Abundant flourishes of colour in wool skeins and paintings hang from all possible places in Antonio’s house-shop. An open-door has brought him more than a house-full. We are added to a Canadian Couchsurfer teaching english while imbibing textile influences and a Belgian-Basque long-term cycle touring couple with 2 children. Warmth and a more than mild degree of chaos envelop us. Group cooking mixes with rapidly rotating languages – the 4 year old, Maya, happily answers in spanish to chides in french. We struggle to concentrate enough.
A relaxed moment for our Belén host, Antonio. Our departure coincides with the end of holiday return of his wife and 5 children. Somehow everyone fits into the house somewhere (Photo S.Hedges)
Alice and her growing clan have been mostly cycle touring since 2004. Having children doesn't take them home - they stopped in Bolivia to have their youngest and are now back on the road (Photo S.Hedges)
The major line down the Argentinian side of the Andes is the Ruta 40. It has been updated and tamed over the years. Happily the often more direct, quiet and ‘interesting’ original sections still exist. Soon after Belén we escape onto one of these – a justifiably deserted rock strewn dirt road from Londrés to Tinogasta via the Cuesta de Zapata.
The easy bit - Sarah forging ahead. The harder parts have us hauling the bikes over shin-high boulders
heading down-around towards the gravel wash before Tinogasta. We have the road all to ourselves - there's no through traffic possible except by horse and bike
Our ‘low’ altitude (only 1000-2000m) has brought a return to thorns last seen and experienced in northern México. Puncture-free for weeks and thousands of kilometres, it is a bit of shock to the system.
In full Argentinian summer swelter, I less than stoically mend the 3rd puncture in 500m. Lesson - leave the bike on the road while you retreat to the shade to patch holes. (Photo S.Hedges)
The other ‘new’ thing in Argentina has been the siesta. Sounds innocent enough? In a well-developed self-centricity we’ve got accustomed to something being open somewhere in a town or village when we pootle in during the afternoon. Not so far in Argentina. Apart from ice-cream shops which seem to open for business specifically for the siesta. Timing our arrival in the smaller villages and towns suddenly becomes critical, especially when every door slams shut at midday, not to be pried open (even for ready money) until 7pm…. It’s not that we don’t understand – it’s pretty hot and a snooze appeals greatly. Partly it’s a symptom of our reintroduction to travel and existence in more affluent places. Further north nothing ever shuts totally and if you’re willing to ask around a bit and bang on a few dilapidated wooden shutters someone will sell you something whenever you want. They wouldn’t risk losing any trade. In Argentina people can even take holidays! We’ve met quite a few avidly curious families on their way to a point of local interest who are keen to find out whether we’ve been to their corner of the country. They’re all welcoming and pleased to see us. Tents and camping wherever you fancy doesn’t phase them. Mind you, when the shops are open, they’ve actually got stuff in them too – bonus! Rather than find the richness of food options a challenge we’ve found ourselves poking around the shelves in excited agitation exclaiming at one thing after another. It probably helps that even the ‘supermercados’ are locally owned, non-chain affairs with all the idiosyncrasies that make you smile.
A dotted line on our map turns out to be mostly paved (and deserted). The unpaved bits are often awash with water - depth uncertain
Apparently the universal goal of long-distance cyclists in the Americas - Ushuaia is the southernmost settlement in South America. Everyone assumes we want to go there - we're less certain, but the lack of a destination confuses more people than would appreciate the honesty, so we often cave in
The main Ruta 40 surprises us with a dirt road section up over the Cuesta de Miranda. Red rock with lush green in the valleys tugs our minds Australiawards. A daily weather pattern - massing clouds in mid-afternoon that sometimes deliver their threats
Not an illusion - more cyclists. During a hot, empty siesta in Villa Union we meet Sarah and Alex recently ice-cream replete. "You're on mountain bikes. Our old professor is mtb-ing down South America". "Joe Cruz?" we reply and enjoy the plummeting jaws. Small world, we ponder as our routes intersect. Not our pace on tarmac though. The SYTs (Speedy Young Things) stretch the SOFs (Slow Old Farts) out of our comfort zones. Though we do feel that we can teach them a thing or two about shopping coordination and not ending up in the middle of nowhere with nothing much to eat!
We leave our overly athletic compañeros in Jachel. They have to take the direct, faster (and busier) route to San Juan for a phone interview. We have our eye on a small-road route closer to the mountains. Maybe we’ll meet in Mendoza? We hope so.
Believe it or not this road heading up towards Rodeo actually had a brisk tail-wind! Great way to gain height :-)
Once up and tracking parallel to the peaks this is our standard view - lines of snow-capped mountains, low-lying scrub and barely a cloud to interrupt the blueness
After a siesta mis-timing in Calingasta tempered by ice-cream we ride onwards. Faltering cycling motivation coincides with a sign for Cerro El Alcazar (Fortress Hill) and an atmospheric camping find.
Continuing south - mountains on either side blending with the sky
Nearing the high point south of Barreal the ferocity of the head-wind instantly drains us. Doubting the value of movement too hard won. Camping with all guys out and pegs weighted down with rocks - no hint of a hiding place from the infamous Andean winds
A worthwhile diversion into Uspallata (siesta again...) for ice-cream (an addiction?) then back out again on the too-brief tree-lined blessed cool
Yet again, taking the smaller road strikes gold. The Viilavicencio road is a good'un
After gulch-crowded, twisted climbing culminates at over 3000m, the descent flings us back down to around 1000m at Mendoza. What feels like the first real test of our brakes since Perú sees us overtaking timid tourist cars and grinning broadly