Traveling together

Those who have been following my blogs for some time know that I always made my previous trips alone. It was my ‘first nature’, independence. All the choices up to me to make, every second. All the bears on the road up to me to chase away or conquer. Undisturbed, alone. I did really enjoy meeting other cyclists along the way and sometimes cycling together for a while, but in the end, the adventure was mine, just me. Me and my bike, Wilson.

During the years I spent in the Netherlands, I met Paul at ‘Santos’, where he was still working at the time. We soon discovered that we had many common interests and enjoyed spending time together. We fell in love. At that time, Paul had taken a few cycling holidays with friends but had never gone on a big cycling trip. He had fantasised about this, but it was not in his nature to undertake something like this alone. The agreement that there would be room in our relationship for cycling trips (be it alone or together) was as important to me as the agreement on wanting children is to many. Soon we decided to take a big trip together. We also agreed on not wanting kids ;).

In the years that followed, this journey was repeatedly postponed. First because of my remaining recovery from burnout, then because of the pandemic and then because of my knee problems. This bought me soms time to get used to the idea of travelling together. I found this quite intimidating, sharing the journey with someone. Short cycling trips together in the meantime strengthened my confidence in travelling together for a longer period of time.

We have been together for over 4,5 years now and have been travelling in Argentina for 2,5 months. We are doing well together! We do approach things differently and sometimes make decisions based on different factors. This is partly due to our difference in experience, but also to our personalities. Every time Paul writes a blog, I am curious how he will describe our experiences. I liked the last blog he wrote so much that I would rather post it here that an account of my own. So below you can read a report from Paul’s perspective. Paul writes his blogs only in Dutch, but if you would like to read more of them, you can do so HERE.

October 26, 2023, Rio Pico, Argentina

It’s shitty weather in Rio Pico, but we are dry, sitting in a flat under a blanket, because the heater is not working. A great opportunity to look back at the past week: We cycle away from Jorge’s cyclist hostel in Villa la Blanca. Just before we reach the main road, a cyclist passes us with a big lump of luggage. Clearly a traveller. Normally we would have shouted or waved enthusiastically, but we keep quiet. After all, it must be Mateo… Over the past few days, we have lived and befriended Karen in the hostel. She tells us she has been travelling with Mateo for a while, but the relationship is ‘complicated’. She reluctantly expects him. Biased, we don’t fancy Mateo either, and hope he cycles past the hostel unnoticed, leaving Karen alone. Less than a kilometre away, he is waiting for us, so it seems inevitable that we will have to bare our bottoms. After shooting another quick picture of Hera, I introduce myself: “Paul, mucho gusto”. “Mario, todo bien?”… Mario?! While we obviously shouldn’t have any judgment about Mateo, we are relieved not to have to lie about our stay and company over the past few days. We tell them we are going to look for sandwiches, coffee, wifi and groceries in Cholila. Mario’s plans are the same and he joins us.

With Karen at the Casa de Ciclistas

While enjoying the most delicious pastry so far, we get to know each other a little. Mario is from Cordoba, Argentina. He is 36 and travels for a few months before returning to Austria where he works on a farm. After all, his visa doesn’t let him work there for more than nine consecutive months. He speaks good English, no German. Smart, enthusiastic and full of great stories and good cheer. It clicks! Together, we decide to continue RP71 into Los Alerces National Park. His bike is different. Different from ours, and different from those of most Argentine travellers we meet. He has a lightweight aluminium gravel bike of the Zenith brand. A nice fast bike, but slightly less suitable for this application.
1. A kickstand: he needs a stick and a few minutes to put his bike down.
2. Mudguards: he has plastic on the underside of his carrier that regularly drags against his tyres.
3. Mounts for bottle holders: he has 2 bottle holders with him, but has nowhere to mount them properly.
4. Air and rubber: they are nice tyres, Schwalbe’s G-one, but (as it will turn out) not for a heavily loaded bike.
5. Light gear: to stay in cadence he rides twice as fast up the mountain (and then sometimes has to recover halfway).
6. Front panniers: all his luggage is on the rear carrier. With regularity, something falls off. And if he needs something from his bags, he has to ‘unpack’ the whole thing.

The scenery is beautiful, as Mathias (a previously met local, ed.) predicted to us. Crisp rivers, waterfalls, forest and meadow. Photogenic cottages are mostly made of wood and stone. Mario and I feast our eyes. Land is for sale everywhere…. At the entrance to the National Park is a ‘camping libre’ according to our map. The spot is beautiful, but no camping is allowed until November. After an ice-cold skinny-dip and hot meal, we hide our tents secretly in the bushes. The next morning, Mario forgets to kiss his legs and bike before mounting, resulting in a flat tyre. He balks because, according to the seller, these tyres were suitable for gravel and paved surfaces. And they are, but not with 30kg of luggage. It’s a puncture, or snakebite. So 2 cuts due to the tyre being flattened against the rim. Typical if your tyre is too soft for the conditions. His tyres are 35mm wide (narrow) and you have to inflate rock hard to avoid this, but then you miss out on the cushioning, so your body and wheels suffer more. Hera reads a book on the bank while me and my grateful ‘hermano’ patch his tyre. I am happy with my new brother.

Over 20km, three lakes meet. Rio Arayanes connects them and is a huge attraction. Along the shore is a beautiful footpath which is also great for cycling. There are large groups of people on it, but no one finds it a problem that we cycle there. They kindly let us pass, encourage us, ask where we are from, or to take photos with mums and grandmas. Only on our return does the Guarda Parque turn out not to be so keen on our outing. According to her, it was clear enough that it was a hiking trail just because of the swing gate. That gate was indeed a bit awkward with the bike, but well… The harm and enjoyment was done 😊. That night, with the permission of another park ranger, we camp at another closed camping libre. It is an improbably beautiful spot, and the weather helps: bright sunshine, no wind. The view reflects in the crystal-clear icy lake. “Have I ever camped in a more beautiful place?”

On the way to Trevelin, Hera notices something. She is good at that. There is a tear in Mario’s front tyre. The inner tube is already coming through a bit, so it’s nothing too soon. Mario balks at his tyres even harder than before. But also considers himself lucky. A blowout can be very nasty, especially with a big descent ahead. With duct tape on the inside of the outer tyre, we ride to Trevelin, the last village we visit as a trio. We celebrate our farewell by going out for dinner. Most people fall silent when we tell them we don’t drink alcohol and eat meat. “Then what are you doing in Argentina?” or “wrong country!” We decided to give it a try and order parilla, meat that is. It is a mix of sausages, entrails and ribs. We both don’t like it and are actually happy about that. Next time again pasta or rice with soya from our own ‘kitchen’ 5km outside Trevelin, Mario turns right to Chile. We turn left to Corcovado on the RP17. We wish each other a good trip and reunion in Chile, Argentina, Austria or the Netherlands.

Both Mario and we looked at the weather forecast. We have 3 days, after which the weather turns nasty. With winter precipitation and lots of wind. Then you want to be inside somewhere, so we both set our sights on villages that are feasible and affordable, in our case Rio Pico. Our route is very challenging. It’s almost 2000 altimeters in 3 days. Ascent of up to 23%. Almost everything is unpaved. We have vain hopes for gravel, but these roads are made of what gravel is also made of: stones. Big round stones. And where they have been ridden into a track by a rare car, these are usually brake pits, aka washboard. Fortunately, the stage to Corcovado has the 2nd half asphalted. That advantage is partly offset by a cold headwind. Hera is surprised that I still feel up to putting together a curry dish with my new spices that evening. Maybe I didn’t actually have the energy..

After all, the next day is day of reckoning. The toughest of the 3, and I’ve already used up too much energy. We have to climb 1000m on an idiotically bad road. It takes all my energy, from every pot. At least half of every joule of effort is ‘lost’ in rocks slipping under our tyres, counter-steering, hobbling over washboards, squeezing my grips and keeping my grimace in crease. The bounce of my bike is muffled against my butt and noble parts, leaving me nauseous for virtually the entire ride. The 3rd day to Rio Pico should be a relatively easy one, but it is windy, drizzling, cold and the road is unchangingly bad. Physically I manage, but I pull badly. I am angry at every stone, gust of wind and raindrop that crosses my path. And angry at the Argentines for not being able to build a decent road. They can, but these stubborn cyclists chose something else. This is where Hera clearly stands out from me. She has experienced this more often, longer and worse and managed to surrender to it. How she experiences it: “It’s part of the journey,” she says. “This is how you get to beautiful remote places.” “This is where you get satisfaction and pride.” “This rather than in the Netherlands behind a desk.” It makes me insecure that I cannot agree to all this. If you had offered me an alternative at that moment, I probably would have accepted it, only to regret it later. I use the last bit of mental energy I have to remain somewhat nice to Hera. She deserves that more than I can live up to. I barely take any notice of my surroundings. My only focus is reaching Rio Pico and finding a place to shower, sleep and think about why this is so much more intense for me than I thought. And what that means for the rest of the trip.

I count down the kilometres as we approach the village. There is a paper ‘cafe’ hanging on a window. We order 2 coffees and chat with the girl who keeps the coffee shop, supermarket and bus station running, and it pays off. She makes some calls around and eventually recommends that we stop by Cecilia’s. That’s where we are now. A 3-bedroom flat with balcony, bathroom with whirlpool and private kitchen. And it costs next to nothing. It squeaks and creaks from the wind, which also finds its way inside. The roof leaks a bit and the boiler has just enough hot water for the bottom of the bath. But it’s perfect for now. Time to recharge everything including myself. I have messages from Mario. He did not make it to Futaleufú, the first town across the Chilean border by bike due to 2 flat tyres. He was also hoping to be some 100km away where accommodation would be affordable. Now he is sitting out the ‘storm’ in Futaleufú. He doesn’t strike me as someone who gets discouraged by setbacks the way I do. I hope that is true. I accidentally buy puff pastry instead of a pizza base, so we eat a bit of crazy pizza. After that, we’re really done and crawl into bed against each other. We can’t do that on our airmatrasses and in our sleeping bags. So good! Bliss, I can still feel it, thankfully.

That was it. Paul’s account of our cycling days together with Mario and the ‘hellish ride’ over the Argentinian ‘gravel’. In the days we spent in Rio Pico we reflected and philosophised together about our different ways of experiencing the previous cycling days. How I accept the situation for what it is and then enjoy what is there AFTER the suffering. A beautiful sky, hopping rabbits, the peace of the vast area, my own thoughts or even the game of manoeuvring between the boulders. Giving up without any ‘reward’, such as a stunning view or a cheering descent, frustrated Paul. In the end, we decided not to shy away from the gravel for now but to give it another chance. We both want to cycle the more adventurous routes. Paul also wants to be able to do it and I understand that! But of course you have to be able to have fun.

I can tell you in advance that the days that immediately followed were nothing like what we expected: 100 km of asphalt like it showed on the map and was ‘promised’ to us at the tourist information. Rather, the route qualifies as one of the most challenging I have ever cycled and a real baptism by fire for Paul. But, I’ll write about that myself next time….

A warm greeting from the border village of Aldea Beleiro from me and Paul

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