On the way up to the Villarica summit.
Its an amazing experience to be feeling as fit as you’ve ever been, riding your bike because you just love to ride it (and happening through some of the most gorgeous scenery in the world), while also being incredibly excited about the prospect of going home in less than a month. Its the best of both worlds really…. we were enjoying everything without feeling sad that it was coming to an end soon. After 3 years living outside of Australia it was hard to believe we’d be back and enjoying the simple pleasures of an Australian lifestyle and catching up with family and friends we missed so much.
Meanwhile, we began the third leg of our trip in Esquel, Argentina and the goal was to head north to Mendoza, as far as we could get in the time but without missing out on any of that really speccy part of Argentina. We’d just had a week break from the bike up in Lima for my friend Mel’s wedding to a Peruvian man which was fun and quite a cultural experience with dancing horses (I’m not kidding), ice sculptures, an 8 piece gospel style choir and plenty of pisco sours of course. Those Peruvians really go all out.
We set of from Esquel towards a little town called Trevelin where we stopped for the night to wait for the weather to get a bit better at a gorgeous little hostel called Casa Verde. Besides having cool loft-style rooms (some with ladders - so cool), the hostel mascot was a beautiful black labrador who latched onto us and followed us whenever we went out. He even waited for us outside the restaurant where we had lunch. Trevelin is a town known for its strong welsh heritage from the influx of welsh settlers to the Chubut province in Argentina back in the 19th Century. Welsh is still spoken, there are all these people walking around with dark red hair and there are welsh teahouses everywhere and it would have been almost criminal not to go for afternoon tea and a huge selection of tasty jams and bread, scones and tea in huge quantities.
When we left the next day on our bikes our new best friend followed us… which became a bit of a problem the further out of town we got. Ignoring my attempts to send him home with ‘a casa, a casa’ in my most growly voice he followed us for over 15kms, keeping up with us at speeds averaging about 18kms/h and we just couldn’t lose him. Eventually we got pretty worried and ended up having to throw rocks at the poor thing to make him go home (I was too soft but Mick did) since I think he would have followed us to Mendoza. I was heartbroken but eventually he turned around.
We spent the next 3 days in Los Alerces national park which was spectacular. Thick forests of huge Alerce trees of which some are apparently up to 2500 years old bordered huge lakes of shades from turquoise to dark green. The weather was hot and sunny and we enjoyed having a few dips and washes in the crystal clear lakes…. much easier to take these days the further north we got. The roads were still steep but less rocky and anyway after some of the roads on the Carretera Austral it was a piece of cake.
New method of bike parking
A beautiful day for a dip
Or a fish
Can you believe the colour of this river?
Mick kicking back on a rocky beach.
We came out of the park and headed back out into the rolling foothills where it was almost a relief to be able to take in some long views as we had been travelling so long in thick forest and rugged country that sometimes felt a little claustrophobic.
We passed the very dead town of Cholila, but only a few kms up the road encountered a cute little restaurant/teahouse where a very old lady and he daughter served us a wonderful meal and even better desert. They were also of welsh heritage and he family had owned that little place for over 100 years. It didn’t look like it had changed much.
While we were having lunch the old lady started telling us about a property nearby that apparently Butch Cassidy (and the Sundance kid?, and some other bloke apparently….) owned for about 2 years before allegedly they robbed a bank in Esqueland had to go on the run again (I checked this out later and apparently its all true). So she gave us directions to the property and since it was more or less on our way we decided to stop in and have a look. It was pretty cool actually, a young kid from the police station house nearby showed us around and gave us a bit of a history lesson (and wasn’t charging a fee, amazing). The boy was followed around by about 10 kittens too which were quite cute and kept me very amused. Anyway it was interesting even though we knew almost nothing about Butch Cassidy…
Mel at butch’s old house (partly restored)
With an armful of kittens
We rode to the next major town of El Bolson over a couple of days through pretty countryside, notable mostly because of the thousands of perfectly ripened blackberries along the side of the road which we regularly stopped and feasted on. El Bolson is a really nice place, the equivalent in population demographic to Byron Bay, or Nimbin at times…. Its the Argentine home of the ‘alternative lifestyle’ with lots of people happily walking around off their heads but a great vibe and particularly good for bike tourists since there are big markets most days selling all sorts of fresh organic veggies, fruit and jams and stuff…. yumm. And the best ice cream in Argentina hands down.
We continued north towards Bariloche over some high passes where we climbed over 1500m vertical in one day over 90kms which left us pretty exhausted. We came into Bariloche from the southern side of the city which was interesting because it was the first time we had seen the ‘real’ Bariloche outside of the touristy areas. We had been there twice before but always arrived by plane or bus. It was a shock firstly because it was the first major city in Argentina we had ridden in through the poor outskirts where there were no services, lots of pollution and basic housing in mud huts and run-down shacks. We had seen it a lot where we were living up north in Tucuman but it was the first time in Patagonia and shocking in Bariloche which is generally perceived as one of the well-to-do touristy cities of Argentina. The difference in prosperity between the center of town and the southern outskirts was a real eye opener. In the end we decided not to stop for the night, instead had a restaurant lunch and a bottle of wine which got us all fired up to get going out of the city and back to the bush.
Mel trying to hang out with the big boys at a restaurant near Villa de la Angostura.
In the next week we rode through more gorgeous scenery on the Ruta de los Siete Lagos (7 lakes road) but truth be told it was much of the same sorts of beautiful lakes, forest and rivers we had seen so much of back in Chile, but less wild with more tourists so it was hard to appreciate the scenery as much as we had. Even though it was lovely scenery we found ourselves longing for some open country. We made some great camps though where Mick caught a BIG trout which was the best fish I have ever eaten, redder and richer even than fresh pacific salmon in Canada. The guy at a kiosk near where we were camping that sold fishing stuff assured us that it was perfectly legal….
The aptly named Lago Espejo (Mirror lake).
We arrived in the beautiful town of San Martin de los Andes, known for being a playground for the rich in Argentina. For all that and some bad raps from other bike tourists we didn’t find it overly expensive (well no more so than the rest of Patagonia) and it was certainly very clean and pretty town in a spectacular setting. We splurged on a cheap hotel after many days in the tent and met up by chance with some other bike tourists, a couple from Montreal for a night out on the town.
The next day feeling like about 2 cents each we made a radical decision to hire a car and go back to Chile, the reason being that we were to keen to see and climb a big active volcano that we had been told about near Pucon. We wouldn’t have time to ride there and the bus was full. We also knew that they only climbed when the weather was clear and after checking our super-duper weather prediction website we decided our only window was the next day. So we left our bikes and gear at the hotel and took off over the border back to Chile. The border crossing was a spectacular road which passed right by the awesome Volcan Lanin at 4000m. We also drove through massive groves of the strange looking ancient monkey puzzle trees.
Our ‘window’ day was perfect, no wind and clear skies (the day before and the day after they did cancel the climbs). We were lucky enough to choose a good experienced guide and had a small group of 4 young fit people. We cheated a bit by taking a ski lift up for the first couple of hundred meters (but there was really no option and would have been the boring part anyway) before starting on our 1000m vertical climb. The first part was pretty easy and the guide kept a pretty slow but steady pace, even so we were the lead group. It was a bit disconcerting to see some ruins of old ski lift infrastructure which was destroyed by lava flows in the 80s, along with about 15 people (not on the ski mountain though), reminding us it was very much an active volcano which was ‘due’ to erupt at any time now. When we got to the steep snow/ice slopes we donned crampons which made things much easier and less nerve-wracking looking down the steep snow slopes which continued down the mountain for several hundred meters and often ended in piles of sharp rocks. Some of the other teams behind us went up by kicking their shoes into the guides steps which was tut-tutted by our guide, who did look much more experienced and besides, it was a lot faster with the crampons as well as safer.
Our first view of the volcano.
On the way up
The views climbing up were magnificent and it was great not to feel to much strain on the body after all the riding. Near the top we scrambled over just-hardened lava, probably only a few months old and in the coolest flow patterns, all twisted up and cracked. I was excited and couldn’t resist picking up a couple of samples (they were very light!) of the youngest rocks I’d ever seen. They looked a lot like slag from a smelter actually. At the top we braved the noxious sulphur gases to get as close as possible to the edge of the crater and catch a glimpse of the lava boiling up inside but unfortunately the lava was just out of sight, although we could hear it clearly crashing around like a violent ocean beneath. Sometimes it shoots right up out of the crater 100s of meters and often its easily seen in the crater but we were a bit unlucky on the day. We were forced back a bit from the edge because of the gases (the smell almost made us nostalgic for Mount Isa!) and got a chance to savour the amazing views from the top where you could see at least 4 other big volcanoes rising between big blue lakes and patchwork patterns of green fields.
Mel taking in the view
View from the top
Us on the edge of the crater.
And looking down into it.
Mick living on the edge with the awesome Volcan Lanin in the background.
Another look into the crater.
The way down was the really fun part. We could slide down most of the steep snow slopes on our bums in slippery grooves worn by others gone before us over the year like big winding slippery dips. We were given extra slidey rain pants and given instructions on how to slow down and stop with the ice axe. Mick went first and seeing the difficulty he had in keeping control and slowing down I started to get a bit worried. The second person down was an american girl in our group, Ruth, who seemed to forget all she was told about using the ice axe, sliding headfirst at high speed towards a very bad looking head first landing against a pile of sharp volcanic rocks. Mick was screaming out to her to dig her axe in and tried to catch her as she came hurtling past but she was way too fast. At the last moment she dug her axe in and somehow managed to right herself feet first and although she still had a pretty rough landing she was ok minus a few bruises. After this display I was even more worried but went down anyway but making bloody sure I was in control. It was great fun and we did a few more slopes, sliding and boot skiing (I was mostly on my butt as I can not boot ski for the life of me) most of the way down and were all getting pretty good at the sliding by the time we got down to the bottom. It was only later that we heard how many people get seriously injured coming down that way…. Almost one nasty injury every day, and even if you count that up to 400 people can be on the mountain each day climbing that’s still pretty risky!
Looking down the first of the big slippery dips.
And sliding down
Thats an old burnt out ski lift station in the background, destroyed by a lava flow, pretty freaky.
The next day we were going to make our way slowly back to Argentina via some cool national parks but after hearing by chance that our good friends Phil and Jess (who we had met a number of times on the Carretera Austral and kept in touch with) would be arriving to Pucon that night we stayed another day and did a bit of local car touring instead. We caught up with Phil and Jess for beers and lots of chatting and merrymaking that night at a pub, even after they had just been robbed on the bus, losing passports and camera … troopers.
After the change of scenery (seeing it from a car window) for a few days we returned to Argentina and got on the bikes to head north. After the side trip we knew that there was no way we were going to make it all the way to Mendoza on the bikes in time to catch our flight home so we decided to end the trip in the city of Neuquen, the largest city to the south of Mendoza. It was about 500kms away and from there we could get a bus to Mendoza so that we’d have almost a week to get everything sorted out before leaving Argentina for good.
The last few days of riding were magnificent. It was nice to come out of the thick forest and into the drier mountains with long views. It was hot enough for shorts and singlets cycling and we were feeling great on the bikes. We rode on mostly sealed roads with almost no traffic, bush camped along the banks of big clear rivers and swam in the afternoons to wash and cool off. Even some big hill climbs and steep passes couldn’t dampen our fun, we powered up and rolled down until the last day where we were out of the mountains and riding on almost flat pampa towards Neuquen. We were so keen to finish that we pushed out 190kms on the last day, even while dodging the worst traffic we’d seen (a truck actually grazed me coming into the city, luckily not too fast) and arrived in Neuquen at the reasonable hour of 5pm to promptly find a bar and have some well deserved celebratory end-of-ride beers!
The winding road up to the pass
Micks bike computer showing the 3500kms we cycled.
Mels computer showing the 190km last day
Well deserved beers to celebrate the end.
Micks dodgy bike rack, held on with rope, duct tape and zippy ties at the end.
The broken rack.
Our last week in Argentina was spent in our favourite city, Mendoza, reminding us of all we were really going to miss about living here and travelling in general. We stayed at a great hostel (hostel Lao, highly recommended) with its really laid back atmosphere and great people. We couldn’t stay off the bikes and ended up doing a winery tour by bike with a few friends, getting wobblier as the day went on and having a terrifying ride back to the hostel in the dark along the busy freeway. We enjoyed walking through the many parks and plazas, ate huge steaks in our favourite restaurants and finished off the night before leaving with a great big traditional Argie asado at the hostel. There couldn’t have been a better way to leave.
Winery tour by bike
Mick helping cook the hostel asado.
Finally we got on our flight home, and the first leg to Santiago from Mendoza we were treated to spectacular views of the Andes on sunset, Aconcagua jutting out above the rest reflecting the pink colours of the sky. We’ll miss those mountains. But I think we’ll be back someday.