06/01/2020 Simon ‘Wardy’ Ward is nomadonanomad
It’s now time to leave Embalse after an enjoyable time there and head for Chile. My chosen route is going to take me off the beaten track for some time before getting to Villa de Merlo, about 100 kms away. A small town I’d been told was very beautiful, and situated in the shadow of a mountain. Then it would be highway all the way to San Juan before the push to the border high in the Andes. That was the plan anyway.
The first day I aimed to get to a place called Lutti, a small hamlet with a river and campsite 55 kms from Embalse. I had guessed it would be somewhat hilly and on ‘ripio’ which is the gravel roads you get here away from the main Rutas which are usually ‘asphalto’. I quickly got to La Cruz to call in at the panaderia and stock up on goodies ready for the ripio section which would take me away from pretty much everything until I got to Lutti. 8 kms after La Cruz the ripio started and it was not too bad for the first 15 kms or so and led me to a beautiful stream where I could recharge my water bottles and cool down a touch. However, after that things started to get way tougher than I had expected and the surface was so bad and steep that I was doing as much pushing the bike as I was riding it. There were a number of sections where it was so steep I was close to having to take bags off the bike to get up the hills and other sections where I had to walk the bike downhill because it was too dangerous to ride. It soon became apparent that I wasn’t going to make Lutti that first day, and if things didn’t get any better I would be foolish to think I would get to Villa de Merlo on the second afternoon. Still I had the tent, the scenery was spectacular, and I had plenty of food and knew there were enough water sources to not be too worried.
Photos. The only good thing about this section of the journey was the sparkling clear water which, as the temperatures were in the high 30s, was icy cold and very refreshing.
I found a place to wild camp easily enough and settled down after making dinner and slept like the proverbial log. It had been a long day with the temperatures in the mid to high 30’s and more of the same was forecast. I got an early start the next morning after breakfast but found the going even slower as the hills just kept getting steeper. When I eventually got close to Lutti it became obvious that I had to go 2 kms down a very steep hill to get to the river and stock up with water again, and the climb back up to the camino would take me the best part of an hour. No choice as otherwise I wouldn’t make it to the next water source and passing traffic was almost non-existent. The descent was, again, very difficult and I had to walk the bike quite a lot of the way, and so by the time I got to the stream I was so hot that I just lay down in the water which was refreshingly cold and drank my fill while I lay there. I was now realising that instead of 2 nights on the mountain it could turn into 4 if things continued to be as difficult. I did have enough food with me but it was such hard going I was starting to get really tired in my upper body from all the pushing, and that was something very new to me.
Photos. The ‘ripio’ and the extremely steep hills made for very tough and slow going. I used to see around 6 cars or trucks a day.
On the third day I was really struggling and only averaging about 2 kph because of all the stops to get my breath back. At this rate I was looking at it definitely taking 4 nights and there was no sight of the long downhill stretch into town that google maps had forecasted. Eventually I heard the sound of a car coming from behind me and it was a pick-up truck so I put the bike down and stuck out my thumb. Enough was enough! The people were very nice and rearranged everything and loaded me on board, taking me into town which included the downhill stretch, back on ‘asphalto’. Even though my brakes are in good shape I would not have fancied going down the mountain on my bike, indeed at one point the 4 x 4 went into a four- wheel drift and I was holding on for dear life. I was very relieved to be dropped off in town and after going around in circles trying to find somewhere to stay had to settle for a cheap but ok hotel. After two nights on the mountain and all the effort required to push the bike I think I deserved it.
Photos. One of my camping spots on a hilltop. The view down from the mountaintop into Vill de Merlo after hitching a lift. My ‘rescuers!’
My next overnight was uneventful in a small village called Lafinur, camping in the village plaza, before heading to Lujan and pitching the tent behind a gas station. It was then 2 days ride to El Encon so a one night wild camp by the side of the road. It was after I’d cooked and pitched the tent that I was gazing up into the stars that I noticed a light plane flying at very low altitude in this remote area and my first thought was that it was obviously up to no good. I then remembered that I had been told of a regional governor, at some point in the recent past, who had been insisting that all new roads were built absolutely arrow straight and that he’d been accused of doing this so that light aircraft carrying ‘illicit’ cargoes could land on the roads, load or unload, and be off quickly. Originally, I hadn’t believed the stories, but I do now!
Photos. After Villa de Merlo came the small town of Santa Rosa de Contra where I met Ricardo, aka Tio Loco, Crazy Uncle. The sunset view from my culvert before the small plane went past very very low. Dinner on, sleeping gear out, happy days!
Next day it was off to San Juan where I had a Warmshowers host waiting for me and a chance to camp in a beautiful garden with a small swimming pool and a couple of days to relax and recharge the batteries. Before I arrived Celina, my host, messaged me and invited me to stay over Christmas with her family and I gratefully accepted. They were great people and we had a wonderful time together and went on a few local rides and had some fabulous food. I also got a chance to do my final planning for the route to the border and my attempt to cross the Andes, with Celina and friends being a great source of local knowledge.
Photos. Christmas Day ride up to the dam with Celina my host and daughter Vicky.
When I left San Juan, I had a big climb out of the city taking around three hours followed by a long and very fast decent. Here I broke my PB speed record, clocking 60.5 kph. Just as I was nearing the bottom of the hill it became obvious that I had a flat tyre. Bugger! Ok, I know how to sort this, just get it done and let’s move on. However, it quickly became apparent that there was a problem with the valve and it couldn’t be fixed there and then so I had no choice but to stick out my thumb, get a lift on a flat-bed truck and go back to San Juan. The guys who gave me the lift took me straight to a bike shop and the owner ‘fixed’ the valve issue in no time, but by then I had no choice but to stay in the city and set off again next morning.
Photos. The sight no cyclist likes and I really tried to fix it. Charlie, Rosalia after delivering me back to San Juan and Celina.
A cheap hostel was found and early the next day I went up the same big climb for the second time. The descent, this time, slightly slower as there was a bit of a headwind but 57 kph is still pretty exhilarating on a fully loaded bike. Unfortunately, within 500 metres of where I’d ground to a halt the previous day, the same bloody thing happened again! I was livid! This time I was going to change the tube and not mess about with what must have been a dodgy valve ‘fixed’ by an equally dodgy bike repair guy. Eventually all was good and I had the new inner tube in and was just starting to inflate it when a lovely couple stopped to see if I needed any help. I told them I thought all was ok but they stayed to make sure and have a chat about my bike as they were both keen ‘ciclistas’.
Then it turned out that I was having a problem with the pump and the tyre just wasn’t inflating. Bugger, for a second day running, or not running, as the case may be. Whatever I did it just didn’t want to work and it was decided they would load me, the bike and all my bags into their van and take me to a bike shop they knew which, while it wasn’t on my route, would not be a big diversion at all. We loaded the van and prepared to set off and then it wouldn’t start. Bugger! I’m now really starting to think I’m a Jonah or that San Juan just doesn’t want to let me go as the upshot of this was that the van, after being tow started by a passing truck, would have to go back to the city for a new battery and with me in it. Charlie and Rosalia, my rescuers, phoned Celina and I was dropped off at her house for another night in her garden under the stars.
Eventually I set off from San Juan for the third time, this time with Celina taking me to the top of the first hill which I thought was extremely nice of her, or was she just trying to make sure I would eventually go? Talacasto, next stop, which was just a roadside restaurant, where I would have to stock up on any food and water I needed before starting two huge climbs and it would take me two days to get to the border town of Las Flores. The first climb would take me up over 800 vertical metres in about 37 kms and not a downhill stretch of any description. I made it but was glad to get to the top and then I did get to enjoy a nice decent followed by a run of about 20 kms of flat stuff before deciding to camp by the roadside for the night.
Photos. After Talacasto there is a place where there are thermal baths. No visit for me as the temperature was in the very high 30s. The view just before sunset at another wild camping spot. Sunrise the next morning.
The next morning, I set off again and immediately it was up another long slog of a hill. I noted, having checked it out on Strava that the first 27 kms. that day, would have certainly killed me a year previously. It was hot, it was very steep, and yet I didn’t get off and push once, I rode the whole way, albeit with a lot of stops to get my breath back. By this time, I was at 2,600 metres which is well over 8,000 feet in altitude and was noticing that the amount of oxygen in the air was diminishing just a touch, and it started me thinking about what it would be like at nearly double the height when I got to the border? Just when I was feeling really fatigued I reached the top and was then able to enjoy 28 kms of fast downhill to Iglesia, which was just a gentle 10 kms from Las Flores and an ok campsite for the night before crossing the border and on to Chile.
Photos. The picture doesn’t really show the climb but it was steep! The first sign with the distance to Chile. At the top of a monster climb. So glad to make it there.
At the campsite I bumped into another cyclist, Sean from the States, who is also an experienced mountaineer and he was able to give me some fabulous advice regarding altitude sickness and the route I was going to attempt as he was coming from that direction. It was great to get to speak to another cycle tourist for a change, let alone someone with his expertise. Thanks a million Sean.
Enough for now. As always thanks for reading this far and may the Flying Spaghetti Monster go with you.
Simon ‘Wardy’ Ward.