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Going Over The Top: Cycling Paso de Los Libertadores

There were two things that needed to happen before we could start our cycle across the continent, from Argentina to Uruguay.
1. Cycle our first (almost) 4000m Andean pass over the famous Paso de los Libertadores from Chile to Argentina.
2. Collect Ben’s new (warranty replacement) Ortleib gear.

However we couldn’t do the first until we had the second, so we had another week off of the bikes waiting. It’s the same story as the Monzo debacle back in January, the package arrived into Chile but was being held up for one reason or another, as seems to be the way here. It was lucky that we had a kind WarmShowers host in Los Andes who was happy with us staying for a few more days than planned while we waited on news about the bags. Camilo was really cool, a cyclist himself, and we had a nice evening at a local brewery having some proper beer. It was also fortuitous because staying there at the same time was a Brazilian cyclist, Daiana, who had cycled a similar route (albeit in the other direction) that we’re going to take over the next month or two, so a lot of information was shared.

When we got the news that we could pick up Ben’s new bags we left our bikes in Los Andes, got a bus to the capital and made a long weekend of it.

Santiago is the capital city and as we’ve spent so long in Chile it feels like we would have missed a big part of the country if we hadn’t have gone there. The first thing we did before anything else was collect Ben’s new bags and once we had them in hand, we headed to our couchsurfing host’s place. He lived just out of the centre so it was nice and quiet but you could get a bus or metro within ten minutes and be downtown.

José was a fantastic host and we got on really well with him. He has travelled quite a bit himself so it was fun sharing stories about where we’ve been and hear about his travels too. We also loved his home – it was really well furnished and he had lots of nice kitchenware, just like we had at our house! We’re getting a bit of a reputation for cooking and baking when we stay somewhere now, but it’s something we really miss being on the road so we don’t mind!

As Santiago wasn’t originally on our route we didn’t know what there was to do there so José was an invaluable source of local knowledge and made sure that we got the best out of the city. He took us to his favourite café in the lovely Cerro Santa Lucia area (barrio), which had the best wholemeal empanadas and juice. Later we walked up the city centre hill of the same name which had amazing views over the city. We sauntered through the Parque Forestal which is a big park running through Santiago, looked round the Bella Artes museum which had some interesting exhibits and is itself an impressive building. It is interesting seeing some of the older buildings here (~200 years old) and in comparison to British history it is really modern!

But the most incredible building we saw (and one of the most impressive that we have ever seen) was the unexpected highlight of the trip, the Baha’i temple (Casa de Adoracion). Situated to the west of the city in the foothills of the Andes it is one of eight such temples in the world, the only one in South America and it was completed only 18 months ago. We sat in the library looking through a book about the planning and construction of the building, which is the most impressive thing about it. It is a nine sided, symmetrical building made with near transparent marble, curved glass and a lot of steel. As Chile is prone to earthquakes, not that we’ve felt one since being here, the foundations had to be built 6 meters deep and the whole thing balances on seismic inhibitors so if the earth shakes the structure on top does not!

We spent a whole afternoon there, admiring the Baha’i temple and the amazing view across Santiago which made us realise just how large the city is.

Before we knew it we had spent three days in Santiago and it was time to head back to Los Andes and our bikes. We had packed and were about to leave, Ben just had to attach his new frame pack and we would have fully functional bikes again. However, in typical fashion, the Velcro that attaches the straps to the bag broke on the first use as if they hadn’t been glued down properly. We were not impressed and we are going to look into viable, more durable luggage alternatives in the near future.

The start of El Paso de Los Libertadores is only 20 km from Los Andes so we left in the late afternoon hoping to avoid the hottest part of the day but here that seems to be about 5pm, so it was still sweltering. After gradually climbing for a couple of hours we found a decent camp spot.

The next day after more gradual climbing we reached the iconic part of the pass, the 30 paved switchbacks. This is where the climbing starts in earnest and there is nowhere but up from here! They loomed above us like a slithering snake and Curve 0 was a helpful reminder of how far we still had to climb.

Once we started riding it didn’t feel too bad as the switchbacks made the road an easier gradient to ride but they went on for quite a long time. The paparazzi kept us motivated though! Before we’d even cycled a kilometre we had a car of Brazilians get out and take photographs with us, looking at our bikes and congratulating us. We also had smiling drivers beeping at us, truck drivers hanging out of the window waving and passengers on the tourist buses taking photos out of the window as they raced past. It made us feel pretty good about what we were doing and we pushed on a lot further than we thought, reaching the base of the old road that we would need to take as bikes aren’t allowed in the Cristo Redentor tunnel, where 99% of the vehicle traffic goes.

We didn’t look at the weather forecast until we were a day into the climb so we checked before running out of signal. The temperature would be in single digits overnight and there might be a few hours of rain but when it held off all day we thought we had escaped it. The grey clouds started to close in as we got close to the tunnel, about the same time we were looking out for somewhere to camp. There was an abandoned building that was a bit grubby but would shelter us well enough, but we decided to go to what we thought was the border control at the tunnel and just check if we needed to do customs there before we headed off in the morning. The guard explained that you do the border formalities in Argentina and he asked if we needed a ride through the tunnel. When we said we were cycling the old road tomorrow, Carlos must have known that a storm was coming as he brought us round the back of the building, told us where to park the bikes and showed us to our own dorm room.

We were so grateful for the hospitality!

We had a kitchen, hot water and a large communal dining room where minutes after we arrived we watched the rain, then the snow, fall from the sky. It was a random half an hour but we felt so lucky to be inside! Gabriel, the supervisor, chatted with us for a while as we cooked our curry and explained what he did there, maintaining the tunnel and surrounding roads. He absolutely loves his job and as such, has been doing it for 20 years.

We left the next morning but headed for the old road that would take us up and over the mountains rather than through the tunnel. Cycling the old road was where the real adventure started. It was a good surface, hard packed mud that was a little tacky from the rain overnight but nothing that our wider tyres couldn’t handle. It was what our bikes were made for! Like the previous day the road had a lot of switchbacks but we were glad these weren’t numbered because there were a lot more of them and they weaved their way all across the mountain side. The altitude didn’t affect us quite as much as the biting wind, but nonetheless it was harder going than the previous day and it took a few hours with a stop for a snack half way up. It was worth it though for the views alone and how silent it was having the mountains to ourselves.

When we did reach the top the temperature was colder than we have experienced for a long time and we quickly needed to put more clothes on. It was a weird feeling making it to the top though because for the whole morning, on the Chilean side we were the only ones but when we reached the top there were minibuses of people milling about. At least we had the satisfaction of knowing that we made the climb to 3860m under our own steam, especially when we left Valparaíso we were at sea level.

The part we were both excited to ride was the descent! Ben raced the cars down, often travelling faster than them around the sweeping bends, while I kept stopping to take photos. The view was amazing with the river running though the valley between snow capped mountains and the dirt road kept changing colour from brown to grey to red. We also met other cyclists coming up the other way and it was nice to see we weren’t the only crazy ones!

After the old road ended we were back on the paved road with the traffic that had gone through the tunnel and soon we got to the customs building. Annoyingly it was really disorganised and there were no signs to direct us where to go but it was reasonably quiet and we got through without too much delay. There were a few smaller tunnels on the road that we did have to ride though and these were a bit sketchy without a hard shoulder, but we used our lights and rode fast so they weren’t a problem. It was quick going until about 40km from the first big town, Uspallata, the wind changed and it became a headwind. This slowed our progress as much as our tired legs, so we camped next to the road in a patch of scrub land before riding to Uspallata the next day. The wind was calmer in the morning, it was a fairly quiet road and the weather got warmer, so we reached the town before midday.

We had 48 hours in Uspallata before embarking on the next leg of the trip and they were very relaxing. We even unwittingly adopted a dog for the day. Tiger (the name we gave him!) followed us around the campsite and the town, waiting patiently with our bikes while we did grocery shopping and slept outside the porch of our tent. We don’t know why because we didn’t feed him or give him any real attention. It was a sad day when we had to leave and we sneaked away as he slept in the shade.

We will leave you with a few more pictures of the mountains because we don’t know what the scenery will bring as we cycle across Argentina and it might be some time before we are in sight of the Andes again. We are heading towards the pampas which are notoriously flat, windy and hot but we don’t really know what it’s like, so we’re going to find out!

Until next time,
Steph and Ben

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6 comments

  1. Quiet a change for you, as you head inland across the beautiful but formidable Andes. It looks like you have been on some pretty tough roads already – I’m sure you’ll reach the other side of the Andes even fitter than you already are! That is a very impressive kettle too! I fear the Argentine pampas will be somewhat less interesting…on the plus side you won’t have to wear/carry as many clothes…

    I think that Spring has finally arrived here, after a long and quite difficult WInter. The cherry blossom is starting to emerge, several weeks later than usual, birds are singing and frogs are spawning. We went for a walk without a coat yesterday, for what must be the first time for many months. We have more sleet/snow forecast for Easter weekend but hopefully that won’t be too bad and the birds can continue building their nests….

    We’re off on another holiday just after Easter – 9 days on Ibiza with some friends and their 2 boys. Obviously, with 3 kids in tow (not to mentionmy dislike of nightclubs), it won’t be a clubbing trip! We’re hoping to see a quieter side of the island, practise a bit of Spanish and enjoy some local food and wine.

    Julie, Laura & Solana x

    1. The roads weren’t as tough as they look because they have so many switchbacks, but the Andes on this pass were amazing to ride through. Yeah it has been quite a change crossing Argentina but it’s been really nice. We’ll say more in the next blog soon!
      Haha, I really want a kettle for that big for constant cups of tea when we get back home.
      Its nice to hear its a bit more like spring there, we’d heard it has been really cold and difficult there over the winter. Enjoy your trip to Ibiza, I’m sure that’ll warm you all up a bit! Steph x

    1. Yeah it’s pretty high and we found that breathing is generally okay, you just take your time and make sure you’ve acclimatised well enough before. We’ve since been higher and above 4500m we start to feel the altitude more and it feels more difficult to pedal a fully loaded bike… another reason to go much lighter haha!

      1. Taking time generally wouldn’t be a problem! Though, you are working your way out. So, I guess it would balance it out. I’ve been doing some route planning, and some of my altitudes peak at nearly 4900 metres.

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