From the town of Victoria we head towards Curacantin where we plan to spend New Years Eve, before tackling the Paso del Pino Achado leading to Argentina. The regions volcanoes, the Llaima, Tolhuaca and Lonquimay flashing us with their white peaks from behind giant poplars lining the street. A poster nailed on a big tree announces in red paint: “Nacion Territorio Mapuche”. At a café in a hamlet, an elderly white lady warns us. The region is dangerous, we are advised to look out for old clunky speeding pick-up trucks: “They belong to the drunken Mapuche Indians the terror of the road”. At a bus stop where we change the eBike’s batteries we talk to an indigenous lady. There is a land conflict we’re told that is as old as the Spanish conquest and there is no end in sight. First the Mapuche fought successfully against the advance of the Spanish conquistadores, and Lautaro one of their leaders even killed the chief Spaniard Pedro de Valdivia. Later by the end of the 19th century, long after Chile won independence from Spain, the army of the republic conquered the lands of the Mapuche militarily. Chile’s government then began to advertise it to potential settlers in Europe. There was talk of a Garden of Eden, of the place of milk and honey. Desperate people responded from Switzerland, Italy, Holland, Germany, France the Lebanon etc...They all settled on some piece of former Mapuche land. Today Mapuche communities are trying to get their ancestral land back. They try this trough legal means as well as by occupying land, blocking roads and the burning trucks to pressure the government. “I don’t like violence even if I have Mapuche blood, I believe things should be achieved with dignity,” the beautiful proud lady says before leaving on the bus.
In Curacantin a hostel bed with a view on the snow peak of the volcano Llaima, we gaze at it and drink red wine till the sun disappears around 09.30 PM. The New Year is announced by the sound of a 3 minute long alarm siren, no fireworks no music no party noise from the street. Its past midnight first of January 2016 Curacantin sleeps we do the same.
From Curacantin to Lonquimay, a former railway tunnel connects the towns; build in the 1930ties as part of a line that was supposed to connect Chile and Argentina. The railway line never made it to Argentina but opened the area of the alto Bio Bio to a massive logging operation, the result of which are the many treeless hills, surrounding the valley. The road climbs along the Bio Bio River that we first saw wide in Concepcion, the air is fresh smelling of the many blossoming flowers growing on the side of the road. A bus stop with the sign Suiza-Andina advertising a restaurant. The tunnel allows traffic in one direction only; we accommodate in the waiting line behind ten cars and two tractors. The light turns green the column starts, just before entering the 4km tunnel, a man runs out from the tunnel checkpoint building waving his arms and screaming at us. It turns out as cyclist we’re not allowed to go trough. We have two options, the first one crossing over the mountain range, the second one putting our ebikes on a pickup truck. Luckily the second option materialised soon after, thanks to a friendly couple that gave us and our FLYERS a lift trough the Tunel Las Raices to other side, where a valley opens widely.
From Lonquimay to the Paso del Pino Achado, we have to climb about 1000 meters. Passed the Chilean border post there are another 20km to reach the Argentinean checkpoint. The number of Araucarias trees steadily augments as we pedal up into the Alto Bio Bio, an area where indigenous communities have for years fiercely opposed the construction of a series of dams to generate hydropower with successes and defeats, more information here: https://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Central_hidroeléctrica_Ralco. The line of cars waiting to be processed by customs at Paso del Pino Achado or the Pass of the axed pine must be around 80. With our bicycles the friendly families waiting patiently beside their cars wave us trough, some clapping as you would a cyclist sprinting towards the finishing line.
The first two border agents are young and friendly both from the Chaco region and new to the Andes. They check our passports and we talk about our bicycles and the beauty of the Araucaria trees and the fact that the Mapuche and other indigenous peoples of the region used to live of their seeds and make a mildly alcoholic beverage called chicha de piñón. The younger of the border agents tells that he has planted two Araucarias at home in the dry Chaco near Paraguay, and that they are growing 1 cm per year. With our passports back in our pockets we happily pedal besides the enormous queue of people going inside border complex, heading towards a last barrier with what we thought would be a last border agent. Looking at our passports first then back at us the agent says that well…we also needed to go trough immigration and customs before being allowed to enter the country. The feeling of having just won the gold medal and losing it ten minutes later began to sink in. On the end it took us three ours to get out of the Pino Achado border complex building, a tiring but interesting experience. We discussed with our fellow travellers that patiently waited their turn in the queue an array of topics. From inflation to corruption to our eBikes. After overhearing the discussion I was having with a young Argentinean on the eBike’s advantages, a Chilean man half jokingly accused us of being agentes infiltrados (undercover agents) of some obscure ecological organisation trying to change the world order. Finally facing the customs agent we were only asked if we had anything to declare we said yes two eBikes he replied anything to declare for Argentina? No seemed the right answer and we left.
The feeling of being released from the grip of the customs and immigration officials, together with the approaching sunset while cycling downhill facing an amphitheatre worthy of an Ansel Adams’s lens, made us happy beyond description. We sped all the way down to the town of Las Lajas on the highway to heaven so to speak, photographing landscapes, Gauchos, horses, Araucarias, snow mountains, rivers, flowers, birds….