Abandoned Houses, Boat Crossings and Random Acts of Kindness

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Everything is falling apart. My dry bag is ripped, my spork melted then snapped, my Kindle broke, both my phone and laptop screens are cracked while the ‘a’ key doesn’t work on the latter, my jeans and one pair of underwear have holes in the crotch – if inadvertently worn in tandem old ladies scream in terror when I cross my legs – my one good shirt is torn, one of my tent poles snapped and is held together with duct tape, my tent pegs are bent or lost, my air mattress is riddled with holes, my cooking gear is covered in a permanent patina of filth, I look like a homeless disco pirate and every morning I’m smacked with the stench of dried sweat and wet socks.

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Volunteering at the Most Southern Vineyard in South America and Cycling the Carretera Austral

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Nant y Fall – where one night of camping turned into 10 Days of volunteering

The best laid plans of cycle tourers often go awry. Usually this is due to tree felling winds, mechanical failures or biblical rainstorms, but every now and then one’s plans are laid aside due to more serendipitous circumstances. My stay at Nant y Fall was one such propitious twist of fate. Had the weather not been so crap, my phone been out of battery or my schedule been ever so slightly different, I would’ve passed right by the signpost to the uncommonly southern vineyard and made straight for the Chilean border. As it was I stopped by with the intention of staying for one night only to be so charmed by the eco-campsite (and the opportunity to stream the Spurs match) that I decided to stay for two. Then Sergio, who has spent the last 7 years transforming what was once forgotten scrub land into easily the best campsite I’ve ever stayed at, offered me room and board for a few hours of daily labour and I thought “Why not?”. I was set to cross the border a little earlier than intended and the weather was rubbish so a couple of days working  and practising my Spanish couldn’t do any harm. 10 days later I was still there.

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The campsite, through which the river Nantifall flows, is easy on the eye.
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It’s run by the softly spoken Sergio and his son Manuel who over the course of my stay treated me like a member of the family.
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In the galpon they serve campers homemade pizzas, empanadas and salami platters. In my role as resident translator I was the beneficiary of many a free meal and good conversation with fellow gringos passing through.
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They sell all sorts of locally produced jams, honeys, craft beers and oils.
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Along with their own wine (when there’s any left to sell).
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The vineyard would be the most southern in the world were it not for a few New Zealanders beating it to that accolade. In order to withstand the cold they have special alarms installed that alert them to the onset of sub-zero temperatures and spray the grapes with water to create an igloo-like layer of ice to protect them.
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They then process the grapes over in the bodega…
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…above which I slept in a cubby hole like some maligned stepchild.
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The work was simple enough. I chopped vegetables, mowed the lawn, threw stuff in the wood chipper, pulled weeds and helped translate.
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And along with a bed I was repaid with delicious, healthy food, including actual bonafide pies! PIES I TELL THEE!!
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Graciela taught me how to make the perfect mate – the national drink of Argentina. Practically everyone has their own little mate cup (confusingly also named mate) and thermos sales must be at a worldwide high.
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I’d hitherto refrained from making it in fear I’d balls it up – like a confused Frenchman bastardising a cup of tea by neglecting to add milk or something.
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Nelson, the haughtiest dog in Argentina, acted like his namesake Lord and would prod me with a raised paw while I worked, like a Victorian gentleman demanding a shoeshine. Then when I tried to walk away he’d repeatedly lie in my path expecting a belly rub. Like a good little human I whored myself to his every whim.
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Meanwhile Martina danced around me for hours like a demented speed freak while I mowed the lawn.
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All good things come to an end and eventually I tired of pulling weeds and decided it was time to pry myself from the rural idyll and resume the life of the nomad.
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I purposefully departed on a crisp, clear day…
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…and was soon making my 4th crossing between Argentina and Chile.
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After a brief stop in Futalefeu.
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I rolled down past stunning lakes and volcanoes.
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Before putting wheel to the Carretera Austral.

When I started the trip I’d never heard of the Carretera Austral but over the course of my many meetings with cyclists heading north the name popped up over and over again. Turns out its one of the most iconic cycle routes in the world and is always listed on those top 10 lists. Come the summer the 1240km route that winds down from Puerto Montt to Villa O’Higgins is absolutely rammed with cycle tourers, bikers and Chilean holidaymakers. The campsites and cabanas fill to the brim as people scramble to enjoy some of the finest scenery that Patagonia has to offer. I arrived without too many expectations but it didn’t take long to find out why so many cyclists clamour to ride this road.

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Within seconds of reaching the carretera I met Sylvie and Vince, two Americans who live in New Zealand and Nepal respectively, and we ended up spending a great week cycling together.
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Along with Jordi, a Spanish cyclist, we pooled our cash and spent the night in a cabana…
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…before heading south to see if the carretera was all it’s made out to be.
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It was.
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The road, which alternates between pavement and ripio snakes its way through some of the most stupidly pretty landscapes I’ve ever seen.
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A collapsed road had us taking the first of many ferries on the route south to Ushuaia.
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Adolfo, who we kept bumping into en route south, gave us tips and cigarettes.
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We saw dolphins in the bay and camped on lakesides.
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Stocked up supplies in small towns.
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And ate lunch on hillsides and on the beach.
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Sylvie, along with being a bike mechanic, is a great cook. While I’m lazy and uncreative – content to live off pasta, polenta and avena – she rustled up bibimbap, fried fish and all manner of other tasty stuff.
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We teamed up with a Swiss couple and had a coffee break in a converted bus to shelter from the rain.
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Then set our eyes on what can only be described as a “movie mountain”.
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Which acted as our focal point on another glorious sunny day of cycling.
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The occasional empanada stop was necessary.
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Mince, egg, olive and chili sauce make for one tasty bastard.
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And speaking of tasty bastards I shaved off my beard and went full mustachioed vagabond. French postman?  80s hairmetal disaster? Just…a dick? You decide.
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The blossoming flowers gave the mountainsides a certain autumnal tint.
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And after a rainy day riding through a valley, we emerged from a tunnel.
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Above Coyaique. The main hub in the central carretera.
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The kids on BMXs in the square hinting at a town with its own internal life outside of tourism.
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Craft beer and burgers. Fine way to spend a day off.

Tunes: The Damned – Very Best of, Julien Baker – Turn Out The Lights, Weezer – Pacific Daydream, Dave Brubeck Quartet – Time Out , Ariel Pink – Dedicated to Bobby Jameson

Reads: The Road to Wigan Pier – George Orwell, Happy – Derren Brown, Skagboys – Irvine Welsh

Note: I finally got round to calculating how far I’ve cycled using Google Maps and I estimate to date I’ve done around 11,000-11,500 kilometres not including the occasional bus ride.

 

Dash to the Coast Vol. 3: Chilean Edition

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I thought my days by the Pacific were over after the unrivaled shitfest of my Peruvian sojourn, but I just couldn’t resist giving it one more shot. There was no way this coastal venture could be worse than that, but then sitting in a bathtub of milk with Piers Morgan would be preferable to another trip to Barranca. I didn’t know a lot about the Chilean coast as it’s not too well traveled by gringo cyclists but after weeks stuck on La Cuarenta I was game for a bit of adventure so off I went.

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Volunteering in Mendoza and a Mountainous Return to Chile

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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.

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Cycling Route 40: Boredom, Bulgarians and Boxes of Wine

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Route 40 or La Cuarenta is the Route 66 of Argentina. While not quite as commodified as it’s North American cousin, it’s the most iconic road in Argentina and has it’s own little symbol and the occasional roadside themed restaurant. More than 5,000km long, it stretches the length of the country and has been my home for the last few weeks. Unfortunately iconic doesn’t necessarily mean interesting and much of the last 1000-odd kilometres of cycling south from Cafayate has been a boring slog through the desert. The days have begun to blur together into an unseasoned stew of straight roads, unchanging scenery and identikit towns.

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Northern Argentina: Wine, Ice Cream and a Whole Lot of Desert

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Heading down to Jujuy. This was the most clouds we’d seen in months.

Crossing Paso de Jama felt momentous. After 6 1/2 months in the Andean countries that once comprised Greater Colombia we were crossing to the Southern Cone: the more
developed, European part of the continent. And on my quest to reach Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world, it felt like a half way point. Were this Super Mario World I’d have jumped through a white pole and doubled in size, though unfortunately if I die I doubt I’ll respawn on the Argentine border.

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A Guide to Dealing With Dogs on a Cycle Tour

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Friend or foe?

What’s the biggest danger to cycle tourers? Bad drivers? Thieves? Getting lost? Homicidal maniacs? Existential Angst? Food poisoning? Guerrillas? Poisonous spiders? Lacking the motivation to step out the door? The ghost of Jeremy Beadle?

No.

It’s those lovable little shit munchers that we call dogs.

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