Our seven-day sojourn in Chile’s capital was protracted because of having to stay put for parts to be replaced and spares to be shipped. Three weeks of languidly waiting around had come to an end. If there had been any quiet little moment of peace to savour about the late night drum beating, World Cup cheering, zoo-captive monkey howling city, it was upon reaching Cerro Santa Lucia. Smack in Santiago’s hustle and bustle, we chanced on an old park of steep stoned steps haphazardly lodged in a hill leading up to a stellar view. The hill was a remnant of a volcano 15 million years old.
Before tracing my way up, I came face to face with a goat head dominating an ornate vase, proudly protruding above the Neptune fountain. There was an unusual coolness emanating from the green oasis all about me, goosebumps spread at warp speed from wrist to shoulder. It felt refreshing, especially after returning from local ride outs with black marks smeared on my face every time – the air was that filthy. As far as soaking up a place was concerned, I was starting to feel like a dirty, saturated sponge. On the cobbles part way up I caught sight of a few hummingbirds hard at work, thrumming about the colourful bracts of a pink Acanthus flower. It was the prettiest part amid the urban sprawl I’d seen and treasured these gems to purify if not help redress my somewhat skewed view of this fume-fogged metropolis.
Swopping the hazy smogsphere that smudged Santiago and its litter lined roads for Andean mountainside brought us relief as our lungs inhaled long and deep on fresh Chilean air. The air we’d supped on over the last 21 days had been a noxious soup of God knows what spreading a miasma of odours that just weren’t able to dissipate in a clogged up city. Back on Ruta 5 towards Los Andes, a growing absence of vehicles coughing and spluttering gave way to a more oxygen-rich ride – acting as a filter for the brain, a way to ease my mind back into calm and untroubled thoughts.
Our return ride to Mendoza was rudely halted on Ruta 60 just before being able to ‘get the knee down’ on the steep ascent of switchbacks up to Portillo, a ski resort on the edge of the Chilean border. Police informed us at the front of a roadblock amid a crowd from a long line of backed-up traffic that the delay would cost us an hour’s wait. Good time to feed our faces and chat to some likely locals. During the time it cost for Jason to grab us a bite to eat, a mere 60 minutes setback had turned into 24 hours. Bugger, we were going nowhere. An alleged imminent snowfall up at 3,200 metres later that afternoon meant that us road-users were forced to make alternative arrangements. Oh well, it could be worse.
A handful of coach-faring Argentinians sought to see if they could help improve our situation, eyeing our eagerness to continue. It was ridiculous to return to Santiago although pitching the tent just off the roadside didn’t altogether appeal either. Our provisions were low, we weren’t exactly falling over discreet places to camp and if snow and her icy sister were looming, my wheels and I would much rather be looking down on the steep zigzagging road, not up. While a few folks and I were attempting to unravel the most likely scenario across an interfering language barrier, a handful of ladies off the coach seized an opportunity to have their photo taken astride Pearl. It was an amuse-bouche she’d got used to dining out on and one which the ladies reveled in when Jason smiled as he gestured, ‘Roll up, roll up! Come on chicas, 10 pesos a go!’ His beckoning body language set them all to giggling.
Informed by a police officer at the barrier that if I could organise for the Portillo Hotel – a choice establishment catering to the Austrian Olympic ski team amongst other ski aficionado holiday makers – to call him directly and confirm our reservation, we were good to proceed. Well, granting us 15 minutes up the steep Scalextric track, a small boon at least. Sounded convoluted to me so I took a punt to proceed through the road blockade regardless. Hoping the police officer would tune into my pitiful puppy-dog eyed plea, I soon realised hell would freeze over before that man would bend to sense, let alone my will. The measured look I received told me that further beseeching him would prove as beneficial as nipples on a motorcross chest plate. Alas I needed to make that reservation. It didn’t mean we had to stay there or even check-in. If the Gods were good, the tunnel leading to the Argentinian border would still be open. The sky was a sun-lit cloudless blue and it was mild. The day promised to see an outbreak of sun-kissed freckles on my face than it did any snowfall.
The time it took to faff, deliberate, make the hotel reservation and land the police officer’s attention to depart, I imagined we could have missed the presumed snow and made it into Argentina, stopping for a Kodak moment with the southern hemisphere’s largest mountain Aconcagua en route. The prospect of paying through the nose for a 4/5 star establishment didn’t entirely flood us with joy. Without further delay, we zoomed past the accommodation and headed straight for the tunnel. We had missed its official closing by less than an hour. Double bugger.
Befuddled, we back-tracked to the hotel and met New Zealanders Monica and Dave in the same predicament as us. Although their wheels were powered by the thigh-burning pedal variety. Neither they nor us could afford to shell out for the only available lodging topside of the hill. Still stumped, I was furiously trying to formulate an idea when Michael the owner of the Portillo hotel ushered me to his private office. Utterly abashed but with nothing to lose I outlined our trip and quandary we found ourselves in with a budget that could ill-afford his standard rate. I proposed a promotional video of his hotel using the quadcopter in exchange for a room rate akin to our meager lodging funds. I was sure the manager would look at me as he might regard a dog who presumed to hump against his leg.
The conversation between us saw the manager: reveal that he loved our story-so-far, decline my proposition to trade Jason’s drone services for a cheap room and his enthusiasm to resolve our plight by an offer to furnish us with a $200 USD room for a sliver of the cost. The hotelier actually asked me how much I would be prepared to pay, which rendered me quite speechless. That was the last response I was expecting. The manager smiled as I pressed him a little further; he agreed to extend this generous gesture towards the cycling couple too. The Morris powers of persuasion had worked tenaciously on this occasion.
In the next moment, we trailed after the housekeeping lady like a procession of ducklings following the mother duck. Within the hour, all four of us were lording it over high tea, one of the four daily meals entitled to even a partially-paying patron, as we peered down incredulously at our ski passes. Refreshed, we wasted not a minute and basked outside neck-deep in a heated swimming pool. It overlooked the mountains under a star-twinkling night sky, steam blurring the beauty of the unforeseen magic that mingles with travellers from time to time.
The impending snow was a day late and wasn’t so much as a forecasted ski-worthy fall but a translucent smattering, lightly lacing the hillsides. The hotel employees’ dismay was ashamedly our delight. The roads remained clear and any ice soon thawed in the morning sun. We awoke to -4 degrees Celsius, departed Portillo mid-morning in 4 degrees and arrived to Mendoza late afternoon in a balmy 14. We’d experienced yet another snowed-in escapade although comfortably admit that we’d both had our fair share of fun on the snow and ice. Guess that’s the nature of Argentina’s wintery beast.
Re-entering Argentina from the Chilean side, we straggled behind half a hundred people keen to return to their home country. We stopped at what can only be described as a drive-thru border crossing. It took everything I had not to ask for two cheeseburgers with extra fries but being on the Chilean side, I thought better not. The best part of the afternoon had past for us to reach customs and them to process us through; with that drawn-out rigmarole under our belts, we were once again allowed on our way.
It felt as fine as it did familiar to return to Mendoza and reunite with our buddies we’d made the month previous. Although we weren’t full to the brim with exciting stories from our stay in Santiago, our Mendozian friends had just had a baby. I was smitten at least. During our stay, we feasted on more mouth-watering meaty asados and caught up with new acquaintances in the celebration of Argentina’s Día del Amigo, ‘Friends Day’ with Juan Pablo and his family. The weather had been so darn good, I’d even donned sun cream. A planned couple of nights turned into over a week at both Toto’s digs and Juan Pablo’s house; it was going to be difficult to leave Mendoza. We were rather sweet on these people and their place. It was a wrench to finally go and wave farewell although Pearl brought me round with her endorphin-releasing tonic, my RDA of mood enhancer. It was the balm my soul sighed for – as it always does, my ride.
No sooner had we swung a right westward off Ruta 40 back onto the 7 north towards Uspallata, when the cold became cruel. Icy raindrops started to drizzle and pesky pellets of hail began to pour down. My toes were fire-fighting the burn of the cold, all sensation slowly extinguished. Argentina’s autumn had gently kissed us; winter was now starting to bite us hard – its teeth snapping at any exposed strip of flesh. The saving grace was that it gave rise to quite a dramatic scene-stealer; dense clusters of brooding clouds, dark grey steely skies and the purply presence of the Andes with hoarfrost gripping at every low level bush was as Wuthering Heights as I was likely to see this side of the southern hemisphere. We got lucky and hit an unpaved track between the 39 and 412 roads – the first time I’d off-roaded smiling in the snow!
Arriving in Barreal that afternoon felt like someone had turned up the colour saturation in Photoshop. Up to then, I’d been blasé to the bland landscape of wind-tortured plains and dusty mountains, the appearance and texture of elephant skin and had no idea what lay around the corner. I’d read that this part of the San Juan province gave locals around 300 days of ultra-clear, pollution-free skies each year. Like a tap of a wand to a magician’s hat, out popped stark poplar trees, fiercely blue rivers running clear and an ancient, dried out lakebed ‘La Pampa del Leoncito’. Every square centimetre of the 10 kilometre mud-flat was a pattern of cracked crazy-paving. It turned the colour of Maldivian sand when the sun shone down. Needless to say, we spent nigh on an afternoon simulating spirals, figure of eights and playful attempts at crop circles leaving only traces of our tyre-streaked fun. Back in open country, a blending of the soul took place once again by means of my motorcycle and me. A courtesy Pearl never denied me.