Riding The Route of the Condor was one of those reckless bar-talk ideas that wouldn’t normally have got traction beyond the hangover. Like most beer-charged plans, it should have been added quickly to the graveyard of other wonderful yet fantastical ambitions such as unicycling the Pan American Highway, or cycle touring the Kamchatka Peninsula. Yet somehow it sticked, slowly gaining momentum with none of the original inebriated party wanting to back down. And so it was that I found myself this February rolling very early away from my front door in Santiago, Chile. My two friends and I puffing away up the ski resort road by the beams of our bike lights. Our sights set on a real S24O test piece.
The S24O (that’s bikepacker for “sub 24hour overnighter”) is the bread and butter outing of bikepacking trips. The rules are simple: head out from your front door taking charge of food, water and shelter until playtime ends 24hours later. Our bikes that morning were loaded with everything we thought me might need, and several items we hoped we wouldn’t. In the handlebar bag was a sleeping sack, Therm-a-rest mat, bivvi bag and warm jacket. In the gastank bag were the tools. Food was stashed in the seat post bag and a gallon of water sloshed around the half-frame bag inside a bladder. Almost everything would be used before the clock ran down.
The Route of the Condor is a rite of passage ride. It is a modest 32miles in length, but climbs and then descends 6000′ of dirt mountain pass. Its remoteness demands complete self sufficiency. The altitude and exposure to the elements mean you have to be prepared for a cold night if someone takes a tumble. And the name itself – La Ruta del Cóndor – refers to the 80-year-old carrion birds with their 3-metre wing span who sail overhead, waiting to swoop down on unfortunate souls. Our ambitious plan conceived during a night on the liquor, suddenly was a serious and sobering reality.
Yet we had set out. And as anyone knows who dares to do what their fears try to deny them – this is more than half the battle. We turned onto the dirt at La Ermita and entered the Valley of the Covarrubias River. As we cleared the first few rolling miles of meadows and horse pasture, a familiar and liberating feeling came upon us. Even on a short S24O it is possible to slip into that dropping-out-of-society sensation. For a sort while you will be answerable only to yourself. You will not be bound by emails, or phone. You will not worry about making good time, or keeping it or even having it. Instead you are a rolling autonomous entity. Open to the sensations that come blowing on the wind.
Slowly the verdant greens of the lower slope were smothered by the cactus and talus streaked Andean foothills. The air thinned and intermittently crackled with electricity from the overhead pylons for which our dirt track was originally built to service. Time spooled out. Switchbacks zig-zagged above us like a seismograph reading, reducing us to a concentrated silence. Climbing on a fully loaded bicycle can be tiresome if you choose to let that feeling in. But whilst intimidated by the task ahead, we did not yet wish it all to be over. And in this way the switchbacks passed without difficulty ever turning to hardship.
Around noon, three Chilean cowboys came whooping over a ridge, driving their cattle. At over 8000′ above sea level we had now climbed into a rarely visited rock-scape, where only the hardiest snakes and wiliest condors could pick a living. It was unclear where these men had come from, or where they would spend the night. Perhaps they thought the same about us. But as we rattled up the last climb, with water and sleeping gear stowed safely in our bags, we knew we could weather any problem we came up against.
Well, almost. The issue didn’t present itself until late in the afternoon. We had reached the top of the pass around 3pm and briefly sought shelter in a ditch. Here we shared fruit and shouted silly stories into the wind. Any apprehension about not making it down by nightfall was shaken off, and any doubts about our good sense in attempting the ride were finally put to rest. The descent was rutted, and dusty and slippy and fantastic. Stray weeds burst from the middle of the track, thwacking against the frames as our bikes burst downhill. Layers of curious sulphur flashed in the rock bands like trapped streaks of sky. And clods of baked earth burst under our wheels in the lower folds of the cooling mountain.
The village of El Alfalfal was where we realised our mistake. Night had all but fallen, and in our enthusiasm to keep riding we had run out of both daylight and mountain slope to make camp. From the first household there spilled raucous cumbia music and the light from a naked bulb. The neighbourhood feel disconcerting and the chances of safely throwing down our bivvi bags for a few hours sleep unlikely.
But as so often happens when you take a chance on the unknown, events seem to conspire in your favour. A hesitant inquiry about sleeping in the front garden of a local store led to dinner, beers and a space being cleared for three tipsy cyclists to sleep in the shed. Early the next morning we closed the 40mile road loop around the mountain. Despite the renewed soreness in our heads, we lost no time along the way in planning our next 24hours of freewheeling adventure.
Check out this mega 3D fly-through of the Ruta del Condor, created by the photographer Brendan James.
Call for comment
- Where could you get to from your front door on an S24O?
- Ever found good things come your way when you get out on your bike?
Matt Maynard is a British cyclist, writer and environmentalist. He is based in Santiago, Chile. Find more of his adventures on Twitter, Facebook and at his website matt-maynard.com