A couple of days in Argentinas western Gem, the wine producing capital Mendoza was enough to relax, visit a few vineyards and get things clean. The city was incredibly green and pretty with a wonderful green screen of the Andees but I didn’t find much more to the cities appeal. It had a very modern make up after being destroyed by a huge earthquake which had left it wonderfully spacious, architecturally distinct yet a little over orderly. I made by way through its quickly disappearing suburbs started the climb back Into the Andees to cross over to Chile stopping for my last asado invitation of Argentina and filling up on huge fist sized hunks of meat.
The steady climb was spread over three days and took in some interesting sights along the way. I teamed up with a French couple who had quit the fire service and rode through Africa before starting South America, incredible stories of Africa had me dreaming of taking my bike there. We made a strong riding team and battled the wind up to the empty ski resort of Los Penitentes. South Americas highest peak, Aconcagua at nearly 7000 meters made its appearance to the right approaching the Chilean border, a truly formidable sight. We passed a parade of gauchos on horse back riding the pass to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the independence march. I stopped and chatted to a group of former soldiers who has fought in the Malvinas. A handful of times the first thing on the lips of Argentinians after stating my nationality was this war. There were even signs along the highway and on cars stating Malvinas Volvermos. As far as you can get from the island in the south east of Argentina all the way up on the Chilean frontier this was obviously still a big issue of discontent amongst Argentinians and it seemed for good reason. The border was as spectacular as any I had crossed with a dramatic change on the Chilean side. Suddenly the height of the pass was made apparent checking into Chile and the gentle gradient of the Argentinian side turned into 30 switch backs which I raced down overtaking the steady traffic amongst a haze of the black mountainsides and glistening white peaks. I fell the 3500 meters I had gained in three days in a little under two hours into the little town of Los Andees.
After the day from hell trying to get into Santiago, I was running through, in my head, all the ways in which I already didn’t like the city when a cyclist on the other side of the road caught my eye and swung round through two lanes of traffic to catch me up. He introduced himself as Jesus and took me of the main road to show me a better route via his barrio Independencia, the old, slightly run down yet lively part of town home to most of the immigrants, mostly Haitians. In ten minutes we swung by his house, he told me all the wonderful things about his neighbourhood, about his new cycling crew and invited me to a gig that evening and left me with a treat for the park. He asked me where I was staying and when I showed him the address of my host on the map he got excited “full nice” two words a lot of the young Latin Americans had amusingly borrowed from English. I headed off to Maria’s a lot more excited about Santiago than I was before.
Mapopo was a stalwart of everything community based in Santiago. She ran Spanish lessons for Haitians, sold street food, was a leading member of the bike forum, ran concerts etc etc and showed me around her fancy central neighbourhood with great speed and enthusiasm. The city was a lot calmer than usual being the holidays and a good handful of Chilenos were heading south or west to the beaches but Santiago still had a gentle buzz about it and a calm pace. I found some pretty interesting galleries and took in some culture too Santiago being home to some great museums. Lots of parks and tree lined avenues The city however was very commercial and I thought lacked a little of the spirit I had gotten used to in Latin America. Tighter regulation on street trade and informal businesses took away the personal raswkus atmosphere to be replaced with pay by visa stickers and air conditioned malls. I had a nightmare trying to understand the young Chileans, their Spanish full with slang, they loved to refer to each other as eggs which I found brilliantly amusing though the speed of their singing Spanish was impossible to decipher.
A local bike courier Ricardo and his chief mechanic seb helped me fix my bike up and we toured some house parties to celebrate his birthday. I recovered in Mapopo’s travellers refuge with Ceci and street musician Wofo who kindly agreed to foster my guitar as I needed to make room for food in southern Chile. We were to reunite in Buenos Aires and make a bit of music. I stocked up and hit the 5 running south out of Chile to make my way to the coast. A series of huge wildfires on the coast had been making the news for weeks, as the biggest in Chiles history. Fire crews had been flown in from Russia and Australia and the country was battling to halt the damage that had taken with it entire villages. The police stopped me heading out and recommended I detour past on the bus. As of recent cyclists were not allowed on the five, the main route south and with out an alternative I reluctantly loaded my bike for the detour.
Eager to get pedalling and make distance I put my head down to grind out kilometres. It wasn’t my favourite riding style but I wanted to make time to enjoy the carretera Austral which would take me through the greenest parts of Chilean Patagonia. The landscape got wetter and cooler heading south as the Pacific breeze picked up water and rivers began crisscrossing souther chiles rolling hills. After making nearly 3000 kilometers since the Bolivian border in just over a month I had developed a real rythem and the motivational dip I had expected from this had not appeared so eager to take advantage a workman like approach had me racing down the map south. I finally hit the Pacific again at Puerto Montt. A huge Chilean flag blew fiercely in the Pacific’s winds and statues of military figures silhouetted the moody bay with Patagonia lying somewhere on the other side over a deep fjord and behind the heavy morning mist.