I spent Australia day in Santiago, looking forward for the first time in a while and eagerly studying the first major pass through the Andes that I would encounter. I’ve crossed the mountains a few times by this point, unavoidable when ducking between Argentina and Chile the way I have been.
Santiago was a lot of fun; I lucked into a nice group of people and met plenty of Australian’s at a pub run by an expat from Adelaide. In the South there was a noticeable absence of that ocker Australian accent, and I took the fact that all of a sudden I was surrounded by it to mean that I’d at last connected with the Southern most point of the Gringo Trail. On Australia day, after drinking my weight in Cooper’s, eating more fairy bread than is healthy and anxiously waiting my turn to huff on some eucalyptus leaves that were doing the round, I slept off a pained body and readied myself to tackle the mountains.
I met up with Damon and Roxy from Perth, who are riding North from Patagonia to Colombia, and rolling three deep we made our steady exit from the big city and headed towards Los Andes, representing the foothill of the mountains. We met up with a French world cyclist called Laugan and our three became a pretty hilarious four.
By evening on the first day we’d found a nice spot on perched on a narrow ledge between two legs of a river and quickly fell asleep anticipating the ascent the next day.
Rising early we set out climbing, stopping briefly to load up on coke and sugary things and then again to drench our clothing in a river on account of the heat. We made it through the first 29 paved switchbacks to a ski resort atop the mountain, and made base camp as the sun set.
Quickly after waking up we scaled the last of the paved ascent and gazed at the gravel switchbacks in front of us. The last 600m climbing to 3840m would take place on gravel, in the form of another 52 switchbacks that would take a few hours to push through. As we neared the top the wind picked up, the temperature plummeted, and we all quickly agreed that we needed to get out of the freezing rain and descend quickly. Switchbacks again, this time with gravity on side and we moved quickly to Puente del Inca to find a place to camp.
The next bit of riding should have been a lazy two days, descending from the mountains and into wine country, I’ve learned by now, however, that South America runs on it’s own time. The first day of riding was relatively simple, with a storm appearing as we passed Uspallata. Diving for cover we made camp in record time in a dusty plot behind a service station and had a DJ battle between our tents, taking it in turns to play music we though the others would like.
We rolled down the hill early the next day, bathed in sunshine and belting out gypsy tunes through Laugan’s speaker, but had barely made it 10km before being confronted by the Argentinian provincial police and a roadblock. Apparently the storm overnight had triggered a landslide, which in turn left an impassable bridge 30km ahead. As we tried to determine the extent of the problem we were all guilty of looking around to see if there was any way we could skulk around the blocked road splinter-cell style. Nada. We turned back and climbed the 10km back to Uspallata with our tails between our legs, the mood was heavy for about 500m before the gypsy tunes started again and we realized there wasn’t much we could do.
The situation worsened after speaking to a woman at the information centre. It turns out there were 5 roads out of town in total. One went back to Chile, where we had come from, another was our intended route that was no longer an option. Another involved climbing to over 3000m again, but was also closed and being worked on at the time. A fourth was closed indefinitely, and the final option bypassed Mendoza and took us to San Juan, it was open in the morning, but by 4pm was also closed. We were officially stuck in Argentina’s arsehole.
After a lot of laughter at the situation we started thinking straight, and rapidly went in search of beer and wine before the afternoon siesta locked us out of this simple pleasure. Everything was a little bit funnier after that, Logan went through a number of stages ending on a park bench, and every conversation we had with the locals seemed strangely hilarious.
Walking down the main strip in search of empanada’s, Logan and I were greeted in English for a change by a chap who had informed us he had ‘come to Uspallata 6 years ago for a holiday, and decided never to leave’, Jesus Christ, I thought, how long has this bridge been a problem?
We quickly learned that not only could we not leave town, but all internet and phone services were out, and that the town gas station had run out of petrol, meaning fuel for everyone’s camp stoves was inaccessible also. In short, at that period of time, Uspallata could have disappeared and there was really absolutely no reason for anyone to miss it. The empanada’s we found were dry.
At 6.30pm, drunk and after sitting around for most of the day, a lovely woman named Cynthia informed us that the road was open and a diversion had been made around the bridge. With some urgency she told us to get on our bikes and ride quickly, before something else went wrong. She obviously had little confidence in the roads in Argentina.
We weren’t quick enough.
As we approached the previous night’s campsite near the service station, we started to see a huge queue of cars. How could they be backed up 30km to the bridge? It turns out now a levee or a pipe had broken, and completely flooded a section of road. By this point we weren’t even upset, the absurdity of the day had broken us. We laughed at our misfortune and noted that they were drip-feeding cars through the flood that was inaccessible on bicycle.
I went into problem solving mode, and started targeting anyone with a pickup, explaining what the problem was ahead, and asking if they could take us and our bikes through on their way. I found a lift for myself and was just about to wish the others good luck when a trucker starting yelling out from the side of the road. He was hauling two containers, and one was empty. We all crammed in with our bikes and he explained that we would need to be completely quiet while we passed the police checkpoint.
So that’s how we ended up in an empty container, trying our best not to laugh at the situation and keep a cool profile as we made our way through floodwaters. To make things more humourous, we had to hold the door of the container open for air so that most people on the side of the road could see us, and each time we hit a bump in the road we were all thrown a foot in the air with a heavy crash landing.
We didn’t stop riding until well after dark, making sure to clear the scene of the bridge accident so that there were no problems the following day. We slept hidden by the side of the road, equally taken by the starry sky above us and the string of taillights from the cars that were banked up waiting the travel around the bridge.
As we approached Mendoza we stopped to have lunch by the side of the road with someone grilling sausages. He must have pitied us with our stale bread and bruised and browning avocado’s, because as he closed up for the day he dropped on us two enormous fatty sausages and a big bag of crusty baguettes. The drama was over and we rode into Mendoza with huge smiles on our faces and with a big bag of free food for dinner.