Friday, January 3, 2020

A Christmas trip across the Andes

I can be a slow learner, it seems, but it has finally got through my thick skull that short biking holidays do me the world of good.

Ever since Sarah flagged to me the Lacets de Montvernier entry on the site, has been a source of inspiration.  It has various lists, including the world's most famous hairpinned roads, the first entry of which is the Paso de los Libertadores.  While clearly written for drivers, the images on the site have had this cyclist mesmerised on many occasions.  So much so, that Sarah and I booked late-December return flights on Air New Zealand to Buenos Aires, Argentina, so to go check out the road ourselves.

The trip would be relatively short, given the distance we were travelling, and that neither of us had ever been to South America - only about 2 weeks away from New Zealand.  My goal as planner was to not let the riding completely dominate the trip.

We set sail from home the moment work shut up shop, arriving in Buenos Aires on the morning of the 18th (it was a very long day, with two cracks at it!).  We had overnight bus tickets booked for the 20th to Mendoza, Argentina (approx 1500-dead-straight-kilometres inland from Buenos Aires, and in the foothills of the Andes), a flight from Santiago, Chile back to Buenos Aires on the 29th, and the first few touring nights' accommodation booked.  The rest we were going to do on the fly.

South American preamble

We arrived in Buenos Aires in great shape, thanks in no small part to original Premium Economy bookings, and successful Air NZ Elite Airpoints Dollar upgrades to Business - a not insignificant perk of all the travel in the last year or so, and a bit of brand loyalty.

We had two nights booked in Buenos Aires, and in between, did a great guided bike tour of the city centre to loosen the legs, and to get a better sense of the place.

Passing through the Reserva Ecológica Costanera Sur

Our accommodation was deliberately booked within walking distance of the bus station.  Our own bikes were still in their cardboard boxes (those soon destined for a recycling bin in Mendoza), and while I was confident I could drag them to the bus, didn't really want to be doing more walking than necessary and so swung by the bus station after dinner to get the lay of the land.

That turned out to be a critical save, since once there, we were told that under no circumstances would we be able to take the boxed bikes on our bus - it was fully booked, and it was anticipated that the cargo hold would be full of christmas presents.  The language barrier added to the stress, and we were farewelled from an otherwise unhelpful cargo place with a hug each, and a suggestion that we try flying...

By another great stroke of luck, we managed to book two seats on a domestic flight to Mendoza the following day, and crucially, some space in the hold!  After disembarking, we headed to the baggage claim to find that our boxes had been put on the conveyor belt first, and were in the process of  failing to make the sharp left turn at the end.  I neglected my blog-writing duties, and instead of reaching for my camera, went to help the fellow who was desperately hauling bags off the belt before all of them ended up in a massive pile behind our boxes!

We headed outside, and found a rare shady spot to unpack the bikes.  I took my time reinstalling handlebars and front wheels, but by 3:30pm, a couple of hours before our scheduled bus departure, we were ready to roll out from Mendoza airport, wondering why we'd not planned this mode of transport all along...!

While it had been slightly stressful, the emergency tweak to our plans meant we had a full day to enjoy Mendoza.  After breakfast, we did a lap of the city outskirts.  It was a nice ride in its own right, but also useful to discover I hadn't tightened my left crank properly after replacing the chainrings, and also that while Sarah's GPS basemap had transferred nicely, mine was corrupted (despite being the exact same file) and so my GPS was only going to be useful as a recorder. 

Heading up to see the Cerro de la Gloria monument

Day 1 - Mendoza to Uspallata

Mendoza sits at about 750 metres above sea level.  Our first day on the road would take us through the "Pre Andes" and up to the town of Uspallata, at just over 2000m elevation.

The riding part of getting out of Mendoza was a breeze, thanks to an incredible network of cycle paths...  At times they were busy, and I even saw an oncoming cyclist wearing an NZ cap.  (Alas, too late to say gidday.)

Exhibit 1

Exhibit 2
On the other hand, the cafe that supplied our "free breakfast" hadn't opened at the promised time, and further to that, Sarah's GPS had hung on an update.  After waiting about 15 minutes, we had no alternative but to force a reboot, and cross our fingers that we hadn't just bricked it.  Fortunately, it rebooted fine, and after choosing "Later" when offered the update, we were off.  The various delays saw us stopping for a second breakfast at 11am before even leaving the city limits, with a mere 9km on the clock!

When we finally did leave town on Route 82, it was a relief to feel like we were properly underway.  This was also a rare opportunity to ride on a back-road, with much of the route for the first three days having no alternative to the route all the trucks would be on.

A beach park, set up on the banks of the Rio Mendoza
The road was popular with cyclists, and we regularly passed riders travelling in either direction.  It was pleasing to note that food and drink opportunities were also in abundance - some formal by way of cafes or restaurants, but also plenty of informal road-side stalls.

After about 30km, the road entered a river gorge, and after a stop for some gassy water ("agua con gas"), and a quick tootle around Cacheuta, Sarah was in great need of a cool down.  A decent climb was on the immediate horizon, and the air temperature was in the high 30s.  While it was a far cry from the humid conditions of Taiwan or Malaysia, and much more pleasant as a result, Sarah nonetheless intensely dislikes the heat (unfortunately I seem to revel in it...!).

Old rail and swing-bridges at Cacheuta
Cacheuta had another touristy "beach" set up, but with bike security in mind (not to mention avoiding the need to communicate with anyone), we joined some of the locals at a layby just up-river.  The rest area was lined on one side with trees, and every available spot beneath them was taken up with one family picnic scene or other.  I watched while Sarah had a quick dip in the river, not inclined to go in myself.

That done, she set off in better spirits, while I was barely containing my excitement about the shape of the road above us.

Dique Potrerillos on the right

The road did not disappoint, and I clambered up onto the roadside barrier with a sense of childish glee at the sight below me.

A short tunnel obviated the need for further switchbacks, and at the far end we emerged into the bright sunlight to a view over the Embalse Potrerillos de Mendoza - an artificial lake on the Rio Mendoza.

It was a popular destination for the city folk, and also seemed to be the turn around point for the cyclists (or beyond it, at least).

Food stall, dam and tunnel portal

We grabbed some snacks and water at the gas station at Potrerillos, which was just as well.  Here, RP 82 merged with RN 7 (Ruta Nacional vs Ruta Provincial), and signalled a dramatic end to the food and drink provision.  From opportunities every few minutes, we didn't have a single chance to spend money until the outskirts of Uspallata, literally half the ride later.

Aside from that very obvious difference, the only other major change was the traffic composition.  Cars were swapped out for trucks, though the volumes didn't change appreciably.

The lake had broken up what was otherwise a fairly linear climb. During the day, we ascended about 1300m over 110km, and for the most part it was a barely perceptible false flat.  It didn't make for particularly fast travel, but it wasn't tough riding either.

While the colours of the land were fairly uniform, the scenery was increasingly spectacular, and unlike Sarah, I wasn't letting the heat distract me from the incredible landscape.  There was very little vegetation, so the colour variation was mostly coming from the earth, and the direction of the sun.

One strange blight on said landscape was a pile of hundreds if not thousands of water bottles.  Our American Buenos Aires cycle-tour companions had commented on this, and it turns out these roadside shrines are to La Difunta Correa, and are common in this part of the world.

Offerings "to calm her eternal thirst" - beautiful sentiment, but otherwise hideous
After about 100km of riding, we emerged from the relatively narrow river valley into a much wider valley, with the Andes proper on our left sides, and actual, green trees giving the impression of an oasis in the desert.  We stopped soon after at a gas station on the outskirts of Uspallata - the first in about 50km - and soon after rolled through town.  There, we found a growing queue of trucks, plenty of nervous looking police, and a large group of protesters on the roadside.  Everything seemed fairly calm, if not entirely jovial.

Our accommodation was a few kilometres out of town, and we decided to head there before returning to do some breakfast shopping and to have dinner.  There, we found a queue of about 20 trucks behind the protestors, who were now fully blocking the road.  Sarah's friend Rissa helped to translate some of the signs Sarah surreptitiously photographed, and from the other side of the world, told us that the blockade was to protest mining activity in the region.  If that is to blame for the river quality, its no wonder the locals are pissed!!

After dinner, I realised I'd likely left my EFT-POS card hanging out of an ATM.  It was amazingly easy to place a temporary hold, then a permanent one, and order a new card, all via the bank's app.  I'd have preferred to have found the card, but luckily Sarah had hers (and I had a backup from another account), so we remained liquid for the duration of the trip.

Stats:  112km ridden, 1670m climbed, max temp 42, average 34 degrees

Day 2 - Uspallata to Las Cuevas

We both slept solidly, and woke to a stunning day, with not a cloud in the sky.

Aside from the rough, unsealed driveway, this cabin made for a glorious stop
The cereal, yoghurt, and eggs we'd bought from the supermarket the night before slipped down well, and then we suited and packed up, and rode into town for some coffee.

The protesters were still there, and again had the road blocked off.  I felt a strange sense of urgency to get past them, when I should really have been loading my pockets with food.  We approached the cordon on foot, and made a gesture to a chap leaning on a 44 gallon drum which ended in a question mark.  He correctly interpreted our gesture, and smiled and waved us on.  We stayed on foot until after we'd passed the last of the assembled locals (some of whom were enjoying a game of football on the otherwise unused bit of highway).

Beyond them, for 15 minutes or so, we enjoyed being the only ones on the road, though we soon passed a truck depot after which commenced a slow trickle of vehicle traffic.  These were mostly trucks, and they just about always passed us entirely on the other side of the road, bless them.  In NZ, I expect they would have taken out any delay-induced frustrations on us...

We were soon back alongside the Rio Mendoza, whose far bank was impressively sheer.  In fact, our entire surroundings were impressive, from the blue sky all the way down to the road's edge.

Sarah had corresponded overnight with Esteban, a Mendoza native living in Wellington, who she'd randomly met MTBing in Polhill a few weeks ago.  He had recommended a few things we should check out during our ride, the first of which was Puente de Picheuta.  It wasn't clear whether it was the original bridge (built 1812) or a replica, but if it was original, in the intervening couple of centuries, the Rio Picheuta's course had altered so to make the bridge redundant.

Puente de Picheuta, entirely on the true left, these days

The next highlight (for me, at least) was an old bit of road consisting of a couple of tunnels and a bridge, which had since been bypassed.

Sarah didn't stop to check it out, but I was keen to take a look, and doubled back.  The far tunnel was the only time I used my front light on the trip, and came to an abrupt end at a pile of rocks that had no doubt been tipped in when the new road was built.

We saw at least a dozen of these Cristal trucks, often driving in convoy
By the time we reached Polvaredas, we were both looking forward to some refreshments.  Alas, the couple of stores we could make out were deserted, and after looking in vain for signs of life, we had no choice but to dip into our One Square Meal stash, and proceed onwards.

As we'd been riding, we were often able to see remnants of an old railway line.  A lot of it was covered by fallen rock, in various quantities, so, it came as a surprise to see a pristine rail bridge over the river just before Punta del Vacas.  It was in such good condition it was hard to believe that the Transandine Railway hadn't been in recent use (closed since 1984, apparently).

Old and new
There was a vehicle checkpoint at Punta del Vacas, but the police there had no interest in us.  Again, the few buildings there were deserted, so we didn't linger.

About to recross the Rio Mendoza, with a police barracks at Punta del Vacas sitting between the road sign and our right turn to follow the river home

A few minutes upstream was the intersection of two valleys, and the where the Rio Tupungato joined the Rio Mendoza.  Sadly, we followed the latter, and were immediately confronted with a headwind, that even Wellingtonians would describe as nasty.  Up until that moment, we'd had a favourable breeze (if any), so it was quite an unpleasant surprise, and really changed things.

I'd already taken Sarah's gear out of her saddlebag and was carrying it in an otherwise redundant backpack.  We soldiered on for a wee while, me trying to get my pace right so that Sarah could shelter on my wheel, but not succeeding.  Just before reaching Los Penitentes, saw the Refugio de Montaña Mundo Perdido, an aptly named opportunity for some food.

We turned into the gate, and an alarm started blaring - it took us by surprise, but at least it guaranteed the owner appearing.  He spoke great English, and his welcomed us into his wee hostel.  We asked if he had any food for sale, and leapt at his offer of some ravioli.  He showed us where we could fill our bottles, and we sat at a dining table until he reappeared 20 minutes or so later with a couple of bowls of pasta.  The rest was great, and so too was the meal he'd whipped up for us!

We resumed our battle into the wind, and soon reached Los Penitentes, not by virtue of our speed, but because it was very close to where we'd stopped.  It was visually gross, with a couple of ugly apartment blocks, sitting vacant until the ski season, no doubt.  There was a restaurant there adjacent to another hostel, which appeared to be a staging post for an imminent climbing trip, and across the road a wee minimart being run out of someone's shed.  There we found ice-creams, and hoed into them.

My legs were feeling fine, but weren't up to pushing Sarah into the wind - alongside, I got two headwinds for the price of one!   I foolishly grabbed an inner tube out of my frame-bag, and attached it to my saddle bag.  On our second attempt, we got going, and for a couple of minutes made good progress.  Then, Sarah started yelling, and luckily I came to a halt before my derailleur was torn off.  The tube was a write off though, having wound itself around the cassette a couple of times.

We barely had time to get going again, when we reached Puente del Inca, complete with shops set up  for visitors to the ancient natural arch over the Rio Mendoza.

Despite two recent stops, we cooled off in one of the open cafes.  I ordered a couple of empanadas and a coffee (singular, or so I thought).  There appeared to be a typical cafe coffee machine, though it wasn't all it seemed - the heating mechanism was a gas hob of some sort, judging by the lit match being fed into its bowels!  After 20 minutes or so, sufficient pressure had built up in the machine, and we eventually got not one, but two, coffees.  The language barrier was proving tricky.

Puente del Inca, and abandoned spa
Before hitting the road again, we took a look at the bridge - well worth the fuss - and a few of the local craft stalls.  Then it was back into the heinous headwind.

Looking up at Aconcagua, the highest mountain outside of the Himalayas
The road steepened a wee bit, and I rode ahead of Sarah, occasionally stopping to photograph her.  She was about the only point of reference for scale of this magnificent valley.

After passing through a wee gorge (which appeared to have chocolate milk running down it, instead of water), we reached a short tunnel, and at the far end of that, we found our destination, Las Cuevas.

We were both relieved to arrive, not least Sarah!

We found our accommodation, and the first order of business was to overcome our lack of cash.  We made have set off from Uspallata with enough, but the ravioli, ice-creams, empanadas and coffee had chipped away at it, and we had been relying on paying by credit card.

Luckily, our host Pablo, a mountain guide cum hostel manager, was incredibly helpful.  Sarah's experience in the Mongolian bank sector was also useful, and within the hour, we'd managed to make a transfer using the owner's bank's SWIFT code. We were 3200m above sea level, in the middle of a mountain range, yet a combination of WiFi and cell reception (for the confirmation SMS code), and a lot of patience on behalf of Pablo who was getting the requisite details via WhatsApp from Mendoza, eventually solved the problem.    Oh, the marvels of modern technology.

We washed up, and were soon tucking into some spaghetti bolognese that Pablo had whipped up for us and the only other guest at the hostel.  The owner had a sideline in home brew beer (craft, these days, I suppose), and since one of the varieties had a cyclist on the label, we couldn't refuse.  After dinner, Sarah and I went for a short walk - the only time we used our puffer jackets!  Despite the altitude, we were both feeling fine, breathing-wise, but the air temperature and wind combination was a bit chilly!

Stats:   92km ridden (30 into a heinous headwind), 1700m ascended, max temp 42 degrees, average 31 degrees.

Day 3 - Las Cuevas to Los Andes

The third day's ride was the one I'd been looking forward to for months.  After a solid breakfast, we spent about 30 seconds riding on the sealed road, before turning onto the dirt for an 18km stretch that would allow us to bypass the main route through a 3km tunnel connecting Argentina and Chile.

We passed through a neat archway, and then zig-zagged our way slowly up the 600 vertical metre ascent.  I counted the switchbacks out loud, and took plenty of photos of my wife (and the road)!

Looking up the Rio Mendoza valley, Las Cuevas just out of shot on the right
Despite being over 3800m above sea level by the top, the only time I noticed the altitude was when Sarah put a bit of a dig in near the very top.  I chased after her, quickly caught her, and then had to ease back significantly to let my oxygen consumption catch up with the effort.  It was a remarkably different experience to the grovel at the top of Mauna Kea.  This road certainly wasn't as steep as Mauna Kea had been.  Perhaps hitting the highest reaches with fresh legs helped, or maybe it was slight acclimatisation after sleeping at 2000m and 3200m for the last two nights, respectively.  Whatever, it was welcome. 

Just before the top, we'd been passed by a couple from the Netherlands in a rental car.  We had a brief chat to them, in between checking out the fascinating border complex.  First and foremost, as someone from an island nation, I do find land borders incredibly exciting, and it was a real treat to be at one!  Then there was the monument - Cristo Redentor de los Andes was built back in 1904 and is equally impressive today.  There were a few also a few buildings, most of which seemed to have been there for some time, and with all but one deserted.  And, there were a couple of flags on the ground, made from coloured stones - Argentina beating Chile for the "best dressed" prize - though if the border genuinely followed the ridge, it was entirely possible that each flag was half in and half out.

Of the few borders I've crossed on land, this one takes the cake
After donning my overtrou, jacket and buff, it was time to start the descent.  While the switchbacks on the Argentina side had been relatively few (eleven, to be precise) and with stretches up to a kilometre in between, the Chilean side was jam-packed with them, and they made for quite a sight.

Switchbacks 5, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12 in shot

If I'm not mistaken, corners 21 (just above Sarah), 24, 26, 28, 29, 30, 31, 32, 33, 34

Corners 46, 48,  and 50, and the Chilean portal of the tunnel

I stayed above Sarah for the most part, and enjoyed snapping pictures and counting the switchbacks outloud, all the way down to 51 just before we hit the sealed main road.  Not only was the road stunning, but it was pleasing that our tyre choice had been up to the task.  The road surface hadn't troubled either of us - both running 40mm Maxxis Refuse tyres (tubeless) up front, and Sarah with a 38mm Vittoria Terreno Dry and me a 35mm Continental Speed King CX in the rear (neither tubeless).  There'd been the odd sandy patch, and plenty of loose rock and ruts to keep an eye out for, but no harm, no foul.

I'd been expecting to check out of Argentina before actually leaving Argentina, and was similarly surprised to find no sign of border control at this end of the tunnel either.  A maintenance man told us we'd find it 6km down the road, and so off we rolled!

Got to Chile and all I found was this bloody sign!
For a long while we had a B-road to ourselves, with the main route inside an avalanche shelter tunnel, alongside.

As promised, we soon arrived at a huge border complex.  Trucks were ushered one way, and buses another.  We climbed up a steep ramp designated for cars, and once inside, pulled into one of half a dozen or so lanes. There, a single agent simultaneously stamped our passports out of Argentina and into Chile.  Ten metres or so later, a colleague of his felt up our saddlebags for the tell-tale squish of fruit, and without further checking, we were sent on our way.

We gave the ski resort at Portillo the swerve (it was a couple of minutes down the road), and were soon admiring the third and final set of switchbacks for the day!

The numbering's a tad unclear near the top, but I reckon these are #21,22,23 from the bottom

From the bottom: #1-15, all visible from #17

By the end of the 26-corner sequence, I was grinning like a Cheshire cat, and in all had counted 88 in total for the morning:  11 up to the border, 51 down to the seal, and a further 26 in the last section.   That's some seriously committed road building, and an absolute delight to ride.

Having eaten our dessert, it was now time to get stuck into the veges, consisting of a down valley push into a hot headwind.  It was time to shed my extra gear, which may not have been entirely necessary, but not unpleasant to have had on up until this point.

Los Andes, where we'd knock off for the day, followed by Valparaiso the next.  Santiago, our final destination

After 20 minutes or so, we pulled into Ventisquero Guardia Vieja for a spot of lunch.   We ordered five empanadas between us, only to discover that the Chilean versions were at least three times the size of the Argentinian ones we'd been eating to date!  We didn't bother seeing if they'd accept Argentinian pesos, and hadn't yet seen a Chilean ATM, so plonked them on the visa!

Out of the shade of the brolly, Sarah's GPS recorded 51-degrees!

We were well fuelled for the remaining slog to Los Andes.  The road was fairly unremarkable, with similar bland scenery to what we'd been riding through on the other side.

That said, it wasn't necessarily a bad thing that the scenery wasn't commanding attention, since there were fairly regular holes in the road surface to content with.  Many were where concrete pads met, and ran perpendicular to the direction travel.  The few we couldn't dodge or bunny hop seemed not to trouble our hefty tyres.

On the outskirts of Los Andes, with los Andes in the rearview mirror

We were staying across the river from the main centre of Los Andes, but did need some cash, motivating a detour into the centre of town.  A loop of the city square revealed plenty of banks, but with the exception of the one with every window smashed, they were "boarded up", mostly with sheets of heavy steel.  Despite the rest of the scene being your typical Christmas-eve downtown bustle, it made me felt quite nervous given the current social unrest in Chile, and so we high-tailed it out of there.

Just before crossing the river, we stopped at a large supermarket.  Fortunately, there was an ATM inside, and I withdrew the maximum amount offered, only to later discover it was about $450NZD worth.  I had to chuckle, since we'd had to withdraw a similar amount in about 3 withdrawals in Buenos Aires, and had struggled to find an ATM since then that would give us more than $60 worth!

Soon after, we were checked into our overnight accommodation, all washed up, and in our evening wear.  The inn-keep was pessimistic about our restaurant chances - a combination perhaps of being illiterate gringos, and that it was Christmas Eve.  We made do with a short trip back to the supermarket for some deli empanadas (deli, not being short for delicious in this case).  They were calorie-laden at least, and were nicely chased down with by ice-cream on sticks.

This was the last of our pre-booked accommodation.  I'd tentatively planned to spend one night at Valparaíso on the coast, before doubling back to Santiago, giving us a few days to explore the city and more importantly, source a couple of bike boxes for the trip home.  After reading a little more about Valparaíso (all I really new about it was that it has long been home to an awesome urban downhill race, and that my bro had visited even furthre back in 2004), we booked a couple of nights at a nice-looking hotel, though one at a time, with a little bit of mind-changing in between!

Following the previous days' pattern of minor logistical dramas, this evening's was our 4-port USB charger giving up the ghost.  Our host kindly gave us a single phone charger plug in the morning, and from then, we made do with that and judicious rotation of our GPS units and phones.

Stats90km ridden, 820m climbed, max temp 49 degrees, minimum 7.

Day 4 - Los Andes to Valparaíso

We had a bit of Christmas morning stress, when we read about a large fire on the outskirts of our destination, Valparaíso.  One headline was particularly alarming:  "Fire engulfs port city", and triggered a call to our hotel.  The guy who answered the phone clearly thought I was an idiot for asking if we'd be able to reach them, so it was game back on.

As anticipated, the roads were initially very quiet, and when we crossed over the motorway at San Filipe, it was absolutely deserted!

We were on Route 60 which had a main-road feel but had been superseded by a new motorway (which Strava's base map doesn't appear to have).  The riding was a mix of on-road and separated cycle path.  It was fantastic, until it seemed like we had no option but to join the motorway.  We doubled back and took a side road which had a promising "Warning, cyclists" sign on it, but soon turned into a very narrow gravel road.  At one point the road was down to a single narrow lane, and we had to squeeze past a stationary truck, but at least we were pointed in the right direction, and we were soon crossing both the motorway and the river at Chagres.

From there, we followed the route I'd mapped at home as far as Colmo.  While our immediate surroundings en route were the familiar browns of partially cooked vegetation, it was nice to have views into a fairly lush river valley.

"Did you see the flower?"  "Yep"  "Really?"  "Yep"  "That one?"  "OMG!!!!!"
A sentry plant, doing its once in a lifetime bloom

It seemed to be a day of flora and fauna, and when I stopped to show Sarah the snake lying on the road, we were lucky it was already dead, since she came to a halt directly on it, with her ankle only a few centimetres from its wee fangs!

At Colmo we deviated from the route I planned, by continuing down the river to Concon.  There, we stopped for a very late lunch.  While we were waiting for our empanadas, Sarah added some churros to our order.  A bit of communication breakdown saw them delivered a few minutes later, and after watching them cool for a few minutes, we decided we'd better eat them before they got completely cold.  Non-standard order of consumption, but a great meal nonetheless.

Empanada size lesson learnt, this order was more modest!

Once we'd broken out of the restaurant zone, we were treated to great views of the packed beach, and then noticed a couple of pelicans in the ocean. 

When riding around the point, one flew overhead, and I went a bit crazy with my camera, only to discover that these were not a rare sight at all.  We had fun watching some locals attempt to unsuccessfully feed a sea lion - it was no match for the pelicans and gulls who invariable snatched up the morsels before the main attraction even got close.

After Concon was Viña del Mar - a collection of large condos, and a single surviving sand dune which hopefully never gets developed.

As we neared Valparaíso, we were mostly able to ride off road, though competing with pedestrians really slowed us down.  So too did the occasional treats, like seeing a dozen sea lions basking in the sun on the lower deck of a concrete pile protruding from the sea, with pelicans taking the top deck.  We could see the site of the fire, by virtue of a wee bit of smoky haze hanging in the hill above it.  It was very localised, and not at all the image that "engulf" had conjured up.

Finding the hotel was slightly challenging, given the map we were consulting was flat, and the city is anything but.  After a few minutes scratching our heads, we found our hotel exactly where it was shown on google maps, though perched well above the street we were looking for it on.

On the short ride up to the hotel, we were treated to some of the wonderful street art the city is famed for, making us immediately glad that we'd booked two nights here.

After cleaning up, we had a short walk to a nearby restaurant, and treated ourselves to a lovely three-course Christmas dinner.  Not traditional fare, but fittingly special.

Stats156km ridden (much to Sarah's dismay), 630m climbed, max temp 34 degrees, average 26.

Day 5 - Valparaíso to Santiago

We were very glad to have booked the extra night in Valparaíso, and joined two "Tours 4 Tips" walking tours on our day off, both led by young Argentinians, and greatly enjoyable and informative. 

The next day, after a hearty buffet breakfast, we got ready to leave for Santiago.  I tried to get some advice from the guy at reception on how best to ride out of the city, but didn't find his advice particularly confidence inspiring.  Nonetheless, we made our way towards the route he'd suggested.

Once there, we found a sign saying "Alternative Route to Santiago", which seemed like the sort of offer cyclists should heed, and we began climbing.

We'd been unlucky, and our on-the-fly choices put us in an uncomfortable situation when, in time, we found ourselves riding through the burnt-out neighbourhood of San Roque.  The people we did see were in clean-up mode, and aside from throwing us the odd quizzical look ("what the hell are you doing here?!"), paid us no attention.  I was very glad to finally leave the city limits, feeling really disappointed that we'd inadvertently intruded on this grieving neighbourhood.

I stewed on that for a while, but was feeling a little better by the time stopped to talk briefly to Lisa, a cycle tourist from Germany.  She said she was doing the Ruta del Mar, which presumably is a route along the coast of the country, and lamented that her load wasn't more like ours!  It wasn't lost on any of us that all our gear probably would have fitted into one of her five large bags!  We wished her well, before zipping off (as you can, when you don't have an insanely loaded bike).

It was another hot, dry day, and I think playing tourists the previous day had made Sarah wish for less cycling.  The lay-day had the opposite effect on me, and I'd craved the relative simplicity of life on the road, where relatively speaking, there are very few decisions to be made.

We took back roads all the way into Casablanca, where we stopped at a cafe for a drink.  Then, we were treated to what seemed to be a brand new road, which was a delight to ride on - virtually traffic free, and a lovely smooth surface, part of which had been painted bright blue and appeared destined to become a cycle zone.

We passed through a number of small rural communities, and took most opportunities to stop for something cold.  Again, GPS units left out in the sun were hitting 50-degrees!

The cycling infrastructure in this area was really impressive, particularly as it wasn't obvious who it was for.  Perhaps we were on a school route, but in any case, it was appreciated.  When we pulled into a supermarket at Maria Pinto, two armed police headed off on their team-issue mountain bikes.

Sarah really wasn't enjoying herself, so when I saw a relatively clean creek, suggested she stop and cool herself down a bit, hoping that that would make a genuine difference.

Soon after, we were poised to start the last climb of the tour, another lovely looking set of switchbacks on which we would ascend about 800m.  Before that, iceblocks, and for Sarah, a dip in the wee paddling pool out the back of the front-yard-shop.

At the bottom of the climb, I took out the backpack, and again into it put all of Sarah's luggage.  On the lower slopes I helped her a lot by pushing her, but even those gestures didn't seem to put in her in a space where she could enjoy the climb. 

Why yes, I do believe she's flipping me the bird!

Her lack of enjoyment started to wear me down, and I struggled to enjoy the ride myself.  Near the top, a steep bit of road (up which I couldn't push her comfortably) gave me the opportunity to clear out, and I waited for her just beyond the summit.

Unfortunately, we didn't get a great view of Santiago, despite our proximity to it, and the elevation.  Neither the shape of the land, nor the air quality were conducive to the typical photo you see in the guidebooks!  So, I made do with watching Sarah on the descent, before plummeting after her.

The finale into our final hotel of the trip summed the day up nicely - it was pretty horrible, and consisted of many failed attempts to avoid riding on the motorway.  We were both very glad when we finally arrived to the hotel, for different reasons.

Stats:  153km ridden, 1850m climbed, max temp 50 degrees, average 32.


I'd been fretting for weeks (if not months) about finding boxes in Santiago to get the bikes home, due both to the time of year (28/29 December), and the civil unrest in Chile.  As it turned out, ALL the bike stores were open, and it was a simple matter of going in, one by one, until we eventually found one that had, and was keen to get rid of, a couple of large bike boxes.  I'd initially planned to book a hotel near the bike shops, but in the end opted to one very near the airport (about 15km from the city centre).  In the end, I took an uber to the hotel and back, with the boxes folded in the back seat, and with that, all our problems were sorted, and we had a day free to chill out.

Of course, I felt completely out of sorts on that final day, overwhelmed by the available choice, and feeling like I didn't have enough information with which to make good decisions.

Cycle touring really is my favourite bike riding format.  I enjoy the speed at which you see, hear and feel a place, and love the pure simplicity of it.  The decision to keep pedalling is no decision at all.  You choose what to photograph, when and where to stop to eat, or rest, or soak in the surroundings.  But not much else.

I realise I'm virtually never fearful (though I was while riding through San Roque), and have a deep confidence in my own ability to ride myself out of trouble, should I find myself in some.

I always bristle when I hear someone describing themself "suffering" on a bike.  For me, the stresses and strains of adult life cause this, but riding a bike, even in the most gruelling conditions (be it heat or lack thereof, gradient, wind, thin air, whatever), is a privilege and a treat.  I guess I'm lucky that my body has so much history on a bike, that the physical element tends to take care of itself.  And, also that I have found the perfect mindset, which enables me to enjoy myself despite the sometimes monotonous nature of riding long distances.

I love being able to share my passion with Sarah.  But, I realise she has a very different experience to my own.  Doubts and fear are omnipresent, and her body is more wired to cope with a minus-40-degree Mongolian winter, than hot weather.  I guess there's a tradeoff to be found - a parcours that minimises concerns she might have about conditions and length, but gives me sufficient saddle time to feel like I've had a break from life.

While the tour ended on a bit of a sour note, and to be fair, the scenic highlights were very much front-loaded, I think we both still had a wonderful time, and were glad to have gone.  We've gained great memories, and further useful insight on what to do in the future.

Roll on 2020.