Vineyards give Elqui Valley European flavor

Gabriele Mistral wrote lovingly of her simple valley and people

On my cycling tours there are two places I like to visit more than anything else. One is churches or cathedrals. They are cool, quiet, and serene, a nice change from the crush and rush of the road, tourists, and city hustle/bustle. Much the same can be said for museums, of which the Gabriela Mistral Museum in Vicuņa, Chile, can attest. The Elqui valley lies east of the coastal town of La Serena, itself a beautiful sight (especially after weeks in the Loma and Atacama deserts). The valley is broad and peaceful, with a distinct European flavor that comes from the vineyards, small farms and streams, and even from the hills themselves. The wind is brisk from the west, a joy to riders heading uphill over Agua Negra pass, at 4760 meters (nearly 16,000 feet) a hefty climb indeed. For the first 110 km or so, to the Chilean town of Guanta, the road is paved.

After Guanta the surface reverts to a relatively stable and rideable dirt surface. There are no formal services (food, water) etc. between the town of Guanta on the Chilean side and Los Flores on the Andean side, many kilometers away, so make sure you have enough food to get you thru this region. The water is drinkeable from the streams at the higher elevations, so you are OK there. It is possible to get some bread and other simple provisions from shepherds in the region, as well as at the border crossing points, but these are strictly courtesies of a friendly people and should not be abused.

The climb is not a steep one, but is relentless. The mountains are dry and barren, though colorful; and snow appears as you approach the higher parts of the pass, especially in odd ice formations known as Los Penitentes. These narrow and seemingly kneeling ice sculptures form due to action of the wind and sun. The air is cold enough for the ice to remain frozen, but the sunīs rays at midday can melt the surface; so only the surfaces parallel to the noonday sun (or the prevailing wind) survive. The result is a series of very narrow ice sculptures which, at a distance, appear to be throngs of kneeling and penitent Christians on the mountainsides. Think about that as you struggle up the pass in the thin, cold air. I have alot of riding experience so I did not have the headaches many riders get at these lofty levels; but I was giddy, and my front tire kept sinking into the soft sandy roadway, so I walked most of the final 10 kilometers or so to the pass. Mountain bikers may have better luck.

MAYBE...maybe mountain bikers will have better luck. But then again, I know many mountain touring bikers who, enthralled by the strength of their machines and their versatility, pile the weight high and deep in their panniers, front wheel and back. So it was with the fellow here, who I met near the summit of Cristo Redentor. He was on a tour of Chile and Argentina, going in the opposite direction as I, and we spent a night together at the Hostal near the summit. There, as the temperatures fell below freezing, we put our food together and had a nice meal of soup, spaghetti, bread, tea, chocolate and cookies.

Everything but the kitchen sink on that rear axle!

AH!! A nights rest and warm food after a long climb.....

The next day we stuffed ourselves full of bread and cheese, and headed our separate ways. By the way, the maps list Cristo Redentor at 3800 meters. That may be the height of the original, Uspallata Pass, which the tunnels replaced. But it is definitely not the height of the paved roadway over the pass. There is a sign in Los Cueva on the Argentine side thats says you are at 3100 meters; the tunnels are just two kilometers beyond that. That means, if all the signs are correct, that I climbed 700 meters in 2 kilometers, for an average grade of 35 percent!!! Sorry folks...I am not THAT rough!!!!

There is an old railroad that follows the route, falling into serious disrepair on both sides of the border. The railroad has its own tunnel thru the pass, which is now the one used by cyclists who come this way. Though lit, it is dim and dank and I encourage cyclists to walk. Again, the signs say it is 4 kilometers in length but I think that is an overstatement. The light at the end of the tunnel, and the lengthy descent to Vina del Mar on the Chilean coast, just glimmers in the photo below.

Tolkienīs dwarves would be proud of this tunnel under the Andes at Uspallata Pass.

I really do not like the dark, and the musty, especially if there are drops of water falling, unseen, from a yucky ceiling. This tunnel has all of the above. I suppose that the 15,000 man 'Army of the Andes,īwhich walked over the mountains in the 19th century to fight the stunned Spanish garrions for independence at Santiago, might have appreciated such a shortcut, but they had none. For them, sadly, Uspallata was 3800 meters, a bitter cold experience in which unnamed thousands perished. 1