Monday, December 19, 2011

The Ashes

The Netherlands? No, Chile is this beautiful.

Mt. Fuji, Japan? No, just another volcano in Chile, they've got loads.

The flowers and volcanos are nice, but I've done them one better!
We spent two days riding south through Chile, on their amazing Interstate-quality superhighway Panamerica One - THE highway. It was great, no traffic, great weather, no speed limit and amazing mega-gas stations every 60 miles or so.
Chileans are enthusiastic about wieners. See upper center.
There was only one problem with Chile - everything but wine was extremely expensive. Instead of trading the bike for a hovel and finally going pro as winos, which would have been the sensible thing to do, we forked out $8 a gallon for gas and $30 for a gas station lunch. These prices are in US DOLLARS. I know you can see the photo above, but, trust me, the wieners were not THAT good. He's faking it. So, call it "when in Rome", or "we had no choice", or "it saved us days over driving on bad roads", or whatever, but two days later we left Chile at least $4 million lighter. We were bound for San Martin de los Andes, one of Argentina's northern Patagonia mountain resort towns. For reference, resort town restaurants in Argentina are cheaper than gas stations in Chile. But we're not there yet.

As we got close to the border we turned onto a fantastic two lane road. Ten miles from the border they ran out of asphalt, but luckily they still had big, uneven river rocks and sand. Almost every time I changed a tire I thought "why am I buying these outrageously expensive off-road tires, we are done with off road" but, every time, we found ourselves on a road where they were indispensable. Buy Continental TKC 80s, no matter what. Anyway, we rode the ten miles and arrived at a Chile/Argentina border that made the last remote one look like Times Square.
These furry trees welcome you back to Argentina, where you can afford TWO hot dogs!

This is the parking lot for the border. Really.
The only other people at the border were a shifty couple in a Porsche stuffed with un-delcared bananas, perhaps? I'd like to think so. I was afraid to take their picture, sorry.

We were counting on Argentina to be cool and pave the road right at the border, if only to thumb their noses at Chile, but no. On the Argentina side it was a National Park, so they can't pave it? That's the law there, don't ask me. Argentina did provide smaller river rocks and shallower sand, so we appreciated that.
Here's the name of the river this bridge might collapse into, just so you know.
It was paved again soon enough, but everything started to turn grey. We had heard about a volcano in the area erupting and spewing ash for hundreds of miles, and this seemed to be the aftermath. It wasn't to bad in San Martin, but anywhere outside of town the ash coated everything.
No ash in this photo, EXCEPT the ash in Jill's eye as she takes it - look in the mirror, lower left!

The next day the wind had shifted, and the lake looked like this. 0% of this is fog; all ash.
It is quite late right now, so I will finish this post soon. Please talk amongst yourselves. Thanks!

Banana Smuggling & The Art of The City

WOW, that was quite a "siesta"! Sorry! So, where were we? It looks like the last update had us lounging around Mendoza, and after four days of that we decided to move on to Valparaiso, Chile. We heard that the drive took anywhere from eight hours to 12 hours, but we made it in six...must have been a tailwind. We had also heard that the pass over the Andes made it the coldest day of the trip for our friends Andy and Cass. Sounds promising!

The road was beautifully twisty as we climbed toward the border, which was just to the far side of the Andes. Driving past rocky peaks and ski resorts made us feel like we were back in Colorado, and other than the unpredictable wind it was a great ride; and probably never got below 45 degrees - even with snow all around. I guess Aussies just think anything below 68 degrees is cold!

At the 14th border of the trip we found something I had given up on seeing in my lifetime. At first I thought I was hallucinating because of the altitude, but, no, it was real. A SIGN EXPLAINING THE ORDER OF OPERATIONS AT THE BORDER! This 6' by 8' sheet of metal answered a prayer I had made (mostly with foul oaths) as I scrambled around every border in Central and South America with two hands full of crumpled paperwork in search of various, dubious, "officials." It may have only cost them $200 to make, but to me it was the holy grail. So simple, so beautiful; I couldn't tear my eyes away. It was only in Spanish, but I can't really fault them for that.

Anyway, we breezed through the border with little issue, until stop #4 - "Control Fitozoosanitario" and Jill's contraband banana. (a "contrabandnana", if you will) They asked if we had any fruits or vegetables - as our visa applications indicated that we did not -but under the scathing scrutiny of the banana-sniffing dog I cracked...and admitted that we were in possession of exactly one Argentine banana - or 1/2 kilo of "Argentine gold" as they call it on the streets. The agent rolled his eyes and sighed in appreciation of my belated honesty, and led me into a special room to fill out paperwork declaring our previously-undeclared banana. I then filled out a full page document detailing the banana, myself, our trip, etc. When I handed the sheet to the agent I held out my other hand to receive my newly-declared banana - but there had been a serious misunderstanding. He wagged his finger at me, and then looked me straight in the eye as he chucked the banana in the trash. OK. So, I was in a remote government office somewhere high in the Chilean Andes having a tense exchange regarding a document legalizing the disposal of a piece of fruit. High Adventure! and, Declare Your Bananas! So after that AND the border sign I was pretty impressed with Chile - a country must really have things pretty well sorted out to have the money to pay for banana-sniffing dogs, border signs, and uniformed, stern and professional banana-trashers. Onward! Banana-less.

Either Chileans don't like mountains or vice-versa, because the Andes called it quits about 50 feet out of the border station. It's hard to see in the photo, but these are the 13 switchbacks in a row as you enter Chile. 12,000 feet to 10,000 feet in one mile as the crow files. Within ten miles it was green and beautiful again, and within an hour we were down to 3,000 feet or so. Sadly, with the time (not to mention nutritional value) lost in the banana incident, we couldn't make it to Valparaiso that night. But we did make it here:

Please note the heavenly sun ray at the upper right lighting our path
This "auto hotel" was even more evidence that Chileans knew how to do things. Somehow we didn't take any pictures of the interior, but it might have been the best-appointed room we had during the entire trip. TOWEL HEATERS, people. We booked the room - $20 for 12 hours - and ran into town to get what turned out to be the best Chinese food of the trip. After a full breakfast delivered to our room in the morning, we made the final two hours of the ride to Valparaiso in love with the world.

We cruised around town to check things out a little, and then drove up Cerro Conception to find a place to stay. La Masion du Filou was not particularly eye-catching from the exterior, but bay views, theme-park like hallway decorations and the hospitality of the owner, Fabien, made it one of the highlights of the trip.
I walked out onto our balcony and felt a sudden urge to chug Port, chain smoke and write pithy, introspective novels on a typewriter.
We unloaded the bike and talked with Fabien about the highlights of the neighborhood. On his direction we went out for a stroll around town, and somehow ended up with a bottle of Havana Club rum, a couple of bottles of wine and some Stella Artois. I don't remember if that was his idea or ours. Over the next four days we did a lot of walking around, cooking in the hostel kitchen and...enjoying. We didn't DO anything of note, and we were both absolutely fine with that. Bolivia really was rough. On the main plaza near the port there was a protest; the college-age students are fighting for the socialization of the universities. Too bad U.S. citizens have been convinced that this is impossible...
They protested for better educational opportunities, we ate ice cream WHILE drinking beer. Why isn't our college free?!
Valparaiso was one of the highlights of the trip, and I feel like I mentioned that we didn't really do anything but walk around. The colors and the blending of old and new architecture make every street a unique work of art, so you don't have to work hard to stay interested... or take good photos.

If Jill and I ever disappear without a trace, this little house would be a good place to look...
Yeti pose

Graffiti is not a crime in "Valpo" This is a city sponsored art and music festival featuring local street artists

The photos tell the whole story - just walking around and being in a place like Valparaiso is more rewarding than many of the "sites" we've gone days out of our way to see, so go if you can find a way. See you soon!