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It was appropriate that in the WHSmiths 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 meet 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 Tunuyán 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 a 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 César Pechemiel, who had done the crossing with the Club Andino of Tunuyán. This is that there is another river on the Chilean side, which we’d have to tackle horseless; César 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. We couldn’t find any other information about it, so we (mostly) abandoned the idea.

We picked a hotel on the Santiago outskirts as a first and last night base – the Posada del Inglés, which (as I suppose we should have deduced) is owned by an Englishman, John. It’s a lovely place, and John couldn’t have been more friendly and helpful. He said that the Disputada road is a private mine road, which is a pity, as it looks to go right up between some high peaks. We briefly considered how many shares in the mine we would have to buy in order to secure access rights: probably more than the trip was really worth.

John said we’d like the Farellones road though, and he’s right, as it’s a cyclist’s delight. First there’s a slow climb up the valley, but then the hairpins start, and tight loops and sometimes frantic gradients take you up into higher and higher slopes, and to views of snowy mountains. The bends become shorter and steeper as you reach the top, and you crest a ridge to overlook a breathtakingly huge, deep, untouched valley. On the north side of this valley are the three ski stations – Valle Nevado, Colorado, La Parva – all clusters of big hotels and apartment buildings, which in the summer seem deserted. Farellones seems more of a proper village of chalets with gardens and trees. The hotel La Cornisa is a charming place reached by a steep and narrow garden path, and inside it’s cosy as an Alpine refuge. The balcony, high in the treetops, has the feel of a tree house. In the mornings there is clear light on the snowfields of El Plomo, and in the evening the sun sets colourfully into Santiago’s smog and lights up the leaves a thousand shades of red.

The Valle Nevado resort, a little further into the mountains, advertises its summer life with a droolworthy picture of mountainbikers on what’s presumably an easy ski piste, but billboards informed us that Valle Nevado was cerrado this summer, and there was a manned gate where we were asked not to go further than the end of the tarmac. There were no such prohibitions on the Farellones/Colorado side. We made our way up tracks and ski pistes with the aim of bagging the 3000m summit of Cerro Colorado, a perfect little conical peak of reddish shales between the resorts, until the surface became too tiresome, at which point we locked the bikes to a snowfence and walked the rest. The views up towards El Plomo were tremendous. It would probably have been easy enough to cross over on pistes to Valle Nevado, giving a cheery wave to the man at the gate as we flew past from nowhere, but we didn’t, as it was now dinnertime.

Our other excursion was to explore another track marked on the map as a cycle route, which was up to La Parva, across a high meadow, and down into the Yerba Loca reserve. The first obstacle was a deep trench that had appeared along the edge of the La Parva resort. Once we were across, the ride across the high meadow was a joy – one of those rare, sweet tracks on flat terrain high up among mountains, a ride so effortless and airy that it felt like flying. But the track soon fizzled out at a cairn on the edge of the Yerba Loca valley. Here was a magnificent view down into the valley almost vertically below us, a fertile and intensely green ribbon walled in by stark flanks, but no evidence of any path until we spotted a line of poles painted red at the top. It seemed reasonable to follow them. The path was attractively narrow and rocky and the wild flowers along it were gorgeously varied. After an hour of more of interesting terrain, it dawned on us that we had not yet descended a metre and moreover were headed in precisely the opposite direction from the Yerba Loca valley. Heaven knows where the red posts imagined they were going. I’m not sure if we ever found the right way down, but eventually turned up hours later at the top end of a proper vehicle track leading down, only to have a man emege from a hide and tell us we couldn’t use the track, that we’d have to continue through the undergrowth, because the hillside where the track is was now a nature reserve. We expressed our outrage. We’d seen that a pony-trek party had just come up the track and they were hardly going to go back through a pathless jungle; we insisted on following them down. We didn’t feel too good about intruding on the reserve, but there had been no signs about it at the top of the valley. So now you know about it and don’t you do it, please.

John ‘El Inglés’ has a taxi driver friend with a minibus, who drove us to Los Andes to start the tour proper. It wouldn’t have been a terribly interesting ride, 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 on the motorway. Certainly there seemed to be a fair few people walking by the side of it.

Los Andes is at the base of the mountains, and from here it’s uphill all the way to Argentina. At 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.

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: one simply looks sufficiently clueless until somebody takes pity on you and does all the relevant formfilling. This appeared to work, though of course we would have no way of telling until we tried to enter Argentina, but nobody had yet volunteered information as to how we might get through the tunnel. The international road goes through a tunnel at 3100m, but cyclists aren’t allowed to ride through. 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 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! It is as fabulous a ride 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.

Puente del Inca is the closest hotel on the road to Aconcagua and one might easily imagine what it is like, that is, an Argentine version of Pete’s Eats. And so it is. The weather too is looking a bit Welsh and superstitiously we try not to mention the r-word, but next morning it clears up for our triumphal cruise downhill, with the wind, into Uspallata. We have to keep looking back to a big snowy mountain which was unlikely to have been Aconcagua, but at any rate was very pretty, as is the brief view we get of Tupungato from Punta de Vacas.

The valley slowly opens out. To me it feels like a grand arrival into a grand continent, and grandness is all very impressive but one knows that it is not a very interesting grandness, just 1400km of grand flatness all the way from here to Buenos Aires. We meet a German cyclist coming the other way, somewhat taken aback by the headwind he’s facing, even though he says he’s been here twice before. He asks if it is windy all the way; we try not to look too smug. He has come all the way from Buenos Aires, like proper cycle tourists should and unlike slackers who take taxis to skip the boring bits. He says it wasn’t very interesting; we affect surprise. We also meet three Mendocinos riding to Chile, and we delightedly tell them about the lovely new old road, though in retrospect we feel they may have found 800 vertical metres of ripio less than lovely, with their 42x24’s and 25mm tyres.

After hours of arid red rock, Uspallata is a welcome oasis. It’s a town of lush green: a river, poplars and extravagant willows, deliciously cool air. Colin lazes by the pool but a few hours of lounging is all I can bear; I need to recover and I’m on the road again for an hour at level 2.

The scenic route (and the one without the trucks, hooray, hooray) between Uspallata and Mendoza for some unfathomable reason goes right over the top of the Cuesta de Paramillo – not that we’re complaining – it’s just astonishing that someone seems to have built a road just for the pleasure of it. For the first hour or so we have this road to ourselves, and it’s rather eerie. We climb slowly, northeast, and we can see the limit of the Andes proper, and the start of the plains, as flat as the sea. The lack of fences or any apparent barriers in the landscape gives it a feeling of liberation – so very unlike, say, Gloucestershire, where everything has been parcelled up and enclosed for nearly a thousand years. The land here is so huge, and empty, that we feel that we have to encompass it, we have to travel over it, to fill all the space; we have to see what’s beyond the next hill, the next horizon, and the next, until at last those mountains and horizons will have taken us to the very end of the continent. Alas, we only have three weeks.

Our road is alleged to have 365 hairpins, but it has nothing of the sort and simply continues to climb slowly in a moderately winding way. Behind us the high peaks begin to emerge from the main range, like air balloons rising on a calm summer morning. The road enters a narrow, relatively shallow, high valley, and twists and turns before emerging again on a flowing, grassy upland. After the summit, it meanders around indecisively before finally choosing a route down through some craggy flanks softened by grass and scrub. This is a lovely stretch, at first contouring round, in and out of side valleys, then finally descending in big sweeping hairpins. In one side valley were two huge birds, gliding and swooping in huge curves, passing so close I could see their heads and hear the swoosh of their wings. Not condors, though we were to see plenty of those too, later. But the hills are all too finite and after a good lunch at Villavicencio, we’ve a dead straight road for Mendoza. Fortunately it is not that long, is downhill, and best of all, has Mendoza at the end of it, with its tree-lined avenues, comfortable cool hotels, memorably good food, the best wines of the continent, and that very agreeable climate.

Hmm, climate. There was definitely something iffy going on with the weather. We were Not Mentioning the R-word again, but this time, come the morning, there was cloud lowering over the Andes. Our plans, too, were unravelling slightly. Our original plan A to spend two nights lazing in the Gran Hotel Potrerillos had been disrupted by renovation work in the Gran Hotel and plan B disrupted by the Termas de Cacheuta being full on the Saturday and the Cacheuta road no longer being a through road. We should have lazed around in Mendoza; instead we had a dismal and pointless ride which I’m afraid was entirely my fault, having read reports (exaggerated, as it turned out) that there were some hairpins on the Vallecitos road.

Sunshine would have made it much nicer, but our stay at the Termas de Cacheuta was extremely pleasant, even with ever-descending cloud. We rather hoped, when the clouds occasionally thinned, that the white stuff we could see not all that high above wasn’t actually snow, but perhaps some warmer sort of white version of water, since we we only at about 1200m here, and we were hoping to cross 4000m passes the next weekend. The Termas hotel was well provided with newspapers and the newspapers well provided with weather reports. There were floods in Buenos Aires, it was the coldest summer weather since an occasion in 1970’s and the Libertadores was deep in snow, and closed. The Piuquenes was off.

After a day the rain stopped. The weather was on course to return to normality, but the front was so slow moving that this would take some time. The mountains were still shrouded in low grey cloud, as if they had been erased by a grubby mark. We rode on to Tupungato, along flat country that otherwise wouldn’t have been interesting if it hadn’t been so pleasant. This is the productive corridor, and the product of most interest to us was the grape. As well as the vineyards there were orchards of apples and peaches, heavy with ripe fruit. The roads are straight and shaded with leafy poplars, and with the battered old french cars here, it feels so much like rural France of a generation ago.

We really had no idea what was going to happen next. In a way we were resigned to the Piuquenes being off, but it’s truer to say that we’d ceased to think about it, and were just waiting to see what would happen. So we were a little nervous about meeting Don Rómulo, with whom we’d booked the mules. Don Rómulo is cheerful and friendly and rather to our astonishment says the mules are ready, though it will be difficult with the snow. We may have to wait a few days. We’re in limbo – we’re excited that it may be possible after all but we can’t afford to wait much longer if we’re to allow time for us to get back to Santiago if we have to turn back. The weather is definitely on the mend. The next morning the clouds lift just enough to give a tantalising veiled view of a beautiful, almost entirely snow-covered range, and the Andes look like the Himalaya. Don Rómulo drives off to inspect snow depths and returns optimistic. Only a day late, we’ll be off. One slight problem remains. Having finally bothered to read the entirety of César Pechemiel’s account, we find he mentions crossing the Río Yeso on the Chilean side, and needing a rope. The mules can’t cross the border, so we’d have to negotiate this river alone. Fortunately as well as running a restaurant, hotel and horse-trek business, Don Rómulo happens to have a rope shop. As to what we might do with this rope in order to assist the river crossing, we would just have to work out for ourselves when the time came. That is, I suppose, cross that non-bridge when we got to it.

It’s a lovely day and the sun is shining and we trundle happily through the vineyards towards Manzano Hístorico and miss the turning. Still, what’s an extra 40km on a nice day like this? We are not the only ones lost – three drivers ask us (us!) the way to Manzano Hístorico. We look forward to our last night of luxury before the camping, the pisco sours and the big steaks and fine wine we’ll have at the famous Samay Huasi hotel. Which is now a burnt-out shell. We camp instead, and pretend that camping is fun.

For most of the way towards Manzano, the road had led straight towards the mountains. The land slopes upwards but there is no visual sense of climbing – other than from the altimeter displays – and it just feels like a treacly slog. Just before Manzano, you enter the foothills, and then you’re in the mountains for real. The road continues up a valley, and you’re climbing properly at last. The river leaps downhill, the road has to zigzag to keep up. Looking back, you can still see the plains in the V of the valley, so strikingly flat that they look like an ocean.

An amiable gendarme at the refugio Portinari does the paperwork, and shortly after we pass a couple of climbers who’d been camping there, but apart from these people, we’re pretty well alone for the rest of the day. The campsite of Yaretas proves easier to find than Manzano Hístorico; for some inexplicable reason the local authorities do better signposting for campsites in the middle of nowhere than they do for towns. Yaretas is a broad meadow surrounded by scree slopes and glacial moraine, and it’s utterly deserted. We’re so unused to this that our brains, trying to make sense of the visual input, interpret the boulders we see in the lower meadows as cows and sheep. We’re startled next morning when we hear whistles and voices, and the arrieros ride over the brow. It’s a splendid arrival, and we have no less that two arrieros, six horses and mules, and a dog! Don Rómulo, in his 4x4, isn’t far behind, and makes introductions. The arrieros are Ernesto and Roberto, who certainly look the real thing, with proper arriero hats and spurs; the dog is just a dog. We set off up what has pretentions to ‘road’, hoping they aren’t watching, as it is not long before the rubble reduces us to walking sections, and showing us up as not the real thing at all. It was also not long before the mule train passed us, going like, well, a train. The road is increasingly unrideable, all broken, sharp rock. Don Rómulo goes as far as he can, which is until there’s a section of road that’s been washed away (bikes 1, car 0. Ha.) The final climb to the pass is obvious now – twenty or more zigzags, the last few bends outlined in snow, the pass a notch in the crest. The ‘road’ ends at an abortive tunnel excavation some way below the summit and the ruins of the tunnel-digger lie fallen below. Now it’s a steep haul on a narrow path deep in snow, and even the mules find it hard.

All the way up, all we’ve seen ahead is the pass, and the notch, and we’ve seen nothing nor imagined what might lie beyond. The pass itself is exactly what a pass should look like: a door cut through the sharp ridge, and a whole new world waiting through that door. We find ourselves looking down a valley encircled by crags rising from scree slopes. We seem to be on the edge of a precipice; lower down there are large patches of snow. To the right there’s a triangular peak of a remarkably bright yellow. Ahead, the far horizon is a range of snow peaks, one with an expansive, gleaming snowfield.

The descent is less precipitous than it seemed at first sight, but it’s very rocky, there’s plenty of snow, and it’s tough manhandling the bikes. Lower down, we can ride a little here and there, but not much. Our lunch of crackers and pâté de langoustines would have been even more enjoyable if the can opener had been with us and not inside a bag inside a pannier inside another bag on the back of a mule half an hour away.

The valley is stunningly quiet. Before the pass we’d felt connected to the inhabited world by the road but now it’s as though that world doesn’t exist. There are no animals and no large birds, but if you stop and listen you can hear and see tiny birds. We were to see two lone guanacos later, on distant slopes. This emptiness and silence gives the Tunuyán valley an extraordinary quality, as if it were a new earth, with high mountains never seen before, and a serene, virgin river. Even the large and obviously manmade Refuge at Real de la Cruz doesn’t disturb the feeling. And frauds that we are, we welcome its comfy beds.

It’s been a hard day. We hadn’t fully worked out the details of the rest of the crossing and we’d planned to have a day spent exploring the valley (ie, loafing) and a day to cross into Chile. Given how hard the Portillo Argentino had been, this plan seemed optimistic, so we split the crossing into two easier days. Ernesto says the mules can carry the bikes, and since it seems a pointless exercise for us to lug them, we’re grateful to hand them over (especially our pedal-gouged shins).

We cross the infamous Tunuyán river, one by one, on the back of Roberto’s horse. The river is a seething torrent thick with silt, looking like boiling chocolate. We wonder how the dog is going to get across – it doesn’t. It’s an easy and relaxed day for us, strolling up the side valley, marvelling at the strange rock formations. Above us, a big mountain like the Dolomites, only black, looking like a sinister castle. An bulging outcrop of grey lava like the flesh of an elephant. A splash of colour from mineral springs, like spilt paint. Monumental boulders dotted sparsely on the lower slopes. The great, sheer cliffs of Cerro Palomar, strangely pockmarked. The dazzling smooth snowfield of Méson San Juan. As we climb the valley, another surprise – a craggy, glaciated mountain comes into view on the left – Marmolejo.

Tonight’s campsite (César calls it El Caletón) is under an overhanging rock. Well, I say ‘rock’ – it is untrustworthy conglomerate, with TV-sized boulders suspended above you, looking as if all that’s holding them in place are a few grains of wedged sand. It is extremely windy, the wind seeming to come from all directions, and we wonder what entertainments the stove has planned for us this evening. Still, in the afternoon it’s warm enough to lie in the sun, and we spend the time pleasantly absorbed in watching the glaciers flow on Marmolejo.

It was only our third night of camping but the atmosphere in the tent had taken on a rich life of its own, with miasmas of fart and vintage sweat. My socks had long been banished to the vestibule, but they were clamouring to be let in. To this vibrant cocktail El Caletón’s mineral springs added their own sulphurous contribution.

Ernesto and Roberto are up early, singing hinty songs. We crawl out and start the performance with the stove. The arrieros’ hearts sink. They have a roaring fire going; after half an hour, when the MSR has raised the temperature of the water by all of10 degrees, we give in and use the fire. The complaints of the MSR are a constant mystery to us. Really, there are only three things that could be wrong: insufficient pressure, cold fuel, clogged fuel line, but we strongly suspect that demonic posession should be on the list somewhere.

We can see roughly where the pass is. North of Marmolejo there’s a relatively shallow scree slope of shimmering red-brown. A stream cuts down it, a ragged stripe of water-worn black rock, a streak of silver, like a banner.

Suddenly the path descends into a chasm, a cold, shadowy chasm, a chasm that by some peculiar physical conditions has managed to supercool to the temperature of liquid nitrogen the stream that lurks within. Ernesto and Roberto find our reaction to the water amusing.

In the last meadow before the pass are scattered three or four weather monitors, legs bent in their battles with the elements, surrealist sculptures. The scree slopes of the climb are strange too – the rain, snow and wind have made a corrugated effect in the stones, like a raked Japanese garden. Here and there the green and yellow perfect circles of clumped plants wait like the counters of a game.

The scree is easier walking than the boulders of the Portillo Argentino, though it does help having the bikes on the mule. The international border is marked by a simple pylon, with ‘Argentina’ on one side, ‘Chile’ on the other. Chile shows us some new mountains, but these are bare of snow, and the high summits are behind us. The crest seems steeper on the Chilean side, and there’s a tense moment as we look for the path, as we’ll be alone now, and there’s no turning back. We thank Ernesto and Roberto (who have been excellent) and set off. Ten minutes later, Colin’s heading back up to the border, in search of his sunglasses.

The surface is a bit loose but it’s not a problem managing the bikes. We can see the valley below. 500m or so down, grass begins to appear, and we see what may be cows. We’re now so used to not seeing cows that we see them as boulders: “roches vachées”, Colin says.

The path now unhelpfully becomes one of those senderos que se bifurcan that we had been trying to read about. I suppose it does matter which way we go because we need to find the best place to cross the river. In the end for want of anything better we made our way across the meadows towards the bank opposite the Termas de Plomo, where there were cars, and tents, and people. A better spot was a little further down, and we camped there. It hadn’t been that hard, or long, a day, but I was knackered.

We were up as early as we could face. The sun hadn’t hit the valley bottom, and it wouldn’t have hit the glacier from where the Río Yeso originates. This meant the river would be at its lowest; it also meant that is would be as cold as it could get, and we already had some experience of the temperatures it was capable of. Actually when you first step in the river it doesn’t feel that bad – it’s once you’re out, maybe after half a second, that a massive, howling pain overwhelms you, a pain quite unlike any other. Colin, the insensitive creature, is not affected, so lucky Colin gets to ferry the panniers and bikes, while I put up a pretence of belaying.

The final obstacle overcome, we can spend the rest of the day in various indulgences. A soak in the steaming Termas del Plomo, except they were tepid. An easy downhill of 40km. Now if ripio were ice-cream the 40km would have been 40km of infinite delicious variety, but unfortunately it is not ice cream but ripio and instead is a showcase of all the several ways ripio can make a cyclist’s day odious. There is also a stiff headwind and the distance is actually 50km. At 3pm we find ourselves in the Maipo Valley, anticipating juicy steaks and cold beer. It was therefore rather unfortunate that there were no restaurants this side of the carabineros. It was also unfortunate that we were missing a piece of documentation. Another two weeks later, after we have been all the way back to Portinari, to Los Horcones, back over the Cristo Redentor to Portillo to fetch it, we can now enter Chile. No, really they let us in without it.

We have another 20km or so of ripio up to Lo Valdés. We’re not in the mood and I have the constant urge to simply stop, not that stopping would get us any further, but the act of turning the pedals has an effect on progress that is barely distinguishable from being stationary, except in that it costs us some effort. But we get there in the end. Now, since our spectacularly muddy arrival at La Posada in Cobán, we have wanted to turn up at ever more grand hotels in an ever more disgusting state. In Peru the plan was foiled by the lack of bikes, and here by the lack of a sufficiently swanky hotel. At least we could certainly do the ‘disgusting’ part of the equation very well, and coated with a grungy mix of sweat, dust and factor 30, we looked fittingly like scaly mountain-trolls. And even if the Refugio lo Valdés isn’t a Gran Hotel, it is friendly, comfortable and atmospheric, has good food, real coffee, and is well supplied with booze, including the obligatory Pisco sours. The views are pretty grand. To the north is the valley of El Morado, and the shapely peak crowning it. To the east, the great mass of Volcán San José. Just up from the refuge the mountainside splits into a rainbow of triangular flakes of different colours; unlike some rocks near Tafraoute in Morocco, these have managed it without Belgian chemical assistance.

We spent two more days there but we had no energy left for exploring. We rode to Baños Colina, up the ‘good’ new road, atrociously steep in parts, and busy with yeso trucks. We returned on the old road, thinking that nothing could top the new road, but the old road is indeed worse, being 93% boulders. We tried riding up through the Morado valley, which was evidently once legal for bikes, and there is photographic evidence of this on a Chilean web page, but not so now, so we walked. I developed an interesting combination of a mild stomach upset from drinking untreated water, heatstroke, and not being on a bike; that’ll teach me to walk.

All that remained to do now was to ride down the Cajón de Maipo and find a taxi to take us through Santiago. And then try to find an imaginative way of describing this. But I can’t. So that’s it then.

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