Thursday, 24 February 2011

Chilecito, Argentina - Desert solitaire

I'd no sooner slipped into the swing of cycling through western Argentina's semi-arid desert landscape than the weather turned upside down and delivered storms and floods! There is nothing simple about cycling in Argentina but it continues to delight and excite!

Cycling across the dry lands of Argentina requires a carefully thought out strategy - here's mine: My days begin at 5.30am when the alarm goes off. A quick breakfast is followed by a cup of coffee before packing up and hitting the road at 7am, just as it's getting light. If all goes to plan, I'll cover up to 50 miles by lunchtime and make it to the next oasis town where I'll get water and shelter in the form of a campsite or hospedaje. Then, as the afternoon heat and wind build, one just has to do as the Argentines do - take siesta. The other day I actually covered 65 miles by lunchtime but I had motorised assistance for part of it. I´ll explain ...

Every few days the hot, humid weather sparks off almighty storms with thunder, lightning and torrential rain. When the last big storm struck I was in the slightly strange spot of Talacasto - a bleak road junction in the middle of nowhere and a former stop on the now disused railway line. It's the usual story - when the railway went, so did the people. Today all that remains are the rather sad empty shells of a dozen once-loved houses and one occupied house. Brothers Juan and Luis live here and run a busy restaurant on the junction. I'd planned to re-supply with water at Talacasto and camp for the night to bridge a big gap between towns. However, rocky ground, lack of cover and busy weekend traffic made camping an unattractive option and then I discarded it completely when the mother of all storms began to build as skies darkened and clouds stacked up behind the mountains. I asked the brothers if, by any chance, they had a room to rent. They didn't but they did have a spare room on the gable end of one of the empty houses and I could sleep there. They even made a bed up for me when I would have happily just slept on the floor. With accommodation sorted, I had quite an enjoyable evening. A local male folk group, Los Camperos de Cuyo, arrived and played and sang as the storm raged outside with thunder, lightning and more rain than you can shake a bicycle pump at. I'm afraid I attracted a lot of attention from Los Camperos and was even serenaded which was all a bit embarrassing as I'm not exactly looking at my best right now (and even my best is not that great). My clothes are bleached by the sun; my nose, being too large and closer to the sun than the equator, is slightly burned; my new trainers are already rank; and I'm permanently covered in a slimy mix of sweat, suncream and dust. However, I was the only single female there and Los Camperos were outrageously drunk. My wee room was a welcome shelter from the storm though rain eventually began to seep under the roof and down the walls and I had to move the bed to the centre of the room to stay dry. When I popped out to the loo in the middle of the night, the shells of the empty houses were eerily silhouetted against a night sky illuminated by flashes of silver lightning - honestly, it was like something out of a horror film. The brothers wouldn't take any payment for the room but when I left early next morning, I slipped a thank you note and some pesos under their door.

The upshot of all this was that the storm sent flash floods across my road the next day - torrents of caramel-coloured liquid mud, impassable by bicycle. I'd just pulled up at the first flood and was considering my options, when a vehicle stopped behind me. It was two roadworkers who'd seen me cycle passed their camp earlier and had followed to give me a lift over 20 miles of flooded road. And so I made extra good time that day across a big gap on the map.

I've come to dread these big gaps between towns - 40 or 50 miles of absolutely nothing along a long, straight, flat road. I worry about running out of water or getting caught in a storm; about something disastrous going wrong with the bike or with me out here alone; and I worry about having the mental stamina to keep going all on my own. Along these roads there are kilometre markers and I play games with them to motivate myself. After the first 10km, I tell myself, I'll stop for a drink of water; after the next 10km, I'll eat a dulce de leche bar; after 30km, I'll put more suncream on. And so the miles pass and eventually, with a huge sense of relief, I'll spot trees on the horizon that signal the next oasis town. Soon I'll be rolling along through orchards, vineyards or olive groves.

Of course, interspersed along these gaps are pockets of fabulous scenery like La Cienaga, a mountain range of red and orange rocks with a spectacular gorge. The road wynds through the gorge on a slim ledge and all along the roadside there's a wonderful variety of cacti, some in flower. A chap waved me down on the road here and was most insistent that I understand that these mountains are not part of the Andes. They are in fact sedimentary rocks that were formed when La Cienaga was once covered by the sea a quizillion years ago in the crustywotsit period. At least I think that's what he said!

North of La Cienaga I stayed in a delightful hostel in the olive-growing village of Guandacol. Run by Ricardo and Marisia, they've created a lovely garden of native plants, built a shaded verandah and added some nice rustic touches indoors. It appeared to be a gorgeous little spot but Ricardo explained that there were problems here: The mine that I'd cycled passed earlier was sending huge clouds of airborne dust over the village, it was contaminating water supplies and only employing twenty people from a village of several hundred. It still seemed like a little slice of paradise to me as I sipped iced water on the verandah and watched the passing butterflies and birds.

As if all the physical challenges of cycling in Argentina aren't enough, I now have to cope with an ever-expanding siesta period the further north I travel. Shops can be shut all afternoon until 7pm, no matter that you may be on the edge of death by starvation due to a chronic lack of groceries. The most striking example of the siesta was back in the modern, bustling city of San Juan. One minute it was like Sauchiehall Street on a Saturday afternoon and the next like Achiltibuie on ... well ... any day!

It was during siesta here that I was asked for money for the first time in Argentina. Sound advice will tell you that if money is demanded from you in a South American city, you hand it over. But to honest I found this guy more annoying than threatening. Travelling to countries poorer than your own is a great opportunity to share wealth around but I want to share it with honest, hardworking people like Juan and Luis in Talacasto or Ricardo and Marisia in Guandacol, not with useless bums like this. So he didn't get a single peso from me and eventually shuffled off.

No such "big city" problems further north in the friendly little town of Villa Union. I'd planned to take a couple of days off here to visit nearby national parks on the bus but I ended being trapped for five days by unprecedented rainfall and floods that not only closed the parks but also cut off my onward route north. I was lucky to find a hotel room to escape the weather as the town was almost full hosting a fiesta. The room faced the noisy main plaza and the bathroom was an entymologist's delight. I was about to say that at least it was out of the rain but on the first night I was woken up by water dripping onto my face as rain flooded in through the roof.

The national parks never did re-open while I was in Villa Union but I did manage to take a trip to the Laguna Brava Reserve, a spectacular place at 4000m in the high Andes. At its heart is a beautiful salt lake where flamingoes feed in the shallows, guanacos graze on the sparse vegetation and condors cruise overhead.

Any disappointment about missing the national parks was quickly banished by the onward cycle to Chilecito over the Cuesta Miranda, a beautiful mountain pass where Ruta 40 becomes a narrow dirt road cut through escarpments of red rock. Across the landscape here march battalions of cacti 20 to 30 feet tall. They're just like the cacti in cartoons - it´s quite superb! Chilecito is a lively town with some nice colonial buildings and trendy cafes around a central plaza. I'm sure it's famous for many things but in my journal I've noted that it´s the first place in South America where I've seen ponchos for sale!

Over the last week, the afternoon storms have amalgamated into prolonged periods of torrential rain and I find myself more often facing a flood across my road that I just have to wade through if there is no lift on the horizon. And just as I was about to upgrade to an unthinkable Factor 60 suncream, I'm wondering if I should instead pick up something for trench foot. Oh dear - I've cycled into the wet season!

More photos on Flickr.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks so much for your detailed and enjoyable reading material. I am a single woman in my first week of traveling through Argentina by bike for three months and most of my fears are turning into inspiration reading your blog. Thanks for taking the time to share!