When we left Mendoza behind, we knew the only way forward was up. We did not mind in the least, as we both have been eager to enter, see and, most of all, feel the enormous Andes right from the beginning of our trip.
The last weeks since leaving Salta had taken a heavy toll on our motivation and we were longing for a break from cycling. We liked being in Mendoza and took our time preparing our departure into the mountains. Our feeling was that we would be grateful for everything we got done before going up, as most likely we would encounter very adverse riding conditions among the snowy peaks before us. Several days went by as we stocked up on provisions, bought additional winter gear or explored the excellent ice cream parlors throughout town. We had earned it, and we felt that there was no point in pushing ourselves. After all, our highest responsibilities were to stay safe and healthy and enjoy our trip as much as possible.
When we embarked again, we did not start rolling particularly early, and our departure was delayed even more when we were told that a strike by the border officials was scheduled for the coming days. The strike could potentially put all border traffic to a halt. Since we both shuddered at the prospect of being stuck in an expensive ski resort close to the pass over the Andes or – worse yet – needing to go back down to Mendoza, we decided to investigate before leaving. When asking around, we were recommended to enquire at the Office of Migration. Upon arriving there, I was told by a lady frantically clicking objects on the screen of her computer without ever looking at me that she had no information on the strike, that they only took care of the paperwork, and that we needed to speak to someone at the Customs Authority. Luckily, it was just around the corner.
Following my question as to the situation of border traffic, the bearded man behind the reception said something I did not quite get in a conspiratorial tone. What I understood could have meant “Even if your papers are in order, we won’t let you through.” just as well as “If your papers are OK, you will have no problem crossing the border.” When I told him I had not understood, he rolled his eyes and said, very loudly and clearly this time: “Well, what do you think? That we can just shut down border traffic? You will be OK.” I felt a little embarrassed for not getting his answer the first time, but Ben and I high fived to celebrate the good news. Our way out of town was as tedious as always, rolling along the heavy traffic and stopping at almost every intersection of the seemingly endless Avenida San Martín.
We had chosen to follow the largest road into the mountains, the Ruta 7, to the town of Uspallata. The alternatives were rough gravel roads that climbed to more than 3000 meters above sea level before descending very scenically into the high valley around Uspallata. The only information we had been able to obtain on these routes was from the description of a mountainbike race that claimed to be the toughest of the Mendoza region. Even though a “practice” climb to 3000 meters before attempting the Paso de Cristo Redentor at more than 3800 meters was tempting, we had learned from previous mistakes that following singletrails fully loaded was a bad idea. So, even though the volume of traffic on the Ruta 7 was usually high, taking the paved road to Uspallata seemed like the sensible thing to do.
I do not know if it was a result of the announced strike or if we simply got lucky, but there was almost no traffic as we started our ascent. The gradient was pleasant, and we gained height far easier than I had imagined. It was not long until we arrived at the artificial lake of Potrerillos. The road dropped steeply, and with the aid of gravity, we swiftly approached the turquoise waters at the bottom of the valley. Realizing that it was already too late to continue to Uspallata, we checked into a cabaña run by an elderly lady. The hut was clean, but tiny, and we constantly hit our knees on the furniture. Before our emotional health could take a turn for the worse, we jumped on our bikes and explored the muddy shores of the lake in the last rays of sunlight and climbed on a boulder overlooking the valley. Smiling, we realized that we were surrounded by high peaks. Finally, we were in the mountains again.
The next day, we started considerably earlier. Depending on which source one relies on, Uspallata is situated at some point between 1700 and 2200 meters of elevation, the latter number meaning a steep climb from Potrerillos. We wanted to make sure that we had plenty of time for the potentially severe climb. But we were lucky: our legs hardly felt the climbing as the road gently rose. Once more, our surroundings were so serene that we almost forgot that we were pedaling uphill. Mountains of all heights, colors and shapes delighted our eyes while the strong sunshine kept us warm. We arrived at Uspallata (the Garmin placed us at 1800 meters) early in the afternoon with enough time for an unloaded spin, just like the day before.
We found a room at a cozy hostel a few blocks from the village center. When the owner saw our bicycles, he insisted to introduce us to the “man with the golden hands”, Eduardo, bike mechanic. He also told us that there was a gravel road leading to the Cerro de los Siete Colores, a hill boasting an array of colors due to its mineral structure.
It turned out that road was the end of the alternative route from Mendoza, and we could understand why it took fearless mountainbikers to overcome the difficult ascent. Doing it on our bikes with all our gear would have been a recipe for disaster. With our panniers back at the hostel, though, we felt unleashed and gleefully sprinted uphill through the colorful desert landscape towards the multi-colored rock. We arrived there smiling and climbed to the top, wondering why we had not traveled this way from the beginning, with an early start and time to spare for some unloaded exploring in the afternoon.
Rumor has it that one is able to see the Aconcagua, mightiest of all the giants of the Andes, from the hilltop, but we could not decide which of the snow-covered peaks in the distance it was. We did not mind, for we knew we would see it from the road during the next days.
The way back to the hostel was all downhill, and we enjoyed the fast and rocky descent. While it was fun to speed over the coarse gravel and feel like we were mountainbike racers ourselves, the rattling was enough to knock one of Ben’s bottles from its holder. We didn’t notice until the hostel, but at the same time we noticed something else that made us forget about the lost bottle instantly: the rim of the rear wheel on Ben’s bike had split! Climbing the Paso de Cristo Redentor with a broken rim was out of the question, as the rim could literally burst to pieces, something we did not even want to imagine happening while going down the pass. But replacing the split rim required tools and skills we did not possess. The only one who could help us now was Eduardo, the man with the golden hands.
And indeed, when we arrived at Eduardo’s house, he found a matching replacement rim in a pile of discarded wheels and offered to deliver the repaired wheel to the hostel. And the best news of all were that he could repair the wheel on that same evening. We felt incredibly lucky, and went to the town center to celebrate with a good dinner. We decided that it was not possible to spend a month in Argentina without trying a piece of the world-famous local beef. And we were not disappointed: the huge pieces of prime cut on our plates were grilled to perfection. Words cannot describe the juiciness and tenderness of this meaty treat. Now, we truly felt prepared to climb up into the snowy peaks above us.
After dinner, we went to Eduardo’s house to pick up the wheel. Unfortunately, some technical complications had delayed the reparations. But since Eduardo was extremely nice and pleasant to be around, we ended up spending a few hours talking and watching him do his magic with skillful and nimble hands even though we knew that the next day could be the hardest so far and that we would have to get up well before sunrise. When we said goodbye shortly before midnight, the wheel still was not finished, but Eduardo promised to leave the repaired bike at the hostel before the next morning. We went to bed without the slightest doubt that he would keep this promise.