If I push my stomach out, and arch my back a bit, I can just about make my feet disappear, which is gratifying. Such is the progress I have made over the past 10 days on Project “Fatten Up” ahead of the next phase of the trip, which starts from Puerto Montt on Friday. Ice-cream and empanadas, beer and Milanesa, pizza and papas fritas have all done wonders for the waistline, if not the complexion, and should help anchor me and stop me blowing away in those infamous Patagonian winds.
I pop into a bike shop to get some handlebar tape to replace the tape that has been torn by over-enthusiastic bus-station luggage-handlers over the last two months. The woman in the shop describes the Carretera Austral (the next section of my ride) as “dusty” and points me in the direction of a store selling breathing-equipment. She seems to speak with authority, but I am wondering if this is the Discovery Channel speaking or if she has been to Patagonia in a previous life. I am also trying to recalibrate, as my wind-and-dustometer maxed out at 10 on the way to Llullaillaco. If the Carretera Austral is really that bad, I may have to do a Spinal Tap and reset the dials to go up to 11.
First I need to head south, as latitude-wise I am in the equivalent of Tenerife and need to get to Madrid. This is something I won’t be doing on my bike because it is a loooong way and I don’t have that much time. Besides, the bus system in Argentina and Chile is pretty good (and cheap), although my bike does add the the cost. There is no official price for the bike – it seems to be determined at the whim of the driver or the person loading the bags – but it works out around (mas o menos) 25% of the cost of the passenger ticket. I am not quibbling, as I have 6 bags and a very smelly pair of cycling shoes, so am probably quids in overall.
From Fiambala to Catamarca, it’s 6 hours (plenty of time to work my way through a bag of cream-line toffees). It’s then a four-hour wait-over, before taking the 11-hour night bus to Mendoza. Altogether, this sets me back 14,500 pesos, around £80 at the time of writing – or 12p a mile, which doesn’t sound much. I am also saving on accommodation for one night which is good too. What is less good is the sour-faced woman at the Catamarca bus station who announces that bikes are not allowed on the Mendoza bus. I rehearse the legal arguments but she seems unimpressed by these. I try sarcasm but the barbs are bouncing off her 3-inch hide. Eventually, I take a deep breath and resolve to take it up with the driver later. This proves to be a wise move, as the driver kisses me on both cheeks like a long-lost friend and ushers me on (some of this I made up). I throw a glance of vindication at the woman on the desk as I climb on-board but she is busy now, curdling a pale full of milk.
The driver announces that this is the “Mendoza” bus, so I decide to heed his instructions and nod off to sleep. I am thinking the joke will be funnier when I wake up, but it isn’t. Several stops later we are pulling into a bus station looking a lot like the one we left behind in Catamarca, and I am putting my bike back together – a source of entertainment for all and sundry, made the more interesting by the buses pulling in and generally manoeuvring around me.
I have 5 days in Mendoza, which suits me fine as it is the nicest city I have been to on this trip so far. A good combination of parks and boulevards, safe and easy to navigate. It is also the jumping-off point for climbing Aconcagua, something I would quite like to do as it would give me the 1, 2, 3 of the highest mountains in South America, which has a ring about it. I will never be this well acclimatised again and, weather permitting, getting to the top should be a formality. Unfortunately, the mountain is not open for another week and facilities at base camp (which I would need) would not be available for a week after that. Realistically, this will take me through to late November and put a dent in my efforts to complete the Carretera Austral in time (as well as putting a dent in my wallet). Reluctantly, I place Aconcagua back in a box marked “some other time perhaps” and make arrangements to head over to Chile on the next available minibus. This is on Tuesday, giving me just enough time to complete a tour of the vineyards of Mendoza as well as a few ice-cream shops I haven’t been to so far. The vineyard tour turns into a nice day out on my bike – setting a record for the longest cycle ride around Maipu (one of the wine-growing districts) without seeing a vineyard. However, I did find an ice-cream shop…
I arrive in Santiago late afternoon after a relatively incident-free 7-hour journey in the sunshine. I am busting for a wee, as 1.5 litres of coke, 2-hours of queuing at customs and a further 2-hours in the bus are testing my pelvic-floor muscles to breaking point. The woman “manning” the loos at the bus station does not accept Argentine pesos or IOUs, so I do not offer any. The torrent of abuse I receive suggests she is related to the woman in Catamarca. Later, after I have been to an ATM, I go back to settle my debt. The foul look suggests I am still in her bad books. No Christmas card from her then.
Santiago is a big, modern city. At least it has the fast-food outlets, retail stores and other trappings of a modern city even if it is a little soulless. The place is awash with street vendors and, with more homeless people than I saw in La Paz or Salta, poverty must be an issue here too. I shouldn’t, perhaps, judge the city based on the area immediately around the bus station but, as I have been here on previous trips, I don’t need to explore Santiago further before heading out, which I will be doing this evening, 24 hours after arriving.
Next stop is Puerto Montt and, from there, it is a 4-week ride to O’Higgins, 1,200km further south. Unlike the Puna in the north, rain is guaranteed, so my waterproofs will have to be packed somewhere near the top of my bag. I might even get my helmet cover out if no-one is looking. One other thing I can be sure of too is there will be other cyclists, mostly heading from north to south, although with the occasional masochist heading the other way (not only “uphill” 🤓 but into the wind). A bit of company will be nice, although I may need to relearn the art of conversation – grunting is unlikely to be enough.
More on the Carretera “Dustral” to follow…