Having left Chile we spent a couple of days cycling to El Bolson, the start of the Argentinian Lake District and a town famous for its hippies and travellers. Here we met up with Warrick and Bryce again, who had taken an alternative pass over to Argentina. Reunited once more, we toasted the get together with a couple of cervezas in the central park watching the oddities of the town pass by before heading off to find somewhere to camp. A day later we rolled out of El Bolson with slightly sorer heads and with the team divided once more. Bryce had been stricken down by a rogue sausage and so decided to spend another day on the toilet. Since Top Gear had only recently passed through this part of Patagonia we adopted the Top Gear rule and cycled northwards towards San Carlos de Bariloche, vowing we’d meet up with the Kiwis there. The road through the Argentinian Lake District is often described as breathtaking, a real jewel of Patagonia. However, our experience differed slightly to the guidebook blurb, although some parts were indeed beautiful, the landscape as a whole was fairly underwhelming. Perhaps it was that we now had a catalogue of places to which we were comparing the road too. However, despite the joys of having smooth tarmac beneath our knobbled tyres, it could have even been that the dreaded ripio at least embedded you in a landscape a little more than tarmac could, making you a traveller of an area rather than simply a traveller through. Although probably it was just that there were too many cars and too many hills!
Fortunately we met up with the Kiwis in Bariloche, and after a rather lengthy hunt round the town we managed to find the only bar showing the opening game of the six nations rugby. Luckily England beat Wales (the ‘Kiwi’ team) so bragging rights were in our favour. A late leave out of town meant for a spontaneous bivvy for the night a few kilometres along the lake shoreline, providing an easy sunrise after a fitful sleep.
The next couple of days were spent cycling northwards through the northern section of the Lake District, passing through a town with a full on carnival complete with a display of all the public services; police, firemen and ambulances all attempting to drown each other out with their flamboyant horns whilst the men on horseback behind them struggled to keep their steeds under control with such a noise! In San Martin de los Andes we realised this was probably the last town we’d be passing through as a complete team of six, and with very empty bellies we darted around town trying to find, in extremely broken Spanish, whether there was an all you can eat buffet. In classic style, at the last place of asking, we were finally pointed in the right direction and we sat down, still attired in our dirty cycling clothes and worked our way through the menu. Although the food was great, I left a little too full and could barely say a word for fear that everything I’d just gorged myself on may suddenly reappear…. none of us could work out whether that meant that we’d beaten the buffet or that it had beaten us.
Once more we made our way to the Chilean border, heading for the volcano region of Chile for a final week of touring with boys before they flew back home and I was left to head north alone. With time not on our side to make the ferry crossing to Puerto Foy we raced along 55km of rough ripio, legs and lungs bursting whilst the bike was taking the biggest beating of the trip. It was touch and go whether we’d make the crossing in time, as the usually relaxed Chilean border guards were insistent on checking our panniers thoroughly for any fruit or vegetables. Despite saying we had nothing to declare and a ferry to catch they saw right through us and unfortunately I lost out on what I though was a well-hidden onion and they took a few carrots and bananas from Robbie. We did however manage to smuggle in some avocados and garlic. Great success!!! We rode the last 15km in full time trial mode and arrived at the ferry just as the cars were beginning to be loaded on, with only a couple of minutes to spare.
The next day we said good-bye to Bryce since he was cycling to a nearby town where he could get a bus to Santiago in order to make his flight back to New Zealand. And so there were just the five of us. We cycled for a day and a half to reach the foothills of Volcan Villarica, up an increasingly steep rough climb through a forest of enormous monkey puzzle trees. The brown dirt road gave way to soft volcanic rock and we were forced to ignominiously push our bikes the final couple of kilometres to the top of the small pass. Our efforts were however rewarded with an incredible descent down a 4x4 track, with only Sam able to ride it all whilst we were forced to push down some of the worse sections. A camp and a campfire later we were at the foot of Volcan Quetrupillan, a 2,400m volcano which we understood would give us 360 degree views of the surrounding volcanoes and a brilliant bivvy location. Packing light we climbed up to the summit, reaching it in the late afternoon warmth and without another soul in sight. The views were beyond spectacular, Volcan Villarica with its plummeting snowline lay to our west, Volcan Lanin, a huge 3,700m dirty volcano to the east, and both north and south lay other volcanoes scattered around. We chilled out for a while, snapping a few photos but knowing the real light show was going to begin as the sun began to work its way towards the horizon. And that it did, as the setting sun cast its orange glow over the entire vista layers upon layers of smaller hills we’d not seen through the midday haze were added to our view, whilst Volcan Villarica stood silently smouldering, a feint orange glow being emitted from its crater and my first ever view of an active volcano. We went to sleep with the stars filling the sky and for the first time I began to look back over the whole trip so far, collating the memories of everything we’d seen and done over the past two months.
Sunrise was much the same story, frantically snapping photos in the best light possible and skidding down the snow-filled crater, hoping not to tear our clothes on the sharp overlying ice. We headed back down to the base of the volcano to our bikes and rode to the town of Pucon, not really knowing what to expect of the place. But being a Saturday and Valentine’s Day we thought we’d try our luck in the town. We arrived in a place a world away from where we’d awoken that morning, a lakeside beach filled with people and parasols and the entire town in full summer party atmosphere. It felt more like a Mediterranean party island than the Chilean Volcano district, and swimming in the people filled lake with Volcan Villarica looming large above the town provided a complete juxtaposition of views. Needless to say our attempts at small talk in Spanish that evening impressed nobody, and not willing to stump up the money to go into the club we went back to our tents empty handed from the night, save for Warricks sore foot, a relic of a bike race around the campground that went wrong!
Another farewell to Warrick the next day we were back as the original four. Six weeks of travelling with the Warrick and Bryce was an absolute joy and I certainly hope our paths cross again in the future. We couldn’t have been luckier to have met the two English speaking like-minded tourers in the whole of Patagonia!
So, Robbie, Sam, James and I cycled back towards Argentina where they would get a bus to Buenos Aires and their flights back home, and I’d continue heading north but alone, for the first time. I have to say that it wasn’t an easy goodbye to the boys in Junin de los Andes, everything was so easy and comfortable as we travelled as a group and to be honest I could have kept that up for the entire continent! Never a moment’s boredom as the poor chat would always surface, usually centred on lower league footballers whom I had absolute no idea about! It really has been an absolute joy to spend the first two and a half months of my trip with three close mates and as a cycled by myself up the hill northwards, with the small town nestled beneath me and the late evening light turning the hillsides a brilliant yellow, it was with one eye cast forward at the adventures that lay ahead and one eye firmly looking back at what was being left behind.