Friday 31 December 2010

Junin de los Andes - mini update

I'm in this gorgeous but expensive lakeside mountain resort mustering the strength to cycle over the Andes into Chile. I may need some more artisan chocolate ... just for energy!

Click on map to enlarge

Friday 24 December 2010

Merry Christmas

A very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year - thanks for following, for your comments, support and donations. Keep reading in 2011!

It´s not too late to get me a Christmas present - just click the link to my Oxfam Justgiving page and make an online donation. Thank you.

Tuesday 21 December 2010

El Bolson, Argentina - In the footsteps of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

When I cycled out of Buenos Aires what seems like a lifetime ago, the plan was to hit the Andes at Bariloche and turn right for the long haul north. But "the bicycle diaries" in a fit of spontaneity has turned left! I´ve cycled south from Bariloche for three tough days of riding to Cholila, an unassuming little town hidden in the mountains, 20 miles along a dirt road. You´ve probably never heard of Cholila but, unless you just arrived on the last lightbeam from the Planet Zorg, you´ll have heard of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the American outlaws. And it´s in their footsteps that I cycled south.

The excitement started long before Cholila as I left Bariloche on Argentina´s most famous road - the Ruta 40. Imagine a road that begins at the southern tip of a continent and meanders north for over 3100 miles, keeping close company with the mighty Andes and passing through some of Argentina´s most spectacular landscapes before delivering the long-distance traveller to her northern border with Bolivia. This is Ruta 40 and over the years it has acquired legendary status. Recognising its tourism potential, the Argentines have been a little bit naughty and "moved" bits of the original Ruta 40 that were unsurfaced and passed through unappealing terrain onto the surfaced road further west that hugs the mountains more closely and conveniently services the tourist hotspots. However, nothing can detract from its unique character and stunning scenery.

One advantage for me of riding on Ruta 40 is that there are more visitor services - in my case, I´m talking campsites and service stations, as opposed to opulent hotels and fine dining! Another advantage is that I´m meeting the occasional long distance cycle tourer like myself. It´s brilliant to pull off the road for a few minutes and exchange stories or information about the route ahead. South of Bariloche I cycled on Ruta 40 passed beautiful lakes, through vast forests and below snow-streaked peaks to the town of El Bolson. On the way I met a German cycle tourer going in the opposite direction - I was able to give him my Bariloche map and he gave me his El Bolson map!

El Bolson is an attractive, mellow little town of wide streets and single-storey buildings and wherever you look, your eyes are drawn up to the mountains. It has a touch of the wild west about it and perhaps that´s what attracted America´s most famous outlaws! In 1901 Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid along with Etta (or Ethel) Place, Sundance´s girlfriend, arrived by boat in Buenos Aires and travelled to El Bolson. On the run from their crimes in the States, they had assumed false identities. They continued south to Cholila and bought a ranch. It was a few miles out of town but still handy for the weekly shop! From 1901 to 1905 they ran this ranch, apparently very successfully, in what appears to have been an attempt to make an honest living. They even acquired local respectability. I´d read that Butch Cassidy´s cabin was still standing and could be visited. With this mission in mind, I continued cycling south on Ruta 40 from El Bolson towards Cholila.

I don´t know what the journey was like for Butch and Sundance but it was hell for me! Much of Argentina´s road network, even today, remains unsurfaced and many significant towns like Cholila can only be accessed by gravel roads. So I had to cycle for nearly 20 miles along an appalling road with a surface like corrugated iron and a top layer of loose gravel and grit that swallowed my wheels. Every now and again a vehicle would pass and I´d be enveloped in its cloud of choking dust, my view ahead obliterated. But it was a spectacular route that crossed big, wide Rocky Mountain scenery. Cycling along here I was just thinking to myself "gosh, aren´t I the adventurous and intrepid traveller, riding my bicycle along a dirt road into remote South American landscapes" when a vehicle passed pulling a caravan and shattered the illusion! The road eventually descended into the beautiful, green valley of the Rio Blanco where the two outlaws ran their ranch. As I rode through the valley, two gauchos on white horses were driving cattle ahead of me - this is still ranching territory and probably some aspects have not changed much in a hundred years. It had been a tough ride and I was mighty relieved to pull into the cluster of buildings that calls itself Cholila and to find a campsite. It was a pretty spot on a farm, just out of town. The owner recommended pitching my tent on the lake shore but I remembered from my map that the lake was called "Lago Mosquito" and plumped instead for a spot in the old orchard!

Next day, armed with some vague information, I set out on foot from Cholila to find Butch´s cabin. I´d not gone far before I was offered a lift, as is often the way in rural Argentina. I was dropped off and pointed in the direction of a rough, hand-painted sign at the start of a grassy track that said simply "Butch Cassidy". The track meandered by the Rio Blanco whose wooded banks were flush with pink and purple lupins, and below the beautifully sculptured mountains of grey rock and scree, still holding patches of spring snow. After a bend in the track a little wooden cabin appeared in a copse of trees - Butch Cassidy´s house! If the cabin had been in Europe, there no doubt would have been the circus of a car park, coaches and a visitor centre. But there was nothing and you could hear the wind rustling the trees, the gentle gurgle of the river nearby and the whinnying of horses in the field. And the cabin sat quietly, looking out over the mountains, much as it had always done. What a fabulous little piece of history! And how wonderful it was to push open the cabin door and sit inside, imagining the scene over a hundred years ago - Butch and Sundance riding along the track or chewing the fat on a warm evening as the sun sank behind the mountains.

They may have had a lot to chew over because the Pinkerton Agency were eventually on their trail and landed in Buenos Aires. Butch and Sundance somehow got wind of this and quickly sold the ranch in 1905. They fled north through Bariloche, probably picking up some artisan chocolate on the way, and crossed into Chile. The details of their lives in the intervening years are vague but on 4 November 1908 they undertook a payroll robbery near Salo in Bolivia. Two days later they were shot at San Vicente by a Bolivian military patrol.

Like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, I´m now heading north, back through Bariloche and across the Andes into Chile. I may even catch up with them again in Bolivia!

There are more photos in the Argentina folder on my Flickr site.

Click on map to enlarge.

Tuesday 14 December 2010

Bariloche, Argentina - The chocolate wars

I´ve lingered longer in Bariloche than planned - partly due to waiting for a parcel from Scotland with a replacement piece of kit and partly due to a spell of bad weather that brought snow and freezing temperatures. Bariloche itself is not a pretty town but it has a likeable hustle and bustle, and a good outdoorsy vibe. Of course, it's famous for its stunning mountain scenery - snow-capped, pointy peaks rise to 2000 metres from a base of sparkling lakes and green pine forests. It's also famous for something else . . . and honestly I didn´t know this until I arrived . . . artesan chocolate making! 

All along Mitre, Bariloche´s busy main thoroughfare, are the colourful little shops of the chocolatiers who compete with each other to produce the most exquisite designs in chocolate, or the prettiest packaging with hand-painted tins and lavish bows, or simply the biggest selection of chocolate this side of the Milky Way! The shops are especially appealing just now as they try to out-do each other with flamboyant window displays for Christmas. Of course, I never eat chocolate but Tigger bought some and assured me it was delicious. 

The other facet to Bariloche that you can´t fail to experience while you're here is the wind. The wind is born in the snowfields of the high Andes. It races down the slopes in an avalanche of cold air and is chilled further as it blasts across Lake Nahuel Huapi, turning it into a frothing mass of white horses. Icy fingers of wind then squeeze through the lakeside forests and sneak under the flysheet of my tent, causing me to reach for the duvet jacket and woolly hat in a month equivalent to June in the northern hemisphere! 

A break in the weather gave me the chance to spend a couple of days cycling what must be one of the world´s most scenic routes - the Circuito Chico. A mix of tarmac road and dirt trails took me further west along Lake Nahuel Huapi at the very foot of the mountains I´d been gazing at from Bariloche. The route meanders around sapphire-blue lakes studded with emerald-green islands and always with a backdrop of snowy peaks towering above the road and stretching to the far horizon. The route also passes through the funky village of Colonia Suiza - the Swiss Colony, as it was when it was originally founded by Swiss settlers in 1895. I left the main road and bumped along a rough, forest track. After a few 
miles, the forest track became the village main street and I cycled into a little slice of heaven tucked away in the forests. The village dwellings are pretty log cabins and colourful timber cottages and, as luck would have it, I arrived on the day of the artesan market, a cross between a farmer´s market and a craft fair with folk music thrown in. I really enjoyed wandering along the stalls with a big bag of delicious handmade fries. The other interesting thing about Colonia Suiza is that it enjoys a warm micro-climate relative to the rest of the cold, wind-scoured landscape around Bariloche. And so there are small plots with neat rows of raspberries, strawberries and gooseberries that will mostly be made into jams - the Argentines love their "dulces". I got chatting to one of the growers and she knew all about Scotland´s own tradition for growing strawberries and raspberries! 

Beautiful though Bariloche and the surrounding area is, I´m hopeful that my parcel will arrive in the next couple of days and I'll be able to tear myself away from Bariloche and Tigger away from the chocolate shops!

More photos in the Argentina folder on my Flickr site.

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.

Friday 3 December 2010

Piedra del Aguila - mini update

Making slow progress towards Argentina's Lake District in battle with headwinds and desert. Seemed like a good idea at the time.

Click on the map to enlarge.