Well, the epic Andes adventure is now over and there is PLENTY to talk about. It came with all of the challenges I expected, and some. There was climbing, adapting to carrying 30kg of bike and kit, extreme heats and headwinds, and the uncertainty of changing the route of the trip twice on the go. Some of our colleagues pulled out or didn't complete the challenge. I expected to feel proud of my achievement when I came back, but I didn't expect the feeling of displacement that I have. When you spend so much time moving around, and in close proximity to your new friends, it can clearly leave you feeling unsettled afterwards. I thought I would be looking forward to getting home to my own bed, but instead I am waking up wondering where I am, and thinking about what the next leg of the trip will be!
My emotions are all over the place. How many times did I cry on the trip? Zero (well apart from a small cry on the final night). How many times have I cried since I came back? I'm losing count....at lunch with a friend; at cycling training; at the swimming club; at the bike shop; at a sports massage; at dinner with a friend. I can almost hear Andy saying 'Get a grip Princess!' as I confess to this!
Whilst I go through my trusty handwritten journal to come back with an overview of the trip, I thought I would do an initial post to share some of the highlights of my adventure.....
At three weeks, this was the longest trip/holiday I had ever had, and the furthest away I had ever been. I was slightly anxious about going into this 'on my own'. I knew Joe, our great leader, from working with him, but wondered how I would get on with the others who I knew very little about. Seven of us started this adventure, and with one person pulling out early on, and another ending up in hospital, I felt a bit unsettled.I needn't have worried as our little band of four became close friends and supportive travelling companions. Joe continued to be an absolute star, handling each new challenge and change that the trip brought with a wry chuckle, and never seemed to get down. Andy (aka the Pirate) made me laugh endlessly with his jokes and comedy pub singing. And Stu was amazing, he became my cycling buddy and I owe so much to him for helping me up hills, through scary tunnels and generally through the tough times....and as an inspiration for 'song of the day'. We all saw each other through the hard times, and the funny times and shared a good few beers along the way! I will miss these guys big time.
N.B this particular drink or 'Terremoto' which we discovered in Santiago is probably not to be recommended!
So I'll start with the small achievements. I have never broken down my bike, or travelled with it. The lovely Nick at Giant Camden packed my bike up for me, but of course I had to rebuild it in Argentina, and then pack it up again in Chile....and then build it up again in London! In short, I feel I can now deliver a bike maintenance workshop :) Travelling with panniers, wow, I might have done a few training rides in London with some books in the panniers but nothing prepares you for dragging the weight of a small person up hills, at altitude and in searing heat and headwinds! This definitely focuses the mind on how many clothes and toiletries you actually need in your life. Then there's the camping, having (embarrassingly) never actually pitched a tent in my life, where better to practice than in rock hard/dusty ground? Ta-da, done!
The Epic Views!
Well this goes without saying, I took endless photos, and will focus on all of the individual days on subsequent blogs. But the contrast from the desert landscape heading over to Cafayete in Argentina to the Amazingly blue lake at Potrerillos, the clearest of night skies, and of course the sight at the top of Aconcagua. I thought I would end up heavily editing the stream of photos that I took when I came back, but I actually never tire of looking at them, and reliving these special moments.
With the route changing twice, Joe was really up against it in terms of accommodation and gave us the nod to look for what we could as we arrived in the various areas along the Mendoza pass. Uspallata was the first place for us to decide on a suitable campsite. The two main ones seemed really busy and I think we were tired of banging Latin music being played at all hours. So, when we stumbled upon this little campsite further down the road we were sold, AND for just 5 more pesos a night we could stay in a cabin...AND they had a little shop that sold beer! A definite no brainer this one, and where we decided to stay for an extra night when the dreaded head winds picked up again the next morning. 'Mundo Perdido' was the next one that stood out for me in terms of randomness. What started as a fairly ok 60k from Uspallata to Puente del Inca became a fairly gruelling final 20k as the headwinds picked up and every hill seemed never ending. At one point (oh the shame of it) Stu and I actually walked and pushed our bikes as it seemed easier. The road signs were all over the place and seemed to indicate a further 6k to Los Penitentes, which was a suggested overnight stop at a ski resort. I think I know how a dehydrated traveller in the desert feels when he sees an oasis as Stu pulled into the little refuge area which had the 'Bar' sign outside. I was so relieved to just get out of the wind, and when the guy who owned it pulled up and confirmed they had space for the night I couldn't have been happier. In fact I think Joe was quite amused by how happy I was by 'this sh**hole' when he arrived, but by that time Stu and I had found the beer in the fridge and a dodgy guitar so all was good in our minds!
We worked hard, but we made sure we balanced it off by playing hard too. Beer apparently has hydrating properties didn't you know? And so we grabbed any opportunity to have one (ok, lots more than one) at the end of a hard day. Highlights have to be singing 80's songs on the rooftop of our hotel bar; a welcome beer at the end of the Los Penitentes leg, and relaxing by the pool in a quirky hotel in Coronel Moldes. Actually these are only the ones I have good photos of - the 80's 'name that tune' quiz in Cafayete, and of course the crazy bar in Santiago with our new Chilean friends and 'Terremoto' are way up there. Let's just say every night actually!
I feel food has to feature in here, but if my cycling chums read this they will be surprised as it was far from a highlight, apart from the Argentinian steak. But wow, that steak was something else, I mean huge, and so tender, it certainly lived up to expectations. And what's not to love about a themed Argentinian restaurant where the staff are dressed up? So, in short, steak was the only highlight and pretty much saved us. At this point there has to be a special shout out for the incredibly bad food we had to endure. Endless breakfasts of bread that was so dry it leeched all of the moisture out of your body, or weird flakes with strawberry milk. Lunches of cheese and ham sandwiches, on same said bread. You know things are bad when skipping breakfast in favour of crisps and lady fingers (those weird things I have only ever seen in tiramisu) seems the norm. Oh and I used to like a dish called 'Chicken Milanese' when I went to an Italian restaurant in London, but I can not no longer look it in the eye, as it has become 'mullered chicken' and similar to eating the sole of a shoe.
There were many of these, but the real stand out moment in this category has to be the journey through the tunnel at the top of the pass into Chile. It's quite something to think that they lay on a truck specifically to take cyclists through this 2km long tunnel, and it is free. Seeing this guy is such a welcome sight after you have ground it out getting to the summit. Lifting your bike fully loaded onto the back of a truck is no mean feat, but then you are off, a moment of calm and a sit down in the truck as the driver plays 'My Way', followed by 'The Sound of Silence' which had us all singing in the truck. "We are in Chile" he then proudly points out halfway through the tunnel. He even offers to take a series of photos of you on the other side, and you can see they like their job. Wild camping on our journey back from Cafayete has to be included for a few reasons. Seeing a herd of goats trying to get into the owners small house when we arrived was quite comedic. The excitement when we found out that the owner had 2 dusty bottles of Salta beer left in his house for a night cap. Then there was the camping itself, I have to admit to being slightly terrified that night as I saw torches going over my tent throughout the night and my imagination ran riot. Then it is back to the Mundo Perdido refuge where the temperature dropped at night, and so our able companion Andy offered to light the wood burner. All was good and toasty for about 10 minutes until we realised there was a blockage in the ventilation somewhere and were all smoked out. Joe in his true calm style continued to read his book quietly, whilst making use of his dust mask.
It is going to take me a while to unravel in my head the many achievements for me on this trip, even though I say so myself! I was very anxious going into it, and worried about all sorts of things. Would I get altitude sickness? Stomach bug? Would I be able to keep up with my cycling friends? Would I get murdered? (Always one to exaggerate,me). So not only did none of these things become a problem but I actually surprised myself. I can't quite believe I cycled carrying 30kg of kit over all of those miles, and up to 3000m. Six months ago I hadn't really cycled more than 40km at a time, and only really because I 'had to' as part of a triathlon. Crossing the border at Chile will remain a defining moment for all sorts of reasons. Not only did it represent the top of the Andes, and our venture into a new country, but one of the biggest challenges for me was yet to come. I am not bad at climbing hills, I can dig deep and get it done. But downhills, well that is a whole different thing. My cycling friends in London will testify that I can often be first to the top of a hill but then last to the bottom as I tentatively make my way down. Well, this makes this next bit even more unbelievable as I look back on it. Just after the Chile border awaited a somewhat notorious road, and one I had been blocking from my mind. It contains 29 switchbacks to get you back down the 3000mm descent. All the while, trucks are also using this road, and there are some tunnels thrown in for good measure. As all of the guys were stopping to take pics along the way, I screeched my way down, afraid that if I stopped I would lose my nerve and never start again. By the time I got to the bottom my hands had to be prised off my handlebars and my buttocks were tensed to the extreme! But I had made it! In fact even beyond this we didn't realise that we had to navigate some serious motorway and off-road cycling to get us into Santiago. This was never in the original plan, and do you know what, that is probably a good thing, it is always better to be taken by surprise!
So that is the first of my blogs for this trip, but I am planning many more including an overview of the various stages of the journey; things I have learned, songs I have sung and many more....
Denise Yeats is an events director, communications consultant, endurance athlete and avid adventurer.