Into the Andes: A Father and Son Gravel Adventure

Into the Andes: A Father & Son Adventure

Photos by Luca and Tom Haines

by Tom Haines

Mountains, culture and bikepacking along the finest gravel routes in South America

When it comes to bucket lists, most people have skydiving, swimming with dolphins, or walking the Great Wall of China on theirs: not so Tom Haines and his 16-year-old son Luca. These two intrepid explorers decided to take on, headfirst, a unique gravel cycling challenge across the Andes, the stunning mountain range in South America. Months of planning, training and preparation went into the father and son’s trip – for young Luca was designated official navigator for the trip. Read on as they share their heart-warming story of epic adventure, mountainous camp outs, and cultural exploration all on two wheels.

I cannot believe that we made it. Or, not so much that we made it, but that we even did it. On that first day, fresh packs fully loaded, bikes shiny and new, we rolled out of the Patagonia mountain town of Bariloche and down around the south end of the big blue lake, Nahuel Huapi, and then north into the Siete Lagos. That day, in early February, high summer in Argentina, had been four months coming: plotting, planning, preparing, and packing. And just like that, with the first pedal strokes from the city center and onto our first dirt road, we were riding into 40 days of adventure.

We are avid cyclists back home in New Hampshire, my son an accelerating road and cyclocross racer with a development team, I, at 50, just trying to keep from spinning backward. We have enjoyed in recent years the freedom that riding a bike brings, logging thousands of miles together on local roads. But those have often felt contained. When a longtime Argentine friend, a journalist-turned-wine maker, invited us to join the March grape harvest in Mendoza, Luca, the 16-year-old, eager to explore passions in cycling and Spanish, had suggested, “why don’t we ride there?”

South American bikepacking is, for some, a bucket-list pilgrimage, and often unfolds for a year or more, with fabled routes spanning the continent. We would meet, weeks into our ride, a couple camped on the roadside, he from Portugal, she from Indonesia. They were in month five of an expected nine, pedaling mountain bikes from Colombia toward Ushuaia, at the southern end of Argentina. He had asked about our plan, and I’d told him that we were rolling the opposite direction, north. When the woman joined the conversation, the Portuguese guy turned to her, and said, about us, “they’re only out for 40 days.”

But our route would be epic in ways of its own. On dark, winter evenings back home, Luca had built a series of GPS files that traced 1,300 miles north from Bariloche on pavement and gravel, through remote canyons and desert towns, ending with one last dirt road to Gabriel’s vineyard. Along the way, we would cross the Andes into Chile, and, after a quick jaunt to the Pacific Ocean then working north again among volcanos, cross back into Argentina. The route would include more than 80,000 feet of climbing. But the journey, Luca told one cycling friend, would be “as cultural as it was natural and physical.”

Heading off from Bariloche that first morning, mountain cool quickly rose toward heat, and the grind and jostle of commuting cars on city streets gave way to sunlight cutting dust stirred up by us, as we pedaled a rutted road along the west edge of the lake. We did not know then the arc of each day ahead, where it would begin or end, or who or what we would meet along the way. And that, simply, was the goal: to enter into the place, together, and live in simple movement, morning to evening, one campsite, or small-town motel, to the next.

As a father and son far from home, our journey would have extra meaning, connecting threads and beginning new ones. Luca, serving as navigator and translator, would grow through encounters with border guards and innkeepers, shop owners and ranchers. I would settle into a new role, along for the ride.

On that first morning, we were still adjusting from jumping between continents on flights from Boston to Miami, then Buenos Aires, and on to Bariloche. There, we had done a few shakedown rides, testing the gear and ourselves. On one short loop, Luca had gotten a bad sunburn, and put his high-school Spanish to use in the pharmacy. We met a bike shop owner who’d studied in the United States, and knew a friend of ours, it turned out. So, the night before we set off for good, we stopped into his shop for a beer, surrounded by tools and bike parts and new friends, a perfect way for our uncertain odyssey to begin.

An hour’s ride from Bariloche, we angled around the southern end of Lake Nahuel Huapi and turned north on famed Ruta 40, which traverses the lake’s forested eastern edge. We each were pedaling the new Topstone gravel bike, with bags strapped on the handlebars, beneath the top tube, and off the seat post – a set-up often called ‘light bikepacking.’ In the bags, we stashed first aid and bike parts and electronics and riding clothes, with a change or two for off the bike, and a tent and sleeping bags and a cook stove. We carried a sturdy water pump for streams and rivers, but little food, aside from syrup and waffles, as the rest we would stock from local markets.

Ruta 40 is paved along Nahuel Huapi and, after a long climb and weaving descent, it traces the rocky lake shore. Several experienced bikepacking friends had cautioned us to go easy the first few days, lest joints and muscles get over-worked from the load. We stopped at the first campground we saw. It was barely noon, but soon we had taken a frigid dunk, and hung a line to dry rinsed riding kits, and set the tent up in the still-high sun, then idled in the shade, dozing in the first of what would become many siestas.

“ Everything was so orderly and easy that first evening, and it gave us confidence for the upcoming journey ”

No other travelers came to the campground that Monday afternoon. Fernando, the campground host, had a small hut with a refrigerator that held big bottles of cold Quilmes beer, and he had chain-sawed a dead tree that morning. Everything was so orderly and easy that first evening, and it gave us confidence for the upcoming journey, when we would leave the paved roads and find shelter camping wild where we could. We set some cypress logs to crackling in a fire pit and looked into a sky thick with stars, then slept a big sleep, knowing that as wheels turned in the days ahead, we would ride one gravel road and another, climbing through one valley and the next, into places unknown.

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