After having stayed for four days at the Anticura campground, it's time to leave. In two weeks, I will have to fly back to Canada, but I reckon I have enough time to cycle to Bariloche in Argentina and return to Chile via the "Lake Route". This is the original route used by the people that settled Bariloche, I am told, and three of the route's sections must be traveled by boat.
I follow the new road that leads to Bariloche. It is being paved on the Chilean side right now, and the workers that drive the trucks and construction machines, are the same ones that I have met in Anticura. They recognize me and wave as they pass my heavily laden bike. I am glad that the road surface is always smooth, even in sections where it is not finished yet.
I witness how road construction can leave little impact on the
environment: simple string stretched beside the road bed marks how far the workers may
intrude into the forest, and it's been drawn close to the road. The workers respect this
fragile delimiter and no barrels, waste nor vehicle tracks mar the forest floor
immediately beside the busy construction site. Bravo, Chile!
The Chilean border checkpoint is well away from the actual frontier. Here, I pass through the check quickly, the border procedure is fast and hassle-free. Outside the building, I spend some time to chat with two bikers from southern Brazil.
On the Argentinean side, the road becomes immediately worse, with some really soft section making riding tricky, and once I skid and fall. Later, my brakes are starting to squeal; so I stop and re-align the front brakes - but it is not necessary to change the pads yet. At one point, the river is runs alongside the road, and it's a good place to have a break. Several other people have had the same idea: as I clamber down to the water, I realize I am sharing the same 20-foot stretch of river's edge with another traveler. He is about 50, probably on a business trip as his semi-casual clothes indicate, and has brought a thermos and sandwiches. We both enter a "city-routine", avoiding to look at each other and even sit down with turned backs while we eat silently. But when I get up to leave, I look at him and he acknowledges my smile.
The Argentinean checkpoint is slow: after having passed immigration and customs, the third wicket (police) is not occupied and a line of impatient travelers has built up. But I am not complaining as the helpful official at the "immigration" desk has given me the address of an inexpensive hostel in Angostura, the next town. After 45 minutes, I am done and can pedal further down the valley. The only drawback here is a difference in road building: a road in Chile would a constant grade while in Argentina the engineers don't mind sending you down and up in a constant roller coaster ride. A more ambitious rider probably wouldn't mind as such cyclists power through places like that, but I keep shifting and thus feel the strain.
At a place above a lake I have a flat tire and I am busy with the tools, when a man approaches and starts talking to me. He's been collecting branches beside the road and tells me he's using them for fire wood. I realize there is something different about him and find out he's new here, having arrived from Buenos Aires less than a year ago. He has bad teeth and probably poor. But he is determined to make a new start. I am sorry to say that I put my guard up: I will not trust folks from the big cities right away. He may have sensed that but he did not let on to it. As he is about to move on, I call him back and offer some of my water: I am right, he is very thirsty. I hope he'll persist and succeed in settling in this part of the country.
I roll into Angostura and check into the hostel ("Hospedaje Nahuel", 100m past the gas station when you enter the village from the north): a room for myself costs US$ 20.- and dinner, with a small bottle of wine,costs another $9.-, cheap by Argentinean standards. There is a bike shop that sells me a proper size inner tube, I visit a store that makes its own chocolates and insists on packaging them fancily with foil and colored ribbons (they probably feel guilty about the high price for the morsels), and I indulge in a fancy piece of cake in the fancy "Troncos" restaurant on main street. As I look out onto the street with its expensive storefronts and fashionably dressed vacationers, I realize I am out of place here: I am just a bum on a bike.
The next morning sees me pedalling towards Bariloche. The road follows the northern shore of Lago Nahuel Huapi, a large lake with many islands and crystal clear waters. The forests and mountains beside the road have been protected as park land and thus make this an especially enjoyable ride. But soon the road heads inland to cut across a large peninsula and the lush forests give way to an arid hill landscape. I am reminded that this is Patagonia after all. At one point I can look across the vast lake and make out Bariloche on the opposite side, and twenty minutes later, I am in a valley with brown prickly vegetation on dry sand and gravel, and the stumps of small volcanic cones outlining an active geological fault. Around 2 pm, I enter Bariloche.
Bariloche surprises me pleasantly and mocks my belief that I can gage a place from a distance.
I like Bariloche and would not hesitate to return there on a future trip.