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Malargüe, Argentina to Trevelin, Argentina

posted Oct 4, 2011, 10:51 AM by Paul Gareau   [ updated Oct 4, 2011, 11:15 AM ]
Holaaaaa! Time is flying - how has a month passed since my last full blog post? (Don't I always say something like that though?) I'm in Trevelin, Argentina now, and I'll be crossing into Chile tomorrow (weather permitting) to ride down the famous Carretera Austral. I figured if I don't take some time off now to get my pics and blog up to date, it's never going to happen. 

So! Lots to write about. Since Malargüe I've had more inconceivably bad wind, amazing scenery, and great, unexpected hosts. The wind was bad right from the start, and after only 66 km from Malargüe I was forced to stop in the small town of Bardas Blancas after being blown off the road twice and having my bike blown out of my hands while I was resting on the side of the road - I don't know how I managed to stay on my feet. I don't think it's possible to explain how forceful the gusts can be, but I've dealt with bad wind in the past - including in one of the windiest places in the world, in Mexico - and the wind here makes that look like a gentle breeze. My first stop in town was at the police station to get whatever information I could about the wind. Since Bardas Blancas is a junction town with one road leading to the Chilean border, I was seriously thinking about abandoning my route through Argentina and hoping for better luck in Chile. After banging on every door and window at the police station, I was finally greeted by a sleepy looking officer who was wearing nothing but a towel. Right, how could I forget about siesta... He told me that it's an unusually windy place and that the pass was closed for the season. So with no options for changing my route and too much wind to continue for the day, I got comfortable at the front door of the town's only hotel, where I waited for the owners to wake up and let me in.

From Bardas to Barrancas, the road is marked "Ruta en estado precario" on my map, which I'll loosely translate to "road in bad condition". Other than a few potholes, it was fine, and there was amazing geology all around, especially looking back towards Bardas. It's a volcanic area, and there is a place where the Rio Grande is forced into a narrow canyon in the lava field. There is a small footbridge and trail that I checked out during my break there. This is also where the road changes to loose-surface dirt, which I had read about in a two year old blog, so it hasn't changed in that time. It was rideable, but just slow-going. That night I reached what is marked on my map as "El Zampal" with a circle that generally indicates a good-sized town. There were only two houses in the distance, but nothing else around, and I set up camp at the end of a tunnel next to the river. This ended up being a big mistake since as soon as the wind picked up my tent filled up with sand and I had no choice but to pack up and move down the road. After an unpaved climb the next day, there was a paved downhill and then a steep but short climb to Barrancas, where I got a great hotel room for only 45 pesos/$11USD. 

The next day as I rode through the town of Buta Ranquil, a woman yelled "From where?". I'm amazed she could hear my reply - "Alaska!" - over the deafening wind, but she must have since she gave me a little round of applause - go me. :) I got some empanadas in town, then continued on towards Chos Malal. (Note to cyclists - Buta Ranquil is divided into two parts - the part with more services is farther south). After rounding a corner near Buta Ranquil, the wind completely stopped, the landscape became a desert and it got HOT. Crazy. I camped that night at a really cool, rustic, but seemingly abandoned farm, which was my only opportunity to get out of the wind. I spent a while looking to see if anyone was around, and later just checked out the grounds and some of the old buildings. Good stuff. 

In Chos Malal there is a municipal campground and a few overpriced hotels. I didn't feel like camping or overpaying, and I had seen in someone's blog that there is a volunteer fire department there and they had been allowed to stay, so I went to see if I'd have the same luck. The girl at the front desk just had to make a phone call to be sure, then said that I could stay in the bed in the heated room above the office. Sweet! It was only my second time staying with the "Bomberos", but some cyclists do it in nearly every town. I wondered why I hadn't done it more myself. 

As always in Argentina, there would be two days of cycling before I reached the next town, so I went out to buy some food for the two days, including a bag of cookies for the volunteers. I also finally bought myself a small thermos, which I've been totally amazed by. It's just a stainless steel container with a vacuum between the two layers, but even 4-5 hours after filling it, my drink (usually apple Tang) is still so hot I have to let it cool down. Who knew they worked so well? Something about having access to something hot in the middle of the day is very comforting too, and I don't know why I didn't buy one sooner. The same store had a relatively cheap pair of waterproof gloves, which I didn't buy and totally regret, since I haven't seen anything nearly as good or cheap since.

It seems that most people do the Malargüe to Chos Malal section in 4-5 days. I ended up doing it in 5 because of the bad afternoon winds, and it worked out very well from a logistical point of view. I can see it being possible in 4 or less days if the wind cooperates and the days are long enough. Finding water was never an issue in this section.

Between Chos Malal and Las Lajas I camped along the long downhill after the small town Churriaca, where cyclists can get water but the store in the main part of town is too far from the road to bother. I got my water from someone who I saw outside of his house, and told him he should open a small "kiosco" to sell drinks and snacks to cyclists, since it's a common cycling route. Who knows, maybe it will happen. Near my stealth camping spot that night, someone nearby must have gotten out of their car to pee (there's no other reason to stop around there), and set their alarm off. I was resting and half asleep, so at first I didn't pay much attention to the bird that was almost exactly imitating the sound of the alarm - it was amazing! I got a video of it, but unfortunately after it started "forgetting" the alarm, and before it started copying a cricket. Really incredible, I had never seen or heard anything like it.

I camped at the municipal campground in Las Lajas, which I thought would be free since no one was around and the bathrooms were closed, but in the morning someone was there to collect their money. He said someone told them I was there and that I was supposed to have told them (how??), and I asked why he didn't open the bathrooms if he knew I was there. He wanted almost double what I've paid for municipal camping in the past, and I told him I'd only pay 2/3s because the bathrooms were closed. I'm not sure why I should have paid anything since I could have camped anywhere else in the area for free. After wild camping for so long, it just seems ridiculous to pay to do the exact same thing.

There was one more short day of riding to Zapala, with a great tailwind. I stayed in the "Circulo Policial", which is like a hotel but can be reserved for police functions. There was also a similar one for the military around the corner, for the same price, but also with WiFi. They were the cheapest options in town, but still more than I would have liked to pay, and because of the wind I couldn't have camped at the several camping areas in town (two gas stations - one muni). I planned to take one day off to figure out where to go next, since there was snow in the mountains and some roads had been closed. I had also done eight days of riding since Malargüe so a day off was due, but since the next day had 40 mph winds I decided to wait it out and I stayed two days instead. 

I made my plan for the next two days with the wind forecast in mind, and it worked out perfectly. There was almost no wind on the day that I left, and I passed through Laguna Blanca National Park (lots of birds) and continued on to a communications outpost for the highway department, where I got my own room and bed, and was able to use the kitchen! The guy who was working there was very nice, and had his two dogs and cats with him. He said something about us being friends when I gave him some oatmeal I wasn't going to use, which I thought was nice, and we watched "Death Race" (I think is the name - terrible movie) on a small DVD player in the kitchen. It seems like his job is only to relay messages that come in through one radio to the other radio, linking Rahue and Zapala. The next day, as forecasted, there was an uncommon northwesterly wind that helped push me up the first "pass" of the day. It's funny that what I consider a pass now is usually only 1500 feet of climbing, with a maximum altitude of around 4000 feet. It's a big change from 1500 METERS of climbing to over 4000  meters of altitude (3.3x higher), which I was used to in Peru and Ecuador. The second climb of the day was unpaved and at the top there was some great umbrella-like pine trees that I can't recal the name of. I camped on the banks of the Rio Aluminé south of Rahue, where I had a nice hidden campsite and even a warm breeze.

The road along the river was still unpaved and with enough rolling hills that it slowed me down more than expected. It still would have been possible to reach Junín de los Andes that night, but there was a great place to camp next to the river in Malleo/Tropezon, and I decided to stay there. The next day I passed through Junín de Los Andes, but didn't see a reason to stay. I did hear from a hostel owner that Antonio, who I had ridden with in Peru, had just passed a week earlier. Since I hadn't seen another cyclist in months, this was great news! I continued on to San Martín de los Andes, the current home of a PanAm-cycling couple (Harry and Ivana) who are settling down there for a few years to start their family. They host cyclists who they catch passing through town, and had also invited me to stay with them a few weeks earlier through the PanAm Riders email group. San Martín is a relatively touristy town, with a lot of wood/log construction and surrounded by mountains all around and a lake at the south end. It was a great place to take a few days off. Harry is a "seven summiter", which means he's climbed the highest peak on each continent (including of course Everest, Denali and Kilimanjaro). He's written books on three of the climbs and is part of a project that provides solar lighting to African villages ( Interesting stuff.

When I was talking to Harry and Ivana about their choice to live in San Martín, they mentioned how it's great that such a small town has almost everything you could want. When I went to one of the local bike shops looking for new bearings for my trailer though, I wasn't really expecting to be able to find them and wasn't surprised when the guy said he didn't have any bearings in stock. Instead, he said, just go to the bearing store down the street! Incredible! Even better was that the store had exactly the bearings I was looking for, so I got my old ones swapped out that day. The wheel seemed to spin fine with the old ones, but I had been hearing a noise from the back of my trailer and since I hadn't changed them since Peru, it was time. I could hardly spin the old ones after they had been taken out of the hub though, so I may have waited too long to change them. My laptop was also acting up again, which I narrowed down to the cable, and I was able to buy a new cable in town too. I also had to replace my holey socks, which I could do in town too. San Martín does have everything!

I did a good, short hike from San Martín (near the water processing station) up to a viewpoint, which I recommend - but be persistent - the trail is hard to follow! I also got in touch with Antonio while I was there, who was in Bariloche, just a few days south of me. Unfortunately he wants to finish his trip at the beginning of November (he started in Alaska a year before I did) and he'll be taking route 40 through Argentina instead of crossing into Chile, so riding together wasn't going to be an option.

From San Martín, I followed the amazing Seven Lakes Route for three days until reaching the village of Angostura. There is a volcano in the area that has been eruping for months, covering everything in ash, leaving a haze in the sky and making cycling pretty miserable at times. Fortunately it was still clear enough that I had some great views, but on the second day I had to stop early because of all the ash in the air (as well as my mouth and eyes), and because I pretty bad headache. On the third day I reached Angostura, which was hit the worst by the ash cloud, and I stayed at a hostel that's owned by a couple who usually take a few months off to go bike touring every winter. This year they had to stay around to clean the 6 inches of ash off their property. When I first came across ash on the ground I didn't even realize what it was - usually I think of ash as being something organic, like what you would find after having a camp fire. Since there is nothing organic in the center of a volcano, volcanic ash is basically sand. As you could imagine, having 6 inches of sand dropped on your house, car, yard, etc is quite a problem.

The next day the beautiful riding continued, unfortunately with so much haze that getting good pictures was impossible. When I was approaching Bariloche, a famous tourist town in the area, someone yelled "HEY!" from his garden. I looked back, slowed down a little, but didn't stop. He yelled again so I figured I'd go back and see what he wanted. It turns out that the guy "Baldy" rode most of the PanAm from Ushuaia north, unfortunately having to leave the states as a result of the September 11th attacks. He hosts cyclists that he sees passing by, or if someone knows about him through word of mouth. He lives in a very nice house with his wife and two year old boy. They rent the house out during peak tourism months and live in a smaller cabin on the same property. He also bakes organic bread that he sells in town - making twice the money in half the time as when he worked at a restaurant. They have ducks, chickens, are working on a small garden and his wife makes impressive products from recycled materials. As always it's so mind opening to see how people can live such great, simple, low-stress lives. 

They put me up in the top floor of their house, which has a double bed, a huge window overlooking the lake and mountains, and a private bathroom with jacuzzi! They also make great homemade food, including the best pizza I've had in a long time - so it's no wonder I stayed there for four days. Antonio, I found out, had stayed there for a week, and other cyclists for as much as 10 days! I spent one day there trying to hitch up to a nearby lake, but apparently no one in Bariloche stops for hitchhikers. That, combined with my horrible map, made getting to the lake impossible. I did manage to catch a ride into town and spent a few hours there before trying again to hitch back to his house and eventually giving up and paying about $8 for a taxi. 

The day before I left I took a bus out to the famous hotel "Llao Llao", and wanted to do some hiking nearby but someone told me it was a few miles just to the trailheads, so I caught another bus back to a place called "Cerro Campanario", which I heard (but can't confirm), has been called one of the 10 best views in the world by National Geographic. It was very impressive and I highly recommend it to anyone passing through the area.

From Bariloche I rode the 130km/~80mi in two days, stopping early on the first because of rain. The rain continued on the second day unfortunately but I had no choice but to push on to the "hippy town" El Bolson. I stayed at the Hostel Pehuenia, which was my first hostel since Malargüe. As with every town that I've stopped in, my first stop is the tourist office to see what the hiking options are. Unfortunately being between seasons there are a lot of fallen trees that haven't been cleared off the trails, and many of the "refugios" (shelters) are still closed. None of the open trails or refugios interested me much, so I spent a day off visiting the handmade crafts market that the town is known for.

I rode to a town named Cholila from El Bolson, which was the hangout of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid for six years. My guidebook said their house(s) were more impressive when they were old and crumbling and since they've been repaired it's not even worth the side trip to see them. I figured if I passed them I'd stop and check them out, but I didn't look too hard and didn't see them. Those guys did know how to pick a good hideout though - the area surrounding Cholila is amazing, with snowcapped, jagged, rocky mountains in every direction, pasture around town, and a hill that I definitely recommend hiking to the top of for the panoramic views of the area. I definitely have to give Cholila my "Best Small-Town Scenery" award.

I continued along route 71 from there, through the beautiful Alerces National Park, home of trees as old as 3200 years. As through the rest of this section, the scenery was incredible and I had another great camping spot at a "Camping Libre" named "Francais" (or something similar). I met a Swiss couple there who were traveling in a Land Rover and had planned to go to Alaska before she got pregnant (whoops!). They decided to shorten their trip to just a few months in Argentina.

And... Now I'm in Trevelin, a small Welsch settlement near the Chilean border. As usual my idea to take one day off turned into two, partly because I needed to get my pictures and blog up to date, partly because of the rain, and partly to look into the next part of my route - the Carratera Austral (CA) in Chile. I'll cross into Chile tomorrow - weather permitting - and continue south along the CA for as long as possible before crossing back into Argentina. I'd like to go to the official end, but the ferry that runs from there to Argentina doesn't start until the beginning of November, so I would get there two weeks too soon. It looks like I have about 1500 miles left, so it's possible that I'll finish in under two months. Since I definitely want to do some trekking in southern Patagonia, this will push things back a bit, but probably not by too much.

Oh - another noteworthy thing is that a day before arriving in San Martín, I had my first flat tire since Mexico! I think my last one was on the coast in January or February of 2010, so around 19 months without flats. Thank you Schwalbe and Slime!

That's all for now...

Malargüe, Argentina to Trevelin, Argentina