Friday, March 27, 2009

A different kind of milestone.

The road over the high Andes was of course high and quite difficult. It could also have been avoided had we not wanted such an outlandish detour for our first big milestone on the trip.
Never mind thousands of kms or miles, Ian was turning 30!

To help make the occassion pass with as little worry as possible, Easter Island was booked up and off we went. Santiago being very smoggy and uninteresting deserves little mention other than having an amazing view from the aeroplane once it reached above cloud level.

Five hours West (by plane) from South America and you reach Easter Island (Rapa Nui), the most isolated inhabited place in the world. From here it is another 6 hours to Tahiti, 5 hours to Hawai'i, or 5 hours back to Santiago. Such an islolated place is bound to develop an interesting history but for descendants of other Polynesians, Rapa Nui managed to outdo them all by building giant monolithic figures to worship.

Hundreds of years later people from all over the world (but mainly from Japan) would come to visit these giants.

And also to see the endemic "Fluffeared Cow"...

During this lovely break we had the luxury of hiring a car for a couple of days to help us rest the cycling muscles. Ian first thought the jeep was a birthday present but soon realised it would be difficult to get it home.

To make sure Ian didn't forget he was getting old, Gemma found some candles to light for every meal he wanted. Ian made sure he didn't forget he was still a big child by monkeying around with the candles. To make sure nobody else found out he also ran around shouting childish obsenities at people - pooballs!

After 6 days on the island we had found ourselves out of places to visit. We packed up, still amazed and in wonder, and headed back to Chile to find the bikes.
It's difficult to explain the wonder of the Moai in words, the pictures are better but still nowhere near as amazing as seeing them up close...

The birdman cult eventually took over the island and led to crazies jumping off cliffs to catch eggs. The carvings on this rock look nothing like the giant pile of bones at the bottom of the cliff.

Once we get over our jolly we wil be back on the bikes and we will be starting again from Mendoza (Argentina) heading north to Villa Union.
We will update again soon, love to everybody back at home,

Ian (old) and Gem xx

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Our first major mounatin pass.

Arriving in Mendoza with the bikes on the back of a bus was no problem. Off we went straight to the vineyards to drink some wine.

As it turned out we had arrived just in time for the start of the annual wine festival which is a big celebration in such a big wine producing region. Gemma - after many bottles of red wine - managed to get herself involved with the dancing but without the fancy dresses. The costumes were spectacular and the streets were full with colour, music and drunks.

With little sleep we headed off the next morning to start our ascent of the first major mountain pass on our trip. The Paso de Libertadores rises to 3,200m over the Andes, the road passing the mighty Aconcagua along the way.

Using our trusty maps (which have been wrong everywhere) we headed off to Cacherhue which was along a road helping us cut out many miles of highway. Just a few miles from the end of this road, locals at a restaurant told us the road was no longer passable. We were close to ignoring the advice until an Ozzy member of staff translated for us; "The road is not passable because a huge dam has been built, a massive resevouir has been formed and the old road lies right at the bottom of this vast new sea."

After a quick meal and some lenghty discussion, we decided it would be best not to continue on this road.

Eventually (the next day) we passed the resevoir on the highway, it was no Kielder in size, but the road clearly went straight to the bottom where we would have found cycling very dificult.

The road gradually took us uphill - not very steeply - but it seemed to go on for days. Two days in fact to Uspallata. This town was just half way up the pass. It was in this town that Gemma experienced her first earthquake. The ground shook, the dogs howled, cats ran up Gemmas back to safety and Ian was later found hiding under a large copper pot - a trick he learned years ago in Turkey.

From Uspallata the pass became a bit more steep. Turning from one valley into another presented us with headwinds and blazing heat. We were forced to find shelter, a campsite smelling of death was not an option so we managed to find room at a random Army barracks. The guys were great hosts, feeding us too.

The barracks happened to be opposite a wonderful but bizarre natural phenomenon. Puente del Inca is a natural stone bridge overhanging the river here, coloured by minerals found in the thermal waters.

The next day we cycled past the valley leading to Aconcagua. This giant mounatin - the largest outside all those Himalayan ranges - didn´t look anywhere near as big as the one next to it. Eric was convinced that it was a giant termite hill and declared it to be"Antoncagua". He then mumbled something about being tired and not being able to climb up it, so off we went.

With just 20kms of uphill to go, Gemma declared herself to be a proper cyclist and donned her cycling jersey for the first time. The aardvark on the jersey caused all sorts of chaos in Ians panniers as Eric was jumping about and screaming wildly.

Eventually at the top of the pass, we came to the tunnel. The actual mountain pas is at 3,800m but some genius mind thought up building a tunnel at 3,200m because the last part was so steep. If only this genius had thought up building it from around 1,000m he would have saved us 3 days of hard work.

The tunnel was long. Because of this it was full of exhaust fumes from al the trucks, buses and cars that pass through every day. A nice man at the check post zoomed up in a mini van and threw our bikes on it. At the other side we were faced with a massive downhill stretch.

Around 20kms of looping switchbacks followed by about 40kms of still steep winding roads. It was difficult taking photos while travelling so fast and having sparks and fire flaring from the brakes.
The road is much steeper on the Chilean side and we were very glad to have changed our plans so as to cycle it this way. Cyclists going the other way looked absolutely exhausted.

We spent a night at the bottom of the hill in a town called Los Andes. Unable to find accomodation easily we ended up staying at one of those hotels where you pay by the hour. Needless to say we avoided the jacuzzi at fear of having to swap keys or go flashing car lights. We then headed for Valparaiso on the coast. We had heard and read great things about the city. It is a very popular place for Chileans to spend their holidays, by the sea in a colourful city full of character and charm. The road there soon came across a long tunnel; this was the PanAmerican Highway, very busy, loads of traffic and loads of drunk drivers. We turned back - cycling the wrong way down the motorway - because that was the safest thing to do.

This meant another stopover in a town called Llay-llay. With absolutely no tourist infrastructure whatsoever, there was not a single hotel, hostel, or park bench to sleep at.

On our parents advice (from yonks ago) we went to the local police. After lots of laughter and phoning all their friends to tell them of the stupid foreign cyclists, we were offered a night in a cupboard - or maybe it was a cell. Anyway, luckily some helpful fella had found us a room at the local bus depot, right opposite the big garlic processing factory. Yummy.
The next day we arrived by bus in Valparaiso. All those desriptions we had read and heard were clearly made up by somebody who visited here on a massive bender. The colour, charm and character left this place about a hundred years ago, being replaced with stench, stink and skank.

Because we are now waiting for our flights to Easter Island next week - we are lucky enough to have to spend a whole 4 days being diseased by this wretched pit. Maybe we should go on a massive bender like the guidebook researchers clearly do.

Our next update should be after our trip to Easter Island. We´re both very excited, Gemma more so, because she gets to laugh at Ian turning 30 while we are there.

We hope everybody is well back home, love to all,

Ian and Gemma xxxx

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

What a difference!

Volcan Villarrica was the end of our stay in the Lakes district of both Argentina and Chile. With still a month to go until we need to be in Santiago (800kms north) we had some big choices to make.

We could either leg it up the Pan-American highway and see nothing, possibly choke or more likely get squished by a drunk trucker. We could be in Santiago in a week, leaving us plenty of time to relax and wash - maybe even a trip to the beach at one of the coastal towns.

Another option was to head to the Pacific coast and visit the many towns and beaches along the way. It would be safer than the Pan-Am but further and we have no idea of the road conditions.

So we decided to stick to our original plan which was to head back to Argentina for a few more weeks.

We had thought about going over Paso Icalma - it would have led us to a beautiful lake with some small towns along the way. We were close to taking this road.

From Villarrica we headed for a town called Cunco which was not far from the bottom of the pass. Arriving here after a very long day of more unexpected ripio (all our maps showed paved roads here) we were told that the road over the pass was under construction.

Road works in Chile are a nightmare. Tackling 50km stretches at a time, the labour-force of just 20 are clearly daunted by the massive task. So they hang around talking to each other, peer into holes, shovel stones around and wave at anything that goes past. We have rarely seen heavy machinery being used purposefully. And after cycling through probably 200-300kms of roadworks in Chile, we have not once seen them laying tar-mac.

Almost turning back on ourselves we headed for Temuco, a big city on the Pan-American highway. The plan was to then get a bus to Zapala in Argentina and cycle north from there.

Not a very nice place but it had everything you would expect from a city so we were quite happy.

Arriving at the bus station in the morning with plenty of time to spare we found our bus. So had the other 50 passengers. As soon as the luggage doors opened all hell broke loose. The boxes and bags being pushed in were getting bigger and bigger. Ian managed to grab the luggage-monkey and point out that he needed to put the bikes in soon and then put the other luggage around them.

Ignoring this advice the luggage-monkey carried on throwing luggage around and screaming wildly. Eventually all the luggage was loaded, the people were on the bus and the driver was revving the engine. At this point Ian had hold of the luggage-monkey and was pointing back at the bikes and asking what he was going to do with them.

"No possible. Mañana, mañana!"

This was immediately followed with a big arguement in the office. Absolutely nobody in that office had a clue who was saying what.

The bus left without us.

The following morning (at 3am!) we were back at the bus station - deja vu was setting in when the crowds descended on the luggage-monkey with more huge boxes. Luckily this monkey was slightly further along the evolutionary stages and was able to understand when told the bikes need to be in there first, luggage around them.

Off we went. Here are some monkey puzzle trees on rocks...

Ten hours later we were in Zapala. To celebrate we headed for the local swimming pool - it was a blisteringly hot day. After passing the medical examinations and nit-checks Ian jumped straight in and surfaced with icicles on his face. Gemma followed and could barely swim - it's not easy when you can't feel your limbs.

Cycling north from Zapala took us to Las Lajas and then onto Chos Malal along Ruta 40, one of the longest national highways in the world. In these three days (250kms) we had realised this was a different world to Chile. In the shadow of the Andes there is barely any water. The river beds were almost all dry, the wildlife was very different (snakes, spiders, scorpions!) and it was so hot! After the winds of Patagonia we had not wanted to encounter any more throughout the rest of the trip. Here in the heat we were relieved by the slightest of breezes as it cooled us down for all of two seconds.

Just before arriving in Chos Malal we were met by a couple of cyclists... Olivier and Caroline who we had last seen in Puerto Natales in December! We hadn't seen any other cyclists for quite a while so it was nice to be reminded we were not alone. And then all of a sudden, a couple of Belgian cyclists turned up. Bizarre how we all can meet in one place, absolutely miles from anywhere.

Mad Max style house - middle of nowhere in the pampa...

Through the "valley of the dinosaurs" we found these. Gemma reckons they're called Geodes???
Ian is positive they are fossilised dinosaur eggs, "you can still see where the yolk was, and look, a claw!".

Now, we are in Chos Malal. Some serious map studying has shown us that we don't really have enough time to cycle to Mendoza and then to Santiago in time for the flights to Easter Island. So from Chos Malal we will take the bus on Friday north to Mendoza. Missing out many kilometeres of empty Pampa. This leaves us with enough time to cycle from Mendoza to Uspalata before crossing the pass and back into Chile. Its a shame to miss cycling this part but we would rather bus it than miss our flights!

Gemma showing off her white bits; nice cyclist tan.

So the next post should be from Santiago, in a few weeks before we head off to Easter Island for Ians 30th!

Love to everyone

Ian and Gemma xxxxx