It seems that the worst is over as for the first time in days, we have completed a full stage without a flat tire. As we close in on the Andes, our obstacles become more tangible, such as long and hard climbs. Although road conditions on the Ruta 40 are usually good, some sections of it are still unpaved gravel. At one point, we even had to carry our bikes and equipment where a mountain slide had devoured the road.
Only now are we realizing that we have not seen the real Andes yet, since the peaks in whose shadows we have cycled during the last weeks do not technically belong to this enormous mountain range itself, but to distant branches of it. Just like with regard to some beaches in Brazil, we were wondering how one defines where one mountain range ends and the next begins. While we entertained these philosophical contemplations, the Ruta 40 slowly turned westward on its way to Mendoza, where we ultimately hope to cross into Chile on the Paso de Cristo Redentor, the most popular way between the gigantic summits to our west.
Since the pass is not navigable all year round and snowfall can stall vehicle transit for entire weeks, we watched the snow on some of the mountaintops in the distance with a mixture of fascination and admiration, but also uneasiness. So far, the snow line had been well above 4000 meters, somewhat higher than the Paso de Cristo Redentor. Since the mountains to our west rarely rose to such heights, we had not seen snow for a while. Until now: there was one summit among the others we saw that was covered by a white cap. Luckily, the clear air had deceived our eyes. The snow-covered peaks we saw belonged to the Cerro Famatina (also referred to as Cerro General Belgrano), the highest summit in South America outside the Andes, weighing in at a whopping 6250 meters. It was only the distance that made it seem to be of the same height as the closer mountains. Snow still did not seem to be an issue we had to worry about.
It seems that replacing the protective tape in my rim with band-aid from a local pharmacy did the trick, and I was able to cycle a full day to Chilecito without incidents. I am incredibly relieved and can finally cycle with confidence again. But I will carry a few extra spare tubes and a roll of band-aid with me from now on, just in case. During the first kilometers after Cuipan, though, I felt like I was riding over raw eggs, as the saying goes. At this point, I had no replacement tubes and a flat could have meant waiting for someone to take us to the next town, something I assume most people would not be willing to do even if they had a big enough car. In fact, with the notable exception of the Omnibus Mágico (the vehicle bore an according inscription), nobody ever stopped when we stood in the middle of the desert with a flat tire.
Apart from my fear of getting another puncture, the ride to Chilecito was not too exciting. It was flat, with a permanent soft headwind. We have adapted our daily routine to include two snack breaks now, because we are losing girth rapidly and our cycling shorts are already loosening. Luckily, we found excellent refueling locations: first, an abandoned kiosk at the entrance to Pituil and later, one of the small shrines that abound on the Ruta 40. This particular shrine did not give away to whom it was dedicated, but it was placed amidst beautiful rocks, some painted white.
After a long and slightly dull of riding against headwinds, we were too lazy to explore the town and spent our evening in the nice open patio of our hostel in Chilecito. We woke up the next day realizing that it was Sunday and that no bike shops would be open. I would have to continue without spare tubes. That was a nasty surprise, since the next town big enough to nurture hopes of finding a bike shop, called Villa Unión, was a full day’s ride away, a ride that included a steep climb of more than 1000 meters over the Cuesta de Miranda. An unfixable flat in such remote territory could mean serious trouble. But it seems that our good fortune has returned for good: When we rolled through a small settlement just outside of Chilecito, I blinked in surprise when I spotted a sign indicating a shop for bicycle spare parts. And it was open! It was incredible: not only did this shop carry the peculiar tube size my large tires require (maybe that size is not that uncommon in South America, after all?). They also cost half of what I had paid in Cafayate. Buying a pair instead of just one was a no-brainer. After refilling our water supply in the small hamlet of Sañogasta, we began the long way up in good spirits.
We zigzagged up the mountainside along, and sometimes over, the small Rio Miranda. The presence of water allowed for a slightly more abundant vegetation than during the last days, which was a delight for our eyes that had grown tired of the sparse desert flora.
We had been told that the road across the Cuesta de Miranda was not finished and that we would have to traverse stretches of gravel. Luckily, those parts were relatively smooth and we found them to be entirely doable even with the steep gradient. We met a young Frenchman who plans to walk all the way to Canada with his dog. He was in a hurry to get to the next town in daylight, and as he walked away, he told us that we would have to carry our bikes at one point. That claim struck us as odd. Having to push the bikes seemed plausible, but how bad would the road have to be so that we would need to carry them?
The answer was easy: there simply was no road. A landslide had come down just below the summit, effectively eliminating any trace of the old Ruta 40. The heavy machines parked at the gap in the road had placed concrete slabs that stabilized the mountainside and served as a foundation for the new road, but just like the bridges we had come across a couple of days earlier, the gap just had not been closed yet.
We were puzzled at first, standing in front of a sheer cliff maybe four meters high. Could one of us scramble up and use the straps we had to haul the bikes and our panniers up? A fall would have dire consequences, though. Luckily, a local motorcyclist arrived shortly after us and showed us the way across the gap. He was used to riding his moto to this point, scrambling up a few provisional steps and hitchhiking down the other side of the mountain. He also helped us push our bikes (which we had hastily stripped of the panniers) up the steps. Carrying the panniers up was a breeze.
After this effort, we indulged in a much-needed lunch break. So far, we had only fed on cookies and our stomachs were empty. The summit snack stop was nice and relaxing, but my mind was not entirely at ease. The prolonged descent down the Cuesta would be another test for the makeshift rim tape, since intense braking could heat up the rim to the point where it would melt the soft and flexible plastic of the band-aid. At first, I was quite nervous and told Ben that I would walk the bike down the hill if I felt too uncomfortable. But the road was not as steep as expected and there was exactly zero traffic – after all, who would go to or come from that gap in the Ruta 40? That way, braking was hardly necessary and I did not have to worry about my rims overheating and could fully enjoy the descent.
The road soon flattened out, and we rolled towards Villa Unión in a magnificent desert sunset seemingly setting the few clouds in the sky on fire. We arrived there only to find the town in plain celebration, albeit not as rowdy as back in Talapampa. It seemed like we arrived at the perfect moment, and I am sure our wide grins made us look just like the Cheshire Cat from Alice in Wonderland as we filled our bellies with delicious street food.