Back into Argentina and we were met with a hilly 48km ripio road into the nearest town of San Martin los Andes. It was early afternoon and rain was promised the next day. Our ioverlander app also told us there was ‘The best free campsite ever!’ a 3.5km diversion over a big hill. We had two options;
- Head in the direction of town, wild camp somewhere when it got dark and get rained on the next day cycling into San Martin.
- Take the diversion to ‘the best free campsite ever’ and get rained on the next day cycling into San Martin.
We chose option two, turned off the main road and were soon slogging up a steep dirt track, this better be worth it! Coming down the other side we quickly realised it was worth it. BFCE is located where the mouth of a river joins a huge lake surrounded by snow capped mountains, plus each pitch had fire pits and benches. AND, AAAAAANNNNND the only other sign of human activity was a Landrover Defender with a British numberplate!!!
I raced over to see who these people were from my homeland. I was squealing a little bit like a piglet. I wonder where they are from? How old are they? I wonder if we have any mutual friends. Maybe they live near me? I wonder if they have PG tips? Oh I suddenly longed to hear a British accent. The closer I got the more obvious it was there was nobody at home. All the signs of people were there, two camping chairs set up outside. The rooftop tent erect. Smokey embers of a dying fire. A grill! Yes, a portable grill set up over the fire pit!
“Herbie, come over here. Look they have a grill! Can we have a grill?”
“Only if you carry it” came the response
Hmmm, maybe not, it looked a bit big.
“Herb, where do you think they’ve gone? Can I look in the windows? Maybe they’re swimming?’
By this point I was snooping round their campsite getting more and more excited at all the cool stuff they had.
“Herb, we should totally swap our bikes for a landrover!”
‘’Loz, maybe they’re asleep and you’re tramping all round their car. Or maybe they heard you coming with your squealing and are hiding for you, they’re in there, in the tent thinking ‘Oh dear God, not another bloody British person’ and they’re hiding. Now go and find a good spot for the tent.”
‘Humph, your just jealous the Queen didn’t sign your passport’ I thought.
I did some loops and chose the two best camping options; one right next to the Defender and the other about 100m away along the lakeside. We decided camping right beside the only other car in the whole site was a little bit weird so ended up with option two.
It was still early in the day so to kill time Herb and I figured we’d do one of the things we do best, go for a dip in freezing cold water. There also happened to be a beautiful wooden jetty with a ladder at the end which lent itself perfectly to the occasion. If you’re going to get into a freezing cold lake, river or sea, the absolute best way to do it is to find a suitable platform and jump before you think. Although going in gradually may save you from a heart attack or your chest constricting. You’re more likely to wuss out this way when your toes start telling the rest of your body that you’re an idiot and should definitely turn round. With jumping, by the time you realise you’re a total moron it’s already too late, your head is underwater and you’re panicking about the best way to get out. Job done.
We’d managed to have enough foresight to light a fire before we went swimming so were able to warm ourselves up while cooking up a gourmet supper of cous cous and canned sweet com. Yummy!
While enjoying dinner two people came strolling towards us. My heart leapt, it must be the Defender parents, they looked young, and friendly, and British! We quickly found out this was Oli and Jo, from Cambridge via Islington. They were newly married and had decided to put off being grown ups a little longer by spending a year joyriding around South America. I loved them instantly. Much to my delight they had also been out walking when we had turned up, so weren’t hiding from me and didn’t have a clue we were there. We were the first English speaking people they’d met on their trip so far, so (I hope) just as keen to talk as we were. They invited us over to their much more civilised camping spot by enticing us with wine.
They then bid us to enjoy the rest of our supper and set off looking to firewood.
Herb and I started panicking, ‘sh*t we have nothing to take, we can’t turn up empty handed’. The problem with travelling on bikes is we don’t tend to stash away emergency cheese and crackers for such occasions. Emptying all our panniers, we scavenged around looking for something to take to the party. A packet of lentils or powdered orange squash wasn’t really the vibe we were going for, so in the end we settled on our last snickers and half a packet of hot chocolate.
We had a wonderful night with them drinking wine (they even had four wine glasses!) Talking adventures, sharing stories and chatting the obligatory rubbish that comes with three bottles of wine. After a couple of hours we had to drag ourselves away, where as we had enjoyed a cous cous and sweetcorn supper earlier, Oli and Jo had been slow roasting a joint of lamb and some potatoes on the fire. They were being way too polite, having already offered to share their meal with us they were now being too polite to eat it. Herbie was also in sever danger of drilbbling.
It was settled, next time we go on an adventure we’re taking a van, with wine, and a grill, and a canoe.
Riding into San Martin the promised rain arrived and it was utterly miserable. It rained so much I began to wonder how the sky could hold that much water, it was like somebody was holding a hose just above our heads. Sitting out one day of it in San Martin, it became obvious nobody was going to turn the rain off. We were going to get soaked.
As a morale raiser Herb found a gucci hotel online where we could get a room at 75% discount with it being low season and midweek. It was two days ride away through the stunning ’Siete Lagos’ route and we hoped to glimpse a little of the beauty.
Setting off the rain was horizontal and wind in our faces, it was biblical. The kind of biblical where it’s gone way beyond moaning about, it’s just ridiculous. Moving up the first climb we spotted a couple of other bikes in front of us, they didn’t have enough luggage with them to be tourers so for some reason were just out on a Sunday jolly when it was clearly ‘turbo trainer in the shed’ conditions. We slowly caught them and as we got closer I noticed they were guys, young guys with massive legs on fancy looking mountain bikes, and I was catching them! I did what everybody does in this situation, put in a massive 60seconds of effort to get passed them, simultaneously trying to look like I was completely comfortable. I gave a cheery ‘hola’ as I passed, then pedalled like mad for another five minutes not daring to look over my shoulder to see if they were keeping up. When I eventually felt it was safe to have a cheeky look round they were nowhere in sight!
Me, on my incredibly heavy, three legged mule of a fully loaded touring bike had effortlessly *ahem* overtaken two young professional, World Champion mountain bikers going UP a mountain! Well, I’m now obviously going to win the Olympics!
Before my head inflated to the size of Jupiter I tried to reason what had actually happened. I figure one of the below:
- They were probably doing some ultra endurance ride and were on mile 673.
- They had just finished an insane week of racing and were doing a ‘shake out’ ride.
- They were following a training programme, were getting in base miles and weren’t allowed to get their heart rates above 130.
- They had just bought brand new bikes, hadn’t done any exercise for 15 years and it was their maiden voyage. aka MAMILs
Whatever, a wins a win and I was revelling in this one.
Slowly though, my high of overtaking World Champion mountain bikers started to get dampened by the rain. It was relentless, after the first three hours I was well and truly fed up. We stopped for a late cafecito only to find out the thermos had failed us and the coffee was cold. Not wanting to stand in the rain drinking cold coffee we admitted defeat and decided to keep cycling until we found some shelter in which to boil more water and make sandwiches.
By hour four I’d had a tantrum.
There was nothing, no shelters, no bus stops, no wood huts, no roofs, no tunnels. We stopped to share a banana, agreeing neither of us wanted to stand in the rain making sandwiches so we just carried on. There must be something eventually.
By hour five I was a delight to be with. We were now cycling 100m apart, both hangry but knowing the only thing to do was push forward. We reached our intended camp spot for the night. There was no shelter, not even any big trees to hide under. It was useless, we kept moving.
After six hours without stopping we came across a hostel, hopefully knocking on the door were met with news that the hostel was closed until November and she had family staying so there was no room. The hostess looked genuinely sorry for us, then helpfully pointed out the next town was only 30km away. We put on our best fake smiles, thanked her anyway and set off once again. Our choices were to camp in the rain or suck up another 30km. With the sun now setting post 8pm we worked out that we should just be able to make the town before dark. We sucked it up, put our heads down and with a couple more tantrums thrown in for good measure made it just before the sun set.
Cycling through the famous ‘siete lagos’ we hadn’t seen a thing. We’d occasionally stopped at the ‘miradors’ where we’d read the information sign about what lay before us. The diagram showing the names of each peak and facts about the lake, but all we could see was a wall of cloud. The scenery hadn’t changed all day, occasionally rain had turned to sleet and back again. Sometimes we could see 200m ahead of us, sometimes barely at all. For us, the day had been grey, wet, cold and miserable.
What did cheer us up though was a couple of complete days off the bike in a fancy hotel. It overlooked one of the lakes (apparently, all we mostly saw was fog), contained a sauna and the biggest bath I’ve ever seen in a hotel room. We did nothing, ate a lot of food and were extremely glad we weren’t cycling.
The original plan had been to head down to Bariloche and try to get in some hiking. The weather had different ideas. The wind and rain we’d become accustomed to over the last few days was going nowhere for at least a week. Our time in the fancy hotel was up and we decided to head back over to Chile in order to continue South. Sorry Bariloche, maybe next time.
We were pretty close to a border crossing so it was just a quick hop back over the Andes and we could be in Puerto Montt within two days. It was still going to be rainy but Chile was much better equipped with wood huts and bus shelters. Rain is ok if you know it’s only two days and there’s going to be somewhere to hide in order to eat lunch.
Passports handy and it was off to the border. The Argentinian border control was located about 30km away at the bottom of a pass, it was then a 40km trip up and over 1350m before the Chilean border control back down on the other side. As we’d been heading further south the Andes had begun to shrink, each time we crossed them we didn’t have to climb quite as high. Because of this we didn’t think twice about a 1350m pass, it was merely a mole hill compared to the 4500m+ passes we’d been climbing further North.
As expected the rain was relentless, before leaving customs I removed a layer because we had 600m to climb. I figured I didn’t want to get sweaty climbing in all my clothes, only to be soaked and freezing on the descent the other side. This turned out to be a really really silly idea.
We set off, the climbing slow, the rain relentless. I mentally checked into a good three hours of misery. If I know something is going to be awful and I mentally prepare for it, it’s never quite as bad. Going up and over this pass in torrential rain was never going to be ‘fun’ but there would be an end.
As we climbed the sides of the road turned into slush and the rain turned to sleet. Everything is waterproof to a point, my Gore-tex rain jacket and gloves seem to have about a three hour limit. Those hours were up and I was now soaked. Higher still and the sleet turned into snow, it was beginning to settle on the road meaning breaking fresh tracks into the snow, uphill, slowed our progress dramatically.
Herb was trying to urge me on “Loz, you NEED to move faster! You’re getting too cold!”
It was true, I was begging to turn a rather fetching shade of blue.
I was frozen but there was nowhere to stop and add clothes, the sides of the road were walls of snow. I figured I’d just keep pushing, pedal harder and warm up. Just get to the top. Just get to the top.
The fresh snow got deeper and it was now a blizzard, no matter how hard I tried to pedal I just couldn’t get warm. Still 250m from the top, I gave in and tried to pull out some layers. By now I’d lost all dexterity in my fingers and trying to undo the clips on my panniers was painstakingly slow. I eventually managed to add two more jackets over an already soaked base layer and pull my now useless waterproof back over the top. The whole process had taken about fifteen minutes with us both soaking wet and standing still in a temperature my Garmin described as -4.
I was so so cold, it was a full on blizzard and the cycling had become near impossible. Mentally I checked out and started to cry, that kind of convulsive, hyperventilating, snotty mess that was completely uncontrollable. My hands were in agony from the cold and I’d resorted to pushing my bike, the back wheel no longer gaining enough traction to cycle. It was then we realised we hadn’t seen another vehicle for at least half an hour. We were the ones breaking fresh tracks in the snow. It’s probably the first time on this trip I was genuinely terrified. Had the pass been closed behind us? What if nobody knew we were here? Should we try and get back down? Should we set up emergency camp? In all honesty we were in trouble and it was entirely our own fault. I felt stupid and frightened.
I’m not sure whether I believe in a God, or that there’s somebody out there looking over us, but for what happened next I’ll be eternally thankful for. Having not seen anybody for what seemed like eternity, a truck appeared inching up the hill behind us. Crawling up the slope he skidded to a halt about 100m behind us, wheels spinning, failing to gain traction. Without a second thought I dropped my bike and ran over. I can’t even recall what I tried to say, in English, Spanish or if I was able to form any words at all. All I remember was the driver telling me to calm down, this was Oscar and he was speaking to me in perfect English. Himself and Herbie quickly shoved me into the cab with the heaters on full blast while they set about trying to attach snow chains. While we were waiting more and more trucks came up behind us, each getting a little higher up the pass before sliding in the fresh snow. After over an hour we were stuck in a jam of trucks all trying to attach snow chains, a snow plough struggling to weave its way through to clear the pass. Over there hours later we were finally on the move again. It was slow going with everyone still struggling in the snow, eventually descending down the other side revealed numerous crashes where cars without snow chains had lost control.
Oscar took us all the way down to the border, the snow had adjusted back to rain and we hurried straight into the border control building. Even after four hours in the truck our clothes were still soaked, I was still shivering and my lips still a slight tinge of blue. When handing over our passports the guard took one look at us and handed back his hot coffee to drink. I have never felt so welcomed by border control in my life. With all the necessary stamps and checks we were just about to head out making a dash for the next town before dark, when another of the guards ran over to us holding two more hot drinks. They were adamant on making sure we were properly warmed up before we left.
After a couple more sweet coffees we assured them we were ok to go, really just wanting to make it to the next town before dark. It was only 20km away and we’d sprint as hard as we could to keep warm. Rounding the first corner a truck was pulled up on the side of the road. Out jumped Oscar! He’d waited for us, insisting he drive us to town.
The relief was incredible, I was so happy I wanted to hug him and cry all at the same time.