La Quiaca - Salta - Mendoza - Santiago

I left Bolivia through Villazon, a bustling border market town and immediately entered its not so bustling Argentine neighbor, La Quiaca. Splashed out on a hotel room with heating, a bath tub and huge bed. Washed the dust from my pores and wandered about town looking for something to do. Not much found except one of those great Argentine bakeries where pastries are priced and sold by weight. And that price is absurdly cheap - I could never figure it out but guessed bakeries must have been a subsidised industry because they supplied 'basic neccesities' like bread. Somehow Danishes managed to get included in the subsidies too. From a hungry cyclists perspective this made perfect sense of course. Danishes are an essential! From La Quiaca to Humahuaca a new sealed road was under construction. Other cyclists had warned me to expect deep sand and dust as the old road had been plowed up and rough bypasses graded alongside. Normally I wouldn't heed such advice but as I'd spent weeks longer meandering around Bolivia than planned and figured somewhere on the way South I'd wind up on a bus in order to catch my plane home I decided now was the time, and bussed the 160 or so KM to Humahuaca. For the first 25km the road was billiard table smooth new blacktop. I felt ripped off. Then the dust started and from the bus it looked and felt dreadful. In real life (on bike) it wouldn't have been so bad as it looked I'm sure. As we neared Humahuaca giant cacti appeared and sealed road reappeared. Today that stretch would be great riding.

Once off the bus I was straight on the bike to wheel down the road to Tilcara, a friendly little place with a native botanical gardens (pictured), complete with reconstructed ancient Indian dwellings.

The bare mountain sides around here are a riot of colour. Nowhere more so than at Purmamarca (pictured), just off the main road on a spur road that eventually crosses into Chile near to San Pedro de Atacama.

The road runs downhill beside the Rio Grande all the way from Humahuaca to San Salvador de Jujuy about 125km away. Jujuy (pronounced Hoo hoo ee) is the first big city I've seen in quite a while. Traffic, aaargh. Hotel is half the tourist office price but I'm not tempted to stick around another day.

A narrow winding road takes me to Salta. It winds up and down lush green forested hills. The first verdant forests I'd seen since the lakes district seven or eight months earlier. The ride is wonderful.

The road is very narrow and only open to traffic from Jujuy in the morning and from Salta in the afternoon. Wherever this was sign posted, I missed it, and just carried on my merry way. I thought it was odd that after lunch no-one passed me going to Salta. But hey, no-one seemed too upset with me going the 'wrong way' either. Only found out about it at the backpackers in Salta that night.

South to cafayate and the greenery disappears pretty quickly. Giant Cacti soon reappear. Late in the day I pull into a Cafe. As I do so does a bus load of camera happy elderly Argentines. I'm famous, my picture is snapped by everyone. I've travelled how far?

In the Cafe another customer invites himself to my table and starts to talk. He gives me an address of a Hostel in Cafayate, pays for my food and departs. I roll a few klicks up the road, wheel my bike into the undergrowth and put up the tent.

In the morning the road winds into the Quebrada de Cafayate (pictured) - a spectacular red walled badlands canyon. For most of the day I ogle at the stone formations about me. This seems a popular spot for Argentines too. Quite a few tour busses pass me and gaggles of them wander about the sign posted attractions.

In Cafayate I find the Hostel 'Tastil Home' and settle in for a few fun days. The manager was very entertaining, arranging a BBQ using a traditional earthernware oven at a neighbors house and deciding that discounts for cyclists would apply starting with me. The building was brand new. I figured out the man who paid for my meal the previous day was its owner. It also had Argentine guests. Too many of the backpackers hostels in South America were foreign owned with strict 'no locals' policies implied and enforced. Do they really think all foreigners only want to mix with their "own kind" when they travel?
Quebrada de Cafayate

South of Cafayate were the extensive Inca ruins at Quilmes. I'd hazard a guess this site was a bit more damp in the past. Nearby Amaicha del Valle claims 360 sunny days a year - the most in Argentina.

A huge and impressive new building at Amaicha was an Archeological museum (I think), but like the campground it wasn't open so I just pushed on up the hill towards Tafi del Valle, stopping when the sun was about to set and camping behind a cluster of shrubbery

In the morning I rose early and climbed and climbed and climbed. Three cacti stood by the roadside discussing the merits of cycletouring. I took their picture and rode on. A dust storm tore up yesterday's valley. I just kept climbing. After lunch I climbed some more, the wind became icy and a thick frost lay at the top of the pass.
Three amigos

Standing stones The winding road down to Tafi was a blast. Tafi de Valle is a summer mountain retreat for citizens of Tucuman and Salta. It smacks of an overated upmarket resort. In a Cafe I was warned by some Dutch to count my change at the supermarket. True enough, the supermarket tried to rip me off and just shrugged and handed over the correct change when I pointed out the 'error'. This was the only time in my year of travel that anyone had deliberately tried to rip me off. Not my kinda town. Hotel had icy drafts too.

Outside Tafi at El Molar is a Menhir (standing stone) park (pictured) - a collection of carved standing stones from the region.

Once beyond El Molar the road drops and goes from desert to tropical on the way down. The descent is a long one and just gets greener and greener as it drops. At the bottom are sugar cane fields and, sadly, busy roads.

Route 38 to San Fernando del Valle de Catamarca, just Catamarca to its friends, was none to pleasant. Yes it was green, which was great for a change, but the traffic was thick and fast moving and at times the road had no shoulder. Staying in the arid valley where I'd turned off to Tafi del Valle would have kept me on very quiet roads by comparison. Still. in Aguileres I again had a Cafe meal paid for and was shown to a great rambling old Hotel in a back street by my bike riding benefactor.

The traffic was more managable to La Rioja, a wine centre. A mighty tailwind pushed me onward for 160km, the longest day of the trip - and fastest - I averaged over 22km/h. The road was flat, the scenery fenced off scrubland. I'd planned on doing the distance over two days but by lunchtime over half the distance had been put away so I just kept going. Some days its nice just to put your head down and go. Another big shuttered room with mossies.

From La Rioja the wind was very unpredictable. Some days it would push me along in the mornings and grind me to a halt in the arvos, other days vice versa. But the wind always blew. At lunch I'd seek shelter from ferocious dust storms beneath thorny hedges. Sometimes the wind blew itself out in the afternoon. At night I'd camped behind similar hedges just metres from the roadside. Roadside signs announced "Las Malvinas Son Argentinas" - The Falklands are Argentinas. Time was getting short now and I had little choice but to push on via San Agustin de Valle Fertil and San Juan. Once I was through San Juan I'd be back in the Andes, so now was the time to cover some distance and give myself a bit of time for the final climb. For days the Andean foothills stayed over my right shoulder.

Rather than repeat my earlier route via Mendoza I took a more circuitous route to Uspallarta via San Juan and Callinagasta. What a wonderful route. A narrow serpentine partially dirt road that was one way (up) in the mornings and One way (down) in the afternoons for part of its length. Of course on a bike it took longer but for a few hours in the middle of the day it meant no traffic in either direction. Most of the down traffic came through in one long snake, so I just sat it out. The road was pretty hairy in places but very, very nice. God of tailwinds smiled on me again and although I'd climbed almost 900 metres today I also covered about 100km uphill. Between Callinagasta and Barreal another tailwind sped me along through a valley that opened out to reveal the snowcapped Andes on my right and barren foothills to the left with a sometimes fertile valley floor with a blue green river in between. Barreal seemed to be an out-of-season weekender resort. A huge number of very big dogs roamed unchecked around the place. I'd learnt in other Argentine towns that this could mean a sleepless night of ceaseless barking. Fortunately the municipal campground was some way out of town.

Another beautiful blue sky tailwind day along a good, mostly dirt road brought me back to Uspallarta. Pictured is an intersection just north of Uspallarta near an archaeological site where I stopped to wander around. Those mountains had been at my shoulder for the last two days riding. Sigh, only two days riding left. Remembering the noisy dogs and unkempt campground from my last stop in this town I elected to splurge instead on a very comfy hotel room and soak myself in a hot bathtub. Walls not thick enough however, to entirely silence the baying hounds.
Near Uspallarta

The 64km to Los Penitentes were not as hard as I remembered them being - that's because I didn't have the killer headwind from my last ascent. What a sad sight Los Penitentes made. Now, at the end of winter, there was less snow on the mountains than there had been at the end of the previous summer. The hotel manager bemoaned the fact that the previous year they'd skied until December. This year the resort hadn't even opened! Damn good weather for cycletouring though. Today a nasty crunchy grinding noise from my rear hub and strange speed wobbles appeared. Earlier in the trip I'd have been concerned, but today I just crossed my fingers and said 'just one more day' repeatedly. In the evening I replaced my rear tire. After over 7,000km it had developed a few 'eggs', hence the wobbles and I decided not to risk it on tomorrows massive descent. The crunchy sound I suspected was a broken bearing - it turned out to be a mangled bearing cage. I'd never opened my rear hub (a Sachs 3x7 with a 3 speed internal planetary gearbox as well a 7 speed cluster) and wasn't about to on the eve of the last day either. I'd just 'live with it'.

The final day started late - it was snowing! I made it to Las Cuevas (3150m) in good time although the scenery was obscured by cloud this time. Once again I crossed into Chile through the bicycle tunnel*. Emerged into a freezing wind on the Chilean side but it couldn't stop me enjoying the Caracoles switchbacks beneath the Portillo ski resort. I stopped for a while to talk to a Japanese cycletourist heading uphill who'd started riding in Tierra del Fuego in winter! In Los Andes I opted for a hotel near the bus station so I could catch an early bus to Santiago and not have to finish the ride on the highways in suburban sprawl. The rear hub lasted (just) and was replaced at cost price by the distributor when I got home - well I could hardly claim that it had been well treated and lightly used.

*2005 update - I don't know if the bicycle tunnel is still open to cyclists as quite a few recent cycling travelogues have mentioned that they had to arrange vehicle lifts through the road tunnel. Some even said this was offered as a free service with a vehicle at the ready to shuttle bikes in both directions. In better news the Chileans have now restored (de-mined?) the old dirt road over the Cristo Redentor Pass. This will mean you can cycle even higher and avoid the long tunnels entirely (other than a short tunnel on the Argentine side near Las Cuevas). Pictures of the pass and more details on the website of Tracey Maund and Colin Champion.

All text and images copyright Syd Winer 2004