Meet the zonda

We resumed our voyage stoked and strong after our side trip to Talampaya national park. The distance to the next town on our way was the longest yet, so getting up early and leaving straight away seemed like the right thing to do. Bravely, we suppressed the inevitable early morning yawns and began cycling under a rising sun. Alas, our heroism earned us little but calamities.

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In Mendoza, the Andes are omnipresent.

Arriving in Villa Unión after visiting Talampaya, we learned of the source for the odd hot headwinds. It was a local meteorological phenomenon called the zonda. Basically, this is a hot wind carrying tons of fine red dust. Within minutes, the scrubbed and polished patio of our hostel turned into a slippery death-trap as the soles of our shoes slid across the floor tiles without the faintest hint of friction due to a layer of dirt.

The next day, we managed to get an early start. Luckily, the wind had settled down. Our destination for the day was over 145 kilometers away, by far the longest distance yet to cover in one day. There were no big climbs on the way, and with the zonda gone, we felt like it was doable. After a while, we noticed a strange cloud on the horizon. It clearly was no regular mist, but it did not seem like smoke, either. I was asking myself if we saw a huge fire that was far away when it dawned on me: we were approaching a sandstorm.

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If you ever find yourself on a bike and see this, turn around immediately. Call it a day, lay down for a nap or go for a walk in the park. Just don’t ride on. It is not worth it.

We double checked our panniers and bags to see that they were properly closed so as not to let any dust in. It looked like the zonda had risen again. The only strange thing was that this wind usually traveled from north to south. Were we actually riding in the wake of the zonda? As we closed in on the dust cloud, temperatures dropped. We put on more layers, but were still freezing. This was nothing like the hot winds we had felt the day before. Soon, the sandstorm hit us with full force. It came at us from an angle so that we were not slowed down much. I actually grinned behind the bandana covering my nose and mouth. Riding through this storm was fun! The dust flew low, and it was beautiful to see it form little red streams across the road. The dust seemed like a strange red liquid that evaporated as it flew by.

It was not long, however, before things got more serious. The dust began to bother us as it got into our eyes and noses. To make things worse, the road turned left sharply, right into the storm. While we were able to maintain some momentum at first, we were soon creeping across the land at walking pace. The wind was at least as strong as it had been on the Uruguayan coast, but with the stingy dust added in as another nuisance. We got more hungry by the minute, so we fought our way to an abandoned house. Even though we cowered against one of its walls and were shielded by the wind from three sides, we had to hold on to our food in order to keep it from getting blown away. The wind was kind enough to provide a dust cover as a special ingredient for our sandwiches. To say that we enjoyed this snack break would be an outright lie.

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Our humble shelter from the wind.

We continued for about five more kilometers. Covering this ridiculous distance took us more than an hour. We were literally slower than we were walking at a leisurely pace. We would never make it to any of the cities further down the road at this rate. There was only one sensible thing to do: we pushed the bikes into one of the dry riverbeds next to the road where the wind did not get and laid down for an afternoon nap. There was a slim chance that the wind would settle down, and then we would easily make up for this break.

After a while, we realized that the wind did not settle down. Yet it was still too early to set up our tent. We unwillingly decided to submit ourselves to the ordeal of cycling in this wind for some more time. And just when I thought I could not go any further, a car slowed down next to me. “How are you?“, asked the driver. “Not so good.“, I replied. “Alright, wanna hop in?“. Those golden words resonated within me. I told Ben, who had been riding a little behind me, that we had gotten lucky, and we did not hesitate for an instant get into the pick-up truck. Our saviors were Kim and Diego from Villa General Belgrano. Apparently, there is a vivid German community there, and the Oktoberfest is celebrated each year.

Once in the car, we would have forgotten about the wind instantly had it not been for the bent plants and bushes along the road. Other than that, the strong gusts that had tortured us could not be perceived at all. After a nice and friendly chat with our benefactors, we were dropped off at our emergency destination, a town named Huaco, from where a road branched off and led to the town of San José de Jáchal. With the wind blowing in another direction, it seemed safe to ride the last 30 kilometers before calling it a day.

That final stretch was a perfect reward for the dreadful hours spent wrestling with the wind. The road steeply went up into a small mountain range made up of bizarre rocks that looked like they had been at the bottom of an ocean ages ago.

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Although the speed was nearly the same, climbing felt wonderful after spending hours in the fiercest of headwinds.

We rode along the sides of the hills through a beautiful natural reserve. At the other side, it seemed we had finally left the desert behind. Rows of trees on the side of the road hinted at a more humid climate. We both relished this variation from the dry prairie areas we had been cycling through for more than a week.

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A look back at the wind-scourged grasslands we had just managed to escape.

The town of San José de Jáchal was far from exciting, and so we went to bed early. The next day we would attempt to make it all the way to San Juan, at more than 150 kilometers, so we had decided on another early start. The next morning presented us with an unexpected challenge: when we woke up, our breath formed clouds in the icy morning air. Temperatures were a lot lower on this side of the mountains. I even had to put on full gloves to keep my hands from getting numb.

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This former railroad bridge was the perfect lunch spot.

Once we reached the open road, the ride to San Juan was not very exciting. We were riding through the same dry grassland we had grown accustomed to. A constant weak headwind slowed us down a little, but not enough to slow us down. The one thing that delighted the eye was the decaying railroad track running parallel to the road. It seemed to have been abandoned a long time ago, but apparently nobody had bothered to pick up the rails and they were left to rust, just like the derelict and uninhabited railroad stations we passed every once in a while.

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Tiny abandoned human dwellings like this one dotted the unused railroad track.

We climbed a small hill before San Juan, where we paid a scandalous sum for microscopic hamburgers. One can safely assume this did not improve our already somewhat poor impression of the town very much. Truth be told, our motivation had reached a low point. The towns on our route were mere stops rather than goals, we had grown tired of the monotonous desert landscape and had thus considered jumping on a bus to Mendoza. However, proud of our latest achievement, we decided to keep pedaling. In hindsight, I guess it would have been a good decision to take the bus: traffic was heavy and annoying, the landscape was still dull and monotonous, and we were once more doing our best to ignore the permanent soft headwind.

The high point of our two-day journey to Mendoza was camping out at the police control station of San Carlos. We arrived there at nightfall. We had our tent and enough food to make camping along the road an option, but it would be difficult to find a hidden spot to pitch our tent. The bushes and low grass along the road provided next to no protection from the wind, and it seemed like a bad idea to camp out in the open where every passing driver could see our tent. When we explained our problem to Pablo, the chief officer, he immediately offered us to set our tent up next to the control station. We could even use the bathroom and shower, as well as the kitchen. We could not have found a safer and more convenient place to spend the night.

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Pablo was friendly and fun to talk to.

It was tough to start riding the next day. While we were excited to start crossing the Andes, we were incredibly tired of fighting for every centimeter of space on the road with cars and trucks. Mendoza will be our base for the next few days as we carefully plan our next steps. Weather conditions on the mountain pass to Chile can get very serious, and we hope that the road leading up is not buried in snow. Without any doubt, thorough preparation will pay off during the next phase of our adventure.

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