Aconcagua

Aconcagua is a mountain that has had an important place in my imagination since I was a teen, perhaps as a result of reading Alive, the story of survival in the Andes, in a high school English class.  When I first started dreaming this trip three years ago, I contemplated riding to Aconcagua up as high as the mules go and then climbing to the top.  As I checked further, the prices would put that plan out of reach.  The climbing permit itself is about $1,000, even more if you don’t hire a guide.  Estimates put the total cost of the climb at $5,000.  And although it is not a very technical climb, the conditions on the mountain would be difficult for someone with little climbing experience and even less high altitude experience.  After ruling out a climb of Aconcagua, I looked at other mountains in the Andes.  However, I did still want to cycle as close to Aconcagua as I could.

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My first view of Aconcagua, 200-250 km away.  I would not see it again until I was much closer.

I was eager to finally leave Mendoza.  I had intended to leave a couple of days earlier, but stomach issues had kept me there.  The day started out nice.  The city seemed to go on forever along the road.  Once outside of the city it was vineyards everywhere.

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I was headed up to the reservoir that made all the vineyards possible.  By about 2:00 the grades were more serious and by 3:00 my stomach was doing somersaults.  I was not over whatever I had.  I was drinking water by the liter but was unable to quench my thirst.  At one point someone pulled over to offer me a drink.  I drank a liter of juice but to no affect.  I was so happy to arrive at the reservoir and Potrerillos and find the campground.  An hour later I was feeling much better.

The reservoir was quite low, drained to water all those grapes below.  I was told that it would be full again by the end of February when the grapes would be harvested.

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The next day contrasted greatly.  I was definitely in the mountains now.  As I climbed higher I had to stop around every corner and take pictures.  It was to me an otherworldly landscape.  I had never seen mountains like this before.

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An abandoned railway line ran alongside the road and at times on the other side of the Mendoza river.

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All along the line were abandoned railway buildings.

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After a terrible day of riding I had one of the best days of the trip so far.  I was feeling great and treated to spectacular views.  I was reaching elevations where the heat of the day did not kick you in the gut and the nights were cool.  I rolled into Uspallata, found the tourist info booth, and discovered they had free wifi so I hunkered down there for a while.  Later I found a hotel.

The next day I rolled out Uspallata wondering when and if I would see Aconcagua again. Just as I left town a goat herder was moving his flock alongside the road.  In this dry landscape the only herd animals I had seen were goats.  I was still hoping to see llamas.

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The three goat herding dogs forgot about their duties for a couple of minutes and came to pay me a visit.

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Mendoza River

Mendoza River

The further along I cycled, the more the Mendoza River valley narrowed, the water ran faster, and the grades steepened.  The day before had been marked by a constant low grade climb.  This day had a lot of ups and downs, mostly ups.  Soon the road was hanging precariously on the side of the mountain.

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The first railing either fell off or was knocked off.

Old road

Old road

There was a waterfall there as well.

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I started the day with a nice tail breeze.  But by 35 km in the wind turned around and increased in strength. The next 20 km took 4 hours.  I was exhausted in Punta de Vacas looking for a place to stay.  The was a strange but interesting park for contemplation and meditation.  They rented out cabins for a very reasonable price, but only to people who were there to meditate and contemplate, not to “tourists”.  So I was out of luck.  I met some really great people there who tried to get me in, but the admin would not have it. There was really no place to set up my tent nearby, especially with the winds gusting at 80 or 90 km/h. They told me there was a hostel up the road only five km.  I usually take those estimates with a grain of salt.  I hung out with them for a couple hours hoping that some other solution would materialize.  It didn’t.  By then it was getting dark and one guy offered to drive my gear up while I rode.  So I did that.  The wind was still extremely strong but I did not have all the weight to drag up the hill, and it was indeed only 5 km. I said goodbye to my new friends and that night I stayed at the Mundo Perdido Hostel.  It was housed in abandoned railway buildings.  And the people who ran it were great.

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I still had not seen Aconcagua again and I was starting to get worried that I wouldn’t.  I did not have far to go to get to the park and was assured I could see it from there.  On the way up I passed some of the mules used to ferry supplies up Aconcagua.

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I made my way up to Puente del Inca, one of the most southerly outposts in the Inca empire.  They took advantage of the sulfer hotsprings there.

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It was only another 3 km to the entrance to Aconcagua Provincial park, but a steep climb into headwinds.  There were a couple of people hiking up the road and it took me almost all the way to the park to catch them.   When I got to the park I was told no bikes were allowed and that I would have to leave it with them and continue on foot.  I protested but to no avail.  My original plan had been to ride up as far as I could go.  Instead I hiked up for an hour.  I got lucky in terms of the weather as it was a completely clear day.  Often Aconcagua is covered in clouds.

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Spring fed pond in front of Aconcagua.

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I was told that that glacier hanging on the ledge there is 300 meters thick.

Mules waiting to carry supplies up to the various camps on Aconcagua.

Mules waiting to carry supplies up to the various camps on Aconcagua.

Much like the mules, the rescue helicopter has to wear a head cover when not in service.

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My bike is equipped to ride high into the mountains.  When the grades get too steep, I can ditch the bike and hike with the backpack, but that would have to wait till I am on a mountain with few people.

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I rode back down to a ski resort and had lunch.

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I checked out a hotel there, but the guy in charged seemed like an ass, so I continued on down the road back to the Mundo Perdido Hostel.

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The next day I got up expecting an easy ride back into Uspallata (62 km downhill).  I discovered that headwinds can overpower gravity.  I was happy to get into Uspallata again.

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Hills

When this trip was in the planning stages I poured over satellite and elevation maps.  One of the spots that intrigued me was what looked like an old volcano in the middle of nowhere.  I was finally at this old volcano that looked out of place on the elevation maps. image image The riding that day was quite variegated.  It started with a climb up to the volcano.  I had originally intended to go south around the volcano but changed my mind and went north.  As a result I missed a turn and added on likely 30 km.  On the other side of the volcano I was flying along at 35 km/hr with with a strong tailwind, and all of a sudden the wind does a 180 and it takes me an hour to go the next 7 km (uphill) to El Morro.  I sought cover as a thunder storm went through. A hour later I was back on the road.  Turning right at San Jose de Morro put the wind at my back again, going downhill with another thunder storm chasing me.  I could outrun it if I did not stop.  For the next 30km I could feel the first drops on my back.  Another 10 km I was at Saladillo.  For 40 km I had I had not seen a single car until 500 meters before Saladillo.  A car pulled up beside me and the woman in the passenger seat was holding one of my cycling gloves out the window. They had seen it fall off my bike 200 meters back and picked it up.  I was reminded of the improbability generator In the Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy.  They also offered me cold water. When I got to Saladillo, had a decision to make.  I had already travelled over 120 km and it was later afternoon.  I rode through town and found that it offered free camping in the center.  However, I was feeling good and there was a strong tail wind so I decided go for my first and likely last century on the ECR.  But only 5 km down the road there was a sign that read “camping cerbezas”, two of my favorite things. And this was the camp site. image So I pulled in, and was very glad I did.  I paid for my campsite and a beer, and met Lautaro and Melisa and I knew I was in the right place.

Celina, Melisa and Lautaro

Celina, Melisa and Lautaro

In 2009 a flood had washed away the campground and the town was now rebuilding it as a dam had been installed upstream. The campground had only been open for three weeks and they were doing an amazing job getting it up and running. They invited me to have Argentian asado (BBQ) with them.  Lautaro also said that if I stayed the next day he would take me hiking in the nearby hills collecting herbs for mate, which I am starting to develop a taste for.  I figured it would be a great place to ring in the New year. The next next day we went out into the hills and ate berries along the way. image For lunch I ate lizard for the first time.  It is true what they say.   But I could not really enjoy it as I could not get the idea of it out of my head.  Celina rescued a parrot that was in a bad way. image And a bird that they had rescued a month before was back to say hello. image We also saw a poisonous snake.  Not one that kills but you should expect the bite site to swell up like a grapefruit. It moved very fast. image That night I had a strange visitor in my tent.  He really did not want to leave in the morning. imageThe next day was January 1st and I was off to San Luis.  It was tough riding at first, a lot of climbing.  But by the time I hit the town of El Volcan the surroundings were absolutely beautiful. image It was in El Volcan that I first became acquainted with the Goat Head thorn, which would later cause me such frustration.  It was near the shrine above.  I rolled my bike through the weeds and when I came out the other side the tires were covered in them.  I thought that they were not long enough to puncture through but pulled them all out anyway and made my way without another thought.  The road into San Luis was downhill and beautiful.

Leaving San Luis the next day I decided to take the old road rather than the highway.  It was a little more wild than I expected, a pleasant surprise.  I woke up with a tickle in my throat and the hope that it would not develop into more.image image image image The old road ended and I was back on the highway, or more precisely on the gravel shoulder of the busy highway. Just outside a town my back tire was flat.  I patched the tube and as I was about to put my gear back on the bike, I realized the front was flat too.  I thought it a good opportunity to turn the tires around as the treads on the traffic side were worn.  I made my way into town and discovered that there was a campground.

The next morning I awoke to a flat front tire, a full blown sore throat and dulled enthusiasm for the Argentinian practice of friends sharing glasses, bottles and mate straws.  The day turned out to be one of the more difficult.  And about 30 km into the ride I noticed the rear tire was going flat.  I pulled over and the front was flat as well.  I had to put four patches on the the rear tube and I stopped counting at six holes in the front before I replaced the tube itself (Goat Heads).  I took the old highway as it reappeared, but now there were a few vehicles.  I tried to stay away from the edge of the road so as to avoid any Goat Heads.  I was intent on a hotel at the end of the day as I was covered in salt and dirt.  I found one, but when I went to look at the room I discovered it was the type of place where I would feel more dirty after a shower.

I continued to the next town 13 km down the road asked about a hotel, got directions but could not find it and was chased by every dog that I encountered along the way.  I got back on the highway and pulled into a gas station and asked about setting up my tent there.  The cashier said it was no problem.  So I settled in, had some food, used the wifi until 11:00.  When I went to set up my tent someone else came along and said I could not.  I had camped at a number of gas stations before so I found this unusual.  So I was about to get on the bike and ride the two km back to town and try to find the hotel again.  But the front tire was extremely low on air, so I was walking.  I found the hotel but it was full, so I went looking for a park.  It was Saturday night and the whole town was out on the streets.  I found a quiet park and set up my tent against a playground so that I could lock my bike up and have the tent door facing the bike.  I was just about to crawl in the tent at 1:00 am when a bunch of screaming kids came to play on the playground.  That afternoon siesta keeps people up late.  The kids left at 2:00 and I could finally sleep. image I got up and fixed the flat.  I had only 80 km to go to get to Mendoza, but decided that I would split it into two days so that I could try to do some work on the blog and have a couple of easier days.  Not  long into the ride, Aconcagua came into sight in the distance.  I was still 200-250 km away. image I was about 20 km in when I saw a sign that said there was a shop just off the highway.  I pulled off to get something cold to drink.  It was a shop run out of a house in a vineyard.  They had a table around the side of the house.  I sat in the shade and got talking to the family.  Eventually they invited me to stay the night.  I decided I would have some more Argentinian experiences rather than write about them.  And I got my longed for shower.

Walter and family

Walter and family

Vineyard

Vineyard

The next day I rode into Mendoza with one flat along the way.  My first priority in Mendoza was to find something to put in the tires to stop the flats.  The third store I saw on the way into town was called San Luis Goma (rubber).  I went in.  If it is made of rubber you can find it in this store. I found this. image

Mendoza

Mendoza

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Pampas

Some touring cyclists consider flat prairie landscapes to be boring.  Not me.  I love days in the saddle where I am in the same gear turning the same cadence all day long.  You can get lost in your thoughts.  So although the main thrust of this trip is riding in the Andes, I had been relishing the thought of crossing the Argentinian Pampas to get there.

The Pampas

The Pampas

I left Rosario on Christmas Eve and was not sure what to expect in terms of being able to get food and water, or a place to stay.  I found a hotel that was open and decided not to get up too early in case there was nothing open till later in the day.  It turned out that the gas stations opened at 7:00 so I could have got my morning coffee earlier.  I was only on the road an hour when a couple pulled over ahead of me to offer me Christmas lunch at their home 20 km up the road.  They drew me a map and a little over an hour later I was there.

Folks Who Fed Me Christmas Lunch

Folks Who Fed Me Christmas Lunch

Three hours after that I was back on the road thoroughly stuffed with great food. The next day was hot and humid.  By 3:00 I found myself lying under a tree at the side of the road wondering how I could possibly continue.  Ten minutes later I felt a cool breeze.  I looked back and a thunder storm was on its way.  Ten minutes after that the temperature had dropped ten degrees and I was trying to outpace the storm to the next town.  I made it to the next town and planned on waiting out the storm, but it went on and on, so eventually I got a hotel.

As I rode through the Pampas it seemed like every kilometer or so there was a shrine to an Argentinian folk saint (not recognized by the Catholic Church yet) named Gauchito Gil.  Legend has it that he was tired of fighting brother against brother in the Argentinian civil war so he deserted and became a Robin Hood type figure. He is said to have the power to heal the sick, so people pray to him for ill friends and relatives.  The shrines are often very different from one another, some more elaborate than others.  Many are covered in plastic bottles of water or other beverage left as an offering  I found this one to be more Interesting than the others.

Shrine to Gauchito Gil

Shrine to Gauchito Gil

December 28th turned out to be a red letter day for what I have come to know as characteristic Argentinian hospitality.  In the morning I pulled into a town and a cyclist pulled up next to me.  I asked where I could buy a large bottle of water to fill up my bottles.  He offers to show me the way.  Then when we are there, he pays for the water and the snacks I was buying.  His house is a few blocks away so he takes me there for some cold water, and I meet some of his family. image

In the afternoon I pull up to a fruit stand and the guy just gives me the fruit.  Late in the afternoon in am riding through Rio Cuarto in a neighbourhood that looks a little sketchy and I guy with his two kids on a scooter pulls up beside me.  After I answer the usual questions about where I am going and where I am from, he asks if I would like a cold drink.  I say yes.  He tells me there is a service station ahead and to wait there for him while he goes home and gets it.  He shows up at the service station with two frozen yogurts and two frozen bottles of water, which are my favorite cause it means I can have cold water for hours to come. That day turns out to be the longest in kilometres to that point (125).  I camp near a gas station that night. The next day is hot and I make it as far as Achiras and decide to pack it in. It is a nice looking town.

Unknown Gaucho at Entrance to Achiras

Unknown Gaucho at Entrance to Achiras

image That night I was glad to be In a hotel as there was a fairly severe thunderstorm which knocked out all the power.  Upon reaching Achiras I was out of the Pampas and into the hills.  Although there are a number of similarities between the Argentinian Pampas as Canadian prairies (they are both dead flat), there are some important differences.  Instead of chasing gophers off the shoulders of roads, you chase iguanas.  And the iguanas are huge and super fast.  There are also a lot of herds of horses which result in a equine olfactory delight.

On My Own

The day after I said farewell to my mom at the airport, I once again headed north out of Buenos Aires.  I was expecting to be able to put in some big kilometre days.  I soon disabused myself of that notion when my ambition came face to face with heat and fat tires. At the end of the second day when I was looking for a place to stay, I spotted a sign for a hotel.  The sign showed 5 different room rates from Regular at 125 pesos to Presidential at 350 pesos (10 to 29 USD).  Those looked like good prices so I went further on.  I found out later that it was a drive thru and I was supposed to talk in an intercom.  Eventually I found myself in the laundry building for the hotel.  I thought it odd that a small hotel would have such extensive laundry facilities.  There I found someone and he explained that people did not stay overnight in the hotel but that it was an hourly hotel.  I told him I understood but he insisted on miming what people did in the hotel. I found another hotel that did have rooms you could stay in overnight.  The next morning I woke to a severe thunderstorm and strong winds so I spent the day in the hotel.  But the following morning was cool and cloudy.  I only got 200 meters when I got hit in the leg by a rock from a car.  At first I was not sure if it was thrown or came off the wheel.  But after thinking about it for a while I concluded that it must have come off the wheel based on where it hit my leg. image It also hit the iPod in my pocket and now I can’t turn it on or off.  So I make sure I use it everyday so it does not shut itself off. At this point the service road beside the freeway ended so I was forced to ride on the shoulder of the freeway, which was fine other than…. image That at night I camped at the back of a gas station and had a great view of the sunset from my tent door. image The next day I rode to Rosario and got my first flat of the trip. image The main reason I had decided to go to Rosario was because I had an invitation from a fellow cycle-tourist who I knew from Facebook.  The instant I met him at the gas station where we agreed to meet, I liked him.  Marcelo and his girlfriend Patricia had been running all over town getting ready to become cycle-nomads.  They had sold all their possessions that did not fit in their panniers and were to leave four days after my arrival.  They have no plans to ever return to Rosario and are going to ride all over the Americas. image I accepted their invitation to stay a day and we rode all over town finding last minute items for their trip.

Cycling to the Sky

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I have let this blog get too far behind and now am trying to play catch up.  I am currently crossing Argentina on my bike, a Surly ECR gravel touring bike.  I am planning to ride my bike to high elevations in the Andes, hence Cycling to the Sky.  First up, once I cross the country, is Aconcagua.

Packing for the trip was,  as usual, a mad rush and I did not get to say a proper goodbye to everyone. I was up late the night before putting everything together.

Replacement Parts and Tools

Replacement Parts and Tools

Camping Gear

Camping Gear

 

My flight would take me through Toronto, where I met up with my mom, and we continued on together to Buenos Aires.  First we spent a number of days exploring the city.

Park in Buenos Aires

Park in Buenos Aires

After five days days we got on our bikes and headed north.  We had originally planned to go south but heard that the neighbourhoods to the south were rough.  Riding for most of the day we were still not out of the city.

the sprawling city of Buenos Aires

the sprawling city of Buenos Aires

When we found ourselves in Tigre we decided that it was a great place to stop.  Its name came from all the jaguars that were in the area when Europeans first came (they mistook them for tigers).

Tigre

Tigre

The next day we finally made our way out of the city and got to see some countryside.  And in a few days we were in a beautiful old Gaucho town called San Antonio de Areco.

Hotel in San Antonio de Areco

Hotel in San Antonio de Areco

The next day we headed back towards BA, it was hot, we had headwinds, and the traffic was terrible on a road with no shoulders.  After 8 km mom wanted to try our luck at hitch-biking.  I was skeptical and thought it would be better to slowly make our way along than stand with our thumbs out at the side of the road all day.  But we decided to give it a try.  We waited for vehicles that would be big enough to fit the bikes.  The first was a van and the guy pulled over to apologize that back of the van was full and therefore he had no room for our bikes.  The second was a mini van and it pulled over and we loaded it up.  They were going 35 kilometres ahead to do some Christmas shopping.  When they found out that we were trying to get to Buenos Aires they chose a mall 20 further than they had planned.  They also refused to accept any money for the tolls past where they had planned to go.  It was the first taste of the Argentinian hospitality I have come to know well since.  That day we rode the rest of the way to Buenos Aires.  And the next few days did some more walking around the city.

Recoleta Cemetary

Recoleta Cemetary

 

 

Door to a Crypt in Recoletta Cemetary

Door to a Crypt in Recoletta Cemetary

On December 17th I took mom to the airport and she was off, reluctantly, back to winter in Canada.