RSF - The Off Road Cycling Club

The Adventure Starts Here

Snails Across the Andes

by Tracey Maund



road to the Bermejo PassIt was appropriate that in the W H Smiths in terminal 2, among the self-help books, was a copy of Don Quixote. It may be an interesting question as to which one of us is Don Quixote and which Sancho Panza, but in this case the real dreamer and fantasist is Turistel's cartographer whose maps owe more to the imagination than to the prosaic realities of the existence or otherwise of roads.

In the back pages of the Chile Central book, there appears to be a road in Chile leading to the Argentine border, and a road emerging from somewhere within Argentina, that almost meets it, at the 4000m Paso de los Piuquenes. Now one can never have too many 4000m passes, particularly if they happen to be in a part of the world where the temperature in February is typically 30, so the pass could be forgiven for lacking some 5km or so of road.


A search for more information on the internet revealed the truth. There is a road, of sorts, on the Chilean side, and a road, of different sorts, on the Argentine side, but the gap is more like 40km than 5km. Moreover there are actually two 4000m passes: the Piuquenes on the border, and the Portillo Argentino in Argentina. The Argentine road goes to the top of the Portillo Argentino and the Chilean road to the base of the Piuquenes. What links the roads is a mule track, which is used as a horseback trekking route. However the real obstacle is not the two passes but the Rio Tunuyan between them, too strong and turbulent for anyone to cross on foot. We would need horses or mules.


In this age of communications one can book mules over the internet. Cyberspace allows a useful distortion of reality: with the Concise Oxford English-Spanish dictionary and several hours' thinking time per sentence one can successfully feign fluency in Castilian; it's a marked improvement over the telephone. We only managed to overlook a couple of potential problems. We have no excuse for missing the first, as we had a detailed account of the route by Cesar Pechemiel, who had done the crossing with the Club Andino of Tunuyan. This is that there is another river on the Chilean side, which we'd have to tackle horseless; Cesar says that his party needed to use a rope. The other problem we may be forgiven for overlooking. This was the remote possibility that Argentina would have a once-in-thirty years cold front that would dump a load of snow on the mountains and close roads at only 3000m.

Generally though, the Santiago-Mendoza region has a very agreeable climate. It is also here that the Andes reach their highest point, at Cerro Aconcagua. Here the cordillera is narrow, rugged and arid. The mountains are virtually uninhabited and the few established routes naturally simply go from one side to the other; very unlike the Alps, where there are centuries worth of squiggly roads and tracks allowing almost unlimited wandering. This is the drawback for the cyclist. There is only one road pass over the Andes in this region, and that is the international route over the Libertadores pass, about 100km north of Santiago and Mendoza.


The only way to make a complete tour would be to cross the Libertadores and back via the Piuquenes (or vice versa); further exploration would have to be up dead-end roads around ski stations and suchlike. There did seem to be one other tempting route in the Turistel book, besides the Piuquenes, which would make an alternative route from Santiago north to join the Libertadores road: a road going up one valley to La Disputada, a short gap over a pass, another road leading down. Other maps showed there to be rather less road than did Turistel - hardly a surprise - and we couldn't find any other information about it, so we (mostly) abandoned the idea.


We spent a pleasant few days acclimatising with day rides, based at the Farellones ski resort above Santiago, and then (I have to confess) we took a taxi to Los Andes to start the tour proper. It wouldn't have been a terribly interesting ride there, and we're not even sure if it is even possible with bikes, because a long section of the route looks to be motorway only, though Ivan says he's ridden it. Los Andes is at the base of the mountains, and from here it's uphill all the way to Argentina.


Cristo RedentorAt first the valley floor is lush, with market gardens and vines and bougainvillea. But the concrete road leads us onwards, the gradient picking up imperceptibly. This road is the main crossing linking Chile with the rest of the continent and inevitably carries a fair quantity of freight. It would be a pleasanter ride if it didn't, though the traffic levels are tolerable, but it gives the road a rather industrial feel. This too: from a hole in a mountain, a train carrying huge cans clanks and creaks out, endlessly, presumably originating from one of those mysterious lands of mines up a forbidden road.

The availability of restaurants along the pass is not ideally suited to the cyclist. The only possible lunch stop is at Guardia Vieja which comes too early in the climb and this means we will have to drag pasta-filled bellies up 1200 vertical metres in the full heat of the afternoon. For it is after Guardia Vieja that the road begins the serious business of climbing.

The valley has abandoned such frivolities as flowers and trees and the mountainsides now are all grey shale. We pass forlorn, derelict mine workings and face the first flight of the Caracoles: a Jacob's ladder of a road, trucks working their way up, struggling up bend after bend, as if to reach their truck heaven. "Caracoles" is Castillian for snails, and it's the usual term for switchback mountain roads - though pedants would point out that snail shells spiral. No matter - the snail metaphor is entirely appropriate for the speed at which you travel along these things.


We are riding upwards into the thick of the mountains, totally surrounded now by spiky peaks. We pass a bleak and windswept collection of huts but the hotel at Portillo is nowhere to be seen. It's not until we are right by it that we find that it's hidden from the road below. In the stark grey mountains, it's an incongruously cheerful blue and yellow modern building, and inside it is warm and luxurious, with wood panelling and sumptuously laid tables. Out of season it's a real bargain, and we have a mammoth chalet to ourselves; the food is excellent.

In the morning we face the frontier formalities that dwell in a large shed. These formalities are easy to complete: you simply look utterly clueless, until somebody takes pity on you and does all the relevant form-filling. This appears to work, though of course we have no way of telling until we try to enter Argentina. But nobody yet has volunteered any information as to how we should overcome the next obstacle - the tunnel. For the main road takes a short cut through the mountains, via a tunnel at 3100m; and for good reason, people are not permitted to cycle through. Of course the tunnel has not always been there. The true, original, pass over the mountains, the one with the Cristo Redentor statue, is much higher, at nearly 4000m, and although the road still exists on the Argentine side, the Chilean side is said to be unusable. We wonder what it is really like, and whether we will attempt it.

We ride towards the tunnel, the valley now completely walled in by dark, jagged peaks.

But what's this? There's a shiny new sign with a right turn to "Cristo Redentor". They have rebuilt the old road just for us! I say "road"; it is the infamous "ripio" (literally, rubble) of South America, though, when newly laid like this it is not all that bad. As a ride, it is as fabulous a climb as one could possibly imagine. To the right is a steep slope, and as far as we can see, and beyond, the road hairpins upwards, climbing, climbing towards the peaks. The surface of the slope is sharp and shaley but in the distance it catches the light like tawny cloth, rippling between the crags.

More peaks appear beyond a pass to the south, as if a landscape were being newly created, and then, like a grand finale, comes forth a glorious snowcapped, glaciated mountain, somewhere utterly unknown. Below us, the road snakes like a Nazca-line monument. Now we can see the statue to the left, and we are nearly done. We have been alone for two hours - save for two cars - and it's a surprise to see so many tourists at the top, day-trippers from Mendoza, mostly.

There are high mountains all around, but clouds have now built up, obscuring the peaks. It's also furiously windy, possibly the windiest place we've ever been. We heroically resist the need to don warm clothing as we have to collar someone to take our photograph in front of the statue, and for the photograph we need to pose bravely in shorts. We descend into Argentina, to food, a cloudy view of Aconcagua, another shedful of forms, and a warm bed.

It's a lovely ride down to Uspallata, especially as we are going downhill with a tailwind, and we can give our happiest smiles to three Mendocinos and a German heading the opposite direction.

From Uspallata we ride over the Cuesta de Paramillo, with more ripio, to Mendoza, with its memorably good food, and some of the best wines of the continent.

But now there is definitely something iffy going on with the weather and there is cloud lowering over the Andes. We rather hope, when the clouds occasionally thin, that the white stuff we can see not all that high above, isn't actually snow, but perhaps some warmer sort of white version of water, since we are only at about 1200m here, and we are hoping to cross 4000m passes the next weekend. Our hotel is well provided with newspapers and the newspapers well provided with weather reports. There are floods in Buenos Aires, it is the coldest summer weather since an occasion in 1970's and the Libertadores is deep in snow, and the even the main road closed. The Piuquenes is surely off. We consult bus timetables.