Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Viña del Mar, Chile to Mendoza, Argentina

Not well this morning: stomach upset. Too much food yesterday!

As a souvenir, Max gave me two gourmet alfahores from a boutique in Viña del Mar. He wanted me to compare these to those I would be trying in Argentina, where this chocolate-covered, dulce de leche-filled cookie is popular.

At 11:00, left the hotel and stopped for gas. At the ATM inside the service station convenience store, I withdrew $400 in Chilean Pesos (forgetting that I'd later need Argentine Pesos as well, and my ATM daily limit is only $500.)

Driving north out of Viña, you can cross to Mendoza via La Calera and Los Andes. Along this route, I passed an enormous oil refinery, reminding me that one of these days, I want to tour such a facility. They are such a vital element in "the American way of life", yet for me it's a complete mystery, the processes taking place within these cities of steel. (I recall a late 50s science fiction film - Enemy from Space, I think - in which such a facility was overrun by aliens and used to grow some kind of human-consuming monster! Come to think of it, that's not far from today's reality!)

A short time later, I passed a car on the two lane highway. The driver apparently was offended by this and decided to follow close on my tail. My usual reaction to such practices is to leave them behind - accelerate away. But this one, pursued me at an equal rate, then passed me using the same lane.

Loving a fight, I caught up and waved the man over, but he refused to stop. I persisted, until he finally pulled to the shoulder with me alongside. Tempers flaring, I asked what he was doing and he replied in Spanish "you did it first!"

These are the silly games some of us men(?) play.

(Of course, in the U.S., I might be more careful to avoid such an encounter, since the other guy would likely be packing a gun!)

In Panquehue, I found myself passing through one of Chile's many wine regions. This one is semi-arid, with desert-like growth beyond the swaths of lush vineyard. (It reminds me of California's Temecula wine region.) Here, Viña Errazuriz has a winery. Robert Mondavi formerly had several joint ventures with Errazuriz, and in the early days, I worked closely with the folks at Errazuriz to coordinate bottling supplies for our initial releases.

Unable to reach my friend "Gustavo" there in the days leading up to this visit, I only drove out to the facility, making a pass by the winery and vineyards, then moved on to Argentina.

The highway winds in tight hairpins up the western face of the Andes. From the harsh weather and heavy use, the pavement is heaved, broken and rock-strewn, especially in the curves. Through slide zones it is shielded by concrete bunkers (and within these, the concrete pavement slabs are in particularly bad shape.)

Passed the ski resort of Portillo, standing vacant and weather-beaten in this off-season. The three-kilometer-long "Tunel Cristo Redentor" bores through the final ridge which marks the frontier. Argentine and Chilean checkpoints are combined at this "port of entry". West-bound traffic goes through the checkpoint on the Chilean side of the tunnel, while east-bound traffic stops several miles inside Argentina, in a huge hanger-like complex.

Entering the zone, you are handed a slip of paper that, when complete, will have seven stamps on it, one for each stage of the immigration and customs process. It's a very busy place, with tour buses unloading all passengers inside. But, it's fairly smooth, and the Argentine officials are easy-going and welcoming. Six riders from Brazil arrived at customs just behind me, but we were all too preoccupied with the process to talk.

From one side of the mountains to the other, the colors change, with the grays and blacks of the high Andes yielding to red earth-toned canyons down the eastern slopes. The Mendoza River flows east, a deep cocoa-brown.

A few miles east of the checkpoint, there are signs for the Aconcagua mirador, or view point. Aconcagua, at 6,960 meters (22,835 feet), the tallest peak outside the Himalayas, can be viewed looming at the far end of a deep canyon; that is, if it is not shrouded in clouds. I arrived at the mirador parking lot along with two other riders. I met Germans "Max" and "Klaus", (Max riding an R1200GS and Klaus on an old R100.) But we were to be disappointed, as Aconcagua this afternoon was hidden by low-hanging cloud.

In Uspallata, I spotted a BMW parked in a service station and pulled in to investigate. The rider was Albert Puig of Barcelona, Spain. We talked briefly but were interrupted by a phone call. I was surprised to see him carrying a cellular phone, still in contact with home. He's off on a round-the-world tour, another rider with a well-worn BMW R100. But he knows the machine well, being a motorcycle mechanic, and can repair it "with eyes closed", he says.

The ride through this mountain pass is spectacular, becoming even more dramatic along the eastern slopes. Another motorcyclist on a sport bike passed me, and I followed along through the sweeping curves, as we easily blew by buses, trucks and cars.

Mendoza is on the edge of a great, flat plain spreading east from the Andes. On the approach to the city, the road is lined with new vineyards and wineries. It appears money is flowing into this region to develop the industry.

Rolled into Mendoza in the early evening. So many people overflowing the downtown sidewalks! Clearly a popular vacation destination. As it grew dark, I noticed many of the cars, and most taxis (Peugeots especially) had very dim, almost non-existent headlights. How do they see in the dark??? Very strange.

It had obviously been very warm here during the day, but with nightfall was cooling down. I went straight to the hotel that Max and Jim had recommended: the "Alcor". I had difficulty accepting it when they told me they were full. For five hours, I searched for a hotel, moving from one to another. Tried 15 to 20 hotels in all. Everything full! Simply insane. I finally began looking on the outskirts of Mendoza.

Pulled into a gas station, but was quite disoriented, and people were looking at me strangely. An attendant smiled and said I wanted the Shell Station up the street. I didn't know what he was talking about, until I realized that all these pumps were for LPG. I had never seen such a station before! Apparently, Argentina has many vehicles that run on this fuel.

The hotel search seemed hopeless. I found one room, a terrible one at that, at the "Caballero" hotel for $40. My impulse was to turn around and drive back to Chile tonight, but that would truly be insane. I was feeling pretty sorry for myself, and angry at the world. I've never seen a city so full of tourists!

Exiting Mendoza to the south, and heading towards Chile, I spotted a "motel" along the frontage road that looked absolutely empty. I couldn't believe it when I was told they were full. "Is it me???" The manager did have a suggestion though: try "Ejercito de Los Andes" and he gave me directions to this hotel on the eastern fringe of Mendoza.

After several wrong turns, I arrived at the gate of this sprawling complex. It was nearly midnight. The guard said they had no rooms, but after I pleaded with him, he took pity and talked someone into finding me a room. 50 Pesos (about $17).

It's a strange old compound with dormitory-like rooms. More like a barracks than a hotel. My room had four bunk beds and a "twin" bed and was intended for children. (But these kids must have been smokers. The place reeked!)

Unloading my bike, hotel staff gathered around, admiring the bike. "Que lindo moto!" ("What a beautiful motorcycle!") It's an expression I often hear. Across the park-like grounds of the complex, kids were out playing and couples strolled, at midnight.

I had to try Mendoza's famous "so tender you can cut it with a fork" steak, so as soon as I had dumped my bags in the room, I headed downtown in search of a restaurant. Found the "Estancia La Florencia" doing a lively business.

Ordered a steak with french fries. The steak must have been at least one pound! Of course, I also had to sample Mendoza wine: a half-bottle of "La Linda" 2004 Malbec. (Peppery, ripe, extracted, slightly vegetal, young and crisp. The wine, that is.) The steak was very good, but I did need a knife! $15 plus tip for the meal.

I was there from 12:30 until 2:00 a.m. At 2:00 a.m., there were still families dining, including one couple with an infant!

Back at the hotel, looked out my window to see the Southern Cross high in the southeast.

It seems I have lost energy for the journal lately. Hopefully, a temporary lapse.

***

Some concerns about the bike: there's a low speed wobble or shimmy in the front end. It could be just weight distribution causing. And then there's the chronic problem of warped front brake discs.

***

Making this journey is definitely a departure from my normally sedentary nature. I meet people on the road, such as Albert Puig, who seem much more comfortable and confident in the role of "adventurer", and who appear to live for, and thrive on the challenges.

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