Faye looks up from her phone: ‘We have eighty eight switchbacks to take on today Anna! Eighty eight!!!’ Her eyes are aglow with all the wonder of a child on a Christmas morn.
When researching the border crossing between Argentina and Chile, we discovered that we had two choices. Our first option is to pedal up to the start of the 4km Internacional Los Libertadores tunnel. Cyclists aren’t allowed in this tunnel and so, there we will be stopped by the mythical ‘tunnel police’. The tunnel police (rumoured to be half-man, half-donkey) will then ferry us through themselves, or arrange for a truck to stop to take our bikes through. The second option is to take the old road, a dirt track via Paso de la Iglesia, up and over the mountain. Now then, now then – which option do you think we’d take? I’ll give you a clue: it starts with ‘UP THE’ and ends in ‘FREAKIN’ MOUNTAIN’. Yeee hawww!
We climb steadily from our roadside camp, and I am buzzing. Buzzing at the prospect of crossing back into Chile after a month in Argentina, and at yet another guaranteed spectacular view from the top. My adrenal levels could also have something to do with the fact that I have nailed my favourite Argentinian snack in the cafe at the bottom of the pass: coffee (two cups) with ‘medialunas’ (baby croissants). Do baby croissants also contribute to adrenal levels, I wonder, as we grind back and forth on the red and dusty switchback road. All around, jagged granite peaks shoot up from the ground and stand proud and tall against a clear blue sky. Pockets of snow are nestled in the darkest corners of the peaks, and a glacier snakes its way down the largest one in the distance.
The top of the pass is 3,900 metres high and it is absolutely blinkin’ freezing. I’m still in shorts and t-shirt, despite having pedalled past snow on the way up, but the windchill up here is something else. A stiff gust sends an icy blast through my skin and right down to my bones. We pile on all of our clothing and once I have six layers on my top half and three on my bottom, we grab a quick ‘chocolate caliente’ from one of the small stalls at the top. Post hot choc inhalation we hi-five a giant statue of Cristo Redentor (Jesus with his arms out), decide that it is too bloody cold to pose next to the huge Chilean flag, and so begin the descent of Paso de la Iglesia in earnest.
We’ve seen a few other cyclists today, most of them travelling just with a backpack – on a day trip into Chile to ride the mountains. We follow a man on his mountain bike down the pass, and are rather delighted to note that he’s not actually going that much quicker than us. Months of bouncing over loose rock and gravel have made us rather nimble at descending on loaded touring bikes. I only fall off once, which is an absolute revelation (my fall count total now sits at well over 50). Faye somehow, always remains upright – despite me telling her that it’s good to fall over as an adult once in a while. Adults don’t fall over enough you know…
We nip through a few more tunnels, stopping before each to perform the safety ritual. High-viz vests on, lights affixed, sunglasses off. Thankfully most of the tunnels are short, or have gaps in the side which allow beams of sunlight in so that we can be seen by the passing traffic. Still, this road is busy and littered with huge trucks – so I approach each tunnel with trepidation, and pass through it breathing hard or singing to myself to keep calm.
At last we find ourself at the official border. Technically, we crossed into Chile at the top of Paso de la Iglesia, but evidently there wasn’t space for a full blown immigration outpost there, and I can now see why. Here, there are thousands of people. We pull on our brakes and grind to a halt amidst a sea of tour buses, cars and lorries. It is in no way clear where we should go, but the bonus of being on a bicycle is that you are often waved to the front of the line. Although on this occasion, we wave ourselves to the front of a line we like the look of, our expressions a mixture of confusion and intent to ward off any potential questions from onlookers.
We enter the immigration ‘shed’ and stand in four queues – twice in the same queue after getting to the front and being directed to another office to get a seemingly useless piece of paper which informs anyone who’d care to know that we have bicycles. We get our stamps, before standing in another ‘customs’ queue to pass our baggage through a seemingly pointless luggage scanner, all the while the drivers of the tour busses are trying to shove their passengers through first, and relegate us to the rear of the line.
The immigration shed is a challenge that would put even the toughest Gladiator to the test. It is a battle of wit and wills, and we emerge two hours later – bemused and triumphant. We are just pedalling off when I look down and notice something amiss. ‘Faye!!! My sleeping bag!!’ In the customs kerfuffle the black bag that lives on the front of my handlebars hadn’t come through the scanner, and so I hadn’t picked it up. I go back to collect it and a man simply grabs it from the back of the scanner (without passing it through) and hands it to me. See? Pointless.
At last we are on our wa-hey. We have shiny new stamps in our passport, and are in Chile again – where the money is waterproof, the Spanish language is truncated and everyones seems to have VERY cool hair.
‘It looks like a giant plate of spaghetti down there!!!’
We are perched on the edge of yet another switchback-tastic descent, doing all we can to get a good view of the jumble of tarmac below. Signs planted at each corner let us know just how much fun there is still to come: ‘Curva 29…. curva 28…. curva 27…’ on and on, and on it goes.
Unfortunately we are still sharing the road with trucks and cars, but I have to say that Chilean drivers are the most considerate I’ve ever encountered. In most cases they pass wide and slow, and often with a wave or a toot. And besides, by this point in the proceedings Faye and I are a finely polished, two-up woman TT team. We zip along, tucked tightly up against the other’s wheel. The person at the front is responsible for pointing out potholes, dead animals or any other potential bike-stopping, show-stopping hazards, and who ever ends up as ‘tail end Charlie’ is appointed chief safety officer. The responsibility of the chief safety officer involves checking behind frequently for any approaching trucks, and double checking behind for approaching trucks if there is oncoming traffic. If a situation has the potential to be dicey – the chief safety officer will shout at the other to pull off the road, and let the motorised things be on their way without squashing us.
That night, we squeeze through a fence into a disused truck yard and, after moving a few concrete blocks out of the way, pitch up in quite possibly the ugliest ‘wild’ (read: free) camp spot so far. Luckily the noise of the adjacent river goes some way to drowning out the hum of passing traffic, but we are still treated to the toots of bemused truck drivers as they catch sight of two girls cooking up pasta on a concrete patch next to the highway. But it doesn’t matter, because tomorrow is the final day of riding into Santiago, and only 90km now stands between us and a few weeks of R n’ R.
The next morning we are up and at em’! Streaking away from the camp spot and down a busy, but direct route into the city. Streaking that is until we pass a café after 10km and decide to stop to eat hot dogs and drink coffee instead of cycling. Yes, yes – we are very easily distracted.
Back on the bikes once more and all is well. We are making steady progress, and the usual 2-up TT formation is keeping us safe. Just then, I spot a sign up ahead with some width restriction instructions on it. Small alarm bells start to ring (they sound a little like jingle bells), because there’s normally only one reason that there would be width restriction instructions…. and then I see the words: ‘Por Tunel’. Bugger.
‘Errr… Faye.’ I shout over my shoulder. ‘Can we stop and check the map? I think we might be headed for a tunnel.’ We pull over to the side of the road and check the route. Sure enough we are pedalling right into the dark and unforgiving jaws of a 2km long tunnel.
We have a team pow-wow and assess our options. We can go around the tunnel, via a side road which adds 10km and goes up and over a mountain. It’s hot and our legs are tired from a week in which we’ve climbed over 7,000 metres – all we want to do is make it to Santiago today, and make it there in good time. But Captain Sensible is also in our team huddle, and between him and my gut I know that going around is the only option, for me at least. Faye is up for heading through the tunnel, but being the team member that she is, she respects my decision to take the alternate route. In the grand scheme of things, adding an extra hour’s ride to the day, and one more mountain is a small price to pay for keeping all limbs in tact.
When the time comes to take the turn off to head over the mountain we are surprised to discover that it’s a paved road, how splendid. Signs warn us of ‘dangerous curves’ and ‘strong gradients’, but Faye and I conclude that we possess some dangerous curves ourselves (yeah bitches), and we are very much up for some strong gradient action.
It turns out to be the most delicious climb, and we chat through most of it, looking ahead to the time off in the city, and a reunion with loved ones. At the top of the mountain we meet two lovely sets of couples. One set driving, and one set on a motorbike. We (of course) chat for far longer than intended, and leave the mountain top late. I then get another puncture, so we stop to fix that too.
At 1pm the temperature hits 38 degrees celsius and we still have 70km to make to Santiago, but our spirits are high. We take off like women possessed, whooshing down the other side of the mountain and working hard once we rejoin the main road. Legs pumping, lungs burning, we stop briefly to drink some water and have a nibble on a banana, but otherwise there is quite literally no stopping us now.
At 5.30pm we are at last winding our way through the city streets, where Faye looks on aghast. ‘I hope this gets a bit better…’ she says, nervously – eyeing the broken shop windows and graffiti’d walls. I reassure her that these are usual things to be seeing on the outskirts of a big city. And she soon discovers for herself, as we dodge buses and cut back and forth between tightly packed cars, that riding into big cities is always an ugly affair.
At 6pm we arrive at our hostel – stinking, sweaty, exhausted and with the hunger of two… hungry horses. It feels very strange to be stepping off the bike knowing that I won’t be getting back on it for the next two weeks. And today feels like one of those days that has really spanned a week. As I place my head on a soft white pillow, and shut my eyes in a dorm room we’re sharing with four boys (who have overdone it on the Lynx), I can’t help but think that, in the end, the unexpected detour turned out to be the best part about today. Imagine that?
Going into the halfway point we have pedalled 51,076 metres upwards on bikes – just shy of six times the height of Everest.
See the route to Santiago here: http://z6z.co/AndesAdventure
Missed some of the story? Catch up on previous tales of South American adventure here