Mendoza to La Serena [an error occurred while processing this directive]
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From Mendoza (a pleasant town although it is the second large city of Argentina) two different ways lead to the village Uspallata from where we can cross the border to Chile. Taking the southern paved route means going back the same way as we came and because it is the main road it can have plenty of traffic. Instead we have chosen the northern unpaved option, which promises to be an interesting and quite road. It is an historic route we are taking, because the Liberty Army of San Martin used it almost two centuries ago to cross the Andes to defeat the Spanish out of Central Chile.

El Ejército Libertador de Los Andes [1]

San Martin was hereSan Martin is still a very famous man. We haven't crossed a town in Chile or Argentina, without finding a street or plaza that is named after him. He earned his status in the spectacular way he helped free Chile. After he came back as an professional soldier from war in Spain, he wanted to fight for an independent Argentina. However, as Argentina was already freed, he changed his attention to Chile. For almost two years he stayed in Mendoza building an army of more then 5100 men. In the end of 1816, a few months before the action started, he negotiated with the Pehuenche Indians in the south that he could use their passes to cross the Andes. As he had predicted, the Pehuenches told the Spanish what to expect. San Martin sent a decoy battalion to the south and stayed himself with five battalions north. The decoy battalion, who's officers actually believed that the rest of the army was coming up behind them, met the bulk of the Spanish army on February 4, 1817. Meanwhile, the five other battalions were stealing across the Andes and catching the Spanish unawares. Within a week the northern cities were freed and on February 14th, the victorious libertadores marched into Santiago.
 

Uspallata

The road climbs from Mendoza (720m) up to a pass with an altitude of 2910m. In our way up we cross a hotel that we have seen several times in a commercial on the Argentinean television. The hotel itself is already abandoned for two decades, but this place called Villavicencio is well known for its mineral water. A pipe system transports the water down to the valley, where it is bottled in a factory near Mendoza.

Caracoles near VillavicencioAntique BMW


As we climb the caracoles, a little antique car (BMW) stops in front of us. The nose of the car opens and two Argentinean tourists pop out of the comic vehicle. They warn us that the Argentinean army is practicing near Uspallata and that therefore the road is closed several kilometers after the pass. They themselves had just been able to cross the military area before the bullets started to fly through the air. Of course we don't even think about going back, so we will see what happens when we arrive there.

On the top of the pass we encounter an empty landscape. There is no vegetation, only a nañdu that is running away as soon as it sees us. Not that a nañdu is vegetation, but at least there is something alive up here. Like on every top there is a white cross and next to it stands a small pink chapel. Uncountable various items lie in the chapel ment as a holy sacrifice, e.g. flowers, letters, food, cans with soft drink. However, the most striking object is the Barbie doll that stands, still in the original box, next to the little statue of virgin Maria.



 

We were told that Uspallata was just a few hundred meters below the pass, but we have to descend over 1000 meters to reach the village. As a result we will have to climb the next day more then we expected to the international pass. In other words, we get more value for our money. The descent runs through an area of mines. Most of them are closed, but a man with a yellow helmet and a tiny dog running around his legs, tells us he still digs here for gold and copper. From all the colors in the mountains it is clear that they must be full minerals and metals.

Apparently, the army had finished its exercise because we reach the valley of Uspallata in the late afternoon, without being stopped. Sediments have made this valley flat and in the sunset light it looks like it is filled with water where rock formations stick out like islands in the sea. In the distance we can see for the first time the top of the Aconcagua (6959m). Will there be a time that we are going to climb this big one?

Paso international Cristo Redentor

The ruta international climbs with a very moderate slope up to the pass, thereby following the 'Rio Mendoza'. On the other side of the river runs the old old railway that is not functional anymore. Our road goes just up and down , following the shapes of the mountain, but the railway has to make Termas under 'Puente del Inca'interesting maneuvers along and through the mountains to keep its slope as low as possible. Most of the traffic that accompany us, is formed by trucks that slowly bring their heavy loads to the top of the Andes. They drive carefully. The little BMW that we run across for the second time doesn't seem to drive carefully at all. It meanders down the road and appears to roll over in every moment. It is because of the wind the cramped tourists explain. The road is not steep but this same wind prevents us from reaching the border in one day. We pitch our tent at an altitude of 2640m in Puente del Inca, a settlement mainly used as starting point for Aconcagua expeditions. It also has a touristic value due to the natural formed bridge colored yellow by minerals, that runs here over the 'Rio Mendoza'. The night is pretty cold with an outside temperature of minus 10 degrees Celsius, which makes Iris decide in the morning to warm up by taking a bath in one of the steaming termas under the bridge.

It is impressive to be surrounded by the highest mountains of the Andes. The pass (at an altitude of 3186m) is actually not a road over one of those mountains. It is a tunnel of about 2 km long which is too small to be cycled due to all the traffic. In the past, cyclists were allowed to cross the border through the old railway tunnel which is maintained for trucks with dangerous loads. Nevertheless, the customs officials refuse us to use this tunnel and instead we are carried to the Chilean side by a pickup truck. Hmmm... The first kilometers without cycling. Funny enough, we are welcomed by two Australian cyclists who are waiting to be carried to the Argentinean side with the same truck.

Cacti in Chile

The road drops steep in a series of 29 hairpin switchbacks. Trucks drive here extremely precautious and we overtake them with high speed, but also we have to brake frequently because of the strong curves. Cycling this pass in the opposite direction would have been more efficient since in the gentle Argentinean descent you don't have to brake at all. But who dares to speak about efficiency in South America? In no time we get from the deserted mountain tops covered with a thin layer of snow where ski lifts run over the road, back into the green vegetation. The vegetation is not so dense as we were used to in the south of Chile. It is anyhow different because for the first time we are surrounded by cacti: the real big ones with stings of 10 cm. We pedal along a gorge in this new landscape and look to the railway that runs in the depth, when a dark shadow moves over us. It is a condor that is so close, it wants to grab Iris like she was a little mouse and bring her to the nest halfway down the gorge. A good meal for the little condor kids...

The Chilean side of Paso Cristo Redentor

In the village Los Andes we stay for a couple of days in a famous casa de ciclistas where in the previous years many cyclists (e.g. Frank van Rijn) have found a home for a couple of days, a couple of months, or still live there! This is a perfect place to prepare for the long trip though the Chilean hilly inlands to the coast town La Serena. We avoid the Pan-American highway near the Pacific coast by taking the interior gravel road along the villages Pataendo, Cabildo, Illapel, Combarbalá, Monte Patria, Ovalle. The road runs through avocado and lemon plantations and for the first time we have to cross several tunnels. They are sandy, wet and above all very dark.

Hospedaje

Sometimes you need a roof above your head. Maybe because it is too difficult to find a nice place for the tent (not in sight of people), or it is absolute necessary to take a shower, or we are just bored of being alone and like to have some accompany. It is not clear what the reason is today, but we really like to find an hospedaje. You must always ask around for an hospedaje, because the best ones, cheap with a family atmosphere, often don't show any sign that they provide lodging. The old grandfathers who sit the whole day on the plaza are always the best source for this kind of information. In the tiny village we are now, there is no plaza with grandfathers and also no sign of any hospedaje. When we ask two men that are busy trying to repair a camionete they send us to señora Ida. Señora Ida doesn't understand how two gringos got to know her name and is slightly scared. As soon as she understands, the atmosphere changes and she agrees that we can sleep the night at her place which doesn't look like an hospedaje at all. It is just a little house with three rooms. She is a bit vague about the price, but we first must help her to clear our little sleeping room that is still full with old stuff. The old granny is very energetic and tries to do everything to make it comfortable for us. She serves us once and breakfast and we must use her shower. The water in the shower is heated by electricity. It looks a bit strange such a shower head with a wire that runs to the 220V electric socket. When Tore examines this and does some research by turning and pressing some buttons, the boiler starts to generate a strange sound and a second later the whole house is covered in dark. Apparently, the electric current had become to high in the heating device and broke the electric plug. When we want to leave the next morning and pay the little woman (half the size of Tore), she says it is 1000 Chilean Pesos, which is a little more then 1 US$. Not more? No, she had such a good time. Especially that a gringo destructed her electric circuit was one of the funniest things in a long time. "Rare jongens, die Chilenen!"

 

[1] Abstracted from Chile Experience, Turiscom 2001, page 336.

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