11. What a descent!

Being a Sunday proved a quiet departure from Mendoza, soon out of the city I was heading west up into the Andes to cross back into Chile. 
Google maps showed a quieter road [82] out from Mendoza that ended just short of the main Ruta 7 ~40 kilometres later at Las Heras, I expected the old road to had been blocked from the newer main road to minimise through-traffic which seemed even better. (see the break in the '82'?)
With a clear sky and the sun warming nicely there were many other cyclists along the route. A large river running through a wide canyon also offered campsites and canoeing / rafting, road-side sellers offering various fruit. Further along the valley started to tighten with the road squeezed into what available space had become. 
Eventually the end of the road comes into view, along with a barrier blocking it. After asking some other cyclist how to reach Ruta 7 and the village of Potrerillos I'm informed it's not possible as the tunnel through the mountain had collapsed many years ago. 
It's amazing how deceptive, looking at a map can be and for one to think "I'll just walk that section", the mountain in the way was too small to show on a map yet big enough to block my path. Again, the language barrier prevented me getting advice from other people around the area as to whether there was actually a locals hiking route, nevertheless I had to back-track 20 kilometres to the last main town to cross the river, and join Ruta 7 there, a 40 kilometre wasted round trip. Here are the local cyclists who escorted me to my turning.
Crossing the river I firstly arrive at the town of Lujan before finally reaching the Ruta 7. Long drawn-out climbs commence with crawler lanes provided for slow vehicles, which certainly included me! Eventually the town of Potrerillos turns up. Deciding to try my luck at a well known South-American cyclist tip of sleeping at the fire station (Bomberos) I ask at one I see, surprisingly turned away I'm told there's a municipal campsite...that turned about to be a private (ACA) campsite and due to the many-a lakes is a tourist hot-spot with respective prices. Snooping around the lake edges I find the old road (that literally now runs into the lake!) has several suitable areas for camping, as had already been seen by two other touring cyclists.
The Mendoza River. Being a shallow, fast flowing river made it suitable for kayaking and rafting, of which I noticed several business along here. 
Through the valley, slowly climbing higher..
with an occasional tunnel here and there.
An hour or so into the day's ride 'TWANG!!' A spoke popped! What a place for it to happen! Fortunately snapping mid-way along its length I could replace it without removing the wheel...there my concern resurfaced as to how quickly the San Rafael bike shop had actually trued the wheel... just several hundred kilometres back, now worrying as to how long until the next 'TWANG!!'.
Fortunately each new day here the scenery went up a notch. On this day it became amazing! Mountains that were no longer shown on maps, these were epic! The stepped ridge in the second one is quite high, let alone the mountains themselves!
Even if the road dropped, the mountains would still climb! 
Some sort of shrine to another cyclist?? I was tempted to pinch the rear wheel as a spare!!
 Creeping alongside these majestic mountains I felt the size of a flea.
The resort of Los Penitentes, athough now out of season in the winter time a blanket of snow turns this place into a ski resort. 

As the wind changed direction and strength at the drop-of-a-coin during my 'brief' lunch stop turned into an over-night camp. This time of year sees hikers whom have come to climb the impressive 4300 metre Mount Penitentes, as a result one of the hostels was open and I was permitted to camp just outside it. Later, becoming a bit too busy, and with grass patch being in the wind's direction I manage to find a better spot out of view and wind.

Phew, safe again!!
At an altitude of 3000 metres, in such a stark open space, a church! 
From where I've been...
Leads to where I'm going.....okay, less of that philosophical twoddle..there's only one route here!! 
Snow-melt trickling into the river below.

A river that's now far too rocky for even a professional rafter...look at those rocks in the way!

The final town of Argentina for me, sitting at an altitude of approximately 3200 metres, the highest of this tour.

Okay, what I'd previously said about only one road isn't quite true. Up ahead is a tunnel, and at several kilometres long - unlike in China - cyclists are not permitted to ride through it. When planning my tour I'd planned to ride the old pre-tunnel route as seen below. The mountain pass is called the Cristo Redentor de Los Andes with a christ statue at the top (see middle of picture). Having missed the turning for this and hearing what the state of this route was now like, along with my recent spoke breaking was no longer on my to-do list and would instead take the pick-up truck lift through the tunnel.

The awaiting tunnel through to Chile! Up to here I'd seen no customs office for an exit stamp and thus assumed it to be on the other side of the tunnel.
 My ride awaits me.
Dropped of at the other side as I start a brief descent I notice the Bienvenido a la Republic de Chile sign, slight concern as I'd not seen any signs for the Argentine customs for an exit stamp, and could possibly be refused Chilean entry until I had one.
The descent continues for a few kilometres parallelling an avalanche tunnel that the vehicles take. Soon I'm at the Chile customs building and a French couple travelling on a coach also ask about the Argentine exit stamp...at least if it came to it I could share a lift back with them! 
Inside the building with no care in the world the customs officer doesn't even look for the exit stamp, and is only to glad to put my new entry stamp on a page that suits me, not simply in the middle of a clean page - travelling through so many countries does use passport pages quite quickly so maximising space on each page is essential. 

Now for icing-on-the-cake, the Piece-de-Ressitance! Again, when researching and planning this trip, many-a people had mentioned the road (from Chile) up to this point, a master piece of engineering that's rated as one of the best mountain-pass roads in the world. Google maps give you an idea why. The descent from the upper part in the image was quite good, but the second section is what its all about!
A life-size Scalextric track, and I was going DOWN!!
My original plans was to ride it in the same direction as did Jules and Nicky. The disadvantage that way being that after slogging away up this section for what must take the best part of a day to reach the tunnel then into Argentina gives no real major descent toward Mendoza, just a very gradual drop over three days of riding (or at least that's how long it took me to ride up it from Mendoza), maybe there'd be a few brief fast sections but nothing relative to what was awaiting me...
Having stopped at the top view-point I could see a fair amount of traffic - cars sitting behind slow moving trucks going up and down - therefore expected a slow descent myself but luckily when I started free-wheeling down, the traffic had cleared so the road was mine! Brakes on slightly at each hairpin switchback, I was lovinn' it!! At the bottom I regretted I hand't video'd it but there was no way I was riding back up those hairpins! What a descent!!
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Next up, zipping along Chile's Ruta 5, 
a.k.a. the Pan-American Highway!