Day 220 (10/24/11)
As we start to wheel the bicycles outside, we discover Shirley has a flat; looks like our departure is delayed. We find a small metal wire in her tire, pull it out with pliers, patch the tube, then resume loading the bikes outdoors.
Ah, much nicer temperature this orning!. We say goodbye to Alexis and Oscar, then head down the road. Not far from the mining camp, we come to the military checkpoint and show them our passports with exit stamps. Just before we leave, one of the officers gives us a loaf of bread and wishes a safe journey.
The wind picks up, but we are very lucky it is at our backs as we go downhill, then up another pass. When we pop out on the other side, we are treated with spectacular views of purple sand mountains, orange valleys, and swirls of black and white all around. About 30km later, we make it to Paso Sico, one of the many border crossings between Chile and Argentina. It would be a moment to celebrate except that it is spoiled by the realization that we’ve lost a screw from one of Yannick’s front panniers.
Yannick takes out a screw from the bottom of the pannier and puts it on the top bar, where the pannier needs more support while Shirley goes looking for the lost screw by walking along our tracks in the sand. Almost a half hour of searching without any results, we continue on with Yannick extremely frustrated. On top of that, it’s already 1:30pm and he’s grumpy because he is starving. We find a sheltered spot behind a pile of rocks to eat and he’s already feeling a little better.
Just over 10km later, we arrive at Argentinean immigration, which is yet another lone building in the middle of the desert. In the hand-written log, we can see that only one or two cars pass through here each day…we are so remote! We easily get a 90-day visa.
We hesitate to leave now that we are inside a building, listening to the wind howling outside, but alas, we must continue on. Strong winds push us along the gravel-filled washboard road and we can’t wait to reach pavement again. Our butts, shoulders and backs ache from bumping along all day on our rigid aluminum-framed non-suspension bicycles (no, not the ideal choice for this terrain) and we have to take frequent breaks to stretch our muscles. Yannick takes a fall in some deep sand, but at least crashing on these soft dirt roads isn’t damaging on the bikes or panniers.
Although we are making pretty good progress today, this section of riding from San Pedro de Atacama to the first Argentinean town is taking us longer than we expected. Without the little bit of food we bought yesterday and the bread we were given today, we weould really be stretching our supplies. We take advantage of the warm temperature and ride until after 6:30pm even though our bodies beg us to stop. We figure that whatever extra mileage we do today will make it a shorter distance to the next town where we will hopefully be able to buy some good food. We set up camp along the side of the road and figure we should pass through a tiny pueblo tomorrow and have about 85km to a sizeable town where we can change some money and get Argentinean pesos. Day 221 (10/25/11)
We ride about 18km to what we thought would be a small pueblo, but it turns out to be abandoned. We ride another 8km to Olacapato, which looks like a decent size from afar, but it seems strangely deserted. We are able to fill up water here, but aren’t in luck with finding food, so we have tuna sandwiches for lunch instead. From the pueblo, the road starts to climb gradually. The scenery is nice, but a little repetitive…until we reach a small canyon with a stream running through it.
The rock formations are interesting and there is stubbled grass along the side of the road – we haven’t seen grass in so long! When we pop on the other side of the canyon, we are amazed to arrive at a large meadow. The road winds around the field, then climbs steeply on the other side.
At 5pm, Yannick hs a problem with his brakes and we have to stop in an open, very exposed area to fix it. It takes longer than usual to change out the brake pads and we are freezing from the wind by the time we are done. We spent about half an hour working on it and about five vehicles pass by without even slowing down – thanks for smoking dust in our faces when we need it most, guys! Just 4km more and we huff and puff our way to the top of the 4,500m high pass, phew!
Our work is not over yet though – it is almost as difficult to descent on a steep washboard road full of loose rocks. Our hands cramp from constantly braking and we are going nuts from the constant vibration. We want to make it most of the way down the hill to have a warmer night. Good thing that is our intention because there is absolutely nowhere to stop! The road twists along the steep mountainside and snakes its way down to the valley below. We finally arrive at the bottom at 7pm and find a sandy spot near some rock outcroppings to pitch the tent.
Ah, finally done for the day after 7-1/2 hours on the saddle. We were pushing our limit today, but at least now we are less than 15km to Los Cobres and an eating fest! Day 222 (10/26/11)
We spend the morning doing a little laundry in a stream and working on the bicycles: Yannick’s brakes still aren’t working properly, Shirley broke a ziptie off her fender during yesterday’s descent, we found Yannick’s front tire was flat when we woke up, and since we were at it, we tightened all the screws in all the panniers because they’ve all jiggled a little loose from all the bouncing around we’ve been doing over the past 3 weeks.
With all this handy-work to do, it doesn’t help that Yannick’s fingertips are cracked and a little bloody from the dry desert air. He has some wounds that haven’t healed for several weeks now. After a frustrating few hours, we are finally ready to depart from camp at 10:30am. The 15km to San Antonio de Los Cobres is mostly downhill and we arrive just in time for lunch. The town isn’t nearly as big as we expected, but we are still able to get Argentinean pesos from an ATM, buy some groceries from four small stores, and fill ourselves with a dozen delicious mini meat empanadas and a set lunch of steaming soup, fresh salad, and a buttery meat pie.
We can’t find any ice cream for dessert and the town seems dead at 3pm (is it still siesta time?), so we eat a baguette with butter and jam, then leave town without being able to finish buying the last couple items on our grocery list.
The dirt road out of town climbs steeply, making us wonder if we should have eaten so much in one afternoon. Oh well, no pain, no gain…and yes, we would have eaten more if our stomachs weren’t so shrunken! We push aside the bloated belly complaints and have to concentrate now – we’ve come to a fork in the road and have a big decision to make. Do we take the dirt road (Ruta 40) that is about 15km shorter to Cafayate and mostly downhill, or do we take the longer mostly asphalt road that possibly has more altitude gain and loss?
Hmm, after much apprehension, Shirley’s butt says to take the paved road. We bump along for several more kilometers before arriving at a beautifully smooth new road and oooh, it feels sooo good! We glide along and wind our way up to a 4,099m pass and layer up for the descent. We’ve noticed that in Argentina, people make giant rock piles at high passes and adorn it with colorful pieces of cloth and leave broken wine and juice bottles on the rocks. We ponder the purpose of this tradition as we FLY down the twisting mountain road. Pavement makes riding downhill so enjoyable, weeee!
At 7pm, it is too cold to continue on, so we find camp in some abandoned buildings. Well, the buildings are empty, but still clearly being used as an overnight stop for goat herders. No one is here tonight, so we set up inside one of the rooms. Ah, it is much warmer than being out in the wind! Shirley is grateful that Yannick is so talented at finding the best places to sleep.
Sometimes we can go months without flats and sometimes we are plagued by them. Anyway, we are glad to be done with crappy roads for a while....we made it to Argentina, back on the asphalt and to breathable altitudes, after 3 weeks of rough roads and harsh conditions.