I absolutely, definitely wasn’t going to write a ‘New Year’s’ post this year. As the dull, wet pall of January settles over us the last thing I want to do is make/write about well-meaning promises to myself (usually involving the reduction chocolate intake) which I resolutely know I’m not going to keep.
But I have written, and I blame Facebook. If you’re a user of you’ll know that there’s a ‘Your Memories’ feature, an impish bit of coding which means that photographs of you having a great time – holidays, parties, nights out etc pop up on their annual anniversary, usually coinciding, a year or so later with a bout of flu or a stressful work deadline. ‘Look’ it says, your life used to be fun.
And that’s what happened. Three years ago, before the ‘C’ (covid) word was even uttered I’d managed to swap the cold and wet of an English New Year to go cycle touring in the summer sun of Argentina, or so I presumed.
The heat of the Christmas sunshine in Buenos Aires had been a huge shock to the system, having spent the last months wrapped up in multiple layers, without a glimmer of brightness, it was a joy to roam around in shorts and T-shirts again. The Capital City provided everything I had hoped for and more, and just the few short days we had exploring there were packed full but nowhere near enough. All too soon we were heading out of the city to catch a flight South to San Carlos de Bariloche, the gateway to the Argentine Lake District and the start of a much anticipated 2 week cycle tour.
When cycling in Chile the previous year we’d hoped then to head down to Puerto Montt in the Patagonia region, but, being March time, had left it too late and the weather had turned towards the winter season. This year, Patagonia was back on the cards but across the border in Argentina. Armed with better knowledge, and for once better preparation, we had a plan, some hire bike and a suitcase full of camping equipment and we were ready to roll.
In Chile the cycle touring had been completely impromptu, necessitating a panic trip to a budget camping shop for some rather sub-par equipment. This time around, after much haranguing by M, we are scarily more prepared in terms of gear; unfortunately we’re now less smug about the weather. Stepping off the small plane in San Carlos de Bariloche, after a hair-raising and turbulent flight across the Andes mountains the temperature is noticeably frigid.
Tucked at the foot of these mountains, some 3000 foot above sea-level we hadn’t really fully considered the Alpine-style climate. In contrast to the blanket heat of Buenos Aires it was more than chilly! The town, known for its strong winds, low night time temperatures and a mean annual rainfall of 43 inches, meant dreams of a summer idyll were getting goosebumps.
Luckily we’d factored in a couple of days to acclimatize, to both altitude and temperature as well as to get used to the bikes and buy provisions. Online, we’d discovered a gem of a bike hire company a few miles away, Cordillera Bike Rental and Tours, a local guiding and hire outfit with a decent stock of mountain bikes and an inexhaustible amount of local knowledge which they were generous enough to share.
A hour long planning session with Daniel the owner, passionate bike tourer and excellent speaker of English (compared to my poor Spanish) meant that we rode away, proud renters of sturdy looking Zennith Calea hard tails, kitted out with 29 inch wheels and 3×9 shimano gearing. Even better, they also came complete with rear panniers and a handlebar bag, everything the aspiring traveller could need. What they don’t guarantee of course is the weather.
Day 1. Bariloche to Villa Llanquin 30 miles
Being more organised than usual gave us the chance for a couple of test rides on the new steeds from our Bariloche base, exploring the alpine hills and clear waters of Lago Gutierrez and Villa Llao Llao) put a few miles and a few vertical metres in the legs. The bikes rode beautifully and the front suspension was a real treat on the ubiquitous dirt trails. The altitude was definitely something to get used to however and miles that would normally fly by were distinctly hard work. Still, the chance to ride through lush forest and round crystal lakes under sunny skies made (most of the) pain worthwhile. Two days later, a bit better acclimatized, packed, mapped and raring to go we woke up to be greeted by every cyclists’ dread, the sound of heavy rain. Always a good start.
The light-feeling bikes rapidly became less so as we piled all our gear on and around the frames, sheltering in the small porch of our cabin and trying to keep us and the bags as dry as possible. I’m not sure why we bothered as, when the moment of departure arrived, the rain had reached near horizontal. Pedalling away we were soaked through in the best part of 10 mins.
The rain also made navigating the roads out of town an interesting challenge. Having already had several near misses with bus drivers, who seemed to regard cycle-baiting as a national sport, we splashed our way along the busy roads, through deep puddles and dodging irritated traffic. After an hour or so we’d left the worst behind but soaked and cold to the bone, with shredded nerves, this wasn’t the relaxing (or sunny) tour we’d envisaged.
A deserted highway restaurant saved the day. Needing somewhere to stop and warm up/calm down the strangely empty services provided all 3 along with hot coffee, empanadas and a working radiator on which to try and dry a few items. Gratefully we thawed out to the percussion on highway traffic and dripping water hitting strategically placed buckets catching the rain leaking through the ceiling.
Somewhat restored we squelched back out to the bikes to find a weak sun poking its way through the watery gloom. The cycling gods were being kind, even the traffic had eased, the Neuquen Highway 237 now noticeably quieter as traces of the city disappeared and the rolling, mountain backed landscape began to open up ahead.
Winding through the terrain the road ran in parallel with the Rio (river) Limay its sparkling, clear waters and sandy banks, dotted with groves of trees making a much more scenic backdrop than earlier that day. And the day just got better. Our planned stop for the night was a last minute air B&B booking at the tiny hamlet of Villa Llanquin. Wonderfully, unless you undertook a very long detour by car and some serious off road-ing Villa Llanquin was devoid of cars, only accessible by foot from a pedestrian suspension bridge next to the highway. Most visitors therefore parked on the roadside and walked across. We did discover a floating platform on a not so sturdy looking chain used to haul the odd car across the river, mostly though the traffic was 2 or 4 footed. Always happy to reach a destination especially that first day we gratefully pushed our bikes across the bridge and onto the dirt roads of the village. An enquiry at the local store produced a key and a 10 year old boy who appeared to be the caretaker for the air B&B which, it turned out, was somewhat less than ready for habitation. It’s amazing what a therapeutic beer and hotdog will soothe however and we happily devoured both at the shop/café as the young caretaker hurriedly enlisted help to get water and gas restored to the little cabin. The day ended with a surprisingly warm shower, a game of cards by candle light and some medicinal red wine after which, even the suspiciously damp-feeling bed couldn’t keep sleep away.
Day 2 Villa Llanquin to Lago Hua Hum 47.5 miles, 5400 feet of climbing
I awoke the next day to bright sunshine and a small mouse staring curiously at me from the bedside windowsill. Embracing the first and ignoring the latter we began preparing for the day ahead.
It was then we discovered certain deficiencies on the planning/shopping front, chiefly that we hadn’t actually brought any food with us. Despite numerous trips to the markets back in Bariloche all we seemed to have managed to bring were nuts, crisps and chocolate and a couple of very sad looking bananas. In order to avoid carrying too much weight on the first day, the thinking had been we’d simply stop at a shop somewhere en-route and stock up. Now, in the early morning, pushing our bikes through the dusty and deserted roads of a tiny Villa Llanquin, that miscalculation became apparent. Oh well, nothing for it but to push on and hope there was a shop ahead. Crossing the little rope bridge out of town I couldn’t help but muse on the fact that yesterday’s roads had been particularly deserted of commerce.
The first port of call for the day was La Confluencia, a meeting if the Rio Limay, which we’d been following, with the Rio Traful. Here, we’d also been reliably informed back in Bariloche, was a veritable town, including a campground and shops, perfect, and at only 16 miles away an achievable journey on an empty stomach. It was crucially important to refuel here too as our planned route then headed away from the tarmac roads and into the mountains on dirt tracks to our next destination, Lago (Lake) Filo Hua Hum.
Spurred on by thoughts of breakfast and a welcome tail wind we fairly flew the 16 miles on near empty roads, pulling in to a huge gas station less than 90 minutes later and feeling very pleased with ourselves until….
The place was deserted. Not just quiet but that tumbleweed, end of civilization deserted. With a sinking heart I peered hopefully through the shop glass whilst M circled the dusty pumps. Nothing. A couple of motorbikes pulled up but soon left again with weary headshakes on realising there was nothing to be had. A quick online search finally confirmed what we were beginning to suspect. There was no town, there was a gas station. That was it. Oh and a restaurant, possibly, just down the road.
Without holding out much hope we decided to aim for that having no better plan. The imposing Hosteria Virgen de las Nieves restaurant sat atop a hill with commanding views of the mountains and was devoid of life, except for 2 large, angry dogs which seemed disinclined to let us even approach. Preparing to give up and ride back to Villa Llanquin we were greeted by a cheery “Hello”.
“We’re not quite open yet” continued a friendly, well-dressed woman in perfect English, but you’re welcome to sit and wait and have coffee. I could have cried.
3 hours later we had eaten both breakfast and lunch and were feeling very disinclined to go any further. There was always the option of staying on too, in a lovely, clean bed but, we were hardy cycle tourists and, we had a job to do. 16 miles felt a bit wimpish when we had a tent with us so, with reluctance, we prepared to hit the road, destination; a lakeside campsite, we were assured was stunning. Finally thinking ahead, we’d asked the lovely restaurant to pack us some food and we left with sandwiches, cooked rice, salads and various other provisions which was a relief. We should be fine however, Filo Hua Hum only being another 30 miles, and given our speed of travel that morning already, what was another 30 miles, apart from the dirt roads oh and having to cross a small mountain pass!
The restaurant marked the start route 63, the optimistically named dirt road we’d be following through the mountains. The fun started almost immediately as the smooth tarmac gave way to sandy rutted track. The sand was up to 10 inches deep in paces and to add to the enjoyment was littered with large stones, difficult to ride over, impossible to ride around. Surely the going would improve….nope, rounding a bend a strong headwind then joined the mix, so loud we had to shout to make ourselves heard. After an hour of slogging and shouting and swearing at the terrain we stopped for a breather, checking the mapping it was then I learned that after all that effort we’d covered a little over 3 miles. AARGGHHHH
For the second time that day we seriously considered turning back, time was ticking on and this was not good. Fortunately, not long after the going eased somewhat and the track, if not smooth, was far more rideable, even if we were now well in to our mountain climb.
It was steep, but not the insanely steep gradients of other rides and just to be free of the deep sand and rock was a delight. The trail summit at Pasa Cordoba (4300 feet), when it finally came, had a satisfying sense of perspective and views over the whole valley. Even better there was now 20 miles to cover, a chunk of which would be downhill. With this in mind we crested the pass, bouncing and skidding down into the valley on snaking roads. Very noticeable now was the washboard effect of the road surface where dirt had hardened into little ribs creating a rippled effect. Pleasing to the eye but not the wheels, climbing up it hadn’t been so obvious but now, at speed it was like riding over a constant cattle grid. Clamping teeth together to stop them rattling we pedalled on. It was hard going but we were determined and, 14 miles later it was a relief to reach the turn off which would take us to the lake. Only 6 miles to go now but we were fading fast, although looking forward to a scenic, flat, shady track to our campsite idyll…….
Well, the track was shady, the rest however was awful. The road, in worse condition again dipped and soared in and out of trees, where huge holes and muddy ruts caught us by surprise. At one point I came close to flying off the bike and over a precipice on a particularly sketchy downhill. We’d now both reached that point of despair, where you’ve pretty used up all of your reserves so you plod forward, muttering and looking at the dirt. There may even have been the odd whimper as exhausted bodies dragged themselves forward endlessly. I think I’d all but given up hope of there actually being a campsite when, rounding yet another bend, we saw a little log cabin and a cluster or RVs and tents in the distance. Hurrah!
“What if there’s no space?” M utters the unthinkable as we hurry up to reception. “Then they will physically have to pick us up and move us” I reply, “I’m going nowhere”.
Happily there was space, a beautiful secluded, private site by the lakeside. The little cabin/reception also sold hot food and beer, there were hot showers and even wifi. With that, the world was instantly a better place. On the spot we booked for 2 nights even ordering food for a BBQ the following day.
And this was how we saw in the New Year. The next evening, after a day of rest and relaxation in the stunning surroundings, we said farewell to 2018 barbequing by the lake, eating the salad packed for us back up at Hosteria Virgen, drinking Argentinian red wine, and watching a fiery sun fade slowly over the Andes.
The year and the trip would continue however, find out what happened in the next part.
If you enjoy reading about adventure, travel, cycling or all 3 why not check out my book: How To Cycle Canada the Wrong Way.
It’s the story of a forty-something woman with no clue in life and no cycle touring experience. What she does have is a sense of adventure, a second hand bicycle and a skirt and the idea of riding across Canada….the wrong way.
Available on Amazon in e-reader and paperback formats.