DAY 730 - CROSSING TO CHILE (WITH SOPHIE / JEREMY)
Day 730 - La Cueva, Argentina - 16602 km
From Mendoza we’re heading straight west back into the Andes, climbing to 3300m towards Santiago, the capital of Chile. I share the road for a few days with Sophie and Jeremy.
The border of Argentina and Chile is at 3200m on Paso Los Libertadores in the center of the Andes. Since winter is rapidly arriving we have to wait for a clear weather window for the pass to be open. While we are in Mendoza it snows heavily on the pass and the road is closed at that moment. On the day we leave the skies are clear and its fairly warm in the valley. Mendoza is at 700m so the next three days will be climbing. Because the pass just opened again, there’s heavy truck traffic trying to make it to Chile. It’s the busiest border crossing connecting Santiago with Mendoza. It’s tough to claim our small space on the road.
Nonetheless I enjoy the ride in company with Sophie and Jeremy. It doesn’t happen often that I cycle together with cyclists I meet, they usually go from south to north. I’ve met quite a few the last weeks because it’s the perfect season to travel north, leaving winter behind and be on time for the dry season in Bolivia. The last time I’ve cycled together must have been on the coast in the US, apart from a recreational ride with Mark & Hana in Cusco. On the markets in Mendoza we stocked up on wine, salami, cheese, local honey and other delights. The variety of quality food is much better here compared to Bolivia and Peru. We’re not holding back on cooking a great camp dinner. Why would you if you can make a fire and have hours to kill under the stars?
Getting deeper into the mountains there’s a strong headwind, we seek shelter cycling behind each other. It’s not easy because there’s no hard shoulder. We’re constantly being pushed off the road by merciless truck drivers who try to make it to the border during the clear weather window. They pass fast and very close. Now and then Jeremy looses his temper and puts his fist in the air. But we’re powerless, cyclists are not supposed to be here.
3200m is far from the highest pass we climbed, but in the meantime we’re so far south that it might be the coldest on this trip. At least the whitest, at day three we reach 2500 and there’s already a thick pack of snow. The wind has gone, the sun is up and it’s a beautiful ride. At the end of the day we reach a small rail road town where we camp at the abandoned station of the Trans Andine Line, which got discontinued in 1984. We gather firewood while it’s still light and then decide to warm up in a little restaurant further ahead. I left my mattress and some other stuff at the campfire place, which in hindsight I shouldn’t have done. When we come back after an hour it’s gone, while there’s only 20 people living in this place. Sofie and Jeremy set up camp I walk around to ask people if they ‘found’ my stuff. After I talk to the man we had brief chat with at entering the village, he offers us his home to sleep in. He’s only here for the holidays with his wife and kid and was going to leave back to Mendoza in a minute. I go back to camp and invite the Frenchies, telling them a stranger just offered us his home and leaves us the keys. Gratefully we reside that night in the warm house.
At La Cueva, the last village in Argentina, we spend the night in a cottage. There’s no heating so we have to scavenge for firewood. The town seems almost abandoned, no restaurant or shop is open. Near the little station there’s a lot of remains of the old rail road, but the beams are too large to drag to the cottage, let alone saw them into pieces with our Opinel knives. Eventually we find some scrapes to keep us warm. Later I find someone sitting outside the hotel, buried in his big coat. I ask where he’s from and why he’s sitting outside in the cold. He is hitchhiking from Colombia and doesn’t have enough Argentinean money for a cottage. We let him sleep in ours.
In the morning there’s a choice to make how to get over the pass. There’s an old road going over the tip of the mountain to 3800m and a tunnel at 3200m where all the traffic goes through. The first one is closed for winter since a month already, but we were still hoping to do this pass with the bikes. The owner strongly advices against it and when we check the beginning of the road there’s no way we can get through the snow with our heavy bikes. We have to take the tunnel, but cyclists are not allowed. When we talk to the people at the toll booth, they will arrange a truck for us that will ship us with our bikes through the tunnel. At this point we’re with five, there two more French cyclists waiting at the tunnel. It doesn’t take long before the truck arrives and before we know it we’re on the other side. On the downhill awaits us the grand finale: Paso Los Libertadores, the most perfect switch back road I have ever seen. But more about that in the next post.