‘Girls! Girls! Don’t go down that road, it’s dangerous!’
We are stood over our bikes on the outskirts of Mendoza, when a man in his late twenties on a white and green motorbike dices with death and swerves around oncoming traffic to accost us, and bring us the news that we are headed in a dodgy direction.
‘Errr…. hola!” I say, smiling, if a little confused as the man pulls up next to us. He continues to repeat “Peligoroso! Peligroso!” (Dangerous! Dangerous!) before going on to explain in Spanish, or to the the best of our understanding, that we should not go across the lights here and down the dirt track we intend to take.
That dirt track will lead us out of the city and on to Route 13, through the mountains and to the town of Uspallata (oos-pie-ya-ta. I spell it for you only only because, phonetically at least, it includes the word PIE.)
We have two choices of route from Mendoza to Uspallata. The first is to take the rough and ready Route 13, which leads us up to 3,000 metres and over two remote mountain passes on what we know will be challenging terrain. But we also know that it will be traffic free and a darn sight more adventurous than taking the paved Route 7: a route that will be crammed with heavy trucks and fast moving cars that pass within a cat’s whisker of our bikes. In our mind, and at this point, Route 7 is the dangerous option.
We explain to the nice man what we are doing, where we’ve come from, and that we’re headed to Uspallata. Still, he continues to insist that we MUST go left through the city. I assume he’s directing us towards Route 7. We thank him, tell him we understand, smile, take selfies and do the Argentinan cheek kiss thing. Just as he’s driving off I turn to Faye as say: “We’re still going the same way, right?”
“Yep!’ Says Faye, not looking up from her phone. ‘I’m just waiting for him to get out of sight.’
Now this might sound like madness. Why oh why would we go against the advice of a local man who warns us off our intended route? Because, based on experience, people often tell us we ‘can’t go that way’ or ‘it is too far for you on bikes’ or, my personal favourite: ‘it is not possible’. In the mind of those who drive cars, the off-road routes are dangerous and scary, and the paved roads are safe. The reality is that for cyclists it is often entirely the opposite. And besides, this is life man! We’re here for some gnarly saddle shaped rock and roll! Not an easy glide through sights that could be seen from a car window.
The man has now rumbled out of sight and so we move across the lights and start down the dusty trail. A minute later, we hear the unmistakable noise of a motorbike engine, and then some shouting. There he is again. Razzing down the trail behind us. ‘Oh crap.’ I say to Faye. ‘Busted.’ We slow to a stop and I prepare my best: ‘We didn’t understand routine.’ Although there is now something about his persistence that is starting to sew a seed of curiosity in my mind, and perhaps we didn’t quite understand after all. Following him up the trail is a navy blue car. As the motorbike man arrives next to us, so too does the car. A woman in the driver’s seat winds down her window. She looks sternly at us and says: ‘Girls. You cannot go this way, it is dangerous.’ Just then, I spy a badge on her arm. It reads: Mendoza Poliza. Now this is about to get very interesting…
Lorena, a member of the Mendoza Poliza is strikingly pretty with a round face, cat-like hazel eyes and jet black hair, fashioned in a neat plait down her back. Once she’s finished giving us a firm telling off, her manner softens. She gets out the car and ventures a little English – which is on a par with our Spanish and so we manage to get some further clarification. The kind man, we now know to be Juan, looks on as we try to get Leona to explain what it is precisely about Route 13 that is so dangerous.
‘Bad people. Very bad people.’ she says. ‘It is not safe for you, for tourists.’ Ahhh. Okay. Now perhaps that IS something we should listen to. Much as I like to believe there aren’t any bad people in the world (just bad deeds), I know that’s mostly just a happy little bubble I choose to live in. And I do appreciate that tourists can wind up in sticky situations when they wander into the wrong neighbourhood. I start envisaging what lies ahead on Route 13: Bandits? Drug smugglers? Human traffickers?
We ask Lorena about alternate options for cycle tourists, and she suggests that we follow her back to the local station where she will call the ‘Tourist Police’ (yes they have Tourist po-po in Argentina) and they can advise us on the best route to Uspallata. Faye and I are now rather excited, and are bang up for a trip to the local police station – wherever it might lead us.
We apologise to a relieved looking Juan for ignoring his original advice, wave him off (again) and follow Lorena to the station. As it turns out the local station is for the Police Cavaliers! And so were are greeted by fields of horses and splendid grassy surrounds. Lorena gets straight on the phone to the Tourist Police, stopping briefly to chat to her husband, who is also a policeman there. We are given a bottle of water by another nice police lady and wait patiently on chairs outside the main office. A few minutes later Lorena emerges and says that if we can wait until 5pm, then someone from the Tourist Police will come by, and they can speak English. ‘Great!’ we say in unison, Faye and I only too happy to pass the 30 minutes between now and then oggling all the police-y stuff going on in the office.
Ten minutes later a man appears in a Black t-shirt. He is accompanied by one of the officers, and strolls up to us and says, in English: “Hello. I’m Matti. How can I help?” Ah great! The tourist police! We natter back and forth with him about the proposed route and our plans, and he explains that we were headed for the dangerous Mendoza neighbourhood of San Martin. He pulls up the map and shows us an area. It’s only 2km x 1km in size, but he says that its a ‘Red Zone’ and we really can’t go through there.
At last the penny drops. Route 13 isn’t the problem, it is just the route we were taking through the city to get there. PHEW. We go on to double check our conclusion, and that we can still follow Route 13 to Uspallata. Matti and Lorena’s husband engage in a mini debate. The hubbie is saying: “There is no water, it is hard, they should go via Route 7.’ To which Matti kindly translates back and forth that we are used to those things, and we assure him we are as prepared as we can be to take on a remote mountain route.
‘I’ll give you the number of the tourist police, just in case’ Matti says. Which seems a bit odd, given I’m sure there’s going to be no phone reception where we’re going, but I accept the number anyway. Matti then asks if we have various things: spare tubes, water, chains… all of which I assure him we have. He then asks: ‘Do you have a light?’
‘Oh yes, we can make a fire to keep us warm.’ I reply, trying to curb his concern for our safety.
‘No, I mean a light for a cigarette. It’s not for me, it’s for my friend.’
‘Oh, sure…’ I say slowly, as Faye moves off to get the lighter. I think this to be a little unprofessional for a Tourist Policeman. And then it dawns on me that he did arrive a little early…
‘Are you not from the tourist police then?’ I ask him.
‘Me?! Oh no. I just play in the police band.’
After Matti lights up, and a phone call to the real Tourist police is made, we are free to go. We take a 2km detour to avoid the rough neighbourhood of San Martin, and set off towards the same route we were headed almost 2 hours ago. Route 13 is a go, and it already reeks of adventure.