So here we are on the final instalment of my Andes Cycling Adventure, and thank you for sticking with me! In fact, I have actually been really surprised by the reaction to my little blog. What started as a bit of a diary for myself to catalogue this adventure, has turned into something much bigger. I have been really surprised to see how many people have been following it, and have been overwhelmed by the lovely comments I've received. It has also served to renew old friendships with some of my great sporting friends from years gone by, as well as introducing me to some new ones. Many people have been offering some helpful suggestions for future endeavours, so thank you! Although this will be the last part of the blog about this trip, I have been encouraged to continue some more blogs along different themes of sports and inspiration, but more on that later... For now, here we are at:
Part 9 - Uspallata to Los Penitentes
There was no putting it off any longer, this was the day we had to get to Puente del Inca, or as close to that as we could, just before the final climb over the pass into Chile. Joe advised that we might want to stop at a place called Los Penitentes just before that as it was a ski resort where we might have a better chance of a refuge or similar 'accommodation'. I planted the ear worm of 'Movin on Up' by M People in everyone's head before we set off. What is it about that band that just loved a motivational/power song (Proud, Search for the Hero etc). So here we are, try and get this out of your head today...
Although the wind had died down slightly from yesterday, it was still pretty strong on the first section of open roads, and as the ever present lorries whizzed past us, the backdraft they caused was pretty scary. Apparently this was another day of making some ground height wise, and the first 10km or so was indeed uphill. Then came some rolling sections, and a few more frightening tunnels thrown in for good measure - I was ready with my lights today, but it was still slightly terrifying. We made a short stop in a place called Polvaredes where the only helpful feature was an abandoned building site type area which at least offered a place for a sheltered toilet stop. Ah, it's the simple things. We had now done about 40km and I think pretty much as I said "It would be good if we could keep going like this before the strong afternoon wind kicks in", well then the strong afternoon kicked in big time, doh! This was hard going, we were now constantly climbing and the headwind was intense. I adopted my 'head down and get on with it' approach, which was frankly killing me. I was relieved when I heard Stu say "Denise, it's not a sign of weakness to stop every now and then!" Phew, 'permission' to stop. I tried to make us feel better by counting down the kilometres, especially when we got to 10km away from Los Penitentes, which felt just about achievable. But then about 4km further on, and with my chain having come off, we saw a sign that said that it was still10km to Los Penitentes, arrrgh! The wind was now so strong that we did a stint of about 10 minutes walking with the bikes as it seemed quicker. Time for a song interlude, and it matched the mood perfectly, 'Don't Give Up' by one of my favourite artists, Peter Gabriel, with Kate Bush.
It appeared that the road signs in this area were seriously messed up, and I didn't really know how much further we truly had to go. And just as things were getting seriously depressing battling against the wind, hooray, literally an oasis in the middle of nowhere - a small building that said 'Bar' on the outside. Really??
As we drew in front of the building we were at least sheltered by the wind, even if there didn't seem to be any sign of life. But then, literally minutes later, a man drew up in a car who apparently owned this place and it was a refugio where we could stay the night. A quick look inside to see that there were enough bunk beds and a fridge with beer in it and we were sold! As we kicked back out of the wind and had one of the beers with some crisps (late lunch!) Joe and Andy arrived, equally feeling the effects of the strong wind and relieved to see us. Again, I think Joe was amused at how happy I was with this very basic place - toilet and shower combined, mattresses that had definitely seen better days and sharing a room with three guys, I didn't care a bit! The stats below tell a story, see close to the end where we were averaging just 5 or 6km/ph!
Stu tried to tune up the guitar (another selling point!) with a set of pliers as it had lost it's tuning pegs. Top marks for perseverance here and he also managed to get a few tunes out of it. Dinner that night was one of our dried camping meals, and I noticed they tasted slightly better when you took the small silica gel packet out of them (oops, I realised why my last one just seemed to keep getting drier and drier as i ate it!) As we were now at about 2,500m, we could feel the temperature drop pretty quickly as the sun went in. Enter our able teammate, Andy ready to light the wood burner. We all gathered excitedly around it as it all started with such promise. Very quickly though it appeared there was some ventilation blockage though and we were all smoked out, adding to our already omnipresent 'Argentinian Coughs'. Always an opportunity for a beer though, and we indulged Andy with his playlist for a little bit, and I must admit I love this song, 'Slave to Love' by Bryan Ferry.
Part 10 - Los Penitentes to Los Andes
This was going to be an 'interesting' section - 23km of climbing to the top, and then an obligatory lift through a 2km tunnel that takes you to the Chile border. This really was hard as hell, the wind was already against us and the climbing was relentless. We passed through the small town of Puente del Inca, which is famed for it's hot springs, but as we couldn't actually see them from the road, even that wasn't a distraction. We passed the Aconcagua National Park and thought for about 30 seconds about going off road to cycle up to Christ the Redeemer - but at 12km away, we decided we didn't have anything that needed redeeming that badly.
As we got to about 15km and were going up a soul destroying section of road around a concrete wall I started to question whether Joe had said 23km or 23miles....please don't let it be 23miles!! I asked Stu if he had a song for the day in his head and his reply was "I have nothing for this!", which said it all. The only thing I could draw on was one of my favourite little tomes from the 90's, Baz Luhrmann's 'Everybody's Free to Wear Sunscreen'. I love the lyrics in this, definitely ideas to live by, and for this instance, it would have to be "sometimes you're ahead, sometimes you're behind, but in the end the race is long, and it's only with yourself".
A little further along the road we came to a tunnel which we couldn't see the end to. But surely this wasn't far enough on to be THE tunnel? We were discussing our strategy (try to squeeze along the narrowest footpath at the edge of the tunnel, and push our bikes for safety, possibly?) when a man pulled up in a tiny car and seemed to be offering us a lift. But as we motioned to our bikes and the amount of kit, we despondently pointed out that we had too much stuff. "No, I follow behind you, it is too dangerous" he said. We set off as quickly as we could as our escort driver followed behind us with his hazards on - it was such a relief as the tunnel was uphill and we could hear lorries slowing down behind him. What a lovely man, and we shouted our thanks as we waved him off at the end of the tunnel.
Just after that we came to the actual tunnel in question and here was a truck ready to take our bikes and us through to the other side. First challenge, how do you pass your bike laden with 35kg of panniers up to the man on the back of the truck? Ah but when we were in, what a special few moments. The driver firstly put on Frank Sinatra's 'My Way' followed by Simon and Garfunkel's 'The Sound of Silence' as we all sang along and he excitedly pointed out the Chilean border halfway through the tunnel. I particularly like the Simon and Garfunkel song, as I remembered that 'El Condor Pasa (If I Could) being on the soundtrack of the inspirational film 'Wild' - the true story of Cheryl Strayed's emotional trek across the Pacific Crest Trail.
It was like another world when we emerged from the tunnel, and our helpful driver offered to take some Chilean border shots for us. And it was suddenly freezing! We layered up and set off on a downhill to the border. Ah but the real surprise for me was yet to come. I famously prefer uphills to downhills, and so just past the border control, when I was faced with the scariest road I have ever seen I had to have a real word with myself! This road is pretty infamous for its 29 switchbacks, and of course the ever present lorries and yet more tunnels to navigate. The guys were all stopping along the way to take photos as I screeched my way down, worried that if I stopped I would lose my nerve. By the time I got to the bottom of this epic run I could hardly prise my hands off the handlebars and brakes. But I had done it! Suddenly we were back into 30deg heat and so it was time for some sunscreen and a giant empanada for lunch. The final 45km + into Los Andes were pretty much all downhill. Again, great for most people, but mostly a test of mettle for me. The landscapes were quite a contrast to the previous few days as we passed vineyards and waterfalls, but with the heat and wind rising, there were few photostops on this stretch, and instead a concerted push to our hotel in Los Andes. In fact we were so focussed that just a few km from our hotel I misjudged the traffic and got knocked off my bike by a bus, arrgh. To be fair, the driver did stop and check I was ok as I lay on my side, pinned to the ground by the weight of my panniers, and with my feet still clipped in. A few scrapes and covered in dust, but mostly just dented pride! The quirky little 'Residencial Santa Rosa' was another welcome sight, and the staff were super helpful. It is in this town, however that we became aware that there is not an 'afternoon drinking culture' in South America like there is in the UK. We were desperate for, yes, you guessed it, a beer. We finally found a nice hotel tucked away down a side street where we sat outside near a little pool and proceeded to drink our way through the local beers on offer. Not content with that, our lovely hotel staff were on hand when we returned to set up some small tables in one of our (massive) rooms, so that we could have a 'nightcap'. Had we known what was ahead of us tomorrow, I can't help but think we might have taken it a bit easier on the premature celebrating!
Part 11 - Los Andes to Santiago!
We had received various pieces of information both online and via our helpful hotel staff about the best way to cycle into Santiago. The fact was that this was of course never in the plan, but part of our necessary re-route to take this busy road into Chile's buzzing city. We were told it was basically the main trunk road - "Be careful, you may get stopped by the police", and also that there was another one of THOSE tunnels which we would need to be driven through. What we weren't expecting though was just how bad the start of this road was. We were basically cycling up a strip of gravelly tarmac about 50cm wide next to a dual carriageway that was an uphill drag with lorries and traffic shooting past. At just 9am, the temperature was already creeping up to 30deg and we were being squeezed into traffic barriers by unforgiving drivers. As we got to the top of the first climb we were stopped at the mouth of a tunnel where a driver loaded us onto his truck. As we waited at the other side for Andy and Joe to join us, I was hoping that Joe would tell us to give this idea up and thumb a lift. Ah, but Joe isn't like that, and neither am I really I suppose, but he did advise us to get as far as we felt we could cycle safely, and that we might well get stopped by the police. Apparently they had got chatting to a road cyclist, who was also a policeman, who had told them that there was an opportunity to get off the main road, but it would take us on a hillier route, which would be hard going with panniers. Cue for a song in these slightly depressing circumstances, and a favourite of mine, from one of the best bands - The Smiths and 'Please, Please, Please (Let me get what I want)'. I didn't realise that this song was only actually a B side, as we coincidentally also heard it later in trip.
Well I think the roadsign below says it all here. We had cycled along this road for about 40km, and every time a vehicle pulled over to the side we secretly hoped they were going to stop us. But no, we continued to where the road branched off to Colina where we stopped for our lunch and a look at 'mappy map' to consider our options.
Joe and Andy arrived just after us, and Andy plugged the walking route suggested by Google into Santiago. We decided we would see how far we got and book into the first suitable hotel on the outskirts of the city. Well this was another experience and a half! To start with, the minor road was just an excuse for lorries not to pay a toll and so it was a case of yet again dicing with death along a narrow road edge. We ended up basically 'off-roading with panniers' as we navigated another 20km along dirt tracks which were supposed to be pavements. All the while we thought we must see a hotel soon, although at the same time, we were in the deepest industrial part of the outskirts of the city. Ah but tenacity pays off, and hats off to Andy, he only navigated us into one of the hippest and buzziest parts of Santiago - Bellavista. Oh, how happy we were, we had actually cycled into Santiago, which I can, on reflection only compare to cycling into London down the M1!
For this final part, as we cycled into this mecca of a city, I was feeling pretty pleased with myself and had one of my favourite feel good songs in my head, 'Fantastic Shine' by the wonderfully named 'Love of Lesbian'. Some might associate it as the soundtrack of the Estrella Damm beer adverts, and that's fine and appropriate too...
We landed on our feet with our hotel that night - a bed so big that I almost lost myself in it, and a full set of complimentary toiletries. We then had one of the most bizarre nights of the trip as we went to a Peruvian Restaurant (proper food, and vegetables, and Pisco sours!) and then happened upon a bar which is apparently legendary - La Piojera. (Credited as 'Santiago's oldest and best dive bar'!). Here we made friends with some hilarious Chileans who gave us some advice on how to look after our personal safety, and what to drink (NOT such good advice it turns out with this jug of luminous Terremoto - translating to 'earthquake'!) It seems by the look on Joe's face in the picture below that he could see what was to come and so made a hasty exit....
There was still another 10km or so to cycle the next day, to our final destination at the Best Western Hotel in Los Condores. Well done again Joe, a touch of luxury for a couple of days at the end of the trip! It was now time to unwind, pack our bikes and generally get to know Santiago. This involved:
- an overexcitable night of trying out cocktails at the hotel bar, and then, not content with that, drinking our minibars dry, whilst listening to more favourite 80s and 90s tunes from my playlist (see below)
- buying something new to wear that wasn't encrusted in dust (felt like I'd been released from captivity)
- an open top bus tour around Santiago (this is some city - it takes over 2 hours to see it all!)
- a spontaneous midnight trip to Bellavista involving some near death taxi driving
I felt SO sad to leave Santiago. This trip represented so many firsts for me - the furthest place I had been to; the longest and hardest bike ride I had ever done, and of course the independence of carrying all of your own kit and camping. I made the best group of friends there in Joe, Stu and Andy, who kept me laughing and inspired me that yes, I could do this. A quote from Andy that sticks with me is "If anyone ever tells you that you can't do something again, tell them to.....(fill in the blanks!)"
Huge thanks to you guys, and in particular Joe, for making it actually happen against all the odds. I had the best time!
So, as I said at the beginning of this final episode, I have actually been asked to do some more blogs around things like 'Goal Setting' (note to self - should you sign up for a half ironman when you have had a couple of beers?Possibly not) and the 'Power of Music', so look out for those in the new year!
Although it was approaching Christmas in Santiago, it was weird to get your head around the heat, but also the reindeers and Christmas songs in the shops, and so I will leave you all with one final piece of music as I wish you a Merry Christmas, or should that be 'Feliz Navidad'. And if you're going to choose a cheesy song, who better to sing it that....Boney M? I laughed out loud when I found this version!
Meanwhile I am trying hard to embrace Christmas, and have set up a turbo trainer in my living room where my tree would normally be. Well, I'd better get training for the next trip! Maybe put a bit of tinsel or some lights on it.....
Denise Yeats is an events director, communications consultant, endurance athlete and avid adventurer.