To Mendoza [an error occurred while processing this directive]
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In the process of planning a new route it is always an issue which way to take. Do we take the paved or unpaved one. Of course there is not always a choice, but if there is we keep staring at the map, trying to find out which alternative is the best for us. Asking the local people is not always the best solution, because most of the time you will be sent to the asphalt road: the most obvious choice for a car. We are not always sure which way to go because both types of road have their advantages and disadvantages. Traveling over gravel and dirt roads is without doubt the most adventurous choice and feels more like the real thing. Those roads usually carry less traffic, which is not only safer and more relaxed for the cyclist, but in a strange way it makes the surrounding look more special. Particularly, when the road is really lonely and desolated it appears like you are the only person who may witness the beautiful landscape. Besides this, also the setting of the unpaved roads is better then that of the asphalt roads. On both sides of the latter, a large empty stripe is reserved for the draining, while nature starts immediately on both sides of the narrow gravel road. It is like riding though nature instead of watching it from a cultivated lane.

The road is oursIt sounds all too good and sweet to be true. When the road becomes bad it is difficult to remember the romanticized ideas about riding unpaved. It is of course challenging to conquer the difficult road, but it is not uncommon that the state is so bad that it really becomes annoying. Then the road takes all the concentration and there is no time to look around. The speed becomes too slow. Cycling is implicitly a slow way of traveling, but if we wanted to go that slow, we would have chosen to start walking instead of biking, like the Japanese man who is hiking the ´ruta 40` at this same moment! When the road is in a really bad state, we are more than happy to find it changing into a well paved road. It then suddenly becomes possible to cycle with high speed like on a racing bike and fly over the map. Until now we have found a good compromise between asphalt and gravel. About fifty fifty of the distance on paved and unpaved roads. 

Bad gravel roads

A river of sand
There are various reasons that a dirt road can become too bad to be cycled with pleasure. A good gravel road has a surface of hard sand combined with little stones only. This smooth layer is built on a fundament of big football sized stones and rocks. In some roads those big stones seem to have enough of living in the dark and start to peek through the surface. It becomes a really challenging puzzle to avoid those bumps and find a way through without breaking body and bike. Unfortunately, the puzzle is not always solvable in the available time.

It is also possible that the top layer loses its stiffness and becomes a scary river of loose sand and or small pebbles. If it is just a thin layer, cycling becomes only a little more demanding, but when you encounter a thick layer of loose sand the bike becomes completely uncontrollable. Every attempt to steer ends up in tumbling in the sand. With a lot of force on the pedals and avoiding any steer movement, you can make some meters but eventually it is time to give up and start pushing the bike to the ´shore`.

The most common problem is the washboard effect. The shock breakers of the cars that rush by, create a regular harmonic wave pattern in the surface of the road. Once a little pattern is formed every car that passes by makes the bumps worse. It can become a real nightmare, which makes your kidneys hurt in your back. To remove the ripples, every now and then a machine scrapes the upper part away. This does not always result in a more friendly road, as the top layer becomes soft and needs some time under influence of rain, sun and traffic to become hard again. We met a woman who was completely desperate because she had cycled for several days behind such a machine. With tears in her eyes she exclaimed: "They do it on purpose to chase away the cyclists..."

Better or worse?

The road we cycle on at the moment has a little bit of everything. Since we crossed the border from Lonquimay (Chile) to Las Lajas (Argentina), we are cycling over a good asphalt road close to the Andes. Cycling through the offshoots of the Cordillera de Los Andes involves a lot of climbing and descending. As soon as we pass the province border from Neuqen to Mendoza the paved road changes suddenly into a bad gravel road. The government of Mendoza has apparently no priority in spending money in this rural area. It is a bumpy road with a lot of rocks. Together with the steep climbs it is not an easy way at all. At the point where the road is supposed to become paved again, we only see fragments of asphalt. A few meters of asphalt and rippled gravel alternate for several kilometers, after which it becomes a paved road with now and then holes. The closer we get to Malargüe the better the road becomes and finally we have a smooth descent into the village.

Malargüe

The village Malargüe (famous for its goats) is a village like many others. The plan of the town seems to be designed on checkered paper, in which the lines are used for streets and the squares are the blocks of houses of about 100 by 100 meters. In every itself respecting village, one of the blocks doesn't contain houses but is reserved for the plaza. It is a square with grass, benches, a statue and it is more or less the social active center of the village where people gather in the evening. Along the plaza runs the main street with the shops. Malargüe has found a way to distinguish itself from similar villages by building a tower clock at the crossing of the main street and the largest crossroad. Every half hour it produces an electric church bell sound to indicate the time.

The Andes

It is in this village that we take a day of rest. Usually such a day involves washing our clothes, maintaining the bike (lubricate etc.), repairing tubes that have punctures, reading, eating, drinking, resting and looking around. Today, additionally, we have to find someone who can fix our trousers. They are starting to wear out by all that cycling and traveling and already several tears have appeared. In the textile shop next to our hotel we buy a patch and inform whether someone can stitch it on the trousers for us. After some discussion with colleagues and customers, the shopkeeper tells us there is a woman in town with a sewing machine. He starts to explain where we have to go, but we don't completely understand him. Because of the block structure it is normally very easy to follow someone's directions, but we don't see where this man wants us to go. Fortunately he sends a boy who brings us to a building in the main street. We are surprised to see that we enter a regular bank office. With some curiosity we wait to see what will happen. Actually nothing happens until a corpulent man enters through the same door as we did. Our guide talks to the man, who nods like he understands and waves us to come outside. Without a word we are pushed in a car that waits on the other side of the street with the engine running, and while we drive away we can see the fat man going back to the office. The driver turns out to be the daughter of the man and together with her boyfriend she brings us to the house of her mother. She indeed has a sewing machine which she proudly exhibits in the center of the living room. The woman immediately starts fixing our clothes, but not before she opens a bottle of some kind of champagne for us. Chatting with the daughter, sipping from the champagne we wait, while outside a hailstorm threatens Malargüe.

Thorns

The route takes a little more distance from the Andes; the road becomes more flat. Because it is also made of good asphalt we are able to gain speed. At this moment we are happy the road is paved, because we found out that we are behind our schedule. The weather is not as good as we are used to and it is very likely that further north we will run into Andes passes that are closed because of snow. We are trying to make longer days and more kilometers to catch up with the good weather. At this latitude, especially in Chile the weather becomes worse quickly. You can feel the winter approaching.

Another thornBecause we have more distance from the Andes, we have a better view on the mountains. The further we go north, the more they gain in height. In the mornings it is a beautiful sight to see the sunlight shining on the white snowy tops with the clear deep blue sky behind them. In the distance are the mountains, but around us it is only pampa filled with small bushes that stand with large distance from each other in the stony earth. It takes some effort to find a good place for the night. With so little vegetation and not so many hills it is difficult to put the tent out of sight of the road. After one of the nights in the pampa we want to continue cycling, but notice some of the tires are nearly flat. Inspecting them shows us that they are full with thorns. Only one tire seems to be unaffected but the day after, we can also remove a thorn from this one. Almost all plants are equipped with sharp (some 10cm long) thorns to protect themselves in this extreme environment. We'd better carry our bikes to a camp spot the next times.

The landscape remains more or less the same until, after we pass a salt field, we get an excellent and beautiful descent called ´Cuesta de los Terneros´ towards the city San Rafael. The road runs down through carved rocks and suddenly we find ourselves in a green landscape. There are fruit trees and for the first time we see vineyards. After San Rafael very close to Mendoza we visit one of the many Bodegas (wine houses) in the area. With heavy legs from tasting the wine, we pedal the last few kilometers to a hostel. It is clear that we are in a wine area, because in the restaurant next to the hostel as a present we receive a good bottle from the owner with the words "My house is your house". Let's prepare for the next Bodega visit tomorrow in Mendoza.

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This page was last updated on Friday July 29, 2011
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