Fat Bikes cross the Andes at Paso Pichachen from Argentina to Chile – Wind, Wind and more Wind

As we are still in Argentina I have to start by again talking about the banks and trying to get hold of some cash. It is something that takes up a lot of our time here when we would rather be cycling than endlessly and hopelessly queuing.

Yesterday we unanimously decided that we hadn’t been enjoying cycling in this part of Argentina and as the next 200 km was a desert like terrain with no visible rivers on the map we thought that it was beyond our water carrying capabilities. So we looked at cycling back over the Andes across the Paso Pichachen into Chile. But this route also had water issues. The first 120 km up on the Argentinian side, which would take us 2 or 3 days to cycle, was not only very steep ripio but we wouldn’t be able to get at the river as it was down in a deep canyon.

There were lot of pick-up trucks in Chos Malal so we hoped we could persuade someone to drive us up as far as the Argentine Customs which would leave us 14 km to climb to the top of the pass where we could see small streams were crossing this section. We generally asked around and eventually a petrol pump attendant said he knew someone. So half an hour later we were sitting in a cafe arranging the trip with Juve, a mountain biking and marathon running guide.

And this returns us, unfortunately, to the banks and our lack of cash. We tried again to get cash out of the ATM that had worked for brief time yesterday but with no success. So it was my turn to brave the queue of more than 100 people that went all down the street. Not being a very patient soul I am afraid I shamelessly queue jumped and after a long conversation involving a lot of Google translate and struggling to remain polite they admitted that they couldn’t access any cash in the bank but they rang a Chinese Supermarket round the corner where I could buy cash with a credit card and arranged a withdrawal. Crazy but true. This worked a treat and we were finally off into the mountains again.

Luckily Juve was a good driver as the narrow road was very rough in places with steep drops down into the canyon and the occasional large truck or herd of goats coming the other way.
Then finally we were at the Aduena or customs building and back under our own steam. After Juve had driven off we had a moment’s panic as we mistranslated what the Aduena had said and thought that only cars and not bicycles were allowed across the border at this point. But it turned out he just meant they didn’t need to search our luggage.
As not that many vehicles use this crossing the ripio surface was not too bad.
t was just as well as we had a really strong headwind, although as the road zigzagged up we often got a strong tail wind on the steepest sections.
When we first started cycling we could see the road signs marking the top and they looked impossibly high. They say when you are climbing that you should never look down but when you are cycling you should never look up!
Just beneath those two little clouds you can just make out to two tiny dots that are the signs at the tops of the pass where we are going
It is amazing how quickly you climb up through hairpin bends. So that it was not long before we could look down and see the road and river snaking away below us.
As this was a volcano the landscape near the summit was very bleak and black with just a bit of a snow blanket and it seemed appropriate as we cycled over this moonscape that we were riding Surly Moonlander FatBikes.
We were passed by some scientists who went up to the top and peered in the crater. As they left at a moderate speed we took that to mean everything was ok for now. This one last went off in 1869 so it wasn’t a regular.
I was very pleased that we actually managed to cycle to the top with no pushing, but that was only because we had fresh legs. The wind was so strong at the top we didn’t stay there long to admire the view.
The drop down into Chile was incredibly steep and we certainly wouldn’t have got up from that side without pushing. My hands were aching from braking after half an hour.
Seeing a long downhill section ahead made me smile!

It was getting late as the ground flattened off in a high plain and we approached the main slopes of Volcan Antuco. We were tired and wanted to camp before we passed the Chileno Customs as we weren’t allowed to take fresh fruit and vegetables across the border. We had planned on eating all the banned food for supper. We had found a slight dip that gave a little shelter from the gale and was next to water.  I was just chilling out taking photos of the local flora and fauna when the Chileno customs men drove past. 

Again we had a language malfunction. We thought we had to pack up the tent again and go with them in their pick-up as we weren’t allowed to camp there. In fact when they started to put our bags in the back of their pick-up and were insisting that we get in the back seat I began to wonder if we were being arrested. They took all our bags but we followed on our now lighter bikes as we didn’t want them damaged. They had said that their base was just 3 km away, but I was having evil thoughts about them as we struggled, tiredly, the 6 km or 7 km against a strengthening wind and a blackening sky.  When we got to their base they were all smiles and it turned out they were just worried about us as there was heavy rain and a thunderstorm rolling in. They offered us one of their portakabins to sleep in and we could use their kitchen and water.

Our home for the night. You can see the storm rolling in behind
As we had our passports stamped they were watching a Lightening McQueen DVD in Spanish, which was surreal as we had been watching it in Australia with our grandsons just before we came to Chile.
We had had to empty out our bags to check for any agricultural produce
The border guards were very kind to us and it was nice to be warm and dry when the storm hit. They also let us keep the food as long as we ate it there and it didn’t leave with us.
The weather had cleared the next morning as we set off around Volcan Antuco.
Leaving the border post where they let us stay the night in a portacabin
you can see the difference a bit of water can make to this arid landscape and hear the constant wind.
Known as Rosa mosqueta in Chile and Rosa rubiginosa elsewhere. Its oils are used for skin care products.
Halfway round we entered an area that was pure black lava with almost no plant life.  
These cows were being herded across this black furnace and it was not surprising you could see their ribs sticking out.
Then we came to a blue lake that contrasted with the black landscape.

It was here that we started to find the memorials all for the same date, 18th May 2005, and all for young men. We had heard there had been a disaster here with a lot of deaths but didn’t know more. It turned out that 400 new army recruits, with no mountain training and no survival equipment or proper clothing, had been sent out on an exercise on Volcan Antuco. The commanding officer did not go with them and sent them out against local advice. They were hit by gale force winds and a heavy snow storm and 44 of them died. The memorials were where they had been found and were strung out over 10 km as in the confusion of the terrible conditions they tried to get back to safety. It was very sad and no one was ever fully held to account.

Moonscape cycling
A ski resort!

Eventually we started to drop down steeply again and passed through a small and very closed ski resort. We began to pass hikers and then we were back in normal civilisation. Before long we were back on tarmac and the straightest road I have ever had the misfortune to cycle on all the way into Antuco village. In fact the road continued dead straight and busy all the way to Los Angeles (Chile) and has to rate as one of the most boring rides ever.

When we had set out on this trip our aim had been to head south so that we could cycle the famous Carretera Austral.  We had forgotten that cycle touring is all about the journey and not about the “arriving”.  Our journey to the start of the Carretera Austral had been fantastic, cycling in isolated, mountainous regions with dramatic scenery; just us and the wind.  Now we had arrived at what was going to be the start of a tourist route we had somehow run out of enthusiasm for it.

When the best view you can see is in your rear view mirror then it’s time to go home. Which is what we did!
Flying home from Puerto Montt. The clouds look like fluffy snow with the not so fluffy peaks of the volcanoes sticking out

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