Going south from Salta, the most efficient way to get to Mendoza looked to be highway 9, which runs east of the mountain ranges. In keeping with the spirit of this trip, I decided to take hwy 40, which stays more to the west, and up in the mountains. I think Ruta 40 is to Argentina what Route 66 is to the USA, running almost the length of the country for 3,000 miles or so. The area from Salta south to Mendoza is where most of the country's wine is produced, and 40 goes through a lot of vineyard country. It's not unlike the Napa area of California, complete with tours of the wineries, and all the nice restaurants that go with. After some lunch in Cafayate, I stopped off at some indigenous ruins at Quilmes. They weren't that impressive, but the museum there had some incredibly well preserved pottery. The road alternated between good pavement and washboard gravel most most of the way, and with this being summer in the outhern hemisphere, and now being far enough south, it is light till 8:30 and I ended up riding longer than I had intended, stopping in the little town of Belen. I went to a restaurant there, and the owner started asking my about my trip and life in the US, and why we like George Bush. I try to not talk about politics on these trips, but more people in Argentina have asked me about the political situation in the US, than the rest of the trip combined. My Spanish isn't good enough to discuss world politics, my English either come to think of it, but I try to tell them that the US is divided too, with the last presidential election decided by 100,000 votes out of 80 milion, or whatever it was, and the Democrats taking control of the House back just last month, and that seems to surprise them. Or maybe my Spanish is worse than I think and they just don't know what the hell I am saying. Regardless, the Argentines I have met seem to take more of an interest in US `politics than I would expect. Anyway, the restaurant owner decided that I needed a tour of the town, so we got in his car and we made a few laps around the town square, looking at girls, with him pointing out the hot ones, like I wasn´t going to notice. That's another thing Latin American guys like to be complimented on, is the beauty of their countries women. You always have to be ready with a comment like: "Boy, I've been from Alaska to Argentina and I've never seen girls as pretty as those in (insert current country here)." Just a little travel tip to endear you to the locals. Be careful if he has a sister or daughter close by.
I know I keep saying this, but western Argenitna looks a lot like the western United States. I had given myself a month to get through Argentina and Chile to make it to Ushuaia by Christmas, and I knew I had to make some time. I pretty much rode for 3 or 4 days to get to Mendoza, where I intended to take a break, and try to find some tires for the bike. After a couple days on Route 40, it was headed toward the metropolis of San Juan, and I had been out in the boondocks long enough that I wasn't sure I could handle it. So, as if route 40 wasn't remote enough, I took an alternate route, more or less parallel to 40 to the west. this went through a river valley and over a couple mountain ranges before hitting highway 7 in the litle town of Upsallata, which is the major route between Santiago Chile, and Mendoza. One good thing about Argentina, is that safe camping is available just about everywhere. A lot of the small towns have free camping in a city park, but if you want a bathroom and shower, you have to spring for $3 or so at a pay campground. I camped at Upsallata, and the next morning rode west to the Chilean border to get a look at Aconcagua, the highest mountain in the western hemisphere, and the Puente del Inca, a natural bridge. Later that day, I headed in to Mendoza. As long as I was in the camping mood, I found a little place on the outskirts of town for my tent. I thought Mendoza was a really nice city, it has a real downtown, but you can get out of town in just minutes, and traffic isn't at all what I had come to expect from a Latin American city. I also found a set of Brazillian made Pirelli Scorpion tires for the bike without any trouble. The only hard part was that Argentines speak so differently from everyone else I have heard on this trip. I have come to expect a different accent in the different countries, but here they use so many words that just have a totally different meaning, it has been a real struggle trying to communicate with my Mexican Spanish. It is also the first place where Spanish speakers have had trouble understanding my accent, which adds to the fun. I was able to find tires though, and pretty reasonably priced too. I stayed in Mendoza for 3 nights, but after pigging out on steak dinners with the money I saved by camping, had to hit the road again.
I headed south on 40 again, through more high desert, with snow capped mountains alway visible to the west, and stopped for the night in Malargue. I sprung for a hotel, since it looked like rain, and I didn't feel up to camping again. Earlier in the day there was a lone hill out in the middle of the plain, and I could see a road switchbacking up it, so figured, why not? Aparently the hill was an extinct volcano, as part way up, the road turned to a fine black gravel, that I took to be pulverized pumice. It was so loose that the back wheel dug in, so I aborted the climb, and headed back down. Nice view from up there though, you could just see forever.
Up until this time, 40 had been alternating between asphalt and gravel. Sometimes you could go 50 mph, others 20, due mainly to the washboard. After Malargue, it turned to asphalt for a good long time, which was a nice break. This day brought me into what they call the lake district. The highway goes up into the mountains again here, and it is a lot greener. The area reminds me of British Columbia in Canada, with the mountains and long narrow lakes between them. Along the road, I met an Argentine rider from Cordoba, who was riding a BMW R1150 GS. He passed me on the road, and when I caught up to him when he stopped, I stopped to talk. He told me his real name, but I forgot it, but said his motorcycle fiends call him Puma. That was my first clue that he was an ex Harley rider, the second was that his gas tank had a mural on it that looked like a Molly Hatchet album cover or something, the first time I have seen something like that on a Beemer. He said he got rid of his HArley because the highways were too rough in western Argentina for them, and he didn't like the Harley attitude, where you are a sub human or something if you ride another brand. My kind of rider. And I like Harleys, I have a Buell at home, just not to the exclusion of everything else. Anyway, the towns in the lake district look like Colorado or someplace, with upscale clothes and souvenier shops, and expensive restaurants. Luckily, I was able to find a campground and a hamburger joint, in San Martin de los Andes.
The next day, I rode to the Chilean border, through a national park on the 7 lakes highway, or something like that. I was headed for Puerto Montt, and the start of the Carreterra Austral, but on the way I saw a Studebaker museum, of all things, on the side of the highway. This was close to Osorno, and I decided to stop and check out the museum the next day. I did, and it was a retirement hobby for a dairy farmer. He had about 80 cars on display, 50 of them Studebakers. He had a bunch of unrestored cars under a roof outside, with cows grazing around them to keep the grass down. You just never know what you'll run into. After spending the morning there, I headed for Puerto Montt. This was the first 4 lane divided road I had been on since Panama, I think. In P.M., I wanted to get some info on how much of the Carreterra Austral you could actualy ride, since there are several ferry crossings to deal with. I couldn't get any definitive word on what ferries were running, so I opted to take a ferry 90 miles to the town of Chaiten, to start with. This got me past the area where the other ferry crossings were. I had got into Chile on the day Agosto Pinochet died, and that was all over the news. Pinochet is the one who ordered the Carreterra built in the 80's, enabling the people in the area to go from a sheep ranching based economy to tourism, which pays a lot better, judging by the Land Rovers and Suburbans at the fly fishing resorts. So you don't say anything bad about Pinochet here. This area reminds me of north west Washington state and BC, complete with the rain. I spent 4 days on the Carreterra, and it rained most of the time. Pretty country, but I couldn't wait to get back on the Argentine side, where it is relatively dry.
After crossing back to Argentina, at Chile Chico, I spent two days riding south on 40 again. This is the notorious stretch of gravel where the wind just howls. The road is in decent shape, as far as washboard goes, but the wind presents its own special hazards. The cars make wheel tracks, where the loose gravel is pushed off to the side. If you can stay in the wheel tracks, everything is rosy, but if you let the wind push you out of these 18 inch wide paths, the loose stuff sucks you into it, and you get crossed up real fast. After the first day, of about 200 miles, my right shoulder and forearm were just on fire from pusshing on the handlebar all day to fight the wind. The next day wasn't any easier, BUT, I now have most of the gravel out of the way. From what I hear, there is only one little stretch of gravel left, and then blessed asphalt all the way to Ushuaia. Which brings me to where I am now, El Chalten Argentina. This is 60 miles off the main road, and a mecca for climbers of the FitzRoy mountains. I am going to take a day off tomorrow, maybe hike to the climbers base camp, just to check it out, if the wind doesn´t blow me away. After that, I will go the the Moreno glacier, and then cross into Chile again to go to Torres del Paine park, and then make the final push to Ushuaia. I should still be on track to make it there by Christmas, as today is the 17th. I think I am only 600 miles or so by road from there, but as I said, I have some more places to see between here and there yet.
The bike has been holding up well, but I have a lot of really tired gear. The speedometer drive, which I half assed repaired back in Peru 5,000 miles ago, gave up the ghost on the Carreterra Austral, so the mileage count is stopped at 14,223 for the trip, 43,277 for the bike total. I have put maybe 600 on since then, and will put at least 2,000 more on, depending on where I ship home from. Other than that, the bike is running well. It used a half quart of oil in the last 4,000 miles, I should change it one more time. I have had a hell of a time with zippers, I think the dust gets into them and jams them up. The one on the tank bag split, so I can only keep things in there that can get wet. The tent has holes in it from the poles rubbing on all the washboard roads. The fabric on my jacket sleeves is disintegrating, I guess from the wind, so whatever waterproof quality it once had is gone. But, it looks like everything will limp to the finish. I'm looking into ways to ship home. There is a motorcycle tour company that has a container with extra room going back to Houston from Santiago, which would be great, except it means missing Buenos Aires. I'm working on getting a quote from Buenos Aires, so we'll see.Posted by Andy Tiegs at December 18, 2006 01:43 PM GMT
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