Yesterday I left Santiago and crossed the Andes to Argentina, for the second time. When I did the same trip in February, riding over the mountains through the night under a starlit sky, I assumed I would not be back. The same thought also came to mind yesterday, but I have learnt my lesson not to assume anything on this trip. So who knows? Maybe I shall return to Chile for a third time one day.
It was definitely time for me to leave Santiago. For my final week in the city, I was living in a small apartment in the heart of down town. A ready selection of good coffee shops was the only blessing. The constant noise and bustle, the impatient and sometimes downright aggressive Santiago drivers, the sense of being boxed in by millions of people…. it had become too much for me. So after a quick coffee with my KTM-riding friend Martyn, to whom I have sold my panniers, I set off north and left the city behind me. With no panniers, my kit and a spare tire were piled on to the back of my bike – I felt like, and no doubt looked like, I belonged to a gypsy caravan.
But I cared not. The bike was going beautifully. I was soon driving through the foothills of the Andes and onwards to the pass – and the border – at 3200m. The traffic was light, the skies were blue, the air a perfect temperature for riding and the scenery breathtaking. It felt good to be back on the road, and back in the mountains. The journey, about 370km, passed without incident and by 4.30pm I was rolling into Mendoza.
Whilst crossing borders can sometimes be time-consuming and occasionally frustrating, there is something special about leaving one country and entering another. Things change, your environment is suddenly new. For me, this is most pronounced when crossing between Chile and Argentina. Whilst one might assume a greater contrast between, say, Chile and Peru, I actually find the character of Chile and Argentina very different in more subtle ways. But what makes the transition between the two countries so striking is the crossing of the Andes. Driving through such a major geographical feature, starting and ending at the edge of the foothills, emphatically reinforces the feeling of leaving one place and arriving somewhere new. You don’t just cross a line on the map – you cross the second biggest mountain range in the world. It generates a more profound sense of ‘moving on’. Furthermore, the terrain and weather on the west of the Andes differ notably to that on the east. Crossing from Chile to Peru, or Peru to Bolivia, one sees no such change. But arriving in Argentina from Chile, you are greeted by very strong winds, a beating hot sun and wide, dusty plains. If looks and feels like a very different place.
Mendoza is a world away from Santiago. It has a distinctly French feel for me; wide boulevards lined with mature trees offering shade from the strong sun; numerous plazas; a cafe culture; a more intimate and laid back feel; and four-hour siestas when most of the shops close. Curiously, another stark difference that has caught my eye here is the lack of policemen on the streets. In Santiago, pairs of Carabineros, on foot, motorbike or horseback, are ubiquitous throughout the city. Here, I’ve only seen two pairs of Gendarmes on motos and one police car.
I shall leave my moto and equipment here with friends and depart tonight by bus for Buenos Aires. On Sunday I am flying back to UK for two weeks, to sort out a new mortgage, restock on spare parts for the moto, and most importantly see the family. Then I’ll return here to collect my moto. However, already I am feeling caught by Mendoza’s charm, so I suspect I may not be in a rush to leave..