We arrived in San Martin de los Andes with about ten days to go before Chloe’s parents were flying out to Santiago. Santiago had been our target point for some time now… after Christmas, contemplating the distance between where we were at the time – the most southerly town on mainland Chile – and Santiago, prompted us to make a little timetable of where we needed to be, with some hefty buffer-zones of course. By the time we got to San Martin de los Andes, we knew we were making good time so could afford to take it a little easier and stop for an extra day here and there. San Martin was one of those places.
Having been thoroughly disappointed by the ‘picture postcard’ Bariloche, we were hoping for better things, and this time they were forthcoming. Although not a typical Argentinean town, and in some sense fairly touristy, it has a vibrant yet relaxed feel to it that you could compare to Abersoch or may be Ambleside. Based at the foot of the Andes and surrounded by lakes, this area in general is a spot where many Argentines take their summer holidays.
We spent a morning perusing the markets, outdoor shops and quaint backstreets before settling on making a trip out to the northern side of the lake and taking in a little walk for the afternoon. We must have spoken too loud, because as soon as we had resolved to leave, the heavens opened and the incessant rain stuck around the whole afternoon. The plan was postponed until the following day, which also meant that, having a full day, we could make the longer trip to the remote thermal springs hidden the jungle at the end of the lake. There are many natural thermal springs in Argentina and Chile, specifically in this central region close to the Andes, but none that looked as romantic and exotic as this one!
We were up early the next morning, backpacks packed with a picnic lunch and swimming costumes, (pannier packed in reality), ready to go in search of exotic thermal springs. The route there was an easy one and half hour ride to the end of the lake, then a one hour trek to the springs. The ride took us up to the top of the hills over-looking the lake and into the Mapachu Indian reserve which covers a large area west of the town. We were up and down the hills, traversing the mountainside, through forests and streams, catching glimpses of the perfectly blue lake. Near the end of the lake the road turned into a narrow track, winding between the trees. Being a dead-end at the springs, we left early enough in the morning not to encounter anyone coming back the other way, otherwise we would have been in a pickle!
Getting into pickles does seem to be Chloe’s forte however, so the morning would not be complete without getting into a scrape. The wide ford that we had to cross would be her undoing. We stopped at the river to assess – all looked smooth and simple. The flow was perhaps a little quick, and the stones perhaps a little large and rounded, but the water was shallow and besides, we’d been through several rivers that morning albeit they were much smaller. Confidence high, Chloe opted to go first.
A mere five seconds later she was in the middle, caught by a sudden increase in depth and flow, and was down. Bike on side, Chloe mostly submerged, camera around her neck briefly submerged. Between Chloe fighting to get herself up from the water, trying to save the camera and trying to turn off the bike, plus Chris bellowing from the side lines “turn off the bike!”, the bike promptly cut itself off and died. Uh-oh.
A displeased Chris comes wadding into the water to lift up said bike frorm its watery grave. After wheeling it out and establishing that the engine won’t start, Chris set about dismantling the bike to try and rescue the situation. Feeling guilty and like a spare part, Chloe mills hopelessly about, offering up screw drivers and getting tangled in toilet roll while drying parts of the bike that had been dismantled.
Somehow(?!), water was everywhere and in everything… after removing and emptying of water the air-intake box, the air filter, the air box, throttle body, the manifold, we were not surprised to see that the cylinder was also full to the brim. Easy solution – we just had to turn the bike upside down. Not a problem for a couple of guys! Thankfully there were grassy banks a plenty so by utilizing a bank, we could tip the bike over and let the water run out. Lastly, the spark plugs also had to come out to let water out of their sockets. Back upright, everything was dried off and slowly put back together. We were both secretly crossing all fingers and toes, not willing to voice the potential for hydrostatic lock, which in simple terms means an irreparable, internally broken engine. After a dozen tries of starting the engine, and much water being spurted out of the exhaust pipe, the bike finally spluttered to life – Chris’s former research into ‘what to do when you drop a bike in the water’ had paid off! The only problem now was the oil, which had turned into a creamy milky substance and needed changing imminently before it did more damage to the engine. That would have to wait till we got back into town.
After the trauma of the morning and an hour and a half of torment with a half broken bike, we finally agreed we needed some therapy and so should continue to the thermal springs. Only 200 yards away from the river crossing was the end of the road – that we could have left the bikes on the other side of the river, out of harm’s way, and walked by foot did not escape our notice!
We still had a one hour trek through the forest in front of us – Chris arrived fully unscathed while Chloe managed to twist an ankle and then cut her knee on a particularly vicious tree branch. The omens had not been good, but definitely worth it!
Back at base, we had luckily already established that the owner of the hostel we were staying in was a former Enduro-motorbike racer turned trainer, and his twin brother has a bike workshop in town. He met us upon our return to find out how we got on, and was slightly frustrated, in a tutor/father kind of way, to find out what had happened. He rang his brother and gave Chris directions to the workshop where he dutifully took Chloe’s limping bike to have its oil changed, three times, before it was running relatively clear. That excitement over, we thought we had better leave San Martin before anything else happened, so we packed up the next morning and headed back onto the road.
That evening we celebrated a fairly uneventful day with an asado (BBQ) in the campsite in El Chocon.
El Chocon is known in paleontologist circles as the place where the fossil remains of the Giganotosaurus were discovered. The discovery, made in 1993, staked its claim to unearthing the largest of all known carnivores to date, larger even than T-Rex. How exciting!
The village was also quite interesting – a whole community designed and built for at once, for all the workers on the nearby dam. Ideal living was certainly the architect’s vision, with pedestrian streets accessing the rows of identical houses, and library, school, sports centre, shopping precinct and church all laid out within easy reach, along a communal parade. Sixties idealism at its best!
A little swimming in the vast lake, after dinosaurs and architecture had worn us out, was the perfect ending.
Leaving behind the tranquility of lakes and fossils, we braved the city of Neuquen where we picked up a couple of oil filters from BMW and stopped for lunch with an Horizons Unlimited amigo, Marcelo. But we were eager to get out of the city and on our way again, conscious of needing to get into Chile where we would be safe in the knowledge that we were only a few days ride away from Santiago, on the motorway if necessary.
A few days ride took us through the blistering heat of the Argentinean desert, back into and then across the Andes, through more volcanic ash that was still billowing from the now distant volcano, into the greener landscapes of Chile. With a tunnel or two thrown in for good measure. Note – tunnels that go through enormous mountains, drop a few hundred feet and are 4.2km long get very very cold when one is inside them!
Once in Chile we could relax a little more, with five days to go until Mother and Father Maher landed in Santiago, we had enough time to wind our way through the towns and villages of Chile, from inland Temuco Market one day, (melon anyone?!), to the fishing village of Puerto Saavedra the next.
The route along the coast gave us the first glimpses of the Pacific. No-one in their right mind would go swimming in that tempest of a sea – the size of the waves crashing on the shore are unlike anything either of us had seen before. Or perhaps that was because a storm was brewing. True to form, once the rain started, it was absolutely torrential for two days solid. Luckily before the rain started, we found ourselves in the midst of a ‘pita festival’, which strictly speaking was probably a wheat/ harvest festival but they had a pita-making challenge where the ladies of the village had to make as many pitas as possible, from scratch within a certain length of time. From scratch, this includes grinding the seeds as well, not just making the dough!
Continuing along the coast in the fog and then the rain, we made it to Lota just as the clouds were beginning to thin and the blue sky could be seen once again.
Lota was the first major, old industrial town that we had visited. It was an old mining town, and as such, had grown under a mixture of ramshackled housing and vast poverty, closely knitted in with the finest of ‘Victorian’ style architecture of the merchants and mine owners. Also an important port, originally for shipping the coal, the town still continues to thrive and sprawl.
The highlight of the town has got to be Parque Lota – a British-designed, Victorian Park complete with a glass house, (now derelict), Chinese pagoda, (pagoda missing), bandstand, (structure missing), fountains, (all present and correct), a grotto, (present but not entirely correct!), and a picturesque little gatehouse which is currently under ‘restoration’. The downside of the town has got to be our evening meal of chips with a mixture of meat and salad dressing, covered with mayonnaise… not what we thought we had ordered!!
Back on the bikes, we carried on northwards, negotiating our way through the centre of Concepcion which was no small feat, followed by some small rural settlements in the hillsides before returning to the coast. After stopping for some eggs at the side of the road for lunch, we found our way to Cobquecura and a perfectly picturesque room in an old courtyard-style house.
The village has suffered major damage from flooding when a major earthquake and tsunami hit the Conception area. With their buildings made mostly of earth, many of them have sadly rotted away. Following a thorough professional survey, (that lasted about five seconds before all was obvious!), it was concluded that the cement rendering had not, after all, won over the water!
A walk down to the water’s edge before dinner gave us sight of a huge rock just off the shore, with hundreds of sea lions groaning and moaning – they were wanting their dinner too!
With only a few days to go, we then left the coastal route and made our way inland through the vineyards of Chile’s main wine region. A quick stop at an impressive suspension bridge, was enough of a break to keep us going to Curico, a major town just south of Santiago with an exotic main plaza and restaurants with roadside seating so we could watch the world go by, through into the night.
Thursday 2nd February – Santiago here we come! After having to go and buy a new GPS in the morning because someone broke it, we ended up leaving Curico at midday, reaching Santiago by mid afternoon. The bikes needed servicing while we were in Santiago, so we made a couple of stops at two mechanics before heading to our new-made friends’ house in the city centre, via a horrendously protracted and busy route right through the city centre courtesy of the new GPS. Awaiting us was Christian and Patricia who we’d met at Christmas on our whale watching and kayaking trip, but we had not met Mario before – their adorable spaniel who had been rescued from the street only 6 months ago!
Friday 3rd February – Took the bikes to the mechanics on the other side of town. The GPS was horrifically bad again, but we were better humored this time. We then checked into our very posh hotel and spent the afternoon arranging laundry services, having a well deserved nap on a very large, clean bed and then going out for our first (Eastern) Indian curry of the trip – Chris went to bed a very happy man that night!
Saturday 4th February – The Mahers arrive! We got up early to go and meet Katie & Keith, (AKA Mum & Dad), at the airport.
We see them through the glass screen, picking up their bags from the carousel and then waiting in line for the customs scan. It crossed our minds that we never mentioned the strict rules in Chile against bringing fresh produce, dairy products or meats into the country, but that wasn’t really necessary – we had given them a long list of things to bring and a block of cheese was not one of them. They disappeared into the customs hall and went missing. We waited and waited. Our other fear was that customs would pick them up for carrying quite a bit of ‘technical’ stuff for the bikes. Cables, leads etc, which the customs officials could claim needed tax paying on them. We started worrying. Chloe fought through the crowds and managed to make it through the barriers into the customs hall to find her parents. Katie appeared but Keith had been taken into the customs office and was being questioned – Oh no! What was it that they had found?! Will there be a fine? Will we lose our essential items of motorbike replacements? No – it turned out that Keith had a mango in his hand luggage…. So much for signing the customs declaration form, declaring he had no fruit, veg, dairy etc. Dads eh!
Once we had them safely in the taxi, we wound our way back to the city. All check-ins done and suitcases abandoned in the room, we had a leisurely drink and much needed catch up. But there is no rest when there is so much to see! We headed out to a local artisan market village which was based in the grounds of an old Friary.
That evening we ventured out into unknown territory and after wandering around trying to find a restaurant in the otherwise quiet commercial district we had found ourselves in, we stumbled upon a (sign for) a top floor restaurant. The sixteenth floor in fact, which gave us amazing views over the city centre. Half way through the meal, things didn’t seem right – curtains were shifting and the bar had moved to a different position. It was only then, one hour after sitting down, that we realized we were in a revolving restaurant and it wasn’t the wine getting to our heads! We all felt a little bit silly for not noticing sooner!
Next day was planned for sightseeing. We reconvened after breakfast to make our way into town, but were bewildered to find that Katie was being escorted around by the ‘Man form Delmonte’ who was now claiming to be Chloe’s Dad! Impossible! But we allowed him to tag along anyway – Katie didn’t seem to mind.
A San Franciscan church was first on the agenda, followed by the neighbouring museum in the adjoining cloisters. Unfortunately the interiors had been stripped naked of their plaster for some reason or other, hopefully not for vanity’s sake of ‘showing off the original construction’. There were some wall paintings left in the cloisters, but the token gesture seemed to make the folly even more obvious.
A stroll through the quiet streets should have been pleasant, but trouble was just round the corner….
One victim: Mother Maher, one hero: Mr Granger, one villain: named as Nector Sebastian Nunez Gonzalez.
The plot – villain snatches necklace from around the neck of victim, hero hears scream and is immediately on the case, following in hot pursuit, to the bitter end…. Hero casually hands over villain to the police who take over with police dogs and further police back-up on the way. Result – villain taken off in police van, victim slightly shaken but fine, hero triumphant but with bleeding feet after he discarded flip-flops in the name of pursuit!
Set: pretty street.
Scene 1, Act 1: Victim and daughter enter stage right, villain enters stage left, necklace is taken…
Scene 1, Act 2: pursuit takes place!
Scene 2, Act 1: Having been to the hospital for a check-up, victim taken to police station where statement is made. Hero is given well deserved credit!
After the trauma of the very long morning, it was definitely time for a late 4pm lunch then back to the hotel for some recuperation. The full day of sightseeing didn’t really come off, but we did manage to get a thief/ mugger arrested which we, particularly Chris, were feeling pretty smug about! All in a good days work!
We filled the next day with fancy buildings, Cathedrals, parks, views from the top of San Cristobal Hill and more food.
Tuesday 7th February – We all leave Santiago for Valparaiso. The Mahers to join their cruise ship in Valparaiso’s dock, the Grangers to firstly wave them off, then to spend a little time resting after the hectic few days! Although we didn’t manage to see them on to the ship, we did manage to pick them out on deck as the ship was getting ready to sail. One could not miss the frantically waving Katie once she had spotted us looking out from the dock!
After the goodbyes from afar, we strolled up through the pretty colourful streets, stopped off for dinner, then staggered into our beds ready to sleep for a week….
It had been a tough few days and some of us have the scars to prove it!
Successful drowning of bike Chloe 1 v 0 Chris
Number of muggers caught Chloe 0 v 1 Chris
Number of wounds on feet Chloe 0 v 5 Chris
Evenings of silence due to book Chloe 0 v 8 Chris
More zips broken Chloe 0 v 1 Chris
Other items of equipment broken Chloe 0 v 2 Chris
Items of clothes discarded Chloe 5 v 2 Chris