Days 102 to 114: The Great Backroads Adventure
12 days cycling just to get between one shop and the next...
I feel like we spend so much of our lives in a crowded environment that I guess it’s a luxury to spend the better part of 2 weeks cycling through a part of the planet that’s nearly entirely empty of human population. Such is the case in a remote part of the Andes running nearly 900km along the Argentina/Chile border, containing two high passes at 4300 metres and 4700 meters. The luxury is ironic though, as the passage is anything but luxurious. I didn’t find any other cyclists planning the same excursion around the same time, so knuckled under and decided to go alone.
After Carnival finished up in Villa Union, I cycled the 70km up to Vinchina which would contain the last shop I would see for the next 12 days. It felt daunting as I loaded 2 weeks worth (adding a few days contingency....) of pasta, porridge oats, muesli bars etc onto the bike. Natural waters sources would only be occasional too (for some reason a lot of the streams up there run salty, but there are exceptions) so packed 6 litres of capacity on as well. It all felt so heavy it seemed a drag to cycle on the flat, let alone face the 3000 meter ascent from 1300 meters up to 4300 meters over the coming couple of days.
The mountains on the ascent are surreal as they’re also basically a desert. Most weather patterns move from west to east, but the Andes are so high that most of the rain falls on the Chilean side and never gets through to this part of Argentina. Hence the result is something akin to being on another planet entirely.
A couple of nights were spent in two 19th century stone “refugio” buildings at 3600 and 4300 metres, built initially to provide shelter for those caught in storms when traversing the high passes. One of those involved in building the refugios back around 1870 suffered severe burns when a lantern fell, and died of his injuries. His skeleton now rests in an open tomb built off one of the Refugio walls, so at least I had company on one night even if he didn’t say a lot.
The ascent from 3600 to 4300 metres was really tough, as the lungs of those of us who live closer to sea level aren’t initially able to cope well with big tests of stamina over 3500 metres without a few days to adjust. The tarmac also vanished around 3000 metres and was replaced with a challenging mix of dirt, rocks and sand. Sand is impossible to cycle, so spent decent chunks of time walking the bike as I struggled to make the most of the available oxygen (had some drugs from my GP which helped). With the exception of one 40km stretch, it would be another 8 days before I saw tarmac again.
I then had a fleeting encounter with civilisation at the border, where the combined Argentina/Chile immigration office that stamps passports had a spare bed for the night plus a bit of hot water and patchy WiFi. The next morning I suffered severe headwinds as I rolled into Chile with my lungs still struggling to adapt. I finally made it over the first pass, Pircas Negras, and a speedy descent took me to the old Chilean immigration post which is now abandoned and derelict. Still, it had a roof and walls so I made myself at home for the evening. During the entire day I saw only one car all day which set a record in terms of absence of traffic for all my cycling holidays.
The next morning I had the dubious distinction of seeing one of nature’s big cats, the puma, in the wild. It was walking on the other side of the valley from me. Only about 30 metres away but separated by a steep drop down to a fast flowing stream. Our eyes locked and I was torn between the urge to snap off a photo or pedal like fucken crazy, and the latter urge triumphed. No photos of that I do apologise, but I did feel the need to move on pretty smartly. Pumas aren’t known for attacking people, they’re actually timid of human interaction. But still, no point finding the exception to the rule....
Having dropped back to 2600m on the Chilean side, the ascent towards the 4700m San Francisco Pass began. There’s about a 20km stretch off limits to cyclists at the moment as a mining company has a temporary base up there hacking gold and silver out of a mountain, so had to load my bike on the back of a pick-up and be “escorted” through.
Even motorists can’t drive through freely and have to wait for an escort vehicle to accompany them. Apparently when gold and silver are involved, someone has to keep an eye on you! My name, passport number, and exact time of entry into the mine area had to be recorded. One of the mining guys was determined to ride my bike around and complained big time about how heavy it felt.
The next couple of nights were spent next to two high alpine lagoons - first, Negra Francisco lagoon at 4100 metres and then the incredible Santa Rosa lagoon at 3800 metres. The ambience of the latter was just fantastic, surrounded by snowy peaks and with pink flamingos abundant on the lakes surface. The only money I spent in 12 days was there, as there was a National Park entry fee to pay plus the opportunity to score a bed inside at a refugio building administered by a friendly local called Patricio, or Patu as he preferred. He was also fond of playing tunes on his Chilango, which is similar to a ukelele but has 10 strings and hails from Bolivia.
After battling through some horrendous sand roads, I made it to the Chilean immigration office at the base of the San Francisco pass where I met Patrick and Ratna from Hike Bike the World, who I’d followed on Facebook for a while. They’ve been anywhere and everywhere between Alaska and Argentina since 2015!
The next morning as I cycled up towards the San Francisco pass, 3 friendly locals pulled over and asked if I needed food or water, but told them I has plenty of both. Several hours later I pulled off the main road and followed a gravel track to a free refugio building way up in the mountains and at the base of the tallest volcano in the world, Ojos de Salada at 6900 meters. I couldn’t help but laugh when I saw a solitary car parked outside- it was that of the same 3 guys. Turns out they’re big climbing enthusiasts and had flown out to Africa to tackle Kilimanjaro the year before. Their next goal was the huge volcáno which loomed large overhead. It was a fun night of banter at 4500 meters as I steeled myself to tackle the final pass the next morning.
The road dropped back to 4300m and rolled through a valley surrounded by volcanic cones which was beautiful, before leaving me with one final 400 meter climb to hit the 4700m summit. The lungs were put to the test again, and i found myself stopping every few minutes to take some deep yoga-style breaths before continuing. Eventually I rolled over the top, and my moment of glory was shared with a couple of rosdworkers up there doing some improvements who gave me a round of applause!
I then spent 1.5 days bombing down from 4700m to 1500m over 210km of smooth tarmac, riding through some awesome rocky valleys before rolling into the small town of Fiambala where I saw my first shop in 12 days and had my first opportunity for a shower in 8 days. The washing machine at the backpackers was broke so I hand-washed a few clothes - you shoulda seen that water turn black.....