Argentina is a country of contrasts and the last stretch of cycling has certainly brought them out. I cycled out of Malargue with Lesley and Chris from Haddington and it was great to have such good company for a few days, especially as they shared my inability to pass a service station without stopping for coffee. Ahead of us was a two-day crossing of a long stretch of pampa desert with an overnight wild camp, so we left well-stocked with water - I had six litres but could have done with more. The pampa can be quite bleak but this stretch was memorable for me as I was rewarded with my longest daily distance of the trip (75 miles which is not bad on a fully-loaded tourer) and I passed the 4000-miles-cycled mark!
Eventually we turned off onto a dirt road and descended in a series of hairpin bends into the depths of the fabulous Atuel Canyon, Argentina´s answer to the Grand Canyon. It was spectacular. There were banded rocks the colour of IrnBru and huge boulders that reminded me of big lumps of putty with indentations like finger marks as if they´d been worked by giant hands. The most bizarre formation was "The Monks", a tight cluster of tall, grey, spiral rocks that looked like a huddle of religious leaders debating some important matter of the day. The canyon delighted us with pampas grasses whose feathery tops caught the sunlight, cacti several feet tall and peppercorn trees - we picked the ripe, pink peppercorns to spice up our camp stove cookery.
Beyond the canyon and the town of San Rafael we were back into pampa and back to carefully monitoring water supplies. It was blisteringly hot and we dozed the afternoon away in the shade of a hailstorm shelter before making a wild camp behind bushes off the highway. Then it was all change again as a long descent took us down into the countryside south of Mendoza - a patchwork of green with vineyards stretching to the mountains and orchards of pears, plums and peaches. The area is also famous for growing oregano and the sweet aroma filled the air as we pedaled along. Of course, it´s really still desert here and the agriculture is only possible as a result of extensive irrigation. Nonetheless, it makes for pleasant cycling in contrast to the pampa. Another bonus of cycling in this area is the roadkill that can be collected for the pot . . . it´s not as gruesome as it sounds! There are any number of trucks trundling along these roads with all the fabulous produce and inevitably some of it falls off. The keen-eyed cyclist can collect many "roadkill" fruits and vegetables for that evening´s supper!
In this part of Argentina there is a little slice of heaven in the form of the campsite at Hostal Rosengarten in San Carlos. It was so relaxing that I stayed for three days. Big, mature trees provided shade and shelter around the lawn and there was a little swimming pool with a view to the Andes. A heavily-laden pear tree ambled over the toilet block, an area favoured after dark by huge toads. Eclectic clusters of seating on the lawn encouraged people to relax and chat - stylish chairs that you might find on a Provence patio or roughly-hewn wooden benches set under the shade of the trees. In the mornings I swam and nipped to the shops on the bike and in the afternoons I watched the world go by. The Senora who ran the site was a bit of a character. When I asked her for directions to a supermarket, she said she was going herself and would give me a lift. There then followed a terrifying journey at breakneck speed as she narrowly missed several cyclists and a few dogs. I thought I was in the Dukes of Hazard as we almost became airborne when she hit at full throttle speed bumps that had escaped her failing eyesight. In the afternoons she was the perfect hostess, circulating around the campers and picnickers as if they were her personal friends over for a dinner party. On my last night I was slightly alarmed to be woken up at a late hour by somebody calling my name. I unzipped the tent to find the Senora inviting me into the house for ice-cream - at midnight!
As I write I am skirting east of the city of Mendoza. The contrast between the peaceful countryside and the busy city is one that I´ll bypass for now.
There´s a new set of photos from Argentina on my Flickr page and an updated map of the route below.