Thursday 22 October 2009

ARGENTINA Malargue-Pino Hachado (Oct 16-24)

In Chos Malal for a rest day - Judy´s birthday! I´ve been busy with the bikes though-another severed cable in Jude´s Rohloff. It´s such a tricky operation replacing these cables. I´ll have to look around for some spare Shimano cables as I only have cheap Taiwanese ones left.

The ride from Malargue to Chos Malal was interesting and a nice change from the boring wind-blown and dessicated pampa. Mostly sealed roads, dramatic volcanic scenery but still with the strong westerly and southerly winds.

The climb out of Malargue with cliffs and hairpin bends. We camped on the top at an old gauchito´s camp. Spectacular views at sunset over the volcanic steppe.

The next day- camping by the Rio Grande, a range of coloured rock to the west.

Rio Grande and a small gaucho settlement in this hostile environment.

We lost our sealed road and in true Argentinian style, the dirt road or ripio was corrugated and full of ball-bearing stones, with step ups and downs.

Hiding from the constant headwind (we´ve had this headwind all the way from the Bolivian border!) we were having lunch and a Dutch couple stopped ther rental car. Erik and Angela are also touring cyclists and they showered us with all these edible goodies- yoghurt, muesli bars, bananas. Muchas gracias, amigos!

The scenery really started hotting up after Ranquil Norte, 180kms south of Malargue. Distant smoking volcanoes, soft pastel primeval rock, broken up into deep ravines and mesa plateaux. Also, back on a smooth sealed surface, so we could concentrate on the interesting terrain around us.

Riding in the shadow of Volcan Tromen. Ruta 40 almost circumnavigated this imposing mountain.

The south-westerly wind continued to whip us in the face but created some amazing cloud formations in the clear desert sky.

To hide from the westerly winds we asked the workers at an estancia if we could camp in the corralls surounded by trees as windbreaks, and kept company by horses and goats.

The setting sun from the estancia- dramatic colours from the violent winds and swirling dust.

We celebrated Jude´s 56th birthday in the municipal campground. 10 Argentinian pesos ($3) for a site and we were the only campers. We cooked a tasty parrilla (grilled steak) washed down with Quilmes beer and red wine.

We thought we had experienced the worst of the headwinds further north but beyond Chos Malal it was the ultimate. The westerly winds blowing from the Chilean border were gale-force and got up to 110kph! We set out one morning from Las Lajas for the Chilean frontier at Pino Hachado. We immediately hit this wall of wind, blasting us in the face at 100kph. We couldn´t ride, but with heads down we tried pushing through the maelstrom. After a full day of this we managed to get 25kms out of Las Lajas, so at 4pm starting waving down vehicles. A customs official, Augusto kindly threw our bikes into his pick-up and drove us to a guesthouse near the border (20 kms away). Drove through a full-on blizzard as higher up at 1500m the wind carried sleet and ice. Here I am with Augusto at the Alojamiento Huski (the owner had 23 Alaskan huskies).

Overnight water dripped from the roof onto our bikes. Icicles on bicycles.

Araucaria Wonderland

We met up with two Swiss cyclists Raphaelle and Bettina who we had lst seen in Mendoza. They had ridden the 45kms from Las Lajas against the ferocious headwinds. It had taken them 2 full days. We shared a loghouse with them, surrounded by araucaria trees (monkey-puzzle trees) and a winter landscape.

The next morning we emerged from our winter den into this snowy landscape. The wind had abated overnight and we set off for the border and pass at Pino Hachado at 1875m.
Here Jude leaves the cabin pushing her bike and struggling in the soft snow, slippery ice and cold blasting wind.

Granite walls framing the araucaria forest on the way to the pass, 1550m

Finally at the pass- the wind was really strong and chilling at almost 1900m. The last 7kms was a rough steep dirt road but the descent from the border into Chile was a welcoming sealed road, with a nice gradient and gentle cool breeze.

Friday 16 October 2009

Chilecito-Mendoza-Malargue (Oct 2-14)

Left Chilecito after a day´s R&R and climbed up to La Cuesta de Miranda - some impressive multi-coloured rock as we rode to the pass.

We had wanted to visit Talampaya National Park, a World Heritage site, but the authorities have restricted visits (only with guide) and won´t allow any transport within the park. A company called Rolling Travel (or `Rolling in Money Travel´) have complete control over the park and charge a fortune just to get transport on a 14km public road. We decided not to partipate in this scandalous and very corrupt practice.

Riding through a section of the park in the early morning we saw plenty of animals- guanucos, foxes, a pair of rhea (or naƱdu), an armadillo and a strange rodent which we couldn´t identify. Only managed to snap a photo of a lone fox.

We are now thoroughly tired of northern Argentina- headwinds every day and featureless landscape. We pine for the Bolivian altiplano or the Peruvian Andes but all we have are long stretches of dry pampa without views of the cordillera. And it´s culturally quite dull too. Morale is low as my haemorroids have raised their ugly heads again and are a real pain in the bum! I needed to rest my bottom and have a few days out of the saddle so we took a bus to Mendoza from Valle del Fertil (our first transport of the trip-unavoidable really).

It´s almost four months since we last saw rain and the harsh UV rays have been shining on us as we head south. Judy is now sporting an unusual tan on her legs. I call it cafe con leche, or coffee with milk. Any other suggestions?

We stayed a few nights in Mendoza and two days around the high Andes near the border with Chile.

Puente del Inca- a natural brdge across the Mendoza river formed by thermal waters and mineralisation. Fantastic colours.

The view from our campsite, with Mt. Aconcagua (6959m) in the distance. It´s the highest peak in the Americas.

Further along the highway there is a closer view of the south face of Aconcagua. The peak on the right is the summit. We had wanted to hike further up the valley for closer views but unfortunately the park was closed to hikers because of avalanche danger.

Views of the Andes from the road south of Mendoza.

Ruta 40- swirling clouds and expansive skies.

Friday 2 October 2009

ARGENTINA Cafayate-Chilecito (Sept 24-30)

El Ultimo Mochilero.
We met Dan van Damme, this Argentinian nomad just north of Santa Maria. He´s been travelling around the backroads of Argentina and neighbouring countries for the last 25 years. He is wearing a cap with `El Ultimo Mochilero´ (The Ultimate, or Last, Backpacker) embroidered on it. He has taken up cycling for the last 3 years and finds work along the road, like the old swagmen of the Australian outback or the vagabundos and gypsies of the world.

We camped at the head of this quebrada outside Hualfin where there was a hot spring. Very windy even in this protected pocket.

We came to this sign on Ruta 40 and weren´t quite sure what to make of it. Lavelle seemed to be nowhere or here and the other was confusing.

All along Ruta 40 we saw shrines cloaked in red to honour Guachito Gil, a cross between Robin Hood and Jesus Christ, a folk hero among poor Argentinians. They leave odd tokens of thanks eg. plaster casts, wine bottles, old T-shirts....

Argentinians are very pious and superstitious and there are religious shrines everywhere. This is the local patron saint, Difunta Correa, a woman with a baby at her breast. Like Gauchito Gil, travellers and locals all leave items at the shrines. In this case they leave water for Difunta and the baby. As the story goes, she crossed the dry pampa to bring food to her husband, a soldier, but she died of thirst enroute. She was found with the baby suckling on her breast. Anyway, we were very low on water on this lonely dry stretch of road and helped ourselves to some left by the faithful. Difunta didn´t seem to notice- too busy feeding her baby. Gracias, Difunta!

MILESTONES - 5000 & 10,000 kms!
Judy celebrating reaching 5000kms. Check out the long straight behind her.

This was probably the most boring bit of road of the entire journey. Dry thorny scrub, cold headwinds, cloudy sky and these 15-20km straights cut through the featureless sandy landscape.
Just before we reached Chilecito I clocked up 10,000km for the trip, from the Caribbean to NW Argentina. Only 5000kms to go......