Friday, May 30, 2008

An Apology

Must apologise for the rather shoddy job in keeping this blog up to date recently. It´s partly due to an alcohol fuelled malfunction for 4 days in Santiago where I was too drunk to approach a keyboard.... Thanks to all the guys at the Atacama hostel - great times.

Michael - sometimes riding partner, Emma, Emily, cheesy grin, Ulli - another crazy German cyclist

An partly due to an extended trip over the 3500m pass from Santiago to Mendoza when the Carabiñeros closed the road after a meer 2 metre dump of snow. Inconsiderate. But that´s another story....

Tuesday, May 20, 2008


Thursday 15th

Now I´m wet. It rained all night. I kept waking up to check. Positive note - the tent is brill and water bothers me not.

Until I pack up. Now it´s bothering me. There´s just rather a lot of it.

This is the famous 7 lakes area of Argentina. Before the trip I spoke to another cyclist, Welsh Rob who picked Lago Falkner out as a highlight of his whole trip. This is Lago Falkner....


In Torres Del Paine I saw dawn on the towers (remember the photos) with Jeff who said "Yeah, good, but Lanin is better". A bold statement thought I and dreamed of Lanin. This is Lanin....

See the mountains.... me neither... Disappointed.

This is today´s gorgeous lake shot... Beautiful Lago Hermoso (which means beautiful in Spanish cos this lake is so beautiful)

Lakes are better in blue, not grey and I´m still disappointed, despite the driver flying backwards from the high speed car in the sign - look again ;-)

Normally 15km descents into town are what cyclists dreams are made of. After climbing to over 1500m this is how you enter San Martin de Los Andes. Today I am disappointed. It´s windy, raining, freezing cold and the last thing I need now is a high speed blast downhill to freeze me to death.

I enter town in a mess and make for the first hostel through overflowing storm drains 4 inches deep in water. The owner doesn´t even ask me if I´m staying - she just shows me to a hot shower and says to come and talk to her about the room when I can speak properly - lips are blue. I slowly thaw out, and return to take the room - it would be rude not to.

Damn now I need to return to Argentina for another trip. You can´t go to 7 lakes and remain disappointed. It´s just too damn Hermoso. Damn weather....

Monday, May 19, 2008

The Rough With The Smooth

Wednesday 14th

Woke to an old familiar sound. Wind rushing through trees. Thought I had left that all behind.

The clouds are barrelling in and there´s a change of weather in the cooling air. I am sore from a tough day´s ride up to Cerro Bayo and a couple of arguments with trees and hard dirt in Arrayanes Park. I think I might have broken a finger. Luckily it´s one I don´t use too much.

I pack and leave in drizzle, through quaint, unashamedly touristy Villa La Angostura for 24km before getting back on to ripio for the next 50km.

I have a new category of ripio. This one is under construction and will soon be asphalt. For now it is glue. In Europe, tarmac is "layed". Here it is glued to the packed dirt to prevent it sliding off into the bushes. It also prevents me from sliding along above a crawl and it´s tough going. I fear to stop in case it sets and I become part of Route 234.

Except on the bends where the ripio is made from Teflon and tyres disagree on which course to steer.

The rain and wind team up and strengthen against me. I read a sign for a campsite 20km distant and decide to stop there. Or rather I Misread a sign for a campsite. It´s actually on another route which branches from my road - a fact that slowly dawns on me after 25kms. The road is steep sided, I´m knackered and it´s getting dark, when I find this - the worst camp site in the world. But it´s the first flat spot I see in a while. Honest - you can fit a tent in there....

It´s the best I can do and I settle in for a wet night in drumming rain, musing the smooth of the last few days - perfect weather, superb rides, a great camp site for the last 2 nights. Today the rough.

On balance though, I think I´m way ahead...

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Highs and Wows

Tuesday 13th

The team splits again, as Michael continues on towards San Martin De Los Andes and I stay another day to do 2 local rides.

There´s a ripio road which climbs up from Lago Nahuel Huapi (1200m) to Cerro Bayo, a 1778m peak which will hopefully give great panoramic views. Well the ripio road got me to 1450m and a nice little waterfall, then there´s a ski lift from a tiny resort complex to the summit.

I think I mentioned earlier, ski lifts are for wimps, so drinking my own medicine - I have to climb unaided up a maintenance track zig-zagging below the lift. it´s a grueller. But the views of the lake and Penisular Arrayanes are worth it. The descent is a riot... eyes blur as we hit warp speed...

The Peninsula above contains National Park Arrayanes and there´s a 24km round trip hike track along the length. I´ve heard it can be done by bike and 24km on foot would take too long. No one mentioned carrying the bike up the 100 or so steps and the steep log strewn tracks.

After that the track is an off roader´s delight of twists, turns, steeps, and tree roots to dodge. It´s a blast... I hit a log on a descent and am pitched over the handlebars to land on my back, knees and elbows leaking the red stuff.

At the track´s end there´s a stunning Laguna (Laguna Patagua) to be enjoyed in total isolation.

The picture is completed by fantastical looking cedar trees dressed bizarrely in orange

To cap a great day´s ride, I find the world´s dumbest dog and chase in gales of laughter for 10km reminded of horseshoes and the world´s dumbest horse.

And then back to my camp, a fire and BBQ steak bought to replace lost blood cells.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Out Of Site - Not This Sight

Monday 12th

After getting busted and re-camping "out of site" last night we awaken to discover the real reason for the police presence. All vehicles in and out of the National Park are stopped and some searched at random at the check point.

We awake to discover a queue of boggle eyed coach tourists glued to windows and taking pictures of the funny cyclists camping next to the road. So much for out of site - the small tourist office provides no cover at all. Not being one to enjoy another man´s discomfort, we ask the cops for water so we can get on with a leisurely breakfast and pose for some pictures....

I know it´s getting monotonous, but "it´s another gorgeous day for cycling"

and "wow - look at this amazing lake" - the view back across Nahuel Huapi lake to Bariloche

... but "wow - look at this amazing lake" - Lago Nahuel Huapi again

Taking our lesson seriously, we find a designated camp site just outside Villa La Angostura for the night, right on the lake

And.... it´s closed. Not to go against the law we remain... and have to pay nothing.


Friday, May 16, 2008

Finally Busted

Sunday 11th

We leave Bariloche and cycle all of 20kms out of town, partly to avoid paying another night in the hostel and partly as the volcanic ash finds us again in the afternoon.

We´ve definitely been pushing our luck so far. We´ve slept in some fairly risky accommodation and even been caught by the military on one occasion. This time we push it too far.

There´s a bridge over a river, the river cascades to Nahuel Huapi lake, there´s a flat spot of green grass in the corner of river and lake. Michael and I both stop at the same time and agree it´s the perfect spot for camp.

That´s the plus column...

In the negative column...
1) It´s overlooked by 4 rather nice looking mansions over the river

2) The bridge is the border to re-enter Nahuel Huapi National Park which means no camping outside organised sites.
3) Oh... And there´s a police check point 30 metres down the road.

We know about 1) and 2) and decide to risk it. Crucially we fail to spot 3) as the police are tucked out of site in a cabin off the road.

Lighting a fire to cook chorizo sausages is probably the boulder that broke the camel´s back and soon thereafter we see blue flashing lights on the bridge.

Probably nothing to do with us we agree.... but no the locals have rumbled us.

And then we see a torch beam descending from the bridge, closely followed by an extremely angry young man in uniform. We hastily extinguish the BBQ and trudge guiltily behind him back to HQ. Even his back looks angry! It starts badly when he asks for passports and we explain they are back in the tents. Mine´s in my pocket (and I find out later - so is Michael´s) but there´s no way I want to give that away.

We know what we´ve done wrong, and we duly get the third degree. He explains about a rather lovely sounding campsite 30km away.
30km?? It´s 9pm, dark, and we´ve not finished our chorizo sausage supper, so this is terrible news. We play the dumb foreigner and throw ourselves on his mercy.... There must be room in his cabin for 2 weary travellers who meant no harm, who´s customs and ways are different and lead us innocently to misunderstand these complexities of camp etiquette.

He relents. Slightly - there´s no way we can talk our way out of this into a warm cabin. He allows us to camp "out of site" behind a tour office across the road. Somewhat cowed, we drag our gear back up and over the road and re-pitch camp. We decide another BBQ is probably not a great plan. Pan fried sausage it is...


Saturday 10th

Been a tourist today. Bariloche is the type of town my mum would love. Well most mums would love it. No all WOMEN would love it. It´s home to craft fairs and chocolate artisans and is lovely twee. In 1902 San Carlos de Bariloche was a Swiss community, but the last two decades brought wealth from American and German investors. European details abound in the architecture around the central square.

There´s a nice cathedral, tree lines boulevards and of course gorgeous views over Nahuel Huapi lake. In winter the ski hoards hit town making it a year round upmarket resort.

I succumed to the lure of the "chocolate artisans" - just to see what the fuss was about you understand. How can you possibly have several department store sized shops selling "just" chocolate.

Now I´m hooked. It´s amazing. I revise my comments above - it´s a place my mum, all women and recently choc adicted men will love.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Nahuel Huapi to Bariloche

Friday 9th

8am Freezing...

9am Freezing...

Got up at 10:30. Too cold to venture from the sleeping bag til the sun cleared the mountain and hit the tent. Tried to make coffee, but water bottles frozen solid, so I used the stove to heat the tent instead. I knew it would be cold last night, clear skies, 1100m altitude, this lattitude at this time of year - but NO COFFEE - that´s serious!

Today was going to be a breeze. Only 45kms to go to Bariloche, most of the climbing done yesterday... and a tail wind. Easy life. Time for some serious dawdling....

3 lakes seperated me from Bariloche, Lagos Guillelmo, Mascardi and Gutierrez - all of them used as poster boys for the area and one or other of them by the road side for 35 of the 45 kms. Wow, what a days ride ahead, and almost predictably now, more perfect weather. Alfter a freezing night, I rode in shorts and tea shirt again under a blazing sun. Perfect.





And I have sooo many more...

And then Bariloche. After cycling over 2000kms to get to the jewel of the Argentinian lake district, you hit this shanty town on the outskirts. It was certainly a shocker for me seeing wood and tin huts giving way to poorly built desolate looking apartments. Most countries have learned the knack of hiding the ugly side of urbanisation away from tourists, but Argentina just seems to want you to take it all - warts and all. So the main road from one of the best National Parks, and also from the airport parades tourists to admittedly beautiful downtown Bariloche, via a couple of kilometers of blight.

Michael got here before me and an email revealed he had a sweet deal on a hostel. Room with a view of the Nahuel Huapi lake, 28 pesos (4 pound 50), central location, breakfast included. Sounds good and the team is reunited to hit the town - and the laundrette.

Monday, May 12, 2008

National Park Nahuel Huapi

Thursday 8th

Weatherise the day dawned clear and bright, panic wise things were also heating up. Last night I returned to the hostel to find my room locked and my stuff gone. Tracking down the owners revealed that as the only occupant of one room, I had been moved to another. I now shared with 3 others, my room was locked down to avoid spread of the contaminating ash. My gear was also locked down in a potato storage cupboard. I knew not why, but I could not move it to the new room, questions elicited emotional responses way beyond my limited understanding....

Next morning, more paying guests were turned away as the cleaning and packing up continued apace for the owners departure. Hasty plans were being made for the other 3 remaining guests departure as well.

When suddenly it all changed. There were 500 litres of drinking water in the tank and the place had a well, it was revealed. Full buckets suddenly emerged for washing and toilet flushing and the next guest to arrive was accepted as the place was unexpectedly reopened. I waited over an hour for the potato store to be reopened as well to reclaim by panniers.

I left Joe, Halad (2 Israelis) and the chaos very very late for beautiful clear blue skies pondering on an interesting stay at Hostel El Molinito...

National Park Nahuel Huapi was on my list of must see destinations in Argentina, alpine meadows, 3500m peaks, glaciers, lakes and rivers. It´s got them all and I got the day of days to see it.

Michael had left the previous day to save cash by camping and to try and keep ahead of the ash, so I was back to solo cycling for the first time in a while. We agreed to meet at a lake 95kms away, or in Bariloche failing that.

Another just gorgeous days ride with 2 tough climbs as I moved further in to the Andes, the first from some 400m up to 1000m, before descending dramatically again at glorious speed through incredible vistas. I tarried shamelessly to goggle and gape at awesome picture postcard scenes and to wonder at my newly acquired powers of invisibility. Judging by the number of near misses I was suddenly getting with passing traffic, invisibility was the only explanation.

Until it became clear that I was a human chameleon. My ghost like grey apparel was blending in seamlessly with the ash covered foliage of the background and drivers could no longer see me. I pondered whether to use this amazing power for crime or for good deeds.... But then I also pondered on some fairly crap driving....

The next pass was a killer, a low gear grind for 13kms to crest 1250m, small beer for what´s to come, but enough for today. I managed about 85 of the 95kms I needed to make to meet Michael, but it was getting dark and freezing cold on roads eclipsed from sunlight by looming peaks. I needed to descend fast and pitch camp and then I found beautiful Lago Guillelmo next to a no camping sign. It was dark so I didn´t see the sign, just the lake. Another beautiful campsite....

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Panic in El Bolson

Wednesday 7th

Inevitably we are caught again as the grey soup makes it´s inexorable way north. Hitting a town means hitting the media and the the news casts have a hysterical edge which spreads panic through the town. Last night the drinking water became undrinkable at midnight. Why midnight, I do not know, but the news announcer confidently predicted that potable water of just a few minutes ago was now poison as the clock chimed it´s twelfth.

Water soon disappeared from supermarket shelves as people began to hoard and the hostel decided the only reasonable measure was to turn off the whole water supply for fear of poisoning paying guests. Bad for business they cried. I pleaded I had been safely drinking 6 litres a day from lake and river after parting the ash by hand, but to no avail. The water borne peril was just too great they cried. The toilet born stink was worse I cried as cisterns ran dry and they flushed no more.

People with bookings were turned away and the hostel would close tomorrow the owners cried; they must run to the hills to avoid this deadly menace. I decided to stay an extra day partly to rest after 3 hard days, partly to stock up on food but mainly to observe the growing mania.

Acid rain they now cried. I turned my eyes to the cloudless skies that seemed to be clearing it´s ash grey back to blue. Hmmmm. I do love a good panic...

However, I began to panic when dreams of washing my riding clothes faded (water was now too scarce to waste) and I resigned myself to riding out of here suited up in hard set concrete covered gear. The smell was definitely taking on a life of it´s own....

Still El Bolson is a pretty enough place to kill a day...

Saturday, May 10, 2008

The Noose Tightens...

Tuesday 6th


We make ground by day, and are caught by night and we feel the cold grip tighten around our throats. Literally, this stuff is setting like cement in the throat and I ponder on the tree shaped casts forming in lungs never designed to be plaster of paris moulds.

The ash is worse today and passing lorries kick up a dust storm of acrid grit and powder as they loom out of the haze. My eyes sting, I breathe through a nose set solid, my bike makes worrying noises as I work dust into it´s delicate bits.

Head down we ride and the day fades in to a grey haze. After 30kms the road is paved and we ride harder. The mountains are beautiful - I think, maybe I will see them on my next trip...

We make good time - there are no stops today, and 20kms outside of El Bolson the clouds clear to reveal a pretty little town favoured by artisans and a hangout for hippies. Wrapped in steep sided mountains, a benevolent microclimate has evolved and orchards abound. Fruit is everywhere.... We find a hostel and set about scraping days of road dirt, grit and ash off ourselves.

So that´s what skin feels like when it´s not covered in glue...

The Chase Is On....

Monday 5th

The wind changes in the night.... I awake to dark shadows on the tent... and an inch of ash below the fly sheet. The tent is buried, the bikes are covered, and the world has disappeared again. The volcano is following us....

A quick breakfast and we take up the challenge of staying one step ahead. Speed is of the escense so we limit ourselves to just a 3 course breakfast... There´s simply no time to make omelettes as well....

The lake has been claimed and the trees sink into the eerie grey gloom. Ghost trees...

We ride.... ripio be damned.... we make haste...

Clearing another small pass we descend back into technicolour - it´s like removing your eyeballs and giving them a good clean. I pity the poor people who grew up before colour telly when the world was in black and white and like this all the time.

We pass beautiful Lago Rivadavia to our left which would have been wasted had we not kept in front of the ever advancing grey. It´s a stunner!

We pass a small village (Lago Rivadavia) and a small town (Cholila), but we must not tarry. We put in 85kms of hard ripio, riding until sunset, and camp at an estancia. May the winds blow a different course on the morrow....

Friday, May 9, 2008

Armaggedon Alerces

Saturday 3rd Sunday 4th

Saturday is a right off as the ash is too thick in the air to ride. Sunday is not much better, but there is a rumour from travellers coming South that El Bolson (250kms North) is clear, so we head out figuring the ash could be around here for many days....

We head north to National Park de los Alerces which proves to be a grim sight in hues of grey. Trees and land blur under the weight of grey ash and dust.

The apocalyptic scene is heightened when we discover the road in to the park has been closed. Road barriers add to the sense of unreality and I am reminded of "end of the world" disaster films and imagine the last 2 humans escaping to the mountains covered is ash.

Debating whether the the barriers and road closures relate to cyclists or just cars - we head on to search for further information... We see no one, we hear nothing, animal sounds are curiously absent as birds take in their changed world. Gusts of wind raise smoke pillars from the trees that twist and turn in eddies. The park is named for the Alerces tree - an ancient conifer which should be turning a golden yellow as autumn progresses. All trees are indistiguishable and uniform grey now.

We climb, light rain falls, but does nothing to clear the air. The road turns sticky as water hits ash and we struggle up the steep incline past dead machinery left by construction workers. It´s Sunday so they are absent..... or are we really the last 2 humans? We venture on - and see no one....

Descending - colour returns briefly to the world as the land is shielded from the ash carrying wind. We reach beautiful Lago Futalaufquen turned milky aqua marine and covered with a white dusting of powder. Punta del Mattos affords amazing views along 3 legs of the lake and we find a camp spot right by the beach.

We BBQ steak and chorizo sausage over the fire pit and watch an amazing sunset as the ash heavy air turns an angry crimson, echoed by the still lake waters. We see no one....

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Esquel - A Vision of Hell

Friday 2nd

¨AUTHORITIES evacuated hundreds of people from villages in southern Chile on May 2nd as a snowcapped volcano considered dormant for thousands of years erupted. The blast sent minor earthquakes rippling through the region.

The 1,200-meter (3,550-foot) Chaiten volcano belched fire and ash Thursday night, causing more than 60 small tremors in the Los Lagos region.¨

The fork in the road before Futaleufu takes on a significance today we never suspected. Had we continued North on the Carretera, we would have woken in Chaiten today - the town closest to (and taking it´s name from) the erupting volcano. The place was evacuated this morning and lies under several inches of ash. There were thankfully no fatalities.

The wind deposits ash across the whole width of Argentina from it´s western border to the Eastern coast and as far as Africa. Check out some amazing satellite images here

This is Esquel - roughly 75kms away.

I awoke to "snow", but warm snow and sleep confusion made no sense of it, until I heard the news from other campers. Walking through town reveals an apocolyptic scene, people are scarce, some wearing masks, a strange quiet has decended and footprint trails line the streets. Ghost cars drift silently by, greyed out, headlights failing to penetrate the gloom. The air is thick and cloying.

I guess a change of plan is in the air and I might be here a day or 2.....

The Peanut Butter Quest

Thursday 1st

We awake and are breakfasting as a military guy turns up in a 4x4 and checks us out. Oh no - caught again and maybe serious this time! But then he just drives off without a word. Strange think we, but hopefully not for reinforcements or superior officers we think.

5 minutes later he returns, and unlocks the building. Now we are worried and wondering whether he´s gone for the paperwork to book us, or maybe a gun, but then he has one of those on his belt anyway - they can be pretty twitchy in these border towns. A minute later he re-emerges - says 2 words "El baño" and gets back in the car and leaves. He´s just opened the bathroom for us - nice guy, if rather economical with words. Guess we just look too dirty and desperate to berate and he figures we just need to clean up for presentation at the border.

Esquel is 85kms away and there is a rumour they have peanut butter!! Michael is out and I have one spoonful left - a perilous situation as it has only been avalable in Chile so far and we are quite worried. Even if it didn´t taste soooo good, it´s just the best cycling fodder known to man. My diet is the reverse of a normal one and I simply buy food with the most calories to weight ratio - kind of a biggest bang verses lugging difficulty ratio. Peanut butter scores the tops!! Anyway there is no other reason to get to Esquel and it´s only a 50kms diversion - better get a few jars to make it worthwile.

We cycle more idillic scenery in perfect conditions to Trevelin, a supposedly Welsh settlement, which looks nothing like anywhere in Wales I have been. I look for signs of Welshism and see very few apart from a (rare) flag sighting. It´s a "tourist" thing we decide and pass through.

And hit tarmac!! Oh how flat and smooth your unrippled loverlyness unfolds before us, like a slate bed. It´s been a while since the last piece of road as delicious as this, like having your bottom wiped with velvet as you cycle.... The sense of speed is dizzying....

We make Esquel in no time and hit an organised accomodation site for the first time since Puyhuapi.

And the rumour is true - this town has peanut butter. We toast our victory with a few beers!