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


Allyson said...

Hello you intrepid two,
great to hear your exploits, it looks fantastic and we all love seeing pictures of you both - Gemma I want an aardvark top like yours!!
The kids keep asking when Gemma and Ian are going to come to our house again, they have finally started to wonder where you are.
Ian, have a truly wonderful 30th, what a way to celebrate it, send lots of pictures, we want to see what you get up to.
Have an amazing birthday, love Allyson, Matt, Stella

Allyson said...

and Felix. (oops)

Globalmum said...

We are both so thrilled to see your adventures unfolding - the pictures are amazing and you are doign such a great job describing things too. There must be a book in here somewhere - perhaps a job working for Lonley Planet even?
Can't wait to hear all abour Easter Island. Love you both loads, Mum (2)