The road to San Pedro de Atacama from the border of Bolivia sloped constantly downhill. Aaron was a bit worried about having enough gas to make it into town, so he went a lot of the way with the bike off and in neutral.
Just as we had hoped, by the time we got to the border office, it was legitimately warm; not just comparatively. We saw one other vehicle go through visa and customs offices, but other than that, it was just us sitting there.
San Pedro de Atacama is popular city for adventuring. Salt flats, mountains, valleys, and all sorts of day trips are available with Atacama as a starting point. Aaron and I wanted to keep moving, but we were constantly reminding each other that there was no point in traveling if we didn’t stop and see things.
That night, we had the best burgers of our entire trip at the Burger Garden and wandered around the small city. There’s a main strip that has lots of outdoor and camping stores and just about every restaurant seemed to sell pizza, which is common in these kinds of tourist cities.
Something a bit less common was the dogs hanging around on the streets. I’m not sure if they have owners, but they all seemed healthy and cared for. The second night we were there, as we had to stay an extra night to get the laundry we dropped off, we saw a waitress at the restaurant we ate at handing out samples to both passersby and a couple of her favorite dogs. If this is the normal treatment the dogs there get, then it’s no wonder why they all looked so happy.
The hostel offered camping as well as private rooms. Aaron wanted a bed, as we hadn’t had beds for a few nights, and the price difference wasn’t huge, so Joakim and I joined and Peter decided to save a few dollars by sleeping in his tent.
At the time, I wasn’t sure what exactly caused Joakim to become ill, as he’d just eaten an enormous and delicious burger that was more or less the exact thing all of us had eaten, but he violently threw up a couple times during that night. After researching Lago Verde, the lake he swam in earlier in the day, and seeing that arsenic is what gives it that shade of green, I suspect he was poisoned.
In my whole life I have never woken up to a sound like that before. It must have been painful, because he shouted/groaned in the lead up to the actual expulsion. If you’re familiar with anime, in particular Dragon Ball Z, a character often shouts angrily for about a minute/multiple episodes before launching a particularly devastating attack. This is the closest thing I could relate the sound to.
It was a good thing we had a private bathroom.
So, actually, we stayed the second night both to get the laundry and to make sure Joakim wasn’t going to continue being sickly.
During the second day, we cleaned what we could, as we were still dealing with all of our gear being overly salted from Bolivia, and repacked. Aaron and I never got some of our things back to normal from that, even after spending time at every stop working to unsalt our things.
It was an angering surprise for Aaron after he washed his boots and placed them on the outer wall to dry only to find them missing a couple hours later. After searching all over, he concluded that someone walking by on the road outside saw them and stole them.
Aaron couldn’t understand why someone would want to steal old, gnarled, salty boots. They didn’t even have the insoles, because he’d taken them out to dry.
He’d traveled to this point with just those boots and a pair of sandals, but, due to being unhappy with the sandals, he intentionally packed them precariously and had lost them on the ride through the national park.
So now, he had no shoes and no sandals.
The reason for someone stealing old, nasty boots became apparent when he went looking to buy new boots and the cheapest ones were between $100 and $160.
San Pedro de Atacama was a cool place, but the stealing of Aaron’s boots soured the experience for him just a bit.
From there we went to cross the border into Argentina. At first, our plan was to just ride straight south through Chile, but enough people recommended that we head over to Argentina and ride Route 40 south that we figured there had to be some truth to what they said. Their reasoning was that Northern Chile is boring and cold, while Northern Argentina is interesting and warm.
I can’t speak for Northern Chile, but Northern Argentina ended up giving us some of the best riding days and camping nights of our whole trip.
We did a bit of research on if there were any cool touristy things between Atacama and the border we planned to cross. We found Miscanti Lake in a national park.
Miscanti is one of two lakes in the park. The other is named Miniques. They were once one lake, but a lava flow separated them. The water is a nice deep blue and the elevation is about 13,500ft.
We saw the sign, turned onto the dirt road, and rode up to the lake.
We made the 20-30 minute ride up to the park and paid the admission price. It was getting to be the time of day that we needed to figure out where we would sleep, but we weren’t sure if we wanted to stay at the park.
Something confusing happened then, because we thought we heard the ranger/park attendant say that we could stay at one of the cabins in the park. We wanted to look around first, though. When we did, we saw a perfect little cabin that would have made for a great night’s sleep.
When we returned to take him up on the offer, he told us that it was no longer available, and we got the impression that it hadn’t been available for a long time, so we weren’t sure what we were being offered originally. Sometimes the miscommunication comes from not being fluent in Spanish, but there are other times that are just weird.
Then, as we went from one lake to the other and kind of felt like we understood the small park enough to leave; it was very nice, but not something too dissimilar from what we’d been seeing for weeks, I got a flat tire.
We knew that my tire was in need of changing, but the last opportunity I had to change it was in La Paz and I wasn’t quite ready to give up on it then.
The flat happened right next to an area with four rock walls and a small entrance. “What a nice place to camp,” Peter, Joakim, and I all thought. Aaron felt differently.
No matter the case, we started working to change the rear tube so that we would be mobile again.
It took a long time. Part of the reason it took so long was because all our fingers were cold and work like that is particularly difficult when your hands don’t want to obey you.
Another reason it was hard was because I hadn’t had to change a tire or tube for years. Back in Colorado, a man named Mountain Eagle made us buy four tubes for our bikes. I’d ridden all the way from Colorado with all those tubes in my saddlebags, because we’d never had a flat. We changed the tires periodically, but we’d always done it at a mechanic. “At least I’ll have one less tube to carry around,” was the redeeming thought of the moment.
One more reason it was difficult was because it was getting dark. As it was getting dark, the park rangers came by in their jeep and made sure to tell us that we were not allowed to camp there and that we had to go.
We explained that we would love to leave, but that we couldn’t until we fixed the flat tube situation. This seemed obvious to us and needing to impress that on other, unsympathetic people was irritating.
This did not please them, but what could they do?
Over the course of the next hour, as we made a depressing amount of progress, the rangers returned, but didn’t stop or say anything to us. They just rode past and looked disapprovingly at us from behind their rolled-up windows. They were nice and warm in their vehicle and couldn’t be bothered to offer help or even threaten to kick us out of the park anymore.
We then finished getting the bike all back together, but it was dark. All of us but Aaron were thinking that we should try to stay right where we were until morning.
Aaron wanted to descend the thousand and some feet or more from the mountain for a warmer place to camp.
We weren’t sure if we could even legally stay there, but just when we were trying to figure that out, the rangers returned again and, after we framed the situation in a way favoring our inability to leave, they reluctantly agreed to let us stay the night there. They told us that we had to leave before 7am, though, as that’s when they would open and they didn’t want people seeing us camping there.
Peter, Joakim, and I were all settled after that conversation and decided it was time to start putting up the tents. Aaron, however, was still reluctant about this resolution and peppered complaints about it into conversation strategically throughout the night.
As I worked to put up Aaron and my tent (Only Aaron owns the tent, but I am saying “Aaron and my” to differentiate between the tent that Peter and Joakim slept in) Aaron wandered around to find materials to burn for the fire.
It didn’t take long to find that, at that altitude and region, there is very little to burn. Aaron, with Joakim whom he recruited for the endeavor, kept bringing piles of some kind of damp, stinky grass that he put a lot of effort into burning. There was a lot more smoke than fire, but it did give off heat.
The smoke, of course, mostly just flowed to where I was setting up the tent, so I was bleary eyed and coughing. What made it worse than just thick, billowing smoke was its rancid, pungent smell. A lot of gasoline was being used to keep it smoking, though, so at least that smell is kind of nice.
Needless to say, I wasn’t really in favor of the “fire”. Beyond the obvious, I was pretty sure having a fire inside the park that no longer allows for legal camping was probably a ‘no-no’. And then beyond that, I kind of just wanted to bundle up in a sleeping bag and go to sleep. Doing that usually works like a ‘fast-forward-to-morning’ button.
Now, it was getting cold at that point, but none of us felt it as keenly as Peter, for some reason. He started to complain of feeling sickly and say that he couldn’t get his feet warm.
He’d bought a second, warmer than his first, sleeping bag back in San Pedro de Atacama, so he double-bagged himself and nestled down next to the “fire”. Joakim even took a few minutes to massage Peter’s feet in hopes of getting feeling back in them. (Peter recently told me it took over two months for his toes to return to normal after this)
He warmed up after a little while, but I don’t think he left the sleeping bags much.
I don’t remember cooking and eating anything there. We might have just had granola or other things that didn’t require cooking.
That night got a lot colder. I woke up a couple times in spite of nice Kelty sleeping bag I was neatly zipped in. Aaron’s tent is small, but it’s actually a good thing on cold nights, because we only need to warm up a small area. You know it’s freezing when that isn’t enough. The “fast-forward” button wasn’t as effective as it usually was.
We made a breakfast of some oatmeal and fruit and started to wonder how long it would take the rangers to come up and check on us.
With perfect timing, they showed up just as we started to wash our dishes in the lake nearby. They honked a lot and told us we couldn’t leave the trail, despite the well-worn footpaths that led to just where we’d been standing. The reason we couldn’t go down there was because the water birds there are a protected species.
We obviously didn’t mean the birds any harm, but I had to agree with Aaron that the birds weren’t all that interesting or pretty. In the end, we left that campsite with dirty dishes.
Large buses went by as we got the last of our gear back on our bikes and the driver told us that it had gotten as cold as 5 degrees Fahrenheit (-15C) that night. This was only moderately surprising to us.
As we left, the rangers in their cabin came out to stop us and tell us that we had to pay them for camping. “Who exactly are we giving this money to?” we had to ask. They originally claimed it was for the park, but when we asked further into that, it was obvious they just wanted us to give them money. If they had been cool the previous night, we wouldn’t have had any issue with this. But they were very not cool and, after discussing this, Peter, Joakim, Aaron, and I all agreed that they should not be given money for what had happened.
The scenery around this road wasn’t particularly interesting, but it was a good road, so we were making excellent time.
The road turned to dirt after a while, which was less good, but still fine.
We saw more salt-flat-esque landscapes and descended to a lake that was surrounded by white, lumpy hills and patches and had a layer of ice over the water. Some areas where you’d expect it to be muddy were as hard as rock, but other areas were just muddy.
We didn’t want to spend too much time there, as we were aiming to cross the border into Argentina and, hopefully, get somewhere nice to camp. We’d looked ahead on the maps and were aware that we wouldn’t be seeing gasoline for a while, so that weighed on us a bit. As long as nothing too terrible happened, we figured we’d be fine.
The dirt road became a bit bumpier and rock-littered and I got another flat tire. It took a lot less time, but time was still lost there. It was aggravating, because we were on rough roads due to construction. For long stretches of road, miles and miles, we were riding directly next to a newly paved, smoothed to perfection road. That road was off limits, though, and we had to ride on rocks and dirt.
I wouldn’t normally complain about this, as we usually seek out rougher roads and all that, but it wasn’t what I wanted when nursing a severely worn down rear tire.
With about two hours before sunset, we made it to the border. If the last border we crossed seemed to us as basically unused, this one was post-apocalyptic – no one left on earth empty. We didn’t pass any vehicles for miles before we reached it and the same went for after we crossed.
We hadn’t seen any other buildings for a long time before reaching the border either, so the modern state of the border crossing complex was a surprise. This turned out to be the smoothest and most accommodating border crossing of our whole journey.
There were four little booths all using the same counter. All we had to do was give the first booth our papers and then take steps to the left to move on to the next process: customs leaving, passport stamps leaving, customs entering, visa stuff entering, and done.
They let us use their bathroom and filled our water bottles and camelbaks for us. We’d camped the previous night and were getting a bit low.
They even had WiFi, which we were welcome to use and the lounge room was incredibly warm and felt amazing after being cold all day.
We heard that they sometimes even allow for travelers to stay the night there, as it is so incredibly remote, but we had plans to make more miles, so we didn’t stay too long.
About 30 miles away from that border, while riding over the annoyingly corrugated dirt road, I got another flat tire. At this point, I was starting to worry that the four tubes that I’d been resenting for carrying so long wouldn’t be enough. I’d already used the two rear spare tubes, so I was going to have to start using front tubes from here on.
We checked on iOverlander to see if there were any camping spots around. It was a depressing situation, because, due to the slight elevation of the road and the bareness of the landscape, we could still clearly see the border complex in the distance just turning on its lights for the night. We couldn’t see any other man made structures in any direction, though.
Aaron and Peter rode ahead to look for better places to camp.
Joakim and I stayed back and wandered around the immediate area for a little while. Before long, we found and started gathering firewood. There weren’t any trees around and almost no reasonable cover from the wind, but directly next to the road there was a depression that could offer a little respite and it was big enough for two tents and a fire.
Even though there weren’t any trees, there were a lot of small bushes that, after dying and drying up, made for great firewood. We started piling it up as we waited for Aaron and Peter to return.
There were some complications with the venture to find a better camping spot. First, there was absolutely nothing to be found and then because Peter ended up pinned under his motorcycle. Aaron helped out, but he was worried he had seriously injured his leg and needed some time to asses it. By the time they had returned, Joakim and I had already decided we were staying right there and had a pile of firewood for the whole night.
The only reservation Aaron had was that we were on the edge of the road. It always feels safer to be hidden from the road. It was already dark, though, and we were stuck. In addition to that, I offered that we hadn’t seen a single vehicle pass by on the road during the past three hours of riding it and sitting next to it.
We stayed there and didn’t see another vehicle until noon the next day.
The campsite was just about perfect. We had a comfortable fire and cooked a decent dinner. The wind wasn’t bad at all, it was oddly warm, and the sand was soft enough to make for a comfortable sleep. Morale wasn’t particularly high, despite the comfort. I reminded Aaron that we have a saying that any day that includes a successful border crossing is a good day. He said that this is no longer true.
We took things very slowly in the morning. We still needed to change my tube and we decided to try to patch up the broken tubes, if possible.
The first vehicles of the time spent there were two bicyclists. They were traveling north. They’d already eaten lunch and made significant distance by the time we were just putting the tents away. We spoke for a few minutes but, as is often true of bicycle transcontinental riders, they were very aware of the time and said they needed to make more distance.
I got the front tube in the rear tire and was packed and ready a bit before the rest of the guys. They told me I might as well just ride off in front of them, as I’d more than likely get another flat tire and having a head start, I could maybe get that moving before they reached me.
So, off I rode off alone. I think about an hour went by before I heard honking behind me. I was passing the first man made things I’d seen since leaving the border. There were train tracks and a small town down a split from the main road.
Aaron had caught up to me. He told me we had to try to get gasoline from the town. Without any guarantee of any other opportunity, we had to try.
He rode into the town and I waited up for Peter and Joakim. It wasn’t long after they caught up with us that Aaron returned having found a man with extra gas who was willing to sell it.
There are a lot of stretches of road without any petrol stations. Despite this, there’s almost always a way to get gasoline. Your best chance is to just ask people. The progression of information usually goes something like this: the first person will tell you there is no fuel. The second person will tell you that some guy a few houses down has some. That person will say they don’t just then have any, but another guy has some. There may be a couple extra steps thrown in of other people saying that there’s no gasoline anywhere.
In the end, you find the person and negotiate a price for the gas which they will probably sell to you from 2 liter Coke bottles.
That’s what Aaron went through and, as per usual, he found the guy with gasoline. He only had 10 liters, but this would be enough.
Our major problem was that this was our first full day in Argentina and none of us had any Argentinian Pesos and he didn’t want Chilean Pesos. I had my emergency US dollars, though, so we figured a reasonable price with those, which he was, thankfully, happy to have.
I rode off in front again and didn’t see the rest of the guys for a good long while. The terrain became more interesting after about an hour. Lakes and streams with birds, startled by the sound of the motorcycle, springing from the brush and off the water along with winding mountain passes made for an enjoyable afternoon of riding.
I had a bit of difficulty fully appreciating the ride, though, because I was constantly surveying the path ahead and trying to avoid anything that could possibly puncture or put stress on the replacement tube. I was relieved when I started seeing signs of civilization; like sports fields, knowing that people must live somewhere nearby.
When I got to the edge of the town, I pulled over and looked through iOverlander for information on a mechanic or motorcycle shop. I barely had time to enter it into the app before Aaron, Joakim, and Peter came riding up behind me.
We all admitted that we were surprised and relieved that we didn’t have to deal with any more flat tires and, after finding a mechanic in town, would never have to ever again. This, of course, would not prove to be ultimately true, but it was for the moment.
We got a little lost, but found the mechanic fairly easily. Amazingly, he had a tire in stock that would fit my bike. It was about $90, which was just fine with me. I bought it and a replacement tube. I was very grateful to the front tube that had done the job the two rear tubes couldn’t, but it was time to pack it back up in case it was needed later for a front tire replacement.
We found a nice hotel next to a nice restaurant that had the best cheese empanadas I’ve ever had. We were all tired and just happy to be full and warm and have beds for the night.
In the morning, it was pointed out to me, by Aaron, that my new tire had been put on backwards.
I separated from the rest of the guys again and spent some more time with the mechanic while Peter, Aaron, and Joakim went about buying supplies for camping at the market.
I took the wheel off the bike the previous night and just gave it to the “mechanic” who left in a truck and came back with a new tire and tube installed. He showed me the empty box for the tube and, as it was dark, the installation received my approval.
This time, after I showed the father mechanic (his son seemed to do most of the work), he agreed with me that it was backwards and called his son over to do it right this time. To avoid any further problems, I rode with him to the other shop further in town and we turned the tire the right way.
I was feeling pretty confident with tire changing at this point.
I then met back up with the guys. They were still wandering around gathering groceries.
The road from here got a lot nicer and the scenery continued to get grander. To make everything even better, it was actually warm during the day. We went through canyons and the road weaved enjoyably around streams.
I place this day of riding right up with Utah as some of the best of the whole trip. I had a whole day without a flat tire, which inspired reasonable confidence in the new tire and tube.
From the start of riding with the Norwegians, when we decided to ride south through Argentina instead of Chile, I kept saying, “Just think of it; we’ll be in wine country soon.” This was met with mixed responses, as sometimes, like at Laguna Miscanti, it was almost taunting. At other times, it was somewhat encouraging. This was the first day that we really felt like we might be reaching the comfortable climate we wanted so badly.
We reasoned that we had about an hour and a half before sunset, so as we rode through a very large canyon with a river running alongside the road, we started looking for camping spots. It was important to one of us that we be hidden from view.
After a couple jaunts down random canyon-made alleyways, we found a side road that went right up to the river and had tall grass cover.
We made a fire near the river and the Norwegians offered to make dinner that night, which was filling and delicious.
More enjoyable riding followed the next day. We went through a small colonial town and stopped for lunch and some coffee. Things were looking up.
Then, maybe 20 miles out from that small town, I got another flat tire. The best reasoning for this that I have is that the tube, which I didn’t actually see them take out from the package, may have been old or bad or pinched or something.
It was demoralizing. Also, it happened when Aaron and I turned back to find Peter and Joakim, as Peter had a tendency to stop to take pictures. Peter has a very nice camera and even a drone. Maybe if we had gear as nice as his, we’d be more inclined to stop just as frequently and capture everything we were seeing, but we didn’t, so we were more intent on making distance.
Aaron had just ridden away from the three of us. Before he did that, we all heard some hissing and wondered what kind of creature could be moving around and making that noise. As I sat on the bike, it slowly became apparent that it was just the air escaping that faulty tube.
Aaron got a fair distance away, stopped, thought about that noise he heard and the fact that none of us were following him, and he came back and was not surprised to see the rear wheel removed from the KLR again.
This tube change went incredibly fast. Practice was really paying off here. I had to put the used front tube that had worked so well earlier back in, but I had faith it would pull through yet again.
It was at this point that I was starting to feel extremely guilty for the number of times I made everyone stop for flat tires. The tube had already been changed or repaired three times and now there was no way of knowing how many times it would be before finding a permanent solution. Peter had a KLR650 earlier in his journey, before it took a tumble down a mountain and got scrapped. He helped a lot with the tire changing, especially at first, because I was out of practice.
Our goal for the next few days was to make miles and get to Mendoza. A friend of a friend lives there and we’d heard good things about it. It’s also the city from which we’d shoot over to Santiago, Chile from.
If we came across something interesting, though, we were all in the same mindset of stopping to check it out.
When we arrived at Cafayate, we all agreed that this was a place that we wanted to take a full day of rest at.
Cafayate is an old, colonial-looking city in northern Argentina. It was warm and we went past several vineyards on the way into the town. Beyond a standard colonial-looking city, Cafayate looked incredibly clean, like a themed area in Disneyland or something. The paint and art on the walls was immaculate and the city square followed the theme park vibe to the point I expected fake rocks to be playing music and costumed characters to be wandering around.
Several ice cream parlors and empanada restaurants made us feel right at home. Joakim and Peter went to stay at a hostel that offered camping out back. Aaron really wanted to stay somewhere a little more comfortable, so we found a hotel for a private room and an outdoor pool. The water in that pool was frigid, but it was kind of therapeutic, too.
The first night, after wandering around, getting dinner, wandering around some more, eating ice cream, meeting a dog that loved Zumba, eating more ice cream, and returning to our hotel, we made plans to meet back up in a couple hours. Those plans didn’t pan out, however, because once Aaron and I were in our beds watching TV, we were way too comfortable to even think about wandering around town any more.
The next day, Aaron, Joakim, and I went for a hike to see some waterfalls nearby while Peter worked on his videos and website. Reviews of the hike we found online claiming that much of the ‘hike’ was really more of a climb turned out to be true. But the fact that it was challenging made it a lot more fun. There were several waterfalls along the path and we jumped in a couple places and played in the water.
The water was so cold that it caused instant ice cream headache if you fully submerged. It was a hot, dry day, though, and we’d done a lot of trekking to get there, so it was nice for a while.
Aaron and I had a Skype meeting for a podcast, so we only had about three hours to spend on hiking and swimming. We turned back and arrived at our hotel just in time to get an email saying it had to be postponed.
We were back on the road the next day. Before we left Cafayate, though, I stopped at a motorcycle shop and bought new tubes.
We didn’t have any other points of interest, really. It feels wrong to just speed through huge portions of a country without stopping for attractions, though, so we decided we would check out an old, abandoned mine called La Mexicana. Other than this, just distance separated us from Mendoza.
Around here, the terrain switched from Arizona-esque canyons to Nebraska-esque plains. After being spoiled by the Northern scenery, we were less than enthusiastic about this change. The expansive nature of the region was nice for a while, but it didn’t compare to the previous days. The silver lining was that the boring, smooth, straight roads allowed us to make much better time than before.
The problem with going so fast was that we were all very cold. The temperature was definitely colder than it was up north, but it was amplified by our speed. Interestingly, the other problem was the exact opposite of this; Joakim’s motorcycle hadn’t been properly fixed after breaking his coolant reservoir, so overheating was on everyone’s minds. We were all concerned about some catastrophic engine failure that could leave Joakim without a bike.
This, of course, did not end up being the next problem. Instead, after pulling off the main highway to look at maps and make a plan for our night, that familiar hissing sound that came with a slight sinking feeling and left my rear tire flat again.
This was very frustrating.
As providence would have it, though, the house that I got this flat outside of was a little shop. There were even playful pit bull dogs that came out to greet us.
The time I spent changing the tube with Peter wasn’t so bad at first, as we had plenty of snacks and Aaron was able to ride off to look for camping for the night.
Then, when everything seemed good to go, the tube, now within the tire on the bike and ready for action, completely deflated.
I was again frustrated, as this meant that both the tube I bought up in San Antonio and the tube I bought in Cafayate were crap. I’d just taken this tube out of the package. It was definitely new. Despite this, after removal from the tire and a quick inspection, we found a small hole near the valve.
Luckily, I’d bought two rear tubes back in Cafayate. The second tube was the same brand as the first, but I was hoping it was some kind of fluke that the first one was faulty.
At this point, the people living in the house with the shop that we’d been loitering at for over an hour started to ask questions and check on us. Now they were seeing us doing all the same things over again, which was probably as confusing for them as it was annoying to us.
It was good that there were such a playful dogs there to ease tension. Whenever fingers got too cold or I just felt like walking away, I’d run around with the dog until things seemed better and then got back to work.
By the second time we believed everything was good to go, it was getting late enough that we needed to go straight to the camping Aaron found. Before we left though, we were gifted food from a barbecue that the family we’d been speaking to was having.
Then, as Aaron had seen there were barbecue pits at the camping, he asked them about where a butcher could be found and they told him directly across the street.
Aaron thought they had misunderstood him, as generally, if a response to something we ask sounds too good to be true, it is because there was a misunderstanding. But they insisted that the house across the street was, indeed, a butcher.
So Joakim and Aaron went across the street and bought some delicious $2 steaks for us.
The new tube was doing its job, so we rode off to the campsite.
This campsite ranks highest on the creepy/possibly haunted list of places we’ve stayed on our journey. At one point, I assume, it was meant to be some kind of resort camping. There were hot springs just up a pathway and down at the bottom, near a dried-up stream bed, there were cleared spaces with barbecue pits.
By the time we got there, it was already dark. Aaron admitted that, even in the daylight, it was creepy.
As Aaron started the grill up, the rest of us went about setting up the tents and finding firewood. Wandering around there at night was unpleasant. I came across a concrete building with bars on the windows and doors and hoped the bars were there to keep people out…
Down by the riverbed, with the headlamp casting shadows and strange, sloping rocks and mud looked to me a bit like a Dali melting landscape painting and, more so than any other place I can immediately recall, I constantly felt like I was being watched.
I think everyone felt something similar, because even as we separated off into the darkness to gather twigs or go pee, someone back at the camp would inevitably call out to make sure the other was still out there if they felt they’d been gone too long.
Once we were all set up for the night, we ate a feast of steak and a dish Peter and Joakim prepared with peppers, hotdogs, and whatever other vegetables they could find at the market earlier.
A line from Predator that either Aaron or I quoted revealed that neither Peter nor Joakim had every properly seen the movie. It just so happened I had it on a thumb drive with me, so we set up a laptop and speaker and had a movie with our dinner.
Something about a creature that stealthily hunts and murders people out in the wild seemed incredibly fitting for that night. And, as I got up to get something from the tent, my headlamp clearly caught the glint from eyes out in the woods.
I informed the others, who, at first, were doubtful. Eventually, they too saw eyes catching the light from their flashlights just outside our camp clearing.
We concluded that they were probably foxes. We’d seen a few already and, if they were foxes, we figured all we had to do was pack away everything at the end of the night to stop them from stealing from us.
Despite the creepiness of that night, it was one of the best camping experiences of the trip. In fact, the creepiness probably helped. Good food, good movie, and good conversation mixed with a comfortably cool breeze and a bottle of wine we were gifted by the family we’d met all mixed together for a perfect night.
In the morning, we made a quick breakfast, packed up, and went up the path to the hot springs. This too was strange, creepy, and abandoned. Five tiny one room houses with baths were scattered about an area of concrete stairs.
We took baths, which were pleasant, but not nearly as hot as we were expecting.
We got back on the bikes and headed back to the main road. The path we’d taken to get to the camping was beautiful. I didn’t get the best chance to see it properly when we arrived the night before. This is one of the reasons we decided we wanted to avoid riding at night. There doesn’t seem to be much point to riding a motorcycle across a country if you do it in the dark and have no idea what you were passing. Another reason is that it is often a bit more dangerous.
The riding day went without accidents or incidents. The most interesting thing that happened was we stopped at a gas station that didn’t have any gas and we had to wait for a refilling truck to do its thing. From then on, our pace happened to be just about the same as that truck, because we saw it at least five times as it either passed us by or us it.
We found our way to Chilecito, the city closest to the mine we wanted to explore. The road dropped us off at the main square of the town and we quickly found a restaurant with a fireplace to cozy up next to. While it wasn’t all that cold, it had started raining early on in the day and, as I mentioned, riding just amplifies the feeling of cold.
We were planning on camping somewhere nearby at first, but as we sat close to the fire and ordered large quantities of empanadas and a couple pizzas, we realized that we were all much colder than we thought. There’s something like a threshold for suffering, which applies to us but I’m not 100% sure if it’s true for everyone. If we think that things aren’t going to get better, we just don’t think about it and don’t let it alter our decisions. So, in this case, we were very cold, but expected to not be able to get properly warm, so it was a non-issue. Once we had the ability to get comfortably warm, we allowed ourselves to realize exactly how cold we’d been.
But again, once we were warm, walking outside, even in the rain, wasn’t that cold at all. It’s just the state we got to riding in moderately cold rain for eight hours.
By the time we’d eaten our fill of warm food (we even had leftover empanadas) and were mostly dry and completely warmed, we didn’t want to leave the restaurant. Aaron, only half-jokingly, asked what time they closed and if we could just sleep right there. I don’t think they took him seriously.
It was dark by the time we left the restaurant. We decided to go find a hotel somewhere nearby, then buy supplies at a supermarket, and then go to bed early so that we could get started at La Mejicana the next morning.
We were able to negotiate a slightly nicer than expected price for our hotel, which was an extra building next to a guy’s house. He was confused as to how I was Aaron’s brother and not Joakim, as both of them looked very much like Vikings, and I looked almost not at all like one.
After going to the supermarket, we made an attempt at finding WiFi. It’s fairly normal for towns in Argentina to provide free WiFi at their squares. The problem is that it doesn’t always work very well… or at all. This was the case that night in this town. There didn’t seem to be any restaurants or establishments offering it, either. So it was a night without internet, which is only sad because when we pay for a bed, we always hope it comes with internet.
We made a decent breakfast in the morning and headed off to the mine. There’s a little booth you need to check in at before riding off the asphalt and heading up. The ride starts with a path going alongside a creek. Eventually, you cross back and forth, which is fun. Then the dirt road leads upwards. The climb in altitude was nice, but we realized on one particular incline that we had chosen the wrong time of day to ascend.
The clay there freezes during the night and, just when the sun starts to warm it up/right when we were there, it gets to be very slick. Tires spun, motorcycles tipped over, and we eventually took the position of having one person make the attempt while the rest of us waited and prepared to run in and help if needed. If we’d arrived there slightly later, it would have been dry and fine. If we’d arrived earlier, it would have been frozen and also rideable. But we were stuck for a while.
Joakim got halfway through the rough area when we realized he had a flat tire. There’s a part of me that was thankful that someone else got a flat tire, as the current score was 0-0-0-5 with me far out in the lead. A couple of us were at the top of the hill, so there was some running up and down to get tools to help.
I remember Peter asked Joakim if he was hitting a lot of the big rocks on the way up and he responded, “Yes, of course.” There were stretches of the road that were almost entirely “big rocks”.
It was midday by the time we were making progress up to the mine again. This was one of the best days of riding we had in the whole trip. For a lot of the ride, we were in a beautiful canyon, surrounded by mountains, and making water crossings every few meters. The water crossings, which were a whole lot of fun at first, become progressively difficult and my boots were soaked before long. I’m not sure exactly how many water crossing there were on that ride, but I would guess between thirty and forty… maybe more?
We reached some areas that were particularly steep, rocky, and difficult. Riding took a lot of energy and we got to one stretch where we looked up and couldn’t really see where the trail was going, but there was water and ice and there were lots of very large rocks where we could see.
We took a vote and decided it was smartest to just turn around and not go all the way to the mine. We still had thousands of miles to ride to get to our destination and we couldn’t afford to hurt the motorcycles on a joy ride. At the same time, though, we wanted to continue, because what’s the point of having dirt bikes in this part of the world if you aren’t going to explore these kinds of places.
We talked it through again and decided that we would attempt to get past this part and if we ran into another similar place, that would be the sign to turn back.
We worked together and got all the bikes through and there weren’t any other areas quite as bad as that, so we made it to the mine.
We wanted to reach the mine, turn back, and make as many miles towards Mendoza as possible, but getting to the mine took twice as long as we were hoping.
We debated camping at the mine, but the altitude made it uncomfortably cold and there wasn’t anything to make a fire with. So we figured we’d ride down as far as we could before it got dark.
We stopped a few times on the way down to see if we could find the best possible camping spot. We found a perfect little shack on the edge of a canyon that would have been perfect, but it was all locked up, so we kept moving.
There was a cabin with a man we had briefly met earlier in the day just around the corner. While Peter and Joakim started setting up camp and I started looking for firewood, Aaron walked down to the cabin to check to make sure we were okay to stay there for the night.
When he got back, he said that the man was fine with us. Aaron wanted to keep riding into the dark to get back to Chilecito to stay at a hotel, though. I didn’t want to spend money on a hotel and thought that we had all already agreed on camping, which is why we went shopping for food the previous night. I also, given some of the terrain we traveled over that day, didn’t want to keep going in the dark. Aaron, after giving me the tent to set up, told me that he would just ride back on his own.
So we separated that night and I stayed with Peter and Joakim. We cooked dinner and tried our best to dry ourselves after the ridiculous amount of water crossings we encountered on the way down.
There was no way for me to know if Aaron had made it back to the town, but we had set up a meeting time and place for the next morning.
The night was chill and uneventful. The tent felt a lot more spacious that night.
We woke up fairly early the next morning, packed up, and left. The ground was still cold enough to not be too slick, so the going was pretty easy. It took about an hour and a half to get back to the town. We made it to the meetup spot at the right time, but Aaron wasn’t there, which was a bit worrying.
He was only about 10 minutes late, though, so the worrying didn’t last too long. He found a place with WiFi the previous night, so he was able to take care of all the usual “checking in” stuff that’s good to do once in a while.
Our next plan was to ride from Chilecito to Mendoza, which is about 350 miles. This is a reasonable distance for a full day of riding, but we didn’t make the earliest start we could have. There’s another city called San Juan that’s between those two other cities and it’s about one hundred miles short of Mendoza. I suspected we might only make it that far.
The day of riding was mostly unremarkable. The beautiful mountains from the north had been replaced with long stretches of flat land and a stiff wind that was greatly amplified when we got up to speed. We all agreed that our necks were starting to hurt from the nonstop leaning against the wind out on the highway.
About 30 miles out from San Juan, Joakim stopped to tell us that his motorcycle was now overheating. A short debate was then started as to whether or not he should immediately add coolant or just ride the rest of the way to San Juan. We had a little less than an hour of daylight left, which added to us wanting to just get to a stoppable destination. Aaron’s vote was to take the time right there on the side of the road to add the fluid. Peter weighed in and I admitted I wasn’t the person to ask and it was decided that, as long as he was riding fast enough, the air passing by should cool the engine enough to not need coolant.
We arrived at a San Juan gas station and looked at some maps to figure out what we should do. Aaron had an internet connection just the previous night, whereas Peter, Joakim, and I had not had internet for three days or longer. Partially because Aaron had this internet recently, he wanted to camp instead of staying at a hotel. So we had to work that out.
Aaron was getting to a point of really wanting new tires, so it was still important for him to ride into the city to see what was available. It was properly dark by the time we were at the motorcycle shops. While we were shopping for tires, Peter and Joakim were riding to hostels nearby looking for comfortable and cheap places.
The motorcycle shop turned out to be an awful experience. To start with, and this is a fault for Argentina in general and not just that shop, all motorcycle related stuff was insanely expensive. For decent Dunlop tires, the price was about $600. It was more than twice as expensive as expected. Also, they didn’t really have many options.
Then, after being shocked at the price of tires, Aaron saw some gloves that looked perfect for what he wanted that were priced at about $6. He brought them to the front desk and was told that they were $30. He said that they were marked $6. The woman asked why he said that and he showed her that they was, indeed, a tag bearing a $6 sticker hanging from them. This, he was then told, was the old price. The new price was $30. She was surprised when he didn’t buy them.
So, out of principle, we were not going to buy anything from that store and we left.
We met up with Peter and Joakim at a hostel recommended by iOverlander.
Aaron wasn’t convinced that we shouldn’t be camping that night yet, but he knew he didn’t want to share a room. A hotel or hostel with private rooms was the compromise we eventually go to. So we went on a long ride through San Juan stopping at hotels. We found a gas station that had WiFi and used it to find more hotels to visit. We also got a couple sandwiches there for dinner.
Eventually, around 11:00, we rolled up to a small house that was labeled Destino San Juan Hostel. We didn’t have any information about this place before arriving. It was my turn to go in and see what was what, so in I went. After a brief conversation with the owners, I came out to Aaron and told him it was warm, clean, comfortable, and most importantly, had a locking gate for the motorcycles. The price was very reasonable, too.
I’m very glad the place was legitimately nice, because it was getting to be the kind of late that will make you settle for a place that is awful just to lie down for a while.
Even though it was already late, we were expecting to leave the next morning for Mendoza, so we started working on the motorcycles in the gated driveway. It didn’t take long for the owner, Mariano, to notice. He came out and was very supportive and helpful.
He held a flashlight for me, as I needed to do some work on the shifter that had taken a bit of a knock while riding at La Mejicana. The fall had pushed the shifter up to the engine so I couldn’t shift for the last half of the ride. I rode it in second until Aaron bent it out a little bit so it had clearance.
The clutch lever was something I was worried about, because I’d broken the shaft back in Amazonian Peru and had to get a mechanic to weld it back together.
Aaron had some work to do, too, which involved with the aftermarket exhaust that had been causing problems from the start of the trip. Mariano went out and got power tools to help with the project. He has his own motorcycle and he was happy to help us out.
I finished my project long before Aaron did. I think it was almost 1am by the time Aaron had showered and was ready for bed.
The next morning, Aaron and I were treated to the best hostel breakfast of the trip. We were told later that it was a special treat. We packed, thanked them, and went off to the gas station where we’d arranged to meet up with Peter and Joakim. This was the same gas station Aaron and I had stopped at to use internet at the previous night.
There was a mix up and they went to the wrong place. Eventually, Peter showed up and told us that Joakim’s bike wasn’t starting. Joakim had spent the previous night like we did, working on his motorcycle, only he was doing it in the common room of a hostel.
Joakim had to get pushed from where they had stopped to the station we were at. We guessed that he didn’t put things back together properly, but the obvious things didn’t make it work. Several people offered to help and, as far as places to be broken down and working on something, that petrol station was alright. One man that was helping, after we agreed that we couldn’t fix the problem ourselves, offered to lead us over to his mechanic. The man was very nice and very honest about the abilities and prices of the mechanic, so we trusted him.
The mechanic said that, best case scenario, he’d be able to fix whatever was wrong within 24 hours. The problem, most definitely, was not just something done wrong the night before, but a result of overheating when riding into San Juan without coolant. Maybe it would just need new seals…
So we told Peter and Joakim about the hostel we found. They agreed to move to Destino and Aaron and I decided it wouldn’t be so bad to spend two nights there.
They were surprised and happy to have us back and we were happy to have a comfortable night in a familiar place.
Joakim was feeling a bit depressed. He was only planning on riding as far as Santiago, which was just a couple hundreds miles away. He was thinking through worst case scenarios, which involved selling the bike for scraps and taking a bus to Santiago.
As a way of not thinking so much about that, we tried having a ‘non-traveling’ night. We went to the mall, ate McDonald’s, and saw the new Pirates of the Caribbean in 3D. Afterwards, we had the taxi driver stop at a corner market to buy snacks and drinks and went back to the hostel to hang out with Mariano.
Aaron and I were realizing that our trajectory had splitting with Peter and Joakim fairly soon. Our timeline was a bit shorter than Peter’s and, even if everything went well with the mechanic, there was the issue of selling Joakim’s bike in Santiago, which would probably take at least a week.
We waited to get word from Joakim’s bike from the mechanic. If he was good to go, we planned to ride the rest of the way to Santiago together. If it was bad, we were going to ride on to Mendoza and stay in contact in hopes that they could catch up.
The news was bad. The engine experienced some warping during the overheating and new gaskets weren’t going to fix that.
We said goodbye, expecting to meet up in Mendoza the next day or Santiago later if things couldn’t be fixed easily.
The ride to Mendoza was an easy one, but we left San Juan late. Because of this, we left with warmth and daylight, but we finished the ride in the dark. For some reason, I didn’t anticipate it getting cold when the sun went down, so I didn’t wear gloves. I didn’t want to stop, so my hands didn’t really work properly for a while. Still, no matter how many times we ride, there’s always something invigorating about watching the sunset.
We stopped at a gas station for internet, marked a few hotels to check out, and I made contact with the friend of a friend that lives in Mendoza.
San Juan is just one of a long list of cities that we spent hours wandering around for a hotel. Aaron was not interested in doing the same thing here. He basically said that we would only check three places out. Even at that, he was already becoming grumpy about the process after we stopped at the first place, which we found through the internet and was not opening its doors. We are not sure why. Locals walking by told us it was open. They even knocked and tried to get us in. But it wasn’t happening. We had difficulty finding another place, but locals pointed us in the right direction and we had a discussion with the man attending the desk about options for hotels and hostels with parking for motorcycles. He made some phone calls and came back more or less without much help for us.
An interesting thing happened while wandering through Mendoza: We’d start conversation with people in Spanish hoping to get help and they would respond in English almost every time.
We then went to a place called The Dakar Hotel. We were disappointed to find out this was not a motorcycle themed hotel. It was a spa, though, so we figured if we couldn’t find anything else, it’d be a splurge night.
We’d now used up the amount of choices Aaron was willing to travel to that night. I pushed a bit further and found three places within two block of us. I walked around and found two of them to be closed. The third required a quick drive. We parked on the sidewalk and I walked around looking for it. This hostel had a private room, continental breakfast, and a gated area for the motorcycles. It was also very affordable. So it fit all my requirements and it was right there, so Aaron was happy too.
Once we’d settled in to the hostel, I got ready to go meet up with the friend of a friend, Anita, who was going out that night for a birthday party. Aaron hid under his blanket and said that he was not going to leave, so I left him to sleep.
Mendoza is a cool city. It’s a city with a population of over 100,000 and the greater metropolitan area’s got over 1 million. It’s in the foothills of the Andes and is a center for olive oil and wine.
That night, I got to see a little bit of the city center and was introduced to more people than I can remember.
The next day, we visited the oldest vineyard in the city and ate at the steakhouse there. It was very good.
Then we met up with Anita and visited an Argentinian brewpub. It was a very relaxed day.
The next day we left the city and headed to the border.
There’s a particularly large mountain, Aconcagua, which is within view while riding from Mendoza to the Chilean border. It is noteworthy in that it is the tallest mountain outside the Himalayas. It’s 22,838ft tall, making it the highest point in both the Western and the Southern hemispheres.
After the plains-filled ride from up north to Mendoza, the change of scenery back to mountains was appreciated.
This border crossing is an interesting one. It’s way up in the mountains. Before too long into the ascent, snow was on the side of the road. We started seeing ski lifts on the sides of the mountains near the road and we rode by resorts. We were thankful that, even though it was winter, these resorts weren’t open yet. “Maybe we still have a chance of finishing this trip before things get really bad around her” we dreamed.
If you are driving a car, you can’t enter Chile at that crossing without chains for your tires. We were told by several people (not at the border) that we would need chains for our tires, too. We told them that motorcycle don’t work like that.
The office is in a large building that you need to drive through. Both sides, Chilean and Argentinian, are inside, so once you get through the line, you can park in the building and get all the checks and paperwork done. It took a long time, because the place was busy and Aaron and I went one a time, as to never leave our things unattended.
While standing there, there was another beautiful sunset cast over the snow-capped mountains. While this was an amazing place to watch the sun go down, it meant that we might be stranded on a dark, icy road after everything was finished at the border.
We got everything wrapped up and rode out of the border building, into Chile. A small town was right there and we debated stopping at a hotel. I had read a lot of reviews on the border and surrounding area, though, and knew that the altitude drops dramatically just past that small town. The only reason it was icy was because we were so high up and we wouldn’t be at that altitude after just a few miles.
So, in a classic move, I said we should keep going and Aaron said that he believed we should stop, but would continue if I truly believed we should. This is a strong position, as it allows a win no matter what. If things go well, Aaron agreed to keep going. If things went wrong, Aaron had the high ground to shout “I told you so,” from. In the past, I feel like I took this position more often than Aaron. On this third leg of the trip, Aaron definitely took this more.
The road down wound back and forth like a snake. We went very slowly, but, luckily, all the cars were also going very slowly, so it we weren’t causing any problems. Ski lift lines crossed overhead as we rode. We descended safely and were out of the ice.
We stopped at a gas station just after the descent and looked around for a place to set up a tent, but it was filthy there and we decided we didn’t want to camp on top of trash.
Aaron saw a place a couple miles back that looked interesting and suggested we go back and investigate. That sounded good to me, so we went back to what looked like a restaurant from outside.
We walked in and it was a big, open lodge with multiple fire places. Aaron said it reminded him of supper clubs he’d been to. We were the only ones there at first, but people started filtering in later. Before that happened, we had a chance to talk to the owner.
He was very nice and when we asked if we could camp somewhere on his property, he walked us out to an A-frame pavilion. He told us we could park under it and set up our tent there. At that point, we felt completely comfortable going back in and ordering nice big dinners, because he said we didn’t have to pay him to camp.
It was a bit cold, but totally fine camping that night.
The next morning, while packing, I accidentally ripped open a pack of ramen, so we had spicy ramen for breakfast.