Before crossing the border from Chile to Argentina, my mind was torn between two alternative routes. Originally, I wanted to head south following a scenic route without visiting any cities. But when I did my usual route planning looking at elevations, places to stay overnight and the nature of the landscape, I realized that it would involve a hell of a physical and mental effort to cross the spine of the Andes. The route was sparsely populated, super desolate and involved several thousands of vertical meters of climbing. After multiple desert crossings, I was not up for that, at least not at that moment. Instead, I decided to jump on a bus to Jujuy, the Northernmost city in Argentina, and continue riding south from there.
While sitting on the bus to Jujuy, it felt as if I was cheating. Similar to the situation a couple of months ago when I “fast-forwarded” to Cusco after I had lost my axle bolt. Well, that awkward feeling was gone as soon as I reached Jujuy. In fact, I was super happy because I really enjoyed the vibes of this city, which I would have missed entirely if I had ridden my bike through the western mountains. Somehow this place felt familiar. Many things about it reminded me of Europe: the looks of people, the abundance of Italian restaurants, ice cream parlors, and the architecture. Decades of immigration from Europe were obvious. I stayed for a day and got prepared with cash, a new socket adaptor (seems like each country has its own standards) and a local simcard. On August 7, I was on my way to Salta, another fantastic city just 100 km to the south.
Sophisticated Salta with its many plaza-side cafes offers the comforts of a city, though retains the comfortable pace of a town, and preserves more colonial architecture than most Argentinian cities, I was told. I guess, that’s why I felt so comfortable. But maybe it was just the fact that I looked less like a foreigner with more blond people around. 🙂
So far on this journey, every country featured its own vocabulary and accents, but Argentinian Spanish has really been challenging to me. I give you an example: I was staying at a hostel and had a conversation with a traveler from Buenos Aires. We talked about the usual where you are from and how long you travel, etc. Then, half an hour later, when I ran into him again, he asked me this: Cómo e Alaka?. I was totally clueless and repeatedly asked him: Cómo? No entiendo. Que dijiste? (“What? I don’t understand. What did you say?”). Cómo e Alaka? Hmmm, I tried to think hard what the hell this guy was talking about. Only after the fifth time I got his question: Cómo es Alaska? (“How is Alaska?” Haha, what an experience…I had no idea about the topic and he wasn’t aware that he swallows the letter S. Now, you can imagine that Argentina can be a challenge for a person like me who still struggles with standard Spanish. But the worst is that Chilean Spanish is apparently even worse. Let’s see, as long as I get something to eat and a place to sleep, I should be fine. 🙂
Salta was a very comfy place. It somehow felt like the real world again, after traveling through so many harsh and remote places over the previous weeks. After months, I also stayed in a dorm room again. I must admit, I was a bit prejudiced with regards to hostels, and dormitories in particular. Due to some negative experiences with those weed smoking/partying wanna-be hippies a few months ago, I had built up strong reservations. I am glad that I tried it again since I met a lot of interesting people with whom I am still in touch. It was great. But as always on a trip like this, after four days in Salta, it was time to leave another comfort zone and to move on.
Just a couple of hours south of Salta, I made an interesting encounter. I saw another cyclist in the distance headed into the same direction. When I had caught up to him, we greeted each other and almost synchronously said: “Hey, we met before in Baja California eight months ago.” Wow, the world really is small, and the bikers’ world is even smaller. Mike and I had lunch together and eventually stayed at the same guest house that night. In the following days, we passed each other again many times.
Apart from a few green, often irrigated areas, Argentina’s Northwest sits lofty and dry beneath the mighty Andes and features some amazing landscapes full of color and weirdness. One of those places is the Quebrada de Cafayate, a spectacular ravine/canyon of richly colored sandstone and unearthly rock formations. The ride through that canyon was certainly one of the most memorable ones in South America. Your eyes and your mind are so occupied processing the impressions that you hardly notice the physical effort. Besides that, on that day I did not only run into Mike again but also met new faces on bikes: Laura and Herbie from England/Ireland as well as an Austrian biker.
Just to the south of the Quebrada de Cafayate lies the small town of Cafayate, which attracts quite a number of tourists not only due to its amazing natural surroundings but also because it is home to some of Argentina’s best wines. It was time to take a day off and enjoy some delicious empanadas and some fine Malbec red.
As mentioned in my previous blog, I often use the app iOverlander, a global database full of useful information fed by jeep/campervan travelers or motorcyclists. That app led me to another gem: La Caminera in Punta de Balasto, an amazing bakery run by a super friendly couple who serve delicious pizza and pastry, and also offer free camping to cyclists. You would never expect something like that in a small village a long way from anywhere. The so-called Ruta 40 (the highway I have been following), however, has been gaining more and more popularity among cyclists.
On the same day, while cycling on one of the rougher dirt roads, it also happened to me for the first time on this trip that one of my spokes broke. My back wheel was out of true, which I later tried to fix at the campsite. I carried a few spare spokes but then realized that I had no tool to remove the rotor of my disc brake. Damn, I was not well prepared. Who saved me, was Mike, who happened to camp at the same spot and who carried one of those Kevlar emergency spokes (see picture). I was not fully able to true the rim but at least made it work for the remaining 700 km to Mendoza. There was no chance to find any decent bike shop any earlier.
The next few days I kept on biking through an arid and mostly mundane scenery. I was looking forward to Chilecito, a town bigger than any of other communities I passed through since I had left Salta 650 km earlier. However, before I was able to make it there, I really had to earn myself that rest day. The last 70 km were a real piece of work. Forceful headwinds as well as gusts loaded with sand made me suffer. I was immediately reminded of that stormy day I cursed to hell after crossing the Bolivian-Chilean border. Rolling into town was such a relief. When Mike, Laura, and Herbie, who were a day behind me, arrived on the following day, they told me that they had no issues with the wind at all. Needless to say, I really envied them and their smooth ride without the pain I faced.
What really amazes me about Argentina is that traditional mid-day siestas are still very common, even in the cities. Between 1- 5pm you should not expect shops to be open. Meals are taken late, and many restaurants are closed between 3pm and 8pm. If you head for dinner before 9pm, you are practically the only customer. Especially in smaller towns, this becomes a real issue for a cyclist. When there’s no town to stop for lunch during the day and you arrive at your destination with an empty stomach in the late afternoon, you aren’t too happy to bridge another four to five hours with snacks before any hot meal is available. This happened to me several times.
From Chilecito to Mendoza I still had to cover almost 600 km. On the second day, once again, luck was not with the cyclists. Within fifteen minutes, a pleasant morning changed into a full-grown storm slowing you down to about 8 km/h on a flat road. The temperature dropped to 5 deg C, and this time I swore to myself that I would not fight the wind like the other day when I completely wore myself out. I called it a day and decided to spend the night in Guandacol. Mike, Herbie, and Laura had the same reasoning, so we ended up staying at the same hotel enjoying a good chat over dinner.
Luckily, there were no more issues with headwinds after Guandacol. The road was flat, straight and at times a bit too busy with cars and trucks, especially south of San Jose de Jáchal. It was all about burning kilometers and trying to keep your mind busy and cope with the mundaneness.
Always hoping no other spokes would break, I had to readjust my Kevlar emergency spoke a couple of times. I guess they are really not made for long distances, but merely to help you out making it to the next bike shop. It is just not the usual case that the next one is hundreds of kilometers and a week away. 🙂
On August 26, I finally arrived in Mendoza, Argentina’s world-famous wine capital, where I was going to take at least a week off to get my spoke fixed, relax and sightsee.