Tuesday, 23 November 2010

General Acha, Argentina - I'm an Argentinian TV star

You might think that cycling across the vast, flat farmlands of central Argentina would be a bit boring - you would be wrong! Since I set out on my bicycle from Buenos Aires, life has been a whole world of adventures. It's been really, really tough cycling and pretty stressful at times - a very different ballgame to my pleasant pedal across Europe. There are huge distances between towns, some terrifying traffic, no campsites, a scorching sun and headwinds that blow tumbleweeds across the road in front of me. However, I've made it this far thanks to two things. Number one is the overwhelming warmth, friendliness and helpfulness of the Argentinian people that I've met and number two is their extensive network of service stations!

My first challenge in Argentina was simply getting out of Buenos Aires safely and this is where I encountered the first of many acts of incredible kindness. Setting out early on a Sunday morning, I was soon intercepted by local cyclist, Juan - dashingly handsome in skin-tight red lycra to match his swanky red mountain bike. Juan cycled with me for over two hours taking me on a delightful and safe route out of Buenos Aires. Following a quiet back road adjacent to the motorway, we were joined by hundreds of other local cyclists out for their Sunday club rides. At the next town, Lujan, I had another bicycle escort who took me on a quiet, scenic route to the other side of town.

The next few days were, frankly, horrendous. In my research I'd read about other bicycle tourers cycling in Argentina on roads with wide hard shoulders that made cycling safe. But there were no hard shoulders on my road, Ruta 5, and the traffic, including monstrous trucks, was constant. Alongside the adjustment to a new country and a new continent, my totally inadequate Spanish and the enforced rough living, I was feeling pretty low at this point. However, I was cheered up by another act of kindness when a lovely couple in the pretty little town of Alberti put me up in their spare room - they even gave me a tour of the town in the evening and fed me supper! All I had to do was babysit the dog, Catalina, in the afternoon.

Beyond here at least I was able to pick up some quieter roads and to begin to enjoy the cycling. Although my route passed through mile after mile of flat farmland where a bend in the road was a major cause for celebration, there was always plenty to see. All around were beautiful, colourful birds. Without a weighty field guide, I can't put names to them except the flamingoes clustered in small flocks on the shallow lakes and the noisy parrakeets that gather above my tent in the evenings, the rays of late sunshine illuminating their irridescent green plummage. I'm also regularly spotting armadillos scuttling around in the roadside verges.

I like pulling into the little rurals towns in this area. There are no tall buildings, except for the main routes the roads are compacted earth, and with a slightly scruffy but likeable appearance, the overall ambience is a bit "wild west". Because the towns are set out on grid systems with no traffic lights, what few vehicles there are must go quite slowly, so there are hundreds of locals out on their bikes in these little towns. Everybody seems to know everybody else and soon after my arrival in a town, everybody seems to know me! It's thoroughly delightful!

There is not really much tourism in this area of Argentina which makes me a bit of a novelty, even more so being on the bicycle. I get a friendly toot and a wave from almost every car or truck that passes. When I ask for directions, people generally walk or cycle with me to my destination to be sure I get there. Due to the lack of tourism, there are no proper campsites and this has made this section of my journey all the more difficult. There is an informal system in Argentina whereby you can camp in municipal parks which usually have public toilets and running water and I've used these a few times. I ask for permission from the park-keeper if there is one or an adjacent house, if not. In the lovely town of San Carlos de Bolivar, the park-keeper and his wife insisted that I pitch my tent in their garden and they even put the bike away in the toolshed overnight. I could never imagine anything like this happening back home but the difference with the Argentine people that I've met is that they don't care about some of the daft stuff we get worked up about - they are genuinely pleased if they can be helpful in any way and seem to love meeting foreign visitors, especially crazy ones on bicycles!

The other place where I've been camping is ... service stations! I know this will sound alarming to readers back home but again there is an informal system whereby you can pitch your tent or pull your car over beside rural service stations at the end of the day. There is an extensive network, they are open all night so there is always somebody around and you'll find a few truck drivers also catching some shut-eye.

The service stations have toilets, a small park area with picnic benches and grass perfect for the tent, a cafeteria and a clever machine that dispenses hot water for a few pesos. I've even been given free coffees at service stations just for arriving by bicycle! Service stations really have been my saviour, not just for camping but also for stocking up on calories, water and rest. My favourite service stations are the YPF ones - they have big, comfy, leather chairs which are great for my saddle sores. Yes, just to add to my woes I have developed saddle sores. I think it's due to long days in the saddle because of the distances between towns here and the rough living which means I can't get my sweaty cycle shorts washed out regularly. Despite liberal amounts of Germolene, at the contact points on my bum, I have peeling skin and painful red raw patches. Apologies if this is too much information for some readers!

As if all these adventures were not enough, I'm now a TV star in Argentina. It was all quite surreal. I'd pulled into the backwater town of Tres Lomas to pick up some water. I started chatting with a couple of locals about the route ahead and before I knew it a crowd of about 30 people had gathered. Then out of nowhere a TV crew pulled up in a van! I answered some questions to camera about my trip and what I thought of Argentina before I was filmed cycling out of the town to a big round of applause. I was even given a gift of a bag of oranges. I didn't make much progress that day because at the next village I was hijacked by a schoolteacher to give a talk to her pupils and colleagues.

Given my minimal Spanish, it was a very brief talk but I was able to show everybody the bicycle and my equipment and they seemed to enjoy my visit.

There is a new Argentina album added to my Flickr pages where you can see a picture of the kids.

While I may be pleased with my progress so far in Argentina, I have now hit a major stumbling block that is the central desert of La Pampa. I knew it was coming but thought I'd get local advice about the possibility of cycling across. I'm happy to accept the local advice that this would be extremely foolhardy and dangerous! So I have to resort to motorised assistance to cross the desert. I think what's happening is that I'm getting a shared ride in a minibus-style taxi but we'll see as every day in Argentina is a world of adventure!


  1. Pauline (Superstar)

    Outstanding blog, what an exciting time thanks to the people in Argentina. We are amazed and touched by their kindness.

    ps Can we send you an inflatable cushion for your b..

    Lots of Love Mum & Dougie xx

  2. You're a legend already!

    We could also send you some newly-falllen snow to cool your blisters... :-)


  3. Fantastic Pauline. Nice to hear that there are people out there who go out of their way to help - decent human beings. You may have already thought of this, but if your Spanish aint that good, why not get someone to type a letter out for you in Spanish that basically explains what you are doing - a magic letter. I know some other world tour cyclists have done this before.

  4. Hi Puline

    Sorry I not been make any comments lately. Argentina sound great and you've not that long arrived. Still enjoying the blog and photo's.


  5. Never mind the wind and the tumbleweeds, can I borrow your old skis. It took me three and a half hours to get from one end of Glasgow to the other to get to work. Where am I going wrong?

  6. Thanks for all your comments. Colin, I've got a laminated world ma with various symbols on which is supposed to show people what I'm doing - seems to be working alongside my minimal Spanish.

  7. A lot of people are traveling to Argentina because of its wonderful places,views and its tourist spots, here's a place where you could stay which is affordable and comfortable.

    Casa Mara Cartagena