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On the road . January 2010 . Chile and Argentina

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piaIn remembrance of Mia Pusch
On January 5, Mia Pusch was killed on State Highway 3, just north of Bulls, in the central region of New Zealand's North Island. A truck with trailer, travelling in the same direction collided with the 19 year old cycle-tourist, who was a few weeks away from ending her tour of the country.

Our sincerest condolences to all the family and friends of Mia.

In the NZ Herald Article, journalists translated extracts from Mia's blog entry just 6 days prior to her passing away. Her words speak volumes about the attitude of truck drivers in New Zealand:

“When one is a cyclist on New Zealand roads, one is not only torn from one’s daydreams by dive-bombing magpies but is more often threatened by a more nasty species that really requires more attention: truck drivers. One usually finds this species driving permanently at a phenomenal speed in a race against time. These beasts seem oblivious to the fact that their loud beeping can have no effect in making the heavily laden, long-distance cyclist go any faster. They swerve past the cyclists who are struggling under their own steam at break-neck speed mainly within only a half-metre to a metre gap, all the while aggressively honking their horn. The fact that this in no way improves the situation, but in fact makes it worse, appears not to enter the minds of these people.”

This is now the third touring cyclist - that we know of - to be killed on New Zealand roads since we started our journey in 2006. All were hit by trucks. I can't explain how this makes me feel. I know only too well the appalling attitude of many road users towards cyclists all over the world, but for New Zealand to have such a track record: there is just no excuse for it. None! And until the country does something radical about changing rules and regulations and increasing the amount of cycle paths, I'm wiping the place from my list of places to visit. I don't care how beautiful it is, I'm not going to increase the risk of ending my life anymore than I have to.

Photo NZ Herald Article ; Facebook's memorial page for Mia ; Mia's last blog entry (in German) ; Article from Manawatu Standard

Camping Los Coihues [website] Bariloche, Argentina, 27-02-10
To a capital of friends

16 kilometres after La Cebada - Santiago de Chile (6 cycle days; 1 rest day; 384km; 4063m)

16 km. after La Cebada to 9 km. after Huentalauquén Sur (70.00km; 828m)
9 km. after Huentalauquén Sur to Los Molles (66km; 697m)
Los Molles to 5 km. after La Laguna (73km; 952m)
5 km. after La Laguna to Valparaiso (63km; 358m)
Valparaiso to 6 km. after Curacaví (66km; 763m)
6 km. after Curacaví to Santiago (46km; 465m)

Against the force
After a sunset view through barbed wire and toasting the New Year in somewhat early, January the first is nothing special. Its the same occasional glimpse of the coast, same boring scenery with the same fenced off landscape of cacti and brown earth. Headwinds pick up and the hills roll to the same intensity. We also have the similar problem of finding a decent spot to pitch the tent for the night. One could easily go insane in these conditions, but you find ways around it: singing or listening to music helps; designing the inside of a bus for your next travelling adventures is definitely therapeutic; or even pretending you are being interviewed on prime-time television - my favourite time waster has to be with Parkinson, but then I get to think up all the questions. Lastly, you can make up a poem.

Cycling madness: travelling bliss

Another day of highway cycling; a landscape so hilly.
You certainly forget the time; battling along the coast in Chile.
Another bout of headwind madness; howling throughout the day.
Past barbed-off brown and pig-weed bluffs; not a single place to stay.
Another night of roadside camping, listening to the din;
Sipping on our Chilean wine; and toasting the New Year in.

Another year. Yes, another year; bit hard to comprehend.
Sat in the middle of nowhere; with a solitary friend.
Another chance for contemplation; we have come a long way.
Mexico's beach to Chile's seas; what more can a person say?
Except another fit of figures; and so it neatly rhymes
Twelve thousand, four hundred clicks; plus up Everest 15 times.

Another thought for those who wonder; how will I end this prose?
South America dishes up; as far as travel goes:
Another place to add to your list; of countries to uncover;
Where people smile, wave and toot; and welcome you with honour.
Another world like you've never seen; of Incan, Mayan modes;
A world of mountains so high and vast; and humid Amazon roads.

Another place in our wide, wide world; where things are changing fast
So, get there soon, get there quick; you're bound to have a blast!

An estacionamiento comes after 56 kilometres in Huentelaquén Norte. We fill up with water before confronting the headwinds again. Its an exhausting ride and almost pointless trying to pedal against the force. It seems like it won't end either as there is absolutely nowhere suitable to camp. The first signs of prohibited entry are also present along the highway. A massive drop by the side of the road appears 9 km. after Huentalauquén Sur (70km; 828m). It will have to do, though on a slope and barely enough room to fit the tent.

A welcomed beach camp
In the heavenly quiet of lingering fog, we cycle off this morning. Obviously there is no wind. Overcast skies last as long as the early afternoon and cycling is easy. We roll up and down the remaining hills on this coastal route and enter Los Vilos. It is quite a decent sized town and big enough to have a large supermarket. The only hindrance to endeavouring down that path is the climb leading into the centre of town. We stay on the outskirts and shop at a mini-market. For two days worth of supplies, we pay a small fortune. Water is free at the last petrol station in the town, though we need to ask the owner for a key to unlock the tap.

Only 19 kilometres up the road and we restock with water at another estacionamiento, but hardly necessary as we are pleasantly surprised with the beautifully set-up of Camping El Chivato on the beachfront at Los Molles (66km; 697m). Being New Year weekend, it is the height of season and totally packed. We are lucky to squeeze in on a not so appealing spot, but it has a light, water and sink and a shaded area for the tent. Normal cost is 12,000 peso, which is touching on European campsite prices, but if you ask for a cyclist discount you can get it for 10,000. After all the squashed up highway camping in the past few days, this is a more agreeable way to spend the night.

Posh highways
The highway riding is becoming awfully boring, but today we have our fingers crossed, not literally of course, for a change of pace and scenery after 31 kilometres, when we turn off Ruta 5 and head towards Papudo on the coast. There is a small general store close to the turn-off and not knowing what the rest of the trip will offer in the form of supply opportunities, we stock up. Though, we could have waited until the more convenient supermercado on the way out of La Laguna.

The only thing that really differs from our previous route is the narrowness of the two lane road and lack of shoulder. There is still plenty of traffic to contend with and on the stretch from Papudo to La Laguna, an extraordinarily high number of Mercedes; Audi's and BMW's on the road. It's not surprising then, that when you get to Zapalla, you are reminded of the French Riviera, but then South American style. We also pass several cyclists clad in colour coordinated gear and pedalling flashy bikes. Even though we raise a hand to say hello and they clearly see this: as they draw near, their heads drop and they cycle on. Only one guy acknowledges us. All a bit too posh for us: this surf, water sports come polo and golf environment.

Luckily, the next town is a little toned down from the aristocratic air of a few kilometres back. This also means a couple of areas on the outskirts that aren't barriered off. We find a perfect spot 5 kilometres after La Laguna (73km; 952m) hidden amongst the trees in a network of motorcross tracks. Several quad bikes and people come past, but we go unnoticed. Relaxing in the dappled sunlight on soft pine foliage are not enough to change Ali's mood. He has had enough and is adamant that he wants to quit.

I plainly don't, but can see his point of view. The riding has been incredibly uninspiring after Peru and Bolivia. Open sociability doesn't jump out at us anymore. The excitement of being in raw, untamed places is over. Chile is modern and people are way more isolated, insular. And then the cost of living enters the equation as well. It is all definitely a shock. Following much argument; discussion; plenty of accusations and tears; shouting and giving up and giving in and the realisation that maybe the tour really is over kicks me in the guts. I'm prepared to compromise, but I'd still really, really like to go on. From Ali's point of view our bike journeying will cease in Santiago.

More highway stuff and even more traffic
Any expectations of peaceful riding are completely dashed as we take to a ridiculously narrow road today. It is a crazy stream of vehicles. No time for looking around, not that the views of industry and rubbish strewn streets are anything to get delighted over. Just continual flinching every time a bus or truck squeezes past us teetering on the edge of a single, no-shoulder lane.

We have been told on more than one occasion that Valparaiso is a special place; a gem of a town to be exact. And so we have made this special effort to get here. Entering Viña del Mar with its succession of Starbucks; Burger Kings; Tele-Pizza stores and well presented tourists, the traffic picks up considerably. We can refuge from its psychotic whoosh on the cycle path running the length of the boulevard, but like most cycle paths, it ends inconveniently. The pedalling then gets tough and it is a miracle we make it unscathed into Valparaiso.

Signs stating we are not allowed to ride on the footpath contrast with buses crushing us into the sidewalk; honking in disgust as they bully their way along the double and sometimes triple lane highway. It is no wonder every cyclist we see has taken to the footpath. After the road-raging torment you receive from motorised traffic in this town, you are more than prepared to disobey the rules. In the end, I too can take it no more and demand that we cycle along the sidewalk. Its an obstacle course of people, glass and lamp posts, but I feel amply safer.

Ali had picked up a pamphlet in San Pedro de Atacama regarding a place of stay downtown and near the bus station. When we finally get to Hostal S' Javiera on Pocuro 1052, it looks like a normal residence. A local assures us it is a place of accommodation and had he not been present, we probably would have moved elsewhere. Turns out to be a real homely affair in one very, very old building. Our room with balcony is fine for two nights; the price of 7,000 peso's each reasonable for this tourist haven; and the sweetly genuine approach of the owners make our stay there pleasant.

Valparaiso (63km; 358m) on the other hand is not as special as everyone makes out. At least we didn't see any reason to get overly keyed-up. While it has the potential to be something way better, it all seemed a little run down and uncared for in general. The tagging is so overwhelming for a supposed UNESCO site. Once christened "the jewel of the Pacific", the port is not as bustling as it was before the Panama Canal opened. It does however gets its fair share of trade a few days before and leading up to New Year when the annual festival ends with the biggest fireworks display in all of Latin America. It is said that more than a million tourists attend the spectacular every year.

Another interesting feature of Valparaiso are the funiculars (cable cars) that take you up the almost vertical slopes into the residential areas of the city. Cerro Bellavista is one of the more recognised spots for its brightly painted corrugated iron housing and a series of 20 street murals. The rather eccentric poet Pablo Neruda also took up residence here and has quite a fascinating house for those who are interesting in seeing a more personal side to the Chilean artist. It is also home to many hostals, bars and boutique cafes advertising expensive luncheon menus on ornate chalkboards.

Our budget takes us back down into the hustle and bustle of the main town centre, which we actually prefer to all the upmarket hype. Pizza is about our only choice of fare on both evenings, since the vegetarian restaurants are all closed after lunch. Why they do that, we are still unable to fathom.

A lift in spirits
The trip out of Valpairso looks as daunting as the trip in, as we pedal towards the skinny path leading its way up and out of town. But when the shoulder materialises it certainly lifts our spirits. Still the 10 kilometre, 350 alti-metre climb takes well over an hour. We roll along for the rest of the way, with a few flat stretches to pick up speed. After 43 kilometres another life saving estacionamiento gives us the chance to fill up on water; cool down and increase the energy levels.

The girl at the toll booth leading to our first Chilean tunnel experience lets us through, so we gather there will be no problem pedalling through it. The no cyclist sign just before the entrance and after traversing several kilometres mind you, does nothing to our state of mind. No sooner have we stopped; ummed and aahed; and finally decided we have little alternative than to continue on; a roadworker's pick-up pulls over. The bikes are strapped on the back and we are driven through the tunnel. We'll soon learn that we are not getting special treatment: this is the norm in Chile.

its a wonderful downhill run on the other side: past wineries which display quite transparently that there is money to be made from fermenting grapes. We are on the boundary of Curacaví, where we meet Carlos, sheltering from the heat of the day at a road stop cafe. He invites us to join him for a drink and a chat and then later asks if he can join us in finding an overnight camp up the road. He was intending on spending his evening sitting in an airport lounge, waiting for his friend to arrive from Bilboa. Once we are settled, sharing a glass of wine and dinner, he agrees that the spot in the blue gum forest 6 km. after Curacaví (66km; 763m) is a much better option. We are about 40 kilometres from Santiago: only a short ride away tomorrow.

Meeting Point
The journey is straight forward enough: follow the highway; climb 338 alti-metres in 23 kilometres; get another tunnel escort; see Carlos off at the exit to the airport; plan to meet up later that evening at Hostal Forestal ; and continue the cycle into the city. It gets progressively busier as you would imagine for a 5 million plus population city. The bus ways that entirely take up the three right hand lanes are the worst. There is nothing merciful about these drivers behind the wheel of bendy carriage vehicles. It is no surprise to see some cyclists riding on the left hand side of the road. On Av. Libertador Bernardo O'Higgins, a cycle path begins. Exactly where, I cannot tell you, I was too busy looking at the traffic. I just noticed some other cyclists speeding their way down the middle of the highway through a park-like environment. You have to zigzag through a bit of a maze, but the trail is clearly marked and stop lights guide you safely through traffic. Now that's what I call good city cycling.

We have about 10 kilometres of city navigation along this prominent street of Santiago (46km; 465m) until we reach Park Forestal. The aptly named Hostal Forestal , on Coronel Santiago Bueras 122, only has one double room left. We take it and get a 10% discount for a long term stay. It normally costs 10,000 pesos per person, which is steep, but it would have to be one of the best set ups we have ever stayed at. Super clean, great kitchen space, cosy sitting areas inside and out, good wifi connection, relaxed and friendly staff with an answer to everyone of your questions. All speak great English as well. Some reviews on Trip Advisor comment on the noise factor and sure, this is not really the best choice of accommodation, if you are looking to catch up on some shut-eye. Especially, if a group of Brazilians has booked in at the same time as you: these guys certainly know how to party and the hostal doesn't really have a noise curfew. Nevertheless; even with one sleepless night, we thoroughly enjoy our week-long stay in the highly charged vibe of the place.

Besides taking full advantage of the wifi connection and catching up on our website updates, we find little more of interest to do in Santiago than a quick wander round the town centre window shopping and a couple of visits to various art museums. The way too stressful bike journey out to the Patagonia store at Mall Portal La Dehesa [Avenida La Dehesa 1445 Local 2074, Lo Barnechea] was not really worth the hassle - the shop was miniscule and not at all well stocked; but we did get to see the Mall Sport [Avenida Las Condes, Las Condes, Santiago] that everyone talks about. Here, you can purchase all things sportive and camping should you need to replace something in your kit. The website has every store with tonnes of details about what products they stock.

Santiago becomes more of a meeting point for friends than anything else for us: some planned and some surprises as well. Carlos came back the very first evening; quite a lot later than we expected with his friend Karlos - no problems about getting their names muddled up. Unfortunately, the airline had lost his bike, which means an extra day in Santiago for the boys and an excuse to go out on the town in the infamous area of Barrio Bellavista. The main drag, Calle Pío Nono, which begins with posh hobnob restaurants gradually transforms into a street lined neck to neck with plastic chairs and tables decorated with nothing else but 1 litre beers. As the night wears on the beer bottles transforms into pisco flasks, so I'm kinda glad that we didn't hang around that long.

And you'll be pushed to find a seat anywhere, so be careful if there are tables and chairs available: it probably means the drink prices are astronomically expensive. As a foreigner, you'll more than likely be confronted with a bill somewhat heftier than a local would pay. Even though it's a little tacky, it definitely has a big heart to it and as far as people watching is concerned it scores a double whammy.

Didier , a French cyclist we met three times in Central Asia, unexpectedly arrives in Santiago the same day as we do. He pops over two afternoons later for a reminiscent chat. Hiro, a Japanese cyclist who we spent three days cycling with on Baja California is also in town. He spends three nights with us and it is great to see him again. Even though his English is not that good, if you take your time, there is room for plenty of communication. And besides, he is such a sweet guy. Benjamin and Natalia , a couple we met at Mavi Guesthouse in Istanbul live in Santiago and we spend a couple of fire-charged nights with them catching up on the three years in between our rendezvous. Meeting them adds a whole new dimension to our trip and our recent plans to go direct to Buenos Aires are immediately reassessed when they invite us to spend 5 days celebrating their wedding at Panguipulli in the Lake District of Chile. An offer too good to refuse and let's say by this stage Ali has forgotten all about ending the tour here in Santiago.

What's more, we meet some other wonderful people at the hostal as well and their encouraging words and enthusiasm concerning what we are doing is enough to get the sparkplugs firing again and the desire to pedal on ito new horizons ablaze. Gustavo, who is in awe of what we are doing and can't stop telling us so and neither can Richard; an amazingly well-travelled, well-versed Malaysian-Australian fellow. The truth of it is, he's full of wit and diplomacy and just a really nice guy.

Karsten , who we cycled with in Ecuador and his wife Ingrid don't answer our emails and we are beginning to think that he doesn't want to see us. Turns out that they had been elsewhere for the week and he finally rings at 8pm on our last night in town. But, there's nothing stopping Karsten when he has his mind set on celebrating something and into the wee hours of the morning we all go. The lack of sleep certainly has its toll the next day.

The world of Malbec and beyond 2009
Santiago de Chile to Barrancas (13 cycle days; 4 rest days; 986km; 8097m)

Santiago to 12 km. before Los Andes (66km; 574m)
12 km. before Los Andes to 11 km. after Rio Blanca (56km; 1205m
11 km. after Rio Blanca to 3 km. before Puente del Inca (36km; 1275m
3 km. before Puenta del Inca to Uspallata (72km; 375m)
Uspallata to Mendoza (123km; 530m)
Mendoza to Capiz (98km; 372m)
Capiz to 33 km. after Pareditas (67km; 680m)
33 km. after Pareditas to 10 km. before Carretera 144 (69km; 484m)
10 km. before Carretera 144 to Malargüe (121km; 494m)
Malargüe to Bardas Blancas (70km; 720m)
Bardas Blancas to El Zampal (86km; 366m)
El Zampal to Barrancas (62km;1022m)

Follow your nose
The ride out of Santiago is more like following your nose than considering any of the directions people have given us. One way streets always foil that. We end up on the autopista with its no cycling signs, but it is not like any cyclist in Chile really takes any notice. They are out in force. For a good part of the journey we can stick to a service lane taking us along watermelon fields and the sweet smell of blooming wattle trees.

Its hot today 45° Celcius in the sun, which amounts to about 33° in the shade and any climbing is difficult after such a long rest in Santiago and little sleep the night before. Still, its good to be on the road again and nearing our 41st country. We get another lift through the 2 kilometre Túnel Chacabuco (1065m) after a 40 minute climb to its entrance. Again fenced off paddocks and farmland make it difficult to find a spot to camp. There is one small section of land without borders 12 km. before Los Andes (66km; 574m) where we pitch quite well concealed under a large tree for the night.

Sticky streets and steep slopes
Los Andes is just 12 kilometres down the road and famous among the cycle touring world for the casas-de-ciclistas of Eric Savard. If you want to contact him to stay, he works at the Veterinaria Los Andes. We had mailed him from Santiago, but received no reply. Apparently you can just turn up at the Vetinary Clinic, but that also escaped our observation. We pass through the town with its sticky streets layered with crushed black berries and from here on in the climbing basically starts. There are a couple of drops and lots of steep slopes to slog up in the hot afternoon sun. They get especially gruelling after leaving Rio Blanco, the only town with decent shopping facilities in the 34 kilometres after Los Andes.

Today is election day in Chile and it is quite the contrast to our Bolivian experiences. Everyone seems to have taken to the road today. The last hours of our trip are not as productive as our morning efforts. Inclines are plenty as are the roadwork stops. There is also plenty of clapping and thumbs up from those stuck in the traffic queues.

We find a great campspot 11 km. after Rio Blanca (56km; 1205m) where locals normally hang out for a BBQ. When we arrive, its quite busy with families doing just that, though by the time we go to bed, the area is deserted. From the other direction it is 20 kilometres after the tunnel and at the end of an emergency truck stop, next to a good sized stream of icy cold water gushing from the mountains visible above.

Sweet switchbacks
As we expected, the steady trundle up the hill starts immediately. First rock shed up the road has a gravel path on the outside of it, allowing us to travel free of traffic. I had pulled up a Google map a few days before in Santiago of this section and seen the series of switchbacks. Their squiggly representation on internet is nothing like the real thing: it is a glorious piece of road building engineering and the guy who came up with the idea of switchbacks should be heralded a genius as far as I'm concerned. The nineteen loops, all numbered, weave us reasonably up hundreds of metres high. They make life so much easier. Not that easy though, that we are pleased to see another 7 more after negotiating the first section. The google map also failed to show this extra climb and so it comes as a complete surprise.

So do the two lengthy rock sheds with no possible route except entering them. Besides forgetting about keeping gradients to a comfortable angle, they also skimped on the shoulder. It is some pretty scary cycling getting through. Towards the end I have to walk in the first tunnel and then the second one in its entirety.

Road deteriorates close to the Chilean border but it still continues to climb all the way to Túnel Cristo Redentor (3081m). We are thankful we are not heading in the other direction, because the immigration queues are ludicrous: vehicles waiting for kilometres long to be checked for food products. Chile really needs to get their act together on this front.

By the time we reach the top 22 kilometres of pedalling up 1250 metres, it is 3 hours of cycling later and close to the same amount in rest time. Weather doesn't look good at all and the tunnel lift is the best option, not that I think my legs could have dealt with any more up today. But for those more powerful than me, it is a further 600 metres of switchback climbing to the real pass at the top of the mountain.

A piece of ordinary paper, ripped from an ordinary pad, with an ordinary hand-written word: "bicicleta" and a stamp is issued to both of us at the police booth just outside the tunnel. Whatever the reason is a complete mystery to us. A great descend follows. A bit too much wind for my liking, though heading in our general direction, sends us almost all the way to the Argentinean Immigration Post. We first meet Julian Bloomer from Ireland. Quite a long roadside chat later and the rain looks like it will bucket down on us sooner than we would like and we instantly depart: Julian slowly up against the wind, and we quite hastily below. Our campspot, 3 km. before Puente del Inca (36km; 1275m) and just out of view of Aconcagua (6962m), the highest mountain outside of the Himalayas, ends up being just a few 100 metres from the Argentinean Adouane.

Where the trucks rule the road
There are no problems crossing into Argentina. They don't even check our food, of which there is none: we have diminished all supplies especially for the occasion. But they do want that mysterious piece of paper we received yesterday. It gets a surprising amount of stamps and signatures for its size and handed back to us. A few kilometres further on and we loose it for good to the military police at a roadblock. We are still baffled as to the significance of this makeshift document.

The shoulder which I was extremely happy about, soon disappears and though not too busy, the truck and buses make it clear they aren't going to give us any room. We opt to go off on the side on several occasions. Lots of undulations with plenty of downhills and a few steep but short inclines are about the extent of the terrain today. Pink rock formations line the sawdust coloured river flashing past us at speeds we can only dream of towards the oasis township of Uspallata (72km; 375m). Poplar trees line Camping Ranquil Luncay where we stay for 15 pesos per person. Nicely set up area, but filthy bathrooms and rubbish strewn everywhere. Only consolation is the piping hot showers, which win me over every time.

Home of the Malbec
Back into the desert landscape with its searing heat today. After the series of 18 short but "pedal with all your might to get through to the other side" tunnels along this stretch the road becomes long, straight and - you guessed it - pretty boring. The truck and bus traffic is incredibly dense. We are forced to pull off to the side of the road so many times I lose count. Mostly due to inconsiderate manoeuvring on the vehicles behalf or simply no available space for traffic from both sides and us.

No shoulder means no looking around either. Total concentration goes on where you are pedalling. If you ask me what the landscape further looks like, I can't really tell you. All I remember is admiring the mountain range to the right of me with its white glacier caps in a series patchy glimpses. For the rest it is a blank. If you ask me what the outskirts of Mendoza look like, I couldn't tell you that either because I spend the total "highway into town" riding experience with my head down, focused on keeping my wheel straight on the white line in front of me. Any deviation to the left means potential crash with traffic: and there was a constant supply of that; and to the right a plunge down into the rubbled mess of a shoulder that once existed. The strong afternoon headwinds are just a small hindrance in comparison.

Mendoza (123km; 530m) is a large city situated in the Cuyo desert region with a population estimate of 1.7 million inhabitants. Better still and certainly as far as my interests take me, it's the centre of the fifth largest wine producing industry in the world. While the southwest of France is homeland to the Malbec variety, this grape receives most of its repute in Argentina and I'm hoping the horrors of today's cycling will mellow with age after a few sips of this ruby colored, fruity, velvety wine. Intensely inviting.

And I think everyone else had the same idea too, because all the hostals we call at are full, except for dorm beds and I don't do dorm beds anymore. The information booths situated around the town have detailed maps with a long list of accommodations, so armed with our knowledge, we ride around from one area to the other trying to find something suitable. Most hostals cost between 40 and 50 per person for a dorm room with shared bathroom and only a couple have something available. In the end we ask at Hotel Nueso Castillo and for 140 pesos we get a private room with air-conditioning (quite needed in this heat struck region), tv, breakfast and a very bad wifi connection, which of course we didn't know about before. But wifi or not, its not a bad deal and besides that Malbec is a beckoning.

As well as the obvious winery tours, there is plenty to take in in Mendoza. The Museo Municipal de Arte Moderno [Modern Art Museum] just off Plaza Independencia and on the corner of Gutiérrez and Avenida Mitre is free to enter and excellently set up with several exhibitions. The Mercado Central on General Paz 262 is disappointingly miniscule, but the shop selling nougat, snackbars and alfajores (layered biscuits filled with mousse, manjar or anything sweet and covered in chocolate) is deliciously sweet and cheap. There is a general market area on and around the streets here and you can get just about anything and everything you ever needed. Camping-fishing stores are abundant on Av. Las Heras too. We pay a visit to El Puma where the owner speaks great English.

Only advice is, don't leave your shopping until the mid afternoon. Argentineans practice Siesta with vigilant fervour and only large chain stores and a few pharmacies remain open. During this daily custom, it's time to high-tail it to Paseo Sarmiento jutting off from Plaza Independencia where you either go to be seen or go to watch others going there to be seen. Pricey restaurants, compared to the no-frills gem of a place we found: Automovil Club Argentino on San Martin 793 which has cut-price meals and nightly sets: a large pizza and 1 litre of beer is just 25 pesos and if you're not starving, perfect for two. The temptation of the pool and billiards hall across the road has us ambling a few steps after dinner for a game or two in a beautiful old building with a downstairs dungeon full of men gambling on cards and dominoes.

Gums and Vines - a perfect route
I plead with Ali to find another route out of town as I am dreading the thought of going back onto Avenida Gobernado Ricardo Videla known also as Ruta 40. And he comes up with one of the best strategies since the invention of bread : there's a smaller road running almost alongside the main passageway out of town and even more perfect it is simply the southern continuation of Avenido San Martin and very close to where we are staying. Getting out is painless with just a slight deviation to a straight course when you reach a weird looking roundabout where you have to turn sort of leftish-/straight into Pueyrredon. This turns into Peltier and then into del Valle. A right turn into Cervantes will have you back on San Martin in no time. Keep following until you see the sign posts for Tunuyan. Altogether its 38 kilometres and so much more pleasant than the main drag.

What makes this path even more special is the ciclovia [bike lane] that appears after the bridge outside Lujon de Cuys after 20 kilometres or so. You'll pass the famous Norton winery and end after 17 kilometres at Chandon winery on a beautiful stretch of road lined with gums and vines. Just like being in Australian wine territory. And like in Oz, those big eucalyptus trees are a blessing when it comes time to stop for a rest. Plenty of shade from the blistering sun. And if you feel like a bit of a break, there;s plenty of wine and food to be sampled in the wineries along the way. Couldn't be a more perfect route.

We connect with Ruta 40: the well travelled cyclist's path leading to the very most southern point and the notoriously windy gravel route along the Carretera Austral. The first section is a delight with its wide shoulder, but just as I am thinking how wonderful it is to ride free of the thought of traffic wiping you from consciousness, it ends. It comes back to please me every now and again along the rest of the journey and luckily, traffic is is spits and spats. The further south we go the quieter it becomes. Tunuyán after 81 kilometres is the biggest town we see along the way, but everything is closed due to our arrival being smack bang in the middle of siesta. There are two campsites on offer: one a few kilometres before the town, which doesn't look like much from the road and another just as you enter Tunuyán. They want 20 pesos per person, which we find a little steep for the facilities and setting and decide to move on.

The road becomes absolutely perfect for cycling and the long lines of poplar trees, sunflower fields, bulrushes and pampas grass make a wonderful change from the void we had earlier on the highway. Our map suggests that San Carlos is a lot closer than the 14 kilometre marker, so we decide to take the turnoff down a dirt road to Camping Terrazas de Capiz (98km; 372m). Great set up and nice atmosphere, but really poor facilities for the 25 pesos per head charge.

Should have known better
It is a fairly late start pedalling down the blissfully wide shoulder with almond trees, pear groves; willows and birches shading us from the intense morning sun. San Carlos is actually off the main road and we take a punt on there being shopping facilities in Pareditas after 28 kilometres.

They have a fabulous little supermarket on a road running parallel to the highway and I stock up for a couple of days. We've decided to stick to the Ruta 40 and head off down a dirt road that actually looks very reasonable at the start. But by now, we really should have known better. As we progress, the road disintegrates badly. Wind and cars fling plenty of dust in our faces. Adding to the intensity of "slog biking" on sand and washboard throughout the 33 kilometres after Pareditas, we also go up an odd 500 alti-metres as well. Toughness is nowhere near as bad as in Bolivia, but we hadn't counted on being slowed down so much. Mileage today is consequently not as high as we would have liked. The first river we spy is a true godsend. Not only do we need more water for drinking, but Arroyo Papagayo (67km; 680m) has a perfect pool to bathe in as well. A wonderful treat after a hot and dusty ride. A little tip should you camp here too: 150 metres up the road is a small stream of less silty water to filter for drinking.

Ali's front rack and my backside are broken
We are up at 5.30am eager to beat the usual early afternoon blusters and get some headway on the bad condition terrain. The initial 18 kilometres includes ascending 227 metres and while the next 13 kilometres is basically down for the best part of the way to Agua del Toro, the road is not at all accommodating. At least not until a small patch of bitumen near the lake where we stock up on water for the rest of the day. In hot, dry places like these where water sources are few and far between and road conditions slow us down enormously, we carry between 10 and 12 litres at a time. This will get us through approximately 36 hours. After a tunnel follows a decent climb out and up from the massive expanse of water harbouring one of Argentina's many hydroelectric plants.

We try so hard to make the highway today, which would mean we would still have 120 kilometres of bitumen pedalling tomorrow to reach Malargüe, but the sand, washboard, rocks and continual undulations make it an almost impossible feat. The thin grey line marking the smoother ride is vague in the distance when Ali gets a flat tyre. I have already had one today and when taking his wheel off we notice that the day's vibrations have snapped the bolt off holding his front rack in place. Certainly won't be reaching our preferred destination tonight. Besides, the vibrations have had their toll with my backside as well. Each bump is agonising painful and I need to rest.

The squall brewing ahead, as we repair the bike, also plays a major part in our decision to dive roadside 10 km. before Carretera 144 (69km; 484m). The storm has been following us for a while, but well to our west. It then retreated backwards but is now looking like making a beeline for our position. We opt for the best and only piece of ground we can find. Everything is fenced off here, so we are virtually on the road. Spectacular as the streaks of lightning and booms of thunder are, they are practically on top of us. Ali's makeshift garage repair shop at the front of the tent is closed for the day and we sit it out. Dinner is consequently late. Quite warm and snug inside, we unwind as the action takes place outside.

A perfect campsite to rest up
Only one hour and 10 kilometres of washboard to contend with this morning before our wheels find themselves rotating with a little less resistance. One hour later however, and we have only done another 10 kilometres due to the climbing involved. Luckily the undulations mellow out somewhat, otherwise the 120 odd kilometres into Malargüe may not have been obtainable.

The snow capped mountains to our right remain until the roads bends to the south west. Past oil fields with drills bobbin up and down and straight roads with slight inclines. Hot sun and perpetual pedalling, and El Sosneado just never seems to come. When it finally does, it is little more than a minimarket; a bus stop area; a hospital and a school, where we stop to filter water for the last leg of the journey. Today we have already consumed six litres on the road and we still have 50 kilometres left to do. That's a daunting thought, but seeing as the road declines slightly or remains flat for much of the way, when my iPod finally stops giving me music, I'm not so perturbed about the rest of the journey. The tailwind blowing us in the direction we want to go also adds to the ease of cycling into Malargüe (121km; 494m). The municipal campground is easy to find and its a great arrangement for just 10 pesos per tent. You really can't complain about paying less than 2 euros for two persons including hot water, electricity, wifi (though it wasn't working too well when we were there), and a lovely setting.

Put another cow on the barbie!
The best part about travelling in Argentina is the widespread camping culture. Not only families young and old, but plenty of youth too. The atmosphere in all the campgrounds we visit is trust-worthy, safe and friendly. People sometimes come just for the day to picnic by a river or lake and others for a week-long stay. There are private campsites which charge quite hefty prices and municipal grounds which are usually cheaper. The best spots in the middle of nature are often free, but then they lack facilities. Still, the point is you feel extremely secure in spending a night in your tent virtually anywhere in Argentina.

With such an outdoor culture, it means that camping stores are prevalent too. You can find plenty of kit here.

One thing you will have to get used to is the Argentinean daily routine. Generally, they are not early risers. From 1pm to 5pm is Siesta and there is little chance of achieving much during this portion of the day. They just start to think about dinner between 10 and 11 pm at night, right when we are contemplating going to, or already are, in bed. And then out comes the cow and it's thrown on the barbie. They love their meat in this country. They also love their wine and the campground will echo with sound of popping corks.

Sand beneath the wheels and between my teeth
Putting food in the bags is hard this morning. We have five days worth of supplies: 3 fresh and 2 dry as there is uncertainty regarding the terrain and the facilities along the way. Furthermore, crossing into Chile will mean a thorough search of the bags resulting in no fresh produce being allowed in. Our bicycles are lead weights as we cycle through the main street and stop to do our last bit of internetting for several days and buy Ali a new water bottle for his cage, his Propel isotonic drink bottle that we bought in the USA on 14-10-08 for US$1.79 including fizzy drink, finally got a hole in the bottom. That's a little more than one year, one month and one week of constant use. Mine is still going strong. See monthly tip on previous page for more information.

A curious onlooker at the campsite had told us the territory will be tough and he wasn't wrong. There's plenty of pedalling uphill to the top climb (1993m) at the 43 kilometre mark of the day. By this stage we have traversed 645 alti-metres. The next 22 kilometre stretch is on dirt. Though the condition isn't too bad: only slightly washboard and intermittently sandy, its hard going with a very fully loaded bike and especially when the wind decides to pick up and whip at our bodies. We also experienced the zondra wind at the campsite. Dry, warm and often dusty, this forceful movement of air starts predominantly in the afternoon hours and can return for 2-3 days running. It comes from the northeast and flows over the Andes. The road returns to bitumen about 5 kilometres before Bardas Blancas (70km; 720m), which is a nothing little village. We camp below the bridge where others before us have obviously spent the night.

Praying to the asphalt gods and receiving flies that bite like horses
Following the Rio Grande, which is not called "grande" for nothing, is a leisurely cycle. Its a cool morning and there are quite a number of suitable wild camping spots along the way, though much of the land is still fenced off. Water is abundant for the first half of the day. The paved road continues until the next bridge crossing over the Rio Grande, 58 kilometres into our trip. It is hard to believe that such a mighty expanse of water can course its way through such a narrow gorge. It must be mighty deep down there.

From here on in the bitumen disappears. Only remnants remain of the former road surface and while it is possible to navigate the bike along the good patches for 60% of the way the rest is extremely rocky. There is also a considerable amount of traffic, which adds quite a bit of dust to the journey as well. Not helping that situation is the wind. It is an undulating ride with the accent on going down and by the time the early side winds have turned into headwinds in the mid afternoon, I'm praying to the asphalt gods for a bit of reprieve.

Washboard roads reflect in the sky with cloud forms of corrugated waves. Though they do look much softer than what I'm feeling beneath my wheel. Our aim is to hit the river crossing at El Zampal (86km; 366m) today and when we see the bridge a few hundred metres in the distance we turn off down a sand track towards the river's edge. Its a great spot except for the plague of horse flies that get Ali moving quite strangely. The way he slaps his body parts while stomping about, you could quite easily mistake his frustration for a new form of Argentinean jig.

MInd you these horse flies are determined little buggers, they even follow you on your bike. Luckily enough they are slow and you can kill them quite easily. It doesn't however stop the mosquito welt crossed with a sand-fly itch that follows from their bite. And just for once in my life, a nasty insect likes someone else more than me. I think my prays somehow got a little muddled up during the transmission.

The bitumen is back and it really makes me happy: hey la hey la....
Horse flies are grazing in greener pastures this morning, but the sand flies take over attack position. At least you can use repellent against them. Unfortunately, there is no repellent for unpaved roads. The next 21 kilometres have some impressive red and pink rock dotted with pompom shrubs, but its hard going again with 529 metres of ascent. At road marker 2777 (kilometres still left to reach Cabo Virgenes and the end of the Ruta 40), Ali's hand goes up in triumph. I secretly hope it means we are going down as well as the return of a solid surface.

Just having the bitumen back makes me happy enough. At least traversing the further 111 alti-metres over 5 kilometres is much easier. A refreshing drop down into Ranquil Norte follows with another 151 metre climb. The massive wind down to Rio Barrancas is nothing short of spectacular as Volcán Tromen (4114m) sits majestically in our path. A six kilometre clammer in the hot afternoon sun is about my limit for the day and when we arrive at the municipal campground at Barrancas (62km;1022m) with no toilet and no water tap, I'm just satisfied enough with the flat patch of grass under the shade of a tree to pitch the tent.

Three and a half years on the road
Our night in Barrancas marked three and half years on the road and time to send off our 6 monthly newsletter. Life on the road in South America has taken precedence to all the web-based activities we normally do. Updates have been constantly late, like this one is, as we have found ourselves more and more pushed for time. Not only have we faced some of the most challenging planning and cycling so far in our trip, but we have met so many other cycle tourers and made an abundance of new friends. Our time priorities changed somewhat. So enough said, because I really think newsletter #10 declares it all...

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