What pops up in your mind when you hear about a bicycle race/expedition of 11,000 kilometres. which is called “The Andes Trail”? What can you expect from a tour crossing the south American continent in almost its full length? Adventure, stunning scenery, thin air, remote villages, tough times, Indians in colourful costumes, endless rough roads, freezing temperatures, impressive snow covered mountains, llamas, determination, extreme winds, Machu Picchu!
All answers are true. But where do you start your story after cycling four months with an international group of 20 persons from the Mitad-del-Mundo monument at the equator near Quito, to Ushuaia, the most southern town in the world nicknamed the Fin-del-Mundo(end of the world)…a ride along, through and over the longest mountain range in the world. All participants have their own version of the “story of the day.” In total hundreds of “Cycle Diaries.” We picked a few of the most memorable days to get an impression.
The night has been freezing cold, between minus 4 and minus 10. The tents are covered with a layer of frost and the drinking bottles are filled with ice. Everyone is shivering at the breakfast table with hot coca-tea, which seems to be a good medicine to avoid altitude sickness. Our cook Kirsten is it still too cold to fold her tent, and others miss the ability to spread the jam on their bread. The first sunbeams make life much more comfortable and the temperature rises rapidly.
Start of the day : a bush camp at 4.200 meter. Destination of the day : a bush camp at 3.000 meter. In between : 119 kilometres including 90 kilometres off -road and a lot of climbing. I can think of easier rides, but one of the most beautiful days of the tour. with brilliant mountain scenery. is waiting.
We enter after a couple of kilometres the entrance of Parc National Huascarán. The parc officials ban most cars from their ground, but we are allowed to drive our 4×4 to support the cyclists and provide lunch. The road is a vague chain of loose sand, gravel and rocks. It’s rock-no-roll. For the next couple of hours we don’t see cars or other kinds of human civilization. Groups of giant Puya Raymondi along the road gets our attention. The large bromeliads can only be found in a few isolated places in the Peruvian and Bolivian Andes, the flowers reach 10 meter in the sky and can grow more than 100 years.
The dirt road continues to climb and climb to an ear-popping altitude of 4.882 metres; the highest point of the whole expedition. The condors in the sky observe us from above and see how we are absorbed completely in the immense landscape. The smaller you are, the greater you feel. This is thé Andes, this is thé Trail. Not many people have cycled here before. We pass ice fields, see turquoise little lakes, can spot our first herd of llamas, cycle below massive glaciers and set our eyes to the even higher mountains in the far distance. One of them is Peru’s second highest peak, Yerupajá with 6.634 meter. Fortunately no one gets really altitude sickness and everyone can enjoy the breathtaking scenery. Literally. We are grasping for air – it feels like breathing through a straw – and cycle for 20 kilometres on a ridge at an altitude between 4.600 and 4.900 meter. The ridge marks also the river basin. Rain drops which fall on the right side of the road will end up after a only a couple of hundred kilometres in the Pacific; rains drops on the left side of the road end up in the Amazon basin and thousands of kilometres further in the Atlantic Ocean.
The lunch is after 40 kilometres and most of us reach it after 6 hours cycling, including taking countless stops for pictures. Still 80 kilometres to go and the time is close to 2 PM.
Sunset is 6 PM and darkness half an hour later. What to do? Just keep on cycling and see if you reach camp before dusk.
The first half after lunch is a spectacular fast downhill on a well paved winding road. We drop 40 kilometres – and in less than an hour ,1,500 meters, before the dirt road starts again. The last week we have learned that 40 kilometres on Peruvian dirt roads means at least 3 hours of cycling. We all forget that we are fatigued and we keep on pedalling. We wave to little kids and greet colourfully dressed Indians with “hola.” They welcome us – or not – with “gringo, gringo” which means something like foreigner or stranger. Some kids start to cry and run to their parents when they see white people moving forward on blinking aluminium creations. We try to avoid crossing donkeys, pigs, sheep, goats and chickens and are stopped a few times at some police checkpoints, where the officials try to do their job properly. Their eyes fall open widely from disbelief as we explain in our few word Spanish where we come from today. If they ask us our destination, we tell them that we are on our way to Ushuaia, another 9.000 kilometer further south, they declare us for insane and let us roll on.
We pass narrow gorges, follow fast floating rivers and the scenery is once more fabulous; it’s like the décor of a western movie. The setting sun between the mountains makes the panoramas even more striking. Geert and Gerard are first and reach camp just before sunset. The others arrive all within an hour. Some before, others after dusk. Georges and Cees arrive as last with help of the shining headlights of the 4×4. What a day! 11 hours on the road. But what a road? Everyone is full of stories at the dining table, which is 25 degrees warmer than the breakfast table.
BOLIVIA…SALT, SALT, SALT
The destination for today is Tahua, a small settlement at the north side of Salar de Uyuni, world’s largest salt lake. We cycle the 75 kilometres as a group to avoid getting lost around the labyrinth of roads on the slopes of Volcán Tunupa of 5,400 meters. The roads look more like single mountain bike tracks, than proper roads which lead to the largest salt lake in the world. It is once more a great challenge for the support vehicles. We know that we have to follow the electricity poles and that we make a big loop around the red cone of the volcano before we get the first glimpse of the massive salt plain.
After tens of little climbs the Salar appears suddenly like an ocean of white snow, salt, ice… Stunning. Dazzling. Startling. Impressive. Extraordinary… Do we have more words to describe it? As an instinctive reaction we all together stop our bikes to sink in the first impressions of what we see. I think that Moses must have felt the same when he saw for the first time the Promised Land when he was standing at Mount Nebo. The feelings are maybe the same, the actions probably not. We take out our digital camera’s to make pictures and shoot videos. If Moses would have had the opportunity, he would probably have done the same.
We cycle slowly down and end up in a nice western-style accommodation in Tahua. You wouldn’t expect this in such a deserted village where all houses are very sober, abandoned or destroyed. A few of us go directly to the shoreline of the Salar, to anticipate what tomorrow will bring. A special day is waiting.
Each of us cycled already on many places all over the world, but how should you call cycling on the Salar? It’s bizarre, it’s unreal, it’s surrealistic. It’s Salvatore Dali in optima forma.
No tracks, or should we say tracks everywhere. It depends how you look at it. With the area the size of 12,000 square kilometres, which is a quarter of the Netherlands, you could cycle with closed eyes for tens of kilometres. No problem. Even closed eyes and your hands not on the handlebars. No Problem. The only thing you have to do is to pedal, pedal and pedal. One problem. It looks if you don’t come an inch closer to your destination. But, what’s your destination? The only navigation you have are the mountains in the far distance, 50, 100 or even more kilometres away.
Nature created salt ridges of half a centimetre high. Everywhere on the salt lake hexagonals – a shape with six angles – have been formed. Strange. Why not four, five or seven angles ? You can find other shapes, but that’s the same as to find a clover with four leaves. Nature is weird, but fascinating.
You hear the salt ridges crackle below your tires like fresh snow. Stopping your bike for a second means : silence. SILENCE in capitals. No breeze, no wind, no car engines, no birds, no nothing. Absolute silence. Silence and surrounded by a white plain as far you can look!
Yes, you see in the distance your fellow-cyclists as small black dots moving slowly forward, like ants on a giant sheet of paper. Heaps of pictures are shot and the film camera is running out of batteries. Too many opportunities to shoot unique pictures.
We cycle 40 kilometres from the shoreline at Tahua to Isla de los Pescadores in the heart of the Salar. The small island is overgrown by thousands of Trichoreus cacti. Huge cacti of 4, 5, 6 meters high. Impressive. Especially if you imagine that the island is surrounded by white, white, white salt. We make lunch at the island and Irishmen Sean and Mick, Frenchwoman Bene and Dutchman André dress up like the Four Daltons : Red striped ponchos, a cowboy hat and a cigar. Great fun. The cameras keep on clicking.
Another 60 kilometers of cycling on the salt lake is waiting for us after lunch. Destination : Hotel Playa Blanca also located at the salt lake, and made of… of course : salt. Walls made out of salt blocks, salt tables, salt chairs, salt beds and a small museum with salt sculptures like llamas and Indians.
The salt hotel doesn’t have electricity or heating. The altitude of the lake and the hotel is 3.653 meter and results in freezing temperatures after sunset. The dinner is served by candle light and everyone wears his or her warmest clothes. The soup, plain spaghetti and chicken taste wonderful after a day out in the Salar. For the taste we add just a little bit of … yes, salt.
ARGENTINA: CRAWLING TO USHUAIA…
“This isn’t wind; in Patagonia they have wind” was always the response of the organizers after a windy day further up north. Already after the third day in Patagonia we had to admit that they were fully right.
The day starts in a friendly bush camp along a little creek with a fresh sun. The start is planned early, 7.00 AM because we are cycling in western direction. The toughest winds in Patagonia come from the West and normally get stronger during the day. On the menu : some wind, a long steady climb, and 60 kilometres rough road. 140 kilometres in total. We have had worse.
We cycle as a group to save energy and to beat the windy circumstances. The dark clouds are in sharp contrast with the blue sky. The wind at 7.00 AM is definitely obvious noticeable, but doable. The clouds get darker and darker in front of us. With the bright sun shining in the back we get some brilliant rainbows. We shoot some outstanding pictures before a few drops fall down.
The asphalted road climbs slowly with a gradient of 3 or maybe 4 procent, the rain stays fortunately away, but the wind gets slowly stronger and stronger. Suddenly an extremely strong gust of wind spreads the line of cyclists over the road like leaves during fall. The riders are struggling and reel like drunken men over the full width of the road. Like soldiers on D-day they fight their way up. Belgian Georges tries to cycle, but within a split second he is cycling in the opposite direction; back to Quito. Geert from The Netherlands is blown off his bicycle, fortunately not injured at all because the speed has dropped down to 3-4 kilometres an hour. One-by-one the “Andes Trail”-soldiers collapse; they have to surrender and start walking with the hands to the steer. Within a stretch of only 50 meters no-one can cycle anymore. Taking pictures is ridiculous. The wind blows the gravel next to road in the air and sandblasts our uncovered faces, arms and legs. The Patagonian weather gods are torturing us.
The scenery is amazingly beautiful with its fresh green grass, monkey puzzle trees, rocks and melt water creeks, but the wind conditions make our “cycling”-day harsh. Nobody gives a damn about the scenery. The wind takes all our attention. The squalls rage with high speeds around our faces and ears. No time for a normal conversation, even screaming doesn’t make sense. We bow our head and push the bicycle steer down to prevent the bicycle being blown away.
We come to a curve where the situation is horrible, terrifying and scary at the same moment. The wind blows through a funnel from the snow covered Andes Mountains into the wide Patagonian Plains. I know nothing about Beaufort or wind forces, but I can tell you : hurricane levels and beyond, far, far beyond…. It’s unbelievable. The situation becomes ominous, even dangerous. Now even walking is difficult or should we say impossible. There are moments where we have to knee down on the ground while our bikes flutter in our hands like a kite in the wind. The only safe place is the ditch next to road with the bicycle clutched in our hands. Dutchman Jacob is crawling over the asphalt literally like a spider to reach his girlfriend Karin who ended up at the other side of the road. Cycling is not an option, walking is impossible, only crawling through the ditch brings us closer to Ushuaia!!!
I manage to pass the horrifying curve via the ditch and try to continue. First walking with the head bowed deeply and later cycling, but very carefully. The wind is still coming from all directions and I have to walk 3 of the 10 kilometres to reach the lunch spot in a safe way. It takes me more than an hour to reach the lunch which is located at a restaurant, just one kilometre before the Argentinean-Chilean border.
I send our Belgian doctor Didier immediately back with the Nissan Patrol to the dangerous spot to “rescue” our fellow cyclists. He finds some riders next to the road sheltering from the frightening wind. Others got stuck in the curve where they are tortured by a sand storm for an hour. A few struggle with their bicycles on the way to the lunch. Finally we all end up in the restaurant with black faces like mine workers after a long working day. The friendly restaurant owner allows us that we serve our lunch inside his restaurant and he looks surprised how much we eat to fill our hungry stomachs. The stories are shared between all of us. People look concerned and frightened. Are these the Patagonian weather conditions for the coming four weeks? What will that mean when we cycle 3,000 kilometres further south? Is the “End-of-the-World” really reachable by bicycle or do we have to surrender our mission?
The temperature inside is pleasant and the coffee is warm. Outside the dark clouds change into cold rain. Nobody is keen to leave to continue our route to Aluminé, but we also know the situation should improve since we will exchange the funnel, where the wind is blowing like a hurricane, for a forest and a turn in southern direction is promising tail wind.
Sean, Mick, Bene, Geert, André, Gerard, Rob and I continue on the bike. The others take a save ride with Didier in the 4×4 for the remaining 80 kilometres. The circumstances improve slightly. The road from lunch is unpaved, and we climb slowly further for another 10 kilometres. The scenery is gorgeous, but we still need our full concentration to stay on the bike. We are balancing on our bicycle to withstand the stormy conditions and the loose rocks on the road. Like acrobats on bicycles we find our way to the snowline. The first twenty kilometres of the downhill is still a nightmare. Heavy squalls which try to sweep you of the bicycle and sandblasts which torture your uncovered limbs. We don’t have much eye for the forest of unique monkey puzzle trees. We have to go down, down, down… The last 50 kilometers we can fly with an amazing tailwind, and almost without pedalling, to our campsite just before Aluminé. We reach the campsite along a fast running Rio Aluminé at 6.00 PM. Start time was 7.00 AM. So, eleven hours out on the bicycle.
After a warm shower we take shelter in a comfortable wooden bar at the campsite. The windows tremble in the rabbets while we consume our dinner. The food and wine tastes wonderful. The owner of the campsite gives us hope. He tells the circumstances are very, very unusual and not representative for this part of Patagonia. It gives us some hope that we still can reach Ushuaia by bike…
Chile: National Park Torres del Paine
The three “Cycle Diaries” above are just a small selection. A lot more happened between Quito and Ushuaia, during, as well as, after the stages. The stories describe some of the most extreme days during our Latin-American adventure. Fortunately most cycling days were very pleasant with 4 to 6 hours on the bike and continuously changing scenery. The weather conditions stayed during the whole tour comfortable with only a handful of rain showers and a wind which was primarily in our favor.
USHUAIA DECEMBER 14th, 2008- THE RACE
An enthusiastic and happy group of cyclists arrived as planned on December 14th in Ushuaia. Sean Solon from Ireland was physically and mentally the strongest rider after a long competition with Bene Maillard from France and Geert Zwart from the Netherlands. Solon was the whole tour racing very constantly. 106 stages in a row. The long climbs, the crazy downhills, the days on the Altiplano, the long stages, the windy days. He managed to stay in front most of the days and didn’t loose time by sickness or taking the wrong route. The extremely strong Bene Maillard – the “Iron Lady” from France – reached every single day the finish on her bike and was never far behind Solon. It was especially the Dutchman Zwart who cycled with great spirit and won stage after stage in the second part of the tour. Even some bruised ribs after a bad fall in stage 81 couldn’t temper his ambitions. He finally ended on a well deserved third place.
The first three riders were dressed up in a traditional Indian poncho at the finish line on the shores of the Beagle Channel. A naked jump into the freezing Antarctic water was for some of us a must to feel that we really reached the “End-of-the-World”. With or without a ice cold dip, everyone felt a winner and left Ushuaia with hundreds of memorable “Cycle Diaries”.