With a stomach still attempting to digest 3 days of continuous engorging, it was time to set out from Mendoza to cross the Andes and reach my goal of a New Year’s eve with an old friend who lives in Santiago, Chile. Of course I could take the main highway between the two cities, but what fun would that be?!? I found some dirt road routes that seemed pretty interesting, and would carry back to the main road to get a viewing of Aconcagua, the tallest mountain in South America. I bid farewell to the band of bikers who were all heading out on other routes, alone again to feel the silent beckoning of the Andes.
Leaving Mendoza I was reminded why I try to avoid riding through major cities. It takes forever to get in or out of them. This was no exception so when I finally reached the last of the dense urban streets and rolled out on a long and slow paved climb out of town I took a big breath, exhaling all the hustle/bustle and inhaling the quiet ahead. Just after this I noticed a large “mini mall” of sorts, but instead of stores each structure was a distinct altar for the saint Difunta Correa (see last post). Evidently it’s a pretty big deal here in Argentina.
Required to travel with chains. I’ve not seen a sign like this in a LONG time. I don’t think it’s due to a lack of roads that get snowy, but a lack of governmental infrastructure to convey the warnings, and likely a lack of tire chains in less developed countries to the North. Either way, I’m getting up there!
After a long day of hot climbing out of the Mendoza valley, I decided to pull off the road following a sign for the “Mirador del Balcon” (balcony viewpoint). Not only was it a gorgeous canyon completely invisible from the main road, but the cement balcony was about the only flat open ground in sight on which to set up my tent. So I slept by the cliff edge, hearing every small sound I made echoed back to me against the canyon walls.
Continuing up the mountain side the following day, I got a reminder of the “real” mountains yet to be climbed later in the day…
Guanacos! Lots of them around here. Close relative to the llama and alpaca, they tend to be at slightly lower elevations than their smaller North-Andean counterpart called vicuñas.
Gorgeous layers of multi-colored cliffs surrounded me as I rolled down the gravel road toward Uspallata. I saw 2 cars the whole day, what a contrast from city life!
After passing Uspallata and filling up on water, I regrettably had to take the highway for the rest of the day. Not my favorite road surface but at least an ample shoulder to ride in. I guess not quite big enough for these old semi trucks unfortunately. It seemed that these enormous rigs had fallen off of the bridge at some point and were never bothered to be removed.
Climbing up the long river valley toward Aconcagua.
I can only assume the white dots are depicting a climbing route up the cliff across the train tracks. I’ve never seen one marked so obviously before…
First view of Aconcagua (I think!). Enormous. For scale, I was at about 9000’ elevation when this photo was taken, so that’s looking about another 14,000’ upslope… big mountain!
As the afternoon shifted to evening, the air was cooling quickly. While there was plenty of open land along the roadside in the enormous mountain valley it was all fenced in as part of the two ski areas along the highway. Luckily I found a local man who was caretaking one of the resorts for the Summer who kindly let me camp behind his home for wind protection.
Not a bad spot for a sunset.
The following morning I noticed a small cemetery by the roadside. Upon closer inspection it was specifically a cemetery for climbers who’ve lost their lives attempting to Summit Aconcagua… Sad but really interesting. It appeared the custom was to leave the climbing boots of the fallen athletes. There were many pairs of boots…
Famous old hot springs just before reaching Aconcagua national park. Beautiful the way the springs decorate and reform the mountainside.
I finally reached Aconcagua national park, just short of the Chilean border. I took a couple of hours to hike up the scenic trail and get a perspective on the immense peak.
It was bitter sweet. Many travelers I’ve met on my way South have touted their plans to climb the tallest peak in South America once they reached this far South. While I was never one of them, I do like being on top of tall things… From this low vantage, one cannot imagine how it feels to stand on that peak, looking down in every direction to the vast Andean range. But in order to climb it I’d need a LOT of mountaineering gear in addition to paying the significant fees for permitting and guides. All in all I’m told it would cost $1000USD at the very cheapest, and that amount of money could last me more than two months of traveling. Gazing up at that peak, however, I did contemplate how this evolving lifestyle of mine, that of choosing cheap and free ways to explore the world, both focuses and limits my perspective on it. It’s not that I wished I had an extra $1000 so I could spend it here. It’s that in order to stretch my finances as long as I am I have to say no to many opportunities. The rationalizer in me says that I’m really just saying yes to simplicity. For the most part I feel that way, that it’s the simple, free experiences that really convey the most value, and paying a lot for an experience can cause overly optimistic expectations of a magical experience, which may lead to disappointment. It’s the age-old confrontation between FOMO (Fear Of Missing Out) and JOBI as my brother-in-law calls it (Joy Of Being IN). For me it has become important to acknowledge my FOMO in order to see through its influence and make grounded choices aligned with my core values. In this moment, that meant stopping, appreciating the magnitude of this mountain, and rolling onward.
So it’s not as though I left Aconcagua to sit in a coffee shop and stare at Facebook. The paved highway enters a long tunnel at the valley floor in order to pass through the tallest mountains. One might hitch a ride through the tunnel (no biking allowed inside) in order to avoid the hellish climb over the dirt pass… but what fun would that be??
Lots of snow up at the top!
Paso Libertadores (aka Paso Uspallata). Big monument to Cristo el Redentor at the top. Many switchbacks to get here. Many more to get down the other side.
Really fun, loose rocky jeep road down to the border crossing. Down in that deep valley I again joined the paved highway just before customs. Given this is the main highway between Santiago Chile and Argentina, there was a line of cars at least 2 miles long approaching the gates. Ah, the beauty of bike travel. I breezed by, most drivers sitting by the roadside either cheered or jeered. Both reactions seemed reasonable.
I entered Chile by way of an oddly confusing set of office visits to customs. Given that I was not a tour bus nor private vehicle, nobody knew where to send me in the immense governmental structure. Eventually I was allowed through, but somehow felt there was something wrong with how the process went. More on that in a later post… For now, the paved highway dropped down toward Santiago in a hilariously dense set of switchbacks. I passed a couple of semi trucks holding up traffic and was able to sail down the turns at top speed with only open road ahead!
Temperatures rose as elevation dropped. A few thousand feet below the climate was fertile for grape vines, and so I entered Santiago’s wine country. I rolled through a few towns before finding a quiet camp spot by a vineyard.
One final day of highway riding led me into the progressively busy streets of Santiago. While I’ve ridden on busy paved roads in recent days/weeks, this was another level. This was a 10 lane highway with tons of traffic. Every on- and off-ramp was a hair-raisingly dangerous experience, but I could not find any other routes that connected me into town on side roads. So when I came across the familiar sight of a white bike by the roadside I knew my fears were substantiated. I truly hoped Santiago’s downtown would be more bikeable than the approach had been.