Saturday 29 January 2011

Malargue, Argentina - Absolutely fabulous

Well, here I am back in Argentina - I just couldn´t stay away. My passage back was ably assisted by the Pino Hachado Pass and the relaxed immigration rules that allow the traveller to skip back and forth at will.

There are several reasons for coming back to Argentina. Having spoken to cyclists that have come the Chilean side of the Andes and those that have down the Argentinian side, the overwhelming impression I got was that the Argentinian side was much more interesting. And a couple of days cycling on Chile´s tedious Pan American Highway were enough to convince me. Secondly, everything is cheaper and yet better in Argentina, especially the groceries which are very important to the hungry cyclist! I´d no sooner crossed the border than I was able to pick up rice cakes, gluten-free pasta and rather yummy gluten-free lemon biscuits - they didn´t last long. But the main reason for coming back is that Argentina has made such a powerful impression on me. It´s really taken me by surpise - before I left I thought it might be one of the dullest countries of my trip. I don´t know what makes it so irresistable - the draw of the mountains, the beauty of the landscapes or the warmth of the people -but there is a touch of magic and an edge of excitement to Argentina.

Mind you, the last few days of pleasant cycling in the lush lakes and mountains of Chile did make me swither. The cycle over the 1864m Pino Hachado Pass really began several days earlier in Curacautin. It´s a pleasant enough small, rural town but I´ll remember it for my second flooding in the tent in Chile and a place where, quite alarmingly at the time, I couldn´t get any money out of the cash machine. But once the rain stopped, it was sunshine all the
way up a long, meandering valley of green farmland and forests, dotted with little settlements and dominated by the volcanoes Lliama and Lonquimay. I camped at several lovely spots in this valley. One afternoon, I asked a mechanic, busy in his roadside workshop, if there was a campsite nearby. He said that there wasn´t but that I could camp in his garden. It was a perfect little spot - a row of trees provided shade, pink roses were in bloom and chickens pecked around in the grass. As I was pitching the tent, the neighbour´s young children came over and asked, ever so politely, if there was anything they might do to help. I got them to ferry my kit between the bicycle and the tent!. Another idyllic campspot was on a peaceful little farm, tucked away high up in the mountains above the village of Lonquimay, itself tucked away high up in the mountains. It was surrounded by woodland and cleared pastures where horses and cattle grazed in the sunshine. If I kept walking along the farm track, I came to a beautiful river gorge with a thundering waterfall. I was glad that I stayed here for a couple of nights as it was my last chance to enjoy greenery and lushness before crossing into Argentina. From Lonquimay the road to the Pino Hachado Pass climbed in a series of "S" bends through sparse monkey puzzle trees where I had a fabulous wild camp, watching the sun set over the mountains. At the top, the pass became a grim place of bare rock, wind and sun before descending into the desert of western Argentina, a grim place of bare rock, wind and sun!

I´m now back on Ruta 40, the road that I cycled south of Bariloche, but I am, at last, heading north. It´s a very challenging cycle ahead through a lot of empty, desert terrain so every time I meet southbound cyclists I try to extract as much information from them as possible about the route ahead. They share tales of long stretches between settlements with no water, appalling afternoon headwinds and temperatures high enough to melt the tarmac and make cycling impossible. I was particularly amused by one couple´s warning of golfball-sized hailstones in Mendoza Province. Just as they were telling me this, we all had to run for cover as a sudden storm threw down marble-sized hailstones! But people also talk of friendly rural towns and beautiful old cities; of green oases in the desert and stunning landscapes, and of the hospitality of the wonderful Argentinian people.

My first couple of days back in Argentina took me north from Las Lajas to Chos Malal through a stretch of desert about which I´d received dire warnings of no water and terrible headwinds. But maybe I got lucky. A gentle tailwind sped me along a route that meandered through hills of striated red rocks which contrasted beautifully with the light green flush covering the desert just now following recent rains. Every now and then there was a delightful oasis of tall, emerald-green trees that snaked along the course of a river, now dry. And ahead there were the layers of hazy mountains that make up the Andes, the biggest ones capped with snow. I camped in the back yard of a couple who´d made a home in a disused service station and they topped up my water. It was absolutely fabulous!

However my luck turned bad on the next stretch when I foolishly squeezed 55 miles and several big climbs into one day. These climbs took me up into a cooler, slightly greener mountain landscape. Desolate but beautiful. The only sign of human life along here was a windblown hamlet of three or four houses, one of which doubled as kiosk selling a few basic provisions and, critically, water. Such a long day forced me to ride into the afternoon headwinds which reduced me to walking at times. It was pretty grim but I was cheered by meeting three southbound cyclists and the toots and waves from the occasional truck driver. The afternoon´s cycle may have been grim but not as grim as the hospedaje I stayed in that night in the dusty village of Buta Ranquil. An eerie, filthy place where the wind rattled the shutters and groans from the poor plumbing echoed along empty corridors. At least it was cheap and at least it was out of the wind, as evidenced by the not inconsiderable accummulation of dust. It was also quiet as I was the only person staying there - I can´t imagine why!

The next stretch crossed a truly spectacular landscape - rock formations in shades of red and green overlaid with black lava rocks spewed from the volcano Payun Matru. The route passed a soldified sea of lava - you could see the waves of once molten rock - and crossed a deep canyon in the pitch black lava cut by the only flowing river in the area, the Rio Grande.

The route has now brought me into the delightful oasis town of Malargue. Typical of these towns, it sits on a permanently flowing river and is wrapped up in layers of tall poplar trees that provide shelter from the wind and shade from the sun. It is a particularly nice town with watered lawns and parks and a town clock on the main avenue that chimes the hour. There is a good municipal campsite here and amazingly I arrived on the same day as a couple from Scotland, also cycling around South America. They live in Haddington, about 10 miles from me. What an absolutely fabulous coincidence!

There are photos from my last few days in Chile in my Flickr pages.

Wednesday 26 January 2011

Chos Malal, Argentina - mini update

I've cycled across the Andes for a second time, this time over the 1864m Pino Hachado pass, to return to Argentina. There are a number of reasons not least of all that there are no rice cakes in Chile!

Click on map to enlarge

Tuesday 18 January 2011

Curacautin, Chile - Ports in a storm

Chileans and Argentinians love camping but the most popular holiday accommodation is the "cabana", a simple cabin with a kitchen and bathroom. You find them all over the place. If there is more than one of you, they are quite cost-effective so Simon and I decided to share one for a couple of nights near Castro before going our separate ways. On the second afternoon, a stray dog appeared, tail wagging, at our front door. She was an old dog with a grey muzzle and terribly thin with mangy, bare patches in her fur. One of her ears was badly swollen and she had fresh wounds from a recent scrap. She was one of those dogs that was really quite ugly but in an irresistable, wonderfully endearing kind of way. A small dog with a big personality, she worked her way into our hearts as we fed her numerous portions of boiled rice with egg, cheese, biscuits and steak. As it was getting dark, we took her outside to do her business. Unfortunately, the senora who owned the cabanas appeared, was clearly displeased at the presence of the dog and scared her away. I think we both could have cried as we watched that scrawny little mut trot along the road and disappear into the shadows. We did manage a smile later, musing that had the senora appeared a few hours earlier she would have found a flea-ridden stray eating out of her best croquery and curling up on her faux Persian rug. At least for one day that dog had a full belly, a lot of love and a port in a storm.

Rather than cycle the same route twice, I took a bus from Castro back over my outward route. The bus was heading for Temuco, a sizeable city with a bit of a reputation for petty crime. I was on a later bus than planned as the early bus that I´d booked was too full to take the bicycle. It was getting dark as we neared the city and I was getting increasingly anxious about arriving there on my own at night with no accommodation. A page from an out-of-date guidebook mentioned a campsite south of the city and though the bus driver didn´t know of it, he let me off in the vicinity of where it might be. I´d decided anyway that a wild camp in the country was safer than the city at night. Of course, there was no campsite and it was almost dark, so I had a slight sense of alarm. I pushed the bike over a walkway to the other side of the Pan American Highway where there were some lights. By an incredible stroke of luck that I still can´t quite believe, one of the buildings was a hostel. The windows emitted a warm glow; a lavishly-decorated Christmas tree stood in the lounge; a group of friends chatted around the dining-room table over mugs of tea. I was warmly welcomed, an eiderdown duvet was laid over my bed and even slippers and a mug of coffee appeared. My own port in a storm!

Saturday 15 January 2011

Castro, Chiloe Island - Did the earth move for you?

As a single woman in my early forties, I never thought I´d utter the words "the earth moved for me". But indeed it did.

I was at the campsite in Pucon enjoying the luxury of eating my dinner sitting on one of those ubiquitous plastic garden chairs. Suddenly the whole thing started to wobble. I know they are not the sturdiest constructions at the best of times but this was not right. I stood up and sure enough the ground was gyrating under my feet - an earthquake! What a remarkable sensation to feel the planet´s crust on the move, like trying to stand on a water bed - not that I've ever had that experience either! It was slightly scary at first but then I realised that a tent in the middle of a field is probably a safe place to be in an earthquake. The quake lasted for several minutes, then it was gone and I went back to munching my supper on my plastic chair as if this happened to me every day.

The day of the earthquake it had rained quite a lot. In fact, it has rained quite a lot since I arrived in Chile. This leads me onto my second natural disaster. One afternoon I met an American woman also cycling around Chile and we camped together at a lovely campsite on the shores of Lake Calafquen. Little wooded islands floated offshore in the gloom and there was just a suggestion of big peaks behind the clouds. Afternoon drizzle turned to torrential rain but we cooked supper and had a good chat under the cover of overhanging lakeside trees. However, when we returned to our camp spot, torrents of rain were flooding through the campsite and our tents were afloat in a pool of water. We threw all our kit up into the toilet blocks and the senora who ran the site came to our aid, lighting a fire in the boiler room and giving us an annex with two bunk beds to sleep in. Once we were sorted we went to help a Chilean family, also flooded but trying to erect a new tent on higher ground. The problem was that the tent was the size of a bungalow with as many rooms but no instructions. We were fumbling with poles and guylines in torrential rain with only the light from their car headlamps - the quake had disrupted some power. Then the car battery died and I had one of those slightly surreal moments - it was midnight; it was pitch black; it was pouring with rain and I was pushing a car up a Chilean hillside!
Fortunately sunny skies were back as I arrived on the shores of Lake Llanquihue. I had quite an amusing arrival in the first town, Puerto Octay. A big cycle road-racing event was on with commentators on tannoys and a radio broadcast. I pulled up to watch and before I knew it, a microphone was thrust in my face and I was asked what I thought of Puerto Octay. I´d only been there about 10 seconds! I think I said it was beautiful but if they´d asked me later, once I´d had a walk around this scruffy town trying in vain to find decent groceries, then my answer might have been different.
However, the next town, Frutillar, was a gorgeous little spot. It was the first place in Chile colonised by Germans and pretty wooden houses from that era still line the lakeside above the beach of black volcanic sand. There´s even a quaint little pier. Across the water is the rather splendid snow-capped Volcan Osorno. I had a bit of a treat in Frutillar, a Christmas present from base camp manager Graham, and enjoyed a lakeside hotel with a view to the volcano and a steak lunch on the terrace. I think I deserve a treat every now and then.

I was now cycling south on the Pan Amercan Highway, a route that in theory links Alaska with Tierra del Fuego. Here it´s badged as a motorway but in the broad hard shoulder you can walk, cycle or even tango. Amazingly on this motorway there are roadside fruit and grocery stalls - can you imagine commuters on the M8 being allowed to pull over to pick up some milk on the way home? I passed other cyclists heading north but four lanes of traffic and a central reservation aren't really conducive to having a blether.

Isn't it funny how sometimes your plans don´t work but things turn out for the better. At the end of a long day I was looking for a speficic campsite off the highway near Puerto Montt, the first city I´d hit since Buenos Aires. I simply couldn't find it and stopped to ask a couple of carabineros. They didn't know where it was either but sent me down a back road and along a gravel trail. I found myself in an idyllic spot by a pebble beach with fishing boats bobbing in the bay and a view to three volcanoes - Osorno, Puntiagudo and Calbuco. This alternative campsite was hosting live folk music and a traditional curanto where meats and fish are cooked in a pit with rocks heated by fire. What a spot of luck! I also realised here that if I was at the beach on the west coast of Chile, I must have cycled across a continent, albeit a skinny one!

The Pan American Highway or the Pan Am (as us veterans of the route call it) delivered me to a place I´d always dreamed of visiting - Chiloe Island. Really an archipelago of several islands that float in the Pacific about halfway down Chile. Having resisted Spanish colonisation, the islands maintained a unique culture and architecture. On the ferry there was one other cyclist - Simon from Canada. What a strange coincidence that we should both end up on the same boat because he was also riding a Thorn bicycle put together by the same person back in Britain. We spent a lovely few days cycling together on Chiloe and cooking some great meals - he had packed a full-size frying pan.
Chiloe was idyllic. At Ancud, in the north of the island, we camped on a grassy shelf looking over the Pacific. At night wild winds and rain swept in from the ocean. We cycled to the sheltered east coast of the island where there were little bays of white sand and clear blue water with colourful fishing boats tied up and rows of brightly-painted palafitos, the traditional houses built on stilts at the edge of the sea.

Chiloe is the furthest south I will cycle in South America. I now really must start heading north, back through lakes and volcanoes, up through the Andes. There are mountains and deserts to cross but hopefully no more earthquakes to side-step!

There are photos from Chile on my Flickr page.

Click on map to enlarge:

Saturday 8 January 2011

Frutillar, Chile - mini update

I´m meandering south through the Chilean Lake District picking a route around lakes and volcanoes and aiming for the island of Chiloe, assuming I can continue to dodge natural disasters - more on these later!

Click on map to enlarge

Sunday 2 January 2011

Pucon, Chile - Seven lakes and a volcano

From the moment I wheeled my bike off the boat in Buenos Aires, people have been saying to me in an excited manner "Seven Lakes, Seven Lakes" or more accurately "Siete Lagos, Siete Lagos". They´re talking about the "Seven Lakes Drive", a route that links the delightful but expensive mountain resorts of Villa la Angostura and San Martin de los Andes. It claims to be the jewel in the crown of the Argentine Lake District so I thought I better take a look.

But before that you´re probably wondering what Christmas was like for me on the road and even if you´re not, I´m going to tell you. As you might guess, Christmas in Argentina is not the consumer frenzy that we must endure back home. It is much more low key and laid back, the emphasis being on enjoying the holidays and time with family and friends. For Christmas I was back in the El Yeti campsite in Bariloche. The first time I´d stayed there it was a busy spot with holidaying Argentinians and foreign travellers. But when I got back it was only Norman-no-friends me! Who else wants to spend Christmas under nylon in Baltic Bariloche! Luckily my Christmas was made more special with a card and small present to open from my friend Graham that I´d carried from Portugal and some nice groceries I bought for Christmas lunch - but, boy, that turkey took forever on the camp stove! Actually my menu was spaghetti primavera, polenta and fresh fruit trifle, washed down with Fanta and followed by some artesan chocolate and that nice filter coffee that comes in teabags. I did have one guest for Christmas dinner - he was blonde and attractive and you can see his picture on my Flickr site. To be honest, I spent most of Christmas Day on the urgent and critical job of replacing the broken zip on the flysheet of my tent before the next spell of bad weather. How very exciting!

However, excitement was the name of the game as I set out to cycle the 55 miles of the Seven Lakes drive. It takes two days to cycle as it´s an undulating ride, half on tarmac and half on the dreaded gravel. You also have to stop every five minutes to soak up the views or to have a blether with the many long-distance cycle tourers along the route. It really is spectacular. The road meanders around the "as advertised" seven lakes which reflect perfectly the surrounding rocky mountains, cloaked in forests of pines. The greens of the forest are replicated in the water of the rivers which is somewhere between green and blue and so clear that you can see the pebbles on the bottom. The first half of the ride passes through steep mountain valleys but latterly these give way to open meadows with little estancias and horses grazing lazily in the fields. Before the road plummets to San Martin de los Andes, there is a very interesting natural phenomenon called the Arroyo Partido. A mountain stream bubbles down from the high tops and as it crosses underneath the road, it splits in two. The westerly split ultimately flows to the Pacific Ocean and the easterly split to the Atlantic Ocean. How very cool!

To add to the delights of the Seven Lakes ride, there wasn't even any wind ... well, except on the first day just as I sat down to my picnic lunch. I´d spread cream cheese onto my rice cakes and artfully placed sliced tomatoes and olives on top so that they looked like the "serving suggestion" picture on the packet. A wind blew up out of nowhere, picked up the top layer of dust from the gravel road, deposited it all over my lunch and then left. I ate the gritty offerings anyway as the next shop was a day´s ride ahead!

With the Seven Lakes in the bag, it was now time to cycle over the Andes into Chile - as you do! My route was the delightful Tromen Pass. It meandered uphill, following the wooded banks of the Rio Malleo. After some miles, the tarmac gave way to gravel and I found myself cycling through a beautiful forest of monkey puzzle trees. Rising above the forest to a massive 3779 metres was the spectacular, snow-capped perfect cone of Lanin Volcano. It was Hogmanay and there was no party, no fireworks, no Jackie Bird on the telly. But I celebrated with a fabulous campspot at the foot of the volcano, a million stars in the night sky and the first sunrise of the new year casting a golden light over Lanin! On New Year´s Day I first-footed the border guards and rattled down a dirt road into Chile.

I don´t know why but it was terribly exciting doing an international border crossing high up in the mountains on a deserted dirt road! I was sad to be leaving Argentina. Despite all the challenges of cycling here - the wind, the traffic, the saddle sores, the distances, the desert, the dirt roads and the newly-added-to-the-list biting horseflies - I've really fallen in love with this country. The sadness was offset to a degree by the flutter of excitement as Tigger, Shirley and I bumped our way passed a sign that said "Bienvenido Chile".

Click on map to enlarge