Sharing stories at breakfast, learning local knowledge over lunch and regaling one another with tales over tea made our stay in Toto’s utopian setting Posada Olivar that much more idyllic. We took full advantage of taking time out to sink into our surroundings, aided by the selflessness of Juan Pablo, our newfound friend via a Horizons Unlimited community, Toto and their warm wives. We spent the best part of a week relaxing at Toto’s place, the manicured grounds of which were akin more to some sort of open aviary than an average back-garden.
At Juan Pablo’s back-garden asado, we mingled over slow-roasted meat and Malbec, enjoying three generations of his family’s company as much as Toto’s. I’d heard non-stop about Mendoza’s world renowned Malbec wine and here I was having my glass replenished with the award-winning nectar, straight from Juan Pablo’s family vineyard Hacienda del Plata. It didn’t disappoint but exceeded all expectation. The flavour had a plump, dark fruity taste and felt heady on the tongue. We were served plates of piled-high portions until I was so stuffed, I loosened a button on my trousers with as much discretion as I could execute. The food was so good I was left feeling like ten pounds of sausage in a five pound skin.
Mendoza is often called ciudad jardín, meaning garden city. The leafy tree lined streets were clean, houses of grand design and gated; the ‘feel safe’ factor alongside affluence in abundance. Grubby and incongruous with the place, we sheepishly took our dirt-caked bikes down to a local jet wash. I never expected such a warm greeting from two young chaps that all but jumped on Pearl. Ignoring Jason and his 800 completely, they spent the next 30 minutes grafting through layers of grime to reveal a pristine Pearl, sparkling in the sun. During a combined hour and a half, the guys and Jason had used the jet wash, soapy sprays and air nozzles non-stop. 800 also came up like a shiny new penny; Jason was in his happy place. It took all I had not to kiss the guy in charge when he billed us 20 pesos for the whole service. That’s less than £1.50!
The next morning we rode many miles and more. Juan Pablo was keen to show us Mendoza’s centrepiece. It took seconds for the world’s longest continental mountain range to make a statement. Our luggage free bikes seemed as giddy as we were on the outskirts of Mendoza. Wild horses grazed by the side of the road, happy at a safe distance from us and the odd bemused guanaco looked up only to scarper at our noisy approach.
Riding on a road as straight was a spear towards a dragon like spine of sharp ridges in dusky pinks, dusty mauves and muted reds, the mountain range got at something very deep in me. We were led through tunnels carving out the primeval rock, the entrances of which yawned like toothless black mouths. The sun hit us like a white hot penny and cast a fierce light over the Andean mountains, this land of legend was impressive all over again. I marvelled at the number of tight twists and switchbacks we negotiated for nigh on the afternoon; there were more hairpins than in my old hairdressers.
The path we rode wound up and up, snaking through staggering vistas. I was having possibly the best Friday ever – it was likely the mythical shape of these mountains would remain forever etched in my memory. I was getting dirty in the dust leaving me with a rather unladylike five o’clock shadow – much to Jason’s amusement. Although the 800 was having a ball getting dusty in the dirt, which soon wiped the smile off Jason’s mocking mug!
We stopped for a late lunch, situated 28 kilometres from tarmac, which was another 100 kilometres on top back to our accommodation. A combined 80 miles. Well into the afternoon, I’d been salivating since midday with the tantalising promise of a mini-asado in the mountains. Tormented, my stomach thought my throat had been cut. It was here Jason’s 800 incurred a problem. She had her first wobbly and wouldn’t start. Without the proper tools to jump-start the engine or determine the root cause, Jason made some tweaks before fruitlessly testing this and that but conceded it was a ‘no go’. Alas, Juan Pablo left our lunch stowed on the back of ‘Mulata’, his BMW R100 for there was a mega-tow to be tackled. He attached a rope between his battered old R100 and the relatively young F800; she at least had the courtesy to hang her head in shame. And on we went – stomach still growling, clinging onto the hope of hot chicken wings and honeyed ham.
Jason stood up on the pegs to keep the coiled tow-rope secure with his right foot, and with surprising progress, coasted all 128 kilometres back home. Trailing behind the rescue mission in the desert, I stayed close watching the dust motes dance around them in the sun. Pearl in her vainglorious moment was doing me proud, she’s such a good lass! Although I had to give it to them, Juan Pablo and Jason worked famously together. Crikey, I did a double take when I clocked the pair of them – still linked by rope – overtake a lorry at 50mph! On the occasions when the rope would sometimes unfurl from Jason’s foot peg, Juan Pablo would fall back and outstretch his leg to push on the back of 800 to kick-start Jason’s momentum again.
Don’t think I’ve seen such a fine example stemming from the fellowship of the road. The R100 succeeded nobly in recovering the kaput 800, Mulata had won pride of place as the ‘Official BMW recovery vehicle’. Superb effort. We made it back safe and sound, ate ravenously in the hope of rapidly satiating half-starved stomachs and in the next instant, flopped into bed. I rolled over, pressing my face deep into the pillow. Sleep opened beneath me like a well, and I threw myself into it with a will and let the darkness eat me up.
The ride over to Santiago was strangely swift over 380 kilometres. It felt fabulous to be astride our bikes once more, although I relish striking a balance of being in and out of the saddle. With the prospect of spending a largely unwanted week off the bikes in order to source parts, make repairs and run errands, we were hell-bent on making the most of the ride. We said a temporary farewell to the prodigious Andes around Mendoza, flirting with us in our side view as we flew over tarmac. Ushered by traffic through the intersecting village Uspallata, we were led to a road crossing the Andes from Mendoza to Santiago, carried on and up wending our way towards leaving Argentina again.
Once again we re-entered Chile, the passport was starting to favour these two neighbouring countries with fervency.We soldiered on through the rigmarole of the border-crossing. You didn’t need more than a thimble full of sense to recognise how convoluted this particular ‘Exit Argentina, Enter Chile’ border crossing was – confusingly set up for us gormless gringos. Paperwork eventually in order courtesy of an official whose lips were pursed in perpetual disapproval, Jason thanked the officious authority figure with his most disarming smile. Thanks love, have a good one! We peaked the journey at 3,200 metres before feeling the icy touch of altitude and being well rewarded upon reaching a Scalextric like zigzag descent.
Amidst a mêléeof honking horns and traffic streaming in every direction, the noise of motorcycles, cars and people swelled to a steady rumbling roar, a great heady stew of sound. Our host Carlos met us outside his high-rise apartment smack in the centre of Santiago with a gentle bonhomie. His smile-lit eyes alone reset the tone for the week ahead – from one we assumed would be a necessary evil amid a smog-veiled capital to another that drew us into the heart of this guy’s unconditional kindness.
We were invited every night to join Carlos after work into the nucleus of his social circle, which was as touching as it was terrific. We shared beers with a lively bunch of Brazilians, passed hilarious hours with two quick-witted Indians fueled by a few Pisco Sours on occasion and relaxed spending quality time with Carlos himself. I felt particularly honoured; primarily because our Couchsurfing profile revealed we ride, did this Ecuadorian take a chance on us inviting a pair of total strangers into his sanctuary with the caveat that there was no hurry to leave. Ground rules comprised: make yourselves comfortable with what is mine, is yours.
Furthermore, I had free rein over his compact and bijou brand new kitchen, untouched by this bachelor or anyone else for that matter. I let myself loose and put my culinary skills to good use in preparing some sorely missed home cooked meals. The feeling of a full stomach satiated after a hearty meal is one of the most satisfying segments of a non-riding day. On the days the smoggy mist lifted, our 17th floor balcony commanded a crystal clear view of the Andes. We’d sup on Carlos’ favourite Ethiopian coffee with him and watch the crystalline light of dusk turn into a rose quartz pink, bathing the snow crowned mountains in a soft glow. We encountered some creative street art on Carlos’ doorstep and felt pretty privileged to have been part of this gregariously guy’s world, unruffled by life.
We’d transitioned from strangers to amigos in a matter of days, felt at ease to let our guard down and had it explained by our host that he wanted nothing tangible in return from us. Carlos convinced us with conviction that as his invited guests, the company we provided was his to enjoy. We shared new outlooks and experiences with each other, and as a sociable creature, spiced our host’s usually empty apartment with something out of the routine. Without feeling awkward towards the magnanimity cast our way, I guess the exchange was mutual. We thanked Carlos for expressing such goodwill towards us as travellers whom I hoped we’d repaid with something sincere, no matter how intangible.