At the risk of sounding like a cliche, what's happening with the weather!? This is messing with my head big time - in two weeks I have gone from cycling in desert like conditions and 40deg heat, to being rescued by an Uber driver on an ill-advised bike ride in a blizzard (you idiot Denise!).
It has been an interesting week back home in the real world where I've hosted a South American party, attempted 'that bike ride' and had the Liv cycling club Christmas Party. Much to my surprise I was nominated for awards in the categories 'Zero to Hero', 'Most Improved Rider', 'Polka Dots' and won the 'Powerhouse' award! I love these guys, they have definitely got me to where I am in the past 8 months. Go Team Liv!
But back to 'Andes Nostalgia'. We are now on:
Part 6 - Coronel Moldes to Salta
A super early start (skipping another crap breakfast) to avoid the 40deg heat ahead, and some nice gentle riding to get us going. As it got closer to 9am though, we realised that Argentinians are no different to us in that they have a commuter peak time too. This road started to get super busy and we were now more aware of how narrow the many bridges were (remember we had already done this route the other way?). There were a couple of scary moments where Joe almost got knocked off his bike by a lorry trying to pass him and another vehicle on a bridge. So I tried a rather 'bold' I think it was called, move where I thought cycling two abreast might stop the same thing happening to Stu. Hmmm, didn't quite work out like that as I then noticed the bus bearing down on us trying to overtake anyway. Ever tried to get a sudden spurt of speed on a fully laden bike? Adrenaline, that's all I'm saying.
Just outside Salta we decided to have a stop at a petrol station for a drink and to plan our best route into the city. And here something very random happened as the owner of the hotel we had stayed at in Coronel Moldes drew up and was filling up with petrol. We excitedly waved as he came in to pay. Cue Andy to engage with some friendly banter and the command 'Speak!' as he waved his phone/translator app into our friends' face. As the translation magic happened we all laughed as we saw it type "I have no idea what you are saying, but I am going to the bank now". Ah, but all said with a winning smile. Thank god for Andy's data bundle all round as he and Google led us through Salta via the route that we were least likely to get mugged, and so we arrived at Hotel Iris - hoorah!
Time for a quick musical interlude and a song that was in my head for this section of the trip - 'Get your Rocks Off' by Primal Scream. I have no idea why, except the pace of the traffic and prospect of arriving at Salta and onto the next stage of our journey seemed to call for something with an upbeat vibe!
After a few days of the same old bland food, we were now very excited to find a restaurant which served not only steak, but VEGETABLES too, and a fried egg! We spent the afternoon in there drinking red wine, and for some reason, all speaking with a Scottish accent as Andy again endeared himself to the proprietor, Jorge. All I will say is that there was a moment that we thought we had lost him to the Argentinian's charms.
You can clearly never have enough steak in a day, and so the meal that night was in an Argentinian restaurant where they took the whole theming very seriously, costumes and all. The best bit about the lovely Hotel Iris was the roof terrace, oh I love a roof terrace - outdoor drinking!
This was one of my favourite nights. It was so warm and we sat out taking advantage of the wifi to play some of our favourite songs on YouTube. There are too many to mention, and one special comedy moment where Andy did his pub singer rendition of 'Hi Ho Silver Lining'. I have just found a recording of this one, accompanied by my hysterical laughing, and it still makes me laugh out loud. I now realise why my stomach muscles hurt so much the next day! The song of the night there for me was 'Somewhere in my Heart' by Aztec Camera. I had forgotten how much I love this song. It reminds me of re-enacting the 'floor dancing' scene from Gregory's Girl with my friend Fiona in 'Sir Laffalot's' nightclub in Aberdeen (I appreciate I'm losing some of the romanticism created by John Sinclair and Clare Grogan there...).
The next two days involved a bus transfer to Mendoza to pick up our third, and hopefully final version of our route. Top marks to Joe here for making this happen in amongst everything that had been going on over the past few days. This was a bit of a haze of boring roads, bad toilets and generally feeling restless. Another service station, another cheese and ham sandwich. As Joe said "I have never known a country to wear you down with food like this!" I kept myself distracted with my iPod and reading 'Around the World by Bike' by Alastair Humphreys. So not much to speak about here in terms of cycling, but a few songs on my playlist and also randomly on the bus driver's collection...
Part 7 - Mendoza to Potrerillos
So here we were, finally ready to make our three day ascent over the Andes, now via Mendoza. There was a bit of anxiety about routes as we found out that not only was this the main highway for freight and lorries between Argentina and Chile, but it was also a bank holiday, and so we were warned there would be extra traffic. Great, well we clearly like a challenge! The route out of Mendoza was actually very smooth and then we were out on the main roads and our first glimpse of the Andes ahead. But before that we cycled through the oil refinery at Lujan de Cuyo. Andy might have tried to make this lunar looking landscape sound exciting, by describing it like 'something out of Captain Scarlet' but it weirded me out. However, this road isn't too bad, we thought to ourselves, what is all the fuss about traffic?
Time for a little musical interlude from my head here. As we were finally out on the open roads, I thought about a song I had been singing before the trip, 'Born to Run' but the acoustic version by Amy Macdonald. A Scottish woman singing a power song, what's not to like?
And then, wham, we were onto the main road and we knew exactly what the fuss was about! This is a single lane main trunk road, but which feels like it should be a dual carriageway. Every other vehicle is a lorry and there just isn't room for them to pass each other and a bike at the same time. Joe warned us, as soon as you hear a lorry, pull over. There was a LOT of pulling over! The strip at the side of the road was usually gravel and so trying to keep cycling on it, with panniers unbalancing you was very unnerving. There was high excitement though as we saw the first signs for Santiago - and so finally it seemed very real. Now the climbs started and at least with them came a crawler lane which helped us out in the nerves stakes. We started to spot something which was to be a regular feature along this roadside. Bottles of water, next to small religious shrines. It turns out these are offerings to Difunta Correa, whose husband was forcibly taken to join the military in 1940. She set off walking to find him, across desert conditions, where she died of thirst. These small altars are now left to quench her eternal thirst. Although there are the odd bottles of 'lorry drivers Tizer' in amongst there which take something away from the romanticism of the story. The scary roads were about to be rewarded though with one of my favourite photo moments as the small town of Potrerillos came into sight, landmarked by the bluest of lakes! Time for another little musical moment, 'Half a World Away' by Oasis. This view did seem like we were on another planet. This version is from the wonderful Barrowlands venue in Glasgow.
This view was accompanied by a big downhill (not my favourite thing at all, especially when chased down by lorries). Now was the first use of 'mappy map' as it will become known. Galileo was a great app that Joe had introduced me to, which means you can download maps to use offline, but which still track your location - genius! Mappy map confirmed that we were almost there. Joe and Andy arrived just behind us to tell us that Andy had broken two of his spokes on the way and so his wheel was seriously compromised. This resulted in an afternoon of trying to communicate with local cyclists and mechanics ('Speak!') and improvising a 'chain whip'. Who even knew what that was, let alone what it is in Spanish? I did warn Andy to be careful trying to literally translate that in his inimitable friendly way. However, enter the Spanish version of Guy Martin and boom, the chainset was off and the spokes were on! Our next achievement of the night must be cooking 'actual' food (pasta, tomato sauce and sweetcorn) rather than dehydrated camping food. However, note to Joe, raw garlic is not a good idea, I only ate it because you said it had 'antibiotic properties'. Despite a 'new friend' on the campsite, I didn't fear for my life that night, and so result, I think I have nailed this camping lark!
And before we go into the next day, here is another little song that was shared along the way. It must have been inspired by the arid conditions, but coincidentally it was also a 7" single that my uncle gave me when I was about 9 years old. Slightly odd? Yes he was, but it remains a karaoke/jukebox favourite of mine. Glen Campbell's 'Rhinestone Cowboy'.
Part 8 - Potrerillos to Uspallata
Shall I even mention 'breakfast'? For some it was crisps, for me it was those 'lady finger' biscuits again!
Back out onto the main road and straight back into the crazy traffic. Although we knew we had to climb up to another 600m throughout this 56km, there seemed to be a slightly depressing amount of downhills - don't make me lose height when I know I have to gain it again! This was our first taste of tunnels to add to the drama of the roads. To start with these were short sections of about 20m through the rock, where you could clearly see daylight on the other side. However, these started to get longer and darker and involved a dash through, just hoping that any vehicles coming behind could see you. as there was definitely no option to stop or pull over. I have to admit to being slightly terrified by these sections and was glad when Stu said he had lights and would go behind me to go through them. Time for another piece of music, and Tom Petty again with 'Free Fallin ' This was a good distraction song on those scary downhill tunnels!
Our next little challenge was a diversion off the main road due to roadworks. This was basically a narrow, uphill winding section on gravel. There was hardly room for one lane of traffic, let alone two, and so we ended up pushing our bikes for most of this stretch, just hoping it wouldn't last too long. As we got closer to Uspallata, the landscape was changing from a mixture of the dry, red desert to some lush greenery and even some water in the rivers, with the Andes moving ever closer.
Another song that was in my head on this day was KT Tunstall 'Other Side of the World', making me think how different this backdrop was to my London life.
Uspallata was quite a vibrant little town, and once we navigated our way to the centre, still avoiding the ever prevalent lorries, it was great to see a mountain bike race in full flow. We did still have the prospect of finding a campsite, however, and so when Joe and Andy arrived, we had a look at a couple of options.
I was very excited when we discovered the Randul campsite and to discover that for an extra £5 per night we could actually share a cabana and not have to camp. Ah, time to crack out the beers that they had in their little shop fridge and go out for a giant steak!
It's weird looking back at the stats for this trip. I think, like running a marathon, you can forget how hard it felt at the time, but the speed and amount of stops below say it all I think!
Extreme winds the following day meant that we took the decision to stay another day in Uspallata, where we took in some of the sights, mostly involving animals ranging from cute puppies in a shopping trolley; a dog that followed us home and was determined to sit guard all night, and then the "Is that dog dead?" moment, when it clearly had rigor mortis. Well, just call me an optimist!
Join me next week for the final instalment as we go up over the top of the Andes and into Chile!
Denise Yeats is an events director, communications consultant, endurance athlete and avid adventurer.