Crossing the Andes by bike

Interview with two twenty-somethings engaged in an ambitious three-year project that saw them ride their bikes through Chile and across the Andes.  

In July 2011, Morrigan McCarthy and Alan Winslow embarked on a three year project to ride their bicycles over 30,000 miles (48,280 km) across four continents and 50 countries, documenting the lives of twenty-somethings around the world through photographs, video, audio and writing.
Eight months later they found themselves crossing the Peruvian border into the northern deserts of Chile. They made their way down the length of this slice of land on the bottom of the continent, from the city of Arica, through La Serena, to Valparaiso and the heart of the country, Santiago.
Then, in late January 2012, they rode over the Andes and into Argentina. got hold of Morrigan and Alan, now in Granada, Spain, over the phone to ask them about their experience in Chile and their project: The Geography of Youth.
TiC: What were some of the highlights of your time in Chile?
McCarthy: “Crossing the Andes I think was my favourite experience, though Valparaíso was incredibly beautiful and Santiago was really cool. We went to a contemporary art museum in Santiago that was just awesome…there is so much life and youth and art in Santiago.”
Winslow: “Arica was an interesting little city. We were there when the Dakar Rally was passing through – that was pretty cool because we got to see all of the cars coming in. We ended up camping on the beach just north of the city and Dakar was parked right down the road from us.”
TiC: How do you connect with people for your project?
W: “We don’t set up any interviews, we just walk around and chat to people, and if someone is willing to be interviewed we sit down and photograph them, take a portrait and give them the survey. We’re trying to keep it as random as possible, so there’s no real pattern to it, we just walk around and introduce ourselves to people.”
TiC: What did you think of twenty-something Chileans?
M: “We ended up staying with a med student in Santiago, and she was lovely enough to introduce us to all her friends and take us around. It great way to get this perspective of the city. The focus on education was pretty high at that point – education was and probably still is a hot topic there. We were pretty impressed with the young people of Chile. It seems that people really are standing up for what they believe in, and take their education and their art and their culture very seriously.”
W: “Yeah, when we got into Valparaíso we walked right into a small protest by some students and we chatted with them. They were really well informed, they had their ideas all laid out and could talk to you really clearly about what they were there for.”
TiC: What did you do for accommodation on the road?
M: “We tried to camp as much as we could – it’s a good way to get the feeling of any country that you’re in – but we also spent a lot of time in Chile staying with local families. Actually, on our way up the Andes we were looking for a campground one night and a small restaurant offered for us to sleep on their floor, so we spent the night there…they were a really friendly bunch.”
TiC: How did you cross the Andes?
W: “We went north out of Santiago into Los Andes and then we took Route 7 over the 29 switchbacks into Mendoza.”
TiC: Just the thought of those switchbacks makes me ill…
M: “I actually think it might be more terrifying on a bus. We kept looking at those buses and thinking, whew, what a difficult thing to do. But I’m sure they were thinking we were crazy too.”
TiC: How was your experience sharing the road with cars?
M: “Actually everyone in the cars was amazingly friendly through that whole pass. I don’t know if they thought we were insane or what the deal was, but they were really nice. We had lots of people leaning out the car windows and taking photos of us…”
W: “…and a couple of truck drivers waved and clapped.”
M: “There was lots of clapping.”
TiC: How long did it take to cross?
M: “It took us, from Los Andes, two days to summit, and we took our time coming down the backside, maybe three days…three or four days to Mendoza.”
W: “The first day we camped just below the switchbacks, so we did them in one day.”
TiC: How was the weather?
M: “As soon as we got to where we camped on the first night it started getting chilly, and it didn’t get any warmer. It was snowing on the top when we actually passed.”
TiC: Did you enjoy it?
M: “I actually did enjoy it. The thing about climbing a mountain pass like the Andes is that you don’t really expect that it’s going to be pleasant, so all the nice scenery and the friendly people and the challenge of it is actually pretty nice. The scenery is unbelievable up there, so we really enjoyed taking photos and making videos and we were both psyching each other up so. . . I had fun.”
W: “We prepared ourselves a long time for it and I think that once we got there we were so ready for it that it wasn’t as difficult as we thought it was going to be, so that made it really enjoyable. Going up anything like that, one of our biggest concerns is space on the road, but everybody was so friendly that we had nothing to worry about, so we just went slow and steady.”
M: “Really slow and steady.”
TiC: What advice would you give to those wanting to follow in your footsteps?
M: “Just do it for sure – it was great! The good thing about cycling at those altitudes is that you can’t go up fast enough to get too sick from the altitude….so just take it one pedal stroke at a time and when you’re tired you have to give yourself a break – you don’t want to be miserable. You have to cut yourself some slack and remind yourself that you’re crossing the Andes by bike and it’s okay to take it slow”
W: “Yeah, the grade on the road is low enough that you won’t have to walk your bike up, so if you take your time you’ll have no problem.”
TiC: What food did you pack?
M: “We were big fans of the fruit in Chile, so we packed a lot of fruit as little sugar bombs.”
W: “We ate lots of bread and fruit…the night before we had rice and beans with hot peppers mixed through.”
M: “Powerfood! We a lot of beans and rice…it’s good for you.”
To see Restless Collective’s facebook page, where they give “the inside scoop” on the things they do on a daily basis, like “whining about not having enough food, or letting people know what’s happening outside of blog,” click here. For their postcards from Chile, click here. For Project Tandem, their previous project, click here.
By Joe Hinchliffe