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On the road . February 2010 . Argentina and Chile

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Camping Los Coihues [website] Bariloche, Argentina, 04-03-10
Get me to the wedding on time!

Barrancas to Panguipulli (9 cycle days; 1 rest day; 600km; 6938m)

Barrancas to 22 km. after Buta Ranquil (60km; 673m)
22 km. after Buta Ranquil to Chos Malal (66km; 859m)
Chos Malal to 23 km. after Chorriaca (95km; 1087m)
23 km. after Chorriaca to Las Lajas (64km; 513m)
Las Lajas to 500 m. before Argentinian border (55km; 1080m)
500 m. before Argentinian border to 19 km. after Liucura - Chile (48km; 723m)
19 km. after Liucura to 9 km. after Melipeuco (63km; 558m)
9 km. after Melipeuco to Villarrica (88km; 664m)
Villarrica to Chauquen - Panguipulli (62km 781m)

Better off wild
Last night, we disagreed on a few too many points and the sour mood is brought over into the new day. Our departure is somewhat delayed, but once we are out pedalling the undulating road to Buta Ranquil, all is forgotten and forgiven. The camping municipal is difficult to find and hardly worth the trouble. It's more like a dumping ground for the roadwork department and pedestrian course, from one side of the town to the other, for locals. We sit and have lunch and decide after an hour and a half, we'll move on. The highway continues its ups and downs through a contrast of barren brown, pink and red rock. Road conditions are excellent though there is no shoulder, but with little traffic to contend with, we hardly notice. Even the light breeze in our face cools the sun-rayed path and is better than no breeze at all.

After Buta ranquil, we climb a further 261alti-metres, to the highest point of the day [1349m]. A two kilometre drop sets us next to the only trees and green pastures we have seen for miles. Its a perfect campsite and so much more appealing than the municipal area in town: on the right hand side and 22 km. after Buta Ranquil (60km; 673m).

Don't blow for me Argentina
Don't blow for me Argentina, unless you do it in my direction;
and during sunlight hours. For what you do at night;
I'll keep my promise, and keep my distance.
Don't blow for me Argentina...

It's a rise and fall sort of day with a couple of long hard ascents directly into the Argentinean wind. While pushing hard on the middle blade in the middle of my cassette all the while going downhill, I'm almost certain that someone with a grudge against cyclists has a giant propeller fan in Ushuaia. Every day around lunch-time they go and switch the damn thing on, rubbing their hands with glee; chuckling to themselves at the desperation they are causing all the two-wheeled non-motorised travellers.

Landscape is of the desert, though plenty of streams for water along the way. From the Rincon turn off, after the initial 17 kilometres, its a struggle up the 9 kilometre and 406 alti-metre path. After a further 8 kilometres, another 2 kilometre and 134 metre high thigh cruncher takes us from the Corta Dimas turn off all the way to the top climb [1668m] of the day. Twenty kilometres of undulations then pass before we plummet towards the river and the township of Chos Malal (66km; 859m), which sounds more like an Indian dinner than a place to spend the night.

The municipal campground is pretty okay, though we are noticing the rise in price as we head south: 30 peso's in total [10 per person and 10 for the tent compared to a single 10 pesos for the tent in Malargüe]. It is here that we meet Pieter and his wife from The Netherlands, who are travelling around Argentina in a small campervan. Once we get talking, we discover that they sailed around the world for twenty years, which they had to give up a few years back due to health reasons. And if you think that is impressive, wait until I tell you that they are now close to their eighties. Very inspirational indeed.

What comes first: the full or empty bottle of beer?
What isn't so moving is the deposit system on beer bottles in Chile and Argentina. Don't get me wrong, I'm all for a deposit system, but there has to be uniform scheme: one that everyone adheres to.

Firstly, in order to buy most 1 litre bottles - a few are non-returnable, but they are 50% more expensive - you have to take an empty one with you to exchange for a new one. But how, pray tell, do you get an empty beer bottle without first buying a full one? The supermarket we shop at refuses point-blank to sell us two litres of beer on this principal and it's not the only time we have faced this problem. It is so ludicrously stupid and the lack of sale or illogical process apparently doesn't seem to bother them one bit. Now if it were Colombia...

My big question is: what if you were having a party and wanted to buy a few crates of beer? Do they tell you, you have to bring in hundreds of empties in first? Are they absolutely mad?

Secondly, other small stores or botillerias [liquor stores] insist you bring back the receipt they have given you, usually marked with how much deposit you originally paid. You can't take the bottle elsewhere. If you do, they won't give you any money for them. You must go back to the same store, which becomes an issue when you rock up there the next morning on your way out of town and find that the shop is shut, even though it states clearly on the door that they should be open. Easy way to earn a few dollars I reckon and you know, in the end, its cheaper an much more hassle-free to drink wine!

Praying to the wind gods
I seem to be doing quite a lot of this lately: praying to some deity or another. And today is not short of pleas to drop the intensity of the squall we find ourselves in. It's crazy that I am doing this. No-one is listening for goodness sake. And yet I insist and somehow it makes me feel better. Maybe it is helping me waste time. Another thought to fill in a few extra minutes. Bring the end of the cycling day a little closer. Just another form of coping I guess: using a make-believe force against the real force trying to send me in every direction except the one I want to go in. Yes I admit, I do love dreaming about the nigh possibility that all will return to calm.

Pushed nicely along the river for the first few kilometres, but crossing the water expanse is another story. Stormed from the side means I have to get off and walk. Tailwind gets behind us again as soon as the road bends and we begin the first 27 kilometre climb of the day. Nearly 500 metres of uphill and it has never seemed so easy. The drop down the other side to Rio Pichi Neuquén brings a change of direction and the sidewind is pretty strong, but nowhere near as nasty as the winds we face in the last half of the day. Another 25 kilometre ascent of 500 odd alti-metres follows and Ali is pointing at roughly two o'clock as he strains against the air current. I am thrown off the road several times and near the top at Chorriaca [1258m]. I walk for approximately 1 kilometre after being stopped dead in my tracks too many times. Even walking is strenuous against the storm. At one stage I put my Ipod away: I can't hear a thing above the hiss of wind.

On the downhill run we meet Michel, a Belgium cyclist going in the opposite direction. As he dismounts, he shakes his head and says: "terrible, terrible, terrible!" Doesn't really matter which way you are travelling at the moment, the wind is coming from the side and sweeping its power across the desolate plains. We plough on for another hour and a bit before pitching the tent behind the only windbreaks we can find, 23 km. after Chorriaca (95km; 1087m). They are hardly effective, but absolutely better than nothing.

Where the wild wind blows
Last night the wind died at 9pm. Just stopped. All of a sudden. As if the day had not seen any turmoil. As if it had been blissfully still in its entirety. If someone had been beamed in and you told them that you'd been wind raged all day long, they would think you were pulling their leg.

This morning remains peculiarly tranquil and we manage to get an abnormal 40 kilometres in before lunchtime when the bluster blows up again. At about this point in the day, we meet Steve, a British guy determined to keep himself on a route other than what most people travel. He is a joyful chap, with a recent bad fall behind him. He is mended and so is his bike, in a rather makeshift sort of way. Nonetheless, and in his own words "it works!"

It is not far to Las Lajas (64km; 513m): only 25 kilometres or so, but driving a path through the wind stream is time costly. We arrive at 3pm at another one of the best municipal camping set-ups in Argentina. The toilet block is obviously the result of the council having a wad a money left over and pouring it all into building modern shower and toilet facilities. The are truly unbelievable for a campground. Wooden cable drums as tables and tree stumps and chairs are spread out on a grassy field overlooking the river. Wind is still gale force as I try to sew a new zip into the inner tent opening. The bane of my camping existence: that particular zipper!

Rudi cycles in, he was counting on doing more than the fifty kilometres from Zapala today, but saw us and thought he'd stop for a chat. It ends up being a nattery long evening: sharing food, wine and stories of being on the road and Rudi's incredible past in East Germany before the wall fell. Meeting people like him is always a heartwarming experience.

We spend another day in Las Lajas.

Wishing I could really shoot the breeze
I have always wanted to come to Patagonia, but now that I am here, I can see no reason, 'cos there are no reasons... to want to stay. I am wishing as hard as the wind is howling to be in another place. It is not for nothing that signposts have the regionally synonymous Araucaria trees (monkey puzzle trees) with their branches outstretched and windswept. This is exactly how it is here: a constant battle with wind and sand. Blown spread eagle into the gravel; blown to places you don't want to got; blown out of control on your bike, is scary stuff, but having the constant drone of wind whipping past your ears is mentally unnerving. Whaaaaroooossshk - barhhhhhhhh - barrrrrrrrrr - wheeeeeeeeh - hooohhhh - whooosssshhhh - quirrrr - eeeeeh - quuoorrh - worrrrrrrh - queeeeeeeeeshoooooooh - wheeeeeehhhhhh! I just want some peace and quiet. I just want to shoot the breeze. I wanna shoo-oo-oo-oo-oo-oot, the whole breeze down, down, down...Shoot it all down!

The landscape becomes instantaneously green and we find out why in the later stages of the afternoon. The rain moves in and turns a deliciously warm day into a very cool and wet one. Adding more green to the scene are flocks of very noisy austral conue parrots that live exclusively on the nuts of the Araucarian tree. And there are plenty of them in this region.

Argentinean officials have their border-office at roughly 55 kilometres after Las Lajas and we camp 500 m. before the border (55km; 1080m) under a billboard and behind a pile of roadwork rubble which acts as a bit of a wind break.

The rains continues all night long.

Bad and mean and mighty unfair
And the rain continues all morning.

We don't actually get to pack our bikes until 10.30am. Border control takes half an hour and an official informs us that the pass is 22 kilometres away. He obviously doesn't know the area very well. The start of 7 kilometre and 391 alti-metres of uphill slog offers a few wonderful camping opportunities. Our journey is incredibly difficult against head-butting winds. Ali takes up circle dancing which is highly entertaining from my viewpoint, but not very comforting knowing that I am lighter than he is. I probably walk a third of the path, especially with the bad rocky terrain. It is too hard keeping the bike upright and riding it at the same time.

Upon nearing Paso Pino Hachado [1863m], the weather turns mean. The whipping wind is laced with icy rain, and it is at roughly this point in the trip where I think I die. Not before a quick and final plea to both the wind and rain gods simultaneously. I seem to come back to life when I reach the top and amid Ali and I trying to see which one of us can stuff the most jammy-dodgers in our mouths as possible. The sky throwing frozen stones is also due cause to be snapped back into reality. They hurt.

We wait for the clouds and onslaught to clear a bit before starting on the downhill run. The wind is still a struggle, but bitumen and descent is way more tolerable. We bleat with glee and a herd of goats in the region now thinks there is a rare breed of their own kind that gets around on two wheels. Liucura and the border post with Chile is 22 kilometres from the top.

Again, there is another food fiasco at the border. I give them the fresh stuff I have, but an official spies the fried onions and garlic I purposefully cooked up this morning to add to our veggie-less dinner tonight. "They are not allowed", he says. "Why?", I reply. No answer. "And what's that?" as he points to my sun-dried tomatoes in the same bag. "No, not my sun-dried tomatoes. That's unfair". I protest. "They are not allowed in either" he says. I'm still crying about them.

Basically - and I made the guy give me the regulations relating to this law - you can't bring any fresh food in at all. He even inspects our oats, but seeing as they came from official packaging, they pass. Had they been in a polythene bag from a local market, our breakfast may have been ousted with our other food. Anyway, the process takes far too long with a computer illiterate man filling in weight and product details on his desktop. Another is tearing my tomatoes in half and sniffing them. He doesn't have a clue what they were, so obviously not the culinary connoisseur type. Next, we have the formal signing of documents, where I and a different man put signatures on two duplicate papers: the "discovered" and the "destroyed".

I leave with the rather sarcastic: "Don't you boys start eating my tomatoes when I turn my back now". One of them laughs.

We start on a rather surprisingly, good dirt road and things are looking up for the first few kilometres But it is short lived and the path worsens dramatically. Steep and either rocky or full of gravel. I'm astounded to see that local buses actually make it up some of the gradients. Rain threatens and we call it a day before we have completed 20 kilometres past the border post. Much of the land is fenced off, but we find an opening 19 km. after Liucura - Chile (48km; 723m).

A breath of fresh air
The wind leaves us today, which ironically adds a breath of fresh air to the journey, but we soon find ourselves gasping for the stuff on the dirt-washboard undulations with very steep gradients. Some as difficult as 15% in parts. That said, the scenery is gorgeously lush and tranquil. Had we not been rushing to get to the wedding on time, I would have convinced Ali to venture down a side road, quite early in the day and pitch at one of the great pine forest campsites on Lake Icalma. But we have only done 11 kilometres by this stage and the going looks to be tough work. So, after stocking up on a few of grandma's goodies at a small mini-market opposite another Chilean border post, we embrace the journey.

Chileans drive differently to Argentineans. They are fast and furious, take risks on blind corners and hills and they come really close to us, which is a little scary when you are pedalling uphill on a stony track. From Icalma there's a bit of down, but a whole lot of up. In 12 kilometres, we traverse 319 alti-metres before reaching our highest point of the day [1281m]. The nose dive into the valley below that follows is a cautious one: the road is not at all in good condition. Plenty of snow capped mountains in view with pine forests and wild flowers. It is a shock of green after the barren landscape of Argentina, which is only a mountain peak away.

I had hoped that as we moved further into Chile, the roads might improve. Ali at least, believed they would, since the road depicted on his map became slightly wider. At this insightful comment, I couldn't resist asking him if the pebbles looked smaller on his map as well. The path continues in the same vein and just before Melipueco it becomes even rockier: a little wake-up bounce before reaching the glorious tarmac in the town itself. There are supermercados, internet cafes and hospedajes lining this village. We make use of all but the accommodation side of things.

Riding out we notice we are pedalling along a carefully signposted evacuation route. Mind you, I'm not quite sure which other road people are going to use: there is none. Volcán Lliama's snow bonneted crest is glistening for a few minutes in the sun and then it is completely gone. If I hadn't glimpsed the first sight of this active volcano, I wouldn't have known it was there.

Tonight, we sleep in a pine plantation. While we hardly ever enter fenced off property, we have little choice in this region. Nothing else is available. The spot is accessed via a stream crossing, 9 km. after Melipeuco (63km; 558m), where the barbed wire has been cut through. It is the perfect campground.

One good deed deserves another. Surely?
A damp, cold beginning to the day as we pedal away from our hideaway in the forest. Cunco is 23 kilometres up the road and the best place to obtain a few snacks for the days journey. About 2½ kilometres from the edge of town, Ali pulls into a bus stop to refuel on some of our recent purchases.

An itsy bitsy, very wet kitten approaches him and when it comes to cats, there isn't anyone on this planet that loves them more than he. Natural reaction is to stroke the cute little mee-ow-ing creature. Ali removes his hand and realises the cat is covered in lamp oil. No wonder the poor thing is shivering: it is very cold and there is no way it can get dry with that stuff clogging its fur. Worse still, she is trying to lick herself clean. I figure I might be able to wash her, but the kitten is not at all happy about my decision and after a rather useless attempt with soap and water, we decide to take her to a vet.

Wrapped in our tea-towel and stuffed inside Ali's gortex jacket we cycle back into town. The cat actually likes the snug and warm journey, her little head poking out of the zipper opening. The first veterinaria is only a pet shop, but the owner points us in the right direction. The vet does a thorough check and gives the cat some antibiotics as well as clean her up. It cost us 4000 pesos and judging from the screeches I heard outside, she was not impressed with our efforts to help her out. There is one cage in the veterinary clinic, which gives you an idea how big and well equipped the place is. It is currently occupied by a dog and I don't think either parties would be happy about sharing accommodation quarters. So, although Ali is not at all happy about it, our only option is to take her back to where we found her.

I find a cardboard box and scrounge a bit of cat chow off the vet, who also gives us an old windcheater to wrap the kitten in, and off we pedal. Of course the journey out is not as straightforward as the one in. The cat is not stupid. Since the first trip resulted in an injection and a shower, it therefore summizes that this one too, will lead to horrible circumstances. People stop and stare in bewilderment: at first thinking we are right proper nutters on bikes making distress cat cries as we ride though town. Ali has to stop several times to prise cat claws out of his chest.

Back at the bus stop, we set a nest up with food and water close at hand. Seeing as its time to eat lunch, we stay for an hour or so and keep rubbing her dry. The way she drops her head every now and again and shakes uncontrollably is so sad. It must be the poisoning from the lamp oil. We feel really helpless and she looks really sick for a while that we wonder if she will make it. But after about 50 minutes, she pops her head up, tries to walk out of the box, gives a refreshing little meow and starts purring. It was like a little thank you. This makes Ali feel much better about leaving her here. We give her a few more cuddles and prepare to go.

So far, I have restrained myself from commenting on what sort of SOB would even consider, let alone attempt to do this to an animal. I would like to find him (I'm assuming here, sorry!) and subject him to as much suffering as that poor kitten. I only hope the people who live behind the bus stop and who we spoke to, will have enough curiosity to look there and fall in love with her cute face. Though South Americans, in general are not really into cats, just white poodles that they like to dress up in silly outfits. Our other only solace is that the sun came out the next day and then shines for a week. Hope our little friend does okay.

We hit the road again around 1pm and are surprised when a bitumen path leads us all the way to Los Laureles: 21 kilometres up the road from Cunco. It is basically a flat ride. After approximately 3 kilometres and traversing a small hill, we turn right onto dirt and start climbing immediately. While the mud is hardened, it is still rocky in parts and reasonably steep. The rain that follows is not at all helpful. Neither is the traffic for that matter and many Chilean drivers are downright arseholes on the next 30 kilometres of "slowly turning into slops" path. The undulations take us, or should I say me, forever and it is really due cause to throw a party when we finally hit the bitumen again. pity I'm too tired to party and besides there is still a small climb before the free-fall fun into Villarrica (88km; 664m).

We pull into the first campground which is about 2 kilometres before the town. The spots are nice enough and overlooking Lago Villarrica and the magnificent volcano of the same name. The shower and toilet facilities are not at all magnificent and the promise of hot water never eventuates. For 8000 pesos it is a total rip-off.

Where the wild fuscias grow
Neither of us want to get out of bed today, so it is a late start. As we are unsure of the shopping facilities in Panguipulli, we buy a few things at the supermarket in town and by the time we are pedalling away, it is 11am. Stunning views of Volcàn Villarrica are interrupted by concentrated efforts caused by an unusually large amount of traffic on the highway. There is an initial climb up and out of the valley and then we proceed down a dirt road short-cut. The presumed 5 kilometres of bumps and shakes turns into 18 and over the first 12 kilometres we actually climb 259 alti-metres as well. The lake views are impressive and we also glimpse Volcàn Lanin in the distance, which makes all the hard work worthwhile. The sun is also radiating a happy feel and a total contrast to yesterday.

From the bitumen it is an easy 17 kilometres into Panguipulli. Well easy enough that is, if your husband doesn't come zooming up behind, not see you pedalling along at a normal speed and smack into the back of your bike; almost toppling you, and causing a few grazes and a crash on the bitumen for himself. His excuse: he was looking at the car on the side of the road and the guy lying underneath it fixing something. Good excuse!

In town we stock up for five days including a few festive drinks, which has our bikes totally loaded to the hilt. Next, we stop to ring Benjamin and Natalia to tell them we are here. There's no reply, so they obviously aren't here yet, which proves a bit of a problem with our bikes weighing in close to a small cow. There is no other choice than to start the long climb out of town and head to the campground ourselves. On the way up, concentrating on pushing my monster up the incline, a car sidles up and starts travelling very slowly. Its Natalia, Benjamin and Carlos, his Dad. They meet us a bit further up the road and take most of the shopping, so we can cycle at normal pace and continue on to Chauquen - Panguipulli (62km 781m).

It is a splendid ride along the perfect depiction of country roads with green pastures and wildflowers to either side of us: wild fuscias; lily of the Incas or amancays; bright orange and pink añañuca daisies clinging to trees and bushes and an abundance of blue chichory and hydrangea blossoms. Lake Panguipulli is even more beautiful and the Garcia family welcome us ever so warmly. A perfect wind-down: being in such beautiful surroundings after a 27 day journey from Santiago to here. And more importantly, we have made it to the wedding on time.

I gotta a feelin', tonight's gonna be a good night...
Weddings are great fun. And Benja and Natalia's is no exception. Besides the beautiful setting by Panguipulli Lake, unbeatably brilliant weather, their friends sure know how to party. One who earned himself "party-animal" status within minutes was Diego, who also took a shine to Aaldrik. He nicknamed him Dr House with his sunglasses off and Anthony Bourdain with them off. The deep-curdling cry of "Houuuuse" through the crowd could be heard all day long and when Natalia threw her bouquet who was there to receive it? Yes, you guessed it: Diego. Not once or twice, but three times. He had to be restrained from receiving the fourth throw.

The cause of his frolicky nature was the booze of course, which flowed continually. From champagne and boutique beers to start, onto delicious red and white wines, succeeded by a spirits selection to choose from in the evening. Everyone certainly had their fill. "Eat, drink and be merry" must also be a proverb in Chilean culture too.

I was very merry too; right up until the point when we had to leave. Walking back over the field to the car in the dark, I fell in a muddy ditch. I was then cold and miserable, but grateful that my camera hadn't come in the water with me. The next day I learned I was not the only one with stunt tenancies.

Anyway, to view the merriment take a look at the wedding photos online.

Amidst memories of designer sunglasses, expensive lotions, speedboats, bbq culture, late-night parties, sun-lazy days and the appropriate, but "played to death" song: I gotta feelin', that tonight's gonna be a good night, we made plenty of new friends with big warm hearts and whether they like it or not, everyone we met at Panguipulli has become part of one of our fondest tour reminiscences.

From wild, wet and wretched to welcoming watersides and winding up being wery wobbly.
Chauquen (Panguipulli) to Bariloche (5 cycle days; 2 rest days; 328km; 4768m)

Chauquen (Panguipulli) to Puerto Fuy 67km; 1292m
Puerto Fuy - Chile to San Martin de los Andes - Argentina 54km; 941m
San Martin de los Andes to Lago Falkner 50km; 814m
Lago Falkner to Villa La Angostura 58km; 876m
Villa La Angostura to Villa Los Coihues - Bariloche 97km; 845m

And the rain came tumbling down
The day we decide to move on, the rain comes tumbling down and it doesn't stop either. The campsite owner had warned us the night before that bad weather was on its way and he wasn't wrong. Dressed in our cycling gear we eat breakfast under our shelter, dodging the drips. By 11am, I retreat to the tent and get a bit of writing done. Two hours later and we abandon any idea of moving anywhere today. Well, except into town that is. Ali risks a break in the weather at 3pm to fetch some supplies and to do a bit of internetting. Five minutes after he leaves, it buckets down again. I am certain that even superman hadn't made it into Panguipulli by then. He returns rather cold and wet.

The sky clears in the evening and it stays dry until 4am. Spasmodic storms pass over, but we figure we can cycle between them. The climb out of Panguipulli is steep but do-able on the bitumen. After 15 kilometres and 228 alti-metres, we reach the turnoff to Puerto Fuy. The asphalt remains, but the skies darken and rain advances. Then we find ourselves shivering under a bus shelter for the best part of an hour. There's no choice but to take off in the rain.

What is dished up to us next, is just a blur of patchy bitumen interspersed between rain, dirt, mud, rocks, potholes, gravel, steep-steep inclines, more rain, more mud, more rocks, and more of all that other cycling drudgery that you are glad you don't have to face everyday. Also tainting my mood as black as the sky above, is contending with that monthly chore only women are blessed with. I tell you, if it hadn't been for the wind blowing in our favour, I would have thought I'd been sent to purgatory much sooner than I deserved.

I remember little else, except that the scenery would have been spectacular on a good weather day and void of the absurd amount of roadworks. How the Chileans build their roads is a total mystery to me. There seems to be no logic in it at all and they are certainly not worried about gradients. From the turn-off to Puerto Fuy to the turn-off to Choshuenco, where you can find a campsite, we plough through 36 kilometres of "bah" track and trudge up a whopping 597 metres. The lure of the hot chocolate sign at the café in Neltume, 4 kilometres down the path has me praising the café gods for their perfect placement of a dry and warm rest-spot.

We meet up with a German cyclist heading in the other direction, who had obviously been sitting here for a number of hours: the top half of his t-shirt and coat was completely dry. I am jealous because I am still shuddering and soaked through. I am not at all comfortable and after paying €1.80 for each of the four vending machine hot chocolates, we hit the road again.

That this guy didn't mention the 403 alti-metre climb ahead baffles me for most of the subsequently difficult journey. After 13 kilometres, we finally whiz down into Puerto Fuy (67km; 1292m). There's no official campsite, but after a bit of enquiring, we learn we can pitch on the piece of land to the left of the pier for 3000 pesos per tent: access is only via the beach. There are no facilities and in the pouring rain of the evening, sure enough the owner drives up. He is reluctant to get out of his car, but of course, wants his money. Ali dashes out with the correct amount and then immediately refuges back in the tent with little more than a "gracias". Rain is also unsociable.

The day has been long and hard and by the time we hit the pillow, its 11pm. The Hua Hum ferry leaves at 8am.

Shake, rattle and pedal
Sleep is laboured. I'm so tired, but I don't want to fall into a deep, deep slumber and not hear the alarm at 5.30am. If we want to make our deadline with John and Linda in San Martin de los Andes today, then we have to catch the 8am ferry to Puerto Pirihueico. Ferries run three times a day in season and once a day out of season. For more information check out the Somarco website.

The morning actually looks promising as we ready ourselves for the journey. A tiny patch of blue can be seen in the distance. The 1½ hour ride is pleasant, though I spend most of my time snoozing in the inside warmth. The moment we pull into port however, the heavens open up and don't close again for hours. At 11.15am, we have to leave. Chilean border control is 6 kilometres and 90 alti-metres of the worst road yet. I didn't think it could get worse, but this is like traversing an upstream riverbed. It continues to be nightmare cycling until the Argentinean immigration, where no-one bats an eyelid about what food we have secretly stashed in our bags. Takes a short while for the stamps to enter the passports and then we are off on a much better road and heading towards sunshine. It is drizzly in patches but progresses to get better as the day wears on.

Camping Nonthue is 10 kilometres from the Chilean post and marks the beginning of some wicked climbing. Apart from one small and another substantial downhill, where we are falsely lead to believe we are home and hose, it is up all the way. And unfortunately for our now very delicate bottoms, it's a shaky and rattly pedal. Some of the switchback gradients are severe, but nothing compared to the angle of the road camber. Ali lets me know on a few occasions and always from an "s-bend" a few metres above that he is changing the website to pushing the bike around the world.

From the campsite, we cycle 21 kilometres and elevate 614 metres to the Quilanlahue turn-off. The area is gorgeous, though the state of the roads means we see little more than a tonne of rocks, matching amount of potholes and a whole load of trees. The last 18 kilometre stretch, though predominantly flat in parts, is so pebbly it really has its toll. We are both very happy to squeeze our brakes against the handlebars on the 16% drop into San Martin de los Andes - Argentina 54km; 941m.

Dinner with the Huttons
We find the street where John and Linda, a couple we have met 3 times before - twice in Turkey and once in Thailand - are staying. The numbering is confusing and we go up and down a few times before seeing someone in typical backpacker attire: zip off trousers, sandals and mac running down the street after us. It is of course John. Who else would be running like mad after a couple of lost loaded cyclists? It's great to see a familiar face and his hasn't changed a bit in the last two years.

We opt to stay at the campground, though the place is rather dank and dreary after all the rain the region has received in the last four days. It doesn't have tables and chairs of any suitable order either, but it is easier for us to carry out repairs when everything is out in the open. And the weather promises to be good for a change. We arrange to meet at La Colorada Hostel for dinner and when we arrive, Linda has prepared a delicious vegetable stew with rice. Dinner finishes with fruit salad, chopped biscuits, chocolate scrapings and yoghurt. The dessert proves to be such a success, that we have it for three nights running. I believe it is a staple treat of the Huttons.

San Martin de Los Andes is a big, fat tourist town, as are many of the places around this region in both Chile and Argentina. While not really a spot where we would sit for a few days, it is on the contrary lovely to relax with the Huttons and chat about travelling adventures to date. Seeing people time and time again on indefinite or lengthy travels is a good way for us all to touch base and grab at a little bit of constant in our transient lifestyle. John and Linda have been on the road for seven years now and they still love it. Just wandering around our planet seeing all the interesting (and not so interesting) places it has on offer. So, naturally we have lots of information to compare and trade and of course laugh about. It was sheer pleasure having a good ol' yarn over dinner with the Huttons. We look forward to the next one.

Never look a perfect campsite in the mouth
With most of our repair jobs out the way, we are ready for the 3 day trek to Bariloche, where we will most likely meet up with James for the record breaking ninth time. We are going to cycle the Seven Lakes Route, quite a famous tourist trail known mostly for its panoramic vantage points over landscapes of snowcapped mountains and ultramarine blue lakes. This section of Ruta 234 joins San Martín de los Andes to Villa La Angostura. From here it should be one more day to Bariloche where our plans are to relax a while before bussing it to Buenos Aires. Our cycling will then start again through Uruguay and up to those Brazilian beaches that we keep referring to.

John and Linda see us off from the campground with lots of warm hugs and best wishes. We take to the main road leading to Lago Lácar and begin tackling the first long ascent. More undulations follow and just before the top climb [1169m] of the day at 19 kilometres and 562 metres of elevation into the trip, we meet Michael, another German cyclist travelling north.

The sun is shining strong, we have perfect blue skies and lake scenery around us and above all we are firmly revolving our wheels on bitumen. Therefore, it a little hard to relate to his horror journey yesterday on dirt with Sunday sightseer traffic, but his little head shakes and mumbles of "terrible, terrible, terrible" ring home loud and clear. Seem to remember hearing that before. Argentina can be soul destroying cycling at times, but I guess we'll know all about that tomorrow. We also learn that the suggested 20 kilometre unpaved section on Ali's map stretches to more like 40 kilometres.

Even with this in mind and the wind bending the flower heads of white marguerites and pink everlastings directly towards us, it is a great ride and when we stumble upon Camping Falkner, we decide it is all way to good, not to stop for the day. Lago Falkner (50km; 814m) is just stunning, even more so than Lago Machonico down the road. Little do we know, Lago Villarino is just a few hundred metres up the road on the right and there they have a free campground. Still the 25 pesos each is okay for our spot and apart from one weirdo staying at the campground who persistently walks through our designated spot, we have a great afternoon watching wildlife and warming in the sun.

Posh camping
It is just 3 kilometres and 78 metres of up to the start of the unpaved road. The lake scenery is spectacular, so the initial state of the roads doesn't sink in until the ugliness of roadworks becomes more prominent and the gradients get steeper. From the campsite the tendency is on going up. We reach a high point after 20 kilometres and 382 alti-metres, but undulations continue for the rest of the day and every inch of the way to the end of the 45 kilometres of dirt and the intersection with Ruta 23. During this time we have not only passed Lagos Escondido, Correntoso, and Espejo but plenty of backpackers, half loaded cyclists with front shockers (which I'm a little jealous of), caravans and campervans. It's a bustling little metropolis of holidaymakers.

We finally see the last of the seven lakes: Lago Nahuel Huapi as we near Villa La Angostura (58km; 876m). A ciclovia [cyclepath] takes us passed Campsite Unquechue directly behind the conveniently placed Todos supermarket. It is kinda posh and very organised and owners want an outrageous 68 pesos for a plot without a plug. While it looks like a nice place, we soon grow weary of all the "do and don't" signage plastered over the walls. And if you decline on the electricity, you get dumped all together on slopey ground. It is almost worth paying the extra 6 pesos to get a more secluded, private spot with a flat pitch. Still it is only for one night.

We meet Sofie and Kit, who have come from Bariloche and they had headwind for most of the way, at which I can't help secretly rubbing my hands with glee; thinking about being blown down the bitumen highway and into tomorrow's destination is pure joy.

There's a whole lotta shakin' going on
Well, we wake and do all the usual sort of stuff to get on the road. We glide along the bike path to the town centre, which many may describe as quaint and we hit the highway and the uncharacteristic easterly wind. There'll be no tailwind escorting us today. Fourteen and a half kilometres out of town there is a marvelous national park campground set right on the lake for 15 pesos per person plus an additional 8 for the tent.

The highway riding is not particularly pleasant, but we battle the 63 kilometres to the intersection of Ruta 40 and then turn gradually in the other direction. Twenty kilometres later and we are almost in the centre of town. We have a map, picked up at the tourist information a few kilometres back, which marks all the campgrounds. The first two have such steep driveways running directly onto the busy coastal road and they are a long way from any supermarket, that we decide to head out of town to a campground near Lago Gutierrez.

The ride along the narrow, no shoulder coastal highway is horrendous. Fast cars; fast trucks and fast buses with no concern for a loaded cyclist. After the steep but short climb up at the the turn-off to Villa Catedral its an easy 6 kilometres to Villa Los Coihues - Bariloche (97km; 845m). Camping Los Coihues is perfect as far as we are concerned. Grassy, clean, with hot water and electricity (not at our site though), wifi, chickens, ducks, horses, dogs, a kitten, black necked ibises, other water birds and the crystal clear water of Rio Negra running next to us all for 25 pesos each per person per day. Along with that we get some brilliantly hot weather: enough to dip in the icy river water and of course on February 27, a whole lot of shakin' going on, when the earthquake hit Chile.

Shaken, not stirred
I awake in the tent at 3.34am as the ground begins to move underneath me. I am not drunk. The tent is swaying like it there's a storm outside. There is no wind. Even lying on the ground, I place my hands on the floor to steady myself. Ali hasn't stirred. I don't know what this is. In my half slumbered daze, I shake Ali: "Quick Ali! Get out! A horse is eating the tent". I know, it is no rationalisation at all. But in my defense, horses do roam wild here. Either the fairground ride or my bizarre suggestion of equine destruction were enough to wake him up and he soon puts me straight. "We're having an earthquake".

"Well, I think we should get out of the tent then," I reply and out we crawl. It lasts for what appears to be two to three minutes and then we retreat back into our sleeping bags having experienced one of the most unnerving events in my life. I think I said "Whoah!" at least twenty times. "My God!" quite number more and a few other words I won't mention here. And then it dawned on me that, somewhere out there, others must have felt it in a really bad way.

There's no psychological understanding of an earthquake. "The earth moved under my feet" is only a song you know and when Mother Earth starts imitating some of those wild salsa hip movements the Colombians have perfected, your senses become quite insecure. They don't know how to cope with it. I know mine didn't. I became damned giddy. Besides the physical rolling, which is really weird, the irrationality that the ground, something that you have grown up understanding is solid and rigid, starts acting like the ocean; and suddenly you feel like you've had one too many beers down the pub.

And I still do, even days after. Mind you, Mother Earth hasn't stopped practising her dance steps either. This now has me glued to internet news to see what other destruction she might have caused. And relish the thought that living in a tent is probably one of the safest abodes during such a crisis. What I have also found out, is that earthquakes are happening all the time. And, I do mean all the time. Thank goodness, not in the severity of the one that hit Conception in Chile recently, but just take a look at the long list of earthquakes each day on this website. It is really quite astounding.

James arrives on the last day of the month and it is super to meet up with him again. Believe it or not, he slept through the whole event last night, but he gets to feel a couple of small tremors in the evening during a veggie barbeque with good wine and lots of enjoyable tête-à-tête. More next month about other degustatioins of pure relaxation and merriment.

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