Valparaiso, essentially Chile’s second city, is both a struggle and a joy for the touring cyclist. While the main business and shopping areas of the city are located in a flat expanse known as the El Plan, the residential areas and many things of touristic interest are spread over several dozen hills. The streets going up these hills have ridiculously steep inclines and not only is it impossible to cycle up them, but even pushing a loaded touring bike requires that one stop every few steps for a breather. Once we safely stored our bikes at our lodgings, we hoped moving around would be easier, but even on foot Valparaiso is a brutal place. A series of funiculars (ascensores) links El Plan with the hills, but these were built a century ago when settlement had not yet spread so far up. Today, people are living much higher along the hills, and even after one has paid 200 pesos to ride a funicular several dozen meters up, there is still a lot of grueling walking left to be done. Continue reading Valparaiso
In Vicuña we experienced an earthquake, only the first of many during our time in Chile. The locals went about their business completely unperturbed, and explained that this was no terremoto (‘earthquake’ as the sort of cataclysmic event that razes cities and brings tsunamis), but rather a mere temblor (‘earthquake’ as only a brief shaking of the ground and all the loose items in the house). For us, not used to making such a distinction, it was still a foreboding introduction to this part of the world.
A half-day’s cycling from Vicuña brought us to Chile’s Pacific coast at the city of La Serena. We were surprised to find an almost perfect simulacrum of southern California: sprawl, car culture, row homes, a dry landscape, and plenty of conspicuous consumption. As mentioned before, we too were in consumption mode, so happy to have left Argentina with its import-substitution policy and low-quality products, and here the supermarkets were bigger than in Vicuña. We stayed with some local cyclists in the neighbouring port city of Coquimbo, which does feel a little like the poorer cousin of La Serena, but the “bad neighbourhoods” there are on top of the hill where no visitors need go, and generally the coastal and other low-lying areas are just quiet residential districts like in any other developed country. There was nothing of especial touristic interest in these two cities themselves, but during the days we stayed here, we cycled back and forth between Coquimbo and La Serena several times along the long seafront promenade, which was a relaxing place to be in late December, still the low season. On a clear day, you can turn away from the sea to a view of a snow-covered Andean peak. Continue reading South along the Chilean coast: La Serena to Valparaiso
The Paso Agua Negra (‘Blackwater Pass’) is one of many crossings from Argentina to Chile over the Andes. This pass reaches an altitude of 4770 meters, with a good-quality unpaved road but very little traffic, so it has become increasingly popular with cyclists. I read several stories of crossing here (like the excellent description at Andes By Bike) that described it as a smooth journey, so I expected that it would go equally smoothly for us in mid-December 2015. Things were more complicated, however. Continue reading Cycling the Paso Agua Negra from Argentina to Chile: a cautionary tale
From Chamical we cycled a day up to Patquía, where we turned onto the RN150 highway heading west. Patquía itself is a tiny town with no drinking water from taps and a lot of dust. We had to ask at the petrol station if we could pitch our tent there, a request that was readily granted – perhaps due to the vast distances between towns, petrol stations in rural Argentina are quite happy to help cyclists, motorcyclists, or hitchhikers out with camping sites and free wifi.
We didn’t know how feasible it would be to cycle the RN150 west. It passes through the desert of the provinces La Rioja and then San Juan, with very few settlements. Furthermore, a substantial portion of it was only finished in October 2014, so there hasn’t been any time for roadside businesses to appear. We nonetheless decided to risk it, but we each took many extra liters of water. Continue reading West along Argentina’s RN150
After crossing the Sierra Central, we had to cycle a few dozen kilometers north through the rest of Córdoba province. The scenery was much the same as before the mountains, but it was starting to get hotter. We got from Salsacate to Villa Carlos Paz, then decided to call it a day. Villa Carlos Paz is a fairly large town and a major crossroads. It has a free municipal campsite near the river, though it is one of the most neglected municipal campsites we’ve seen among many (toilets closed forever, the ground covered with thorny plants). Continue reading La Rioja: desert and dying villages
Continuing our westward journey from Córdoba meant going over the 2000-meter passes of the Sierra Central, Argentina’s other major mountain range besides the famous Andes. We originally planned on the RP34 road, which has asphalt and leads through the Parque Nacional Quebrada del Condorito which serves as a sanctuary for condors. A fellow cyclist recommended a lesser-known road, the RP28, which brought us into some impressive terrain with very little traffic. Continue reading Cycling over Argentina’s Sierra Central
The five hundred kilometers from Santa Fe to Córdoba brought us through more endless fields of grain, with little of touristic interest and a lot of flat and boring terrain. Nonetheless, we met some very affable people during our stops, and our understanding of Argentinian life was filled in a little more. Continue reading More Argentina cycling: Santa Fe to Cordoba
Crossing the bridge from Uruguay near Fray Bentos brought us into a rather different place: things a little shabbier here (though nowhere near what I expected from hearing that Argentina has been an economic basket case since long before I was born), and there is something in the distances between things and the demeanor of the locals that told us that we had arrived in a “big country”. Continue reading Across Argentina’s Entre Rios province
Wanting to escape the northern hemisphere winter, we decided to cycle for a few months through South America. Argentina was the biggest attraction, but flights to Uruguay’s capital Montevideo were significantly cheaper than to Buenos Aires. Thus we found ourselves spending a week in this sleepy little country, heading from Montevideo’s airport to its Ciudad Vieja (Old Town), and then cycling northwest to the border crossing with Argentina near the town of Fray Bentos.
Uruguay struck me as a country that must be nice to live in, but without much to see for tourists, at least on our route that took us away from Atlantic coast with its beaches. Still, the people were very friendly. Cycling from Montevideo’s airport to the city centre also proved memorable, as the 30-kilometer-long riverfront promenade goes along the mouth of the Río del Plato that is so wide, it feels like the real ocean. The capital’s Ciudad Vieja, however, was less a slice of picturesque history preserved for tourists and more an example of urban decay with innumerable abandoned and dilapidated buildings.
Below I’ll recount some of our experiences that might guide other cyclists and shoestring travelers. Continue reading A week of cycling in Uruguay
In early August 2015 we cycled Romania’s “Transalpina” road (DN67C) over the Carpathians, going from south to north. While less well known than the Transfăgărășan road, which got asphalt first and has been raved about in international media, the Transalpina reaches a higher attitude at its peak and has much less traffic. Continue reading Cycling Romania’s Transalpina road