Monday, 9 July 2012

Uspallata to Mendoza

 Today, was one of those days where you end up somewhere extraordinary when you didn’t mean to be there.  It turns out Uspallata is such a place.  It’s a one of those small dusty towns that most people would pass though without stopping and I would have been the same if I had made it to Mendoza yesterday.  I was staying in a hostel a few km away from the town and after breakfast I decided to take one of the gravel tracks that runs from behind the hostel to see what is around the area.   

 It’s a remote place, and despite it being bitterly cold, I’m glad I checked it out before heading to Mendoza as I was able see stunning scenery such, as in the pictures below.  Unfortunately most of the pictures are ruined by a combination of me, me and the bike, or simply the bike - its all still a novelty, but you still get the idea of how amazing it is around there.


Obligatory skull shot

Later, I came back to pack in my own individual way (which is basically taking over all available space everywhere), and as I was about to leave a someone staying in the hostel who happens runs a motorbike tour company in Mendoza came over and gave me a map of Argentina.  Not a bad spot of luck.  He then explained one of the best routes to ride in the whole province is Ruta 52, and that it goes from Uspallata all the way to Mendoza.  It’s a bit longer than the standard Ruta 7 I was planning to take, but worth it.  It was enough to convince me to go, even though it doesn’t show on my GPS, but it didn’t matter, I've now decided to only use the GPS in the cities and I had a map at long last too.

I set off and rode back into Uspallata, passing some locals who were beginning their festival for Independence.  Somehow I imagine it is different to the celebrations in the bigger cities.

A few kms later I hit the Ruta 52.  I didn’t know much about it, but I had been told that it has sections that are not paved.  This turned out to be more than half of the 100kms to Mendoza.  It was to be a real baptism of fire as it was my first time riding on gravel, but I knew at some point I would need to learn.  There are tactics to ride on this kind of surface, I knew this, but it probably would have been better if I knew what they were!  So instead I tried to take it slow and keep it under 50km/h, which I now know is not the right way.

It was really uncomfortable and in some sections the gravel was pretty deep (5-10cm deep), which is ok as long as you don’t deviate from the path you are on.  But I did, and on one occasion I started to pull over to take a picture and immediately started to lose control.  I could tell putting on the brakes would mean I would drop the bike, but because I had plenty of space I decided to let the bike slow down naturally in the deep gravel.  This is a massively newbie mistake to make, as although I didn’t fall off I had a nightmare of a time trying to push the bike out after - 200kgs plus around 35kg of luggage is not easy and I couldn’t ride it out.  So dripping with sweat after pulling the bastard out of the gravel I learnt pretty quickly that Lesson 1 is avoid deep gravel. 

Carrying on was still painful, as I was avoiding the deep stuff and using parts where the gravel had been aside by other vehicles.  Its just that here over time the gravel develops corrigated ridges and furrows. called "riplo" I think?  I vaguely remembered this from when I had a 4x4 in Australia and it was annoying then, but on a bike its terrible.  It constantly jars your arms and body and generally throws you all over the place.  It really shook me to the core.  Even more worryingly I knew my plastic Chinese bike was quickly being shaken apart.  

After few kms of this I learnt Lesson 2, which is, it is actually better to go faster so that you reach a speed where you float over the top of the riplo and miss the furrows completely.  Its pretty hairy stuff as you have to go at a speed that you know if you make a mistake you are going to fall off fairly hard.  You also can’t slow down using the brakes, so you really have to anticipate everything on the road otherwise you are going to fall too.  It’s a balance between killing your bike by going too slow or hurting yourself if you loose control.  For this road I worked out 70km/h or more was best.     

Lesson 3 is, gravel roads mean big bastard stones flying at you, not much you can do about that but I now have a massive bruise on one shin and my apparently “all terrain!” chain guard has been smashed to pieces, with the remaining piece hanging off.

After about 50kms the road climbed out of the valley to about 3000m and I started to pass people in cars who come from Mendoza to a sightseeing point that overlooks the Andes.  The road improved a bit too as over time the cars have cleared some of the gravel away.  This was useful as I could concentrate more on the scenery, which as always was amazing.  I didn’t know this at the time but the Uspallata valley was used for the filming of Seven Years in Tibet, not seen the film but have to say the scenery is pretty impressive. 

Views back to the Andes, can see the gravel road taken too
A picture of Mr Pitt from the movie
Continuing on I reached Villavicencio, where pretty much every bottle of mineral water in Argentina is sourced from, and from there I started to drop down the Villavicencio valley.  This is the old international road to Chile and winds down in what must be several hundred switchbacks and bends and called the Caracoles de Villavicencio, or "the snails of Villavicencio".

This was great fun but also a bit dangerous as many sections here were in the shadows of the hills and there was a lot of ice to play with, which on a track with no barriers and deep drops over the side kept me fairly awake.  Yet another new surface to ride on, but this time I went really slowly and used my legs as stabilisers.  Not sure if this is an accepted method of riding, but I can tell you it works.

This was the last section of offroad and I finally hit smooth, easy, asphalt, a godsend despite how much fun the gravel was.  Around here there were locals dotted all over bottom of the valley having Parrillas (BBQs) and the smell of food drifting everywhere made me want to stop and scrounge some food.  My GPS kicked in though, so I thought I would just get on to Mendoza instead, which was only another 20kms or so.  On a nice surface it took no time at all and I arrived at Hostel Itaka soon after, along with a thick layer of dust covering me and all that I owned.  All in all a fun, easy day and but most importantly I was in Mendoza.

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