Background: the road above Los Andes is the main route between Chile and Argentina, leading to the Bermejo or Uspallata Pass. It was presumably already the main road connection in 1904 when the Cristo Redentor statue was erected to commemorate the delineation of the border. A few years later a narrow-gauge railway was built, tunnelling under the crest of the Cordillera. It is still in use between Los Andes and the Río Blanco mines, and the track is visible most of the way. According to the Turistel guide there is interest in reinstating it, but on the Argentinian side it has been severed by a new reservoir between Potrerillos and Cacheuta.
In 1980 the road tunnel was opened, making the crossing feasible through most of the year. Above this point the road has never been tarmacked. Four years later the trains stopped running. The road to the pass from the Chilean side of the tunnel was allowed to fall into disrepair, though the Argentinian side has always been maintained, and is a regular destination for day trippers from Mendoza.
Cyclists have never been able to ride through the road tunnel, and when the pass became unusable on the Chilean side they were made unwilling hitchhikers by the tunnel officials. A year ago we heard reports that cyclists were now being routed through the restored rail tunnel.
Besides the names Bermejo and Uspallata, the pass is sometimes called Cristo Redentor, which is reasonable except in historical contexts, Los Libertadores, which is slightly inaccurate since San Martíns main contingent used Los Patos further north, La Cumbre which is banal, or Portillo after the ski station, which is confusing because the Portillo Argentino is also sometimes called the Paso del Portillo.
Tues 25 Jan: Los AndesPortillo (63km, 2100m ascent)
We make an early start on what is to be a hard ride. The road spends a long time climbing fairly gently. At Guardia Vieja there are restaurants and reputedly an hostería. We had been told that there was nowhere else to eat before Portillo so we had an early lunch here, though we had only gained 840m.
The gradient increases slightly as far as Juncal. A couple of km short of this place (which is nothing more than the remains of an old railway station) is a café claiming to serve sandwiches.
The Hotel Portillo is not far from the top of the third step.
Notes: there are no tunnels but several rather gloomy avalanche shelters, most of which can be avoided on roughstuff. The hotel is very good, and reasonably priced in summer, but there appear to be no alternatives for accommodation. Most cyclists seem to camp. The hotel dining room has a good view onto the Laguna del Inca and to the Tres Hermanos beyond.
The road bears quite a lot of traffic, mostly goods vehicles. It isnt too bad, but one or two of the trucks are driven intimidatingly. It seems that volumes are less on weekends, but since its a 3-day crossing this is of limited help. Leaving Los Andes on a Friday may be best.
There is a stiff westerly wind which would make the journey difficult in reverse.
Weds 26: PortilloPuente del Inca (40km, 1050m)
The Libertadores frontier complex is a few hundred metres beyond the hotel. We negotiate it by our usual tactic of showing unmistakable gormless stupidity. We expect to be told how to get through the tunnel, but nothing is said.
Eventually >we reach the summit and the famous statue. (We put the pass at 3820m.) The wind is almost enough to knock you over, and the clouds over Aconcagua are low and dark. Scantily dressed Mendocino tourists show visible distress.
We dont linger, and are soon dropping down to Argentina. The road is less interesting on this side, making broad sweeps as it descends. We regain tarmac at Las Cuevas where we eat a late lunch in the arch.
Soon after Las Cuevas is the only significant tunnel of the entire trip: lights are essential. Its an easy ride down to Los Horcones where we bumble through customs with our usual gormlessness and thence to Puente del Inca where we stay in the hostería.
Notes: the hostería is aimed at climbers and is a little basic but acceptable. Los Penitentes may offer more comfort.
Thurs 27: Puente del IncaUspallata (74km, 380m)
An easy ride. Dropping down towards Punta de Vacas there are good views back to Co. Tolosa, an outlier of Aconcagua, and to the right where there are dramatic rock formations. At Punta de Vacas there are superb views along a valley to Tupungato.
The road levels out, the wind loses its force and consistency, and the rest of the ride follows a bleak valley. We arrive at Uspallata in time for a late lunch. The town, watered by the river of the same name, is a burst of greenery in a barren region.
Colin lazes the afternoon away while Tracey goes for a training ride.
Note: we stay at the Valle Andino which is pleasant enough, though the guests are noisy.
Fri 28: UspallataMendoza (112km, 1200m)
But when exaggeration has been put aside it is an attractive road. It climbs gently from Uspallata, turning into ripio after 19km. There are views back to Mercedario. After a while the road enters a dry valley reminiscent of Morocco, passes some disused mines, continues climbing, and eventually reaches the Cruz de Paramillo at just below 3000m. A viewpoint here looks back on Aconcagua and Mercedario.
There are a couple of false summits before the descent gets under way. Now the road does something to earn its reputation, making grand sweeps across hillsides as it hurtles down to the spa resort of Villavicencio where we stop for lunch.
Tarmac resumes at Villavicencio. Theres a brief further descent before the road reaches the endless plains. Now it looses altitude slowly covering 40km in two dead straight stretches: in the opposite direction the boredom would be intolerable, but with gravity to help us we make time-trial speeds. Finally we get caught in the urban sprawl of Mendoza and find our way to our hotel.
Notes: there is no water for most of this route. The hotel at Villavicencio is currently closed for restoration though it is possible to camp there (and to visit the gardens if you have time). At Mendoza we stayed for 2 nights in the comfortable El Portal suites. We ate brilliant food one night in the new Buenos Muchachos (Av. Perú near Plaza Chile) for £25 for the two of us including wine; and very good food in Azaferán.