Biking Chile, Argentina and Uruguay

By Michael Agelasto

Carretera Austral, Chile


Michael Agelastos essays on a recent cycling trip to South America (Chile, Argentina and Uruguay) were previously posted on the Warm Showers List (A list of cyclists who offer free accommodation to other cyclists)


  1. Part 1: Hola from Chile
  2. Part 2: Hola from Chile -- the Lake Region
  3. Part 3: Hola from Chile -- Eat, bike, eat, bike
  4. Part 4: Hola from Chile -- The Camino Austral, to do or not to do?
  5. Part 5: Hola from Chile -- The Camino Austral
  6. Part 6: Hola from Chile -- More Carretera Austral
  7. Part 7: Into Argentina -- buen dia from Bariloche and Buenos Aires
  8. Part 8: Where is Uruguay?
  9. Part 9: More Uruguay
  10. Part 10: Biking around Cordoba
  11. Part 11: Mendoza, the best and worst libations


Part 1: Hola from Chile

March 2000

You might guess that I am in Chile. Actually, I am writing up my notes from my three-month South American cycling trip, which has just ended, on computers in North America. (I hate to disclose so early on that I survived my trip, but indeed I did). I am using the present tense to make it seem like I am still on the trip, as I word-process abstracts and thoughts from my journal. No, I am not taking a computer with me on the trip and sending you each of these e-mails as I move along. Alas, a little deception is being exposed, and it makes me feel so honest.

Why Chile? Why by bicycle? Why South America? These are fairly easy questions to answer, the last one first. The Everest answer suffices: because it's there. I have now touched all major continents (excluding Antarctica but including Australia, despite the fact so many people don't even think of Oz as a continent), and in fact I have ridden a bicycle on all of them (a statement that must be taken literally since I have not "bicycle toured" per se on Africa, but I did ride a bike for a day in Senegal). Explaining the bicycle mode is also fairly straight forward. I have been bicycle touring off and on for 25 years, and have always enjoyed myself. The burst of physical exercise, and often physical strain, makes me feel really alive. As I get older, biking at times resembles a treadmill stress test, but on the whole it is still enjoyable, and more importantly still doable. The cycle remains my favorite mode of travel. It puts me more in control, in the sense that I control my transportation, but it also makes me a somewhat humble traveler as I have little control over weather and road conditions. I plan my trips only on the macro level, not preoccupied with day-to-day conditions: micro changes are part of the adventure.

Then why Chile? I wanted adventure this trip, to be sure, but I didn't want too much adventure (read Africa). Traveling in a Spanish-speaking country, equipped as I am with the most rudimentary Spanish, seems adventure enough. Through self-study I have just completed the Living Language Basic and Advanced Spanish courses -- books and CDS -- for three hours a day for ten weeks, as well as learned a thousand vocabulary flash cards. I want the developed Spanish-speaking world. Chile fits the bill. It is one of the richer countries in SA. It is popular with backpackers. A book I bought called _Latin America by Bike_ praises its road conditions and scenery and suggests several excellent routes. The general guidebook I will use, _South American Handbook 2000_, also gives Chile a good shake. But I guess the real reason I am here is because it's summer in Chile. Hours of hours of light, plenty of warmth. You suffer with North American winter, if you like, but I'll settle for T-shirt and shorts, no flu, no runny nose.

On my first bike tour, to the UK in 1975, I learned a valuable lesson. If you don't get in shape before a trip, the first several weeks on the road will be physically miserable. Because I have chosen to visit friends in North America and travel by train, I am not really in shape to cycle as I land at Santiago's airport. So I have arranged to be placed with a family, who will provide me room and board for $22 a day, while I train on the streets of the city's suburbs. My introduction to Chile, indeed South America, is through one family's life. I have never taken this approach before; I like it. My providers are a retired couple who run a bed and breakfast, though I am the only customer except for a Chilean for a few days. My hosts are friendly and do their best to communicate (they speak no English), and I am getting a good dose of Chilean working class life. It's election time, and we discuss politics. Chile returned to democracy from military rule several years ago, and this is considered an important election. I like the way the candidates' messages are packaged for state television and all shown together. I read the local newspaper, with the help of my pocket computer translator, and I continue reviewing my vocabulary cards. Every day I find a new suburban cycling route. There are even dedicated lanes for cycles on several roads, and Chilean drivers even at rush hours are tolerant of me. Each day I try to add on a kilogram of weight to my panniers (two sets, front and back), so that after two weeks I am now ready to start my bike trip. I am hauling about 20 kilos, including tent and sleeping bag, excluding cooking equipment. I'd rather sample Chilean cuisine than my own, which I get plenty of the rest of the year.

It is really interesting to be here during election time. Both of the major candidates for president received graduate degrees in economics in the United States. There are some fringe candidates, including one from the Communist Party, but the two frontrunners are centrist, one center-right, one center-left. The candidates seem pretty similar to me. One is "socialist" in the sense that Europeans are socialist because they have such things as national health care and the state provides more services-for-taxes than does the United States. The other candidate is rightist only in the sense he is the more conservative (He studied economics at University of Chicago). By American standards he would be considered socialist, too. His political party is the one that Augusto Pinochet once headed. I glimpsed over several American news analyses of the campaign, and one candidate was labeled socialist and the other rightist, the progeny of General Pinochet, who is under house arrest in England as he fights extradition to Spain, a country which wants to try him for crimes committed during his 17-year tenure as president. I never heard a Chilean praise Pinochet, but I heard no one call him a "dictator," (an appellation used in the foreign press). Without exception no one I talked to wanted him tried in Spanish court for war crimes. Mostly, when I asked about Pinochet, "That's all in the past," I was told. "Chile looks to the future." Several people told me that the military government brought the country out of economic catastrophe, but that the generals stayed in office way too long. None of the Chilean university students I talked with had much to say about President Salvador Allende, who was killed in Pinochet's coup. Allende has streets named after him and has a place in the nation's history, is apparently neither vilified nor treated as a martyr. There are only my personal observations, from talking with a few dozen people and from keeping my eyes and ears open as to how the people down here think; I haven't done an academic study. But I sense that Chileans are indeed looking to the future. They have gotten over, indeed survived, the past. The extremes of radical socialism and military dictatorship seem to have lost whatever, even limited, appeal they might have once had. In terms of democracy, I am bullish on Chile.

Today, Sunday, I am bicycling southeast of Santiago in the direction of El Volcan. It is election day. I pass crowds of men and women (separate groups, as polling places are segregated by sex), walking somberly, on the way to or from voting. I see written on their faces the honor and the privilege of voting in a democratic state. These men and women would be fined a few dollars if they don't vote, but I sense that they really do want to vote. Chile has a long history of democracy; recently they have had a few burps along the way, but their future looks good, from my perspective. Sadly, it not this way everywhere on our planet.

Next: Chile's Lake District


Part 2: Hola from Chile -- the Lake Region

I am really not a purist when it comes to cycling. I have absolutely no problem with putting my bike on another vehicle so I do not have to bike the rather unscenic 679 km south from Santiago to a city called Temuco, the gateway to the Lake Region. I often meet cyclists who would never even consider such a breach of what they figure to be the bicycle tourist's code, usually fanatics who are going great distances, Alaska to Tierra del Fuego, for example. But I have only three months in South America (the limit imposed by my cheap $660 air ticket (Washington, DC - Santiago, return) found on the appropriately named website, <,> and I don't want to cycle through places that I know in advance will be monotonous and relatively uninteresting. That's why the bike and I are going on an overnight train to Temuco. The train is relatively (not absolutely) expensive, twice the price of the bus, but I think the $25 (a full day's budget) is worth it, if for no other reason than my sleeping car dates back to the Weimar Republic. Although built in 1929 Germany, our car has been outfitted with modern heating and toilet facilities. Much of the carpentry and fittings is original, and perhaps some of the porters, too.

I love trains. In Santiago I visited the Museo Ferroviario, which displays in a public park 13 steam engines built between 1884 and 1953 (German, British, US, Chilean, Japanese). Chile, unfortunately, is losing its rail system, as passenger and freight business moves over to trucks and planes. It's a shame. If ever a country were designed for the railroad, it is Chile, a string-bean shaped nation which is never more than a few hundred kms wide. There's no train service north of Santiago, and just last year, national rail sliced off passenger service south of Temuco, which is where I want to cycle anyway, so it doesn't affect me. I fear it is just a matter of time before the whole system is abandoned, so I am lucky there is still the night train. The bike is hung in one of the abandoned Weimar Republic washrooms; I have a good night's sleep and am in the saddle by 8 the next morning. I decide to stay in Temuco the day (there's a good museum devoted to the indigenous Mapuche), and I meet a fellow cyclist, an Australian, who has taken an uncomfortable night bus from Santiago. Part of the pleasure in traveling alone is meeting fellow travelers, especially fellow cyclists so we can compare notes. This fellow has a mountain bike and is all excited about riding down something called the Camino Austral, a dirt and rock road through Patagonia, certainly too much for my touring bike, though.

My immediate goal is to get from Temuco, at the north of the Lake District, to Puerto Montt, at the District's south, and then further south down the island of Chiloe, then return to Puerto Montt, so I can then head east into Argentina. The Lake District is the favorite resort area of many Chileans (read Satiagans, since most of the capital city's 5 million residents probably want to flee city summer heat and head to the lakes, and many do), so the area is especially geared to tourists. Plenty of campgrounds and hospedajes, or family-run bed and breakfasts. The main route through this area, and in fact the road that forms the traffic spine of Chile, is Ruta Cinco, Route Five. This is part of the Pan American Highway which, by the way, is not just a single road that goes through the Americas, top to bottom, but a series of connecting highways. The old South American joke was: if it is paved, then it must be the Pan American Highway. But now there are a lot of paved roads in this part of the world. Since I am on a narrow-tired (700x25 or 1 inch tires) touring bike, I want to avoid dirt and gravel as much as possible; I will try to stick to blacktop and concrete. At the same time, I want to avoid Ruta Cinco whenever possible because it is fun competing with four lanes of traffic, much of which is commercial, and the road avoids a lot of the good scenery.

I don't carry around a mapbook. Instead I rely on the maps provided by local tourist offices, which appear in almost every hamlet in this region. Localities are competing for the tourist peso, and there's an ongoing pamphlet and brochure war. Whenever I walk into one of these offices, the zealous staff inundate me with glossy handbills, most of which I have graciously to refuse (pantomiming in my broken Spanish that they are too peso -- heavy -- for the bike). I still end up with a plethora of maps, the current crop of which suggest I can zig-zag my way south across Ruta Cinco, without encountering too many unimproved routes.

As I cycle, I constantly encounter campaign slogans. The leading presidential candidates' names -- no one obtained 50% of the vote, so there has to be a runoff in six weeks -- appear on street signs and on the sides of buildings, despite the fact that Chile observes a 3-day cooling off period before an actual election. During this period not only was there no campaigning, but all signs were supposed to be removed. Obviously, this did not happen, except maybe in the heart of Santiago. The Lake District, at least, is still littered with campaignalia. Every few kms slogans with candidates names are painted across the blacktop roads. Even the names of candidates from congressional elections of previous years remain unfaded, having survived weather and traffic. But this is about the only intrusion I observe. There is almost no litter (bottles, cans, etc.) on the roadsides. Fewer people in Chile has translated into a much cleaner environment than, say, Japan.

This first day out, I cycle 82 kms in 4 hours to a resort called Villarrica, which has a famous volcano and lake. The day is beautiful, but as I pull into town I can only glimpse the volcano, a Mt. Fuji snow cone, as clouds immediately obscure it. For accommodation I find a backpacker's retreat, where cyclists compare notes about the Camino Austral, and a debate ensues over how possible it is to "do" this scenic trail with a bike like mine. There is consensus that such a trip is feasible, just barely.

Just about anyone who has visited Villarrica will tell you about climbing the Volcano, a trip that is easily arranged by a local agent. Everything is provided: boots, shoes with spikes, snow gear, ice pick, backpack, mask to protect against the sulphur gasses, even sunglasses. All you have to bring is lunch, sunblock and water for the 8 hour excursion, which begins with climbing up the volcano and culminates with sliding down on one's butt, ice pick to slow your momentum. I sign up for this. It will be one of the thrilling highlights of my trip. Except that it downpours all night, the volcano trip is canceled, I get a refund, and bike on to the next town. The way I bike, I don't take the luxury to wait out weather, or I might never get anywhere. So I head out in cold sprinkles. I expect rain one or two days a week. This is my first rain day.

One of the nice things about cycle touring is that it is not difficult to get off the tourist trail. Most of the backpackers I meet take busses or hitchhike from place to place, day to day. These same distances are often too great for me, and I find myself, now, in a place called Lanco, that is not even on some of my maps. Just off the highway, it's more village than town. Given the proclivity to rain at night and the fact that my 12-year old tent has lost most of its waterproofing ability, I shy away from sleeping under the stars (read rain clouds). Unfortunately, there are no signs indicating a hospedaje or hotel. I figure the best place to go, since there seems not to be a police station, is the pharmacy. People who work in pharmacies deal with the English language all the time. Although they may not speak the English language, they seem better able to understand my Spanglish than, say, folks who work in bakeries, so it is to them I direct my query about accommodation. No problema. The pharmacist knows a family who takes in lodgers; that's where I spend the night, watching with the family our favorite Chilean novella (soap opera), Aquille.

Next: Eat, bike, eat, bike


Part 3: Hola from Chile -- Eat, bike, eat, bike

Sometimes I think the only reason I bike is so that I can over indulge. I mean eat and drink excessively. Just pour it in or stuff it in, until there's no more room left. A day chocked full of fruit and nuts. Wine with every dinner. Cream sauces, no problema. Desserts and sweets, unlimited. I figure that on an average biking day (100 kilometers, 5 hours in the saddle) I probably expend in excess of 4,000 calories. That's twice the energy I release during my normally sedentary life. By this logic I can eat twice what I usually eat. Which in a nutshell is my philosophy vis a vis ingestion while I cycle tour. Let me, in passing, mention the only downsides, I mean this literally, which are two. First, my diet makes me an extraordinary producer of methanogens and the ensuing effluvia and miasmata (in basic terms, I fart a lot) and, second, since what goes in must come out, my cycling day begins with a minimum of three movements to the bano. I spare you further details.

Being in the saddle for five to eight hours offers me plenty of time to think. Some attention, of course, must be devoted to road conditions, the changing of gears, worrying about flat tires, how to avoid potholes and not getting hit by traffic. But often the bike seems to move all by itself and my mind is freed up to consider the two most important events of any day: a warm-water shower and dinner. On short days, lunch becomes important, too.

Some cyclists bring along a stove, fuel, utensils and cutlery so they can camp-cook for themselves. All this gear takes up a full pannier, and another pannier has to be earmarked for cereal, rice, etc. At home I have always cooked for myself, so I enjoy the change offered by travel. I have cooked my own meals on bike trips when I have no other choice or in countries where the local food is not especially tasty or healthy (when I biked in Australia, New Zealand, and the US), but in places where local victuals are more pleasing (or maybe just more unusual), I prefer to eat out. This was the case in Portugal and Japan, where I got spoiled by eating in restaurants. When I came to South America, I suspected the local dishes would be interesting. They haven't disappointed me yet. Still, I carry a small can of olive oil and a few condiments so I can cook up pasta and vegetables when I stay in places where I have access to kitchens (hostels or hospedajes). And I carry a few Power-Bars for emergency.

The Lake Region, because it so caters to tourists, has a healthy offering of restaurants. For me selecting the right place to eat is second in importance only to the very act of eating. On this trip I spend daily about an hour in the selection process. My first step is to consult my guidebook, South American Handbook 2000. Published by Footprint Books, which covers locations around the globe, the Handbook series is revised annually. I picked up the current edition of the South American Handbook the day I left the US for South America. I had been waiting eagerly for it to show up in bookstores; it arrived just a day or two before I needed it. I have purposely chosen Footprint over its major rivals for the backpacker market, Lonely Planet, Rough Guides and Let's Go. The latter two I like a lot, but unfortunately they do not cover all of South America in a single volume (Rough's Chile looks superb, though.). Lonely Planet is a bit too opinionated for one who is as opinionated as I. Although it has really good maps, you can always count on Lonely Planets to be in great need of revision. The Handbook, in contrast, offers more factual information, supposedly updated each year. Restaurants are described for the type of food they serve and price range, sometimes for ambience. For my own purposes, I divide eateries into several classes. There are those fast-food joints and cafes that offer snack food. I avoid these for the main meal, and don't snack at all, except on fruit and nuts. Then there are the popular, local eateries. I usually dine at places in this class, which will cost about $5 for a full meal, with wine and dessert. The often have set menus, so I am not forced to make many decisions. Then, there are the restaurants with table cloths and cloth napkins, much more expensive, but with a more extensive menu and wine and dessert selection. It is hard to find a place with a tablecloth and cloth napkin that costs under $10 for a complete meal. This is to suggest that Chile is much cheaper than the US or Europe; indeed it is. And the portions are large, almost cyclists' portions. Meals come with a cut-up baguette and crackers, which help me increase caloric intake.

Once I have figured out the dining possibilities, I take my map of the town, provided by the tourist office, and locate the restaurants. Sometimes they no longer exist or are not located where the Handbook says they are; the Handbook is wrong about 20% of the time. Then I go reconnoitering, searching for them on foot as I never bike once I've finished cycling for the day. I walk around comparing eateries, peeking in windows, glancing at the posted menu as I stroll by. Often no one is dining. After a day's cycling, I like to eat as early as possible and I am usually the first one through the door when restaurants finally open for evening business around 8 p.m.

What are the meals like? I don't know about everything on the menu because I am partial to seafood, sometimes eat chicken, and rarely order red meat. I am now having lunch in Niebla (it means 'mist' and is located near Valdivia), where I have gone to see an old fort. Unfortunately, it is Monday, the day all museos (and forts) in the country are shut. Which means all the tourist restaurants are shut, too. I find a blue-collar fisherman's dive, ask if there is almuerzo (lunch), and the owner suggests mariscos, a general term that applies to non-fish seafood. First, there is a basket of bread and some sort of soup. I do not have wine because I still have to cycle in the afternoon. Then a plate of muscles, a few dozen, come. Then, a plate of six loco (abalone), not an endangered species in Chile. Then dessert. This costs all of $4. An evening meal, the night before in Valdivia, was with table cloths. The first thing to do upon entering such a restaurant is to determine if they have small bottles of wine. Chilean wines get well-deserved worldwide recognition. For local consumption, a number of bodegas (wineries) produce vino fino (wine from a single vinifera grape variety) in small bottles of 325ml (half a regular bottle), 250ml or 150-180ml (the size they serve on airplanes). My preference is for 250 ml Cabernet Sauvignon, but often I have to settle for 325ml, which is a bit more than I want. In any case, I am careful to drink twice as much water as wine, so I will not become dehydrated as I cycle the next day. Almost every other day I have either salmon or congrio; the slab of fish almost fills the oval-shaped plate, leaving little room for rice or boiled potatoes. Salad is to the side. Because of European influence, especially German and Swiss, desserts feature a lot of chocolate and cream. Finally, I have cafe chico (expresso), and after paying the $10-15 bill, waddle back to the hospedaje, manage to extract my contact lenses, and finally plop into bed to get 3-4 hours of deep sleep. Most of my accommodation, which charges about $6 a night, does not afford me my own bathroom, so several times during the night I stumble around the hallways opening doors until one results in a toilet.

I enjoy eating and biking my way south through this area settled by many German-speaking Europeans. A bit of the feel of Bavaria, especially the cakes and pies. Down from Lanco, to Panquipulli, Valdivia, Osorno, Frutillar to Puerto Montt for Christmas eve. There are a few big lakes (that's obviously how the region got its name), yet you never actually see the lakes until you get right upon them. Biking though the hills, which undulate like ribbons, is abruptly followed by a sharp descent that lands me at lakeside and a population center. (Thus, every morning finds a big uphill out of town). The distances without a lakeview are too drawn-out for me, the cyclist, better for someone riding in a car or bus. It is hilly cycling, not too difficult, and I have two flats and a day of rain. The destinations, the tourist towns, are usually more interesting than the journeys themselves. The families I stay with provide me some insight into how people live their lives. South Americans, I think, are the most pleasant people I have every encountered. Rarely do I hear arguments. The superficial courtesy (The locals, and I mimic when seeking information, almost never ask strangers a question without a few hellos, good days, or other chit-chat) softens the culture. The people are great, but the towns themselves are too big and spread out, just barely walkable. Again, something about the scale seems off. I feel like there was a mistake made at Creation. That God didn't have in mind the cyclist or He would have shaped the area into a smaller mass, with greater lakeview.

Next: The Camino Austral, to do or not to do?


Part 4: Hola from Chile -- The Camino Austral, to do or not to do?

I slide down into Puerto Montt, at the bottom of a multi-kilometer hill, on the day before Christmas. This town is basically a port city, fishing and transportation, but its location (definitely not its intrinsic beauty) makes it a tourist center and the focus of regional activities. Since the tourist season in Chile does not begin until January (and lasts only two months), there are few Chilean tourists here right now. December is perfect weather for tourism, however, despite the fact that it is drizzling today, but Chileans traditionally do not take vacations until January. Most of the tourists seem to be European or locals. Today the town is packed with families from throughout the region who have come for last minute Christmas shopping. They fill the sidewalks along main street, and the impenetrable sea of humanity reminds me of China. The only difference is in uniformity: not everyone here has black hair.

I have had no difficulty finding accommodation so far on this trip, and there is plenty of space in the first hospedaje I check. In the past week I have seen a few cycle tourists, but I am surprised now to see two and a half touring bicycles parked in the hallway. I park my bike alongside, not bothering to lock it, as I have rarely locked it in any of my cycle trips. (Often in SA I keep the bike in the same room where I sleep). In South America at this time of year several thousand people are probably touring on the continent by cycle. They come from many countries, with Holland, Switzerland and Japan being well represented. Both these bicycles are Japanese mountain bikes and one is a tandem (which I consider a bike and a half). This behemoth on wheels must belong to the famous Japanese couple I have heard about. (A Japanese temporarily tagging along with them rides the other mountain bike.) The tandem couple are a living legend among SA cyclists, and I am excited to meet them. They are husband-wife in their early thirties on a five-year round-the-world bike trip. Talking about fellow cyclists with fellow cyclists is the touring cyclist's favorite pastime. I am sure my bike is talked about (what, it's not a mountain bike!) and I suspect I am talked about (the old man from the sixties), and indeed I meet some cyclists who have heard about me before they actually see me. The tandem pair call themselves Tomoko and Kazunari; their travels are described in great detail on their web-page, <> Tomoko studied to be a school teacher, but he and his wife wanted to travel the world, so upon graduation he found a well paying job outside of education. Once they finish their tour and return to Japan, he will be too old to get a teacher's job, although he has the necessary credentials. Japanese society is quite rigorous in design. Tomoko tells me that teachers who don't get teaching positions immediately upon graduation can never work as teachers. Maybe more than any country in the developed world, Japan lacks the flexibility to accommodate people who want to take off a few years and travel. All the Japanese I meet in SA, therefore, are marginalized in their home country. From my perspective (and in the view of these rebel Japanese), this rigidity causes a waste of human capital--the potential, creativity and talent of these young Japanese, but this is part of the larger scheme of how Japanese culture works. These Japanese severely criticize their culture to me, an outsider, but I suspect they will swallow that criticism once they return home. And, without exception, every one of the Japanese travelers I have met has told me that s/he will return home.

Once of the nicest things about traveling is meeting fellow travelers from around the world. A few days ago, I met a Frenchman, a recent university graduate, who is traveling around on a short vacation. His name is Julian. He's not exactly French. His mother is French, father Italian, he's lived long enough in Switzerland to qualify for Swiss citizenship. I meet him again in Pto. Montt. I am having lunch (tablecloths, 350ml of Cabernet Sauvignon and a dessert cart I am keeping a careful eye on), and he comes in with a Swiss compatriot he just met, asking the restaurant's owner if he can borrow some pots and pans. He and his friend want to offer a Christmas eve soup kitchen, and they are now scouring around for vegies, utensils and a kitchen. This restaurant is not going to help them (too late to take my patronage elsewhere; I have zoned in on a chocolate eclair the size of a foot-long hotdog), so they are off again on their quest. They tell me to come to the central plaza around midnight for a cup of soup.

I sleep off lunch, and spend the evening puttering around with repacking my panniers and talking with the Japanese. Not much on TV. I was distressed to learn a few days ago that my soap-opera, which had been running for several years, ended. I saw the final episode as they tied up story after story at such a harrowing pace that even the locals were trying to figure out the plot. We settle on watching midnight mass at the Vatican, which seems to be airing on half the cable stations. Later, in the drizzle I head out to the Plaza de Armas, the name that seems attached to every central square in Chile towns and cities. That's where the main church or cathedral is located, as well as the homeless and youth, probably alienated, who are not home with their families on this holiday. I find the two Swiss who are offering cups of their vegetarian soup to all comers. I think, maybe, just maybe, there's some hope for this planet.

After a rain-soaked Christmas, which I spend reading, I head from Pto. Montt south to Chiloe, a lush island with an eco system differentiated from that of the mainland. Nice, hilly cycling, with great seafood; and in three days I come upon another Japanese, this one pushing his mountain bike up a hill. He has on a backpack which, I later learn, contains fifteen kilos of gear for climbing glaciers. He is heading to the port of Quellon, to take a ferry to Chaiten on the mainland, south of Pto. Montt. Certain ferries in Chile do not run except in January and February so it is not possible to cycle directly from Pto. Montt to Chaiten, which is the opening leg of the Camino Austral. One must cycle through Chiloe to make a ferry connection. Like all the other cyclists I have met, the Japanese is enthusiastic about biking the Camino Austral. The tandem couple and their pal are also planning this trek. The more people I talk with, the more convinced I become that my narrow-tired road bike can subdue this 400 km dirt road. By the time I reach Quellon, I decide to take the ferry to Chaiten, rather than return to Pto. Montt.

The ferry is late and I spend the day with this Japanese, named Satoru, a musician who is even more marginalized by Japanese culture than are his countrymen I have recently met. He has met the tandem couple, and can tell you where about a dozen Japanese cyclists are on the continent. Satoru started his trip in Peru, where he was robbed at gunpoint, and cycled through very inhospitable terrain. At one point he had to carry 5 days worth of water. Not that he drinks much water. He makes a concoction for breakfast (lemon, sugar and hot water), eats no lunch and does not even now carry a water bottle, pulling water out of streams. He usually fishes for dinner. I place him under the rubric of "adventure cycling," which I consider an extreme sport, something which is about as different from what I am doing as is riding in a bus. I spend a lot of time with Satoru since the ferry is eventually 24 hours late. There are half a dozen cyclists on this ferry, all anticipating the Camino Austral. "With that bike?#!" is their reaction to my trip.

We finally get to Chaiten, where we have a meal and spend the night. The next morning we head off down the Camino Austral with a Chilean who is biking in the area for a week. All goes well until we take a detour to find some hot springs, but we never find them (They are next to where we look). I have a flat tire. No problema. It takes me 15 minutes to fix it. We continue down the road. It is packed dirt, with rocks of various sizes sticking through. Not that difficult to bike. Another flat tire. I am a bit worried that perhaps I did not bring enough patches. I have only 6 left, only one spare tube, and one spare tire. I fix the flat; it takes 25 minutes. Pumping up the tire seems a lot more difficult than it did a few years ago. We ride some more. My third flat in two hours. I pump this one up and the tube tears at the stem (tube made in Taiwan, bought in Santiago for $2). I am exhausted and Satoru kindly offers to pump up my new tube. At this point, I realize that I am definitely doing something wrong, which I fear, is attempting the Camino Austral in the first place. I let some air out of the tires (down from 120 psi to 85), figuring that this might cut down on flats, which seem to be caused when I slam against rocks that pinch the tube. I go at a slower pace, under 12 kms an hour (I average 20 on pavement). We continue on a few more kilometers and decide to camp in a field on the side of the road, near a stream where they may be some salmon (there aren't). There are no campgrounds in this area; 'wild camping' is what everyone does.

Tonight is allegedly the end of the millennium (the millennium lasts another year, in fact, but earthlings seem eager to get on with history; the outgoing millennium is certainly not one to be proud of); I eat a can of tunafish and share a box of wine with Satoru, and I sleep in a tent under the Southern Cross, with a herd of cows a few meters away. New Years Day, while Satoru continues south toward Tierra del Fuego, I sheepishly head on back to Chaiten, figuring that the Camino Austral is just not meant for me.

Next: The Camino Austral


Part 5: Hola from Chile -- The Camino Austral

It's a week later. I'm back on the Camino Austral. Heartened by the fact that I was able to accomplish the 38 kms (3 1/4 hours) back to Chaiten on New Year's Day without a single flat, I decided I should return to Pto. Montt for more cycle supplies (2 spare tires, 4 tubes, 20 patches, a tube of rubber cement). The ferries between Chaiten and Pto. Montt run only twice a week (both companies run on the same days), so I will be delayed a whole week, 8% of my total trip in SA.

New Year's Day at Casa Santana, where I had stayed two nights before, translates into a family feast. The only guest at the hospedaje, I am invited. The husband, I am pretty sure he is the husband, is cooking. He's a local policeman, an officer in the Caribineros of Chile, the national police force, who dress in green/brown military uniforms. Supposedly they have the political status of the military; they united with the armed forces in the coup that resulted in General Pinochet's reign. Chile, unlike the US, relies on a national police force, and the Caribineros handle everything but immigration and traffic control. I used to think that Sr. Santana was one of the uncles, but it turns out he is the father, head of the clan, which includes Sra. Santana, an older daughter and teenage triplets. There is an extended family, primarily an aunt who cooks and cleans house most of the day and an uncle, perhaps her husband (it's hard to tell), who works as night manager at a local hotel. There is an older man who comes over mostly to drink pisco sour, the national spirit (a brandy that originated in Peru). He is overseeing the asado, the roast being cooked over an open fire, while the husband makes the salad. Sra. Santana is not allowed in the kitchen today. The meal is an all-day affair, with a dozen cousins showing up at various times.

I want to buy a ticket for the ship back to Pto. Montt (and the bike shop). The computers of Navimag, the nation's major shipping company, have succumbed to the YTK bug, and tickets have to be written by hand, by a clerk who apparently has never done so. That afternoon, I take two of the triplets on an outing up the Camino Austral, the leg to Pto. Montt I will not be taking. While the kids' mountain bikes scoot up the hills, I have to walk up some of them because my thin tires cannot find traction on the sand and rocks; still, a successful trip with no flats gives me further encouragement.

Seven cyclists come over on the ferries with me from Pto. Montt. A Swiss guy who is doing the Alaska-Tierra del Fuego trip. Two young men from Utah who, instead of using panniers, are pulling trailers that contain a backpack with all their gear. Two Swiss women who seem a bit overwhelmed by this, their first cycling touring experience. There are two Chileans from the city of Concepcion: an old man (my age) on holiday with his 20-year-old son. At Casa Santana I meet even more cyclists: a Dutch couple who are using touring bikes that have wide tires (my Trek cannot be fitted with tires wider than 1 inch). I also meet a Brazilian, who started in Alaska, and who is now traveling with a woman from Spain, whose previous cycling experience was a charity event in Cuba. I had met them in Pto. Montt, when we stayed in the same hostel; they biked from Pto. Montt, taking the first ferries of the season, so they were able to do the northern leg of the Camino Austral. We all go out eating and drinking. It rains all night. I am up by seven, eager to get started, rain or shine. When I depart Casa Santana, I am given a real honor. I receive the departure greeting used among friends in Chile. I shake hands with the husband, then we hug, then we shake hands again. Perhaps this type of greeting exists elsewhere in the world; I have never run across it before.

So I am back on the Camino Austral, having just passed the bridge where I left Satoru a week ago. I take my first photo of the trip: a flock of sheep, meeting me head-on, nervously confronting my bike as they try to get behind me to greener pastures. It is now drizzling, an unpleasant change over the past non-cycling week which saw excellent cycling weather. Rain is the biker's second most dreaded weather factor (headwind is the most feared). My philosophy vis a vis rain is, simply, I get wet. Some cyclists wear fancy Gortex pants and jackets, put special booties over their shoes and use rubberized panniers (the top brand is Ortlieb). Rain does not soak these cyclists; it only dampens them. I have a Chinese rain-cape and I use zip-lock bags to protect everything inside the panniers and handle-bar bag. On a day like today, I get wet. My feet slosh around my cycling shoes, which are specially designed runners with a piece of plastic that prevents flexibility. Every several hours, I ring dry my socks, as well as my gloves. The shoes should dry out in a day or so of dry weather. It is not water that scares me. Rain per se cannot kill me; but cold could. That's why on a cool day like today (low teens centigrade, low fifties Fahrenheit) I wear long underwear made of polypropylene, which keeps me warm even when wet.

Up the road I stop for lunch at the phone company. I had been told that the lady who runs the district office (it is also her home) can cook lunch on demand. I have the same meal that the family will enjoy a few hours later. I wonder if I have consumed part of their lunch, meaning that everyone will get smaller portions. I know that in Chaiten at the Casa Santana, I sleep in one of the kids' rooms. When the rooms are being rented out to travelers ($7 per night), the entire family seems in one room. I have the sense I am eating someone else's lunch, but the family is richer by $3.

I continue on, arriving around 4 p.m. at Villa Santa Lucia and meet a fellow cyclist, Gustavo, the son of the father-son team. He points me toward a hospedaje, where he and his dad are now having lunch. Having covered 77 kms, 6 1/2 hours, I decide to spend the night there, as father-son continue on in the rain. That night, as I eat dinner in the hospedaje, a Chilean foursome arrives, drenched from having hiked in the woods. They are down from Santiago for the week, and must return to be able to vote in the runoff election, scheduled for a week from today. Chileans who do not vote receive modest fines, but this can be avoided by reporting your absence (if you are over 200 kms from home) at the local police station. There is no absentee voting. These elections produce better than a 98% turnout. The catch is, however, that not every eligible voter is registered. Two of the foursome have not bothered to register, nor has Gustavo. All are university students, and they tell me that registration among university students is quite low. Perhaps young Chileans who grew up under military rule learned not to care about politics. This does not bode well for the future of Chilean democracy.

Day 2. Each day I stretch my muscles for about ten minutes whenever I start off biking. I do standard biker stretches for the legs and lower body, followed by other exercises for the lower back and neck. If I stretch really well, I am almost always assured of a relatively pain-free day. Usually only my neck, hands and arms will need to be exercised during the riding day to prevent numbness. The Camino Austral is causing some new problems. My palms are red from gripping the handlebars and brakes so hard. Even worse, whenever I got out of bed last night, I felt momentarily dizzy. The same thing occurred when I woke up this morning. The ride over rocks certainly bounces me around; I suspect I am in a perpetual state of mild concussion.

I once referred to this route as the Camino Austral to a Chilean who pointed out to me that once I had ridden on the road, I would call it carretera instead of camino. The latter term, meaning highway, is what it is called in the map/brochure published by Sernatur, Chile's state tourism office. A carretera can be a dirt track. The Austral (which means southern) is the only route south through lower Chile. There is some heavy truck traffic, a few local vehicles, and a few tourists. I meet 10 or 15 vehicles an hour. When it is not raining (it is again raining today) the cyclist is buried in a cloud of dust every time a vehicle passes. There is so much dust that you must stop in order to see the road. Thank God for the rain.

The rain is certainly getting on my nerves. I am not alone. Coming toward me I meet the Japanese tandem, as damp as I am despite their matching, colorful Gortex togs. From Quellon they had taken a ferry south and are now working their way up north. They know all about my flat tires, having run into Satoru. Tomoko sets his camera on a tripod so we pose for a group picture. I have never met a Japanese traveler yet who doesn't carry a camera and tripod. Later, I meet a Dutch couple having lunch in a protected area under trees. I take out one of my cans of sardines and join them. They tell me who is in front of me and by how far. They ran into the father-son as well as a couple of Argentineans, who I have not yet seen. The Swiss guy and Utahans are a few hours ahead. It is wet all the way to La Junta. I borrow the waterhose at the petrol station and knock the dirt and grim off the bike as best I can. The father and son are trying to help the Argentine duo, both university students, fix a broken spoke, but no one has the proper Shimano freewheel remover for the job. I do. The Argentines seem eternally grateful, and the four of them head off (it is now 5 p.m.) for a few hours of cycling. For me 6 hours, 70 kms is enough for today.

Next: More Carretera Austral


Part 6: Hola from Chile -- More Carretera Austral

Day 3. I continue through Patagonia, where I've been these past few days, a barely populated region -- I would reckon 1,000 sheep per person -- that covers the continent's Southern Cone and includes both Chile and Argentina. The border between these two countries is the crest of the Andes, and the Austral, which straddles the range, provides a magnificent, if wet, ride. There are occasional mountain passes. I didn't even realize that I had climbed one yesterday until I experienced a lengthy downhill. On the uphill I must have been so preoccupied with the rocks and ruts in the road that I failed to notice the incline, which was 1000 meters over a few kilometers.

This morning out of La Junta (pop. 736) there are few vehicles. People down here don't get early starts on the day in summertime, and there's virtually no traffic before noon. The only time I have felt this unmolested on this trip was on part of Ruta Cinco in the Lake Region. For several years Chile has been upgrading the Pan American highway to four lanes by building an additional parallel two-lane road. North of Osorno for about 30 kms the parallel road is finished, with guard rails, dividing lines, shoulder and sign posts, but it is not yet open to the public. A bike can squeeze through the barriers. It is a cyclist's dream.

I am told that the Austral is one of the better dirt roads on the continent. I don't have to walk the bike too often, usually only up steep inclines. Riding continues to shake me up, and I still feel momentarily dizzy when I rise after having lain down. But I can't let that worry me. The scenery? Most of the time the road drifts a bit inland from the archipelagos and fjords. There are occasional glaciers which, unfortunately, cannot be seen through the rain and mist. The people and sheep have begun to thin out. Early last century entire mountains were burned to clear the native forest for pasture land. You still see the vestiges of the forest fires and man's scars on the hills.

It continues to rain, and then around noon it stops, just as I run across the two Argentineans who are just breaking camp. For the previous rain-filled twelve hours they had shared an abandoned barn with Gustavo and his father. The latter's bike is falling apart because, I think, he is taking the downhills too fast (it is a low quality bike). Now, the back wheel is so out of true (in other words it wobbles) that they have had to disconnect the rear brake so that the wheel can turn. We ride together to the next town, Pto. Puyuguapi (pop. 500), where I plan to spend the night, although I have biked only 50 kms today. We have lunch together, a two-hour endeavor to which I contribute some dried fruit and a can of tuna. In town I see the Utahans and the Swedish companion who arrived last night in the rain. They have decided to recuperate today, staying in the town gym so that their gear can dry out. They have been camping ever since leaving Chaiten and are thoroughly sick of the weather.

After lunch Gustavo and company wish to continue on. Since the foursome are natives, I figure traveling with them will be interesting. Gustavo speaks fluent English, the Argentineans can sort of understand me and vice-versa, and I talk in Spangish and gestures with the father. Before we head out, however...and it is now 4:30 p.m. the time I am usually finished biking...we find the butchers and buy a 5 kilo slab of beef. By 5 p.m. we are on the road again, under skies that look like they might be clearing, and enter the Parque National Queulat, which is a glacier-encrusted rainforest. At 6 p.m. I am pushing the bike across softball-sized rocks where the Austral is being rebuilt. By 8 p.m. (for me 68.5 kilometers, 5 3/4 hours in the saddle) the Argentineans decide it is time to find a campsite, and we settle for a clearing in the forest off the road. We are in the middle of nowhere. We set up the tents -- they assure me it will not rain -- and prepare to cook the beef. We start on the first of three liters of wine, and eventually eat sometime past midnight. I should have been asleep four hours ago.

Day 4. The Argentineans are not early risers. I manage to get the Chileans awake and we leave by 11 am, which is two hours later than my average departure. I ride on ahead. I do not expect today to be easy; there is a pass to climb. It rains or mists for the next two hours (it did not rain during the night) as I plow up a series of fifteen switchbacks to reach the summit. I don't see any of the purported glaciers, but one visible mountain has a half dozen waterfalls. The crest of the mountain is two kilometers of gently rolling hills, and this is followed by a downhill, the uphill in reverse. I brake so hard on the gravelly downhills that I must stop on every switchback to rest my hands, which are raw from gripping the brake levers so tenaciously. After 5 hours and 54 kms, I get a blowout. It is 5 p.m. and I am not eager to cycle further. It has been a rough day, make anxious by a late start. On a lark I stick out my thumb at a passing pick-up, and the truck skids to a stop. Problemas mechanicos, I say, which may not be good Spanish but is sufficient to get my message across. Just as I get into the truck, a banged up car arrives from the other direction. The Santiago foursome who I had met a few days before are on their way back to the capital, having had a wreck that smashed in the side of their car. A half hour and 11 kms later I arrive in Villa Amengual (ten houses, a store and a church). I fix the bike, find a hospedaje, have dinner cooked for me, shower and, as it gets dark, am about to turn in for the night when the Argentineans, Swiss and Utahans straggle in. Gustavo and father are nowhere to be seen, and there's a rumor that there's a Japanese with a backpack cycling in the area. The Argentineans stay in the other available room in my hospedaje and joke that however hard I try, I will never be able to shake them. They say I am influencing their routine, however, for they are eating an early dinner. It is only 11 p.m.

Day 5. I am out by 8 a.m. It's so nice to get an early start, on a clean bike. The sky is actually blue. The road is now flat, and despite the recent rain, starting to become dusty. I meet up with Satoru (I thought he would have been a week ahead of me, but he travels in his own world, at his own pace), and we bike together to a campsite in Villa Manihuales. Today: 6 1/2 hours, 62 kms. At dusk Gustavo arrives with his father, who is determined to get the ferry tomorrow night so he can get back home for Sunday's vote. The Argentineans are nowhere to be seen. We joke they are probably just finishing breakfast.

Day 6. We are all eager to get an early start, but not so early that we miss the park warden. We are charged for a single site ($7). This is the same amount I would have paid if I had camped alone, for levies are exacted according to camping site, not number of people. Consequently, a single person pays the same as four people in a single site. For about the same price, I can get a bed, roof and hot shower.

In making a pre-ride safety check I notice the wall of my rear tire is shredded where rocks have been rubbing it. A few kms out of town, I notice I am riding on a flat tire (who knows for how long) and must stop to put on a new tire and tube. A few kilometers after than, the road becomes surfaced. By the time I catch up with father and son, the Japanese fellow has continued off on a dirt track. After hugs and shakes, Gustavo and his father head off to catch their ferry, I meet up with the Utahans and Swiss, and we continue into Coyhaique, the destination of this leg of my trip. I have a good dinner there, and the next day find Satoru in the town square (he is palling around with a newly discovered Japanese cyclist). The Argentineans roll in, exhausted; I take them to my hospedaje and then take them for a decent meal, in a restaurant with tablecloths, where I had eaten the night before.

All the cyclists I meet are continuing down the Austral toward Tierra del Fuego. I would like to do that also, but on another visit, on another (read wide-tired) bike. I take a bus back to Chaiten. It is a beautiful, cloudless day. From the bus I see extraordinary glaciers hanging off mountains. I wonder whether I should always take a bus trip over the exact route I have biked. So I can see what I miss.

Next: Into Argentina


Part 7: Into Argentina -- buen dia from Bariloche and BA

If your high school Spanish class taught you that "good morning" is "buenos dias," then you'll be in for a bit of an auditory shock in Argentina, and its neighboring countries for that matter, because in this part of the Hispanic world, consonants are dropped and words shortened. The United States, which should be Estados Unidos, mutates into Estado Unido, Unitey State. The only exception to this rule, according to my less than finely-tuned ears, seems to be Buenos Aires. It remains Buenos Aires. In any case, I like to refer to the US as EE.UU., which is what it is called in print. I asked a few people why US is not E.U., but no one seemed to know. Because it is plural, a teacher finally told me.

Before embarking on this trip, I surfed the Internet for information on cycling in South America. What I came up with were colorful brochures offering $200-a-day packages ("you bring your bike, we take care of everything else") that were run out of Bariloche, Argentina. The pictures and routes from these organized, guided trips are impressive, and I figure I can copy the itineraries at a fraction of the price, staying in hostels rather than 5-star hotels, eating in more basic restaurants, carrying my own gear rather than having it shipped in a vehicle, making my own friends rather than being thrust into a group, etc. Bariloche seems like the place to go.

I am now biking from Pto. Montt to Bariloche. But I have not encountered a single $200-a-day cyclist on this trip. It doesn't surprise me that I see so few backpackers or budget cyclists in Argentina, which has the highest cost of living on the continent. I meet a German threesome, keeping inside Chile as they circumvent the lakes that border Argentina. "Oh no, Argentina is too expensive for us," they tell me. Others travelers have told me that prices here are higher than in their home countries, Japan or the UK. I doubt this. One of the reasons for the perception that Argentina is so dear is that the Argentine peso is pegged to the US dollar, at one-to-one. US greenbacks freely circulate and are available from banks and ATM machines. This makes it so easy to figure out real costs that you take more notice when items are comparably more expensive. The bargains are here too, but you must look for them. Another reason that Argentina seems more expensive is that standards are high. Hospedajes are not plentiful; hostels with shared bathrooms are fewer than in Chile. In terms of restaurants, I find fewer without tablecloths. Furthermore, Argentina seems expensive because foreign travelers tend to stick to the tourist trail (e.g., Bariloche, Buenos Aires, Mendoza), and tourist trails are almost always more expensive than normal places. Rural Argentina seems about the price of Chile.

There are a handful of border crossings between Argentina and Chile. I choose what is considered one of the most scenic, from Pto. Montt, through Pto. Vargas, Ensenada, along Lake Llanguihue and then over a deep-sand track (this piece of real estate does not deserve the dignity of being called a road), then to Petrohue. From here one takes a 2-hour ferry across Logo Todos Los Santos, to Peulla. I team up with an Italian cyclist who asks around and finds a family willing to feed me and put us up for a night. The following morning, we find border control (the actual border is 20 kms away but their office is here) and continue on toward Petrochue. This is a fairly rocky road. There is absolutely no through traffic since none of the ferries take cars. We are passed by two busses and luggage vans that transport non-biking tourists from ferry to ferry. Otherwise, this is the middle of nowhere. The climb here is extremely sharp, over rocks. Both the Italian, who of course has a mountain bike, and I push ourselves up the hills. The summit is a national park, which has a different name in each country. The downhill is like falling off a cliff. I land at Argentine immigration (it is run out of a cafe) and hop on the ferry (it is waiting and since the next one is five hours away, we are indeed fortunate to have gotten here on time). After crossing Lago Frias, a 20-minute ride, we cycle 3 kms to the next ferry, for a 2 1/2 hour trip across Llao-Llao, and then an hour's biking by road to get to Bariloche. Yesterday, I chalked up 83 kms over 5 hours; today 59 kms over the same time period (pushing the bike for a few kms obviously slowed me down).

Bariloche sells itself as the continent's Switzerland. It is in a beautiful mountains-meet-lake setting, with European architecture and chalet-styled homes. Bakeries abound; stores specialize in chocolate. I have fondue for dinner. It's a year-round resort, with cold water sports in the summer (it snows in late summer) and snow sports in the winter. There are probably 10,000 tourists here, mostly from BA, but it is a delightful place.

After 1,455 kms cycling in Chile (excluding the 800 km of training in Santiago) I want time off from the bike and am eager to get to Buenos Aires. The staff (two drivers and a steward) of the BA-bound bus load the bike, gear still on it, and stand it upright in the mammoth luggage compartment below the seats. It remains standing for the entire 22 hour ride, during which we are given 5 movies and are served meals that remind me of airline food in pre-microwave days. Still I am ecstatic not to be biking over these monotonous and windswept pampas.

BA is one of the world's great cities (on my top 20 list). The largest urban population center on the continent, it is the size of Shanghai. It is a world-class city, with a fine arts museum that is among the best in the Americas. I pay my respects to Eva Peron, whom I admire as one of the most influential political women of the past century. She is entombed in the modest Duarte family mausoleum in the extraordinary Cemetery of the Recoleta. I spend two nights in the tango district, San Telmo, full of character and characters. The hostel posst notices in Russian, which suggests the nationality of the most recent wave of immigrants. BA deserves a longer visit, but I feel it is the type of place I will want to return to. I book a ferry ticket to Montevideo, the capital of neighboring Uruguay, where I plan to cycle for several weeks.

Next: Where is Uruguay?


Part 8: Where is Uruguay?

It is a tiny country, a bit smaller than Oklahoma or four times the size of Switzerland or one-fourth the size of France, nestled between Argentina and Brazil. It has rivers for boundaries on two sides, and touches the Atlantic ocean for a stretch. Otherwise, it is brown and dry, populated by substantially more cattle than people, the former processed for export to its behemoth neighbors.

Montevideo is a pleasant enough capital, with cobblestones, narrow and hilly streets, squares with old world architecture. A walkable core with suburbs that seem never to end. I discover automatic teller machines (ATM), which I am forced to resort to because travelers checks are so difficult to redeem. Maybe in the US almost any retail business will accept them, personal identification unnecessary, or in Chile at forex offices they generate the same exchange rates as does cash. But in Argentina and Uruguay TCs are an anathema. Often in a city there is a single bank (head office, no branches) which deigns to accept a particular brand of TCs. They charge a minimum $10 charge, which on a $50 check equates to a 20% commission. "No commission on cashing them," I was told when I bought them in Hong Kong. I found a foreign exchange office in Montevideo that said they would accept TCs, at 2% commission. But then they rejected my checks because my signature in the passport, they said, did not precisely match the signature on the check. Apparently, this was just an excuse; I suspect they did not want the check in the first place. Perhaps they make less profit on checks. ATMs, in contrast, are everywhere but the smallest towns, and since they are computers, they don't confront and confound me with ineffectual, if supercilious, clerks. ATMs charge from zero to 2.5% commission and require a four-digit personal identification number (beware that longer pins do not work in SA).

I had originally expected to cycle in the other guay -- Paraguay -- but at this time of year that country is extremely hot and humid. I am saving Paraguay for another trip, pairing it with Brazil. Another trip will include Ecuador, Colombia, Bolivia and Peru. Why now Uruguay? For one thing it has paved roads. It is not mentioned in guidebooks as a place for cycle touring because, I suspect, the people who write these books have not cycled here. Uruguay has no mountains and few hills. Flat places generally make for uninteresting, if easy, cycling. Uruguay, I think, is the exception. It is one of those tiny countries that is not on the tourist trail (like my favorite African countries Zambia and Guinea), and that's exactly what makes it such a nice place to be a tourist in. People rarely encounter long distance cyclists and wherever I go, I draw crowds of on-lookers, if not admirers. Thus, for the first time on this trip, I am a rarity, a curiosity. It's nice being a fish-out-of-water, which is how I live my life.

If I am asked this question once, I am asked it fifty times a day: where are you from? It is the first question I am asked by a crowd of on-lookers. Even as I bike uphill cars have pulled along side, maintaining my slow pace, to ask me where I am from. I should have sewn an American flag on my panniers but I thought there might be some anti-American sentiment (I have experienced virtually none, only one person out of hundreds I have met had much negative to say about the US. I am much more negative than they!). My answer to these inquiries is that I live in China. Then, when prompted, I give my nationality.

I head east out from Montevideo along the Rio de la Plata, one of the world's widest rivers (it took 2 hours to cross it from Buenos Aires), which runs into the Atlantic Ocean. The road sometimes runs along the coast and sometimes inland, but each night I alight at beach resorts: Piriapolis (104 kms), Manantiales (56 kms), and La Paloma (138 kms). In each of these places I stay in youth hostels, where I meet Argentineans, the bulk of the tourists, and a few Uruguayans. In La Paloma I take off a day to convalesce from the biker's most dreaded ailment: I feel like I am sitting on a grapefruit (In point of fact only the size of a large, ripe grape). I continue on to Valizas (62 kms), La Coronilla (76.5 kms) and finally to Chuy, on the Brazilian border. Outside Chuy is my namesake, the magnificently restored San Miguel fortress, complete with circumventing moat, dating from 1752.

Cyclists who know about Uruguay probably don't cycle here because it is windy, the windiest country I have ever encountered. In Chile I had a few hours of headwind once in a while, but never in my cycling life have I faced such consistent headwinds. For the entire week as I head east. This is the type of wind which forces grasses and bushes to kowtow and which puts trees in a permanent state of genuflection. After the week's battling the wind, I hop on a bus back to Montevideo and next day head west from the capital.

There is a slight headwind as I head west, but not the equivalent of the gale I was biking against for the past week. I roll into Colonia Suiza (136 kms, 6 1/4 hours) on a flat tire. I stay at the Hotel del Prado, a 100-year old colonial compound with verandas and interior courts, Spanish tile floors, twenty-foot ceilings, hanging plants, swimming pool. Since I have a youth hostel card, I pay $15--the most expensive accommodation thus far this trip--for the $40 room (4 beds, private bath, fan) with breakfast (a buffet that's superb--fresh squeezed orange juice, croissants, three types of bread, cheese and cold cuts, yogurt, fresh fruit, cereal, etc.). With such a spread, I decide to stay an extra night and explore the town, which also calls itself Nueva Helvecia. As suggested by its names, not surprisingly this town of 9,000 thinks of itself as South America's Switzerland (haven't I seen this somewhere before?). I am told that it is as clean as Switzerland. But there's not a hill or lake in town, so I don't think one can get the two places confused. Many residences have coats-of-arms on their facades. I see the same crests over and over, manufactured by the same firm or at least to a standard set of specifications. So I wonder if the occupants are really descendants of the original Swiss settlers or rather part of a giant design by the bureau of tourism to put the town on the tourist map. Unfortunately, this town, whatever it calls itself, is not on that map. It lacks a beach for the Argentineans; and tourists who seek historic elegance go 75 kms down the road to Colonia del Sacramento, which is indeed a must-see in this part of the world. So the Hotel del Prado, despite its bargain nature, has only a dozen guests. It is sad to be the only diner is a dining room that seats 150. It's not my loss, however. I like the home environment; the fewer tourists, the better.

Next: More Uruguay


Part 9: More Uruguay

Tourist spots can be placed into one of several categories. The really bad ones are not worth a look-see. Then, there are places worth looking at only if they are staring you in the face and you have nothing better to do. Third, some places of interest are worth a detour. For the bicyclist, a church or monument or natural phenomenon has to be close to extraordinary to merit a detour of any great distance. Finally, there are places that are worth an entire trip. Colonia del Sacramento (pop. 22,000) fits into this last class. The historic quarter of Colonia -- there are several colonias in this part of Uruguay but this one is so important that it is referred to simply as Colonia -- is on Unesco's list of protected human cultural entities, deservedly so. It is a well preserved and sensibly restored colonial settlement of historical significance. The larger town serves tourists well, plenty of hotels and restaurants to meet the tastes of all. My impression is that history seems more important in South than North America.

I have been in SA long enough to realize the importance of dates, which are imbued with much more significance here than they are in the United States. Imagine driving in New York City on July 4th Boulevard and crossing streets with names like April 9, June 21, Sept 3, and Dec. 10, all momentous dates in early US history.* I've talked with South Americans (and Asians as well) who cannot believe that US city streets are numbered, like first street, second street, or third street: "not very imaginative," they tell me.

Encountering streets named with dates characterizes my maneuvering around cities in Uruguay. Almost everywhere I go I travel down 18 of July Boulevard, which leads into the main square, most often named either Constitution or Independence. The other dates I encounter are 2 Feb, 19 April, 25 May, and 25 August. (In Chile the main square is almost always named Plaza de Armas, the dated streets are 21 May and 14 Feb; in Argentina, San Martin and 20 Feb, 9 July, 27 April, 12 Oct, 25 May). Now, I am visiting my fifteenth Uruguayan town, and I can find the main plaza by following street dates. The country has a lot of dead generals (Artigas is the most important), who find their way onto street signs, too.

I continue up through Uruguay, to Carmelo (pop. 18,000), and on to Mercedes (pop. 37,000), encountering a stretch of pavement with so many patches that it is bumpier than the Camino Austral. It is hot, in the mid 30s (mid 90s F); I drink 5 liters of water today and eat a can of tuna for lunch. By the time I reach Mercedes, I am a bit dehydrated and famished. I have to wait about 5 hours for dinner, because restaurants do not start serving dinner until 8 p.m. During the meal of tomato salad, fish and wine, I start to feel poor. Over the next 12 hours I am sick at both ends, and once my systems are flushed out, I do not leave the bed until afternoon. The major short-term complication is that I cannot bear even to look at tomatoes, fish or wine for another week. Bicycling on the wagon is no fun.

I manage to cycle 41 kms to the next town, Fray Bentos (pop. 22,000), where I locate an old colonial hotel, verandas and all. Fray Bentos is a three square town, bigger than most of the towns I pass through which have but a single plaza, but not in league with Montevideo, which has a score of plazas and parks for its million and a half residents. Phone numbers in Fray Bentos have only four digits, but certainly there are nowhere near 9,999 phones. A few tableclothless cafes, nothing I would call a full-service restaurant. There is a tenedor libre, all you want for a fixed price, establishment, but it is open only on the weekends. I patronize all-you-can-eateries whenever I find them; the cheapest I found was Chinese-run in Buenos Aires, only $4. I still don't have my full appetite back, in any case. Today is Monday; museums and places of interest are closed. I will stay tomorrow, partly to recover fully, but also because I want to visit El Anglo, an industrial park created out of what was once one of SA's largest meat-packing plants. I take a guided tour of it with several Argentine families. The plant's operations have moved to Brazil, a country that can be called South America's China, for stores in Uruguay are stocked with Brazilian products, just like American and European outlets are loaded with Chinese goods.

It's on to Paysandu (130 kms). I have a flat (blown tube because of a split tire) and encounter a thunderstorm just ten kms before town. I stay in Paysandu a day to dry out and finish reading Cormac MacCarthy's Cities of the Plain. The next stop is Termas Dayman (124 kms). The previous day's cloudburst causes a road construction area to evolve into mudflats. Tractor trailers are stuck, and I have to push my bike (it's not called a push bike for nothing) for two kilometers through mud which cakes up so around the rear brakes that the wheel will not turn. By the end of this ordeal I am pushing a hunk of clay the shape of a bicycle. This is a cyclist's nightmare come true. The only saving grace of the day is the destination, a thermal springs tourist resort. The springs here have been diverted into a series of swimming pools (no diving boards), in various shapes and sizes and water temperatures. It is relaxing, for there are few tourists, this being a winter more than a summer resort.

The last day in Uruguay puts me in Salto to buy trinkets for my former students in China. In unpacking and repacking my bike, I lose my rain poncho (it is overcast but not raining). Then, after my film decides to rewind and I go to unload it, I am shocked to find no film in the camera. This is indeed strange, for not only do I remember buying (debating whether to get 24 or 36 exposures) and loading (wondering if with such a short lead whether it would load) the film, I recall noticing the film cartridge through the small window at the back of the camera every single time I took a picture. In any case, there's no film now. I panic. I don't care much about pictures (a thousand words are worth any picture is my philosophy), but I always get so much grief from my former students when I come back from trips with so few pictures. Now, I face the dread of facing them without even a single snapshot. Chinese, when they travel, take hundreds of pictures each week, usually with themselves in every photo. So I buy another roll of film for the two remaining weeks of my vacation.

I have enjoyed cycling 1,225 kms in Uruguay. It is real, less touristic than Chile or Argentina. Perhaps not the most interesting cycling in South America, but certainly worth the twenty-two days I have spent here. Now, I take the ferry from Salto, across the Rio Uruguay, to Concordia, where I can take a bus to Cordoba for more cycling.

*BTW (that's internetspeak for "by the way") the dates mentioned in the second paragraph: April 9, 1865, the end of the Civil War; July 4, 1776, the Second Continental Congress's Declaration of Independence; Sept 3, 1783, Treaty of Paris ending the War of Independence; Dec. 10, 1898, Treaty of Paris that ended the Spanish-American War; Dec. 24 1814, the Treaty of Ghent that ended the War of 1812.

Next: Biking around Cordoba


Part 10: Biking around Cordoba

I discover Cordoba, like most accident. Right from the start of this holiday I knew that I would cycle south in Chile and then climb over the Andes toward Buenos Aires. Then maybe Paraguay or Ecuador, I wasn't sure. The only fixed item was the date of the plane ticket out of Santiago. Once down here, I eliminated Paraguay and Ecuador for climate considerations and settled on Uruguay. Because of the cold and rain on the Camino Austral, I wanted warmth and sun. I got what I wanted; I am as brown as a piece of cardboard. Also, I guessed, rightly it turns out, that I would enjoy Uruguay for the same reasons I have liked visiting nations of less political and economic significance than the larger players on the global stages. Their peoples are less corrupted by modernity.

I have been keeping a close eye on the calendar. Once I reached Uruguay, six weeks remained on the trip. Having finished Uruguay, I now have 3 weeks to get back to Santiago. I examine the map. The most direct bus route to Mendoza, from where I can cycle over the Andes back to Santiago, is through a city called Cordoba (accent on the first syllable). I read the guidebook's section on Cordoba. The area is a Mecca for Argentinean tourists, but is not visited by a lot of foreigners. The overnight bus ride to Cordoba features turbulence -- I feel I am on Air Force One as I watch it on video -- a thunderstorm, no meal and a bus change at 3 a.m. because the first bus had earned itself a cracked windshield.

I arrive at the Cordoba bus station about as exhausted as if I had biked the distance. I go immediately to the tourist office, which provides me with a wealth of information on what to see in the area, including strip maps of the roads in the region. The maps suggest a possible cycling circuit of some 500 kms that takes in a series of villages and towns with lakes and rivers and mountains. I figure I will give the Cordoba region a serious look. If I like it, I can spend a week cycling in the area and still get back to Mendoza with a week to spare.

Cordoba, itself, is a beautiful old world city. I frantically start taking photos to amass a portfolio to show my former students. Cordoba has 1.2 million people, but it feels like a small town. The population stays in suburbs. The walkable core of the city is elegant, probably the most attractive downtown of any place I have yet visited in SA (It ranks with my favorites Capetown and Oporto as the globe's most beautiful cities). Downtown also has cycle shops, conveniently located in one block, the first eight of which do not have a tire that can fit my bike. Without a spare tire and tube, it is too risky to cycle further. The ninth shop I visit sells me what I need. Despite the morning's rain and my having lost my rain gear, I head out of town on a freeway to confront Argentine's roads and their dreaded drivers.

When I began this trip, I knew only one thing for certain: there was no way I would cycle any distance in Argentina. The drivers of this country have earned the worst reputation of any in South America. Even Argentineans say they know how dreadfully they drive. Both of my guide books make this point. One jokes that cyclists, upon seeing the distinctive black license tags of an Argentina-registered vehicle, should promptly move off the road to give them room. Up to now, I have cycled only several hours in this country, first to get into Bariloche, then to cover the short distance between the Buenos Aires bus station and my hostel, and finally in Concordia to get from the ferry terminal to the bus station. I had not found Argentinean drivers in Uruguay (yes, I did pay attention to the color of the license places) to be much better or worse than Uruguayan drivers, which seemed to me to be sort of average. To be sure the driving style here is different. People don't use turn signals and don't seem to pay much attention to stop signs. When I was having lunch in Bariloche, I had the opportunity to stare out the restaurant window at an intersection which, like many intersections in Argentina, was not fully signed. One direction of traffic out of four faced a stop sign. About half the drivers it applied to ignored it. At the same intersection, only 23% of turning vehicles bothered to use a turn signal. From these observations I do not conclude that Argentine drivers are bad. Quite the contrary. They are extraordinarily careful. Given an environment in which such things as turn signals and traffic signals are irrelevant, drivers must be careful if they want to stay alive. I would argue, therefore, that Argentine drivers are about the most careful I have ever encountered (By this reasoning I think that only Roman drivers must take more care). That does not mean it is safe to be a cyclist among them, however.

So, now, I am doing something I thought I never should. I am on an Argentine freeway. I have no other choice of road. It is raining; I have no rain gear. I stop to take a photo of a shrine built on the freeway shoulder (a shoulder I cannot ride on because it is too rough). Placed beside the shrine (a doll house-sized structure with a plaster statue behind glass doors) is a collection of plastic bottles (Coke, Pepsi, 7-up, mineral water) stacked like firewood. The shrine serves the patron saint of truck-drivers, a sort of St. Christopher. The truck-drivers leave water bottles to have them blessed. I straddle the cycle, bow my head and think about cycling carefully.

Only twice this trip have I come remotely close to killing myself. Both were due to my own carelessness. As always I now try to stick to the edge of the road. I ride on the shoulder whenever there is a rideable shoulder, which was often the case in Chile and sometimes in Uruguay. Other times, I ride right over the far right line. On two-lane highways, when trucks or busses come barreling up my rear simultaneously with on-coming traffic, they toot and I quickly slide onto the shoulder. These seem to be the rules of engagement between bikes and vehicles. On the present freeway, vehicles who cannot pass me because of traffic in the passing lane toot. I dutifully slide over. The freeway ends and I find myself in Villa Carlos Paz (pop 46,000).

Today, the destination is much better than the journey required to get there. This town is designed for tourists, with plenty of places to wine and dine and shop. Families with small children, as well as with the elderly abound. The town has a river running through its center and pedestrians overflow the sidewalks and clog the streets. Walking around is enjoyable despite the fact that special cars and trucks with large microphones blast the evening's events occuring at cabarets and casinos. I don't partake of nightlife.

The route north of Villa Carlos Paz is scenic, around lakes and up and down hills. It is the type of cycling day for which one endures all the bad wind, rain, and mechanical problems of previous weeks. Not much traffic, good road. I stop just to look at the surrounding mountains -- the high Sierras -- and think how great it is to be alive, a thought I should experience more often. At lunchtime I visit the Model Railway Museum at La Falda, which has the most sophisticated model train sets I've ever seen. There's a working coal mind, cattle yard and sawmill. One table reflects America: a western town, a metropolis. Little people swim around in little swimming pools. Little white policemen beat up on a little black suspect. I continue on. After 4 1/2 hours, I've gone 80 kms to get 340 meters higher. I decide to stay in Capilla del Monte, a town smaller than Villa Carlos Paz, with a nicely shaded square. The next day I continue over a high plateau, the towns are getting smaller, there is virtually no traffic, less than on the Camino Austral. I have to ask directions to find out how one road connects with another. I get to a T-junction, with absolutely no indication which way to go. I've been so twisted and turned to get through town, I have to get my directions from the sun (next time I will bring a compass), and make an educated guess in order to go south. The road is freshly paved, has no markings. It is another 40 kms until I come upon a village that is on my map. The day's total is 130 kms, over 5 1/2 hours, the first part of which was with tailwind that let me average 30 kms per hour. I decide to stay in Salsacate, which is no more than a village, with an unmarked building that is a brand new hotel. I am certainly the first foreign occupant, probably the first paying customer. The hotel is still under construction. I have my own bedroom, with bath, access to a full kitchen. All for US $10. I notice some hissing; it turns out I am leaking air, all this AFTER the day's ride. What more could a cyclist ask for? To change a tire with a glass of wine. I put on my new tire and tube and hope they will last for the next few days. I decide to go out for dinner and enjoy an excellent family-cooked meal.

The next day is another spectacular ride along the edge of the Sierras, depositing me in Mina Clavero, another resort town. It has a river running through its center, with a sandy beach on one bank. Sunbathing and water sports right in downtown. What more could one ask for? Excellent food and wine; it only gets better. The next day I tackle the Camino de las Altas Cumbres (High Clouds Road) which offers a 50 km climb, from 915 meters up to 2,200, followed by a similar downhill to 690 meters. There is a condor rescue center at the summit. A condor flies overhead. Given that I have lost 5 kilograms over this trip, I wonder if it thinks I am a potential lunch. I end up at Icho Cruz, a village with no paved streets, where I stay at the least expensive hotel in town ($10 with my own bath) and have dinner at the most expensive restaurant ($14 for the works, including live music). And backpackers say Argentina is expensive!

At dawn it starts raining and when I leave at 9 a.m., it is still drizzling. I have some tough hills; once I duck into an open barn in order to wait out the rain. This is futile, so I continue. It is a rain forest; what can I expect? Up and over a mountain pass, into Alta Gracia. During the ride my odometer turns 10,000 kms for my two-year-old bike. Alta Gracia is a pleasant town in the usual vein. I find the town's best restaurant and have the best meal of the trip: paella valenciana, bombom suizo, expresso and 3/8 of a liter of fine Argentinean wine. I stumble my way over to see an Eva Paron statue as well as the boyhood home of Ernesto Guevara, better known as Che. The latter is the major tourist attraction in town, save for the cathedral.

The next day I continue to bike south. Today is my last day of cycle touring. Tomorrow, I will put the bike on a bus and retrace today's tread marks in order to get back to Cordoba. The day's 4-hour, 66-km trek takes me up and around a series of lakes. Up and down, up and down with the lakes in view. It's great. The skies are blue; the water is blue; and it is the most scenic day I have had in South America. The landscape is at the perfect scale for the bicyclist, what I had expected but not experienced in Chile's Lake District. I arrive in Villa General Belgrano, settled by German shipwrecked sailors in WW II. I feel like I am in Bavaria. Lunch is sauerkraut and some sort of wurst, with all the trimmings. The evening meal is German chocolates. The locals here seem a bit strange. I visit a museum concerned with non-earth based peoples. Unfortunately, a companion museum, the Ovni Museo, concerned with UFOs, no longer exists. The day's cycling around the lakes was so good that I decide tomorrow to ride, not bus, back to Cordoba, breaking my cardinal rule about never duplicating trips. Total in Argentina: 612 kms.

Next: Mendoza, the best and worst of libations


Part 11: Mendoza, the best and worst libations

As soon as I arrive in Mendoza I must immediately decide how I'll get back to Santiago -- by bus or bike. The mode of transportation will determine how long I stay in Mendoza. The road between Mendoza and Santiago, where the crest of the Andes is the frontier between the two countries, must be one of the most spectacular mountain highway passes on earth, for bike or vehicle. The Mendoza side offers a steady climb for 200 kms , finally along the banks of Rio Blanco. The snow-capped Andes come into view. At the summit is Argentinean immigration and customs, then a tunnel that prohibits cyclists. Upon request the border guards can arrange for a truck to carry the bike through the tunnel. Beyond the tunnel is Chilean customs. The crest, even in late summer, has ice on the road. The descent from the ski resort of Portillo is a series of 29 switchbacks, numbered by signs. From the summit, the hairpin bends can be viewed; they resemble, a forever coiling snake.

The reason I know these details, and I may be off on one or two points, is because I saw everything from out the window of the bus. It would have been an extraordinary biking experience, but to have biked back to Santiago would have deprived me of seeing much of Mendoza. So I spend three days cycling among the vineyards and bodegas of the Maipu viticultural district, 20 kms south of Mendoza.

Argentinean wines? You have probably never heard of them. Chilean wines have a decent worldly reputation, but those from the country next door seem virtually unknown. This is because, despite the fact that Argentina is one of the world's largest wine producer, with an output about that of the US, their wines are not exported. They are too cheap to export. I don't mean cheap in quality, but rather cheap in price. Argentine wines, I suspect, cannot break through agricultural trade barriers, those invisible fences that countries put up to protect their own farmers, whether they be in France or California. By cheap I mean $2 a bottle for table wine, a blend of vinifera grapes, cork not screw cap. A bottle of new Cabernet Sauvignon sells for around $5, a bottle aged 4 years for about $8. Bulk table wines from the market translate into just pennies a glass. In a tableclothless restaurant 250 ml of house wine comes in at a dollar.

At the lower grades Argentine wines are good value, possibly the best value anywhere in the world. Chilean wines, which are widely available in the US, are superior at the higher levels, I believe, where there is not much competition from Argentina. I have known Europeans who turn up their noses at South American wines, people who only grudgingly accept California wines; I think I understand why. The art of making wine is different here. The science is the same, but wine in SA is seen as a product to be made as efficiently as possible. Despite the fact that grapes have been grown and turned into wine here since the mid Sixteenth Century, today for the most part it is not a task that is complex, tied to family traditions, with closely guarded secrets. Most wineries do not grow their own grapes; they arrive by dump truck from great distances. The bodegas here do not have extensive cellars, where they proudly store their old wines. Most wine here is produced for the mass market, almost none for connoisseurs. Output is constant in terms of quality and quantity. In contrast, wine production in the prestigious growing regions of France, Italy, and California, for example, is quite unpredictable. Many variables affect production: precipitation, days with sun, early frosts, late frosts, variations in soil between vineyards, disease, etc. When something goes wrong, an entire production can be downgraded and relegated to table wine. In Argentina, these variables are constants. The grapes are grown on flat land; irrigation replaces rainfall; sunshine is abundantly uniform and soil disease-free. From year to year, a particular variety tastes the same. Thus, the wine here is good, but it is not great. Argentina does not experience bad years nor does it enjoy good years where the public deems a particular vintage to be superior and prices it accordingly. That's how the market value of some French wine can reach several hundred dollars a bottle.

I tour on bicycle six bodegas in the Maipu growing region, which runs south of Mendoza. Even in Mendoza there is the smell of winemaking, the fermentation after the first crushings. Bodegas still function within a few kilometers of city center although the surrounding land where grapes once grew is now devoted to residential and commercial development. I am given guided tours around vineyards and bodegas and, of course, sample the wines. The wine that is the pride and joy of this region is from the Malbec grape. This is not my favorite red wine; I ask to sample Cabernet Sauvignon as well as Chardonnay, rather than the Sauvignon Blanc that is provided in the tastings.

Now, for the worst libation. It is called yerba mate, a tea made from grass clippings, resembling the stuff that is churned out of lawnmowers. This is the national drink of Argentina; it is a state institution. Dried mate is placed in a gourd that has been cleaned-out and dried. No one would ever drink mate from a cup or mug. Hot water is added and the concoction is sipped up through a silver straw, called a bombilla, which contains a strainer at its tip. Mate is a communal drink, shared between couples or entire families. Mate drinking begins with the morning's awakening and goes on until dinner, which in Argentina can be around midnight. A dose of mate (I use the word dose because mate contains a natural stimulant like caffeine, which means that Argentina's population is in a perpetually drugged state) contains 30 calories, more if you add sugar, which is frowned upon.

Mate followers, a national cult, are found throughout Argentina, southern Chile and Uruguay. People walk around with a thermos slung under one arm and the mate gourd in the other. Some imbibers carry along a mate kit, a leather case the size and shape for a large pair of binoculars. In the kit are the thermos, a kilo of mate (the cheapest variety in the supermarket costs about $1 per pound), mate gourd, and bombilla.

It is amazing that the same culture that developed mate has also given the world what I consider to be a product that is so good that one feels degenerate even to be thinking about eating it. This is dulce de lache, a caramel colored paste composed of sugar and milk solids. I once asked a Argentinean why this was not available elsewhere in the world and his reply, however inaccurate it may be, was interesting. He told me that dairy products were so abundant in Argentina that they could afford to waste them on something as degenerate as dulce de lache, which requires milk to be dehydrated. My Italian cycling friend first introduced it to me, saying that the first taste of dulce de lache is one of life's unforgettable events, at least for a cyclist. He was right. The first opportunity I had, upon arriving in Bariloche, I bought a 500 g tub, and slapped it on bread every day for breakfast. The balance of fat, protein and sugar seemed to work well. Dulce de lache, along with the tango, might be Argentina's greatest contribution to the world.

Back to Santiago, and I am at the end of my trip: 12 weeks, 3 countries,
4,100 kms including training, 190 hours in the saddle on tour, averaging about $30 a day. A good trip.

Adios for now.

Michael Agelasto


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