Argentina & Chile with Style: Part 1

Neuquén to Bariloche (602 miles, 17 days)

“I can’t do this – this is not what I signed up for – how can it be this hard – WILL YOU BLOODY WAIT” I was screaming my hardest but because of the gale force wind batting my words away they never reached Tim. He was patiently waiting for me for around the tenth time that morning, feeling the freezing wind and I’m pretty sure he was wishing I would get a move on.

We had been in Argentina for all of 4 days by this point. John and Sue D had very kindly dropped us off at Gatwick where we’d had the usual ‘bike in a plastic bag’ hassle (where’s the box??) but the bikes had eventually been accepted and we were on our way. A large taxi whisked us off to the domestic airport in Buenos Aires where we had a few hours to wait for our next flight to Neuquén, mid Argentina. Once again we were told the plastic bag wrapped bikes would not be allowed. I had downloaded the bike baggage rules on my phone and after a lengthy, somewhat panicked discussion – and Tim nearly going through the scanner himself in his effort to show the bike did indeed fit – we were off.

Neuquén was a large extremely hot town. The 40 degrees hit us like an oven but we were glad the flights were now behind us and we could start our trip in earnest. The first day we had some admin to deal with – get some money changed, buy a sim card for our ‘abroad’ phone, find methylated spirits so we could eat and finally buy some food. All this was done relatively easily much to our delight and we spent a peaceful night in a nice hostel. The following day I found one of my water bottle holders was broken. Luckily we found a cycle shop along our route.

It was whilst I was buying a new bottle holder that Tim realised he had left both our locks behind at the hostel. This was bad and good – bad because they were the ideal locks for our trip and he was frustrated that he’d left them behind. Good because we were in a bike shop and could buy some more! They weren’t the same quality but the shop owners seemed so pleased with their sale they gave us a sunhat each to wear whilst they took pictures for their website!!

We continued to cycle west towards the Andes where we would cross the mountains into Chile. I hoped the climb wouldn’t be in such extreme heat (be careful what you wish for Sally). To start with we had to follow a fairly major road and sometimes the lorries came too close for comfort. The hard shoulder was deep gravel and very difficult to ride on when we felt unsafe. One lorry forced Tim into the gravel and as he tried to turn to get back onto the road the bike slid from under him. The graze on his arm would heal quickly but he had hurt his wrist and it quickly swelled up from the bottom of his thumb and a few inches up his arm. It could have been broken but Tim being Tim didn’t want to be bothered with x ray machines! However it did take around 6 weeks for the pain to go completely.

The scenery was desert like and extremely dry. This bus shelter was the only shade we could find and we took the opportunity to have our usual lunch of tuna and dried biscuits.

On the third night we arrived at a campsite that was quite basic but fine for our needs and cost £1.50 each. There were a number of people there having BBQs and playing ball games but as darkness came they all packed up and left (one handing us a large packet of dried biscuits on their way past our tent). Eventually we were alone with only a couple of stray dogs under the trees for company.

The next day we felt the wind on our tent and knew straight away it was going to be ‘breezy’. Tim cycled in front and I tucked in as best I could. We were now on a much quieter road at the bottom of the climb towards the Andes. The wind increased during the day and we realised the 68 miles on the schedule was not going to happen. We could possibly do around half which would bring us to a small ski resort (two buildings) at which the internet had mentioned a café. All day we struggled against the wind but the thought of the café kept us going and eventually we rounded a corner and there it was – completely derelict. It looked like it hadn’t been opened for years and it was getting late and cold. I could not believe that I’d been too hot the previous day and now I was shivering. Putting just about all my layers on, we found the cleanest room and I swept away the debris with a broken branch that acted like a broom. Tim quickly made a fire whilst I tried to block the wind coming into the window hole (no glass) with lots of branches. It worked a bit and we began to feel better – especially after eating one of our ‘emergency’ meals of stew in a bag. We slept on the floor and even my fears of someone finding us and taking our belongings or dogs attacking us couldn’t keep me awake and I slept soundly.

The wind hadn’t improved during the night and if anything was worse. With heavy hearts we packed up and knew that the next stage involved gravel roads. At this point I wasn’t used to riding on gravel. My wheels began to skid on the stones and it was all I could do to keep the heavy bike upright. As we climbed the wind increased and for many miles I had to push the bike at a frustratingly slow pace. I didn’t think it could get any worse but it did as the wind began creating huge dust clouds that threw tiny stones into our faces and dust into our eyes. We had to stop every few steps just to look away. I began shouting into the wind and was completely and utterly exhausted. During this time very few cars passed us but those that did stopped and offered us water and bread and even a lollypop – it was so kind of them and the very fact they had cared helped me to push through.

Some hours later we found ourselves on the other side and managed to ride as the road wound down the mountain. It was late evening when we eventually found a campsite and collapsed into a heap. “I didn’t think it would be like this so early on in the trip” Tim said cheerfully as we ate our dinner of pasta and sauce. I didn’t reply.

The following day was exciting – we were going to the Chilean border and I was looking forward to seeing what this new country would be like. The wind had dropped a little but the rain had started and we packed a very wet – and therefore heavy – tent. It was also only just above freezing and a struggle to keep our hands and feet warm. We reached the border where we were asked to remove our helmets before entering a large, hot office. We had to go to three different officials before being allowed to continue which took well over an hour – a very strict border crossing compared to all the ones we’d gone across in Europe. They needed to know we didn’t have any fresh foods and wanted full details of our bikes for which we were given a receipt that we would have to show when leaving the country to prove they were ours. We had warmed up too much in this office and when we left the cold and rain once again hit us.

Leaving the border the road turned to tarmac (the greatest invention ever) and we continued to our campsite – once there we found it empty and very water logged – we spoke to a man nearby who said we could have a Cabana for £30. I waited for Tim to say ‘no we would find a campsite thank you very much’ but as the man described the log burning stove, little kitchen and bed Tim (who was now shivering, cold and wet through) said yes. What a fantastic decision (the only time we stayed in a cabana!)

The following day we were back on gravel and wet muddy gravel is not great for the bikes! However, it was fun cycling alongside a lake and feeling a sense of achievement that we had crossed the Andes and were now heading toward the Lake District of Chile.

That night we took a small path off the road and ended up at a lovely little campsite. We were the only people there (quite lucky as there was only one toilet and shower!). In Chile all the campsites automatically have a table and bench, bbq area and water with every pitch. This is fantastic for Tim who hates sitting on the floor. That evening we cycled into the small local town and saw pretty buildings, shops selling just about everything and fantastic murals on the walls. I felt really content and happy and glad to be there.

The following day we were back on tarmac and raring to go. We ended up cycling nearly 80 miles to a town called Villarrica – a large touristy town where we treated ourselves to a delicious breakfast. We had decided to cycle to Pucon and try to climb a volcano we had read about at home. We had watched the sun go down over the volcano the previous night from our campsite and it was in our sights for most of the ride that day. The road was very busy with traffic and with little or no verge it was quite a white knuckle ride. Once in Pucon a man stopped us and said “we passed you in our car – I’m so glad you have arrived safely”. I tried not to think about the fact I still had to cycle back along the same road!

We booked to climb the volcano the next day with a company that would provide everything we didn’t have – boots, ice axe, crampons and a rucksack as well as warm clothing. We had to be at their office at 6am so cycled from the campsite the next day in the dark. Our guide, Nacho, turned up and began by explaining everything to us. We had a large plastic plate in our rucksack that we would use to get down the mountain. This sounded like far too much excitement for me but I was committed. We were taken by an elderly gentleman who owned the company to the base of the volcano and then started our long climb to the top. It was very steep in places but the path zigzagged across the ice and we were shown how to kick into the snow and ice to help keep balance as well as use the ice axes as walking sticks. There were many large groups on the volcano and I was keen to get to the top without hundreds of other people ruining the view! Nacho was brilliant and walked at a very steady pace. We followed in his footsteps and were able to keep going, passing group after group when they stopped to rest. It made a big difference being just the two of us as our ‘rests’ took very little time compared to a group of 15. Eventually we reached the top first but just in front of the first big group, so eagerly took our photos. Our Guide kept telling us how well we’d done for ‘older’ people and couldn’t help but ask how old we were. He was probably early 20s so I guess 60 sounded impossibly old!

The volcano was fantastic – it is one of the largest active ones and spurted gasses out at us every few seconds. Luckily the wind was blowing away from us or we would have had to use the gas masks buried deep in our rucksacks.

The way down was unbelievably fun – we had to clip the plastic disk to our belts and then put it between our legs and sit on it, sliding down narrow gullies and using our ice axes to ‘brake’. I felt like a kid again and it felt good. What we hadn’t realised were two things – we were extremely lucky with the weather – warm and clear and secondly that it was very unusual for a guide to just have two clients. Nacho told us the day before he had 12 people and the next day was booked for 9 which was likely to increase. Back in town we treated ourselves to meat and chips before cycling back along the main road to Villiarica – still busy but not so bad on a late Sunday afternoon!

The next couple of days were nice rides along lakesides on tarmac. We then caught a ferry and were back on gravel where we crossed back in Argentina.

After the border crossing we saw a café sign down a narrow track. It was getting a bit late in the day but we decided to go for it – cafés can be few and far between – we followed the narrow track and it wound it’s was through field after field. I’d just begun to despair when a ranch style building came into sight and outside, in a pretty garden area and pristine lawn, were table and chairs set out with linen table cloths. It was really lovely and we enjoyed tea and cake. A large bird called a Carancho was nesting nearby and we spent an age watching it.

By the time we left it was late in the day and I was really disappointed when we found the campsite in the next town was up a very narrow track which would have meant pushing our bikes for 3 km. We chose to carry on and luckily a campsite came into view just a few miles further. The following day involved a big climb through the mountains before finally reaching the town of Bariloche. We spent a rest day here before setting off on our next stage to Villa O’Higgins

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