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

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