The boys: Juan-Pi, Matt and Jason enjoyed a ‘Lads day out’ (synonymous to No ‘Captain Slows’ allowed) up in Mendoza’s finest mountains.“No problema chicos, by all means venture out; I will chat and chill the day away”, I managed between a big grin, ushering them out of the door. With the freedom granted by an off-roading prowess of similar abilities, they chose a pretty technical route through the foothills of Mendoza. They rode hard. Tackled some steep inclines, pushed the bravado-fuelled envelope and go figure, dropped their bikes more than once – fun-filled hours after which the afternoon saw them sweat-soaked, bushed and does-my-belly-think-my-throat’s-been-cut ravenous! Juan-Pi admirably stepped up and treated the trio to an impressively large beef asado, prepared on an open fire in a rural spot, al fresco style. I heard it was tantalisingly good, yet another taste bud sensation.
During the asado, the guys spotted a herdsman shepherding his goats down the
valley, waved him through with a friendly gesture and thought nothing more of it. An unexpected turn of events unravelled by a nearly infinite margin when moments after their mighty lunch, they heard the bleating of a newborn baby goat. Smeared by the fluid from the amniotic sac, the coated kid still had part of the umbilical cord attached. Whimpering its tiny, terrified head off, the newborn’s mother had clearly absconded. Abandoned, the guys had no option but to house the helplessly sticky creature inside Juan-Pi’s backpack, head popping out in between the bag’s two zips and wrapped in his sweater – gloop and all. Looking down at the plucky little goat, they were unanimous in a decision to affectionately call him ‘Toto’.
There was small chance of catching up with the herdsman astride his horse, he could have gone in any direction away from where they’d lunched. As a timely stroke of luck would have it, the guys managed to arrive on the same scene as the goat-herding gaucho. He clocked the newborn peeking nervously out of Juan-Pi’s backpack and without prompt, produced a sack. The logical choice was to hand over newly acquired said goat and that was that.
Having Mendoza as a base meant we could scoot across 225 miles to Santiago to pick up some niceties and necessities. Taking just one bike largely to save on fuel and thus being Jason’s pillion was novel to say the least. I tried my utmost to refrain from becoming an inveterate ‘backseat driver’, which was challenging but instead focused on all the benefits bestowed on a motorcycle passenger. I read once that you’d never invite a thief into your house; so why then would you allow thoughts that steal your joy to make themselves at home in your mind? Besides, Jason is a highly experienced rider. I immediately allowed myself to be governed by the spirit of implicit trust and an unconditional letting go. I got carried away though, let my mind all but explode in a frenzy of fireworks and remarked about an element of romance to riding ‘two up’ with your partner. “Okay”, Jason replied obliviously. Something I could get used to.
Revisiting Chile, I experienced a familiar sensation grooved into my memory by countless repetition from recent months. The prominent difference this time was riding in 29 degrees Celsius; a delectable start to the sortie compared to the previous jaw-chatteringly brisk occasions in the height of Chile’s winter.
Matt, Jason and I all harboured a personal agenda to procure this and that, we got to work and managed to successfully source what we needed if not wanted. By the second night our practically private dormitory: accommodating the three of us and a rather quiet, non-snoring German; lost the Germanic guy and acquired a happy-in-her-own-skin French-speaking Chilean girl; a sour-faced French girl with salon-straight strawberry blonde locks; her seemingly more miserable French mother and a preposterously-loud-when-slumbering chap. Nationality unknown. Bienvenidos – Welcome to communal sleeping folks!
Returning from a refreshing shower, I noticed one of the dorm’s new residents had accidentally chosen my bed as their own. My bed was exactly as I’d left it having enjoyed a good night’s kip in it the night prior, and apart from Jason’s and Matt’s beds, all the others were yet to be made up with a roll of fresh sheets and pillow case atop of each. Yep, I was fairly confident from the indicative evidence that the bed was still mine. I casually scooped up her things and carefully placed them on the above bunk. Jason stayed put and I toddled off elsewhere. In my absence, the French mother, lets call her ‘Mrs Dynamite’ re-entered and at once spotted the change in her sleeping arrangements.
Her base level of anger was instantly fired up by a brand new level of infuriation. Enraged, her fury-bright eyes bored into Jason’s, face contorted, the black hole of her mouth aghast. Before giving Jason a moment’s notice to blink, she dived into her native tongue; the alien words hammering on Jason’s ears like hail. Irritation tugged at the corners of her mouth, she ripped my things from the aforementioned bed and proceeded to put them on the floor. For Mrs Dynamite, the task was as insufferable as the scenario intolerable. Jason piped in with an explanation without further ado, which proved as fruitless as it did a waste of energy; this lady understood not a word of English. Instead, I understand she worked her mouth and wrinkled her nose as though smelling something foul.
A tournament of indecipherable language-tennis between both parties went on for a minute or two, underscoring one side’s growing frustration more than the other. Each of their inflection however was crystal clear to the other. Bed now reclaimed free of anyone else’s pesky possessions and enemies vanquished, Mrs Dynamite – eyes still swimming with rage – reflected on her situation. Despite herself. Or not. In less than half a heartbeat her brash being was sparked by an impulse to consequently rip off the sheets and blanket I’d slept in and under, only to make up an unoccupied bed on the opposite side of the dormitory. Points for logic? Nil. Unlikeability factor? Oozed out of the woman’s pores.
Mrs Dynamite reappeared as quickly as she had momentarily departed the room. Without taking the time to contemplate her emotions, she gestured in exacerbation that she’d lost something – in what from Jason’s perspective – could only be described as a moment of departed madness. Temporary insanity sustained, she began rummaging through my things in a mindless frenzy, still chaotically splayed on the floor rooting for some misplaced item. I guess at this point her pain was mixed not just with anger but seething, burning, all-consuming her.
The spectacle I’m told was comical. One might even surmise comedy gold. And I don’t think Jason, incredulous as he was, really had any blazing desire to interrupt Mrs Dynamite’s somewhat misguided misfortune; resulting in the making of a somewhat veritable racket. I would have given anything to soothe her frail soul, tormenting itself like a small bird beating about the cruel wires of a cage. Or not. The world thereafter went revolving around its sun at the constant speed and with the inconstant temper it always had.
The last night of our four day Chilean road trip was positively buoyed up by the saviour of a private room. We’d met a fun Irish couple Mike and Orla who were waiting most patiently for their F650GS to be air freighted from Sydney to Santiago. Their two wheeled adventure was just beginning, motorcycle suits pristine and they were brimming with the same excited anticipation we were eight months back. The five of us got on famously, there were stacks of stories, tips and tales on the road to be exchanged and imparted.
Orla pointed out the similarity of her name to ‘hola’, which you’ll know is the word for hello in Spanish; consequently the immediate and recurring confusion that ensued, which was causing Latin Americans to respond with ‘hola’ repeatedly upon first introductions with her. She had been in South America for less than a week. Good luck with that my darl. Orla herself admitted to double checking a few times if she’d heard her name or just some stranger close by saying hola. “Hola..?!” I couldn’t help but giggle, she was a hoot. Thank goodness for the non-crazies of this world.
(All images taken from Lisa’s mobile phone)
Once passing for human again post our sliver in Bolivia, we casually made our way out of San Pedro de Atacama. Upon leaving, the three of us bumped into some bikers from Santiago ‘two up’ on two bikes. Briefly acquainted, their proceeding word of cautionary advice was, “Be very, very careful in Argentina, it is dangerous.” Eh?! Sorry, it’s what now? Surely it had to be about thee safest country in South America – of which we’d experienced its length and breadth around a dozen times. I was fast running out of passport pages because of our unremitting infatuation with the country. I shouldn’t have but out of earshot, I chuckled to myself on and off for about half an hour afterwards. What exactly should we be so afraid of, I honestly wondered as we rode into the familiarity of Argentina. Vicious vicuna?
OH MY GOODNESS ME! The smile on my face was wiped clean when out of the yellow grasses, up a steep bank raced a vicuna, its coat harmoniously camouflaged in the same yellow. Across my path, at lightning speed. Time stood still even though I was zooming at 50 miles per hour. In what felt like slow motion, I severely slammed my brakes on and missed a nasty collision with the panicked creature by a hair’s breadth. A vicuna harbouring one of Karma’s unexplained vendettas – that will teach me to snigger and fail to read the sub-text in peoples’ well-intentioned messages.
Within the hour, dark clouds took on the shape and size of the Star Trek Enterprise. Argentina’s world grew grey as we drew closer to brooding rain clouds beneath slate skies and alongside pewter waters. We did nothing but watch from a distance as black stringers of rain could be seen where they whisked down from the closing storm bank in the south. A steady wash of rain fell in grey sheets up ahead; I clung to the hope that the rain would abate by the time we were beneath those dirty clouds. HOLY SMOKES! Lightning struck. Tendrils of spidery light flashed across the sky, illuminating it for a split second. Over and over, getting closer and closer.
Worryingly, we were still riding high up on a pass – a shiver of concern played down my spine. Such lightning strikes could splinter a man’s bones. I swallowed hard, fear began to squirm around in my gut. It prickled through me. The three of us didn’t take long to descend to the safety of the valley floor and rock up to a snuggery in Purmamarca for the night. Hah – yet another signal to stop throwing caution to Argentina’s wind. Two-wheeled travel can be as risky as it is rewarding. Bolivia’s barbarous adventures aside that had awoken my ‘inner-anarchist’, take heed Lisa, take heed.
A day or two later on the road, everything appeared well again having averted any further perils of Argentina. That is until Jason yells down the helmet’s intercom, “ARGH! ARRRRGH!” all but making my ears bleed.
“What’s up?” I enquired, frowning.
“There’s a bloody bee in my helmet! Or a wasp!” Jason exclaimed rather hotly.
“Oh NO!” I replied emphatically.
“Ouch! OOOOW!” Oh dear, he’s been stung. Jason abruptly pulled over and rapidly removed his helmet, Matt and I followed suit. I inspected for mortal injuries but only spotted a red mark akin to a pinprick just below his collarbone. The wound looked harmless, pitifully small even. By Jason’s taut expression, the little creature had made quite the lasting impression. The blighter had patently pierced Jason’s skin like a lancet, inflicting a white hot pain. I tried to be empathetic although had never been stung by a wasp or a bee before. I offered to retrieve the bite cream but wondered if it’d be like trying to quench a fire with a spear thrust. Jason declined, he was manning up to the bite of the bee. “At least it’s not a venomous snakebite even if it looks like one”, I added unhelpfully. The effect from the winged insect’s neurotoxins – coursing through Jason’s nervous system – manifested as a look that could boil cheese. I helpfully shut up. Another sting in the Argentinian tale…
KLR rider Matt, two weeks in was still in tow with us. Since our chance meet with him at a petrol station in Uyuni, we’d thoroughly appreciated his company and companionable conversation. He was gregarious, had an interesting maelstrom of ‘ideas’ – in short were mad as a box of frogs – of which we took great pleasure in both marveling and occasionally mocking. I liked that he introduced himself to Latin Americans with a Spanish name ‘Matteo’ breaking the ice and building rapport with the locals that much quicker. Enjoying a bit of banter over a beer, Matt casually mused over the word problema in Spanish, “Problema ends in an ‘a’ so by the rules of the language, it should be feminine. However, it’s irregular and consequently the definite article becomes el problema”. Matt made me laugh out loud when he then deduced, “That therefore means only men can have problems.” His sense of humour tickled me no end.
Matt possessed an insatiable thirst for both life and liquor. He was fresh blood to our biking ensemble and could not have descended upon us at a better time. A lust for living lay behind his blue eyes, he often spoke with a certain erudition and his stint in Afghanistan had proved more than useful in removing Pearl and me out of the Venus flytrap that can be Bolivia. Not to mention his fluent grasp of Español. For us, it was a pleasure. Matt was making his way down from his hometown in Canada to Ushuaia and conceded with my observation that travelling most definitely appeals more to him through western cultures. Fair enough, old sport.
Matt had become somewhat jaded through the less desirable parts of Central and South America but was buoyed up by the home-from-home comforts of Chile and Argentina. In fact, his whole persona blossomed once we left Bolivia and entered Chile; I think shedding a ‘travel weary’ skin revealed an energised, fresher version of himself. Post a month with us, Matt had decided to rapido his route through the Americas in order to fly out and reunite with his newfound girlfriend. Namely reignite a three week old face-to-face relationship with her in Australia. Young love..!
Paying no attention to my hands that were pulsating like tuning forks – doubtless from the high-speed vibration incurred on a long five day ride from San Pedro de Atacama – I rode through Mendoza beaming. Exulting in our arrival, the yellow panelled gate parted like the opening to Oz revealing not the Wizard but Toto’s lush green grounds. We were at once ensconced in the fine comforts of Toto’s gated mansion Posado Olivar, our Argentinean amigo’s place. I craved to undergo a renovation in the form of a hot power shower, fresh clothes and ascertain a smear-free face from the road’s miasma of emissions. We didn’t need asking twice to lap up every luxury.
Ancient trees perforated manicured lawns, the thick trunks from which cast welcoming shade effortlessly luring me and a good book. The trees were gowned in olive, emerald and lime greens, the gentle breeze making the branches writhe and whisper. The flower-rich gardens that bloomed in as much colour as they were kempt were also home to a pristine swimming pool. The chirring of insects, chattering of jays and trilling of songbirds fought in direct competition with one another. It was a melodic cacophony. Woodpeckers
perched on a protruding branch were unconcerned by a human presence as they sunned their wings under a golden afternoon sun. Brightly feathered birds flitted among the trees enjoying the secluded spot as much as me. Spring had sprung and totally entranced, I thought my being would all but burst into beams of sunlight.
By no means our first time in Mendoza and goodness knows it wouldn’t be our last, it was wonderful to be re-established with our Mendozian friends, reinvigorated by their hospitality. We took timeout to tinker on the bikes, blitz through some books and feast like kings in merrying the nights away over Malbec and mouthwatering meat. We both indulged in some SwáSthya yoga at a DeRose class, I sipped the best steaming hot cuppa I’d supped on since England at The Tea Company and relished preparing some homemade nutrient-rich meals. We dined in and out with Toto and his family as well as Juan-Pi and his spirited clan. My appetite was satiated once more after being less than fond of Bolivia’s culinary offerings; I’d been pushing food past my teeth to simply fulfill the function of having to eat.
I still marvelled at our guest bedroom – bigger in square footage than our old one-bedroomed cottage and a super-king bed larger than our previous bathroom. Taking the time to mindfully floss my teeth, indulge my almost ‘ginger dreads’ with a deep conditioning hair remedy and document our recent escapades on the road were a cathartic release in equal measures and well, to ‘simply be’ was as much a tonic as it was a treat.
Toto celebrated his birthday, the first one with his recently newborn son Gasper and the same day for which four shiny new Honda 250ccs were delivered, six months after haggling relentlessly with Argentinean customs, producing trees worth of documentation to satisfy the bureaucratic regulations. His party went well into the wee hours enlivened further by a vivacious set of people from various facets in his life. Needless to say we marked the occasion in true Argentinean style; as former vegans, we relished the asado-driven consumption of what felt like half a cow to our
somewhat under-practiced stomachs. As Peter Kay would say, it was a taste sensation.
That night with the company we found ourselves keeping, there was nowhere else I would have rather been. A truly sparkling evening and privilege to have been invited. Before leaving the UK, a good friend of ours Sam Manicom had gifted us the profits from the sale of one of his travel books. He looked warmly at me and gestured with the English note, “Lisa, when you’re on the road and find yourself in a perfect place, with like-minded people and look around thinking, ‘My goodness, it doesn’t get much better than this’, have a drink on me.” Muchas gracias Sam. At the end of the night, I just smiled at the glorious ache of happiness.
Another ‘Top Ten’ dedicated to essential dual purpose pannier items.
With space at a premium on a motorcycle trip no matter how long the journey’s duration, shouldn’t everything your trusty steed has to carry have at least a dual purpose? Here’s some food for thought:
An obvious start. Our weapon of choice is a Garmin S660; not necessarily the best and although we don’t solely rely on the device – maps remain king – it still takes the stress out of navigating around big cities. Look for a GPS that comes with a nifty function to source the nearest petrol station, bank or lodging for example, which will prove priceless at the end of many a long day in the saddle. Our SatNav has saved us precious time at the end of many a long day in the saddle searching for a bed. A worthy investment if you also don’t fancy wasting time trying to find your way out of a labyrinth that is your average unfamiliar big city.
A stove can be made from any regular aluminium soft drinks or beer can, fueled by pure / rubbing alcohol sourced from most pharmacies and supermarkets. Genius idea and incredibly cheap to run, prevents your food tasting of gasoline too from other petrol-fuelled stoves.
We used a long length of elastic and ‘ripstop’ fabric to make our homemade motorcycle covers, traditionally used in the making of parachutes. We fed the elastic through the bottom of a hem so they would cling onto the bottom of the bikes without fear of them being blown away in a gusty wind. The fabric is not rainproof although it will admirably protect your motorbike from the elements; sand, dust, snow, volcanic ash etc. They also come in handy when you need to leave your bike unattended. The covers make our motorcycles practically invisible. The prying and over-curious eye is simply not drawn to two relatively big BMWs underneath as the covers give them both an indistinct entity. Perfect in developing countries or any big city you just don’t fancy pushing your luck. Furthermore, because of their size, the covers fit amply over hostel bed mattresses that look like they’ve seen cleaner days. They also stash up into a corner of a roll bag without taking too much bulky space and can even be used as a comfy pillow.
Bags – Roll, dry and freezer:
In all sizes – keeping your stuff soggy-free and bone-dry at all times is essential, especially in the rainy season or over river-crossings. We find a 90 litre Ortlieb roll bag and thinner material but no less functional Exped dry bags in varying sizes keep our equipment, provisions, clothes and tech watertight and away from all the other dusty and sandy delights you may encounter en route. I also love using lockable freezer bags from most supermarkets as another layer of waterproof protection for my smaller items such as the rechargeable batteries, head torch, paperwork and wads of money travellers need to carry from country to country. Although the Exped bags are brilliant, they will be susceptible to wear and tear, some of ours have incurred little rips in them from all the bashing they endure when we’re off road. Oh, and don’t forget your ROK straps and bungee cords to tie your luggage onto the back of your trusty steed.
Hard of soft luggage – it’s a toughy! After much deliberation, we each opted for a pair of Metal Mule 38 litre hard aluminium panniers. Up to now (13,000 miles of on and off road), they’ve been bullet proof, have saved my legs when the bike goes down as well as the engine on my bike that doesn’t have crash bars. They offer instant security for your valuables, no one has a clue what you keep inside them and they can be easily removed and locked to hostel beds with an additional lock and chain should you so wish. We use the panniers as a table, stool and windbreak around the bikes when we’re wild camping in those million star hotels.
In the hopefully unlikely event of getting mugged, I like the idea of being able to reach for a ‘mugger’s wallet’ containing a small amount of the local currency in the country I’m travelling. Make it look real with old receipts, the odd company’s business card and expired gym / library / roadside cover cards too. It may just satisfy the robber’s instant gratification requirements keeping the bulk of your hard-earned dollar out of the thief’s hands.
How many times have I experienced a lid from a bottle that’s come loose and spilled all the contents of my bag or pannier? Use parcel tape on practically everything to prevent untimely spillages: toiletries in general, jam jars, opened sachets of wet and dry food, milk bottles and cartons…you get the drift. I use parcel tape on the end of my lead that connects to my heated clothing, which sits exposed on the outside of my motorcycle. It saves the rain and dust perishing it. I also like having a roll of strong clear tape on me too, I can repair rips in our maps and protect my pannier stickers.
Free mobile phone applications
- The free ‘European Road Safety’ app contains all important road safety rules. Going to play in Europe? What is the speed limit on Spanish motorways? Do I need to wear a helmet when I cycle in Sweden? Download it before going abroad and save on roaming charges too. We rode from Nottingham to Antwerp via the Euro Tunnel to catch a container ship in Belgium, with our bikes taking us to Uruguay; having the ‘European Road Safety’ app proved useful.
- We also LOVE ‘Maps with me’ for detailed maps worldwide and its fabulously useful functions to search for local banks, hostels, camping etc. It’s amazing how often this comes in handy to supplement the detail on the SatNav.
- ‘Skycode Translate‘ is great for many language translations, an app that works offline and will translate paragraphs not just words. Plus, have always liked having an offline dictionary in the local lingo (most are free). Saves weight and bulk in the panniers too.
- There’s also ‘Word Lens‘ that allows you to hover the camera on your mobile phone over some foreign text – a road sign or menu for example and it will transform the language into English for you. Just like that.
- I use ‘iTorch‘ as a strong illuminating beam when my head torch is packed away.
- I also tap into using ‘Duolingo‘ to help with my Spanish.
Believe it or not, we use dental floss not just to maintain our dental hygiene but as an ideal and strong material to substitute sewing thread for repairing items such as putting a button back on, darning your socks, cutting through cheese if you haven’t a knife handy, holes in the tent, repairing backpacks, wrapping up parcels, fishing line alternative, hanging items from a tree, a clothes line…the list is endless.
Unquestionably one of the finest all purpose tools ever designed. One of these and a Leatherman will dismantle over 80% of most bikes in minutes. It weighs nothing and replaces KGs of other tools.
10. Motorcycle gear
We’re both wearing Sidi Adventure motorcycle boots as loathe the prospect of having wet feet all day. Saves having to don expensive breathable waterproof socks too, which although are superb in serving their purpose, will get smelly soon enough and at some point will need a fresh pair. I don’t want my feet to sweat either by wearing plastic bags. The Sidi boots offer amazing protection in all weathers and on the odd occasion I fall underneath or off my bike. They’re comfortable to wear astride the saddle all day although I wouldn’t climb a mountain in them.
Anyone nesh travelling in nippy temperatures on two wheels may wish to consider making the investment in heated clothing. We adore our Gerbing gloves and jacket; the heat allows us to ride for hours in sometimes sub-zero degrees and biting winds without batting an eyelid. Biking bliss in days when you get all seasons. And worth every penny. Gerbing offer a lifetime guarantee too on all the heating elements, which is a Brucey Bonus.
The sun’s beating down like a fiery hot hammer and the temperatures are searing sometimes. Regardless whether it’s rain, hail or shine, I wouldn’t be without my CamelBak, a lightweight rucksack that houses 3 litres of water contained in a durable bladder. The system feeds into a valved hose that falls neatly over my right shoulder, ready for when I’m thirsty. The pack has just enough room for a light lunch, tissues and suncream. Perfect. Hydration levels safely attended, I am good to go for hours at a time without having to unpack the pannier and grab a drink to repack the pannier. This slim little bag is also invaluable on day walks and short sorties. On the back of this suggestion I also like the LifeStraw, which is a pen-sized water filter designed to be used by one person to filter water so that they may safely drink it. It filters a maximum of 1000 litres of water, enough for one person for one year. It removes almost all of waterborne bacteria and parasites. The LifeStraw Family, a larger unit designed for family use, also filters out nearly all microbes.
Another short film for your viewing pleasure, this one was made using only my drone and the Gopro 3+ camera. We hope you like it.
Here’s our latest video capturing the highlights of the two wheeled journey so far – we hope you enjoy:
Another ‘Top Ten’ post devoted to roads leading to some of the best South American offbeat travel hotspots through Argentina and Chile we’ve experienced over the last few months. The ‘Top Ten’ riding roads below aren’t ranked; if they’ve made the list means they get our thumbs up.
Top Ten: Riding Roads, South America
Carretera Austral, Ruta 7: Chile (approx. 1,240km)
The Carretera Austral through Chile is a road that will satisfy your soul beyond conscious comprehension. It begins from the seaside town of Puerto Montt in the north where Chile’s Lakes District ends to the village of Villa O’Higgins in the south, snaking south for 1,240 kilometres into a land of dense forests, snow-tipped mountains, glacial streams, islands and swift-flowing rivers. Don’t let the potential wet and windy weather put you off (we rode it in May 2014).
We spent a week riding Carretera Austral’s dirt roads, which was well worth the extra effort involved through the gravelly, muddy and corrugated parts. The pothole-peppered track took us hundreds of metres above sea level on Mount Jeinemeni, which gave us day long views of a lake the size of a city. It was so lofty from atop, I felt like I could see half the world. Mammoth-sized mountains engulfed us as well as voluminous lakes under even bigger skies.
Everything was super-sized – the only missing piece of the jigsaw was the dinosaurs. Feeling like a dot in the landscape, we wound our way up. Everything was – the only missing piece of the jigsaw was the dinosaurs. Feeling like a dot in the landscape, we wound our way up and down the mountain passes taking extra care; there were no barriers on some of the steep hairpin bends, which were loose and corrugated to add to the fun and games. Some had described these mountain passes as “hair-raising on two wheels” although it was often so stunning, forgetting I was on more technical terrain was made easier.
Further north past Chile Chico, the ground either side of the Carretera Austral changed dramatically where barren plains gave way to a grassy, lush landscape. The orange, reds and russet leaves of autumn were just appearing for us here. Soaking up the vegetation-dense vista was like having a sponge bath, it was good to drench the soul in something green for a change. Incredible. Queulat National Park is definitely worth the detour off the Carretera Austral too – here you’ll find The Hanging Glacier.
San Pedro de Atacama to Paso de Sico, Ruta 23: Chile (approx. 209km)
Some fantastic off road riding and your efforts over the loose gravel, stretches of sand and corrugations will reward you with a pastel watercolour painting scene of soft textures. The landscape is intermingled by a myriad of harmonious hues on the colour wheel. Chiefly creamy mochas, milk chocolate and swirling dark browns. You’ll chance upon Laguna Miscanti & Miniques. Two sparkling brackish lakes, one a blue curacao liqueur and the other starkly beautiful in its crystallised white but beckoning us by its inky midnight blue. En route, you’ll also come across Salar de Talar. A glittering salty lake in the same aquamarine blue found in the Indian Ocean and you’ll get to dangle your legs over the edge of iron red rocks, perfectly rounded and smoothed by the blasting winds. It’s possible enter Argentina at the border of Paso de Sico but remember to stamp your passport out in Chile’s San Pedro de Atacama, 145 miles away.
What you’re store for is an earthy, rollicking, lip licking feast of fun. In August 2014, we bobbled over loose gravel, frozen streams crusted over in ice, slushy mud and oodles of slippery sand. I imagine there wouldn’t be any ice in the summer months. The 176 mile ride was worth it just to see what I labelled ‘Boulder world’ alone, bestowed on us in its breathtaking enormity. There sat an incredibly impressive legion of stand-alone rocks bigger than an average sized house. Some were the size of ships. It was a movie set from Raiders of the Lost Ark. The unpaved road became a dirt road, which became a track and the track a mere suggestion of one. Both our bikes went down but survived the animated fun. Not for the faint hearted or those that prefer the smooth tarmac.
Zapala to Caviahue, Argentina (& if you’re feeling feisty onto Copahue), Argentina (approx. 173km)
Imagine a wanderlust cocktail of Freddy Flintstone boulder-lined desert, mountain lakes and pehuén forests but best of all, monkey puzzle trees amid big snowy mountains dominating the landscape. Welcome to the road between Zapala and Caviahue. In the nineteenth century these evergreen coniferous trees, native to Chile, were named in response to a remark that an attempt to climb one would puzzle even a monkey, uh uoo!
The roads left the senses tingling as we were riding into the onset of the ski season. In June 2014, we ventured the ten mile ride over on thick gravel ripio to Copahue. We’d heard the mud baths and hot natural springs were still open to invitation of the slightly crazed. I got four miles in when the dirt road dwindled to a pebbly thread, finally to a mere suggestion. The stones, slushy mud and injurious ice were too much for me although the return ride felt like a piece of cake with my back to the unwanted wind. I hear Copahue is a sight to behold, shame the snow prevented us from getting there. During the summer months, the ride to Copahue would be straight forward in easy conditions.
Ruta de los Siete Lagos – Seven Lakes Road, Argentina (approx. 107km)
The Road of the Seven Lakes is the popular name given to the provincial route 234 between San Martín de los Andes and Villa La Angostura in the Neuquén Province, Argentina. Definitely not one to be missed, this is popular with folks on four wheels, two and on foot. The 107 km road that crosses the Lanín and Nahuel Huapi national parks provides access to several lakes in the forest area of the Patagonic Andes, as well as to other sights. The seven primary lakes of the road after which the route takes its name comprise:
The lakes are aptly named for their salmon fishing, beauty, clarity and hidden aspects – we wouldn’t have missed this road even if it did feel a little wrong to be riding on so much asphalt through virgin coihue and colihue cane forests. The day’s song ended on a sweet note as we dared to hope that a steep trail would zig-zag us down to a mysterious looking lake. The day hit a harmonious crescendo as we stumbled upon it, Lago Lacar. A long, narrow bar of opaque blue mist hung beautifully over the freshwater. Behind me, I saw hills rising wild as far as the eye could see covered in trees that no axe had ever touched. I saw the sunlight glinting off the lake and clouds sweeping in from the west. I even saw a caracara circling. I waved at him as late afternoon drew upon us, shadows growing long. Dusk arrived and left to a tune of pinks and oranges. Overhead a half moon peeked out through the scuttling clouds, beneath which a stillness settled over my mind. The stars looked like eyes, watching over us in this secluded spot with only each other for company.
Via La Vuelta a los Valles – Return to the Valleys. Oh my, what a thrill ride waiting for you! Valles Calchaquies oozes a seductive, off the beaten track rugged landscape. We encountered: bee eaters flying above, gravelly sand, sandy gravel and well, more sand. Inevitably we stumbled through some rough patches of sand, me more than Jason. Vernacular architecture was common in the valleys that to my mind deserved some special attention – even I couldn’t fail to notice some of the adobe houses that boasted neoclassical columns and Moorish arches. Cachi was full of cobblestones, boasted a tranquil plaza overlooked by noble mountains and led us on a road that crossed the Parque National Los Cardones. Interestingly, the local furniture is made from the wood of cacti, cardon; in the treeless Andean foothills and puna. A superb little spot in the desert and one I’m glad we took the time to deviate from our route to Salta and discover.
Ruta 46 via Laguna Blanca to Zapala, Argentina (approx. 123km)
To my mind, Ruta 46 is in direct competition to the Carretera Austral. You won’t believe it until you see it. Church bells were chiming inside my head, rejoicing alongside the ring of a quieter alarm bell as to why this road is so unknown and underrated. It took us from one national park to another via a scenically steep mountain pass. We were riding 1,200 metres above sea level through big sky country where the striking volcanic deserts led us all the way to Laguna Blanca. The laguna was a drainage lake that formed when lava flows dammed two small streams; now host to coots, grebes, upland geese and the odd flamingo, primarily under protection for the black-necked swans. The road led us to Zapala, is a touristic city in the Patagonian province of Neuquén, Argentina for an overnight stop.
Puyehue National Park, Chile to Villa La Angostura, Argentina (approx. 100km)
Ruta 231 marked as the 215 on Google maps will lead you through Puyehue National Park, out of Chile and back into Argentina. After the 231 road, it appears on Google maps that the road comes to an abrupt halt. It doesn’t, refer to any good map and you’ll be taken on a road that most assuredly exists..! Around the sweeping roads you’ll ride, curving up around the mountains, back down until you’ll be hit by a powdery place of volcanic ash. Tall trees robbed of life and leaves perforate a thick carpet of brown flakes. For us, it was like riding through the land of the dead and apart from each other and the roar from our bikes, the world was awash in sepia. Nature woke up in Villa La Angostura, a village in the south of the Argentine province of Neuquén, on the northwest shore of the Nahuel Huapi Lake. It’s an upmarket town and ski resort.
Your passage from Cachi to Salta will bestow the prettiest proliferation of cacti you might ever see. In the space of an afternoon, the diversity of landscape becomes borderline ludicrous, at least it did for us. One minute it felt as Mexico as cactus populated sandy plains can get and around a corner we peaked our ride at 3,300 metres to feast our eyes on Icelandic foothills. They looked completely covered in cocoa-powder – not what I expected after the desert scene previously encountered. You may like we did decide to deviate off road down a rocky track with the odd sheer drop and holes gaping in the road like hungry bites from a sandwich; it got the appetite primed for a perfect picnic spot at the bottom. Back up onto the main drag on ruta 33 and a few miles further along, you’ll enter a New Zealand inspired Lord of the Rings scene that alters into a sub-tropical rainforest, which in turn transforms into Scottish hills and lush green English farmland. All in the space of an afternoon. All in the smallest segment of South America – a slice of Argentinian pie I could continue to dine out on for months.
10. Mendoza to Barreal via Uspallata, Argentina (approx. 235km)
If you swing a right westward off ruta 40 back onto the 7 north towards Uspallata, it’ll give rise to quite a dramatic scene-stealer. Dense clusters of brooding clouds, dark grey steely skies and the purply presence of the Andes with hoarfrost gripping at every low level bush was as Wuthering Heights as you’re likely to see that side of the southern hemisphere. In July 2014, we got lucky and hit an unpaved track between the 39 and 412 roads – the first time I’d off-roaded smiling in a smattering of snow!
Arriving in Barreal that afternoon felt like someone had turned up the colour saturation in Photoshop. Up to then, I’d been blasé to the bland landscape of wind-tortured plains and dusty mountains, the appearance and texture of elephant skin and had no idea what lay around the corner. I’d read that this part of the San Juan province gave locals around 300 days of ultra-clear, pollution-free skies each year. Like a tap of a wand to a magician’s hat, out popped stark poplar trees against fiercely blue rivers running clear and an ancient dried out lakebed ‘La Pampa del Leoncito’. Every square centimetre of the 10 kilometre mud-flat was a pattern of cracked crazy-paving. It turned the colour of Maldivian sand when the sun shone down. Needless to say, we spent nigh on an afternoon simulating spirals, figure of eights and playful attempts at crop circles leaving only traces of our tyre-streaked fun. Back in open country, a blending of the soul took place once again by means of my motorcycle and me.
Plan A: To vacate Uyuni in Bolivia via 237 miles on routes 5, 701, skirting around lagunas Pasto Grande, Capina and Colorada, through the
Eduardo Avaroa National Reserve of Andean Fauna, by-passing Laguna Verde to eventually cross the border into northern Chile’s San Pedro de Atacama. Why the need to re-enter Chile for the nth time? It seemed silly to venture any further north when we’d made November plans in the southern most aspect of South America again.
Appreciating that only around 10 per cent of roads are paved in Bolivia, acknowledging there is only one road rule in the country: There are no road rules as well as knowing little and less about the true road conditions, we jumped straight onto the online forums and ascertained the consensus of our desired route to be a long six-day road that was “slow-going but not technical”. I was on board with that – vamoose, lets go!
With food, fuel and water provisions seen to, we set off in the highest of spirits interlaced with a determination to ‘see it through’. Around five days allocated, lets keep the pace nice and easy. Canadian KLR rider Matt, Jason and I were happy with slow going but not technical. Sand I could do in smallish, thin-ish quantities, a little gnarly ground here and there – no problema. The morning’s ride was hard-going but we were fresh. Full of beans. We departed shortly after the sun’s first smile: encountered more sand in a greater thickness than we’d anticipated, some rocky terrain, climbed over rugged hilly sections and whether Matt’s presence influenced my riding – I guess it did – inspired me to forge ahead with increasing confidence. It was still a touch technical, for me anyway.
A culmination of my experience to date, the group dynamic of positive influence beaming my way and Pearl’s unremitting ability turned every step into an adventure. I looked upon my comfort zone from afar and observed a gulf between where I’d been the day previous and where I was now, flying through space over thick sand! I didn’t want to overthink it, I’d painfully recoil to ‘Captain Slow’ status if I did. Jason remarked how amazingly well I was doing, told me “I am so proud of you right now Lisa, you are just getting on with it and this is not easy, not even for me!” I let the glory of victory consume Pearl and part of me in that moment. Every nerve in my body demanded that I rise and charge headlong over the sand; I blinked sweat out of my eyes and freed some more potential from Pearl. We’d always set out for an adventure – this was an adventure and a half. Immense even.
Inside a morning, I’d endured three spectacular crashes in the sand; banged my head twice and bashed my wrist into Pearl’s handlebar. I was barging past my limits with a hungry gusto to prove I could ride better than ever, pushing my luck in the bargain. Back soaked with sweat, water beaded on my skin before trickling down the lines of pain. I was left with a thumping headache, throbbing wrist and a pair of pumped forearms. If not altogether unscathed I was in one piece at least, could ride on although my energy reserves nosedived soon after a late lunch. We were getting sand dunes more than we bargained for – beach size. I looked at what lay ahead with a simmering loathing – unridable sand burying our wheel arches a foot deep in the unforgiving stuff. What was just about doable in the morning, with fatigue setting in post three crashes up at considerable altitude, our adventure started to turn sour. Did it cross anyone’s radar to turn back at that point? Sadly no, we had come too far and had tipped the point of no return. Time to implement an unscheduled Plan B.
Clinging onto scraps of strength combined with a fear of really hurting myself in a remote place was like a serpent forever coiling and uncoiling inside me – forever striking, biting and filling my insides with poison. That, coupled with spasmodic thoughts of mortality compelled a stubbornness to manifest itself that refused to play any further part in martyrdom. I became ridiculously ‘risk averse’ and lost every shred of confidence in the process. With waning physical power to hand, I entered an irreversible state of task-loaded tiredness. My fill of crashes and the wrench of dragging Pearl through sand at over 4,500 metres simply blocked any further incentive to get up on my foot pegs, only – in my mind’s eye – to then royally ‘lose it’ at some point from the aforementioned variables at play, and twist, sprain or break something. I was making life very onerous for myself at such agonisingly slow speed but my pain threshold could take no more. The strain had begun to seep into my neck, shoulders and back, legs, forearms and fingers. I was reluctantly pressed on by two men, stronger than me – what else could we do?
Despite the hours of back-breaking tribulation afflicted by the sand, I should have felt euphoria upon descending the The Stone Tree. Exhaustion, however, marred any potential euphoric feeling and consequently the beauty of The Stone Tree. My breathing was rapid and hard, my heartbeat pulsing in my ears. An awareness of where I was, was not altogether lost on me but it was acutely difficult to appreciate the moment. Physical suffering outweighed any accomplishment in reaching what lay before us. The effort we’d sustained was like quarrying stone beneath a blazing sun, hour after hour just to see another lump of stone shaped like a tree. I was so tired, it just hurt. It was easier to sit down, feign a small smile and think no thoughts in the shade. Revelation wasn’t always fun, revelation became pain. I closed my eyes – plagued by an aching hollowness, the lingering living nightmare and bruise of regret. The day was far from over.
A new surge of fear drove me forward; up at 4,500 metres what if we were headed into a survival situation? Borne out of worry, Jason shot me looks that bordered on the murderous, his calls down the helmet’s intercom like thunder over a distant and baron land. Under stress and strain and deadline, the harsh bite of his words stung me, “Come on Lisa, I need you to come on! Plea-se Lisa. JUST COME ON! NOW! NOWW!” My acid-laced response might have been the droning of insects for all the attention he paid.
A burning sensation lay heavily in my gut, “NO! I CAN’T! Please, leave me alone!” I bristled. Engulfed in heavy fatigue edged me closer towards falling into an abyss of total inactivity. I bit my lip, a sinking sensation folding around my hammering heart and under dire duress kept going. Ul-tra slowly. Sighing wearily without relief, I rode on sand like it was the first day of my riding career. No skill, no clue, no courage. Not a car, building or person for miles. Nothing had prepared me for this battle with my body that washed through me atop of my mental anguish. I felt as harangued as I did haunted by the situation but dug deeper than ever before to keep a hair’s breadth inside the group dynamic’s request of ‘carrying on’. Resuming the riding took every personal resource and all the internal grit I could muster. Just where in seven hells do you two stubborn buggers want to reach before the black of night will consume us whole? The sky like my mood was darkening deeply.
Matt’s military experience kicked in flawlessly. His eyes still gleamed with brightness and danced with an internal light. He compelled me to remember the feeling I’d harnessed so well from the morning, flying over the sand like a hovercraft on water. Must you be so cursedly pragmatic, man? I knew he wasn’t going to give up lightly and wanted desperately to kill some more clock on the move. Although Matt puissantly persuaded me otherwise, I was still remiss not to have demanded we stop sooner; my continued silence and the chert-hard look in my eyes indicated I was anything but placated. His thoughtful blue eyes were taking the measure of my own despite his heartfelt attempt at ameliorating my situation. I pursed my lips, biting off the harsh comments leaping to my lips.
It was as though my soul was twining around itself, frightened, frozen in place – trying to sort my churning emotions. I felt as impotent as a brick and watched on with a kind of mute horror. I just hung there on a precipice of indecision, knotting my mind around the problem. I ground the heels of my palms into my eyes, twisting them to scrub traitorous tears from my face as they dripped in liquid misery. My ears burned with self-humiliation.
With frown lines that had begun to eat into my forehead, I asked plaintively, “How much further, Matt? I CAN’T carry on much longer.”
“Just to the lake, over there – you can see it – it’s not far, at all. I promise.”
My eyes narrowed, “Mmmn”, I said in a breathy exhale and the smallest of sand churned in my wake. I could see Laguna Colorada but perceptions were dangerous without anything in sight for scale. My expectations had been mismanaged all afternoon, wavering on the receiving end of “Lisa, the road really improves up here, it goes to gravel and rock again. Come on, just a bit further…” Yes, for about a tenth of a mile then we’ll be back to bike-swallowing sand. This endeavour was too wearing on my thinly frayed hopes – I all but collapsed in a heap. I was beyond use to anyone or anything.
Eight senseless miles on and from the north blew a bitter wind that sucked the heat from our bones, sending it whimpering away toward the lake. Fighting against some group deliberation, we finally stopped with 20 minutes of rapidly fading light. Fortuitous as it was. Blackness soon entered as a trespasser, unwanted and unwelcome. The stars – always unassuming and consistent in their stance – wove patterns of white across the midnight black sky, while a sliver of moon hung just above the eastern horizon. Wind howled over each of us, poking cold fingers through any traces of exposed skin.
We erected the tent in pitch, clawing at the black belly of the night. I consumed a cold meal, pushing food past my teeth with no appetite whatsoever and by 9pm, every muscle in my body vibrated like a stretched cord. The darkness gulped me down. The wind made a rustling whistle as it blew around our fabric and pegged saviour, clamped down by sizeable rocks for support. Gusts shook the tent, shaking the outer-walls roughly. It wasn’t a night to be out. Temperatures dropped to around -10 degrees Celsius. Matt had no camping gear so as honorable Brits, Jason and I helped to layer the lad with every spare item of clothing available and ungrudgingly ‘spooned’ our new friend with all the body warmth we had.
Ghostly fingers of breeze stirred the awakening morning air. By sunrise a crude layer of ice had formed on the inner tent roof and sides of the porch area. We awoke all puffing white and as the condensation with our body heat started to warm, droplets began to rain down on us inside the tent. All our consumables were frozen solid. After a sluggish start over a gloopy can of peaches and claggy can of sardines, the day proved to be another ludicrously long one; bodies already worn out from the day before. Admittedly, the riding was not quite as treacherous. We had planned as many days it required to ride us out of the nightmare, endured oodles of aggravating sand but a slightly higher concentration of ripio – loose gravel made the never-ending journey a trifle more tolerable. The smallest boon at least. After detouring to the migration and customs offices tucked off the beaten track in Bolivia – miraculously – we legally made our way into San Pedro de Atacama by evening fall. We three were royally ruined.
Was our two-wheeled slog worth the route we took to take in a few pretty lakes and The Stone Tree? Sadly and honestly, no. I agreed with Jason that had the terrain been half as challenging, we would not have taken it. Minus Matt, we would have long turned back; the prolonged paved road via Potosi should have won over but without the luxury of hindsight, we did what we all thought best at the time. Leagues beyond my skill level, I was as swollen as I was spent, felt utterly broken and bruised. Wow, what a way to go!
Two days later, we’d caught up on some restorative sleep, allowed our bodies to engage in the healing process and refuelled with many riojas and a few feasts. It never takes long to bounce back and we still smile incredulously as to what we did. Thank goodness for the power of a third person because on our own, I would not have fared half as well for even half as long. I owed Matt a world of debt or a world of pain…I can’t decide. Either way, I could only wonder if the peoples’ descriptions of the road conditions on the forums had been accurate; probably if at the time of their travel the tracks had been freshly graded. I, however, would forever put Bolivia’s 701 section heading to northern Chile into black repute.
Our intensely short stint in Bolivia had been blindingly beautiful to brutal. A contrast that could not have been starker. A terrific whirl of emotions – joy at our success, shocking amazement at what we’d endured as a trio and pride in Pearl – swirled within me like mixing floodwaters. I erred on the side of wistful but still allowed myself to smile with an oily satisfaction.