Rally of the Incas 2016
November 13 - December 9, 2016
NOVEMBER 24, 2016
Vina del Mar to San Juan
High as a Kite
Last night the Rally buzzed with rumours of a Chilean customs strike which would have meant that our planned crossing back into Argentina would have proved impossible.
Some, it must be said, were perfectly happy to spend another day cosseted in the luxury of the Sheraton hotel. In the end however, the matter was settled for us when word came through late in the evening that a deal had been struck and the border was working as usual - at a suitably glacial pace given its situation high in the mountains. At 7.31 am therefore the cars began rolling out of the carpark bang on schedule and set their sights on the way back to Argentina.
Initially the day was an easy one which might have lulled some into a false sense of security but sitting on a three lane highway isn't what endurance rallying is all about and, so it was that after 111 km we turned off to begin the one regularity of the day at Cajon de los Valles. An 11.4 km jaunt might not sound much but this one was on very twisty, broken asphalt and gravel which was so steep in places that even the mountain goats took the chairlift. Cacti stood like sentinels at almost every hairpin and when we finally topped out at 1320 m the high Andes loomed large in the windscreen. Although we didn’t know it, this amazing little section was but a taste of things to come.
Immediately after the regularity and on getting back to a tarmac road we started climbing, all the way to the border in fact, via the incomparable Paso de los Libertadores where our little Garmin friend on the dashboard recorded an altitude of 3178 m.
Those new air filters and freshly installed jets which some crews had diligently fitted yesterday were paying dividends. The air was indeed thin here and as we clawed our way up the road via the 25 numbered curves every throttle seemed to be pushed right to the floor. Surrounded by an endless deep blue sky, countless jagged peaks and snow domed mountains we breathed in lungfulls of dry, crisp and rarified air. Luckily it got cooler the higher we climbed but this didn’t stop Christoph Ley and Alfred Reichhart’s Mercedes Benz Ponton from suffering a fuel vapour lock in the Tunnel del Cristo Redontor, one of the many tunnels. The quick thinking crew however used a wet towel to better cool the lines and they were very soon on their way.
Getting out of Chile was the easy bit, however getting into Argentina took a bit longer although there are worse places to spend time, sitting as we were under the shadow of Aconcagua, waiting for the formalities to be completed with Eleonora Piccolo, speaker of many tongues and Charlie from Cars UK also on hand to speed things along.
This area was once served by the now disused Transandine Railway which passed through on its way from Mendoza to Los Andes in Chile. The line opened in 1910 and closed in 1984 and as we pointed ourselves downwards we followed much of its rusted and twisted route. There are moves to rebuild the line and given the amount of trucks we saw today that can’t be a bad thing.
Once through the border though, with all of the paperwork in place it was a short 8 km to the Time Control / lunch halt at Los Penitentes where our two doctors, Delle Grimsmo and Louise Shanahan were given the job of stamping the time cards.
On reaching the valley floor, there was a choice of routes from Uspallata, a more scenic trek looping north of Mendoza or the more direct loop southwards. The northerly route was described as the more challenging of the two but this was to do it a disservice as it actually proved to be 54 km of pure motoring ecstasy.
Those who took this route were initially rewarded with views of the entire Aconcagua range in the rear view mirror but once they’d disappeared, gravel, hairpins and altitude were all served up in equal and generous measures. This road was the Stelvio on steroids or, if I may, a length of spaghetti draped over an Ande (s). It was sinuous, it was narrow and, according to Clemons and Agneta Lansing, it was a privilege to be up there.
This remote area is also well known for wildlife including the elusive puma, today we saw an Andean fox which approached some crews with evident curiosity. Ronald Vetters and Ann Puts newly ensconced in a 4x4 pick up truck fed it cookies while another crew reputedly offered it salami and a slice of ham.
At the end of this section it was Chris 'master marshal' Elkins and Matt 'poacher turned gamekeeper' Bryson who were at the time control outside Villa Vicencio to welcome those intrepid crews who'd chosen this route.
The rally came back together at Jocoli Viejo on the outskirts of Mendoza before the run into San Juan and the night halt where the carpark was once again buzzing with tales of the day and the sound of Jim Smith’s welder as he re-attached Lars Rolner’s mudguard.