Uspallata – Santiago
Cycling through a continent as vast as South America tends to yield slow and gradual changes. However, our four-day ride up and over the Andes from Uspallata to Santiago, the capital of Chile, upset the rule book.
I loved how quiet Ruta 40 was. You could count the number of passing cars on your fingers (and toes if it was a particularly busy day). Ruta Nacional 7 (RN7), on the other hand, was seriously busy. I guess we should have been expecting it – RN7 leads to Paso Los Libertadores, the principal transit route between Chile and Argentina – but it came as a shock and was initially unsettling. We were now cycling alongside countless lorries, with Argentinian, Chilean, Uruguayan, Paraguayan and Brazilian number plates, making their way back and forth from the ports on Chile’s Pacific coast. ‘Let’s guess what these lorries are transporting’ was my game of the day, my concentration disturbed by short, sharp honks either telling us to get the f-c-u-k out of the way or offering us a rather-you-than-me show of support.
After several weeks cycling parallel to the Andes we were now actually crossing them, dwarfed by gigantic steep mountains which looked like they could give way at any moment. We even caught a glimpse of Cerro Aconcagua (6,962m), the highest mountain outside of Asia, shrouded mysteriously in cloud. We spent our first night in Penitentes, a ski ‘resort’ where it hadn’t snowed for three years according to the receptionist at Hotel Ayelan. The chair lifts had begun to rust and the ‘ski gear rental’ signs fade in shop window fronts.
But guess what didn’t change? Yes, you guessed it, nuestro gran amigo, our best friend, the wind, which changed direction without fail at 2pm on the dot. But this wasn’t the warm wind of Ruta 40. It was a freezing cold mountain wind which forced us to put on virtually every layer of clothing we had as we ascended to the village of Las Cuevas at 3,200m. We stayed at Posada del Glaciar owned by the hospitable Carlos and ate dinner in his restaurant next door. We were extremely grateful for electric heaters and the glasses of red wine he gave us on the house – “It’s your last night in Argentina” he told us as we said salud, cheers.
After 43 days in Argentina it was time to cross into our fourth country. “BIENVENIDOS A LA REPUBLICA DE CHILE” greeted us as we exited the Cristo Redentor tunnel – don’t worry the Argentinian authorities gave us a lift. On Ruta 40 we sometimes cycled 40km before reaching a bend in the road. Now, high up in the Andes, we were faced with 27 hairpin bends in 15km. This iconic road is known locally as los caracoles, the snails, as this is the speed you’re required to drive at. A good time to check that your brakes are working.
How will Chile compare to Argentina? How will it differ? I thought to myself as we continued on to the town of Los Andes and spent the night at Hotel Gloria, featuring 70s style drapery and a horrible red carpet to rival that of my sister’s first student house in Nottingham in the late 90s (I remember it well, Vics!). We were (un)fortunate enough to meet Gloria – the Chilean equivalent of Sybil Fawlty – and we chatted about a wide range of subjects from christianity to Alexis Sanchez’s life story. We’re just going to pop out for some dinner now, Gloria.
We were excited to be just a day’s cycle from Santiago. However, when we left Los Andes the following morning little did we know that the capital would be plunged into chaos by the time we arrived. It was at the top of Cuesta de Chacabuco talking to some guys from a local cycling club (Ciclo Pateos) that we first heard about the protests and riots in Santiago, ignited by a 30 CLP (3p) increase in the subway fare.
We entered Santiago via the exclusive north-western neighbourhood of Los Trapenses. The only other capital city we’d cycled into was La Paz and the difference could not have been starker.
The outskirts of the Bolivian capital were grotty: dead dogs; piles of rubbish; a polluted drainage ditch; an army of minibuses; vendors weaving in and out of the gridlocked traffic selling sweets, fruits, drinks, you name it. Los Trapenses, on the other hand, had row after row of Hampstead-esque mansions and Ibiza-styled villas with lush gardens, high walls and electric gates. There were English and American schools as well as Ferrari and Maserati showrooms.
While admiring the city from up high a couple pulled over, worried for our safety. It turned out the President of Chile, Sebastian Piñera, had just declared a state of emergency and a 7pm curfew. They asked us if we had a place to stay and if not, they said we could pitch our tent in their garden. Fortunately we did as Milla had arranged for us to stay with her friend Sebastian, who she had met 10 years ago in Ecuador on her gap yar, and his wife Coni. We continued through upmarket Vitacura and then into Providencia, the streets eerily quiet except for the occasional saucepan-banging cacerolazo protester.
We had grand plans for our time in Santiago. It was a chance for us to have some time away from the bikes, explore the city and catch up with old friends. But those plans went out the window as soon as we arrived. Santiago went into lockdown as protests, riots, looting and arson swept across the city. President Piñera announced “estamos en guerra” – we’re at war – deploying the military to the streets who, along with the carabineros police, responded heavy-handedly with tear gas, water cannons and rubber bullets. The death toll passed 20, thousands were detained and shocking videos quickly spread on social media showing police and military brutality.
On the afternoon of Friday 25th a reported 1.2 million santiaguinos flooded the streets surrounding Plaza Baquedano. The monument of General Manuel Baquedano covered with scrambling protesters, flags and graffiti. Rival football teams marching together in solidarity. Chants of “Chile despertó” – Chile woke up – reverberating everywhere. Witty and mocking placards (although I never quite understood the Britney Spears 2007 references). But poignant ones too such as “No tengo miedo de morir pero tengo miedo de jubilar” – I’m not scared of dying but I’m scared of retiring. One British journalist based in Santiago later tweeted, ‘the highest suicide rate of any age bracket in Chile is among those over the age of 80. A base pension that barely covers basic needs – with high living costs and drug prices – mean few can grow old with dignity.’
From a selfish tourist point of view it was a frustrating time to be in Santiago. Many places were closed and it was difficult to know exactly which barrios had been affected. We also had to contend with a week-long curfew. But at the same time it was a fascinating, powerful and eye-opening time to be in the city as a leaderless movement gathered momentum and demanded significant changes in Latin America’s wealthiest yet most unequal country. As our host Sebastian put it, “the increase in the subway fare was the cherry on the top of a very large cake”. Chileans up and down the country were fed up and wanted change. Now.
We spent a little longer in Santiago than planned, as it took more time to get all our necessary admin done before starting the Patagonian leg of our trip. But after almost two weeks we were ready to go, and boarded an overnight bus south to Pucon. It felt strange to leave the city and wake up in such a different environment – a land of lakes and volcanoes. It may have been a 12-hour bus journey, but this was fast for us. The abrupt change made us feel very far removed from what was happening in Santiago, but the stunning scenery of Patagonia lay ahead of us and we were ready for a new chapter.
Dates: 9 – 13 October (5 days)
Total distance: 350km
Cycling days: 4
Rest days: 0
Longest day: 94.5km
Shortest day: 21.5km