Volunteering in Mendoza and a Mountainous Return to Chile

Windmill Hostel. My home in Mendoza for 10 days.

After his 40 days in the desert I’m sure JC needed a break. Maybe he considered volunteering at a hostel, a rustic little place on a shore of Lake Galilee perhaps? I felt much the same and after over 1000km of sandy ballbags I was well in need of a rest. Thus I set my sights on Mendoza and ended up volunteering for 10 days at Windmill Hostel – a laid back joint near the centre of the city.

Dario and Julietta opened the hostel a year ago and it’s already the highest rated hostel in the city on Hostelworld. They’re a lovely couple and I had a very relaxed time volunteering with them which was exactly what I needed but unfortunately stability and toilet cleaning don’t make for interesting blogging. I’ll see what I can do.

Look! It’s Hostel Windmill! Such greyness!
Here’s the rooftop terrace where I did lots of sweeping. That’s right! Sweeping!
And there was a real, live dog too! His name is Li but I preferred to think of him as the more English bloke-down-the-pub name Lee.
There was also a cat but, I’ve found is often the case in South America, they didn’t give him a name, simply referring to it as “cat”. Perhaps they’re planning to eat him and don’t want to get too emotionally attached.
Dario is a big fan of River Plate and on my first night we watched them decimate the fantastically named Bolivian team “Jorge Wilstermann” 8-0.  And these weren’t some semi-pro chancers – it was the quarter finals of the Copa Libertedores. After River lost 3-0 in the away leg. What?
As a city Mendoza is…fine. I don’t have anything bad to say about it but nor did it le a strong impression.
My favourite thing was the giant park and the sheer greenness of the place. Per capita it’s one of the most tree-heavy cities in the world.
And also boasts the highest number of faceplanting drunkards per capita thanks to the irrigation ditches required to water the tree lined streets in the middle of this desert city.
San Martin is the revolutionary hero round these parts and his name is on everything. San Martin plaza, avenue. calle, etc
While voraciously devouring some asado at the hostel I snapped my false tooth (yes, I have a false tooth). A few years before I would’ve had a minor breakdown (yes, I’m quite vain) but I’ve become accustomed to looking ridiculous so I didn’t really mind. A few days later Rodrigo the friendly dentist fixed it for £15 and gave me some tips on my route ahead.
Then my favourite schwanzkopf Philipp showed up! He was fresh from a 10 day vipassana workshop in Cordoba and we spent a few days doing what we always do: drinking coffee, eating ice cream and shooting the breeze.
Mendoza is famous for its wine and we did the customary bike tour of the vinyards. The 15km ride to the edge of town felt oddly like going to work on a day off.
Malbec is king here and we tried about 4 different varities, doing the wanky wine tasting chit chat and getting nicely pissed all the while. I don’t remember cycling back to the city too well.

I had planned to keep heading south through Argentina but found the prospect of another 1000km of cycling through the desert profoundly uninspiring. I was resigned to a few weeks of sandy boredom when suddenly it struck me. Why not cross over to Chile?

My week in San Pedro was more akin to a week in Disneyland than a week in Chile and I was curious to get a taste of the real Chilean culture. I was also longing for anything other than flat straight roads and the idea of crossing back over the Andes gave me the kind of buzz I hadn’t felt for a while. So, after saying goodbye to Dario, Julietta and Philipp I set off for the mountains on an unseasonably grey and windy day (it’s sunny 300 days a year in Mendoza).

I could claim it was glorious riding out of the city and into the mountains but I’d be lying. It was grey, I had wind in my face and the scenery was like this.
On the way I met 2 Argentine cyclists who told me of rain and storms ahead. They warned that the pass might even be closed due to the snow. I set up camp beside the lake in Pataillita preparing myself to stay for an extra night to wait out the storm.
But I awoke to clear skies and a nice tailwind guided me upwards before capriciously switching to a headwind to ensure I didn’t get too comfortable.
At what point does leaving a tribute become littering?
It was so windy in touristy Uspallata that the municipal campground wouldn’t let me stay due to fear a tree would collapse on my tent.
The scenery was remarkable on the climb and the road would’ve been a favourite were it not for the complete abscence of a shoulder and the endless stream
of lorries and buses roaring past – 135 overtook me in the first hour then I got bored of counting.
Just before I arrived in Polvoredes, the half way point,
I got hit by a wall of wind. With such a headwind I knew I’d never make it up the steep climb to the top before dark so I decided to try to hitchhike.
I was ready to call it a day and set up camp when Leandro, a Brazilian cyclist, showed up. He told me there was a town 25km away where we could   
stay for free and that he was planning to cycle on through the wind. His bike only had 3 gears and I felt right foolish having given up so easily with 24 so I braced myself and onwards we went.
It was very tough going and in 2 1/2 hours we’d got about 15km before a Chilean family in a van offered to give us a ride.

Since Leandro seemed keen I agreed to jump in. This was a mistake. Earlier I’d purposefully planned to stop trying to hitchhike at 2 o clock in the knowledge that reaching the border any later than 3 or 4 would leave me struggling to reach a town on the Chilean side before dark. Now, at 4 o clock, it was far too late to ride down the Chilean side and I faced the prospect of being dropped off in sub zero snowy tundra. Nonetheless I mindlessly put my bike on board and just as I went to help Leandro he had a change of heart and decided to cycle on to the next town. Dammit. It felt ridiculous asking the family to remove my bike and all the bags they’d just helped me pack so after some hurried goodbyes to Leandro, I jumped in.

Immediately I knew I’d made the wrong decision. While it was good to be out of the wind, the next town was only 5km away and the scenery instantly improved and would’ve made for fantastic cycling the following day past Aconcagua, the tallest mountain outside of Asia. Yet there I was being ferried 25km to a freezing cold dead end. The family seemed nice enough. They gave me a chocolate dessert thing, which was good, although after the initial questions the dad proffered the classic ice breaker “In World War 2 who declared war? The English or the Germans?” Every so often I get these random war related questions as soon as I say I’m English, my favourite coming from a confused Peruvian bloke:

“England eh? You won World War 3, right?”

I explained how Germany invaded Poland and as a result the British declared war. The mum, who looked like a former model with a Dolph Lundgren haircut (circa Rocky IV), gave me a questioning look and asked her 14 year old son, who I should note was wearing a flat cap, the same question. The little know-it-all said “Germany declared war”. Despite him being wrong, the mum gave me a smirk that said “yes, that’s right, our precious child knows more than you and he isn’t even English”. I didn’t even want to get into this stupid van and now I was being made to feel like an idiot for speaking the truth. If this was a sitcom I would’ve started a massive argument before accidentally elbowing their sweet young daughter in the face while trying to yank the flat cap off the kid’s head. Instead I just writhed in silence like the Englishman that I am.

Once we reached the queue for customs we were in proper Arctic wildnerness and I cleverly decided this would be the best place to get out. I triumphantly turned around and cycled back down the mountain, intent on remedying my mistake and finishing the picturesque climb the following day as originally intended.

Only it was so bloody cold that even with the wind at my back I was dying.
After 10km I spotted a sign to a Railway Museum and shivered my
way over.
The lady told me they had a hospedaje and even though it cost $15 – the most I’d paid for accomodation since Ecuador 6 months prior – I didn’t complain.
At Las Cuevas it was very snowy and the scenic alternate pass to the top was closed.
A lone condor soared around near the pass.
As we admired the giant bird Hernan offered an asado and a place to stay if I ever make it over to La Plata.
Cyclists arent allowed through the tunnel that separates Chile from Argentina so I loaded my bike aboard the pickup.
And we set off through the 5km of darkness.
I really like cycling through snow. It feels like cheating somehow – as if I’ve transgressed and broken through to some secret plane where cyclists don’t belong.
The 27 switchbacks are conveniently sign posted…
…on the famous Caracoles (snails) descent.
Things quickly turned green…
…and within half an hour I was back in my t shirt and shorts.
The pretty yellow flowers proving spring’s arrival.
In Los Andes I felt the kind of edge I hadn’t felt since Colombia. A nice town but I kept a watchful eye on my belongings.

As I ate lunch on the grass in the town square everything went a bit wrong. First a passive aggressive gardener turned on the sprinkers soaking me. Then while I gathered my stuff a dog nicked some of my bread. To top it off my newly fixed false tooth snapped once again as I bit into what remained off my damp lunch. With my bandanna, growing locks and gap-toothed smile I’m now only an eye patch away from going full pirate.

I drank a beer and watched a singing clown. It made me feel better.
Soon I was back in wine country. Vineyards for miles…
…and pretty colonial churches.
One drawback of cycling through Chile is the everpresent autopistas. While its technically illegal to cycle on them there’s often no choice. This isn’t too bad until you’re confronted with…
…a tunnel. Shit. What’s it called? SKULL TUNNEL?! Well I suppose this is how it all ends, shuffling through Skull Tunnel and off this mortal coil.
I made it through alive but with my nerves and shirt equally shredded.
In order to avoid the motorway I got creative and found some great side roads.
Winding my way through the huge orchards of avocado trees that carpet the hills.
I stopped to buy some honey and got chatting to David who ominously recently broke his arm mountain biking. He was a very nice guy and gave me a flourescent jacket and an ice cream.
This frazzled old road warrior cycled through Patagonia long before it became popular among grigos. With only two fanglike teeth and one eye he resembled the world’s least treatening vampire.

I’m now in a great camp site only 40km from my 3rd coastal adventure. Here’s hoping it’s more like Ecuador than Peru.

Tunes: LCD Soundsystem – American  Dream, Jeff Rosenstock – We Cool?, WORRY, Foo Fighters – Concrete and Gold 

Reads: Annihilation – Jeff Vandermeer , In Patagonia – Bruce Chatwin