Photos, from two and a half months ago, on a different continent, the other hemisphere. Photos from winter while now in Maryland it’s summertime, but morning dew is still a thing. This photoset uploaded from home, where it’s nice to be back working farmers market routines, back to a different kind of relentless activity. Right now is the intermission before life back in California. But that’s now, and this is back then.
Photos. We leave the Carretera Austral via Paso Roballos, heading back to Argentina from Chile. See the fringe of snow on the mountaintops? We stay huddled in our sleeping bags all night long, and nights were long. It’s either Autumn or Winter, whichever, doesn’t matter, either way it’s late enough so far south that the dusk-time light stretches on and on, propelled by a sun that can’t quite hit the peak of the sky anymore. The dirt road over the pass deposits us onto Argentinean pampa, see the shrub bush by the roadside. Take the dirt until it ends and intersects Ruta 40. Follow paved highway lines into the sunset. Continue reading
There’s a road through southern Chile, northern Patagonia. It winds down past lakes and glaciers, cliffside bordered valleys, through historically small communities cut off by wilderness from the rest of the country, and the world. This road is called the Carretera Austral. It’s inevitably billed as one of the premier cycle touring routes in South America. Pinochet ordered the road’s construction in the 70s, one of a number of improvements that he introduced to Chile. Paul and I dropped onto this route a few days ago, game to make actual progress south on a dirt road.
Up the road, drop on singletrack to the shortcut bridge and up again back to a road. Finally riding once more a route that someone else researched and recorded, we know what looms ahead. The four to five day jaunt organized as a track through Chile’s Lake District. Turns out the road dirt is more like soft sand, the elevation profile a series of inverted v’s where you power up a short punchy climb only to descend and then do it all over again. Then you reach the volcanoes, where the up down up tapers off until the down doesn’t exist and its all climbing.
Cold. Not bitterly so but boardering that edge where it’s a touch chilly without a wind jacket yet clammily sweaty with it. Earlier, we woke up to a sun that peeked out of the clouds, morning warmth one minute scattered shivering the next. Now the sun’s given up and settled behind a thick overcast sky. This will continue all day. We’re en route to the next scheduled border crossing pass, this one at Volcan Copahue. Some friends attempted this crossing at the beginning of summer, they met snow impenetrable. We’re here 4 or 5 months later, a hint of snow peeks down from the highest peaks but mostly everything is bare now.
There are lines on the map, separated by a gap. These lines go up into the Andes, one approaching from the west, Chile, the other coming from the east, Argentina. All the mountain roads here go east and west. All thoughts of north-south progress remain on the plains outside the mountains. The traffic remains there too, so rather than fight for a place besides cars, we’ll spend some time traversing the range and then connect passes via some other means. First up: Paso Piuquenes to Paso Portillo, from Santiago, Chile to Mendoza, Argentina.
Santiago – San Gabriel – Paso Piuquenes – Refugio Real de la Cruz – Paso Portillo – Refugio Portinari – Tunuyan – Mendoza.
Photo by Lee Vilinsky.
When I was growing up I was told “Go west, young man” and that ended up shaping my life, so far. It still holds true here in Argentina and Chile; a week of going south in Argentina is enough of dusty desert riding and so the bike gets pointed west back towards Chile. There’s a thin road on the maps leading up into the Andes, promising another low traffic dirt pass: Paso Pichachen.
First say goodbye to Lee, traditional cyclist farewell involves two rounds of bakery-bought cake, dulce de leche permeated sweetness. Lee continues south, bound to a tighter deadline for wrapping up his tour. The end of my trip is coming, but there’s still a bit of time left.
Set off solo again, probably for the last time on this journey. A meet-up with Paul is scheduled when he finishes riding in northern Chile and Argentina. But for now it’s just Ace and me on the road, a return to mental contemplation accompanied by legs pumping up and down, over and over. It’s far enough south that the sun comes up early and sets late, and these are the best days to let thoughts swirl however they may.
There was a brief stint of riding in northern Chile. Then there was a jump ahead to go spend the holidays with a friend from home and her family. It’s been a while on the road, and the end looms near. Being able to spend time welcomed and treated as part of a family, incredible. Thank you.
We have alternative extended families in other cyclists, effectively. The cyclist network connects more or less all of us now. So many of us are looking at calendars and it’s been 1 year, 2 years, maybe more that we’ve been on the road. Slowly we meet each other, slowly word gets passed around of who else is nearby or rode through in the past few months. Slowly the network grows. By the time we get to central Chile and Argentina, we all know each other one way or another.
Chile. Been here now for a few weeks, and it’s been a bit of an adjustment. To being in a wealthy country, around people and family like me. There’s this idea of beauty being found in extremes, from scorching deserts to freezing arctic tundra, and in that, Bolivia does not disappoint.
Press on further and further into the desert. Vegetation disappears entirely in places, llamas and their companions roam in larger and larger circles looking for food. When the winds come, they kick up mini-sandstorms. Duck behind the mini-dunes to hide, pull up the hood of your raincoat. Wait it out. Empty your pockets later and you’ll find you’ve since been carting around a few extra grams of dirt.
Bike and body washed clean of salt, leave Uyuni heading south. Washboard roads give way to faint tracks etched across the desert, road heads for the provincial capitol but that’s not to say it’s a highly trafficked destination. Aiming for the Eduardo Avaroa National Reserve, home to distinctly colored mineral lakes, and on the other side of that, Chile.
Skirting the edge of the altiplano, from pancake flat roads re-enter the mountainous border and once again start planning daily distances by how many passes are in the way. En route to the first pass, start to take breaks huddled against roadside rock walls, the only windbreaks around. Would have been a good day to set up camp early instead of fighting the daily late-afternoon winds, but lacking water to cook press on over the pass to the next village. Sleep there at the local hospital, am offered a bed in a room where a patient is sleeping but that seems a little questionable. Instead they put a mattress out in the entrance room and I’ll pass out there.
Salt flats, Bolivian cycling classic.
The smaller Salar de Coipasa to the north, ride off soft sand corrugations and all of a sudden the ground becomes flat, reflecting white everywhere, hard but the topmost layer away from the “highways” crunches as wheels turn over it. This southwest corner of Bolivia, nearby in Chile too, is full of salty ground. The Altiplano region is surrounded by mountains, and what little moisture there is has no way to drain away, instead evaporating and leaving behind salt. In such an environment, moisturizer (uses: human skin, and rubber o-rings on mechanical equipment) is a great thing to carry.