Days 79 to 87: Chos Malal to Mendoza, and the end of "Part One"
FINISHED (Part One!)! On "Friday 13th" May 2016, around 1pm, I rolled into Plaza Independencia, the central square of Mendoza. With over 4000km biked and another 300km hiked, the great Patagonian bike & hike brought itself to a conclusion. If I was cycling end-to-end in New Zealand, I would have just finished lap number 2; if this were Lands End to John O'Groats in the UK, I'd be somewhere on lap number 4.
Slightly mixed feelings about finishing - with my own transport, tent when I needed it, and in a part of the world with a low population density & a lot of space, it's been a very independent way to travel - I'm going to miss the total independence I've had over the last 3 months. But I'm also feeling done for now anyway - my legs feel pretty destroyed and the rest of my body isn't far behind, & it will be nice to arrive back in London for the rest of Spring & Summer once I've had another week here to chill.
The day I left Chos Malal to begin the final week up to Mendoza was a case in point - the first 60km took me around the base of a volcano nearly 4000m high - problem is I never saw it! That's how thick & low the cloud cover was - even more of a fog at times, with visibility rarely much more than 100 metres. It had me feeling a little vulnerable on the bike too.
Luckily the weather picked up for the next few days & I had a stretch of amazingly good luck with random goings-on. Firstly I found a super-friendly bike repair shop in the smallest little town - my bike had developed an issue where the back wheel didn't appear to spin as freely as it should & the cycling felt harder work - turned out one of my brake discs had been knocked out of alignment and was rubbing against the brake. The guy re-aligned it all on the spot & refused to charge me any money because of the type of trip I was on. He also had an incredible selection of tiny (about 20-30cm long) bikes he'd made out of spare parts - but what made them even more incredible is that they were actually functional as well, with pedals, chains & some even had front & rear suspension!
Another highlight was a day I knew was going to be a wild camping day since there was no town for ages and I would be properly in the middle of nowhere - half an hour before sunset I decided to get off the road and noticed a few simple huts made out of stones from the nearby river and stuck together with dried mud. I was eyeing the huts up with interest when suddenly an old man came out of one of them! In broken Spanish I managed to figure out that he and another guy were the shepherds of a large herd of goats out here, and that I was welcome to sleep in one of the huts if I wanted. The roof looked like it might not do so well in a heavy downpour, but it had an earth floor and was easily big enough for me to put my tent up inside so I did that.
I was about boil up some pasta when I heard them start shouting my name from the larger hut where they lived - a couple of people they knew were passing by, so they'd just killed a goat and were about to cook it on a long metal skewer over the fireplace (there was no electricity, gas or running water in these parts - although they did live on the shores of a river which came straight off the Andes). They asked me if I wanted to join, since there was plenty. Didn't take much to convince me! Their friends had a bought a couple of large bottles of booze with them too, one was a cafe cognac which we necked straight from the bottle, plus a bottle of Fernet which i mixed with coke in my plastic mug. So random how these things can turn out sometimes - cycling through the middle of nowhere but still going to bed in a mud hut with a belly full of booze & BBQ-ed goat!
Things took another turn the next day, when I arrived in the tiny town of Bardas Blancas, which must have less that 100 houses. However, not only was it a Saturday night - it was also the night of their annual fiesta! It had only been a week since I'd ridden into that food festival unawares - to have something similar happen the weekend after as well seemed pretty lucky. The emphasis on the festival wasn't the food however, it was clearly more a community gathering of the town & nearby villages with lots of folk-dancing (which involved a bunch of set moves while waving handkerchiefs around), boozing, a bit of rodeo earlier in the day & in the evening included a beauty pageant for "queen of the fiesta" among 3 of the local teenage girls.
By the time the party was in full swing (around 11pm) the numbers had swelled to around 1000 I guess with a couple of hundred 4WDs parked in the field next to the tent. I can be pretty certain I was the only foreigner there, and the organiser spotted me and came to talk with me about my trip. A little later on the night the music stopped for a bit & he got on stage to give a short speech giving thanks to those who'd helped organising - and decided to add on a spiel at the end welcoming Steve from New Zealand who's travelled here by bicycle! Suddenly I was the centre of attention for a bit with people all looking at me which was a tad uncomfortable since I was pretty boozed at that point, but then the band kicked in again and everyone went back to partying. Although it was scheduled to go to about 4am, after a day in the saddle I was done by 2am & headed off to bed.
A couple of days later I hit Lujan de Cuyo - a satellite town 20km short of Mendoza but very handy to a lot of the vineyards. Since I hadn't had a rest day in ages, and as I wanted a day to collect my thoughts before riding into Mendoza, I holed up there for a day for a bit of a gastronomic pre-party before things got properly underway in Mendoza - but as that gastronomic party is still ongoing I'll write more about that a little later.