Monday, 6 December 2010

Bariloche, Argentina - Don't cry for me, Argentina

I gaze across the deep blue waters of Lake Nahuel Huapi and suck in the sweet coconut aroma of the yellow gorse. The lake is framed by snow-capped Andean peaks and behind me is the lively town of San Carlos de Bariloche. The hardships of the last ten days have melted away. What hardships, you ask. Well . . . picking up the story back in General Acha . . .

I got my ride across the central desert of La Pampa in a rusty, old jallopy with Shirley half in and half out of the boot. They say nature abhors a void and so did the driver, filling the 200 miles of emptiness with deafening Latin music and an ominous burning smell from the engine. It was a grim place in many ways but what I´ll remember most were the rotting corpses of horses in the roadside verges. This ride had taken me across the most barren stretch of central Argentina but I still had six days of desert riding ahead.

It was absolutely desperate and dire cycling that made me cry at times with weariness and frustration. The roads runs in a straight line to a distant horizon for mile after monotonous mile; there are no trees, no shade or shelter; there is nothing to break the monotony of red dirt and sparse scrub.

But the thing that really pushes you to the edge and demands you summon up every last shred of will power, is the wind. An unrelenting headwind cuts your speed to a crawl and saps all your energy. Gusts blast stinging grit onto your legs and into you face, and you're forced to slam on the brakes before you're blown off the bike completely. The windblown dust gets everywhere, choking up your lungs and sticking to your suncream. On the more exposed sections of road, the wind is so strong you just have to get off the bike and push. It's torture and you become desperate for it to relent but it never does. Well, it did once, for a few hours. My days´s ride had fallen short of the next town and I camped out in the desert with some modest bushes for cover. In the early hours, I unzipped the tent to total calm, not a whisper of wind, and a night sky ablaze with stars. I watched a beautiful sunrise whilst nursing a mug of steaming coffee. By the time I was packed up and pushing the bike back to the road, the wind was back to full power, I had a nasty gash in my shin as a result of falling off the fence that I was trying to lift the bike over and the bike had a puncture from a sharp thorn. Not the best start to the day.
It was 8am and I honestly asked myself - right now, would I rather be on my bike zooming up through the trees of Holyrood Park, scooting across the Meadows to Starbucks then saying "good morning" to Greyfriars Bobby before flying down into the Grassmarket and into the office? Hmmm, it's a tough one.

Cycling across this barren plateau was only possible because it is punctuated with occasional "oasis" towns providing water, provisions and my first proper campsites in Argentina. The first town I came to was Neuquen, the provincial capital. The road descended into lushness, tended fields and orchards, all irrigated by the Rio Neuquen. The area is famous for growing apples but I preferred the big bags of plump, ripe cherries on sale at roadside stalls. I didn´t see much of the town as the road passed on the outskirts through commercial developments and a McDonalds, would you believe. I could have cried again when the assistant explained it was too early in the day for fries!

Of the oasis towns I especially liked Villa El Chocon. It´s an exclusive, smart little village nestling on the shores of the enormous sea-sized reservoir, Embalse Ezequiel Ramos Mexia (try saying that with a mouth full of cherries) whose sapphire-blue waters provided striking contrast to the surrounding red sandstone. It's this sandstone that's made the place famous as the "dinosaur town" for the rocks around here have yielded many spectacular dinosaur fossils and footprints, all of which can be seen in the excellent local museum. Everything in the place has taken on a dinosaur theme - I particularly liked the giant dinosaur footprints painted on the road leading you into town.
I stayed at a nice wee campsite in El Chocon and the owner, Ignacio (who I quite fancied) took me on a bicycle tour of the sites. We raced across the top of the dam that holds back the reservoir, the wind blowing spray into our faces, and along the red sandstone cliffs as the sun sank, before sharing barbecued fish with the other campers to end the day. I could have happily pottered around El Chocon for a couple of days but I was keen to put the desert behind me and escape the amorous advances of my host!

The other oasis towns had their charms too. Picun Leufu was a scruffy place but I stayed in an idyllic campsite a few miles beyond. It was run by a lovely family who'd set it up as an extension to their smallholding. Set in a wooded glade, it was sheltered, peaceful and decorated with farmyard paraphernalia. Then Piedra del Aguila was like an American wild west town - a one-street place of squat buildings with the wind howling through, blowing up smothering clouds of dust. But it nestled below a beautiful ridge of bizarrely-shaped red rocks onto which lovely Indian images had been carved.

It was at Piedra del Aguila that I hit another desert dead-end. Ahead lay a stretch with no settlements and a high mountain pass. In normal circumstances, it could be cycled in one and a half days and I can carry enough water on the bike for that period. But factoring in the headwind that would become a three-day ride and I decided it was not wise to attempt it. I booked a bus ticket for the two-hour hop to the next settlement. It was disappointing to be forced off the bike again but I had to remind myself that this is quite difficult terrain and the most important thing is to be safe.

Back on the bike and my route at last left the dreary high plains and descended into the amusingly-named, Confluencia. It may sound like a nasty pulmonary disease but it's actually a road junction with a service station that takes top marks for camping. For the adjacent camping area sits in a copse of trees on a promontory in the aquamarine waters of the Rio Limay at the head of the "Valle Encantado" - a beautiful, forested valley hemmed in by towering ridges of rock moulded by the elements into weird shapes. Mind you, the cold wind fairly howled through and the duvet jacket and gloves were brought into service! Next morning, in the chill air, as the rising sun kissed the topmost peaks and a film of mist drifted above the river, I enjoyed a fabulous ride through the valley.
A few miles further on and I crested a ridge to come upon a view of snow-capped peaks - the Andes at last! A climb over the next rise won me a fabulous panorama of Lake Nahuel Huapi, the surrounding mountains and tucked into the shore, the town of Bariloche, where my compass needle had been pointing since I left Buenos Aires.

I´m now settled into the pleasant campsite where there are some other crazy people who are cycling around Argentina. I plan to spend the next few days just chilling out and feeding up.

Talking of eating . . . you're possibly wondering how somebody with coeliac disease is coping on a gluten-free diet in Argentina, or perhaps you´ve got more important things on your mind such as whether or not to stick to a single colour theme for the Christmas tree decorations. But the answer is - pretty well. Supermarkets in medium-sized towns have a modest gluten-free section, the "gluten-free" symbol is used more widely on foods in Argentina than in Europe and food labelling is generally very good. Í've even been able to buy rice cakes everywhere! I´ve also discovered the joy of polenta, as opposed to the joy of sex had I stayed in El Chocon. It´s a kind of maize semolina. It cooks instantly which makes for a happy camper; in the morning I can have it with chopped fruit and honey; in the evening I make a filling polenta and vegetable sludge.
It´s so very versatile! A bit like Argentina itself - it does rainforest, desert, mountains, glaciers, big modern cities and small wholesome towns. My introduction to Argentina has been pretty tough but I'm slowly and surely falling in love with her . . . and there is still so much to see!

More photos on my Flickr page.

Click on the map to enlarge it.

1 comment:

  1. Wow Pauline - sounds traumatic & amazing at the same time! Gorgeous photos............
    take care,
    love Karen x