We were stronger. Finally. We had been fighting against uphills, gravel and rain not to speak about the adventures on the Pampa in the south. And when we finally biked out of the village Futaleufú to make it towards the boarder with Argentina we felt good, strong and ready. Our plan was to bike on the Argentinian side, switch back to Chile and then make it to our friend Paula in Quilpué (a city close to Santiago). In our heads we were already there. The real challenge was over. Now we had a lot of asphalt in front of us and imagined that we would be flying north. As you may already guess it didn’t really work out that way. Stay with us to read yet another adventurous post about our weird life on a bike.
The boarder between Chile and Argentina was as usual a piece of cake. Stamp out and stamp in. We made some small talk with the people working at both sides of the boarder. Telling them where we had biked from and where we were going. They liked our Swedish flag that was hanging from a tired bamboo stick on Emil’s bike.
Although we have already crossed the boarder between the two countries several times it always feels exciting to make the switch. The feeling of something different. How the Argentinians talk a little bit slower and pronounce some of the words a bit different. How the moisty and jungly Chile ended and the drier and rocky Argentina began. The only thing that didn’t excite us as we entered Argentina this time was the fact that we were running out of dollars. We really don’t feel like telling you the whole backstory about the money situation in Argentina but basically the official exchange rate you get if you use your credit card in Argentina is so bad that you might as well travel in Norway if you want to travel cheaper. Hence the recommended thing to do is to bring dollars and change them on the “blackmarket”. If you are going to Argentina and want to know more about this money thing read this.
We entered Argentina and were followed by the rain from Chile on a bad gravel road. It didn’t take long before we were back on pure Pampa. Condors were slowly circling above us waiting for rabbits to turn into roadkill and the mountains that had previously been covered by forests were now just high towering rock formations draped in sand. The only difference from the south was that this time the Pampa came without the wind which made the experience really interesting.
As the road turned back into the mountains it became greener again and bushes with blackberries started popping up everywhere. We picked to our hearts content and continued biking with berry stained hands and faces.
The distance between the villages became shorter and shorter the further north we got. We celebrated Emil’s birthday in El Bolson on a very simple campsite with the fitting name: El Rustico (The Rustic one). We ate ice-cream and pizza and continued north. We biked up a 11 km uphill but felt good about it. So different climbing on asphalt and when it’s not as steep.
The day we biked into Bariloche we had crazy rain for hours. Somehow Bariloche was something of a milestone to us. Maybe because last time Johanna backpacked through South America Bariloche was the southest she got. As we biked through pouring rain we noticed that the suburbs of this famous tourist spot where really ugly. Huge dumps where plastic bags and other rubbish was sucked up by the wind and sprinkled out in the landscape around them. Horrible! And on our map the whole city of Bariloche was inside a huge National Park? To us Swedes the idea of having so much as a little gravel road inside a National Park is contradicting the whole idea of a National Park.
We had contacted a host on “Warmshowers” (a bicycle community for finding places to sleep) but we were one day early. We managed to call our host only to learn that we couldn’t stay with him until the next day. All the hostels were way to expensive so we decided to camp on the beach in the city. Camping wasn’t permitted but we figured that the beach wasn’t used for anything and we would not be bothering anyone as all the hotels didn’t care a bit about the rocky and inhospitable beach. The only reason camping was prohibited was probably to protect the economic interests of the tourist industry. Imagine if everyone would be able to enjoy nature for free…
We found an old sign saying ”public beach” that pointed down to the water. It was a slippery muddy path going down through thorn bushes. It was very steep but we were also very stubborn and carried everything down to the water where we pitched the tent. When we had finally cooked dinner it was already dark and we could see the lights from the city of Bariloche lighting up the clouds that were emptied of rain but still hovering above us. We thought about the fact that we were camping on the beach just below an expensive hotel built for the vacation skiers going here in the winter season. We talked about money and property. We talked about the concept of fences and borders that people in the world seem to cherish so deeply. A couple of days earlier we saw graffiti on a wall saying: “Propiedad es un robo” (Property is a theft). It’s true. It becomes very obvious when you come from Sweden where we have a law called “All people’s right”. A law that declares that one is allowed to camp on another persons property for one night without asking for permission as long as you are not in sight from their home. All people’s right. It should be obvious that nature and the right to be in it… is every person’s right. But not here. Here you can put up a fence, squaring in an area of millions of hectares, and put up a sign saying: “Propiedad Privada”.
The next day we biked to our host Miguel and stayed with him for 4 nights. Miguel was a bike enthusiast and had a private bike collection with very specific racing bikes from the 50’s and forward. We got some good advice about the north from Miguel, baked a lot of bread and enjoyed doing nothing for a while. When it was time to leave Bariloche we felt more than ready to continue and make the stretch from Bariloche to Quilpué in one go without any rest days. We felt prepared and motivated.
As we biked north we came into a really nice area where the road zig zagged between lakes and mountains. We decided not to rush it and didn’t bike further than 50 km a day to really enjoy the campsites and the weather which was absolutely amazing. We bumped into Trine and Morten, a Danish couple we met in El Chalten almost 2 months earlier, and biked with them. Life was good. No wind. No rain. Just great company and beautiful landscape.
We pitched our tents early one day. Early enough to take a dip in the lake next to our tents. That evening we joined a French couple who were travelling with a camper from Canada to South America. We drank some wine and enjoyed the heat of the campfire as the temperature started dropping. We saw a huge cloud with an almost unnatural sharp edge coming over us. It was weird. It was very different from how clouds normally look. One of us made a joke about it being a volcano eruption. Time passed and eventually the stars that usually would shine so bright were no longer visible and everything was dark. We went to bed without knowing that the carefree sunshine days and paradise biking were over.
Trine and Morten are speaking. We can’t hear what they are saying but they seem half excited half scared. We look out and realise that something is wrong. The air is absolutely packed with super small particles. Everything is silent but if we listen carefully we can hear the sound of something hitting the tent. Imagine the sound of someone sprinkling flour on a thin fabric. Almost non hearable but still there.
A loud bang. A flash of light and yet another bang. Lightning storm. Millions of loaded particles ripping energy through the air splitting it and pushing sound waves in all directions. Light so bright that for a second even the darkest night becomes day. Wow…it’s really close. We looked at each other. Another bang and you feel the force of the sound wave just like you would if you stand to close to a subwoofer on a concert. We go in and out of sleep. Eventually the lighting ceases and somehow everything becomes almost unnaturally silent. And why is it not cold by the way? Last night it was below zero?
It’s 8 in the morning and our alarm goes off. Usually the sun rises about this time. But the world is still pitch dark. It really felt like the end of the world. Darkness. Silence. We ate breakfast in our tent and waited hoping for it to get lighter. At 10 o’clock we started seeing more than our hand in front of us. We could start distinguishing trees around us but everything had lost it’s colours. It was absolutely impossible to imagine that we had biked through sunshine and taken a swim in the lake the day before.
We covered our faces with a piece of cloth to save our lungs from the dust. We went to the road and met a police car. The air was so dusty that you could see the shape of the jeep’s head light in the dark. Policemen in face masks came out and told us what we already had guessed. The joke from yesterday was true. A volcano on the Chilean side about 100 km away had had an eruption and thrown huge amounts of ash in our direction. They told us that it was unsafe to travel on the roads that were covered by a decimetre (in places even 2) of ash and that they had closed the road for all traffic. We were offered a ride to the next big town 40 km north and started packing our bikes into the jeep.
Hours later we were safe in an apartment in San Martin de Los Andes where we rented rooms together with our Danish friends. We were a little bit excited and to a beginning we thought it was cool that we had just been caught in volcano ashes. As the days went by and the ash just continued falling down we stopped being excited and started getting worried about how long we would have to stay until the whole situation would calm down. Our Danish friends were on a time limit and took a bus north to Mendoza but we were stuck due to the fact that no buses left towards Chile. We eventually ended up hitching a ride to one of the bigger boarders to Chile. The driver dropped us of 10 km before the boarder and as he speeded away we pulled our face masks up over our mouths and watched the empty, sad and colourless landscape around us. Visibility was limited and the layer of ash was even thicker. In places the ash layer was so thick that it would enter your shoes if you stepped in it. What have we done? Why on earth did we hitch a ride into the middle of nowhere?
The fear of being in the middle of nowhere in an ocean of ash started growing and the 10 km towards the boarder were terrible. It was like biking in a desert. We focused on the boarder. As long as we crossed it we could then try to hitch a ride out of the apocalyptic world we were biking in. But why were there no cars passing us? Everything was dead. The ash was like a cover suppressing all sounds. As we finally reached the boarder we saw bright red cones across the road. A woman with a scarf over her face looked in our direction. This is bad, we thought to ourselves.
The boarder was closed. It was Monday and they told us it would open on Thursday. We barely have food until Thursday we explained as we had planned to buy more in the village on the other side of the frontier since you are not allowed to bring food into Chile.
Sorry but thats your problem, the lady answered in Spanish.
We asked if there was any way we could get help returning back to San Martin de Los Andes as it would be impossible for us to bike back.
Then we asked for a place to take shelter and some food.
The answer was still no.
We talked to the woman and some other boarder guards that all made us feel stupid and guilty for our own situation. We explained that we had been told that the boarder would be open by the tourist office in San Martin de Los Andes and that our only wish was to leave the ash and get to Chile but the only answer we ever got was:
…too bad for you.
Without mobile connection, very limited food reserves and no where to go we pitched our tent and felt like the loneliest people on earth. The boarder guards were enjoying the television and food inside their house while we were eating rice in our dusty tent. They never came out asking us if we wanted to take shelter somewhere else. They never asked us if we needed food or water. Inside us hatred started growing and the good memories of helpful people and fantastic encounters we’ve had during our trip were blurred.
Days passed and we played a lot of rounds of Backgammon and Carcassonne in our tent. When Thursday arrived the boarder didn’t open. On Friday it was still closed but they assured us that it would definitely be open on Saturday – ”Cien percent!”
They switched guards at the boarder and a young policeman became our best friend. He felt pity for us and came out with a huge bag of food and delivered cooked meals. Things got better. But when Saturday came and we had stayed at the boarder for 5 nights we were once again told that it was closed. We decided that it was time to leave and packed our stuff together. Since we had arrived a handful of small cars had passed. None with the capacity to carry two bikes and lots of bags. But to our great joy just moments after we were told that the boarder was closed a camper van came rolling in. A French couple and their 2,5 year old son stepped out. They were as surprised as us about the boarder being closed. They too wanted to pass into Chile. We told them about our situation and moments later we were all squeezed inside their camper on our way back.
For two days we drove with them to a boarder further north that was open and we were dropped of in the city of Curacautín. We thanked them many times over and once again felt like there was some hope in humanity. All people on earth are not mean boarder guards with too much power and too little empathy.
The whole volcano business had thrown us back another 2 weeks and we confirmed that during the whole trip we had now been stuck for 5 weeks in total against our will. We had been sick, had knee pain and now gotten into a volcano eruption. The winter we were already trying to bike away from was getting really close. Since the northern part of Chile is mostly desert and the fact that we want to meet up with our friend Daniel in Peru in July and that we have been draining our budget due to the hefty prices in Chile and Argentina we decided that we would definitely take a bus from Santiago north.
The days on Ruta 5 passed quick and before we even knew it we were almost inside Santiago. We turned off the highway and made it to the Pacific Ocean. It was nice. We watched the sun sink into the sea one evening and another day we picked oranges from a long branch that stretched out over a fence from a huge plantation. The highlight of our way to Quilpué was definitely when we bumped into a couple on bikes outside a supermarket. Paloma and German. They were eager to invite us for lunch and told us that they planned to bike around South America with their 1,5 year old son.
The village where we met Paloma and German was just a small dot on a map to us. It was a dot saying: Casablanca. After our meeting with them we realised it was so much more than just a dot. They explained the local customs, urban legends and took us for a walk to the mountain outside town that would make no tourist raise their eyebrows. It was a sandy hill but for “Casablancinos” (people growing up in the village) it was so much more. They told us about the parties that had been there, they told us that when the sun raises in the summer and you have been hanging out with friends for the whole night it was almost inevitable not to take a walk up on that hill. It felt fascinating to feel that a place one might so easily just call a village like all others turning into a place with a soul. We stayed for the night and decided the day after to go for a bike trip and visit their friend Carlos. With their son in a trailer and with great weather we biked 25 km to a hidden valley that would have been impossible to find without the guidance from locals. A sandy road brought us down into the valley and at the bottom lived Carlos.
Out of a small house surrounded by cactuses a man stepped out. He wore dirty clothes, had crazy beard and was missing a tooth but his most prominent feature was definitely his big and warm smile.
Carlos is a poet and has covered his walls with his works. He loves plants, knows everything about nature medicine and he also loves old things. Anything old really. In his home he has more old things than you can find in even the shadiest of antique shops which might be the reason it has actually been registered as a museum in his municipality. Pick up any object and Carlos will tell you a backstory even if he doesn’t know what the object actually is but he will at least tell you how he got it. We watched Carlos make bread with his huge collection of herbs and we talked about society until we got so tired that we had to go to bed. The following morning we helped Carlos fix punctures on his old antique bikes and soon started biking back to Casablanca.
We ended up staying three nights with German and Paloma and said farewell at the junction of yet another big and boring road. We biked out of Casablanca leaving it with memories for life and finally made it to Paula and Quilpué in the same day.
Quilpué was the end of our first chapter on this trip. Since we started in Ushuaia we both knew that we would meet Johanna’s friend Paula there and take at least a week’s brake. Looking at the world map we could also for the first time actually see that we have gotten somewhere. We had biked almost a third of the continent, at least what it looked like according to the map.
In Quilpué we spent the time resting our legs and enjoying speaking Swedish. Paula made us feel like home and the days passed quickly. We combined pleasure with our long to do list.. Emil’s bike got a remake. The tent and the stove as well and we sent home another package of excessive stuff. When we didn’t check off things on our list we spent our time eating good, watching movies, meeting Paula’s friends and family and taking part in the nightlife in Viña del Mar. When traveling for a long time you now and then need to take a break from traveling. It’s nice, even just for a while, to fall back into the comforts of everyday life. Charging your batteries and staying in tune with the world outside your little biking bubble. So big thanks to Paula and her family for opening their home to us and letting us regain our strengths and load up for the big uphills and thin air in Bolivia.
We are now readier than ever to catch the bus to San Pedro de Atacama and head north! Next time you hear from us we will have blood more potent than the most doped of bike competitors and we will have, knock on wood, made it through one of the toughest parts of our road through South America.