and relaxing lunch (2pm) in the sun, much like a skiing holiday! The predicted wind did pick up in the early afternoon making it tough going for the last 10km or so…. and forced us indoors to keep warm and enjoy hot milk with melted chocolate bombs – a chilean delight.
Our last day in the Andes (for now) and we were all quite nervous, we needed to be trucked to the border through a treacherous tunnel (Cyclists not allowed), border crossing (which was endless searches of bags and truck for 30 people, it took 3.5hours) and then the most exhilirating ride down the mountain, countless switchbacks, speed records broken (not by me!) for 25kms….just beautiful!!!
We cruised into San Pedro, a beautiful fertile valley – vineyards, olive groves, peach trees in blossom, walnut trees and stayed at a serene campsite with natural spring, our last night before Santiago….and a few bottles of Argentian wine to polish off before we start tasting the Chilean!
Its not goodbye to the Andes just yet!
– Natasha Barker