Day 89 – Los Andes, Chile to Mendoza, Argentina

Breakfast in the loooooove hotel was, predictably, lame. We got instant coffee (which I won’t knowingly drink – yes, I’m a coffee snob too stupid to bring my own), toast, yogurt and “Sprim” peach juice. Which, really, is better than some of the breakfasts we’ve had… but a couple of pieces of dry toast, a yogurt and a cup of juice isn’t my idea of a good way to start a chilly morning on the bike.

Out of the love hotel shortly after 9, and off to the border with Argentina. Yay! This, apparently, is where the Pan Americana crosses into Argentina and goes over to Buenos Aires and then down toward Ushuaia. We were planning on taking it as far as Mendoza, and then taking one of the other roads down toward Ushuaia (probably Routa 40 much of the way).

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And I’ve gotta say, the stretch of the Pan Americana from Los Andes to Mendoza is breathtakingly, stunningly beautiful. You enter the mountains right away, and the road runs through a valley with tall verdant mountains on either side, which slowly change to tall, rocky, sandy mountains. At one point, you climb a switchback with numbered curves – 28 of them, and then I stopped remembering to look at the numbers. You could see the whole valley and the road stretched up to the top like a string of spaghetti. It was awesome.

Kay’s note: I humored us by imitating The Count from Sesame Street. “Curva Siete! Hah, hah, hah hah…”

Confession: Kay and I have been joking back and forth “It’s a pity we’re taking the Pan Americana. Nothing to see here. Nothing beautiful at all.” Between exclamations over this pretty thing and that pretty thing. We don’t mean it in ill will – it just boggles the mind that people can ride the Pan Americana and say “nothing pretty.” Sure, there are boring stretches, but there are also breathtakingly spectacular stretches, and it hasn’t at all been the mile-grinding, soulless road that the reports and people’s comments would have us believe.

Waiting for the construction flagger to wave us on…

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[url=http://www.flickr.com/photos/corporaterunaways/5509843499/]Waiting in the Pass[/url]

At the toll booth before Christo Redentor Tunnel

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[url=http://www.flickr.com/photos/corporaterunaways/5510430966/]At the toll booth before the Christo Redentor Tunnel[/url]

At the top of the pass, you’re at around 3,200 meters. And after a while at that altitude, I was starting to feel it. Apparently I’m never going to be a mountaineer, or I’ll need to do a *lot* of acclimatizing.

At the top of the pass, you arrive at a building and signs thanking you for your visit to Chile. So one assumes this is the Chilean border building. We pull up where all of the cars are parked, and Kay goes inside with our paperwork while I change some American dollars to Argentinian pesos. (I wanted to keep our Chilean pesos because we’ll be entering Chile again. Unfortunately, the guy at the building rejected four of my $10 bills, because they had writing on them – got them that way from the ATM – so I was only able to change $30 without digging in my panniers for more cash. But I figured that would be enough for gas or lunch until we could find an ATM and withdraw some Argentinian cash.)

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[url=http://www.flickr.com/photos/corporaterunaways/5510449246/]Gimme Da Cash![/url]

A little over 20 minutes later, Kay comes back with some unexpected news. “It’s another backwards border.” Apparently, after standing in line for a bit, one of the truckers there with him started chatting and they figured out that Kay didn’t need to be there with our paperwork. He confirmed what the trucker said with an official, but basically – the Chilean border building is for *entering* Chile and *exiting* Argentina. You exit Chile and enter Argentina in one combined building – on the Argentinian side. This is weird to us after all of the Central America (and even the other South America) borders where you exit the country inside of the country, cross no-man’s land, and then enter the next country inside the next country.

So back on the bikes and through the crazy long tunnel into Argentina. The tunnel is through a very tall mountain, and was a joint Chilean and Argentinian effort. It spans the border, starting in Chile and ending in Argentina (the signs for the border are inside of the tunnel). The tunnel is a bit over a mile long, and is well lit, but has very poor ventilation. You could see the dust and dirt particles in the air, and it smelled strongly of truck driver fumes.

Out the other side of the tunnel, and shortly later is a road up to a statue of Christ that is apparently commemorating the tunnel. It’s on the top of the mountain that the tunnel passes through, up a crazy switchbacky 8km dirt road. Kay expresses a vague interest in seeing it, but I don’t want to take the time out with the border crossing ahead, so we decide to go on. Shortly before entering another tunnel, we pass a few restaurants and decide to turn around and get lunch. We have no idea how long the border formalities will take but it’s around 1PM already and we’re both wicked hungry again after teeny breakfast and riding through the cold.

We stop at one of the restaurants (the one that has a GINORMOUS Saint Bernard-looking dog snoozing out front) and walk inside, not sure what to expect. A guy greets us warmly, lists a few food items and explains that if we want a hot plate, we can go serve ourselves. We go inside (as we’re sitting in the enclosed porch) and there’s a friendly lady in front of a covered buffet. She opens it as we walk up, chats with us for a minute, ascertains that we speak English, and then does her best to explain what’s in each of the dishes in English.

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[url=http://www.flickr.com/photos/corporaterunaways/5509854207/]Marshmallow-Bernard[/url]

I get beef in a wine sauce, beef in gravy with carrots, a meatball and some rice, and Kay gets beef in wine sauce, beef in gravy with carrots, lentils, some sort of Argentinian bean dish (she says it’s a national specialty) and rice. We retire to our table (and me with a Diet Coke! Yay! Argentina has Diet Coke!) and proceed to nom. Nom nom nom. OMG this is the best meal EVAR! The beef in wine sauce is particularly tasty, but it’s all wicked good. Oh, and what’s that? It comes with dessert? Don’t mind if we do. Kay picks up a desert of jellied sweetness on top of cheese, and I grab a blondie-looking-thing in some sort of sauce, and we nom that too, with great pleasure.

We both agree that whoever made this menu is SMART. Not only is it tasty, but the food shows real thought – the pairings are well-made, and whoever designed the menu chose food that will sit well in a buffet and just get tastier as it sits. Same with the desserts. This is probably the most intelligently-conceived menu we’ve had, as the flavors and pairings really went well together – almost like a fine-dining restaurant in the US, but in a homestyle setting. Totally unexpected but delicious lunch. It surprises us with the cost, though – I have to put back one of the bottles of water we were planning to buy and *just* have enough Argentinian pesos to pay for lunch.

During lunch, Kay has decided that he’d really like to see the statue after all. He says “When are we gonna have the chance again?” and decides to head off. I’m feeling even more ill from the altitude – short of breath just walking to the bathroom, and dizzy and lightheaded – and I don’t want to tackle 8km of switchbacky dirt on a high mountain with no guardrails. My fear of heights combined with my apprehension about the road surface and my reaction to the altitude seem like a dangerous combination to me, so I opt to sit on the bench outside the restaurant with the Saint Bernard and read my book while Kay goes up to check out the statue.

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[url=http://www.flickr.com/photos/corporaterunaways/5510460954/]The view on the way up to the Christo Redentor Monument[/url]

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[url=http://www.flickr.com/photos/corporaterunaways/5510467390/]Christo Redentor[/url]

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[url=http://www.flickr.com/photos/corporaterunaways/5510472322/]Christo Redentor[/url]

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[url=http://www.flickr.com/photos/corporaterunaways/5509875561/]View from the Christo Redentor Monumento[/url]

He returns not quite an hour later, we put on our rain liners and Cyclone Buffs because we’re chilly, and then head off to the border crossing, finally. It’s around 3PM now.

Kay’s note: The views up the road were gorgeous, and the road surface was pretty decent. At the top it was very windy and there was one of the better statues I’ve ever seen of Christ. I think he looks kinda badass in this one. Sadly, the guy who offered to take my picture was a crappy photographer… Oh well. I scurried up and down the hill as quickly as I safely could because I didn’t want to leave Dachary sitting for any longer than necessary. I really wished she had of come, because I don’t like doing things without her, but it was too close, too easy, and too fast for me to just drive right past it without stopping. Also, I figured that if something happened to me I’d only be about 1k away from her. Ok, yeah, maybe 600 meters up, but only 1k away. ;)

Through another tunnel and down the road a bit more is the Argentinian border building. And I’ve gotta say, it’s the best border building we’ve seen yet on the trip. You literally drive into the building, and there are rows and rows of booths with aisles between them for you to drive down and get processed. Immigrations in one booth, and then pull forward to aduana for customs. At immigration, they asked us for more paperwork, which we didn’t have, and then gave us another form to fill out (just the basic tourist info, such as name, country, destination, passport number, etc.). Out of Chile and into Argentina. Check.

Now for the bikes. Pull forward to aduana and hand her our paperwork. Wait… she looks confused. She asks Kay something, but we don’t understand, and she shares a significant look with the other women there. She tries type-typing some more and doesn’t seem to get anywhere. Eventually, she hands our paperwork to one of the women in the booth with her, who motions us to pull forward. We do, and the aduana woman who has our paperwork vanishes off to an office. We sit by the bikes and wait, and Kay wanders around to inquire about where we can buy insurance for Argentina, but doesn’t have any luck.

Apparently the only place we can buy insurance FOR Argentina is back in the Chile border crossing building, which we weren’t even supposed to use. You can’t buy insurance for Argentina in the building where you check into Argentina. Bummer. Kay suggests going back to the other border building to buy insurance, but I don’t want to ride another 20km back after we’ve already checked into Argentina, so I suggest we’ll just get it somewhere down the road.

Kay’s note: not only couldn’t you by insurance there but I asked Chile and Argentinian Aduana people if it was obligatory (I was pretty sure it was) and they were all clueless. “Obligatory? In Argentina?” I wasn’t stupid enough to ask the Argentinian Aduana people we were actually dealing with though, for fear they’d prevent us from proceeding. I asked an Argentinian police officer and he said we could buy it somewhere like 25k down the road, but his distance estimates were crap and we never saw anything that looked like it might sell… anything.

A few minutes later, the aduana woman comes back and tells us to follow her. She points us to an office, which we find after asking a guy awkwardly in our poor Spanish, and another aduana woman is processing the entry paperwork for our bikes into Argentina. She asks us a few questions, but mostly is being efficient processing the paperwork. An aduana guy comes in while she’s doing our bike forms and starts chatting with us, and seems surprised when we say we’re going to Ushuaia. “That’s over 3,000 kilometers!” he tells us.

3k? Dude. We’ve ridden our motos from Boston. 3k to Ushuaia? Is that all?

We have a nice little chat, the woman has us sign some forms she’s printed, the guy tells us “Good luck!” in English, and off we go to our bikes. We’ve got to give someone a piece of paper with a bunch of stamps on it when we get to the control point (7k, a guard tells us) but otherwise we’re officially in Argentina. The last country on our trip! Yay! (Well, except for that little bit with Chile, but we’ve already been in Chile so it doesn’t count as a new country.)

On the bikes and down the road. 7k comes and goes. 7 miles comes and goes. Eventually we decide we must have missed the control point, and Kay says “Oh, well, we’ll just have to keep the paper with the stamps as remembrance.” And then, of course, about 10k later, we hit the control point, hand over our stamped papers and are really in Argentina!

Kay’s note: it’s a piece of blank newsprint that we were handed after exiting the tunnel where an Argentinian Cop wrote or license numbers on it in pen and stamped it. Then all the other Aduana and Migrations people stamped it in random places. It’s a total hack that’s a pale imitation of the really nice form they had for everyone to stamp at the Bolivia / Chile border so that the exit guard could easily see that you’d been to all the places you needed to go to.

We ride on, past more beautiful scenery. It’s just as pretty on the Argentina side. Oh, woe is us, having made the decision to ride the Pan Americana for this stretch. It’s a pity there’s nothing pretty to see here.

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Eventually we get to Uspallata, where we’ve heard from another adventure rider who is ahead of us that there’s an ATM, but it was out of money when he came through a few days ago. We stop and ask around, and find the ATM, but it’s still out of money even though it’s attached to a bank. We also run into a ton of Argentinian adventure riders, and chat with a few of them. Kay discovers that it’s a four-day weekend in Argentina, which is why so many riders are in Uspallata, but also that it’s a big problem that we haven’t bought insurance yet. One of the other riders says “You’ll have to be very careful.” And because it’s a four-day weekend, he’s not sure when or where we’ll be able to buy insurance.

Kay’s note: while there we stop in the bathrooms to pee and I discover a large dog has taken over one of the stalls for a nap.

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[url=http://www.flickr.com/photos/corporaterunaways/5510510132/]It’s his stall Damn It![/url]

And we discover the beginning of a curious trend that would never fly in the US. Hot water vending machines. People line up for these things regardless of how hot the day is. We suspect it’s related to their habit of drinking instant coffee… bleb.

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[url=http://www.flickr.com/photos/corporaterunaways/5510515912/]Agua Caliente[/url]

We ride toward Mendoza, where we’ll have to hunt down an ATM, and debate insurance. Kay wants to ride back to the border and buy insurance from the building on the Chile side, but we’ve already gone over 70km from the border and I’m unwilling to make a 140km round-trip at 5:30PM. Especially when we don’t have any Argentinian money, and the only place to get some is Mendoza – over 100km ahead. There’s no way we could get back to Chile, get insurance, and get to Mendoza before dark. We probably couldn’t even get back to Uspallata before dark. We’d run out of money and wouldn’t have money for dinner, gas, a hotel or breakfast tomorrow.

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I’m quite adamant about not going back, and Kay feels quite strongly that our not having insurance in Argentina is a real problem, so we debate our options. Eventually we decide we’ll have to get some before we cross back into Chile later, and maybe we can get some at a future border crossing. I secretly think we’ll find some in a town somewhere, or maybe even online, and am not worried about it, but it really seems to be bothering Kay.

The debate continues as we get closer to Mendoza. We ride through a few sprinkles, and I look back in the rear-view mirror once to see that the heavens have opened behind us and there’s a solid column of water falling from the sky a few kilometers back, where we just came from, but we manage to avoid the worst of the rain. We get to the turn where we have to either go into Mendoza or head south, and we go into Mendoza for an ATM. Sadly, Mendoza is 26km north of the turn, and we have no idea where to look for an ATM, so we head toward town center – all the way into town. All 26km. We do pass a few hotels on the way into town, so at least we know we can find one heading south again if we need to.

Kay’s note: imagine the center of a nuclear mushroom cloud. That’s what this water-column looks like. Totally freaky.

Eventually we pull over at a random service station to ask someone where to find an ATM, and he points at the bus terminal across the street. I wait with the bikes while Kay goes across the street to do our business. He returns with cash, yay! So we buy gas, and even though it’s after 7PM, we decide to head south out of town and look for one of the hotels we passed on the way in, instead of going further into the center of town to find a hotel. So we head south. We pass one of the hotels I saw, but I see it too late and don’t want to turn around for it. There were a couple more ahead.

We see an exit that has a hotel sign, and turn off, but can’t find a hotel. We wander around for a bit but don’t see anything obvious. We see a sign that advertises camping, and we turn down that road to see if we can find a campground, but a mile or two down the road, there’s nothing and we decide to turn back. It’s starting to get dark. We turn around in a big empty dirt field, and Kay points out that we could camp here if we needed to, but I argue that it’s too close to the road, too exposed (there isn’t really any cover at all) and besides, I haven’t had dinner.

Whilst turning around in the dirt field, I try to swing wide around a mud puddle and end up dropping the bike on the edge of it. I holler for Kay, who turns around and comes back to help me extract my bike from the mud. The pannier is undamaged, luckily, but the rear brake lever is bend badly. Mud is still my nemesis. The brake lever is unusable, and also in the way of using my foot peg, so Kay pulls out our big wrench (the one for dismounting/mounting the rear tire) and uses its leverage to bend the brake lever back most of the way. It’s still not perfect, but it should work long enough for us to find someplace.

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[url=http://www.flickr.com/photos/corporaterunaways/5510530438/]Bent Brake Lever[/url]

Of course, now it’s getting darker. We head back to the highway and get pointed south again. A few minutes later, we see another exit that promises hotels in both directions. We get off, and go to the right, looking for the promised hotel in 1km. Nothing. No signs, no hotel – just a town. We decide to turn around and check the place that’s supposed to be 4km on the other side of the highway. While heading back that way, we ask a police officer where to find a hotel, and he basically says to turn around the way we were originally headed, go four blocks down, take a right, go another two blocks, take another right and there’s a hotel.

We do, and we find it, but there are no vacancies. And the woman at the hotel can’t recommend another hotel. So back to trying to find the place 4km on the other side of the highway, which is now even further away, and oh, yeah – sunset was a few minutes ago so it’s getting toward full dark.

Down the road in the other direction, and we follow some signs I see but can’t read clearly, advertising a restaurant and… something… 4km down the road. Ok, that’s roughly where the sign said it should be, so we go that way. Take a right, still following the signs… and see a sign another kilometer down the road pointing down a dirt road. Kay stops and reads this one, and it’s “restaurant and events.” Not hotel. Damnit! Now we’re in the middle of nowhere, and there’s no hotel, and we’ve gone a long way from the dirt space where Kay had suggested we camp, and my right ankle where I dropped the bike is swelling and painful, and my left shoulder hurts, and I’m way crashed from not eating enough today, and crying in my helmet.

I don’t know what to do.

Kay’s note: At this point I don’t either. There are places to camp but camping requires the most mental dealing, which Dachary is not up for. I’m thinking that if we DO find anything hotel-like they won’t have food, and there’s little chance we’ll find anything soon, and Dachary has stated that she isn’t up to dealing with getting off the bike unless she doesn’t have to get on again, even if it’s to eat food, which she really needs. So, I don’t really know what to do that will work for her.

While we’re standing there on our bikes, at a complete loss, a small local moto pulls up and a woman and a child get off. The guy stands there with the moto. Kay goes up and asks if the guy can recommend a hotel nearby, and the guy tries to talk to us, but we’re having trouble understanding. Pretty quickly, he says to follow him and he takes off down the road in the direction we were heading. It’s full dark now and we’re riding through the countryside with no idea where we’re going and not a clue where the guy is leading us.

After just a couple of kilometers, we pull up in front of a place that advertises cabanas. Yay! Cabins! Just as we’re pulling up, a guy on a bicycle is pulling in and walking over to the locked gate. Our guy on the moto talks to him, they have a brief exchange (wherein our helper on the local moto explains we don’t speak much Spanish) and the guy on the bicycle vanishes behind the locked gate. The guy on the moto tries to tell us something, but we’re not sure what it is. They don’t have any vacancies? Or the guy on the bicycle wasn’t sure? But the guy on the moto is standing there and seems to be waiting for something, so we wait with him.

Kay’s note: he was saying that if this didn’t work out we could go to one that he’d passed on the way here.

A few minutes later, the guy on the bicycle returns with a thumbs up. They have a vacancy! We can stay! We thank the guy on the moto who led us here profusely, he shakes both of our hands and then rides off back to his wife and daughter. Again, the kindness of strangers at an absolutely desperate moment gets us sorted, and we follow the guy in, park our bikes, look at the cabin and pay him far too much money to get a roof and bed for the night. Alas, he locks the gate behind us, and we’re in the middle of nowhere anyway – no sign of a restaurant, and it looks like I won’t be getting dinner. I’m not pleased, but at least I’m off the bike, which was my biggest priority at that point.

We bring a few things into the cabin and Kay notes that there’s a stove, and we have a box of macaroni and cheese, so at least we can make the mac and cheese. I start water boiling while he goes to grab the yellow dry-sack off his bike that contains the food. Unfortunately, we discover that the mac and cheese box has gotten squished at some point, and most of the mac has strewn itself over the inside of the bag, so Kay takes a bunch of stuff out and starts a fishing expedition, grabbing handfuls of macaroni from the bottom of the bag. Eventually we get most of it, the water is boiling and we throw the mac in.

We also find rice that I’d forgotten about inside the bag, so I pull out our cooking pot that we use with our little stove to make some rice, too. I figure we can put some of the mac sauce on it and stretch our meal a bit more. I put water and rice in the pot, put the lid on it and put it on the back burner of the stove. We stir the mac and watch TV on the iPad while the rice cooks.

When the mac is done, I decide to take the lid off the rice to check on it, even though I know you’re not supposed to check on the rice halfway through. I want to, anyway. I grab the lid and pull… and it doesn’t want to come. So I pull harder. And the lid comes away from the pot, melted plastic stretching from the pot to the lid. Yikes! The plastic lid has melted to the pot all the way around, and the rice is burned on the bottom and looks uncooked on the top. The lid is ruined, the pot might be, and no rice. I decide that I should not be allowed to touch things anymore, and have Kay deal with getting the mac dished out.

Kay’s note: there wasn’t enough water in with the rice to start with and the lid has holes in it (intentionally) so all the water boiled out, and left the heat going directly up through the metal into the plastic lid. So, totally our fault and not crap design on the part of the pot, although I’m thinking i’d prefer it if it had a metal lid instead of a meltable plastic one.

Dinner concludes with watching TV on the iPad whilst nomming the mac, and then retiring to the bed where I can crawl under the covers and hopefully avoid the all-too-attentive mosquito that has been dining on me during dinner. I’d forgotten about mosquitos in Peru and Chile – hadn’t had to worry about them in so long that I’d dismissed the nuisance they are. After finishing our episode of Torchwood (our current TV series on the iPad) we decided we should sleep, and within minutes of turning out the light, the damn mosquito buzzed my ear. I jerked uncontrollably, asked Kay to turn the light on so we could kill it, and tried to decide how not to keep us both up all night with me freaking out about mosquitos, on top of everything else this evening.

I ask Kay to go get my Buff from my tank bag, and then proceed to pull it down over my head. It covers my skin from my forehead to my neck, and then I pull the sheets up to my neck. There! Now the little bastard can’t get me! No exposed skin. Kay points out that I could probably just put the Buff over my ears to keep them from buzzing my ear, but I prefer the no exposed skin route, even though I look ridiculous with a Buff covering my head, and it gives me the peace of mind that I need to fall asleep. I pass out quickly.

Kay’s note: She’s turned the Buff into a giant head-sock. It’s like some freaky modern dance performance.

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