We had intended it to be a simple crossover, the start of a figure of eight, it would keep our overview map nice and simple. It would be a crossroads. We would leave Villa Union, head north and cross into Chile by way of a very quiet, very high frontier crossing point, with the possibility of returning by another Andean pass. It would be another challenge, another Americas experience, another ‘out of this world‘. In the interests of comfort and safety, we do a bit of initial planning, read some blogs, talk to the tourist office, remember some snippet of conversation we had several weeks ago, with fellow travellers. All of which leaves us in a degree of confusion: is the customs post open week round? Is there water to be sourced on the Chilean side? What is the state of the road? The real imponderable is the weather, and in particular the wind, for which there will be no reliable advice. In the end it was one single sentence from an account of a crossing the previous year that decided our eventual intentions: ‘the border was closed on the 28th February’. This year St Valentine’s day has been and gone. A crossing might be off the cards, yet there’s the tantalising prospect of a ‘parque natural’ and a cycling elevation score to collect. All sitting at the end of a road.
Sometimes in travel, the long journey can supersede the sum of the short trips. The ‘end to end’, be it the great Americas from Alaska to Terra del Fuego, a Ruta Cuarenta, or a circumnavigation of the world. They can become the all-consuming goal, but they can also miss out on so many fine, interesting or challenging places. Places often up ‘no through roads’, there and back. It had also been suggested to us, that next time we might consider the purchase of a second-hand Toyota to explore the side roads. That to us, is like a challenge, a dare to do the opposite. Buying four wheels? What would it do for our credibility, our carefully nurtured Luddite reputation, our parsimonious standings? Four wheels and an engine? I think not. It’s time to check out a side route again.
So we head out of town, provisioned with comestibles and some reliable information on water sources; it’s the latter that defines all trips in these parts.
Looking from 4350m to 6700m
It is a tantalising prospect, for out in front the really big hills are clear of cloud. Cerro Pissis coming in at 6700 metres, is the world’s highest volcano, sits along with it’s neighbours, Bonetes Chico y Grande. For a day’s company we still have the bulk of the Sierras del Miranda which tops out with Cerro Famatina, an isolated land mass, that we’ve been watching for days. Isolated, in that it seems dislocated from the main Andean chain, to the extent that it has its own weather system. Each morning is born blue clear, then a thin line of new clouds form along the lower slopes, sitting on a thermal layer. Developing and growing, these then start to detach and float away. Buying up moisture and energy, they quickly develop personalities, like they have consumed an engrossed spirit of the boll weevil, that’s punching it’s way to freedom, to escape the smothering confines of an indigestion of puffed cotton. It’s a pointless exercise that eventually turns to a temper tantrum. A few short lived sparks of lightning, the odd grumble of thunder. Yet nothing comes from the histrionics. Each day is the same, yet you know that eventually these traumas are leading up to an event.
Somehow, we’ve got to find 3,300 metres of climbable elevation, yet our first day is an easy, pleasant run up the Valle Bermejo, through a couple of pueblos that redefine a town planners idea of linear development. Seven kilometres in length, two properties wide and yet both can manage to create the mandatory Avenida San Martin with it’s central reservation of grass and a plaza for the church to gaze upon.
It’s only at the end of the day that we collide with a ridge of red sandstone hills, and it’s then that the climbing starts. ‘Caracole’ is how this sinuous road is described; it’s also a fair analysis of our progress up this cañon of propped and stacked sedimentary rock. The road follows the river, contesting with nature for space, and losing, as both hunt for a route through a series of contorted, tortuous interlocking spurs. There is a continuous programme of repair and renewal to try to keep this route open, yet mesh and piling cannot control the power of this red silt rio, nor the bombardment of rockfalls. These rivers are intent on dissolving, dissipating these sierras and transporting them back to the sea. Back from whence they came.
Intelligence had indicated the possibility of camping at the ‘guardafauna’ station; what that intelligence had not mentioned was the requirement for registering our presence with the rangers here and with the Gendarmeria back in Vinchina. For company, we are pitched beside two orphaned vicuñas, a sweeter, more delicate relative of the camel, whose defence mechanism is to kick rather than to spit. A fact The Navigator nearly found out to her cost.
Torta delivery by Guardafauna at 2500m
The local fauna has a habit of confusing us. Somehow I had gained the impression that these animals, along with their close relatives the guanaco were in serious decline due to indiscriminate hunting, and would be a rare sighting. We had had the same experience with the woodland bison on the Mackenzie river in northern Canada. 4,000 head lost in 40,000km of Laurentian shield. On that occasion we had resorted to photographing the roadside warning signs, reckoning that might be the closest we would get to seeing a real live specimen. Then we got excited when the first one hove in to view. By the end of that day we were blasé, as herd after herd wandered up the middle of the road. As with arboreal Canada, so with Andean Argentina.
You could not have wiped the smiles from our faces when we spied our first group. The lens at maximum shows a blurred backside disappearing into the bush; the next one I stalked from behind a crash barrier. Then a small family group, then a large family group. When the total reached four score and ten, we reverted to counting by herds. That night I spent a considerable amount of time deleting pictures and recovering pixels, resorting to the three best examples. If iconic fauna has this disconcerting habit of disconfirming us, of second guessing our preconceptions, then these landscapes do the same. As we climb, we can see these pink and peach coloured mountains clearing out of the cloud. I photograph intently, in case this is our only sighting, our only encounter with an image that’s been a haunting. It comes from a coffee table book of climbing photos, colour prints of impossibly coloured mountains, pictures that verged on paintings.
Up to 10,000ft, we don’t feel the effects of altitude; we might as well be back down on the River Plate, paddling in the sea swell. Now add on just a few extra feet of and we’re struggling, the lactates burning, heart thumping. It had been the same on the Obispo crossing to Cachi, Lesley suffers less and surges ahead, I’m left to use the excuse of photography to stop for a recovery. Fitness helps, recovery rates are fast, but I’m suffering from a want of altitude acclimatisation. The last few month cruising around at 2000m are just not adequate for this place. Yet excuses to stop are to be had everywhere. If it’s not another herd of vicuñas, it’s another multi-coloured hillside, not a salt crusted stream, it’s a mat of tiny yellow flowers.
Ribbons of green oxidised rock bleed from a cliff, form a screed rivulet, a runnel that flows down a cream hillside. Smooth in profile, rough in texture, granulated hills, like pastel coloured jelly moulds, stacked one upon t’other, all the way up to our horizon. The slopes fishnetted by ascending and descending animal tracks, dotted by pimples of hard tussock grasses and by slabs of mat forming Andean alpines. One specimen has been washed out in a flood, has been left stranded, a flotsam. A plant with a thick, deep tap root, attached to a short, thick, gnarled trunk. A miniature tree that is entirely submerged, root, trunk, branch, in the shattered rock, leaving just the surface canopy exposed out in the elements. In the firing line, in a hail of wind driven sleet, strafed by ice pellets and slugs of winter. Then blasted by a grapeshot of dust and grit for the short flowering season. Perfect adaptation.
It’s a decade since we spent a Christmas with my sister and her family in Lima. We had taken our time doing the Inca bit, Cusco, Macchu Pichu, Ollantaytambo, the full fascinating, ultimately depressing cultural story. Then for some relaxation we headed south of Lima, down the Pan- Americana highway to Paracas National Park. To the extremes of dry desert and strong alcohol, to the Atacama and Pisco sours. I know that I can date this fascination with desert landscapes to that afternoon’s short road trip. The Humbolt chilled Pacific ocean on our left, the dry land stretching away on our right. The wind sculpted rocks, the encrustations of saltpetre beds. A naked landscape shorn of green, stripped of modesty. My infatuation with hills is harder to date, but easy to locate. Goat Fell, Isle of Arran. Now put these two geographical elements together and you have a reason to be in these high Andean places. A sublime place that’s out of this world.
It’s an ‘ida y vuelta’, a there and back trip. A concept that can be an anathema to travelling cyclists, the idea being that we saw it all on the way up, it will be the same on the way down. A concept confirmed, if the evidence of the descending vehicles is to be accepted. Back seat passengers asleep, oblivious to the world. Erroneous, as my lactate loaded heart muscles are now freewheeling and we are both incredulous at what we’ve just pedalled up. The body now has the oxygen and the strength and the power to appreciate the primacy and the grandeur, the potency and the magnificence, the other worldliness of just exactly where we are.
Erroneous, as our descent precipitates a change in the weather. Precipitation is on its way. Gone are the hard blue skies, the clouds that have built up, only to dissipate each day, have, at last, gained a critical mass, an ascendancy. By the time we return to the Sierra Colorado, a smudge has crept over the hills, reducing them to murky, grimy outlines. Rain now looks imminent. It’s only when we get closer that the clouds turn from grubby grey to soiled pink. Not a rain storm but a dust storm. A prequel to several days of unprecedented rain.
It is another world. Gone are the clear, sharp red rocks, the slow oxblood river, now replaced by cutouts of ill-defined, soft focused, wet cardboard sheets. The river a mushy brew of aggregates. ‘Derrumbes’ says the sign; ‘falling rocks’ says my brain. A near onomatopoeic, that might describe the initial noise of a falling rock, a tumbling boulder; what it doesn’t catch is the ominous thump as it bombs the soft, grit road. A deadening blow, pounding whomp that leaves little to the imagination, expands a heart rate and surges pedal revolutions.
Back through Vinchina, we attempt to deregister with gendarmeria. The duty man is more interested in how we enjoyed our trip, than removing our entry from the register. Down wet roads, with glutinous shoulders. Once dry arroyos now run liquid mud. The companionable company of the enfolding mountains all lost to a humid world of waterproof jackets and trousers. We retreat back to Villa Union, back to our original cabin, back to roofers failing to plug out a continuous ingression of rain. A town we first met in December in a Zonda of 42° and a dust storm, a town we left four days ago in a clarity of a summer’s day. A town that today is puddled from kerb to kerb, has water-rippled sandbars the length of its main street, and has its denizens brushing water out their front doors.
Back to another worldliness, leaving behind our herds and sierras of iconic imagery and a mountain passage to Chile. Leaving behind some unfinished business.