Thursday, April 28, 2011

VInes, wines and crossing the Andes on a motorbike

Happy Easter everyone!

The past month or two has has been a mixture of indulging in food and wine in San Juan and Mendoza, seeing some beautiful 5000m peaks up close at Cordon del Plata, whiling away days in campgrounds, crossing the Andes into Chile riding pillion on a motorboke and making some great new friends in Santiago discovering the surrounding area. There's been a lot of thoughts pondered, new things learnt and yet not much movement really, but I'll try and capture some of the things that have stayed with me. Looking over my pics, I've started to see (surprise surprise) a bit of a food theme happening, so I'm going to post soon a special 'food edition' of what I've filled my eyes and belly with so far. But back to the Andes...

Before I get into the motorbike bit, Mendoza with Dana was an absolute treat – visiting some wineries outside the tourist loop, eating mouth watering food at some classy restaurants and homes, laughing and talking a lot and for the first time in 4 months, sleeping in a double bed! Oh and literally spooning my way through a tub of peanut butter. Mmm. 

Dana and I getting serious with our wine tasting

Vineyards at Melipal

Tasting from the barrel at Rio Azul

Too much food, wine and laughter:)

At the thermal baths

I followed it up with some hiking up in the Cordon del Plata mountain range – peaks between 3000-6000m that many use as acclimatisation for Aconcagua. I managed to ascend pretty quickly – without any real acclimatisation, and spent a couple of nights (one at Campamento Salta, 4250m – the coldest I think I've ever been. Think ice forming on the outside of my sleeping bag and not able to sleep from the cold) I then attempted to get up to Cerro Vallecitos (around 5500m) but unfortunately I got thwarted by the wind and lack of proper gloves at about 5300m and headed back down. I've got a rather corny video doing a 360 from the col I got to – the wind is pretty ferocious, but you can see Aconcagua which is pretty special.

At Campamento Salta...brrr....

Side view of Cerro Vallecitos y Rincon

The col with Cerro Vallecitos on the right - where I got to before the wind got me

Cerro Vallecitos - what I wasn't able to get up to...:(

Brrr cold up here


So now for the motorbike bit...after the hiking I headed back to Mendoza to meet up with Diego – a Colombian motorbike rider I had met in San Juan and who I'd been talking about riding with across the Andes with to Santiago. We decided to give it a go, and after very unsuccessfully trying to get both our luggage plus ourselves onto a 200cc bike, I very fortuitously bumped into an old travelling buddy at Mendoza bus station, who had a friend who was going to Santiago that night and was happy to take my bag and cross the border with it. An amazing piece of luck.

Bike packed at Mendoza bus station -what has Diego got himself in for?

Cycling up to the border

Just cross the border and made it down the zig zag road...

Diego and I set off, winding our way through the valley to Uspallata, where at the campground I had my first riding lesson. Well I didn't ride, I just pushed the bike around, tried not to fall over and sat on it. We also met two French cyclists, who we then played tag with up towards the border crossing. Suffice to say they left at 9am, us at 1pm, and we pretty much made it at the same time. The drive and pure awesomeness of these cyclists still astound me.

The route between Mendoza and Santiago is well travelled (It's quite a beautiful pass, at 3500m with a very windy road on the Chilean side which we managed to get down in one piece while being overtaken by semi trailers) – and is usually done in about 6 hours. We took 5 days to do the same distance; getting a bit lost looking for places to camp one crossing the border, meeting a very kind local in Lampa who let us camp in his garage, riding some awful gravel road and stumbling across an outdoor type market, and for me having my first 'real' riding lesson and only dropping the bike twice in 2 hours:)

After first 'real' riding lesson

Our destination was Santiago – where Diego was heading to pick up some paperwork, and I had wanted to head to the Pacific Ocean to Valparaiso which many had said was a great city to visit. The plan was not even to really stay in Santiago, but here I am, nearly a month later still here. It's a pretty nice city – on first arriving here, and heading up to Cerro San Cristobal and seeing the layer of smog cover the city I rather rashly started saying how much I didn't like it or want to stay here.

But it started growing on me – the numerous parks, bookshops/cafes, relaxed people, proximity to mountains and the beach, big food markets and restaurants all started whispering in my ear that it might not be such a bad place after all. We also met a French couple – Yasmine and Mattiew who after travelling for 6 months have decided to settle here for a couple of years. It's been lovely to spend time with them, cooking up feasts of all kinds, going to classical concerts in the lead up to Easter, having picnics, climbing spiders in playgrounds (my family know how much I love these!) and heading out of town for hiking. Definitely a place I could imagine living in – although not for me now.

Cerro San Cristobal in Santiago - mmmm smog.

Yay! a Spider just around the corner from the hostel.

Acting up at the museum

Drinking Mote con huesillo - trigo wheat with sweet peaches 

I did manage to get to the Pacific Ocean – before heading to Valparaiso I went to Isla Negra where I camped on the beach (well to be technically correct it was an abandoned property on the beach, and um where people may have used as a toilet), but I really enjoyed watching the sunset while sitting on the rocks, watching waves crash and foam and wash up these rather octopus like seaweed thingies. (people were collecting these and dragging them into cars, to dry/cook and sell) Isla Negra is also one of the homes of the Chilean poet and politician, Pablo Neruda whose house I visited. An interesting sort of man – from the copious amounts of 'things' in his house, a man obsessed by collecting collections. Collections of figureheads from ships (about 7 keeping each other company in his living room), pipes, masks, trains, butterflies, insects, bottles and more. Oh and he had a stable built for a papier mache horse he bought. What intrigued me was that he purchased the complete collections rather than collecting the individual items himself, so a sort of collector of collections. What does that say about a person?

 Beach at Isla Negra - first taste of Pacific Ocean

Doors in Valpo
Valparaiso next – and it definitely lived up to my expectations. Great seafood, a bustling city, steep hills with colourful houses and graffiti, little galleries, a busy functioning port and just a really great vibe. I couchedsurfed there – staying with Victor, an engineer and teacher and closet amazing cook who helped me with my miserable spanish and taught me a lot about Chilean food.

I also headed out with Diego to Cajon del Maipo – intending to meet up with Yasmine and Mattiew but not making it in time to hike up together to some glaciers, but in the end I made a 'breakthrough' with my riding and got really good practice on gravel and started to feel really comfortable on it.

Cooking up a storm with Yas and Matt in the hostel

Yasmine with our empanadas!

Back on the bike at Cajon del Maipo

Exploring glacier caves near Banos Morales in Cajon del Maipo

With Yas and Matt at the top of La Camapana - where you can see the ocean to the Andes

The thing was that I was considering buying the bike and continuing on my travels on it. The taste I'd had the last couple of months first travelling in the car with Max, then with Diego on the bike had opened up a big burning hole of wanting to explore on my own, take any road and get off the bus route. But having never ridden a bike before (well actually I did ride my brothers dirt bike one time very unsuccessfully) I was unsure whether I could, wanted to, felt confident enough (both driving and with mechanics and travelling by myself) or whether it was really a good idea or no.

But I think the riding I did up in Cajon del Maipo sealed it for me. I loved it and wanted MORE. So after we came back, over a very nice bottle of Carmenere (the grape that for many years people thought was lost, but was being grown in Chile mistaken for Merlot) with Diego, Yas and Matt and everyone else who happened to be in the hostel kitchen, I 'formally' asked to buy the bike from Diego. Very very exciting.

So thus the past week I've been dragging a very patient Diego around to get a RUT – Chilean tax file number, buying parts/gear, transferring ownership – and of all excitements, getting panniers built on the bike (that yay I get to pick up this afternoon!). It's a big step, and yes I'm not sure how it will pan out, yes I am on a crash course of motorcycle mechanics courtesy again of a very patient and great teacher Diego, yes I have A LOT to learn about riding but I'm giving it a go. First step is to head out of town to a campground to do some more maintenance on the bike with Diego, then I want to head Northwards to then cross back into Argentina at Paso San Fransisco. It's very high – at 4700m and with about 200kms of gravel/dirt road leading up to it but you all know me – I'm diving right in.

So here I am, still no further northwards than when I started in BA in November, and about to continue the travels on a bike. I have no idea how it will pan out but I am so excited about hitting the road – for real this time.

Till next time...


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. A motorbike? Awesome. Keep living the dream, your SA adventure is very inspiring thus far.

  3. The bike suits you. We did some dirt biking in Cambodia and cant get enough of it now ;)