The idea was to cycle up and over the Andes in the spring. However, we misjudged the seasons and ended up snowed-in for several days waiting for the road to reopen.
Our adventure started in the warm Mendoza sunshine, cycling along Ruta 7 towards the brown foothills of the Andes with snow covered tops peaking above the clouds.
We camped the first night by a sparkling blue lake, the result of the damming of the Rio Mendoza. From there on in, our route followed the river upwards between rocky slopes. The gradient was kind on the legs and we were slowed only by a wind, that at one point has us cowering against a wall wondering if the shuddering road signs would fly out of the ground.
Crawling up a valley we were reminded what an odd sight we make, when a car stopped at the top to take photographs of us. One guy was down on bended knee to get the best angle. When we got to them though they completely blanked us, which bemused us.
We stopped overnight in Uspallata, and the next morning in its beautiful valley we reached our 5,000km mark. Minutes later the celebrations were over as the wind picked up and we had a tough morning climbing, being blown on and off the road. By lunchtime we had covered just 40km and sheltered, exhausted, behind a school eating our cheese and bread, which a local dog seemed to enjoy more than us.
After lunch the climbing continued and we were incredibly excited as we turned a sharp corner to suddenly be pedalling in the snow-line. We stopped for the night in the ski resort of Los Penitentes, just 20km from the border with Chile and discussed over dinner how we would be on our way down to Santiago the very next day.
But on waking, we realised we wouldn’t be going anywhere. Overnight it had snowed and the road had disappeared under a thick covering. Resigned to an enforced day off we enertained ourselves with snowball fights.
The next day the road was clear so we set off, but just 7km along at Puente del Inca it was snowing again. We hid out in a cafe to see if the weather might improve, only to discover that the road had been closed and wasn’t due to reopen for another two days.
What to do? We could stay at the hostel there, but accomodation on the mountain and food was expensive. In the end, we decided reluctantly to go back to Uspallata by bus to wait for the road to reopen.
In town we realised we weren’t the only ones affected. The roads were stacked up with over 2,000 lorries waiting to cross the border too.
With this information, we were forced to make a difficult decision about whether we could cycle the rest of the route to Santiago or not. The road doesn’t have a good hard shoulder anyway, add to that the snow, ice and the busy traffic it would not make for safe cycling. Additionally, the Chilean side of the mountain descends steeply along a course of hairpin bends and the thought of competing with heavy trucks was not appealing.
In the end we accepted that, unless we waited for several more days and hoped the road remained open, the only safe option would be to take a bus. We camped out at the bus station and on Friday finally got the fantastic news that a bus was on its way from Mendoza.
Although quicker and warmer than cycling, the bus jourey confirmed our beliefs that travelling by bike is preferable. The border crossing was stressful, as Chile’s determination not to allow fruit or vegetables in saw all the luggage being offloaded and then put back on top of our bikes, despite our protests (fortunately only a mudguard was damaged). Then of course there was the terrifying switchbacks and the sheer drops, which we fortunately made it down alive, in spite of the slushy snow still on the road.
We were delighted to arrive in Santiago and have been celebrating with the local cocktail, pisco sours (and now suffering the hangover). The view of the Andes from the city is beautiful and it’s hard to believe we were pedalling about up there.
As disappointed as we are not to have cycled the whole route, we can take solace in the fact that we did the hard bit by cyling up during the winter in the first place. Not many people can say that.
There are more photos at http://www.flickr.com/photos/pedallingabout