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Córdoba, Argentina to Mendoza, Argentina (and Santiago, Easter Island and Valparaiso!)

posted Aug 16, 2011, 8:46 AM by Paul Gareau   [ updated Sep 11, 2011, 8:09 AM ]
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Hi all! Looks like I've got some catching up to do - a lot has happened since I left Córdoba. Córdoba is the second-largest city in Argentina, with a population of about 1.3 million (according to Wikipedia). It was a nice enough city, but during my three rest days there I was mostly taking it easy since I had had some Achilles tendon discomfort at the end of my last two days of riding. It came out of the blue, and three days off seemed to take care of it, since I haven't had any other pain since. 

As I mentioned in my last post, there were a few things I was looking forward to seeing on the ride from Córdoba to Mendoza. The first was the Punilla Valley, which is where people from the city go to escape the city. I didn't find it to be as beautiful as people had said it would be, and I think most of it's appeal is due to what it's not (a big city), than what it is, per se. Lago San Roque was a nice lake, and there is plenty of camping and restaurants around. My favorite town of the area was one that the guidebooks don't even mention, named Villa Giardino. As with many of the other towns or cities that I've liked I can't say exactly what it was about it that appealed to me. Maybe it just depends on where I am when I'm tired enough to take a break for a while. :) A little beyond there I wanted to make a detour to a town named "La Cumbre", where I learned there was a bike/motorcycle museum. The museum is modern and very impressive, with a good collection of restored motorcycles and bikes of all types. About 90% of them are functional, and none of them have been repainted or repaired with non-original parts. After leaving the museum, I continued along the back road towards route 38 - the main road through the valley. There was a big, steep hill right away and instead of dealing with it, I turned around to reconnect with 38 via La Cumbre, the way I came. Somehow I forgot that I had come down a big hill before the museum, so I had to do some climbing either way. I finished that day in the town "Cruz de Eje", where I decided to get a hotel room - partly because it was too late to find a campground, and partly as a little birthday present to myself.

After Cruz de Eje my route took me back across Salinas Grande, the salt flat I had crossed about a week earlier on my way to Córdoba. The places I crossed were nothing like the salt flats in Bolivia, where all you see is a huge expanse of white, although on Google Maps it does look like parts of Salinas Grande are that way. The road was just like the previous road before Córdoba (route 9), only a bit flatter, and not as well maintained. Luckily there was less truck traffic though.

In the town "Chamical" there is a sign for a municipal campground, although it's basically any place you want around the town field. The field was actually an "American Football" field, with the upright goal posts at each end and even a "tackle sled" for training. It's the first time I can remember seeing anything for American Football in Latin America. 

I asked a few people in town where I'd be able to get gas next (for my stove), and everyone told me the same - not for what would be two days of cycling for me. I had a bit, but wanting to play it safe, I decided to get some before leaving town. Normally this wouldn't have been a problem, except there is a gas shortage in the province of La Rioja for some reason, and as soon as the gas trucks came in, a line started forming. Eventually I think everyone in town was waiting there to fill up. I was lucky and got in at the beginning of the line for motorcycles, but there was still quite a long wait. A few people approached me to talk as usual, and at one point a guy came up with a cell phone in his hand and the earpiece in his ear. He asked me a few questions about my trip, always shoving the cell phone in my face afterwards, then more or less put the earpiece in my ear and said "you're on the radio". Maybe that should have been exciting, but I had no interest and gave him the phone back. Who interviews someone without telling them, anyway? Later I got my 6 oz or so of gas, and headed out. Before finishing for the day, I passed two more gas stations and as always, I'm totally bewildered by the fact that people from such small areas don't even know if there is a gas station at the next town, and that instead of saying "I don't know", they just make something up. Before this trip ends, I'd really love to hear someone say those three words, just once...

I had also been looking forward to two parks that I'd pass by on my way to Mendoza. One was off-route and is where some of the oldest dinosaur bones in the world have been recovered. I saw some pictures of the park though, and the side trip to it didn't seem worth the effort. Instead I took a day off at Talampaya National Park, after passing through some nice scenery, and camping between the town "La Torre" and there. I was happy to find a small, reasonably stocked store in La Torre, which saved me a trip off-route to the next large town (Cyclists: ask them for what you need, they have more than what's on the shelves).

At Talampaya, like the other park, visitors are not permitted to wander the park independently, meaning you need to pay for a guide, a bike tour, or bus to take you through the park. There was a great looking loop hike that I wanted to do, but being low season, there weren't enough other people around for them to run it. Instead I just did a shorter out-and-back hike through the canyon with the guide and a couple from Mendoza. There was some pretty interesting geology, including a place where you can see the same fracture line probably 1/4 of a mile apart, on each side of the canyon. In another place there were some smaller formations with the same line running through them. Pretty neat.

The comfortable temperatures I had had after leaving Córdoba slowly disappeared, and the nights became very cold again. One night in the park, my thermometer said it was about -8C (after I corrected for it being 5C off). A park guard told me it was actually -15C, which would definitely explain why I've been so cold on some of these nights! -15C is 5F, and since I have a tent that is more or less designed for summer camping, it doesn't do much to keep the cold wind out. Maybe when I get home I'll finally be able to figure out how far off the thermometer really is.

From Talampaya it was another 7 days of riding to Mendoza, including a two day break in the nice little city of San Juan. The riding and scenery was pretty unremarkable, with the exception being the section just before San José de Jáchal - an area with steep hills, but incredible scenery. I had considered taking the longer, but flatter route 40 around this section, but I have no regrets about going this way. Also during this section, there were many ravines crossing the road, and in some places it looked like there would have had to be a flood to shape the landscape as it had. Since the "pre-Cordillera" of the Andes were so close, even in heavy rain it was hard to imagine that so much water could be flowing through the area. It's also not an area that gets snow, so snowmelt isn't a possibility. So that was a bit of a mystery. Anyway, because of the ravines, there are annoying "dips" in the road, almost the opposite of the typical "rolling hill" terrain. Later the same source of water - whatever it was - had also wiped out an old railroad in many places, sometimes leaving only suspended sections of the rails behind.

I spent two days in San Juan, which is another small city that I liked for no particular reason. There was no real need for staying two days, but I already had my flight to Easter Island booked and I was a little ahead of schedule, so I had no reason to rush. From there to Mendoza, as was common throughout this section, there was two days of riding between the cities. I left San Juan riding into a crazy, gusty headwind (and sandstorm!), which was made worse by the fact that I knew it was only temporary. I still managed to get about 36 miles in, which would leave a manageable 60+ miles for the next day into Mendoza. My goal is usually to do the opposite in these situations, timing it so I have a short day before arriving at a city, but as long as I'm not riding through a city in the dark looking for a place to stay, I don't mind so much.

Mendoza is where I left my bike behind for a while, while I took a bus over the Andes to Santiago, flight to Easter Island and back, another bus to Valparaiso, and yet another bus back to Santiago, and lastly back to Mendoza. I had to replace some gear so I did some price shopping in Mendoza first on my day off there, then did the same in Santiago. As people had told me, outdoor gear is quite a bit cheaper in Chile, which was a surprise because Chile in general has been the most expensive country for me in South America. Some of the things I had to pick up were a warmer sleeping bag, new boots (the $27 pair I bought in Peru didn't really work out), new pants, new pump for my stove, etc.. 

After a day in Santiago, I was on my way to Easter Island! Going to Easter Island was something I hadn't thought too much about in the past, but I finally decided to go for it when I was in Córdoba. I figured three days and four nights would be enough, and while I got to see every part of the island I wanted to during the three days, I could have spent another day or two doing the "cultural" stuff, like visiting the museum, watching one of the traditional dance shows, and just enjoying the town. 

After deplaning the, uh, plane (I had a rookie flight attendant once and never forgot that mistake) there were about half a dozen people from local campgrounds and lodges all trying to convince the travelers to stay with them. There were three people from campgrounds, but the best - by far - is Mihinoa, which is right on the ocean, has the best camping facilities I've seen, and has decent rental tents, so they're who I went with. I had some time to walk around town after getting settled at the campground and went to the archaeological area just on the outskirts of town, where I saw my first Moai - one of the huge stone figures that easter island is famous for. On the first full day, I rented a mountain bike and did a 10k/6m loop through the southwestern corner of the island. I thought about cycling the big loop, but it would have been a full day on a painful bike seat, trying to carry enough food and water for the day. Since it took me so much longer to do the 10k loop than I had thought, due to all the stops, I decided the best way to see the rest of the island would be on an ATV! My license expired over a year ago, but I recently renewed it and my Mom was able to send me a scanned copy of it, which is enough to rent and drive a vehicle on Easter Island, fortunately. It cost only about $10 more to keep the ATV for 24 hours than it would have for only 8, so keeping it for a full day was the obvious choice. I did the "big loop" clockwise, first exploring some of the central forest, then the northern beaches, then the east coast, which is where the 15 Moai and the Moai "factory" are found. It was a great day. I woke up early the next morning and went back to the 15 Moai to watch the sunrise and take pictures. Totally incredible experience. After sunrise I had to get back quickly to return the ATV, and afterwards I went for a hike around the southern end of the island, to the volcano and a ceremonial village on it's side. 

On the 4th morning I got my flight back to Santiago and mostly spent the next day getting my pics from the island online. Since my camera had been acting up a bit before leaving Easter Island, and since I had had the same problem in Peru, I decided to have my camera checked out once and for all. I brought it to the camera shop on Friday, where they told me it would be ready by Monday. I had been wavering about whether or not to go to Valparaiso, a city near Santiago on the coast, but since I had to wait for my camera, I didn't have an excuse not to go. I caught a bus there on Saturday, and spent just Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning walking around. There is one scenic area of the town, but the rest was pretty ordinary so that was plenty of time. On Monday I went back to the camera shop, where they hadn't even looked at my camera yet, and told me they needed two more days. I was obviously upset, because of could have taken it to another shop in town if they had told me they were going to be busy. Since it was magically working fine again, it wasn't a huge problem that they couldn't fix it, and since the pass to Argentina had been closed because of snow, I would have been stuck in Chile anyway. On Tuesday the pass finally reopened and I got a bus back to Mendoza with some other people from the hostel in Santiago. 

I've been back in Mendoza for nearly a week now, it's a really nice city and I like being here, but unfortunately I've been sick and not able to do much. This is the first time of the trip that I've had a standard "full-on" cold, so I guess I was due. It started out being a headache, congestion, throat, stomach, fever, and now all that's left is a bit of a cough and congestion. I really want to wait until I'm 100% before starting the next section, since it looks to be a tough one.

The day after I got here, I met a cycling couple who I met through the "panam-riders" email group. They just finished a one year tour here, starting in New York. The guy has done a lot of touring in the past, and wants to do one of the other tours I have in mind - the top of Norway to South Africa (basically this trip, farther east) - so we talked about that a bit and our experiences touring in the Americas. Since I've been sick since then, I haven't done much other than short walks around the nice center, and getting my bike tuned up. I hadn't had my fork oiled since Colombia, and it wasn't working too smoothly, so I wanted to get that taken care of. I also needed a new bottom bracket (pedal/crank bearings), since I hadn't changed mine since California and it wasn't spinning smoothly, and lastly my freehub had been skipping when I pedaled hard, so that needed some work. Why it was skipping is a bit of a mystery. The freehub assembly was loose because there was some space between it and one of the cartridge bearings, also allowing some play in the cassette, and this could have kept the teeth/pawls from grabbing as they should have been. But, even after changing the cartridge bearings, there was a bit of play, so the mechanic used some metal pieces to fill the gaps, and so far it seems to be better. We'll see...

So what's next? I'll mostly continue to follow route 40 to Bariloche (right near where the volcano has been erupting), with a few detours to San Rafael, Junín de los Andes, San Martin de los Andes, and Villa Angostura. From Bariloche, I don't really know yet, there are a few options for getting between there and the Carretera Austral, a remote, scenic road that's famous among cyclists. From here, Matt finished in about 2 months / 42 days of cycling, and while I won't be riding at his pace, finishing around the middle of November still doesn't seem out of the question.