Leaving Malargue behind, along with my new boyfriend Simeon, we were heading back into the wilderness. Planning / preparation isn’t always our best forte and we’d recently (as in the day before) found out the border we were heading for was actually closed. Something to do with snow. Our options now limited, it was either keep heading south on the ruta 40 or wait out until the border reopened. As fun as ‘waiting it out and filling our faces with cake’ sounds, we had no idea if the border would reopen in days, weeks or even months. Back to Ruta 40 it was.
Our first day back pedalling was to be a fairly pedestrian 70km to the next piece of civilisation where we were hoping to fill up on water then look for a nice camping spot. It was here that we got our first mini taste of headwinds. The day started without too much drama, climbing into the mountains through a natural reserve. Big signs informed us that it was a protected park with only geologists and palaeontologists being allowed to play there. The road was pretty quiet which was useful because I spent much of the time not looking at the road at all and scanning the horizon for dinosaurs. The more we climbed the more disappointed I became, not one single dinosaur, not even bones!
Anyway, once we reached the top dinosaurs were completely forgotten about the wind was suddenly ferocious. It was only about 20km back down a valley into the village but that 20km took well over an hour. Having to actually pedal downhill just to keep moving, well – it’s just not cricket! And really blinking annoying too, downhills are supposed to be the easy enjoyable bits. Yes the wind was doing a better job than gravity. Pah!
Finally into the village and filled up with water we decided to search out potential sheltered camping spots. Following a small track up towards some woods we found ourselves next to a school. After a small ‘paper scissors rock’ discussion about who had to go in and beg to camp it was me who ended up with the short straw. Trying to remember all my important Spanish words I crept in through a side door labelled reception and was suddenly confronted with a hall full of about 100 children. From outside the wind was so strong gusting though the trees it was hard to hear much above our own voices so I hadn’t noticed the sound of children and had assumed school had finished for the day. Coming inside it was impossible to hear anything else. All eyes turned towards me as I slid through the door, there was shouting, squealing, excited chatter, a few lads shouted ‘Hello!’ followed by ecstatic laughter from their friends. Luckily the nearest grown up scuttled over to me and led me to a quieter corner.
‘Er, can we camp here?’ I asked ‘It’s really windy and if possible can we camp in the trees behind this building for shelter?’ Just for one night, we’ll be gone really early. Please’
In reality, and my lack of decent Spanish, this probably sounded more like;
‘Is possible, my boyfriend and I sleep in tree. Much wind. We have tent. Please’
The lady replied in rapid-fire Spanish. Due to her speaking at a million miles an hour and a background noise of 100 children I didn’t have the foggiest idea of what she was saying. I employed the usual tactic of smiling and nodding along, desperately listening out for words I recognised. When she eventually stopped and looked at me as if expecting an answer, I just stood there smiling like a goon, my mind whirling trying to come up with a suitable response.
‘Er…….. Si’ was all I could manage.
Fortunately it seemed to be the right one and she led me outside.
Herb was sat waiting. ‘I think she said we can sleep here, er, indoors’ I said.
Herb jumped up, suddenly on the charm offensive. If there’s a middle aged lady involved Herb is absolute world class at sweet talking his way into anything, even in Spanish. Charm classes must be part of the Irish school curriculum or something, it’s astounding to watch!
Before I knew it we were onto first name introductions. This lady was called Laura too, we were onto a winner! Suddenly it was hugs and kisses all round and we were being led to our own room with bunkbeds. After dropping off our stuff it was back to the hall, an introduction to all the children and staff. A few snacks thrown in our direction then left to our own devices with instructions to be back at 8pm for dinner.
In reality, being two foreigners in the middle of a boarding school full of excitable children there was no way we were going to be left to our own devices. The proceeding hours were spent trying to play volleyball, dancing to ‘Despacito’, watching movies and trying to help with homework. Dinner time was absolute madness with children hanging off us like lights on a christmas tree. It was the absolute best way to spend an evening. However i’m not going to lie, when bedtime rolled around we breathed a huge sigh of relief. Not only could we get back to speaking in English and the children had detached themselves but lying in our bunks that night the storm was wild. It was so good not to be in the tent!
We left the next morning on an absolute high, the wind was behind us and even the prospect of 100km of ripio couldn’t damped our spirits. We pedalled off onto the bone shaking terrain like two kids heading to the sweet shop with a tenner. In fact the ‘most awful ripio ever’ we had been warned about just didn’t seem to materialise. Yes, there were a few bad sections but all interspaced with enough tarmac to not make the going too slow. We covered the 30km or so without too much trouble at all. It was beautiful, barely any traffic and only a few Argentinian cowboys for company.
After cafecito time we crossed a narrow gorge that was trying to tame the huge river we had been following. This gorge seemed to be the official starting point for ‘most awful ripio ever’. – Ah, here it is. – The warnings had come true. The ‘road’ we were now following was an unfortunate mix of gravel, washboard, sand and massive boulders. Even though it was pretty flat my speed dropped to a shocking 5kph. Trying to pick a route between the boulders had me meandering all over the place, constantly sinking in sand and coming to an abrupt halt. It was then a case of swearing, dragging the bike to a firmer piece of gravel and trying to set off again, gaining momentum, navigating another boulder and getting stuck once more. Before long I was so far behind Herbie he was but a speck in the distance.
Trying to keep myself in a positive frame of mind I tried all the mind tricks and cheerleading exercises all the proper adventurers speak of. One thing I often see written is ’No matter how hard it gets, I’d rather be here living than sat in an office doing the 9-5’. Well, adventure people. I think this is complete ‘b*llocks. There are many times on this trip where I would love to be teleported back to my job in a nice warm office with unlimited cups of coffee and colleagues to play table tennis with. This was one of those occasions.
Sometime during my boulder, swerve, sand, stop, swear, dismount, push, pedal loop of death a truck come up from behind. This one screeched to a halt beside me, wound the window down and told me to ‘Get in’. After the initial shock, and then realising I wasn’t actually being kidnapped. (Who would want to kidnap an angry, stinky, nagging Englishwoman anyway? I’d quickly be returned) I noticed he was still talking. ‘Get in’ was being followed by words I recognised such as ‘70km, bad road, not possible, cycle’. This guy was offering me a lift! I looked ahead and Herbie was nowhere in sight. ‘My boyfriend is ahead, ask him’ I managed to reply. and with that the truck sped off, leaving me spluttering in a thick cloud of dust. I remounted and continued the loop of death. What will Herbie say? What do I want him to say? No, Loz you don’t need a lift. Oh god, but this ripio is awful. A few minutes later Herbie was pedalling back towards me, closely followed by the truck.
‘This guy is offering us a lift’ he yelled.
‘I know! I told him to ask you!’
‘What do you think?’ He asked
By this time the truck had swung another u-turn and was pulled up alongside.
‘errrrrr….’ I didn’t want to be the one making the call.
‘it’s pretty shitty and there’s apparently another 70km’ Herb added.
By this time the guy had hopped out of the truck and was pulling down the back to the flatbed. It was settled. Before waiting for a final answer, my fully loaded bike was being lifted onto the back of his truck. Hmmm, I think he’d done this before.
Once bikes and humans were all safely strapped in, our new friend Martin set off at break neck speed. We quickly learnt he drove this road almost daily, a fact I was pleased to hear as I was being thrown around in the back like a rag doll as we were sliding sideways through corners, grabbing onto anything to try and counteract the g-forces acting upon me.
‘I always pick up the cyclists’ he announced.
This I was also happy about, a cyclist was much safer strapped into the back of Martin’s truck than out on the road against him.
‘The Dakar rally comes this way’ Martin continued.
I got the feeling he was auditioning for a driving seat.
Those 70km passed incredibly quickly, as soon as tarmac returned Martin slammed on the brakes and just as quickly as he had picked us up, we were thrown out again. Left on the side of the road as we watched him wheel spin into the distance.
‘What on earth just happened?!’ Herb asked.
‘I’ve no idea, but that solved the ripio problem’ I replied.
Being back on tarmac the next few days were awesome riding. The wind was mostly behind us and we were on an incredibly quiet road cycling through the mountains. There was only us and the YPF tanker trucks alongside armies of horses, goats, cows, sheep, donkeys and DINOSAURS. I kid you not, one morning cycling up a particularly gorgeous mountain there was a family pulled up on the side of the road. It was a Saturday and I can only assume they were the wife and children of a nearby man heading goats. The oldest girl stepped up to the side of the road and held out her hand ‘high five’ fashion. It’s a well known fact that every single child on the planet loves a ‘high five’, I also love a high five and have received hundreds on the trip so far. I zoomed up to her, big smile on my face yelling ‘choca los cinco’ as our hands collided.
Hang on, there was something in my hand. I looked down to see I was now holding a big rock. Pulling on the brakes I stopped to inspect it more carefully. ‘What’s this?’ I asked the family who were now gathering around me. ‘A fossil’ came the reply. They weren’t lying, I was holding an enormous snail like rock thing. ‘There’s loads’ all the children were now gesturing to rocks littering the side of the road. Thanks to those children I now had my very own dinosaur!
Well, life didn’t really get any better than that and before we knew it we had pedalled the next 500km into Patagonia and down to the next border crossing into Chile. Camping in Las Lajas we had a half day of sunbathing (seriously, it was 28 degrees) and eating all of the pastries before our assault the border the next day. Chile was only 55km and 1000 vertical meters away. We were still loving Argentina but were keen to set foot into country number seventeen, especially as it had being eluding us thus far.
On the morning of, we double checked with the tourist office that the border was 100% definitely open and set off armed with a cafecito and armfuls of custard pastries.
Upon leaving the safety of town we noticed it had gotten a tad windy. A lot windy in fact. We climbed for the first couple of hours, making slow progress into the headwind but progress none the less. When cafecito time came we dived behind a boulder for shelter, morale was still high as we chomped down on way too many custard delights, slurped coffee and waved at the tourist busses passing by.
After crawling out from behind the boulder the wind had continued to strengthen, so much so that I was being blown about a little too much for my liking. I decided to unclip my feet as a precautionary ‘just in case’, if I was going to fall off I’d have less chance of ending up underneath it if I wasn’t attached. Herb (now Robocyclist) was pulling way ahead, he was in a much bigger gear just stomping down on the pedals into the headwind like a machine. Me, having the strength of a dying weed was in my easiest gear laboriously trying just to inch round the cranks.
My head was down and I was solely focusing on the road 2m ahead of me, trying to stay a steady 0.5m away from the white line marking the edge of the tarmac. Normally I can do this without thinking and with no wind have no trouble holding my line on the side of the road. Today though the wind was having different ideas. The YPF trucks and tourist coaches I’d been waving at earlier were now creeping up behind me and passing like freight trains. Ok, maybe they weren’t creeping on purpose, but because of the gale I couldn’t hear a thing. Suddenly there would be a huge whooshing noise to my left and I’d get slightly sucked in as they passed. I’d try to counter by steering to the right. Then they’d be gone, the sucking subsided and I’d be off the side of the road into the gravel. Sigh. Push my bike back onto the road, quick check to make sure there wan’t another bus directly behind 1, 2, 3, ok GO! and the cycle would start all over again.
Aside from the ‘suprise’ trucks my front wheel had occasionally started to lift up as well. Seriously?! Myself and bike combined weigh a good 100kg ARGHHHHHH STUPID WIND!!!!
Herb had stopped up ahead and was hiding behind a road sign. ‘Do you think this is dangerous?’ I heard him shout above the wind. Probably, yes. Were we going to turn around? No. We did agree though that if anybody stopped to offer us a lift we would take it.
We continued, not long after and trying to negotiate round a corner I got blown clean off my bike. One minute I was attempting to pedal, the next I was sat on my arse. I stayed there, on my arse in the dirt, cried a bit and ate a banana. Remembering a conversation I’d had with another cyclist coming North from Patagonia. They’d told me the ‘wind was so bad it’s like you’ve forgotten how to cycle’. At the time I had nodded along not really believing a word they’d said. Yet here I was alternating between cycling and finding myself on the ground, I’d forgotten how to cycle.
Finally pulling up my big girl pants I realised absolutely nothing was going to get done while I was sat there crying, plus I had finished my banana. I got back up, pushed my bike to a minutely less windy spot, tightened up my helmet strap and tried again.
Eventually catching up with Robocyclist we found ourselves a ditch and stopped to have lunch. There was nothing much to say, we were only 12km from the border. At least on the other side of the pass we’d be going downhill. Maybe that was better?
After filling our faces with all the fresh food we had left (Argentina / Chile border controls are really strict) we set off again for those final 12km. Rounding the next corner we were faced with a slight downhill, the road tucked in against the side of the mountain to our left and behind barriers a sheer drop to our right. I set off first, delighted to have gravity on my side for a short while. Within meters I found myself on my arse up against the side of the mountain. The wind had pushed me straight across two lanes. Herbie tried to cycle towards me, he too was blown off.
That was it, we no longer had any control over our bikes. It was now officially dangerous to try and cycle. We had no influence over where we were going and being blown off into the path of a bus we couldn’t hear coming up behind us was not on the top of either of our agendas. We were pushing. Walking the bikes downhill, wrestling to hold our line on the side of the road. Finally reaching the end of the downhill section the road took another bend around the mountain. Herbie, in front of me stopped moving. As I tried to follow from behind I realised why. I couldn’t move either. I found myself practically in a lunge, head level with the handlebars just trying to stay upright. We retreated, lay the bikes down and hid behind a rock. This was 100% officially stupid.
Behind the rock we consulted all our maps and discovered there was a husky farm only 8km away. Comments on an iOverlander app we use mentioned they offered cabanas, husky tours in the winter and horse riding in the summer. It all sounded pretty gucci and way out of our budget but it didn’t matter. It was civilisation, shelter, people, it was a goal. We ventured out into the wind again, nope – we couldn’t stand up!
Retreating back to the rock we considered our options, we couldn’t walk into the wind, there was no phone signal to try and call a lift – we didn’t even have a number, there was not enough shelter to hide a tent – we had to try and hitchhike.
Whenever a truck appeared I jumped out and gave them the thumbs up, to be fair to the Argentinians every single vehicle I tried to flag down stopped. I guess out in the middle of nowhere, no phone signal and miles away from the closest town, folk have to help each other out. Unfortunately every single one of the trucks was full. Nobody had room for bikes. We put a time limit on ourselves, 4 o’clock, if we hadn’t got a lift by then we had to try and keep moving.
4 o’clock and we were still behind the rock.
We had to try and move, maybe if a truck saw us pushing they’d try to stop and help? Getting round that corner and the next kilometer took what felt like hours. It was a case of take a couple of steps forward, brace against the wind until there was a slight lull then try and take a few more steps. Thankfully after about a kilometre, the road took another turn and the wind relented slightly. I say relented, what I really mean is it calmed down just enough so that we could pedal again.
Finally reaching the husky lodge we were met by an English lady called Tilly. She quickly ushered us inside out of the weather to be were embraced by warmth, dogs and an English accent. I was in heaven.
Luck was on our side, they currently had no guests so had space in one of the cabins. Like I said it was way out of our budget but staying outside that night wasn’t really an option. The downside was they didn’t have any wifi or phone signal, meaning they couldn’t accept any form of electronic payment, it was cash only. Thinking we would be crossing into Chile that day we didn’t have much cash with us either. Being absolute legends and not wanting to throw us out back into the storm we gave them all of our remaining Argentinian pesos and they agreed to let us stay for the night.
We’d gone from spending hours hiding behind a rock to being in own own little cabin for the night. How lucky can we get?!
We woke the next morning to snow. We were 2km away from the border with no cash and no food. Chile, this was it. It was third time lucky. We are coming to get you!