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Days 22-24:

In which Pete makes his way into the land of steak and wine, ascends the highest mountain in the Western Hemisphere, sleeps with the Incas, and encounters something uniquely American.

Day 22
Begin:
Unknown Location, Chilean Desert @ 8:00AM
End: Unknown Location, Argentina, Mendoza River Valley @ 6:00PM
Distance: approx. 392km (~245mi) in ~9 hours (~43KMH / ~26MPH average, 1hr border)

Waking up in an overlook is always a strange experience, especially when you pulled in while it was pitch black. What would I be greeted with when I exited the tent? An amazing cliff overlooking a lush valley full of windmills and beauty? Alas, no – it was simply a dip in the desert with more desert, little to inspire.

IMG_5325As I popped back onto Ruta 5, it was decision time – go all the way into Santiago to explore, or head towards the mountains and Argentina. It wasn’t exactly the toughest decision of my trip, since I hate big cities and was getting tired of the high cost of Chile, so heading to Argentina was almost a foregone conclusion. I figured I would catch the road towards the border and find a nice place to stop in a small town along the way, power up my electronics, relax, and cross the border early in the morning.

IMG_5328I got lost a few times trying to find the right road off towards the Andes when in a moment of inspiration I realized that all the signs saying “Los Andes” were actually referring to The Andes mountains, not a town called Los Andes (which I had kept looking for on my maps to no avail). Genius, I know.

Here is where the going got rough – not the road itself, but what was all around it. Trees. Beautiful, green and orange trees, sometimes even with grass around them. I didn’t realize how long it had been since I’d seen decent patches of vegetation higher than a few feet (somewhere early in Peru?), and the effect it had on me was pretty strong. Such a small thing, but so valued.

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There was a secondary effect that the trees had on me – time passed in a smudge of bliss, and before I knew it I was driving up a mountain with only a few kilometers between myself and Argentina. It wasn’t too late in the day and signs said the border was open 24 hours, so I decided to make a run for it (just writing that made me crave Taco Bell).

P1010715It was awesome to be back in the mountains, going around corners, climbing hills, actually putting effort into the trip again. Heading up one long straight, I noticed something very weird in front of me – a near vertical cliff face that shot up a few hundred meters with little strange colored things driving back and forth along it at various heights, looking for all the world like some sort of circus game where you have to shoot the little things moving back and forth along rails.

Slowly this resolved into an amazing sight, a series of perhaps two hundred foot lengths of road connected by switchbacks that went up, up, and up the mountain – something like 30 corners in a row, back and forth, back and forth. Watching trucks ascend and descend it was bizarre. Then it was my turn to ascend – second gear the entire way, slowly but without any major problems, I made it up.

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At the top the road drove a bit closer to another mountain top then the process repeated itself. Amazing. The immigration and customs checkpoint to Chile was here, but there was no exit procedure – “Just go to Argentina” they told me. After even more climbing, the road faced a massive mountain with a gaping maw, a huge tunnel bored through the middle of it to simplify transit between Santiago and Mendoza. The tunnel itself went on for quite awhile and the sound of trucks and cars passing me was both deafening and frightening. Thankfully I burst out into the sunlight and was greeted by a sign saying I was now in Argentina!

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Now the strange bureaucracy began. The first was a checkpoint where the Gendarmia Nacional (I may have spelled that wrong, it’s sort of a super-police force that is separate and more badass than the Policia Nacional) checked my documents and gave me a piece of paper with a stamp and told me to proceed around 16km to customs.

IMG_5355A swift trip through the mountains later, I pull up to what looks like a completely empty and abandoned set of buildings, but notice a sort of hangar type thing with a bit of activity inside. Entering the hangar I find it’s full of lines of cars and people, so it must be the right place! I waited in line for around half an hour, talking with people around me (mostly Chileans), moving up one car at a time until it was my turn to go through the process.

Talk to the first guy, he wants my immigration card for Chile and passport. Takes that, has me fill out an immigration card for Argentina, stamps my piece of paper, and tells me to go to the customs guys. Custom guy asks if I have any electronics, then wants to see my camera and laptop to make sure they are used. After assuring himself of this, he stamps my paper and tells me to go to the immigration guys.

The immigration guy takes my Chilean import document, stamps my passport out of Chile, and stamps my piece of paper, then gives it all to an Argentine next to him. He stamps me into Argentina, stamps my piece of paper, and escorts me into an office with another guy. Here the guy puts all my motokar information into the computer, asks me a few questions, then prints out a customs form for me and stamps my piece of paper (which now is covered in stamps) and tells me I’m all set.

At this point I think it’s 5PM and I notice his clock says 7PM – after a quick confirmation, I find out that yep, my watch has been wrong since entering Chile. Woops.

I go back out to get my moto and notice the front tire is very low. I quickly pump it up and go to leave when three guys with AR15’s (or similar knock-offs) and full on molle gear with clips and grenades and junk hanging off come running at me. Eep. No problem, it turns out they just need to see that piece of paper with all the stamps to make sure I got all the stamps (I’ve no idea how they can tell, it looks like a child’s art project).

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The sun sets as I head down the mountain, considering staying in one of these mountain lodge hotels but it seems a waste of money. I decide that once I get down the mountain a ways I’ll set up camp, and settle in for a bit of night mountain driving. Further down the mountain I encounter another Gendarmia Nacional checkpoint, this one staffed by a gorgeous pint sized woman who is obviously used to swaggering a bit to make up for it, imperiously asking for my paperwork as if she didn’t need all the guns, grenades, and huge similarly armed guy standing behind her to demand whatever she wanted from me. My smile cracked her shell and a few jokes in bad Spanish later, I left her and her big mean looking companion laughing at the crazy gringo on a motokar.

A short while later I found a flat section with a small trail on the side of the road and pulled off to find some stone ruins and a decent spot to camp. Next to the ruins was a sign saying they were Incan, which would have amused me more if it hadn’t been dark, cold, and lonely.

I slept.

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Day 23
Begin:
Unknown Location, Argentina, Mendoza River Valley @ 9:00AM
End: Mendoza, Argentina @ 3:00PM
Distance: approx. 182km (~113mi) in ~5 hours (~36KMH / ~22MPH average, 1hr breakfast)

IMG_5370I have to admit, I woke up pretty excited – I was going to take a day or two off in Mendoza, a much needed break, and it was less than 200km away! A completely relaxed day in front of me, I headed off down the beautiful Mendoza river valley.

The first town I encountered was a gorgeous little ski town that could be straight out of the mountains in the US or Canada. I found a bank to get some Argentine pesos and a wonderful little coffee shop for a snack and some playing around on the internet, but it couldn’t hold me because I was off to Mendoza!

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As the terrain flattened out I started to be greeted by immaculate vineyards and beautiful buildings all around, showpieces for the incredible wine production in this region. Ruta 7 connected to Ruta 40 and suddenly I was slamming along a massive four lane megahighway towards Mendoza. As I approached the outskirts of the city, I saw something off to the left that blew the lid off my mind.

Could it be? I looked closer, nearly driving off the road, and confirmed it was real: I was looking at a WALMART! Yes, I have been to Walmarts in many different countries, but in spite of it all it is something that is uniquely, powerfully American to me. Seeing a Walmart here, completely unexpected, opened up floodgates of homesickness and I knew I had to go there. An incredible taste of home.

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I pulled off and found the closest hotel, a pretty little four star joint that was a bit pricey but cheap compared to an equivalent place in Chile or the US. Done, and done. I threw all my gear into my room and jumped onto my moto to head over to Walmart!

It was like coming home… just like in Chile, there is a massive gene pool of Caucasians here, and between that and everything looking just like any other Walmart I could almost convince myself I was in any Walmart anywhere in the US. I just had to slightly tune out all the Spanish, but I’m becoming so used to it that it almost didn’t take away from the effect.

I wandered the aisles for two hours, ending up buying nearly $200 in random gear (such as a camp stove and pot) and food (lots of pasta), equipping myself better for camping since I have tons of room for junk. It was beautiful.

I went back to the hotel, holed up in my room, opened a bottle of wine, and relaxed. Truly unwound for the first time in weeks. God, I can’t wait to be home.

Day 24
Begin:
Mendoza, Argentina
End: Mendoza, Argentina
Distance: Day of Rest

I woke up and decided that I didn’t feel like leaving. I wanted to spend a day doing mostly nothing, so I did. I spent the entire morning catching up on my blog and editing video, then wandered out to a mall to look around for awhile.

In the mall, I ate at McDonald’s for the same reason I went shopping at Walmart. Sometimes something as simple as an Angus burger, regardless of how good or bad it is, can help you deal with being alone on a foreign continent for months. It truly is a taste of home.

In the afternoon I decided to go back to Walmart to get some wiring bits to hook up some electronics (all the local stores were closed on Sunday) and noticed my front tire was flat. Inspection revealed a very sharp rock had embedded itself into the tire and punctured the tube, so I decided to change that up (saving my patches for later). Then, off to Walmart for more junk.

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The evening flew by with me slowly cobbling together a bunch of fuses and wiring to allow me to charge my phone (and maybe, maybe, my laptop if my inverter works) on the go, something I should have done ages ago but didn’t get around to. I’m pretty excited knowing I can keep everything topped up now.

Afterwards, a simple dinner, plenty of cognac, and a movie or two… then sleep again. It’s time to get back on the road.

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