Before I worked my way up the Andes to cross the border to Chile for the second time, I had an extended break in Mendoza, Argentina’s world-famous wine capital. I wasn’t in a rush, since further south, spring (not to mention summer) had not even started yet.
Mendoza is a lively yet down-to-earth city while the surrounding area boasts hundreds of wineries open to visitors. Considering that its size is on a par with let’s say Hamburg, Germany, it feels extremely tranquil. Neither did I experience dense traffic, nor did I come across any of the annoyances typical in other big cities, such as crowds or noise.
Thanks to a complex and old system of river-fed aqueducts, land that was once desert now supports 70% of the country’s wine production. Even more than Argentina’s North around Cafayate (see the previous blog post), Mendoza province is wine country. That becomes very clear when you see the number of vineyards and the prices of wine. For a decent bottle, it’s almost impossible to pay more than USD 10. So if you are a wine lover, you can easily turn into an alcoholic if you stay there too long.
Mendoza is located 360 km northwest of the Chilean capital Santiago, my next destination. That sounds close. But, in fact, it takes about four days by bike and requires quite an effort, since you have to cross a high mountain pass.
After more than a week of relaxing, I felt this lethargy again. I noticed, every time I stay at a place for more than just two to three nights, I rapidly develop a comfort zone. It does not matter that the places I stay at aren’t fancy. They are nothing more than just typical dormitories with shared bathrooms. Still, I perceive comfort within no time. I have the feeling that the longer I am on this journey, the more I develop an ability to embrace simplicity. Once I start biking again, however, it only takes me a day to get back to the previous fitness and routine. It’s almost like a muscle memory effect that kicks in. And that’s certainly a great feeling. Though it makes me wonder about, what will happen once I conclude this journey and how I will feel physically and mentally.
On my first biking day from Mendoza to Uspallata, I was pampered with pleasant weather and a scenic route. After passing many “rolling hills” (ups and downs) and a few tunnels, I eventually arrived in a dry mountain region. The area resembles highland Central Asia so well, that it was used as the location for the epic movie Seven Years in Tibet.
Uspallata is a humble little crossroads town developing more and more into an adventure sports base due to its proximity to massive mountains. Conditions for climbing, skiing, rafting, and fishing are world-class. However, when I was there, it was pretty quiet. Winter season had just ended, and summer wasn’t there yet. Since I was about to bike up into high altitude on the next day, I closely followed the weather forecast, Obviously, I wasn’t too amused with what I saw. A heavy storm was approaching from Chile. I decided to stay in Uspallata for another night. Luckily, the mix of rain and snow was over the next day. The low temperature just above freezing, however, was an early indicator what range of temperatures I would soon be facing, since within hours I was going to climb from an elevation of 1800 m to 3200m.
Just after five minutes of cycling, I arrived at a roadblock. The police officer explained that his Chilean colleagues are still clearing the roads from the snow, but he allowed me to pass since I only wanted to go up to the last small village and then cross the border the day after. That was fantastic. For the next three hours, I was able to cruise through breathtaking scenery all by myself without any traffic at all.
I passed the Los Penitentes Ski Resort which was still completely white but had recently ended this year’s season. By now, the sky was blue and my temperature gauge showed 4 deg C, but I suffered from icy headwinds which did not only slow me down like crazy but also added a windchill that didn’t allow me to stop and rest. When I did, I started to shiver after less than a minute, since my inner layers were all soaked in sweat while the wind was attacking my outer shell. Thus far, this was the coldest day of my entire trip. Even up north in Alaska and Canada, I never experienced such cold days. There were some guesthouses along the way, so I could have called it a day earlier, but what kept me going was not the fantastic scenery but the fact, that I wanted to get this torturing uphill over with, stay close to the border overnight and then do the downhill on the Chilean side in physically dry conditions the following day. At this point, I had only 21 km to my destination. Due to the adverse conditions (headwinds, steep uphill), however, I needed three full hours to arrive in the snowy town of Las Cuevas. Under such weather conditions, the village rather looked totally deserted like a ghost town. Google Maps indicated three hostels but all seemed to be closed. Well, this was definitely a day I needed a fixed roof over my head, so I kept looking around and found a hut of the Club Andino, the local mountaineering association. The house was full of Argentinian mountaineers and skiers of all ages. One of them started speaking to me in fluent German (he had learned it from his father), prepared a coffee, and gave me some cookies. I must have looked so pitiful, haha…. I told him about the hostel situation, and he immediately started to call around. Ten minutes later, I had a reservation in a hostel a few meters down the road, finished another cup of coffee, and rode my bike over. The hostel, in fact, had no signs and looked like an abandoned house. The hostel host opened the door, and finally, I was able to step into a warm and cozy shelter. Besides the host, there was only one other mountaineer and a cat who kindly shared the gas heater with me. 🙂
In the morning, I put on an additional down jacket including my complete rain gear and mounted my bike at -4 deg C, before pedalling the remaining 2 km to the Los Libertadores border complex. The interesting part of this border is that Argentinean and Chilean checkpoints are almost 9 km apart separated by a mountain range, which can either be crossed over a pass (closed at this time of the year) or by driving through a 4 km long tunnel. In spite of the decent sidewalk through the tunnel, it is not recommended to ride your bike for safety reasons. The road maintenance crew in charge of the tunnel, however, conveniently offers bikers a free shuttle service through the dark. On the other side, a 5 km downhill led to the Chilean border control, where all of my bags were screened for agricultural products. After about 15 minutes, I was back on the road to my destination of the day, Los Andes, enjoying a long downhill from a winter wonderland into green valleys accompanied by a pleasant temperature increase from -4 to +16 deg C.
One day later, I continued riding to Santiago, where I wanted to spend a few days to explore Chile’s capital and go on a few day trips in the region.