Monday, 7 March 2011

Cafayate, Argentina - It's a wonderful life

A week ago base camp manager Graham sent me a text to say that I was closer to La Paz in Bolivia (where my compass needle is currently pointing) than to Chiloe Island, my furthest point south. This made me feel pretty good and it also made me reflect that it's quite amazing the distance that you can cover by bicycle - all you need is a little bit of time and a little bit of patience. Just by cycling a small distance each day, an inch on the map perhaps, it seems that, before you know it, your wheels have turned for thousands of miles. Obviously you'll cover much less distance than in a vehicle but the journey will be so much richer. You'll feel every contour of the earth and each breath of the wind. You'll smell the sweet aroma of roadside oregano and hear frogs croaking in the pools that form in the verges after the rains. You experience the gradual transitions in landscapes and appreciate the subtle changes. Of course, it will drive you nuts at times when there's an impossible headwind or a wearisome road stretching to the horizon. But even then you'll grit your teeth and remind yourself that it's character-building. Most of all, travelling by bicycle opens up adventures and encounters that escape the motorised traveller. You don't have to cycle for thousands of miles through South America to experience this. Slap some oil on that old bike in the shed and take a short ride along a route you would normally do in the car. Marvel at the fine detail that is opened up to you by the slow pace and intimacy of travelling by bicycle ... the little details that you never noticed before ... the little details that make it such a wonderful life.

After Chilecito my own bicycle journey swung way out west as Ruta 40 left behind sparesly-populated areas and crossed an even emptier stretch with few towns, gravel roads and lots of river crossings. It became a real mountain road again, climbing up into the foothills. I'd been staring at this tricky section on the map for weeks, slightly anxious about the logistics of cycling across it. But in the end I made the crossing without any real problems.

Pituil was my first stop after Chilecito and I stayed in a simple hospedaje run by the lovely Rosa who also managed a small kiosk, served meals and cut hair! My tank was filled by two enormous steaks that I ate in front of the telly with the family and next morning I was sent on my way with my panniers stuffed full of peaches and apples from the local orchards. Then the longest empty stretch was conveniently bridged by the remote outpost of Hualfin, a pleasant little hamlet with a lovely old church and all the services a touring cyclist needs - a small shop, a service station and a hospedaje! A welcome splash of green was provided by the small vineyards,now heavily-laden with ripening grapes.

I cycled a little higher beyond Hualfin on ghastly gravel then crossed a barren plateau below snow-capped peaks before flying down a 40-mile descent that took me swiftly to the next settlements and the Indian ruins at Quilmes. What remians of this holy city today are a series of terraces and low walls, some with decorative stonework, built into a natural hollow in the mountainside. They are not as impressive as more famous sites such as Macchu Picchu but when I visited early in the day as the sun was creeping over the mountains, I was the only person there and I thought it quite special to gaze down over the ruins, the forest of candelabra-cacti and the beautiful valley with its meandering river, shimmering silver in the morning light.

North of Quilmes Ruta 40 took me across vast vineyards and delivered me to the delightful, wine-making town of Cafayate where, like the wine, I'm chilling for a few days. Cafayate is just how you would imagine a South American town to be. There's a smart central plaza with tall palms and views to the surrounding hills. On one side of the plaza is a beautiful old church with twin bell towers and on the other sides attractive colonial buildings that now house pavement cafes. It's touristy which is fine by me after the last few weeks of hard graft. I'm staying in a gorgeous wee hostel with rooms set around a tiled courtyard where there are rambling plants and comfy seats in cosy corners. I was lucky to get a room at all! Not only is the town very busy but there were so many mucky river crossings on the road here that Shirley and I arrived up to our knees in mud - I'm surprised anybody took us in!

It's here at Cafayate that I part company with Ruta 40 as I cycle a more direct route to the old city of Salta. It's been an incredible journey along this famous road. Although I've been cycling on it for weeks, I've covered less than half of its length. Perhaps one day I'll come back to cycle the rest ... in a few years time ... when I've forgotten how tough it's been!

There's an updated map below and some photos added to my Flickr site.

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