Sunday, December 31, 2006

Mendoza- Getting high and Parties on the roundabout

So we wheel it in to Mendoza mid-afternoon, in good time to source some accommodation. Or so you'd think. We did try a hostel but the owner was out and no one knew what the price of a room was so we tried the camp sites. One was miles away so we though we'd try the municipal one slightly nearer town. As usual, it wasn't too easy to find so for the second time we ended up with a police escort to a campsite. I think the police quite like getting asked to do stuff like this. No sirens or lights though.

Mendoza is yet another large 'grid pattern' city of the type that holds little appeal for me however it does have a very attractive park and lake to the west. Our campsite is located just outside this but not exactly within walking distance of the city. Now Argentineans like their barbeques and I mean 'really' like them. When we arrived, we were about the only tent on the site however here they don't use these places in quite the same way we do at home. It's a place for quite literally all the family to gather, drink, get merry and watch dad do the asado. So when we returned to the site about 11pm that evening after a frankly awful meal in town, the site was alive with families and kids running all over the place, music and general fun and games. Not exactly the recipe for a good nights kip in a tent then. And it wasn't just our campsite that was popular. No, the park was also full of people while barbeques were getting set up on roadsides and even the roundabout outside the campsite for gawds sake. And even more bizarrely, just to add insult to injury, a wedding party arrived about midnight bleeping horns and having a jolly old time till 6am. Even my earplugs couldn't drown that lot out.

So the following day was a restful one to say the least. A bit of bike tinkering and general slouching around was required as we watched our thermometer hit 49degrees in the sun. Not the sort of temperatures to do anything much really.

One of the reasons I came to Mendoza was to find the BMW dealer here as my newly replaced fork seals which cost me 40GBPs had decided to give up on me after barely a week and apparently these BMWs need something called a 'service' every now and again. We rolled up to the impressively clean garage much like those in the UK, and proceeded to be told that they didn't have time to look at my bike. They didn't look particularly interested in it either and I didn't have the time to wait so I understood, but only very slightly, how Ted Simon must have felt after he rolled into LA expecting some sort of fanfare from the Triumph garage.

Q. Whats the difference between a BMW and a Kawasaki?
A. Well, a BMW oil filter costs 90pesos while a Kwak one costs 15pesos- go figure.

We also managed to fit in some swimming here. Well, that is after trying about 3 different pools, we finally found one that would have us and we had about the first real exercise of the whole trip (apart from walking and picking up the bike now and again that is).

We had planned cross the mighty Andes again, this time our goal was Valparaiso, a coastal town some 300 or so miles away in Chile. Setting off from the flatness that is Mendoza, we followed the road as it wound its way up into the hills. On our right near the summit was Mount Aconcagua sitting at 6960m which is high indeed. In fact, it is the highest mountain, not only in the Andes, but in both the southern and western hemispheres.

Aconcagua- It´s quite high

I wish I could say I was blown away with the scenery but I think it´s possibly because you are 'in' them rather than viewing from afar, they don't seem that huge. Anyway, the scenery was actually pretty great all the same and when we came across the turn off to the Cristo Redentor monument before the Chile border, I couldn't resist it. The monument sits on one of the peaks and as we had to take the tunnel to cross the range, it looked like our best shot at getting a 'view from the top' so after a bit of gentle persuading Michelle and I set off up the gravel track. The road quickly deteriorated into mush due to the amount of water running down the mountain and the hairpin bends got even hairier the higher we went. I got up as high as 3600m or so when the road became totally blocked with snow and we had no choice but to start back downwards- but not before a bit of a snowball fight first though.

The end of the road at only 3600m, damm it!

Due to all this mucking about, as you may have already guessed, we didn't make Valparaiso by nightfall but got as far as a campsite near San Felipe around 8pm which seemed like a sensible time to stop for the night.

Gary Glitter, Chav Mahal and San Rafael
Monday 11/12/06- Saturday 16/12/06
I finally managed to get new fork seals fitted at Ctorq in Bariloche for 240pesos so we were able to leave Bariloche around midday. We took the route of the 7 lagos which was pretty nice, but once you've seen one lake...

Stopping briefly at San Martin de los Andes at another fairly non-descript campsite, our plan was to try and cover a decent few miles because we've been moving a tad slowly of late, Our plan was to make it to Chos Malal, basically somewhere on the map to stop. The scenery en-route was very reminiscent of westerns, total cowboy country in fact with several goucho's on horseback. As we were aiming to cover some distance, it was a listening to mp3s-on-shuffle day. Quite bizzare then riding through this landscape to hear 'what it is', that Mark Knopfler song about a Geordie night out in Newcastle.

Anyway, as usual when I have my earphones in, we got stopped at one of those rather pointless police checkpoints where they want to ask you where you're going and see your passports etc. Naturally I couldn't remember the name of the place we were going to but Chav Mahal seemed to cover it.

At the towns municipal campsite, we met the attendant who was incredibly efficient, though inevitably incredibly hard to get rid off. I noticed there had only been 5 other people staying there this month so I guess he was pleased to see somebody.

A fairly productive evening involved getting Michelle's spare tyre fitted and having a mini asado of our own with really tasty chicken. Michelle has a compact little folding grill which has been excellent and worth carrying as the meat here really is not too bad.

"I feel like chicken tonight"

Anyway, as we're munching away, this small boy on a bike shows up asking lots of questions but as usual, we do our 'no intiendo'. Not long after, a scruffy looking old guy with a slightly insane grin comes along with some keys. He's telling us something about the banos and we eventually work out he's some sort of night watchman so we're obviously in safe hands. He begins motioning at the bikes and is apparently suggesting we lock them together. I ask if there are likely to be any problems and his response sounds like 'yes, I'm your problem now', however he actually turns out to be fairly harmless although he does have a touch of 'gary glitter' about him when he is speaking to the small boy.

The following day, we were aiming to get to San Rafael however after a very tedious ride along some nasty stretches of gravel, we only make it as far as Malargue. On the way, Michelle's carbs flooded on a really remote road as we were taking some pictures and in the intense heat, it wasn't too funny however after what seemed a considerable while we got it running again. I think the scene must have amused the farmer who´s mud house we were photographing moments before.

It was an easy two hour ride to San Rafael the next day through quite a number of lovely vineyards. This whole area really is a major wine producing area so it woud be rude not to visit one or two wineries while we're here'. We got a pretty cheap room for 45pesos with cable tv and even a ceiling fan! We also found a local guy, Louis, to clean out Michelle´s carb and make a small screen to replace the last one that became ever so slightly 'detached' a few weeks ago. While hanging out at Louis's garage, a couple of local police popped in to say hello as they'd seen my bike outside. I initially bricked it as I tried to remember which one of my most recent traffic violations could have prompted this visit but it thankfully turned out to be a purely social one. One guy was in a car but the other was on a BMW650GS so he was keen to have a look at mine. I must say that the Police here really don't give their guys the best kit. He just wore a shirt with several radios and objects sticking out, light trousers with only boots for some protection and his open face helmet was all scuffed to bits. His scratched, matt black bike did look quite cool though and it even had ABS which was something.

We did visit one winery. It was actually started in the late 1800's by French guy who shipped over all this wine making equipment. San Rafael didn't really exist back then and once he's set up his wine production, he spread the word back home and invited a lot of his French pals over to do the same and the town started taking shape. After our very informative tour, we splashed out on a 1GBP bottle of vino blanco and headed off to the large park at the other end of town. We thought we´d get some empanandas on the way but failed to find a single place that had any so we carried on regardless. To say it was hot is an understatement and I was looking forward to finding a large fountain or something to cool off by. Unfortunately the park turned out to be a huge disappointment. Walking past the gypsy camp at one end, it reminded me of a school playing field that had been allowed to become overgrown for about 10 years, and there were just a little too many large ants for my liking so we decided to skip it. It´s a rather nice town actually but like most of these places, nothing really kicks off and gets busy until later in the day when it cools down. The streets then come alive with families and people with shops open well into the evening. We met a few north American guys how seemed to think this was the place. One guy has a plumb farm outside town which sounds like rather a nice existence to me.

We stayed a couple of days in San Rafael before heading on to Mendoza. On the way, we took a small detour via Tupungato that was supposed to give a great view of the Andes however the weather decided to mess with our plan and placed some rather large clouds over most of them.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Break like the Wind
Friday 8/12/06 - Sunday 10/12/06
We had an easy ride to Bariloche, which is a bit of touristy town but pretty nice just the same. We found a great little hotel with double room, ensuite & breky for 50pesos a night so we were happy. After a walk around town we treated ourselves to some great coffee and cake and thus blowing any savings we'd made on the accommodation. We'd spotted a poster advertising tango lessons, so after a few good beers in a microbrewery, we turned up at the place in our best dancing gear, ie dirty cargoes and tee shirts. We were greeted by the teacher, Patricia, and were soon being shown the ropes. At first, we found it hard to stop laughing at our four left feet, but Patricia persisted and I had to dance with another lady who knew what she was doing while Michelle got a Harold Bishop look-a-like. Believe it ir not, by the end of the night, we could actually do the steps they'd shown us, ok, not perfectly, but we were pretty happy and had a great night too.Thankfully, there are no photos but we think we'll do it again somewhere else so by the end of the trip we could be tango'ing the night away.

On Saturday, we found out about a biker meet happening in town (which explained the hundreds of big bikes- doh!), so as we'd not seen any bike bigger than a our own for a very long time, we had to go along. We followed the parade round the local circuit here (Circuito Chico) which goes round the peninsula and although the views are pretty cool, some of the houses here are also prety cool, there's clearly some money in this town. The ride finished at the lake campsite about 16kms south of town where there was promise of beer and music. It really reminded me of a smaller version of the bikerfests I used to go to back home. It was hosted by the aptly named 'Wind Riders', who are I assume the local Hells Angels. They were a nice bunch though and there were games involving trying to knock over beer cans with tennis balls while riding past. And then the band came on. My god, they were bloody awful, but very entertaining to watch. A more tone-deaf singer I´ve yet to hear. More leather and studded wrist bands than Rob Halford could ever shake a stick at.

"Let there be sand!"

A bad egg in Chile
Wednesday 6/12/06- Thursday 7/12/06
We parted company with A&K yesterday as they were going to try the thermal springs in La Junta so we headed on and camped at Puerto Piedra by the lake. Really nice setting as the lake is surrounded by steep mountains. There was even a camp fire and shelter. We met a bunch of Argentinian fishermen who had travelled 2000kms to fish but apeared not to have caught anything. Oh well. I really enjoyed listening to some Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young on my MP3 player at night and being able to look at the stars without the light pollution we are used to, so much so that I nearly fell asleep by the fire. Wine also helps though which we'd managed to buy off the lady who owned the place. She slightly spoiled the experience slightly the next morning by trying to charge us more than we'd agreed and not giving us the eggs she'd promised. Her loss a I guess.

Our campsite view

A short ride and another border crossing later, we were back in Argentina and stopped in Esquel. We found a nice little house for 50pesos all to ourselves where we got all our much-needed washing done. From Esquel, we rode on to El Bolson as Michelle needed a new rear tyre. I asked the mechanic there to look at my now very leaky fork seals but when he asked a teenager at his garage how long he thought it might take, I was out of there. I'll wait till I find someone who at least looks like they know what they're doing. Michelle got a Pirelli MT21 for 250pesos though, about half what I had to pay for my Pirelli in Puerto Madryn but they tried to charge 50 pesos to change it! Remember I got charged 5 pesos at a YPF garage so we´ll take it to one of those.

We stayed about 14kms outside El Bolson at a German family's house who let travellers stay. We had thought it was going to be free but we soon found out that they now charged due to the number of people that stayed. We got a nice little pitch by the river anyway and they even had a couple of great little lab puppies too so we couldn't complain!

Puppy power!!

The Perfect Hosts
Monday 4/12/06- Tue 5/11/06
Being the hardcore travellers we are, we finally made it out of town by 3pm after doing a bit of internet/emails etc. We got caught in some shitty roadworks, we got fed up as the road had turned to gravel again and was killing our backs so we jumped onto the newly tarmac'd section. I came across a guy in a rather large road roller who actually swung his machine towards me in rage, this guy was livid. It was quite funny though but we got kicked off after that.
As it was pretty late, we needed to find somewhere to stop for the night and by another happy accident, came across a house which had some camping space and they did breakfast too- sorted. In the morning, we were treated to lovely home baked bread and really fresh eggs which tasted fantastic. I could have stayed in that kitchen all day. The owner was a really nice guy from Santiago who's up'd sticks and moved to the country with his wife. He'd built the house himself and although it had no electric power, save for a solar panel which charged a battery to power one light and a radio, it was one of the warmest and most homely places I've seen. He has a beautiful little 2 year old daughter who looked very cool in her floppy had and poncho. I even had to put on her shoes for her at breakfast which greatly amused Michelle.

The perfect hosts

We had a fabulous ride through the rainforest today, totally different scenery. The road climbs over a pass with incredibly tight hairpin bends that make the gps show the road like a mad squiggle. I enjoyed it so much that when I bottomed out my front forks on a deep pothole, I just didn't care, I'll get it sorted somewhere, somehow.

Rainforest, C. Austal style

Red hands, twisty roads and fat, heavy bikes
Sunday 3/12/06
We took a look at some caves which had painted hands dating from around 10,000 years ago. The place was acually shut but we rode up the tricky narrow and steep track anyway and let ourselves in, with the GS naturally falling over at the top of the last hill. I'd read somewhere before that the natural position for a GS is on its side and this trip is certainly proving that.

A GS on it´s side, earlier today

The hands were pretty cool though, Kristina works in a kindergarten so we deduced that the hands were most likely done by the 10,000 year old kids as a school exercise, most likely some sort of detention I expect.

´You need hands...´

We also came across a dead forrest that had been covered in ash from a volcanic eruption, quite impressive really. Andreas and kristina stopped to chat to a German woman on a bike with cool gaucho chaps. She'd been at a protest nearby as Pinochet had sold off parts of the valley years ago to foreign hydro electric companies who now wanted to dam the valley to build a hydro plant. I hope they win as it really is a beautiful place.

The gravel road finally turned back into nice, smooth asphalt again after god knows how long. Michelle and I enjoyed ourselves racing each other up a mountain pass with hairpins and great, wide sweeping bends, fantastic.

Oh yeah...bring it on

We stopped off in Coyhaique and found a fantastic wooden cabanya, where Andreas, who's a bit of a chef in his spare time, knocked up a great evening meal.

The Perfect Saturday Morning
Saturday 2/12/06
So what did you do on Saturday morning then? Me? Well we broke up camp and continued along this valley which, I'll be honest, was just gorgeous. There's just something about riding in lovely sunshine and beautiful, rustic surroundings that really appeals to me. There were grins all around, I can tell you, though I'm sure my photos won't do it justice.

All Saturday mornings should be this good

Once we finally made it off this track on to the 'main road', this turned out to be the famous Chilean Carretera Austral (southern highway) apparently commisioned by Gen Pinochett which stretches for over 1,000kms from Puerto Montt to Villa O'Higgins. The route takes in snowcapped mountains, volcanoes, ice age glaciers, fjiords, turquoise lakes and even one of the largest areas of temperate rainforest. We stopped off at Puerto Tranquilo for the night, even meeting a couple of fellow overland bikers who for the first time weren't German but were from New Zealand and California.

Locusts, Imprisoned Armadillos and Good Roads
Thursday 30/11/06 - Friday 1/12/06

We headed off up Routa 40 again, but taking it easy thanks to the impressive side winds. The one notable thing about the road today was that it was infested with locusts. They just looked like leaves floating about behind the michelles rear wheel in front of me but on closer inspection, they were in fact locusts. Millions of them! They were jumping about all over the road and getting squashed under our tyres, I've really never seen anything quite like it.

We stopped for lunch by a deserted derelict building in the middle of nowhere as it provided some shelter from the wind. After we finished eating and had a wander about, we could hear a strange scratching noise coming from a oil drum which had a board weighed down by a heavy stone. Andreas and I took a look and lifted the makeshift cover and peered in. And peering back at us were 3 armadillos, one of which looked pretty dead. Thinking this was a tad cruel, I kicked over the barrel to let them out. One immediately ran away, the other stayed in digging about in the soil while the dead one turned out not to be dead but was barely alive. Michelle gave it some water which it seemed to lap up however it didn't look to great. We headed off and left them to their own devices, wondering who and why someone would lock up these creatures until they died.

It was a fairly dull ride as the landscape had resorted back to a bit of pampas again so the plan was just to cover some miles when we stopped to chat to a couple of large overland vehicles. You could be forgiven for assuming it is only Germans that do overlanding in Argentina however Andreas had a chat with them and we were told of a decent route over to Chile and the Carreterra Austral, where the scenery is supposed to be great and there is less wind - we were off. We stopped the night in a crossroads hotel called Bajo Caracoles which was quite literally the only place for miles around.

The next day, we headed off along Routa 39 to follow the route we'd been told about the previous day. We stopped off at Lago Posadas for a bit of lunch which was quite a pleasant little place. Realising we should have taken the turn off before Lago Posadas, we found what we thought would be a shortcut from the lake back over to the road we needed. As soon as we got on this track, and it was a track, it was the start of a tough but fantstic riding day of enduro riding consisting of steep rocky hill sections, narrow tracks and generally stunning scenery. Don't you just love it when a happy accident takes you off the beaten track. At one point, we came accross a gate which was locked, however realising that the fence to the side wasn't in great shape, we took a plank lying rearby, flattened the fence with it and rode over the plank.

Off-road kings and queens

Cool landscapes

We made the remote border crossing by late afternoon and after the usual formalities and a cute but lively small dog stealing michelles glove, we set off once more into Chile. As we were pretty knackered after the days riding and we were evidently not going to make it back to civilisation today, we found a pleasant spot in this beautiful valley by a stream to set up our camp.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Well we´re now in Bariloche trying to sort out various bike 'issues'. Will try to do a proper blog update in the next day or so. Apologies for the random order of my photos, can´t seem to sort that!