On my way down to Mendoza, I’d seen the main road up to the border was single-laned, without hard shoulder and extremely busy with lorries. It was also prone to being closed due to snow, ice and the strong cross winds. On the way up the wind would be pushing me straight into the path of these monster trucks transporting goods along the main trading route between Buenos Aires and Santiago.
Johann had been forced off the road by close passes twice on our way down and had decided to take the bus over to Chile instead. I’d be riding a lot more slowly and frustrating more lorry drivers on the way back up. I decided to enlist the help of someone from a local Mendoza mountain biking team to drive me up to the pass and to the border with Chile, known as ‘Los Libertadores’.
In some ways it was a frustrating decision, as I knew I was perfectly capable of the ride itself, and had been excited about doing a ‘big Andes pass’. On the other hand, having already experienced the road on the way down to Mendoza, I really didn’t feel the need to pedal this particular route again. On the plus side, I’d been told by a number of people that the road on the Chilean side was far better – wider, slower and safer.
The drive to the top was absolutely stunning at least, and with the sun shining we were able to catch sight of Aconcagua, towering at 6,962m.
The Argentinian side
Beautiful scenery as we cross the snow line
‘Puente del Inca’. A natural arch forming a bridge over the Vacas River, and an abandoned spa hotel. You can see the pass in the background.
First sight of Aconcagua – this is a view of the south face, the hardest to climb. Spot the big glacier right in the middle.
The Chilean Side
The temperature was gradually dropping as we reached the top, and by the time I got out of the car it was below freezing. I togged up in all my layers, down jacket and waterproof, covered my ears with my buff and pulled on thick winter gloves. Unfortunately I soon found that the gloves were so thick that whilst they did a great job of keeping my hands warm, I couldn’t brake continuously with them on. I had no choice but to swap them back for my spring/summer gloves (sounds like a fashion collection – if only!) and put a pair of thin merino liner gloves underneath for a little extra warmth.
The border and customs control was right after the top. There were instructions of where to go with cars, lorries and buses, but unsurprisingly nothing for cyclists. I was getting frustrated by the lack of communication, but eventually figured out that I need to get a ‘PAX report’ from the police, then re-enter the immigration queue, before finally going through customs. After visiting the police office, I was given a piece of paper which simply said ‘Sarah Brindley’, my passport number, and ‘1 bicycle’. Guess that was what they meant by PAX report!
With a bit more of a wait behind the bus-loads of people in the immigration queue, my passport was finally stamped into Chile and I proceeded to customs. There were various signs dotted about saying it was illegal to bring fruit, veg, nuts and dairy products into the country so I duly declared everything I had on me. Aside from taking away my rather nice salami, the customs officer kindly turned a blind eye to the rest of my lunch. I suspect he fancied the tasty-looking salami for his own sandwich later on!
Clouds were now closing in which gave the mountains a sinister feel, and I was concerned about rain which would make braking on the ride down even harder. With a steep descent of 27 switchbacks or so, and the wind still quite strong, I actually found the descent quite nervewracking. I still had to stop every 15 mins or so to warm up my hands and stretch them out to avoid getting cramp. The breaks gave me a chance to compose myself and relax my tense shoulders.
As I’d been informed, the road was at least a lot wider now. The lorries also drove a lot more slowly to deal with the steepness of it. Some lorries were actually themselves transporting lorries, and had to wait at the hairpin bends for the road ahead to clear to even be able to manoeuvre around the corners.
After about 2000m of descending, the gradient started to ease off as I rolled into a small town. Shaky-legged, I propped the bike up against a wall and rewarded myself with a very large empañada and a cup of tea. The sun started to shine and along with it the feeling that there was something sinister in the air left me. The side of the road was carpeted in spring flowers and after weeks in the Argentinian desert, it was wonderful to be cycling surrounded by lush green countryside.
Whatever you do, don’t look down!
The first signs of greenery
Roadsides carpeted in spring flowers
The next two days of riding took me straight to the coast, through Viña del Mar on my way to Valparaiso.
An accidental but beautiful ride along a river valley (after my planned route took my onto a motorway, and I’d had to backtrack by going the wrong way back up the slip road. Ooops!)
Pelicans by the sea!