I’ve been meaning to post for a long time, but never seem to get around to it / beat Sarah to the punch. So last week on our downhill into Chile, with much pomp and circumstance I declared I was writing the post for crossing the Andes… and then did nothing for a week. In my defense, I was too busy being pampered at Castillo Verde (house of Sarah’s family friends outside Santiago) and trying to finish Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance to do any blogging. We are in Melipilla right now on our way to Pichilemu. Sarah’s rack just fell off for the second time because she neglected to tighten the nuts that hold the bolts in place with more than her fingers (her defense: “the instructions didn’t say you needed a wrench!” God help us). Ok, if I wait any longer I won’t remember the details, so here it is:
We left Mendoza late Friday (february 3) morning in search of hills to conquer. This leg of the trip involved climbing out of the desert and across the Andes into Chile. Emboldened by nearly a week of rest and good meals in Mendoza, we followed the recommendation of Tom and Sarah and took the more adventerous (i.e. steep) route 52 through the Villavicencio Nature Reserve to Uspallata.
Our late start Friday meant we were stuck riding across the desert floor during the brutal midday heat. Punctuated by an utter lack of wind, abundance of bees, and no water, I was in particularly low spirits. The gradual uphill soon turned into switchbacks, and I cursed all the Malbec that had turned my legs to jelly. We happily finished the day early after finding an information center with a water spigot. We had ridden only about 60 km.
Saturday turned out to be our toughest day of climbing. It took four hours of riding up dirt switchbacks to reach the top of the pass in Villavicencio. Near the top the packed dirt turned into a soft sand that swallowed your back tire and made you beg for pavement.
The downhill into Uspallata wasn’t much easier. Rain, wind, and cars had conspired to turn the steep grade into rolling waves of gravel. Without shocks or disc brakes, the constant rattling handlebars and clenched brakes numbs and cramps your hands. After twice stopping to collect my gear that had shaken loose from my bungees and exploded all over the road, I realized I lost my fishing rod and backpack (originally bungeed to the rack) somewhere up the hill. Sarah gallantly unhooked her gear and rode back to find it. Her triumphant return twenty minutes later was short-lived when we realized her own bungee cord had disappeared. This time I rode back up the mountain to find it. On the bright side, Argentinians in a passing car spotted our scowling faces and treated us to cold coca cola and bread.
Despite the challenge, it is worth mentioning that this was one of our most beautiful rides of the trip. Very little car traffic to spoil the gorgeous views of the mountains and desert below. On the way down we were treated to clear views of Aconcagua in the background. From this distance I found it easier to appreciate its great size.
When we arrived in Uspallata in the late afternoon, we ate copious amounts of ice cream and then nauseating–yes, I actually made myself ill–amounts of steak.
The final two days of the crossing were comparatively unremarkable and easy. Route 7 was a very gradual climb and we probably would have reached the pass on the first day if not for a very stiff headwind. We retraced our bus route past Aconcagua and camped about 10km from the main park entrance.
Also worth mentioning is that we ran into the Swiss biker (but not his wife) that we first encountered in Quedabra de Las Conchas at the beginning of our trip. Now with almost a month of training, we thought maybe we could keep up with him. Not so. After about an hour of hard pedaling to barely keep up, he zoomed away. We later found him by the roadside drinking a liter of beer and smoking cigarettes. Beast.
At the top of the pass we briefly considered skipping the main tunnel and taking a dirt road of switchbacks 10km over the last mountain. But after the headwinds on Sunday and Monday and the steep climb on Friday and Saturday, we were relieved to have an Argentinian border guard drive us the final 3km to Chile.