Usually, the more effort you put into something, the harder it is to let go of it. Not in our case: It had taken us days to get to the top of the Andes, but the way down was over before we knew it. The only thing that kept us from rolling straight into the heart of Chile was the border control.
The time had come to cross our last national border, and we wanted to get up early in order to avoid traffic. For all we knew, there was a strike going on at the border, and we did not want our last memory of Argentina to be standing in line with dozens of lorries in a cloud of exhaust fumes. During our hiking adventure up to the Paso de Cristo Redentor, we had had a good view of the traffic in the valley and saw that the trucks did not arrive until later in the morning. Arriving at the border before the first wave of them was our chance to get into Chile without too much hassle.
As good as that plan seemed, it was so cold in our room that our phones stopped working during the night, and in the morning, no alarm rang to wake us up. We opened our eyes about an hour late, but it turned out not to be a problem. There was not a single car to be seen. Actually, what we had thought was the border control turned out to be just a police station monitoring the traffic through the border tunnel. The border control itself was beyond the tunnel, in Chile.
Since the international tunnel is closed to bicycles, we had been worrying about how to get through. We expected having to convince the border guards with a heartbreaking story, but the process was fairly easy. When we rolled up to the station, an officer came out and told us he had already called someone on the other side to come pick us up and drive us through the tunnel. After less than thirty minutes, a small truck came out of the tunnel and the driver gestured us to load our bikes on the back.
The international tunnel was just like the one we had pushed the bikes through on our way to Las Cuevas, with a small sidewalk missing numerous tiles. With traffic being almost nonexistent, it would have been perfectly possible to cycle through, but I imagine that the volume traffic was just extremely low and that under normal circumstances, an attempt to cross the tunnel on a bicycle would have been suicidal. Be that as it may, we were dropped off at the other end, and the driver told us that the border control was still four kilometers ahead.
The highest point of the road was already behind us, and the way to the border control was a steep downhill. At first, our eyes feasted on the wonderful view of the mountains around us, but in the next tunnel, they widened in shock. The floor was covered in water and there were icicles hanging from the ceiling! For all we knew, the road ahead was covered in black ice. We were going fast and it was already way too late to brake, but we were spared from a crash: it was not cold enough for the water on the ground to freeze, and our tires did not slide.
The border station was bustling with activity in spite of the low traffic volume. We saw the few buses that had passed us while we waited for our shuttle through the tunnel lined up on the parking lot, their passengers forming long lines at several counters inside the station. A cheerful young man stepped up to greet us and shoved no less than four forms into our hands and explained: “This is for you, this is for your bike, this is the customs declaration, and this is the declaration that you do not have any perishable goods in your possession.” It is in fact forbidden to bring fruits, vegetables and such into Chile to avoid the spreading of a certain fruit fly. We had given all of our perishable items to Nestor, so we thought we were perfectly prepared for the migration process.
Nevertheless, filling out the paperwork took us some time. We had to write down our personal details no less than four times, but in changing order. I lined up at one of the counters to meet the perfect incarnation of an ill-humored, sadistic border officer who will use any bureaucratic obstacle as a leverage to make your day just a little worse. “Step three.” she barked. “Are you done with steps one and two?”
I felt like in a Kafka novel. What on earth was she talking about? She looked at the forms in my hands. “You are wrong here. You need to go there and go through steps one and two first.” I began to understand. Even though there was no discernible order to the counters, one had to pass by the ones on the other side of the hall first. I chose one of the counters the mean woman had pointed to, and I got lucky: this was the counter for step one! The border official carefully examined the forms, my passport and, much to my surprise, managed not to put the exit stamp for Argentina on top of a previous stamp. His Chilean colleague was less meticulous and Ben’s passport now has two stamps on the page reserved for official remarks: Chile and Haiti.
Once we were done with step two, we returned to the counter for step three. I sighed with relief when I saw that the vile person that had attended me first had been replaced by a man with a sad look to his eyes. But that did not mean we could finally get over with the migration process. The officer told us that we did not have the correct papers for a bicycle and asked us to follow him. Trailing behind him down a corridor, we entered the part of the station where the higher-ranking personnel had their offices. In one of them, we met a young man in a suit with strongly pomaded hair. After a whispered exchange between the two officers, the younger one took care of our problem, filling out a form for our bikes without ever speaking to us. His signature occupied the better part of the form, so we assumed he was important. With a dry smile and a nod, he bid us farewell. We once more approached the counter for the third step, which to our horror was once again manned by the dreadful woman. “You are wrong again!“, she yelled. “You cannot do step three here. Go outside and get your bikes checked!“. My assumption is that her family life is pure harmony since she obviously lets off all negative energy at work.
We found a customs officer willing to look at our panniers, and the examination was lengthy and utterly pointless. We opened our panniers and I explained to him what was inside. He shoved his hands into each pannier and fumbled around for a moment. Briefly dipping his fingers into the panniers seemed to suffice, as if he had a special sense to feel what the contents of the panniers were by simply touching them. I suspect anything but a fairly large firearm would have gone unnoticed, even though he took specific interest in our cereal bars and checked the ingredients attentively. He signed one of the forms we had acquired during the migration process, and told us that we were free to enter Chile. “Seriously? Don’t we have to do step three next?” – “No, this was step three. You can go now.” You might imagine how glad we were at this point. We celebrated the end of the tedious migration process with coffee and empanadas, and were momentarily surprised by the exchange rate of the Chilean peso: paying thousands of pesos for snacks takes some getting used to.
The road was far steeper on this side than it had been in Argentina. Most of the descending was done in a series of steep narrow curves called los caracoles. In one of them, we had an encounter with a most curious vehicle: a bicycle, loaded with bulging panniers and a large stuffsack on top of its rear rack. The rider was from Japan, and he told us that he had traveled down the Pacific Coastline all the way from Alaska. Even though he was the first bike traveler we had a chance to speak to during the Vuelta, our conversation remained short. After admiring each other’s gear, we briefly exchanged information on the respective routes ahead and wished each other Godspeed.
Other than this chance encounter, the way down was rather straightforward. We had begun the descent wearing the warmest clothes we had, and now we had to stop at every other bend to take off another layer. The lower slopes of the western Andes were completely different from their eastern counterpart. While we had been cycling through a desert in northern Argentina, we now found ourselves in a wonderfully lush alpine terrain. Flowers dotted the grass to our left and right, and the whole thing began to look a lot like northern Italy. We were surrounded by green mountain slopes, and only the occasional cactus reminded us of the barren landscapes on the eastern side of the mountains.
We stopped for lunch and a much-needed complete change of clothes at a roadside restaurant. We noticed an impressive abundance of Chilean flags. They were hanging from the balconies and windows of virtually every house we saw. Slowly, we began to realize that we had stumbled into a patriotic holiday. Eager to delve into the holiday spirit, we ordered the typical Chilean dish, cazuela. Honestly, it was not too exciting, just a broth with some vegetables and meat in it, but the friendly waitress served it beaming with pride.
The gradient of the road was very gentle now and allowed for quick cruising without too much effort. The densely populated valley flew by until we suddenly found ourselves on a major national highway closed to bicycles without previous warning. Since it was the only road leading west, we had no choice but to ignore the sign and ride on the narrow shoulder of the highway, nodding friendly to the police officers guarding the road. While the policemen did not seem to mind our clandestine riding, the drivers did their best to make it as miserable as possible, passing us closely without slowing down even though there was very little traffic and they could have easily given us more space. We turned off the highway at the first intersection and decided to follow a small secondary road inland. This smaller road ran more or less parallel to the highway and followed a small river, which seemed nice.
Our decision had been just right. We spent some time in the small town of Catemuco, where we learned that the day before had been an important national holiday and that most shops were still closed. There was one hotel that was open, but it was expensive and its standard doubtful. We asked some cateminos, as the inhabitants of the town are called, for advice. They pointed out that there were plenty of hotels in the town of Hijuelas a little further down the road, so we decided to keep riding.
It was a wonderful evening, and we were delighted to ride on the smooth pavement, leaning into the curves where the road retraced the outlines of the hills that formed the river valley. The sun was setting slowly, and the colors in the sky contrasted beautifully with the lush green valley. When we arrived at Hijuelas, darkness had already fallen. Luckily, there was nothing left to do but find a place to rest our weary heads. Only that there was not a single hostel, hotel or pension in Hijuelas.
Everyone we asked told us that hotels were not to be found until the next town, La Calera. We had no choice but to ride on, even though we were drop dead tired. The last parts of the day’s ride were adventurous, and at one point we had to lift the bikes over the highway fence and carry them up the shoulder. When we finally found a hotel (not an easy task in La Calera, either), it was already well into the night, and we still had not eaten. It was Ben who volunteered to look for food. Getting anything in La Calera seems to be a challenge, but when he came back with two bags full of sandwiches, the long day finally came to a good end.