5000km by bus and rental car – now back to the bike

Overlooking Copiapo, a mining town in Northern Chile

After the bike frame failure in mid February near Esquel / Bariloche, the spontaneous 1 week trip back home to Florida, then the successful Aconcagua expedition from Mendoza followed by the trip to Ojos (unsuccessful attempt) from Copiapo I have now been off the bike for more than a month!

I start writing these lines after having just boarded the second bus of a 3-leg, 2000+ km bus route from Copiapo, Chile, via Santiago and Mendoza to Bariloche, Argentina. I want to get back to my bike and resume the ride North!

The first leg is a 10h ride from Copiapo down to Santiago. We leave Copiapo at 9:50pm in the evening and the drive is fine. (On the way up we had to switch buses in the middle of the night as our bus engine quit.) Except, this time, my seat neighbor: You always hope for some nice person to sit next to you – or the space to be empty perhaps – but this time my seat neighbor is an overweight, old Chilean man, who smells like smoke after every rest break, “overflows” over the arm rest into my seat and snores like crazy. I have to wake him so many times due to his relentless snoring that I am getting concerned he might get irritated and lash out at me. So no good luck there. What’s with my karma?

We arrive in Santiago around 8am. There I’m at this huge bus terminal with 60+ gates on each of multiple levels, with the big backpack, the big yellow duffel and my daypack. Where do I get to the next bus to Mendoza? I ask a shuttle bus driver and this time luck is on my side: I can purchase a ticket nearby and then drive with this very shuttle bus driver to the other bus terminal, some 10min drive from here. There are no lines so I obtain my ticket fairly quickly, and a few min later I’m on the shuttle to the other terminal. There I’m dropped off right next to the bus leaving for Mendoza. Just enough time, 15min or so, to go to the bathroom, freshen up a bit, buy some water for the next leg and get on the bus. At 8:50am we’re off heading for Argentina.

This bus is only half full, so there is enough space with typically empty seats next to you. The road goes up into the Andes, heading towards the Bermejo Pass, which I have by now seen several times, at least on the Argentinean side. There are a lot of trucks driving over this pass, and many of them are more crawling than driving. So we always drive short sections in between backups behind very slow trucks. I have never seen so many trucks passing one another as uphill on this pass. You just hope there won’t be another truck coming back down when you’re the fourth in a convoy of trucks and buses passing a particularly slow truck uphill…

Coming up the Chilean side of the Bermejo Pass, near ski area of Portillo

Near the top of the pass on the Chilean side is the ski area Portillo. This looks a lot like Lac de Tignes in France: A few large hotel buildings and several ski lifts in the middle of nowhere. I believe the Austrian ski teams practice here in the Northern summer (Southern winter)… Anyway, the road is undergoing some road construction up here on the Chilean side, which makes for slow going through gravel one-lane sections. Eventually, though, we reach the tunnel at the top around 3200m. On the other side we pop out in Argentina and then get a short view of Aconcagua near the Puente del Inca. Nearby we also have to pass through customs and the border inspection.
An hour later every bag and person is checked and we continue, except we need to wait a bit for some cyclist race to pass us going uphill.

Green poplar trees en route between Santiago and Mendoza

One of the particularly nice aspects of today’s drive is that there is again green color: Trees (in particular poplars), little rivers, vineyards. Green feels so good after the brown and grey of the Atacama desert. From grey to green…

I have now been driving this road between 2 (Chile) and 4 (Argentina) times by bus. Still fascinating scenery and always sunny and clear weather. We pull into Mendoza around 4pm. It’s bus terminal I also know quite well by now, as well as navigating in and out of town and its central Plaza de Independencia.

Next up Mendoza: I arrive at 4pm and the bus to Bariloche leaves around 9pm. That’s great, 5h is enough time to get downtown, pick up my bike duffel, repack all bags, leave the mountain gear (backpack and duffel) behind and get back to the bus terminal. At the hotel there is a Harley Davidson motorcycle festival or meeting – it is a zoo. The road is nearly inpassable, so many Harleys on road and sidewalk. And the crazy sound, just like back home in Florida. (Why so many people shell out so much money for such a bad motorcycle is beyond me – I’d stick with one of the “Ultimate Driving Machines” (BMW) – but it’s like a cult, making primarily old folks feel younger and good about themselves!)

Harley Davidson meeting in center of Mendoza right outside of Hotel Argentino

Over a cup of coffee I use their wireless Internet, repack my bags, and deposit my mountain gear. This distribution of my gear is becoming an almost routine part of my logistics. After 3h I’m headed back to the bus terminal. Everything works well, just one more long night on the bus – this time with plenty of space and a fully reclining seat (Cama Ejecutivo).

And one more little adventure the next morning: The bus pulls in to a terminal (in Cipoletti) and the bus assistant announces a brief stop. I put on my shoes, get out and go to the restroom to pee, blow my nose and wash my face. With a fresh face I come back – and the bus is gone! Darn – I can’t believe it, as I was just away for 5 mins! Yup, you better believe it, that bus is gone, continuing on its way to Bariloche without me – what do I do now? At least I had the prescience to grab my daypack – just a habit due to the passport and other valuables in it – but my yellow duffle is on the bus, and the next bus would get me to Bariloche at least 4h later.
I talk to someone at the Andesmar counter who makes a cell phone call and suggests for me to take a cab down the road, where the bus is supposedly waiting. So we take off with a cab. He drives like a maniac to a place on the other side of town, where the bus is supposed to wait. There are a few other buses, but we don’t see an Andesmar bus! We don’t have a phone number to call the lady back and double-check. Shucks! So now we race back to the terminal, valuable time going by. I already see myself losing hours, how stupid! Back at the counter the lady assures us of the specific location and that the bus will be there!? So we drive back – feels like helpless (and costly) thrashing. We race back and get to the same location. A hundred meter further down some folks are waving at us – there are Andesmar buses. I get directed to a bus that says Bariloche on it; however, it’s not the same bus (instead one with lesser quality seats). So I don’t have my bottle of water anymore and now have cheap seats for the remaining 6h drive, great! But at least I’m on a bus again. And low and behold, to my pleasant surprise, they pull into another, much bigger terminal just 5km down the road (in Neuquen) – and there is my original bus, waiting for me. I get on and we’re taking off – whew, I’m not getting off this bus anymore until Bariloche…

Staying on the Xtra Clase luxus bus for good

So finally here I am in Bariloche, in the same hostel I limped in with my broken bike some 5 weeks ago. Later this afternoon I will pick up the fixed bike from the shop and – hopefully – tomorrow I can resume the ride North.

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