After only 5 hours sleep (we were too excited to sleep!) we loaded the bikes and hit the road. Well almost. An extra 50kg of weight on Richard’s bike combined with the extremely slippery polished concrete floor of the hotel garage, made getting the bike off the centre stand a bit challenging. With a mighty shove, Richard was able to shift the bike off the stand, losing his foothold in the process. I looked on as his fully loaded bike fell to the side, hitting my leg and threatening to send me toppling over as I sat waiting on my bike. Luckily I was next to a wall so used it as a prop to keep myself upright. Not a great start to a 40,000km ride, but we chose not to see it as an omen.
We negotiated the already busy roads of Santiago (it was 9am on a Saturday morning) and made our way to Route 57 and out of the city, grateful for the South American maps we had installed on our GPS’s. Once on the open road we finally felt like we could breathe…and relax! Mendoza is about 365km from Santiago and from what we’d read takes about 5 hours to ride. This doesn’t take into account traffic or border crossings which we were told could be pretty horrendous. We were mentally prepared for a very long day and anticipated getting to Mendoza around 8.00pm. We were both so excited to be on our bikes and starting this amazing adventure, that nothing could dampen our spirits.
We fuelled up just outside of the city, amazed at the ratio of staff to fuel pumps in the “service” station (they truly provide a service in South America) and headed north on the open highway. Richard quickly noticed that he actually only had 3 bars of fuel in his bike (half a tank or so) and decided to push on hoping there’d be another service station along the way. A lesson learned to always watch how much fuel is actually put into the bikes by the helpful attendant!
We passed through four toll booths on the way and scraped together the last of our Chilean pesos to pay cash at each one. While the tolls varied at each booth, costing between 1500 and 2300 pesos (or USD $2.20 and $3.50) it was cheaper for motorbikes than cars. I’m not entirely sure how much we paid all up in the whirl of notes, loose change and tooting car horns.
We made it to Los Andes in what seemed like record time. Nestled at the foot of the Andean mountains in the Aconcagua Valley, Los Andes is the gateway to the Uspallata Pass and the primary border crossing with Argentina (and is also known for its proximity to the Portillo ski resort). The narrow streets were a bustle of activity with the Saturday markets in full swing. It appeared as though all 60,000+ inhabitants of the city were out on the roads at once – on foot, in cars, on bicycles, scooters and motorbikes. And like we’d seen in Santiago, the road rules (if there were any) were made to be broken. It was chaos…but in a good way, although we did work up a sweat in our armoured riding gear as we crawled through the town in first gear.
Finally we turned onto the (in)famous Ruta 60 - or Paso Internacional Los Libertados - heading east towards Argentina. And there they were: the Andes Mountains right in front of us. Amazing! The scenery was breathtaking as we started to climb into the mountains. I had read so much about this route and couldn’t wait to get to the famous hairpin bends, although I admit to being pretty nervous about whether my riding skills were any match for this stretch of road.
It didn’t take long to reach Curve 1 (they are all numbered) and after the first hairpin bend I relaxed and absolutely loved the ride and the remaining 28 hairpin bends. Richard maneuvered his heavily loaded bike through the bends a little nervously at first , but by Curve 6 had worked out the weight distribution of his load and glided effortlessly through each turn. We chatted on our intercoms all the way uttering words like “wow”, “amazing” and “we’re doing it!” repeatedly…with the occasional “Eeeek!” thrown in (by me) when petrol tankers and trucks came just a little too close for comfort.
We reached the top and took the obligatory photo as we passed from Chile to Argentina. While there is a border control at this point, we were told it is only for travelers coming into Chile so weren't asked for documentation. There were a few uniformed officials walking around waving hands and yelling with self importance, but mostly they were ignored by enthusiastic tourists. We chatted to a few fellow bikers and then continued riding some 16km past the border along Ruta 7 passing through a number of avalanche “tunnels” along the way. As a ski resort, this place must be amazing! I was so busy admiring the scenery that I rode straight past the turn off to the border patrol! A few cars tooted their horns at us to let us know we had passed the turn off so we did a very quick U-turn and rode back towards the border patrol offices. We’re not sure what would have happened had we kept riding! No doubt we would have been picked up at the next inspection station a few kilometres down the road.
We had heard and read only negative reports about this border crossing and the long, frustrating ques we would encounter there. Someone must have been smiling down on us however, as we rode straight up to the building and were waved through the relatively short line of waiting cars by a friendly border control officer. Within 40 minutes or so we had our passports and paperwork stamped and were on our way. Despite our limited Spanish (and the border staff’s non-existent English), we were able to provide all the documents they asked for. The universal language of smiles and hand waving worked a treat and we had a few laughs with the officials along the way. We had been told that we would need bike insurance before being allowed to ride in Argentina, however no one asked us for it. Nor did they ask to see our Carnet de Passage which we had taken great care to arrange prior to our departure. It all seemed too easy after all the reports we had read! The most difficult part for me was negotiating the large cobble-stone style pavers we had to ride over and I came close to dropping the bike a couple of times.
The landscape in Argentina was noticeably different to what we had ridden through on the Chilean side of the border, resembling the deserts of Arizona in places and the mountains of Utah in others. Much of the ride followed a river course, with 50m high river banks indicating how wild things could get in these parts. We passed the ancient Inca bridge without stopping (we’d see many more on our trip through Peru in a couple of months) and admired the large rocky outcrops and the raw red and brown earthiness of the landscape. It was as beautiful as it was stark.
In places the road followed the now derelict Transandine Railway which opened in 1910 and had once connected the rail line running from Valparaiso to Los Andes in Chile with the line that ran from Mendoza to Buenos Aires in Argentina. Rumour has it that the line is to be reconstructed, but there was certainly no evidence of that as we rode past many kilometres of broken rail lines and collapsed bridges.
Richard started to get a little nervous as his fuel level dropped down to only one bar. We rode through the little town of Los Penitentes, a ski resort which apparently doesn’t have much on offer in the off-season, and reached Uspallata not a moment too soon with Richard's fuel tank all but empty!
We arrived in Mendoza around 7pm, found our hotel and explored this beautiful city complete with its many parks, plazas, restaurants, cafes and wine bars. After a litre of beer (Richard) and a bottle of local Malbec (me) we were ready for sleep. It had been a long and fabulous day. At it was only day one of our 7 and a half month adventure. Wow...what a spectacular beginning!