Most of the time traveling by bicycle is a joy because of the pace: rolling along at 12 mph you see and smell and hear the world around you and that is the gift you get for all the little inconveniences that come with packing all your things into panniers and sitting on a leather seat all day. Occasionally though, bicycle touring turns into a truly fantastic physical challenge and make you feel like some sort of super-athlete. Climbing the Andes is like that.
We began climbing from Santiago, Chile (1500ft) and over the course of three days crept our way, one pedal-stomp at a time to the 10,417ft pass of Cristo Redentor (named for the statue that actually sits at 13,123ft on top of the mountain). The landscape went from suburb to small town and into the foothills before we began our true ascent: up 29 switchbacks that ended with a couple windy plateaus before taking one cold deep swoop around the face and under a series of half-tunnels (designed to protect road-users from the frequency of falling rocks) before opening up into the crossing itself, a tunnel that bicycles must be driven through.
By the time we summited we were frozen and the wind stung our cheeks. We had heard a rumor that an 8k dirt road switch-backed up to the statue itself, and that you could also cross the border there, so we decided to give it a try.
Two hours and 3k later we turned back down the road, frustrated at the way our heavy bicycles handled the soft dirt, and fearful about the flakes of snow that had begun to drift down. We met back up with the driver who brought cyclists through the tunnel and we hefted the bikes into the big truck.
The other side of the tunnel was officially Argentina, but we wouldn’t pass immigration for another 15k. We warmed ourselves with hot chocolate at a tiny restaurant as a terribly sad American movie with Richard Gere captivated our waitress and her friends. By the time we left the cafe the weather had become dangerous. The wind gusted and blew our bicycles over as they rested against the restaurant wall. Hail and snow came one right after another and thunder grumbled in the distance. Later, we would find out that some of the “thunder” we heard was actually the rock-slides off the road coming down from the Cristo Redentor statue.
We pushed our way out of the restaurant and turned the corner to look back at the mountain. There, in an enormous old house at the base of the dirt road stood a man in full military camouflage beckoning for us to come in. Smoke poured from the old stone chimney and we rushed over, squinting in the gusty hail. Alejandro introduced himself as a Corporal in the Argentinian military and told us over and over that this was our home for the night. We couldn’t argue when he opened a door to a warm, dim room, where his fellow soldier paused his video game and stood to attention.
We slept the night to the crackle of the dying fire, and woke to coffee and lively conversation. The outpost, perched so remotely at the border was a vestige from years of territory disputes. The military maintained a presence of two personnel at any given time, but the shift only lasted two weeks due to the remote nature of the place. The mansion itself was in terrible disrepair: the faucets could not be turned off fully and dripped ice-cold glacier water from every tap and shower-head; the plaster of the walls was cracked and light-bulbs flickered in the hallways. The two men passed their time reading, playing war video games, looking at photographs on their computers of their families and friends, and cooking.
The sun was warm and the sky was clear, so we took our time in the morning and began our decent. We passed easily through a huge, efficient customs building where drivers and tour bus passengers stared unabashedly, and then cruised down the gradually sloping Argentinian side of the mountains.
The weather got warmer and warmer and the breeze turned from a nice tailwind into a hefty headwind as we got further down. We spent a night in a strange little town called Punte del Inca, named for a natural bridge that spans the river there, and famous for having had an enormous rockslide that took out much of the town, miraculously sparing only a small stone church. Some Argentinian tourists came, took photos and left during the day, but the town consisted largely of a transient population of climbers either coming down from or headed up to Aconcagua: the highest mountain in the Americas. These climbers had enormous amounts of gear, and stumbled around the tiny town’s cafes and gift shops stooped under their cumbrous packs using their treking poles for balance.
The next morning brought headwinds so strong that we had to pedal to move downhill. The normal chatter died down and we stomped on our cleats with the wind roaring in our ears. 70k later, we turned a corner and Uspallata stretched out in front of us like a dark carpet. The small village tucked into the Argentinian foothills was so lush and green that it seemed like a mirage after the Andes. Stretching Poplar trees lined the roads and we found a small campground that provided hot showers, quiet, shade, and an asado: all a cyclist could ask for.
We cooked an enormous meal of heaping grilled vegetables, hamburgers, and local wine and feasted. We were dehydrated, hungry, tired, and our legs were hollow, and after eating and drinking (and copious amounts of water), we collapsed into our tent and slept hard.
The next morning, as we rolled out of Uspallata towards Mendoza, the snow-capped Andes loomed behind. Several times we stopped to look back in awe… we climbed those. On bicycles. Pedal stroke by pedal stroke we had pushed ourselves 10,000ft into the air. We thanked our legs and lungs, and turned forward again, wheels spinning towards the far side of South America.