Stage two of Retracing Routledge is coming to an end! I have arrived in Santiago and the days of long-distance cycling, loaded up with panniers, food and water are now over yet it seems like they only just began. Having adjusted to sitting on a bike saddle for hours every day, unpacking each night and then re-packing all our gear very morning, I now find myself sitting on a chair, writing from the kitchen table of a Santiago city centre hostel where I arrived late one night last week. That says it all really – cycling took over everything else for the last few weeks and now it’s back to non-pedalling life!
To summarise the experiences of the ride I thought I’d split a recounting of the journey into two parts starting with a few insights from South America and cycling in the last few weeks. The second part will focus more on the aspects of the 1914 Mana Expedition that we have been able to retrace.
Part 1 – The ABCs of Cycling:
A is for Argentina, the massive country famous for wine, steak, grain, yerba mate and of course the tango! The Argentines we have crossed paths with have been very friendly and above all else extremely helpful – answering questions and giving directions whenever needed. And, although I knew yerba mate was popular in Argentina, it is far more common than I expected. For example, as we have ridden through many a ‘Peaje’ (toll booths on the main roads), most attendants waved us through with one hand whilst sipping on a metal straw or ‘bombilla‘ into a cup filled with mate with the other. There are even ‘Agua Caliente’ machines at most roadside service stations – would these work in the UK for tea? But Argentina is a huge country and to really experience all it has to offer would take years. We cycled through only four of twenty three provinces: Buenos Aires, Cordoba, San Luis and Mendoza. A few highlights during our time in the country include: impromptu free tango lessons from extremely enthusiastic teachers; seeing pink flamingos in the wild, feeding in flooded fields; an evening of food & wine with a generous and friendly German polo-playing family at the end of a very long day of cycling; spying guanacos on the mountain sides of the Ruta 52 that we took from Mendoza to Uspallata; crossing paths with three serious cycle tourers (Erica, Andy and Ben) who would go on to help this project when it was nearly halted by a cold weather front; and cycling through the snow covered Andes – simply breathtaking.
B is for bump and banquino – two new words that featured regularly in our cycling vocabulary:
- Bump. We began using this word on the Ruta 8 in Argentina when bumps or lumps would frequently appear in the asphalt/ tarmac on the side of the road – exactly where we wanted to cycle. Whoever was cycling in front would call out ‘Bump!’ whenever one of these bulges appeared to warn everyone behind. We decided that high summer temperatures must soften the road surface, which is then compacted by traffic and moved almost like a wave into an asphalt peak that finally bulges over at the side of the road. The real issue was whether or not to cycle over or aorund the bumps, which depended upon the presence of traffic on the road. If anything – watching out for bumps in the road broke up the monotony of a long straight highway and if you had to ride over one – well, you just held on tight!
- Banquino. The banquino is the hard shoulder. The difficulty for cyclists is when the banquino suddenly disappears, a situation which does not bode well for any emergency exits that might be needed from the highway. However, we navigated the banquinos well, when they were present, and unless they were covered in puncture-possible-debris, the banquino did us a service by creating a traffic free zone.
C is for Camiones. Camiones or trucks were often our main rival for road space. Unfortunately they are the worry of all cyclists, some might say nemesis. But very often truck drivers actually gave us a friendly honk/ beep/ toot to warn us of their presence. It was only occasionally that we felt unsettled by the close presence of a passing truck.
C is for Chile, which I initially rode into on a truck with Erica and Andy (Andy sat in back of the truck with the bikes whilst Erica & I rode up front!!), as we drove through a tunnel into the Andes on the Paso Internacional Los Libertadores! The exit from the tunnel took us to the official border and customs, where we spoke to four different groups of officials and two unofficial, but very engaging Chilean ambassadors! We then cycled down the infamous ‘29 Curvas‘ or hair-pin bends late in the afternoon of May 7th and found ourselves in a steep sided valley where we eventually found a place to camp behind a gas/ petrol station! Thanks to Copec for a comfortable first night in Chile, where, after a minor tent drama on my behalf, we cooked up two courses of pasta followed by desert – a pan of hot chocolate and biscuits.
C is also for cycling. I’ve learnt plenty of things about cycling over the last few hundred miles. Cycling with pounds of gear strapped to your bike is a very different experience from the slick, smooth ride that is a road-biking. But luckily I haven’t logged enough road-miles to really say that I missed that feeling. In fact, I really enjoyed the freedom of cycling with everything you need – knowing that it was up to me how far I managed to cycle and how the day would unfold. But there were definitely moments when I bonked, felt exhausted physically and mentally and even wished that I was running!! The saddle on my Merida bike gave me no problems, thankfully. But I did develop a few excellent tan-lines – like a true cyclist. We had no mechanical issues, only three or four punctures and one night of bad luck when I tangled bungees in the gears of my bike, broke a tent pole and nearly started a fire. It was all due to low blood sugar I’m sure…
And C is finally for company. Without the help and support of numerous people stage two and the bike ride would never have started! It’s impossible to name everyone here but the key folks I need to list are Jesse, Simon, Erica, Andy and Ben on the road, and Emma in Santiago. Thanks to everyone who has emailed, tweeted, and messaged or commented on either Facebook or Instagram. It’s been great to have your virtual support. And thank you for the extra donations!
Gracias from Santiago – Rapa Nui next!