Last crossing of the Andes…last stop Chile

I had to leave Mendoza earlier than planned because of the concert. I procrastinated most of the morning, as it was freezing cold and very grey outside. I was thinking of heading to some nearby hot springs for the night, but that plan was abandoned when I found out that the road wouldn’t connect to the one leading to Uspallata and I would have to come back to the main road first. In the end I took a bus to Uspallata avoiding the crazy Friday afternoon traffic and the cold. The skies were already looking a bit friendlier closer to the Chilean border and even a bit of sun would break through, but an icy wind made me happily enjoy the landscape from inside the bus. Uspallata is a small mountain town with a couple of ski shops. I rugged up warm the next morning ready to attempt the pass crossing. But I only got a few km down the road before I found out that it was closed because of snow and ice. Looking up to the snowy cloud covered mountains I didn’t have to think twice and went back to the hostel. I spent the day relaxing in Uspallata, biked to the mountain of seven colors 10km up a dirt road north, got my revision mirror fixed for the second time and ate lots of alfajores (chocolate covered biscuits with filled with dulce de leche).

I got ready for my second attempt the next morning and even though the road was still closed they let me through to get some headway. The calm lasted about half hour as than they let all the trucks through which must have been sitting there for a couple of days. I made my way up a beautiful valley and it was a surprisingly gentle climb. In the early afternoon the very annoying cold southerly headwind made progress very slow and frustrating and I stopped in the tiny – closed down for the season – ski resort of Los Penitentes. One Refugio was still operating and I left my last pesos their counting that I would make it over the pass the next day. I later found the ‘real’ Refugio hidden away but also still open and I spent the rest of the afternoon hanging out there drinking tea and chatting. The next morning I was on my way just after it got daylight, as I was afraid of the cold headwind. Temperatures were down to -10 and it was cold. I passed the ‘Banos de los Incas’, not open any longer to the public for bathing, because of its fragile nature. Damn…could have done with a hot soak by than! The river flowing below was adorned with icicles, right next to were the hot water was coming out! The minerals in the hot water had formed a natural bridge over the river over thousands of years and it’s quite the site.  I carried on, got some nice views of Aconcagua and than about 10am the wind decided to start early that day…argh! Progress got hard and it was freezing cold. It was the coldest I have been on the whole trip and finally the possum fur gloves came out and a couple of other items which I haven’t had used yet on the trip. I got a lift through the tunnel and popped out the other side in Chile…just like that. Immigration was a bit more involved here, than I was off….straight through a still operating ski field. There was lots more snow on the Chilean side than in Argentina. Another storm was looming and it started snowing on the way down. It was a long cold but fun downhill to the town of Los Andes. I heard later that the pass had closed again a couple of hours after I had crossed. Timing seemed to be all in this last few days of the trip. I found out than that In Chile, because of the National day celebrations, there would be three days of holidays. This left me one day to get to Santiago and organize a box for the bike. I left early on a bus, found a very nice hostel, Casa Bella, and than got on a mission across town to get a box. I even got two and strapped them on the back of my bike, which made the way back quite tricky in the traffic. I spend the Chilean National day cleaning and packing up the bike. The next couple of days I spent in Valparaiso, yet another UNESCO protected heritage town. It’s a port town and famous for its colorful houses up the hills (cerros) rising straight from the sea. I stayed in the new art hostel called ‘Hostal Po‘, where every room is painted by a different artist. Small cable operated cars facilitate the climb. Lots of gratifies adorne the already colorful buildings and the whole place has a very arty feel to it with lots of nice little creative shops and café/bars. Valpraiso was also one of the three places where Pablo Neruda had a house, which now is open to visitors. He’s Chile’s most famous writer/poet and did win the Nobel Prize of Literature in 1971. Back in Santiago I had the weekend left to roam the streets, linger in the bookshops, visit the art museums and lounge around in the cafes.

It’s been an amazing trip, a dream fulfilled and I have seen so much. But now I’m very much looking forward to home, to digest it all and relive the experiences through my art. It’s been a fiesta for all senses and somehow that will reflect in the paintings to come:)

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‘El Viento Sonda’….extreme heat and snow

Leaving Cafayate was hard as I felt very much at home at the nice Hospedaje ‘Lo de Penalba’, right on the plaza a couple of houses down from the church. I also haven’t seen the ‘Quebrada de la Conchas’ and will have to come back on another occasion! Even though I had little time I decided to make my way down to Mendoza via some small country routes, biking, hitching and taking buses, rather than taking a  bus direct via a big center like Tucuman. On my first day I got to Santa Maria and on to San Jose de Norte, were I ended up waiting most of the afternoon for a ride. I finally carried on in the last of the day light to the last wee village called Punto de Balusta, where I camped for the night. I had forgotten how nice it was to camp out in a wam and safe environment. I was up before daylight and on the road by 7am…..hoping I might catch a ride through the next 150km of ‘puro campo’. It was a nice stretch of road with only a mine being half way down the road, no other sign of habitation. Mining is a difficult subject here, as mainly foreign companies exploit the land and leave behind polluted rivers and a waste-scape….all while only donating a few schools or similar attributes to the local people. I had to bike 60km before finally one of the three cars, which passed in the 3 hours, gave me a ride to the town of Belen. It was a campervan of a very nice retired Argentinian couple travelling the continent. They were a wealth of information and very kind. After that I than managed to catch a couple of buses and was told to wait for another one which would take me to Chilecito….my destination for the day. I waited 2-3 hours but the bus never came. I asked several locals about it and all told me….si si ‘ahorita viene’ (it’ll come soon). At sundown I gave up and headed for the road and only just managed to get a ride before dark to the town of Chilecito. The guy told me that the bus doesn’t go any longer on Sundays, for quite some time already! It was an exhausting day with lots of frustration….traffic is sparse in Argentina, not many of the very few cars will actually stop, and buses are even harder to come by in these remote little towns. My only hope are the pick up trucks….I love pick up trucks! The other obstacle was the heat, climbing to the high 30ies during the day, …and the wind which would pick up after lunchtime…..from the south!! These conditions made biking in the afternoon very unpleasant! I was on the road early again the next day and made my way up the scenic Cuesta de Miranda, climbing about 1000m via a beautiful valley with lots of cacti and red rocks. I was lucky as the road has been closed for a couple of weeks and only had been open for a few days before closing again for more road works. They were improving the road for the Paris-Dakar race in 2014. There was quasi no traffic and I enjoyed the ride down the other side, took the 20km gravel road short cut to Pagancillo, avoiding the town of Villa Union. From there it was a further 30km to the National park of Talampaya. It was 3 o’clock and the temperature already close to 40 degrees. Nevertheless I decided to head for the park and camp there, but half way a very strong headwind came up and made progress very slow. It was a frustrating battle to the entrance of the park. Winds were so strong I needed help getting my tent up! I was exhausted that evening and thought I deserved a (small) bottle of wine! I fell asleep to the humming of the Ooooommmmm, a meditation congress taking place at this camp. Later I found out that Talampaya is the location of one of 12 discs (high energy fields) in all of the Americas, and the strongest of the three in Argentina. A well known Peruvian spiritual healer was leading the meditation and people had come from all over Southamerica. The next morning I visited the Canyon de Talampaya, a 4km long stretch lined by about 150m high sheer red sand stone walls. The stone formations were amazing and I enjoyed the guided visit. We were back at the visitors center by lunchtime and the temperature was close to 40 than. Too hot for biking and I waited for the bus, but got a ride instead. I skipped the Provincial Park Ischigualasto only down the road but too much of an effort to get to and headed on to St Augustin de Valle Fertile instead. I was on the road early the next morning and had a very enjoyable ride along the foot hills of the Cordillera de Valle Fertile. Finally the many miles at high altitude and all the hill climbs paid off and I felt like flying along at 25km/h on a straight road. The valley was suffering from a dry spell since over a couple of years and the name ‘Valle Fertile’ seemed kind of inappropriate by now. The wind started by lunchtime and picked up quickly….time to get a ride. I was lucky and got one to San Juan nearly straight away, with the first car passing within the last hour or so. I didn’t like the place enough to stay and carried on to Mendoza that same day. This turned out to be a good decision as a famous Argentinian Rock Star, Indio Solaris, was descending on the town and every bed was booked for the weekend. People came from as far as Madrid and I met a nice Peruvian chap who had taken the bus all the way from Lima to attend the concert! Initially I wanted to stay a couple of days in town, but only managed one. I used it wisely and went on a wine tour for the afternoon, which was very interesting. We visited a small boutique winery, a huge commercial one and an olive factory. I most enjoyed the tasting part of course! Unfortunately the temperature had dropped drastically to about 10 degrees and we were back to winter with clouded skies. This was part of a weather phenomenon called ‘Viento Sonda’, which starts of with a very very hot wind followed by a very very cold one with snow on the Cordillera. Not what I needed for the crossing of the Andes on my way to Santiago!!

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Northern Argentina…the good life

I only spent the morning at Pumamarca and had a walk around the mountain of 7 colors, than biked north  along the ‘Quebra de Humahuaca’ to visit the town of Tilcara, 25km north of Pumamarca. I wanted a rest day, but the 25km turned into quite the mission with a head wind and no energy, as I still was fighting my cough. Tilcara is a nice town and I settled into the beautiful Hostel Malka, a very nice place a bit out of the way, overlooking the town. Life suddenly got easy again: the water from the tap here in Argentina is save to drink, I had a heated room for the first time on this trip, the room was clean and there was a warm water tap even at the sink! Bolivia is harsh, poor and dirty, but has a raw beauty, while Northern Argentina seems softer and a lot more civilized with a sense of order and beauty. Also here you get the soup after the main if you order the lunch menu, but I can live with that.

I stayed 3 days, started taking Antibiotics and the cough slowly receded. I also had my first day in a deck chair reading a book…finally holidays! This was the kind of place I could have stayed much longer, but I still had a fair way to go to get to Santiago and only 3 weeks left. It was only a day’s ride to Salta, where I had another day rest to enjoy some city culture. Salta has a colonial center, but wasn’t as elaborate as some of the other many colonial towns I’ve seen in my travels. But I really enjoyed the relaxed atmosphere and I thought it had a south Italian feel to it… best to be enjoyed from the cafés on the plaza. Even though it was the end of winter and the trees only just started to have the first flowers, the temperature already was at 30 degrees during the day! Salta also is known for its many museums, but unfortunately it was Monday and the once I was interested in were closed. I also was unlucky in my efforts to watch a ‘Pena’ in the evening. Salta’s ‘Pena’, a folklore guitar and sometimes dance performances, are famous, but Monday night was not the one to go to a local pub. I should have just gone to a tourist one!  I did eat my first 350gr Argentinian steak for lunch though and great Italian pasta for dinner… close to midnight. Here in Argentina they eat very late, after 9pm the restaurant open and life goes on till late in the night. The mornings start late and siestas are long to make up for the lost sleep…not a very cyclist friendly timetable!

I carried on south the next day, …and again chosen the dirt road over the asphalted one! I would regret that later…not! The road climbed about 2500m via the Cuesta del Obispo to the National park ‘Los Cardones’, an altiplano-like landscape with thousands of Cardones (Cacti), than dropped back down into another valley and to the beautiful colonial village Cachi. I stayed in the boutique art hotel Viscocha, and ate my first Locro (local dish) in the attached restaurant at night. I left after breakfast the next morning and made good progress through a beautiful, but barren landscape with still many Cardones and following the Valles Calchaquies. By late morning the wind had come up and got stronger by the hour. I have been told that August is the windy month and the prevailing wind is from the south….argh!!! Wrong way! The afternoon was a battle with the wind and a not so good road, but the landscape made up for it. There was hardly any traffic in that remote part of the world, which was nice. I arrived early evening in the tiny settlement of Angastaco and stayed in a local hospedaje. I like to stay in the local places rather than camping as it allows me a glance into peoples’ life’s, a hot shower at the end of the day and support the local communities. Argentina’s hostels are very clean, come with breakfast and since it is low season they are cheap and I am often the only one in the dorm. I got up early the next morning to beat the wind and was on the road by sunrise. The landscape with its bizarre sandstone formations was amazing, tiny adobe settlements along the way made for interesting distractions, but the sandy road made for slow progress, still all ride-able though. By mid day I hit the asphalted road, had a quick stop in the cute village of San Carlos, than carried on through the vineyard lines road to the town of Cafayate. There was still the end of winter light/feel in the air, the trees barren, the poplars and willows only just getting their first leaves, Cardrones lining the vineyards and the days very warm already….all making for a distinct combination of feelings, unknown to me.

I enjoyed my first wine ice cream that afternoon and also went to a wine tasting at the oldest Winery of Cafayate, the organic Bodega Nanni. I tasted the local specific Torronte, a white wine and the red Tannat, also a grape not normally used by its own. Not much more was needed to send me in a deep rejuvenating sleep!! I stayed an extra day to eat and drink my way through the local specialties: La Casa de las Empanadas, more wine ice cream, goats cheese farm and wine testing at the Bodega Domingo Hermanos.

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