This morning we woke up to a clear, reasonably warm day in Uspallata. The border crossing at Paso Los Libertadores does not open until 9.30am in the morning but already by 9am there were cars and buses heading up the road towards the border so we thought prospects were hopeful for it to be open today. We had a bit of a slow start thinking it would be important to have a good breakfast and buy more food for the day ahead if we were heading into cold conditions.
At 10.30 we left Uspallat and started the ride to the pass. The road from Uspallata takes a large dogleg back towards the southwest to run between two huge ranges of mountains as it starts to climb upwards. The scenery is stunning. Massive mountain ranges on both sides of the road as well as the snow covered mountains in front of us. The multicoloured ranges to each side rise dramatically upwards from the roadside. I find myself getting increasingly nervous as we head up the valley. I often find thee huge landscapes quite intimidating and somewhat hostile just with the scale of them.
We had passed several truck parking yards in Uspallata where it was reported in the news that there were 3,000 trucks still waiting to cross the pass. On the road up with passed a steady progression of trucks slowly making their way up but it seemed that the numbers of trucks on the road was being controlled and they were only been released to travel up in a measured manner.
After riding for at least 50kms we started to get up to the snow. The road itself was dry and perfectly clear of any snow but soon we got to where there were 1.5m high drifts of snow on each side of the road. The truck traffic also increased but following the lead of other smaller vehicles and the long distance coaches we passed the rows of trucks, dodging back into the line of traffic as vehicles came down the road towards us. Eventually we were passing one continous line of parked trucks. Conditions deteriorated at this stage and in a few places a strong side wind was blowing snow across making it more difficult to see. With so much traffic the road had very little snow sitting on the surface so it was still quite an easy surface to ride on. The road was also 2 or 3 lanes wide and had a good sealed surface.
Eventually after about an hours riding from Uspallata we got to a place where trucks were parked in a several kilometre long line on the righthand side of the road and cars and buses were starting to form a line on alongside them. We found out there would be a about an hours wait here at the entrance to the Cristo Redentor Tunnel. Temperatures were about 3 degrees with a cold side wind still blowing a little bit of snow across the road.
We took this opportunity to fill up on food, eating our egg and tomato rolls, choclate bars and orange juice hoping to stay warm while we waited. Trucks parked alongside of us with their engines running were a useful source of heat while we waited and although it was chilly we didn't get too cold. There wasn't any traffic coming from the Chilean side of the pass at all while we waited so we were wondering what the holdup was.
Then a Chile Gendamarie (police) vehicle took up a pilot position in front of the queue of cars and buses and proceeded to lead us through the tunnel. It was a two-lane wide tunnel. Well-lit and with a dry road surface it was an easy ride downhill towards the border.
The Chilean police seemed to have the traffic control well sorted. At the exit of the tunnel they halted while the line of traffic reformed and then lead us slowly down the steep Chilean side for a couple of kilometres to where the border control was situated. We had been concerned that we'd somehow missed the Argentinian customs and immigration facilities but both Argentinian and Chilean facilities were all in the one place.
We though it was going to be relatively straightforward as everything was well signposted and we proceeded to get through all the paperwork needed to get us and the bikes out of one country and into another.
As usual it was more complicated and timeconsuming than we thought it would be. Each time we went to a new window to start the next process the person there would send us back to the last window because the person there had forgotten to put one stamp on the forms or they had forgotten to give us one form to fill out.
Eventaully after 2 hours we thought we'd finished all the paperwork and were clear to leave. Dressing in all our layers of motorcycle gear we got back on our bikes and rode outside to head down the road.
We missed seeing that there was a further checkpoint at the exit and got tooted and yelled at to come back to the checkpoint. Tony rode back round the entrance side and got yelled at further by police for entering the border post. We joined a line of trucks and other vehicles at the checkpoint and handed our paperwork over. We were then told that the paperwork was incomplete and we needed to return and get another customs stamp (strangely enough an Argentinian stamp on our Chilean vehicle import papers) and get clearance for our panniers from the agricultural inspectors. Tony had a major sense of humour failure at this point and in the midst of his protestations dropped his bike in the sea of mud at the checkpoint. Eventually I managed to understand what the checkpoint person was requiring and we returned inside the building for more stamps and clearance.
This took another half hour but thankfully I managed to convince the agricultural inspectors that we didn't have any fruit or vegetable products in our paniers and I didn't need to empty them out for them to see. Tony obtained yet another stampo on the papers (a total of 6 stamps on each form) and we were finally ready to leave.
Heading down the Chilean side we soon came to the switchbacks - an amazing piece of road where the road drops hundreds of metres in only a couple of kilometres. There were still huge drifts of snow on either side of the road by still the surface was dry. A continous stream of trucks were making their way down the road and a very slow pace due to the extremely steep gradient but following the exampler of other vehicles we passed one or two trucks on every stretch of straight road (about 500m long stretch between each corner) and then fell in behind another couple of trucks to inch slowly around the next corner. It was slow but steady progress.
We were riding between another line of trucks that were parked heading uphill waiting to enter Argentina. I measured the length if the lkine on my speedometer and it came to 11.5kms of trucks parked nose to tail all the way to the border. This was in addition to hundreds of other trucks parked at sveral parking yards on the way down the hill. No wonder there is talk of wanting to build another tunnel lower down the mountain. Thjis huge backlog of traffic on both sides of the pass must cost both countries millions of dollars in lost revenue each year.
Despite the huge volume of traffic it was a relatively easy ride given the wether conditions. As we dropped down the Chilean side of the pass temperatures rose rapiudly and were surprisingly high considering the altitude and the amount of snow around. By the time we rode the 65kms down to the town oif Los Andes it was 24 degrees at 5pm. It had taken us 5 1/2 hours to ride the 150kms from Uspallata - a long and tiring day. It was an amazing experience to ride this pass in the middle of winter and the scenery was spectacular. We were extremely lucky that the weather was mild despite the snow as I can imagine things could have been very different had it been colder or more windy.
We hope to stay 2 nights in Los Andes and get the motorbikes and our gear cleaned here before heading into Santiago (only 66kms away) tomorrow. We will stay at the airport hotel tomorrow night and pack the bikes up at the freight depot at the airport on Friday.