Sometimes the intense joy that comes from bicycle touring can be almost too much to bear.
Last Sunday was such a day, riding down the magnificent Camino de los Siete Lagos (Road of the Seven Lakes) in Argentina between San Martin de los Andes and Villa la Angostura.
Known as one of the most scenic bikes rides in the world, we were fortunate to enjoy it on a calm clear day beneath a cloudless sky. It began with a long climb out of San Martin, winding up the mountain for over 10km. Full of energy, we would have made it to the top in one go had it not been for a beautiful Mirador (lookout) looking back down the valley.
At the top it felt like being launched into the high Andes as we swooped across mountain plateaus, down through dark ancient forests and past lake after lake of breathtaking beauty and crystal clear purity.
We paused at the Arroyo Partido (the divided stream) where a few innocent rocks have caused the stream to split into two separate channels, one flowing to the Atlantic the other to the Pacific. It’s an important moment … if you’re a drop of water!
There was an old mountain restaurant for coffee, the only one we saw all day. Then a picnic lunch next to the still waters of Lago Villarino. It was perfect!
After 78km we arrived at a junction leading to Lago Traful, reputed to be the most stunning lake of all, where we had booked a hostel. A paved road led invitingly up the hill that guards the entrance to the lake. Unfortunately it soon turned into the dreaded ripio!
Having now spent several hours bumping along the infamous South American gravel tracks, here’s our guide to the 4 different types of ripio we’ve experienced:
- Good Ripio Hard packed mud, often kept damp under trees with just an occasional stone. A slightly bumpy but pleasant ride.
- Bad Ripio Fairly hard packed gravel and stones, like a good farm track. Feels like being shaken around on a fruit sorting machine.
- Very Bad Ripio Corrugated and full of ruts, huge stones and sand, like a very rough farm track. Feels like riding through a minor earthquake.
- Impossible (sometimes hilarious) Ripio Deep sand or stones, as on a dry, soft beach. Causes the rider to grind to a halt and walk, or to catapult over the handlebars.
When riding uphill they adjust by one category (good becomes bad etc.). There’s no such thing as good uphill ripio. The volume of traffic is also a factor as each passing car creates a unpleasant dust storm.
The road to Lago Traful started out as good ripio but quickly deteriorated into bad, then very bad ripio with an unhealthy dose of traffic. We managed just 3km in half an hour with another 20km still to go. As Andy paused for a drink to sooth his parched throat an anguished howl rose up from the dust 50m behind him.
I … AM … NOT … RIDING … ON … THIS … RIPIO … ANYMORE
(Actually there was a more descriptive word between THIS and RIPIO. We’ll leave you to fill in the gap!)
The decision was made … we turned around and started hauling our bikes back over the hill. After all, it was only another lake!
There was still 35km to reach Villa Angostura for two now-very-tired cyclists. But there was a silver lining ahead … an extra rest day!
It didn’t spoil a wonderful bicycle touring day which included three new personal bests:
- 115km cycled
- 2040m climbed
- 78 lake views
Two days later we cycled a mere 84km along the shores of the vast Lago Nahuel Huapi to the town of Bariloche, the centre of the Argentine Lake District. This included a brief introduction to the steppe, a windswept barren land of vast distances and big skies that stretches from the mountains to the coast.
Deciding that you can never see enough lakes we then spent a scheduled day off riding around some small but very pretty lakes near Bariloche on the Circuito Chico (small circuit) with time for both a long lunch and a little canoeing.
Bariloche itself was something of a surprise. Built by Swiss and German immigrants it’s Argentina’s chocolate capital and is the base for one of the countries most popular skiing areas. There’s certainly no shortage of chocolate shops but instead of alpine quaintness we found a working town with some interesting rough edges.
We thought the town planners must have gone for a long Argentine lunch instead of working on a few architectural guidelines!
After just one week in the country we’re not really qualified to comment on Argentina … but here are a few observations anyway.
It’s very different to Chile, partly because it attracted a lot of Italian as well as Spanish migrants. This is evident in great coffee and pasta, even better gelato but also in more aggressive drivers that are noticeably less tolerant of cyclists. Several times we’ve been angrily hooted off the narrow roads onto the gravel hard shoulder.
Supermarkets are dominated by three things – beef, beer and red wine – all vital ingredients for asados (big family barbecues) that are seen, smelt and heard across the country.
We’ve now travelled on both the Seven Lakes Road in Argentina and the Seven Lakes Circuit in Chile. We’re not sure if the names are just a coincidence or a bit of rivalry between neighbours?
Whichever it is, the Chilean lake circuit is smaller, gentler, more peaceful. The Argentine version is bigger, bolder and more dramatic. Perhaps this is a little like the psyche of the two countries?
Clare and Andy