The scenery was stunning, which was why we were here, and turning each corner revealed new vistas.
The first day out from Curico, Chile everything seemed really easy. It was a gentle climb and my legs felt strong. Bernie was suffering though as he had about 8 kg of food, in addition to his normal load, that we hoped would last us for the 4 or 5 days crossing to Argentina. We cycled through acres of pancake flat cherry orchards until at 22 km the tarmac stopped and the climb and the road works began. It was really hard going initially as they had just put down deep gravel that hadn’t been rolled yet. But while the surface got easier after a while we were constantly passed by gravel and water trucks heading in both directions and covering us in dust.
We found a quiet spot near the river to camp, well away from all the dust. It had obviously been used as a picnic spot as there was the customary piles of broken glass and some of the ancient trees had been half hacked down to feed the Chilenos endless desire for a camp fire.
We cycled 75 km on the first day but only managed 19 km on the second. This says something about the gradient. We had finally lost all the road works and would not now see a soul, except the customs officers on both sides of the border, for the next three days.
It was a real hard slog that involved a fair amount of pushing and hauling. It was not only very steep but had loose gravel and fine, dry sand underfoot. At one point if I took both brakes off to push the bike forward both the bike and I slid back down the hill.
It was very hot and there was no shade up here. We had had a tail wind since we started, which was wonderful, and this was getting much stronger as we climbed.
There were so many alpine flowers here. So whenever we stopped to pump some water from one of the side streams I am afraid I left Bernie with the water while I crawled around finding more and more flowers to photograph.
We finally made it passed the Chileno customs post but we were still 8 km from the top at the end of the second day when we could go no further. Getting the tent up in the strong wind was a challenge and required all the guy ropes and a few boulders. Did I mention that the views were amazing.
We were hot and dusty by this time. So as soon as the tent was up I went to dunk my head in the stream to wash away all the dust. Unfortunately this meant kneeling down in icy glacial water which I kept telling myself was good for tired muscles. I am sure I have heard that athletes have ice baths. Needless to say it was a very quick wash.
Cooking here in the gale was interesting as everything was immediately cold as soon as it left the saucepan. The temperature drop in the evening was dramatic and we were soon wearing all our clothes. But apart from the roar of the wind and the river there was silence. No engines, no dogs barking, no light pollution, just us and the stars in a clear night sky.
When we emerged from our tent on our third day in the Andes we had the lovely sight of the mist rising gently up from the valley far below and the snow covered peaks just above. We had to cook some bread for lunch before we set off as we had finished the two days supply we had brought with us. We had set it proving the night before.
It started really steep and we left our camp just in time before the gale blew the mist over were we had been.
Then, amazingly, it started to flatten off and at 2550 m we went through Paso Vergara.
I found some amazing flowers right at the top that survived the strong cold wind and the sand storms it whipped up.
Isn’t this simply beautiful. It looks like it is growing in a greenhouse, not at the top of a mountain in the teeth of a gale
Arriving at the border with Argentina. The actual border post was still a long way off.
Nearly at the top
There was still quite a lot of snow here beside the road.
We saw a lot of Condors on the way across
So finally we started going downhill after two and a half days of ascent. But our joy was short-lived as round the next corner was a river that we would have to ford. The water, which came up to our knees, was freezing as we pushed the bikes across.
This side of the mountain was completely different to the Chileno side. It didn’t drop down so steeply and was boggy and crisscrossed with streams, most of which we were able to ride through.
Then we did come to a steep descent that looked like we were dropping down into a caldera, at the bottom of which was a scruffy looking Argentine customs hut. The three military men there seemed delighted to see us but I couldn’t help wondering what they had done to be sent to such a desolate spot where the wind was so strong you could barely stand up. We chatted to them for a while, each with their own form of Spanish and I suppose I should have taken more notice when he pointed up and said Volcan and I ignorantly replied that yes it was very pretty.
Cycling around the massive caldera was exhausting as the surface was fine volcanic dust that even our fat tyres sank into and the wind whipped up into our faces and eyes. There was a lot of heat all around us that we cycled through in waves, like swimming through a warm current, and a horrible sulphur smell. It was worrying but the cattle up there seemed to be alright. We just wanted to push on and get out. We passed a volcanic research station dome that was bristling with electronics, which we saw on a film a couple of days later.
It was getting late and we were tired but we didn’t want to camp there so we kept going. But it didn’t get any easier. We passed every sort of steep, unstable rock face you can imagine. There were towering loose shale cliffs or loose rocks of every colour.
If you look hard you can see Bernie cycling round the base of the rock. It shows the scale of the landscape here.
Luckily nowhere safe to camp, so we went much further down the mountain than we had intended and so further from the volcano. At this time our main concern was the gale force wind. The only flat space where we could pitch a tent was on fine, dry sand. But even with me holding the tent on the ground while Bernie put in all our pegs it left the ground spraying pegs in all directions. So after trying two spots unsuccessfully we ended up pitching the tent in a hollow, totally out of sight. And this is why the military didn’t see us when they later evacuated everyone from the mountain as Volcan Peteroa started to belch out an ash cloud.
We had seen the clouds coming over the nearby peaks and were just concerned it was going to rain as we would be vulnerable to flash floods where we were camped. So we had checked the forecast and all was ok.
It was a noisy night with the wind roaring around the tent so we didn’t hear any other activity going on around us. Then in the morning we had gritty tea and porridge. In fact there was grit in everything we ate, in our hair, in our clothes, in the tent. Everything was coated in a fine, black, volcanic dust so that as soon as you touch anything your hands are filthy.
We packed up the best we could in the gale and had a pleasant cycle down the mountain.
There was a lot of dust in the air from time to time but the wind was constantly picking up the black sand in mini sand storms.
Halfway down we cycled through a totally white area that was covered in minute gypsum crystals. The area was called Las Tapanas which means The Covers, and it did indeed look like it was covered in a large white duvet. The wheels were totally silent as they went through and quite difficult to control.
On the lower slopes we met a farmer on a beautiful horse who I stopped to chat to. I don’t think either of us really understood the other but we seemed to agree that we had come from up there and we going down there somewhere.
We finally made it down to a surfaced road and the small village of Los Loicas. There we saw the video of Volcan Pateroa erupting in clouds of white dust. They had shut the Chile-Argentine border just after we had gone through.