Chile

Paso Agua Negra

I have stayed one week in La Serena. Desperatly needed rest after kilometres and kilometres of desert. In my mind I was already flirting with vacations at the end of March thou it was not even the end of Januray. But it was not only the two months that were separating me from the vacation, there was another little detail. I was on the wrong side of the Andes. When I will return to these parts of the World, automn will be already saying its’ goodbye. And this means that crossing a 4.000 and more metres high mountain passes will not be sometthing that is recomended on a bicycle without chains for the tires.
So I have headed east from La Serena towards 250 km distant mountain pass of Agua Negra. With its’ 4.780 metres above sea level it is the highest mountain pass between Chile and Argentina, just so that my job would not be too simple. And to make it a bit less easy, 120 kilometres of the road crossing it is gravel.
But the motivation was there as well as the desire to get it over with the task that separates me from my vacations.
Three days of pedalling through a narrower and narrower valley pass the Chilean border post, all the way to the beginning of the gravel. Menacing clouds and a few rain drops force me to seek shelter under the roof of a solitary shelter the original function of which is still unknown to me. My first night on a, one could say, no mans’ land. I’m on Chilean side of the pass, but officially I have left Chile about 20km ago when the border police stamped my passport.
The next day I’m dealing with a loose gravel road, the result of road works being done by the Chileans. The progress is difficult. Lou sinks into the loose gravel on more than one occasion and leaves me no choice but to push it along.
The countryside is stunning. Mountains changing colours, the intense blue of the sky, a tranquil lake, first snow-capped peaks beyond which lies Argentina start to appear.
Around 16h heavy storm clouds start to appear again. Today I’m not as lucky with the shelter, some grains of hail and a bit of rain catch me. However I do get lucky meeting an Argentinian family traveling with a van. They stop by my side and give me water. This way I do not have to fill it up and filter it from the nearby turbid stream.
The third day in the mountains I pedal until just after noon when I come to a point where the road continues in a zig-zag up the slope. This means that some flat areas to pitch my tent are probably non-existent all the way to the summit. And I need more than just half a day to the top. So I decide to stop and pitch my tent for one more night on this side of the pass.
I spent the afternoon in a shade of a rock. Observing the landscape and searching for molecules of oxygen in my inhales. I’m at 4.100 metres. A condor comes to say hello (flies over me at a safe distance).
Waking up into a fresh new morning. The day is going to be long and difficult, that much I can tell. The higher I am, the more times I need to get of Lou and push it. Every a bit more steep inclination stops me. At one point I have to push Lou in a zig-zag as doing it in a straight line is just impossible.
Gravel road, the wind and the altitude take their price. I’m moving at about 3 km/h, little break frequent, summit still far. I catch a glimpse of it turn one corner. Still missing about 7 km. But this is a distance that I can do and I can do it before the afternoon clouds roll in with a good chance of precipitation that follows. Slowly but surely I make my way towards the top. The last 2km I walk, the wind coming across the pass forces me into it. Just one curve and I’ll be at the top. Gathering my strengths I mount on Lou and the last 200 metres I cycle. I pass under a sign “Paso de Agua Negra – Limite Internacional”, I stop and I cry. Joy, relief, end of exertion, a flood of emotions.
After a short break I descend on the other side. The battle with the gravel road and the wind is still not over. After two hours of going downhill I’m rattled to the bone, hands are numb. I make camp among the ruins of an unfinished house. At least I have some shelter from the wind.
The next day another 15 km of gravel road before I hit brand new asphalt. Descend towards the gendarmes and then to the border post. New stamp, I’m officially in Argentina.
2km down the road is a small town, Las Flores. In the park in front of a gas station a young family on their way back from vacations in Chile is waiting for me. A while ago they passed me by and invited me to join them in Las Flores. Cold water and a meat sandwich (well lots of meat covered by a bit of bread) – Welcome to Argentina!
After about an hour we say goodbye to each other. They go on on their way home, me … Actually I don’t know, I feel lost, without a goal. The task that I had to do before my vacation, that is to cross the Andes, is done. It was tough, probably the toughest mountain pass that I have ever cycled, but now that is all behind me. So what do I do now?
I wander for a while through the small town. Just enough that the feeling of being lost fades away and a more rational thinking can prevail.
The date on my plane ticket is fix and it will not happen sooner nor later regardless of what I do. Besides there is one more little, pleasant task to do. I have promised Andres I will visit him at his home in Santa Rosa, La Pampa. Still missing about 1.200 kilometres. Since I cannot teleport myself over there I climb on Lou and together we hit the Road.

With a Smile on my face, until next time!
Simon

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Desert Solitude

About two months ago I descended from the Peruvian Andes down to the coast and started my »romance« with the desert. After almost 3.000 km I have reached La Serena, Chile a few days ago. Here is where Atacama, the World dries desert, ends. On average there is only 15mm of rainfall per year and there are some weather stations that have never received any rain. In some areas they were even unable to find any signs of life, not even bacteria.
On the outskirts thou, first signs of life do start to appear. So in the days approaching La Serena I have started to see more vegetation around me. Small shrubs and cactuses were gradually winning the battle with sand and rocks. My eyes are starting to get used to greenery.

Regardless how much I love deserts, I do have to admit that the past two months were tough. Desert is an extreme environment. Kilometres and kilometres of nothing, emptiness. The sun is already high in the sky at 8h and it doesn’t get weaker until about 19h. The wind picks up around noon and doesn’t rest until sunset or it keeps on howling into the night all the way until morning. And all the time without any possibility of running away from the elements. No shade, no shelter from the wind. All that you have is a bicycle and turning the pedals hoping you make it to a shade that can be 60-70 or even more kilometres away. A lonely house of a roadside inn which around here is called posada. A location where you can stock up on water, refresh yourself with a cold drink and treat your body with some rest in a shade. Providing of course the posada is open. But if you go into this adventure with some of my trademark brightness, then you leave the comfortable and cosy city environment of Antofagasta on January 1st and you make sure that you will go through the most empty stretch exactly when everything is closed for two days. I did stock up on water before leaving Antofagasta but the next day I made it to a posada that was closed. Normally in Chile only January 1st is a holiday, but this year the president of Chile probably knew that I will be wandering around so she made January 2nd also a holiday. How lucky am I?! This meant I could only use the shade of the posada. Surely welcome but it doesn’t quench my thirst. Fortunately there was a camp for workers building a new power line about 30km further ahead. There I was able fill up my water bag. One of the workers caught up with me on the road about an hour later and he gave me an extra bottle of water. Also Chileans proved to be a hospitable and friendly nation. The way they have been on many occasions in this month that I have spent in Chile. Sometimes I was given a cold drink somewhere beside the road when a car has stopped and waited for me to drag myself to it and they were able to give me a cold drink. Once it happened that a car was unable to stop so they just slowed down to throw a bottle of water into the desert. I have stopped, picked it up and drank it.

At the same time, this is an area of the clearest night skies. After the wind calms down, when the Sun is saying goodbye and with its last rays escorts the da into night, small lights start to light up on the sky. Usually this is the time when I have already finished my first dinner and with a cup of coffee in my hand, speechless, I watch the Universe and this magic transformation of light into dark. All the effort I have invested during the day to reach this magic place is gone, like it has never existed.
The show actually never stops, but at some point you find yourself surrounded by silence and the starry carpet. Its clearness and immensity have always enchanted me. And so I have, in moments of infinity, where Time and Space do not exists, often just sat there until my neck started to ache. At the same time I was there, anywhere in the World and nowhere all at the same time.

Most of my time I have spent in kilometres and kilometres of emptiness, solitude. The only sign of life were spars trucks and buses overtaking me. In their absence I’ve listened to the sound of silence, only a hushed buzzing of the tires being bitten by the tarmac. Nobody in sight, just me and Lou.
In all this solitude I never felt lonely. I just was and I was alone. Alone with my thoughts and feelings. Hours and hours “walking” through the remotest parts of your own consciousness (or thinking about more practical stuff like how to repair a big hole in your front pannier). There is no society that would force you to put on a mask that is more socially acceptable. The kind that slowly, bit by bit robs you of your own identity, of your own Being. No need for that and the immensity and roughness of the surroundings in a way also do not allow you to waist your energy on these kind of things. You just are the way you are and you have to accept yourself like that. Sometimes I like myself more, sometimes less, but all of this is Me.

Andres and I went our separate ways just before entering Antofagasta. I wanted to go into the city, nothing urgent, just profiting for a while the benefits of civilization like running water, supermarket and the option to connect with the World. This meant about 25km of a detour and also one not so nice climb on exiting the city. He wanted to avoid all this. After months and thousands of kilometres he had behind him, he felt that home is practically within reach (true, still about 2.000 km away, but at the same time so close). So close to home he did not want to make an unnecessary stop and additional kilometres and climbs. He stayed on the by-pass road and continued south towards his family and friends waiting for him in Argentina. I on the other hand turned off and descended into Antofagasta and only virtually connected myself with my family. But the goodbye was “Hasta la proxima vez!” (Until we meet again).

Not only the separation but also all the kilometres of emptiness, solitude, brought to the surface the sentiment of homesickness in me. I miss my family, friends, familiar surroundings, I have never denied that. The down side of travelling is that I’m not home with familiar, dear people. That I cannot have a cup of coffee on a balcony with my brother, that I cannot go to my mother for a lunch, that I cannot go for a beer (well, two since it’s never just one) with a friend.
Since a few months ago I have decided to prolong my wandering in South America for about a year, my reunion with my dear ones has been postponed for the same period of time. And this aspect of my otherwise brilliant plan of discovering what lies behind a corner is something I have never really liked. So in the kilometres of desert solitude I have decided that I’ll return home, temporarily, just for a visit. With the help of internet I managed to find an affordable plane ticket and with some help from my family I have also bought it and am now ready to return to Slovenia end of March to enjoy the springtime over there.
With this I’m officially announcing that from the end of March until mid-May I’m open for invitations for a cup of coffee, a beer or straight to a picnic. Just let me know where and when.

With a Smile on my face, until next time!
Simon