Mar. 17 – Curico to Temuco

2009 April 7
tags: ,
by joe

Slept in, then had the nice hostel breakfast.  Rode two-up to the motorcycle shop and Levi’s machine was all ready to go.  We settled up with Chalaco-Lopez, and rode back to the hostel to load up.  We gassed up and had a very easy out of town.  Back onto the excellent Chilean freeway.

Great to be back on the road!  We stopped for lunch at a roadside restaurant, and spent too much on a couple of HUGE steaks.  We are so excited about making time going south again, that we run completely out of gas near Las Angeles, and have to split the gas can and barely make it to a station before we have to park and hitch-hike!  Our closest call yet on running out of gas.

At the station, Levi notices that his rear wheel adjustment is not correct, and some of the adjuster nuts are almost off.  So we do a chain and wheel adjustment on both bikes.  After that delay we ride a few more miles, and then stop at Temuco, short of where we had hoped to get.  We are driving around, checking out all the cheap-looking hostels,  when a woman drives up while Levi is waiting for me outside one dumpy place, and tells him that she rents out rooms in her back yard, and has an opening, if we want to check it out.  So we follow her home, and decide that her place is a good deal.  She mostly rents to students, and each tiny room has a set of bunk beds and includes kitchen privileges.  It is cheap and clean, so we stay there.   We do sandwiches for dinner, and then get invited into our landlady’s house for wine and conversation.  We hear lots of stories about life and politics in Chile.

Mar. 16 – Another day in Curico

2009 April 7
tags: ,
by joe

A nice breakfast, with eggs, is included in our hostel room.  The hostel owner is a nice woman, who talks to us about the situation we are in, and then calls a friend who she says may be able to help us.  When he shows up at the hostel, it turns out that he is a motorcycle mechanic at a local dealership, and he tells us he can probably fix the problem if we bring the bike to his shop.

We check by phone with the place in Santiago, and they tell us 10-15 days!  At this point we decide to go to the mechanic’s shop and see what he has in mind.  With the work we did before, the bike is drivable, so we ride it over to Chalaco-Lopez Motos, and they remove the rear wheel, and check out the damage.

They send us to a store a few blocks away, that sells bearings, and, as if a miracle, they actually have the three new rear-wheel bearings in stock right there!  We buy the new bearings for $20, and walk back to the shop.  With some hammering and wrenching, the mechanic manages to install the new bearings in the damaged housing, and assures us the at we are good to go.  Total labor cost – $10!  I ask them to install my new chain, that I bought in Belize but never installed, and when he removes my rear wheel, he says that my bearings are going and should be replaced as well.  Of course, I go shopping and return with three new roller bearings, and get them done, too.  So, for a total of $60 USD, both bikes are ready for the road ahead.  upon re-assembly, we discover that the rear brake pads that we had just installed on Levi’s bike, have been destroyed when the wheel bearings went.  The mechanic can get the pads re-lined, but it will take until tomorrow to get that done, so we leave Levi’s bike at the shop.

We walk to the ‘mall’ and are amazed by the array of fancy, expensive shops and English signs.  Looks like Panama City again!  We find a fancy grocery, and buy bread, cheese, sausage, and wine for dinner.  We get some cigars, too.  We take our goodies back to the hostel, and celebrate our good fortune.  Hurray for Curico, we say.  And thanks to the hostel lady, and Mr. Lopez.

Mar. 15 – A day in Curico

2009 April 7
tags: ,
by joe

The fancy hotel had a fancy breakfast buffet, with eggs and stuff, and that was nice.  Feeling better today, after much pain yesterday.  We get a telephone book, and make calls looking for parts.  Levi talks to two places in Santiago, and only one sounds like a possibility, telling us we have to wait till Monday to talk to a person who can help us.  We chat online with Bike Bandit in the US, and they tell us 7 to 10 working days to get parts to us where we are!  That would cost us about $250 USD, with shipping,  if we went that route.  We are depressed!

We search around, and look for a cheaper place to stay.  We check a dozen places, and finally find the Hotel Prat on PeñaSt.  Hostel like place, but we get a decent room with a bath and kitchen facilities.  Much cheaper.  Finding dinner proved to be a real hassle, as all the restaurants in town seemed to be closed on Sunday. We ended up eating crap food at the bus station!  It was a noisy night at the busyhostel, with lots of comings and goings.

Not our best day…

Mar. 14 – Santiago to Curico

2009 April 3
tags: ,
by joe

We wake and have another generous breakfast at the apart-hotel, load up, and head out. The way out of town takes us down a street named ’10th of July’, and it is a solid row of auto and motorcycle related businesses and shops. Just amazing to see. Men stand in the street in front of there business, and wave at you, or signal with automobile side-view mirrors, to try to get you to stop and patronize their shops. It is a madhouse of traffic and congestion, as cars stop and pull over, and mechanics do brake jobs or tire work in the street!

We pass a place that advertises motorcycle oil changes, and we stop there and get both bikes serviced. We then stop and find a parts store where I can buy a new chain for my bike, as the one I had installed in Belize is already stretching badly, after only 8,000 miles.

When we finally get out of town, we are back on super-highway, and making great time for the first 100 miles. We stop for a coke at a gas station, and decide to do a chain adjustment and lubrication on both bikes. This is when we make a terrible discovery – Levi’s rear sprocket has come out of the rear wheel hub, and has moved over so that the sprocket bolts have worn a channel part way through the left side of the aluminum swingarm! It looks REALLY BAD! We are both shocked, and are not certain that it is safe to move the bike further at all. There is nothing we can do where we sit, and we finally decide to continue on, as slowly as possible, till the next town that has a hardware store and a place to work.

The nearest place to stop turns out to be a town called Curico. We get off the highway, and stop at a large box-store like a Home Depot. We buy some large washers to use as spacers on the axle. Levi stays in the parking lot, while I drive around the town looking for a place where we can get the bike up and remove the rear wheel. I pick a spot near a park, and return to the spot where Levi is waiting. We ride over to the park site, and use our ratchet come-a-long to hoist his bike up a telephone pole brace. It does not work all that well, but we are able to remove the rear wheel, and see what has happened. The news is not good.

Somehow, when Levi’s bike was serviced by Nosiglia Sports in Bolivia, they either over-tightened the rear axle nut, or some other way damaged the bearing in the rear sprocket carrier assembly. When we pulled the axle out, the bearing was totally destroyed… the races were just metal rings, and the balls came pouring out in a stream. The aluminum sprocket carrier casting was worn away so far that the snap-ring groove was gone completely, and the sprocket bolts had ground through a good potion of the swingarm itself. Everything left of the wheel hub was a mess. The left-hand spacer, that is supposed to keep the sprocket assembly inside the wheel hub and away from the swingarm, was completely inside the sprocket-carrier assembly. Lots of damage.

Our options were limited. We had bought the largest washers that the store had had, but it turned out that they were just a tiny bit too small to fit onto the rear axle. Just at the time we discovered that, a friendly native stopped by, with is child in a stroller, and asked if he could help. We showed him our problem, and he went home, and returned with a file that allowed us to enlarge the washers enough to get them onto the axle. This friendly guy stuck around for hours, and helped us where he could, even running around in his car looking for other parts to help us out; a real hero of a guy!

Our hope at this point was to get the bike able to be driven, short distance and slow speed only, without doing any more damage to itself. With the washers we had, we were able to re-assemble the rear axle assembly in a way that kept the sprocket carrier inside the hub, where it belonged, and away from the swingarm. It took as two hours of grunting and sweating, but we did manage to get it ride-able to that extent.

With the bike minimally drivable, we select another over-priced place to stay, a fancy hotel near centro, settle for Chinese food close by, and do internet research on what parts we think we need to get the bike repaired.  At this point, it looks like it may take lots of time, and lots of money to get Levi’s bike back on the road. This has been a tough day indeed, and we are both quite depressed.

Mar. 13 – Holed up in Santiago

2009 March 28
tags: ,
by joe

When I awoke in the morning, I walked out onto our balcony, which looked down into the hotel parking area.  I am amazed to see a man down below, working away with a bucket and rag, cleaning and polishing our filthy, muddy motorcycles!  I cannot believe my eyes!  I get Levi up, have him come out onto the balcony, and he is also amazed to see this.

We go down to the hotel basement, and are again pleasantly surprised by the nice buffet breakfast that was included in our over-priced room.  Eggs, toast,  ham , cheese , coffee and juices, all you can consume.  A real change from what we have had lately.

We have decided that we are going to stay in Santiago this day, and not leave until tomorrow.  Levi wants to see some of this large, European-like city, and I am hurting and need a day of rest.  Levi goes off on his own, taking the subway to the downtown and to some museums.  I decide to try to contact my friend Larry, who is an MD, and find out if he can advise me on what I may have done to my chest to cause me such terrible pain when I sneeze or cough.  I am uncertain if I should continue to ignore this, or seek medical help.

With the help of my friends back in Michigan, I am able to connect by phone with Larry, and he suggests that what I probably have is pleurisy as a result of the blow I received to my sternum.  It is not a condition that poses any serious threat, and he describes the treatment and advises me to be patient as it could be several weeks before the symptoms disappear.  I am much relieved by this diagnosis, and time later proves he is exactly correct.

I rest and relax much of the day, but explore the neighborhood around our apartment a bit.  Wonderful parks and plazas and shopping areas.  when Levi returns later that night, we go out for pizza and beer.  the day off has done me good, and Levi enjoyed his day in Santiago as well.

Mar. 12 – Mendosa, AR to Santiago, CI

2009 March 28
tags: ,
by joe

We have the usual breakfast at the hotel restaurant;  no earthquake today!  We collect our clean clothes (yea!), and after I re-assemble my bike, we load up and find our way out of Mendoza.  Back to desert for a while, then climb into mountains.  We stop at a beautiful lake in the mountains that looks so out of place in the desert surrounding it.  After a long, windy, steady climb into higher altitude, we approach the border, with long tunnels and steep sections along the abandoned railroad.

The Argentine/Chilean border itself occurs inside a long tunnel through the continental divide of the Andes.  After the tunnel, we stop at the combined border immigration and customs building, and, even though the system is easy to follow and not crowded, it takes over two hours for us to clear the paperwork.  I get frustrated with this border stuff!

The road into Chile and Santiago is all downhill, some of it ridiculously steep!  We pass a bunch of bicyclists climbing up the hill, and they all seem to be having a hard time of it, understandably.  As we approach the city, we hit several road toll booths, and, as we have not yet gotten any Chilean money, we are relieved to be able to pay the tolls in US dollars.  This is the first country since Central America to require tolls from motorcycles.  Too bad!  We stop outside of Santiago for gas, and have a quick burger at a McDonald’s there!

We enter the giant maze of Santiago, and are confronted by a huge city, with busy modern sections, fancy expensive commercial areas, large high-rise areas, slums and ruins, and amazing boulevards and plazas.  We search for hours for a hotel, and only get frustrated and tired.  We finally settle on an expensive ‘apart-hotel’, with two bedrooms and a kitchen.

We walk around our chosen neighborhood, and have dinner at an Uruguay restaurant that is very heavy in meat and sausage.  I am still in significant pain in my chest from the fall in Bolivia, and am glad to be off the bike.

The Gang Arrives

2009 March 26
by Levi Weintraub

We’re both currently more than two weeks behind on our writing, but I can’t help but break continuity to declare that today, March 26th, we arrived at our southern destination, Ushuaia. After well over a thousand miles of desolate Argentine grassland, the last 20 miles were incredible glacier-capped mountains and finally, incredibly, Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world. We made it.

The hostel we found gave us a bottle of whiskey to celebrate, and it’s safe to say it feels pretty damn amazing to reach our destination after around 15,000 miles. As I write this, I’m raising a toast of our free whiskey to our new friends from the road, those who’ve helped us when we were in need, our friends back home, and all out there reading. Thanks to you all for being your own part of our little trip thus far. It’s been a great run.

Argentina: Take One

2009 March 21
by Levi Weintraub

Almost there...
Almost there…

Argentina was sort of the promised land of the journey. Home to the southernmost city in the world, and our final town before the “Long Ride South” turns north, Ushuaia, but also home to real steak, Buenos Aires (the supposed New York, Prague, and Paris of South America all wrapped into one), and a culture I fully expected to be different than what we’d seen previously, but with no idea what that really means. You can imagine then what a great disappointment it was to find a border that made no more sense than some of the worse we’d passed through.

Like usual, there were two lines to go through, one for Immigration and one for Customs. Customs for us was a very long line of cars, trucks, and buses, moving incredibly slowly. We started there since after clearing Bolivia, it was the most obvious place for us, on our bikes, to be. Besides, there was nowhere else in the area between borders to park!

When it became apparant that we’d be waiting in the line of cars for a very long time, I decided to move to the Immigration line, which appeared to have 500 people waiting in it, and stretched over a long bridge. I took my radio and left my key so my Dad move both bikes when space opened up and walked to the end of the ludicrous line. I started talking to a couple of Peruvians who were in front of me in line and they speculated we’d be waiting for about 2 hours, which sounds bad until you’ve been through as many border crossings as we have on this trip. They were really friendly guys, and when I got a call on the radio from my dad, they agreed to hold my spot…

The call on the radio was frustrated, and when I got back to the bikes I found out why. Joe’s bike has had a bad habit of not staying on its side stand – it seems to be an issue with the rear shock disengaging when the bike is loaded, which brings the back of the bike down far enough that it just sips over on the high side – and it had fallen in the middle of the road. With the help of some random pedestrain, we managed to get the bike back up, and I agreed to stick around till we cleared customs. It was quite clear our bikes, which were moving, albeit slowly, would get done long long long before the line for immigration.

So I hung out with the bikes. About halfway through the vehicle line, I met an Australian guy going the opposite direction in a massive truck (think giant tour-bus sized motorhome crossed with a tank and painted a friendly shade of yellow) with 20 people living in it. We gave each other a good exchange rate and traded my Bolivianos for some USDs and Argentinian Pesos. When we finally made it to the front, we saw what was taking so long: they were actually searching the cars, something we hadn’t seen happen yet. When our time came, they didn’t even look at us, but instead had us pull around, and one of the agents said they’d check us after the cars behind us. After those cars came and went, I came back to another agent and asked why we weren’t being searched and he gave me the right answer: we had to go through Immigration before we could go through Customs. Great.

I left Joe with the bikes to go back to the line. Thankfully, my friends were still in line and told the new people behind us that I was in front of them, and I was back in business. A new gang of people had somehow materialized into my part of the line, and we kind of formed a group and talked. Among them was a tall Peruvian (apparantly not necessarily an oxymoron) who played the bongo drums in a jazz orchestra in Buenos Aires, a group of Colombian girls, and some other Peruvian guys. I think the rest of the group had been on a bus together, but regardless,we spent the time talking, with a silly amount of it being spent with the Colombians and Peruvians arguing over who’s country was better, and trying to use me as support since I’d been to both but wasn’t from either. I, meanwhile, tried to keep my fool mouth shut.

As time crawled by, the line crawled slower. After waiting for 3 hours, everyone was pretty sick of waiting. Every once in awhile the border officials would comb the line asking for Argentinian passports, and each time they’d come back with a few stray Argentinians who got to move to the front of the line. The Colombian girls, particularly frustrated by the wait, began trying to work on the guards to get through the line faster, but were having no luck, even when one came back and said she’d given one of the guards a fake phone number. Around this time when my spirits were just soaring, I got a call on the radio from my dad saying the front tire of my bike was as flat as a pancake. The fun continues!

I continued to alternate between reading my book (got a good 100 pages done!), trying to understand what the people around me were talking about, and trying to get the people around me to understand what I was talking about. It passed the time without too much time spent feeling sorry for how ridiculous the situation was. At one point the group insisted if I wanted to skip the line, I could pay off the chief to have our passports processed early. They said they’d do it but they didn’t have money. They even showed me where to find her, and strangely enough, she was talking to one of the people who’d helped save my spot in line earlier! I offered to pay her to get moved ahead but she insisted she couldn’t move “tourists” ahead. Back at my place in line, the group agreed I was just too white to cut in line…

Eventually, one of the girls came back and said she’d managed to convince one of the guards to stamp our passports ahead of schedule! Much rejoining later, the guard came by and collected just our group’s passports, including both mine and Joe’s! After we finished patting ourselves on the back we commenced waiting. And waiting. And waiting. By the time the guard came back, we were mere dozens of people from the front of the line. But we did get out ahead of the game, and for the tone of voice the guard had when he uttered his first words on returning alone (“Yankees?”) it was worth it. I said my goodbyes to the gang and caught up with my Dad at the bikes.

With hours and hours of watching the Customs officers do their dance, my Dad had figured out who we needed to talk to, and upon flagging them down, we were rather promptly taken care of. The guy was a smoker, and my Dad insisted he worked efficiently so he could finish his given task and take his next smoke break. Of course, the printer was jammed when he went to print our documents, but after that was sorted, we were back on the road, albeit with my front tire leaking air (my dad had used our compressor to reinflate it temporarily). We’d spent five and a half hours at the Bolvia-Argentina border, the worst one to date.

Our first task in Argentina was to find a can of that horrible gunk you spray into tires and pray it repairs them. We hit up several auto parts stores near the town and they all seemed to think a gas station up the road would have the stuff. So over we went, and lucked out when they had it, and it cost less than the small amount of Argentinian Pesos I’d gotten from the Australian at the border. We filled my front tire up with the horrible gunk and headed for an ATM (that’s right, the border town had an ATM!) where we got a real amount of local currency. At that point, it was already dark. I’d hoped to make it a few hundred Kilometers into Argentina for the night to the town my friend Marika was in, but the universe seemed to have different ideas, and we decided to grab dinner before we did anything else.

At the restaurant I tried to order some empanadas, but the guy claimed they didn’t have any. Instead I ended up ordering beef medallions and my Dad ordered steak with mushroom sauce. After over an hour of waiting, the guy brough us empanadas to apologize for the delay! When the meal finally did come, instead of medallions, I got three masive seasoned steaks, and my Dad got a steak that barely fit on a dinner plate. Afterwards it was pitch black out, and we had no hopes of making it to Jujuy, where Marika was. Instead I called to see if she’d be there another night, and told her our plan to be there the next day. Afterwards we hit the town looking for accomodations and found a couple hotels. At one with parking and breakfast, we managed to haggle our way down to 85 pesos from 120 and called ourselves home.

The next day we got our first taste of the included breakfast that can be found at nearly every hotel in Argentina: essentially coffee and bread, the bread being biscuits, or crescent rolls, often with jam and/or butter.The tire was losing air, but much much slower than before, and I’d be able to continue on it just filling it with air every morning or so. From the hotel, we hit the ATM again (Argentina has a horrible way of disallowing foreigners to withdrawal more than around $100 USD equivalent a day) and got directions out of town. We were nearly instantly glad we hadn’t attempted to do the drive at night, as the scenery was spectacular. The colors, the shapes, and the scale of the scenery was monumental as we drove through a valley surrounded by giant imposing mountains that seemed to tower higher above us than anything we’d seen yet on our trip. Perhaps more impressive was the road, which was a completely flawless two lane highway that had been actually labeled, unlike any road we’d seen to date! We eventually arrived in the city of Jujuy, which is actually one of the larger cities in Argentina, where Marika was expecting us.

I've never seen vertical bands on a mountain like that

I've never seen vertical bands on a mountain like that

Another difference Argentina seems to have from the rest of the places we’ve been is that people actually give directions I can understand. I asked a guy running a news stand on the street for directions to the cross street I had written down, and he proceeded to give detailed an intelligible directions. As he finished, a woman walked up, asked what I was looking for, and proceeded to say the same thing a second time while the first guy rolled his eyes at her. Either way, I followed the directions and managed to get to the intersection mentioned, and found the hotel Marika said she’d wait in. When I asked, they said she’d left an hour earlier.

I found a public telephone in the area and managed to give Marika a call. She was in the area and within minutes we’d met up. The place she’d been staying was unfriendly and didn’t have rooms, so we went in search of another hotel, eventually settling on a place with parking and breakfast just a couple blocks away. The rest of the day was spent living the Argentina version of the high life. We drank mate, hung out at coffee shops, and watched the people no the plaza go by. Dinner was a fantastic spread with good Argentine red wine served outside at one of the many restaurants on the plaza.

Glad to finally be doing some of the things I’d imagined would take up more of the trip, I convinced my Dad to stay another day, and it was another relaxed, thoroughly enjoyable day in a pretty, colonial, thoroughly Argentina city center. For dinner, we went to a deli and bought meat, cheese, olives, bread, and wine, and actually made ourselves dinner for the first time in an ungodly amount of time. In the morning, we abandoned the lazy life and said goodbye to Marika and hi to the rain.

We had directions on how to catch the best road out of town, and made good time along the truly American-seeming highway. The rain eventually quieted down as we headed to San Miguel de Tocumen, the next big town on the road. It was time for lunch, so of course there were no restaurants to be found on the way into the city. We hit the center of the place before we finally found a restaurant that was actually open, even if it was just some strange Argentinian chain with a bouncy playground in the back. We had some empanadas and I grabbed some honey-roasted peanuts from a street vendor, then backtracked to where we knew how to get back out of the city. Aside from some construction, it was a genuine four-lane divided highway like in the states.

After lunch the rain was over, and we were surrounded by deciduous forest like something out of the Midwest, only with real mountains. We had one of our very few gasoline shortage scares as we went over thirty miles on reserve before finding a station, but we didn’t have to resort to the gas can. Eventually we made it to Catamarca, the capital city of the province of the same name. Night had fallen before we made it to the busy town, and the signage towards the center of town was far from consistent, leaving us lost in semi-urban sprawl. Acting on a couple of lucky hunches, we found two hotels, one a dump, and the other twice the price. Of course, we chose the dump and were amazed to find we were only a couple blocks from the main plaza, where we grabbed dinner and people watched.

The next morning we waited for a table to become free for breakfast only to be served coffee with biscuits a dog would turn its nose up at. I managed to down three of the salty horrible things regardless to prolong the hunger pains during the day. The road continues straight and perfect, entering a vast completely desolate desert the likes of which we hadn’t seen since western Peru. To the right were the Andes. Just after leaving the last vestiges of vegetation behind, we crossed the state line into the province of Mendoza, where most of Argentina’s wine comes from. At the border was an agricultural checkpoint we were waved through, and right after the booths with guards we were funneled into a pressure sensitive machine that sprayed us both with some sort of pesticide. After a monotonous jaunt through the desert, the road skirted the edge of a massive range of small lumpy mountains, and soon after, the desert was replaced by field after field of grape vines.

Looks like cheap wine to me

Looks like cheap wine to me

The mountains retreated farther and farther away, and the grape fields extended farther and farther in every direction. We began moving through town after town filled with trucks overloaded with grapes, signs for fertilizer and Italian grape processing machines, and signs for Bodegas and brand name wines. Once again, we found ourselves on a genuine freeway, well labeled, fast moving, and in far better condition than many of the freeways in California. Once again, we’d bitten off more than we could chew, and found ourselves driving the last bit into the city of Mendoza in the dark. Far before we approached the downtown, the grape fields faded into fancy new construction, and the traffic became intense. I actually had some expectations for Mendoza proper thanks to a book Marika gave me on Argentina (or what’s left of it), and managed to get us to the main plaza, where I brought out the book again in an attempt to find a cheap place to stay.

We struck out at the hostels I was hoping to snag, and ended up going with a one-star hotel with parking just a few blocks from the town’s five plazas, arranged like the number five on a die. For the price, we got a shower with a shower curtain (believe it or not, an uncommon sight in Argentina), breakfast (sweet crescent rolls, coffee, and juice), parking, and a tiny balcony. We unloaded our stuff and I consulted the book for places to eat. We decided on a tavern a long walk away and ended up hailing a $1 cab over, past dozens of hotels and restaurants, the latter of which invariably had outdoor seating, which was equally invariably at capacity. We got to dinner around 10, which with Argentinian’s eating habits put us there during peak hours, and we did a lot of sitting around before getting our meals, which were overpriced but delicious, and I topped my overwhelming portion of meat (what’s with these people?) off with a penguin-shaped pitcher of tasty sangria. We walked home and I was too tired to hit the town.

In the morning we had the complimentary breakfast at our hotel, this one edible and consisting of sweet crescent rolls and coffee. In the middle of eating, I thought my dad was shaking the table, but soon realized we were going through a mild earthquake. It turned out to be a magnitude 4.5 centered 120 miles east of the city. In the daylight, the city was beautiful and alive. The sidewalks were grand and full of trees and tables with umbrellas, the streets lined with fancy shops, cafes and restaurants, and a staggering portion of the many many pedestrians carried cigarettes tucked between their fingers or lips. To be more European, the town would need to hire mimes. The weather was beautiful: warm with not a cloud in the sky. The plazas? Plentiful, grand, fancy, and well-kept.

It should then come as no surprise that I managed to convince my Dad to stay in Mendoza another day, so we dropped off all our clothes at our hotel’s reception and I started making some phone calls to motorcycle shops from the Yellow Pages in search of new front tires so the day wouldn’t be too relaxing. It took a few tries at the phone before I realized the first number was truly disconnected, and I wasn’t just using the thing wrong, and at the second, I got a guy who said he had tires in our (uncommon) size! The shop was on a street on the small map of downtown Mendoza I had from the book Marika gave me, so we hopped on the bikes and managed to find the place. The shop had three types of tires in our size, and we took the one he said would last the longest, which was an aggressive off-brand. We also asked about buying a tube to replace the one in my front tire which had the hole, but he warned us that the ones he had were weak, so we didn’t bother. To have the new tires installed, he pointed us to a shop around the corner…

When we arrived, there were only cars in the shop, but the people there insisted they could help us. I asked how much to have the tires installed, and they said 7 pesos each, which amounts to less than $2 USD. They used hydraulic jacks to lift our bikes up, and took off the front wheels, but the jack they used for my bike leaked, leaving me with a bike that continually wanted to fall over with no front wheel as it lowered itself. Regardless, they did an acceptable job as one guy worked and the other two watched and chain smoked, and they, indeed, charged us only 14 pesos for the entire job. During the work, my dad realized the last fall at the Argentine border had remarkably shattered the aluminum luggage rack our panniers mount to, leaving us wondering how the hell we’d made it so far without the thing practically falling off. We asked the guys at the tire shop where we could find a welder, and they were kind enough to draw us a mostly useless map to one.

After getting hopelessly off whatever magic path the basic map intended us to be on, I started asking around and everyone seemed to think I needed to look for El Aleman, or in English “The German.” We eventually asked enough people that we found the shop and the guy who came out assured us he could fix our problem… if we’d only come back at 3pm. Since this gave us a good three hours to kill, we headed back to our hotel and out to lunch across the street. I’d been dying to do some wine tasting in the area and Joe had his hands full with the welder for the afternoon, so I signed up for a tour at our hotel to be picked up at 2:30, just a bit before Joe had to head out anyways.

After lunch, I had the distinct honor of being the first person picked up by the tour bus shuttling us around, and then got to sit on my ass for an hour while they drove around Mendoza picking other people up from their hotels. There was only one other young person on the tour, some girl there with her mom, and no other gringos. As we left the city proper to stop by the first winery, the tour guide got on the intercom and began the tour… all in Spanish of course. I managed to understand a good 65-75% of what he said, talking about how Mendoza’s grape vines exist there in the desert thanks to a series of ancient aqueducts, how there are over 1000 (!) bodegas in the state, and just how ridiculous the amount of wine made in the state is. Our tour took place entirely in the town of Maipú, and when we passed the square on our way to the first bodega, I noticed they’d dyed the water in the fountain in the middle purple like wine.

At the bodega, we had to suffer through a tour of the machinery (all Italian) before we got to actually taste any wines. Having spent my fair share of time in Napa and Sonoma, there wasn’t a lot new here, except some truly massive ancient wine casks that weren’t being used anymore. When I finished another long boring Spanish speech (complete with question/answer), most of which I didn’t get, we finally got to taste some wine. The one other young person on the tour also turned out to be the only person on the tour not actually drinking wine, which somehow seemed to add to my feeling of being out of place in a group of Argentinian old folks drinking wine and speaking a lot of Spanish I couldn’t follow. At the actual tasting though, the group did begin to joke around, and being from farther away than anyone, I was the center of attention long enough to exhaust my ability to explain who I was and where I’d come from in Spanish. After two small glasses of wine (!) the tasting was over and it was on to the next place! I tried to convince the woman who’d given the tour to give me more, but she’d have none of it. What a bummer.

The next stop wasn’t a bodega at all, but an olive oil factory, which was at least mildly interesting in its foreignness. Plus I managed to sneak into an English tour. They had some ancient olive presses, and some shiney new, again Italian, machinery for processing the olives. At the end was bread slathered with olive oil and a store trying to hawk random bottled olive products and other accountrements. I caught up with some other gringos from the English tour as the people from mine wandered around the store actually buying things, then we loaded up and headed for another Bodega.

The last stop was a smaller winery, and the guide was taller than me, which despite Argentinians being taller than other South Americans, is still really uncommon. That made it less surprising when he asked me where I was from, then switched from perfect native Spanish to a super-southern drawl as he told me in English that he was from Indiana. From then on, whenever he gave volumes, temperatures, distances, or weight, he followed up the metric figure with the same in S.I., plus he joked the entire time and I managed to understand most of what he said. The tour itself was mostly the same, with a lot more technical, and interesting, mumbo jumbo thrown in. At the end we had another two paltry glasses of wine (I managed to steal a third that was poured for the girl who didn’t drink when we moved to the next room), and they were actually quite impressive. I ended up buying two at the place for a whole $6 USD a piece. I also got in a few words with our guide when the people on my tour finally left him alone and found out he’d moved to Argentina to go to college, since public school there was free and his family, some of which was from Argentina, couldn’t afford to send him there in the states. Interesting stuff.

We were done after the three stops and a whole four *cough* paltry tastes of wine. Luckily after the ride back full of more Spanish tour-guide droning, they took pity on me having been the first person on the bus and left me off first as well. My Dad was waiting back at the hotel, and had succeeded in getting his luggage rack repaired for a paltry $10 USD (though he paid more because the guy did a good job). My sunglasses had broken the day we left Bolivia as a final sendoff from our wonderful luck there, and I had hopes of replacing them in Mendoza, and with neither of us being too terribly hungry, we walked through the thoroughly upscale shopping districts, open much later than anything similar in the states, finding plenty of places selling $50 USD pairs, but nothing in the $10 range I was hoping for. We stopped for coffee, and later for dinner. On the way back we stopped at the oldest ice cream shop in the town, one recommended by the vestiges of the Argentina guide book, and enjoyed a couple of their 100 or more flavors in their 1950’s-version-of-the-future place.

It wasn’t till the next morning that our hotel would give us back our clothes dropped off the morning before (despite promising they’d be ready in the afternoon), and even then some of them were still damp. We once again had our small complimentary breakfast, loaded our bikes, and hit the road, heading briefly south before catching the road to Santiago and quickly leaving the grape-filled desert in favor of some dramatic Andean scenery.

A lake in the Argentine Andes, though the photo does no justice to how spectacularly blue the water was
A lake in the Argentine Andes, though the photo does no justice to how spectacularly blue the water was

The road stayed flawless, but climbed up and up and up in a relentless path to the continental divide, which serves as the border between Chile and Argentina. We followed the path of an old decomissioned railroad line, with much of the rail still lying around bent and bowed, complete with dozens of tunnels and bridges still standing. Our road too passed through tunnel after tunnel cut into the rocky mountainside, and eventually long concrete structures built to protect the roadway from relentless landslides and tumbling rocks. How these had been cheaper to build and maintain than the roads was a testament to the dynamic nature of these mountains. We suffered our usual bouts of road construction, but they at least had the decency to put one of the waiting points at a place with a scenic view of one of the many snow-capped mountains.

Nope, still haven't gotten used to that scenery

Nope, still haven't gotten used to that scenery

As we neared the final stretches of Argentine soil, the wind began to pick up like mad, heading mostly straight at us as we snaked our way up. In what we can only guess was meant to be protection from the wind, the ancient railroad entered an equally ancient tin structure built like a covered bridge, only instead of hopping a river and stopping, it continued unending for mile after mile after mile. Time had of course taken its toll, and great holes had been punched in it by falling rocks, pieces of metal had obviously been ripped away by the wind, and many of the supporting beams had been repaired with logs and different kinds of metal, though obviously all back when it was still being used. It was depressing to see such a monumental undertaking in such a sad state of disrepair. The loss of the American rail system, something which actually existed and served its purpose in many parts of the Americas not all that long ago is truly something to feel bad about given the wasteful system we replaced it with, even if it is the basis for our own crazy trip.

Eventually we entered a tunel that was so long it had lights and exhaust fans. Over a mile in, we realized why this was necessary. What seemed like far more than a mile in, though I was caught too much by surprise to have kept any sort of track, there were signs marking the border between Chile and Argentina, in the tunnel! After several dark and noisy miles, we emerged with dialated pupils to the harsh desert/mountain sun and made it a few short miles to the border control point. The guard was super friendly and directed us into the covered parking they had setup for vehicles crossing the border. Entering the border building, we even found they’d labeled the windows with numbers so you knew how to go through the process. Wonders never cease. Until next time!

Mar. 11 – A day in Mendoza

2009 March 20
by joe

We have a quick, complimentary breakfast in the restuarant adjacent to the hotel, during which we experience a brief and mild earthquke!.  We drop off a load of clothes with the hotel staff for laundry service, and then start calling dealers looking for front tires.  We locate a tire store that has our size, and we ride there and get them.  then we go a few blocks to a garage and get them installed for $2.00 USD each!  While we are there, I notice that a portion of my rear sub-frame is cracked in three places, and looks ready to fall apart!

We ride back to our hotel, and I strip down the bike to it’s basics.  While Levi heads out for an afternoon on a wine-tasting tour, I go to a ‘solderadero’ and get him to heliarc the cracked aluminum frame member back together.  He does an excellent job, for about $14 USD.

Mendoza is a beautiful city.  It is what I imagine Paris to be like, without any Frenchmen.  Lovely tree-lined streets and boulevards, parks and public squares, restaurants and sidewalk cafes, museums, shops, everything a tourist could want or need.  Wonderful year-around climate as well.   A truly world-class city and a great place to visit.  I had a wonderful afternoon!  This is one city I would consider returning to for visit again.

Later that evening, when Levi returns from his tour, we walk about the town searching for sunglasses to replace his broken pair, and for dinner.  We walk to a recommended ice-cream shop for a sweet treat before returning to out hotel at last.

Mar. 10 – Catamarca to Mendoza

2009 March 20
by joe

We suffer through the worst hotel breakfast yet!  Coffee and dog biscuits!  I swear, the ‘bread’ they served us was worse than any dog biscuit could be!  We head south on a great road, and travel though miles and miles of desert.    We stop for lunch, just because we are so bored with the scenery, and then continue through more, even more desolate desert!   We do a chain adjustment on both bikes, and discover more missing nuts and bolts.  Levi’s axle seems to tighten in too much, and my (new) chain seems to be stretching out badly.

 We get kind of confused near San Juan, but get on the correct road and head towards Mendoza on a modern freeway.  We pass through  vineyards and orchards, and wine-making regions that smell wonderful.  We get sprayed by some sort of chemical stuff at the state border, and continue well after dark into the huge, modern, European-style city of Mendoza, the wine capital of Argentina.  We find a very nice hotel with parking.

We take a cab to a tavern we read about for dinner.  Mendoza is a very fancy, sophisticated city, with lots of outdoor cafes and plazas and fountains.  My chest is hurting big time.