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.

Monday 21 February 2011

Villa Union, Argentina - Getting to know you

Too often as a cycle tourer you get up each day and move on to the next place without ever getting to know a town. The advantage of being trapped in Villa Union for a few days is that I´m settling into the place and getting to know familiar faces - the guy at the fruit and veg counter in the supermarket who smiles at my attemtps to name the products in Spanish; the people at the cafe in the service station on the plaza know it will be a "cafe con leche" for me; I know when the bloody music from the tourist information booth will be switched off and I can get some peace; and each night around 8pm as the lights on the plaza are coming on and the artesan sellers are setting out their crafts, I wander across the square to chat with the French lady who runs the tours to the national parks to find out the latest news.
Today I sat drinking coffee looking out over the plaza as the town came to life on a Monday morning - people heading to work in shirt and tie; shops opening up for business; the stray dogs unfurling themselves from sleep, stretching and picking their preferred begging pitch on the plaza.
These little things in Villa Union remind me of the little things in the town I know and love best - Portobello. When I´m back home in Portobello, I´ll buy some fruit and veg from the greengrocer without any language difficulties and I´ll wander down to the promenade to sip coffee as a new day starts. I´ll watch people cycle by on their way to work, parents taking children to school and well-fed, much-loved dogs being walked along the sands. And I´ll think back to the pleasant little routines that I grew to know in Villa Union.

Sunday 20 February 2011

Villa Union, Argentina - mini update

From deserts to floods: from blistering sun to incessant rain: it's all gone topsy-turvy in Villa Union where I'm stuck waiting for a break in the weather so I can visit nearby national parks or just get on my way again. Even the internet is flooded!

Click on map to enlarge

Saturday 12 February 2011

San Juan, Argentina - Pleasant surprises

I wasn't really looking forward to the cycle from San Martin to San Juan. To avoid a busy stretch of Ruta 40 I was doing a dog-leg to the east across several empty inches on the map with no campsites for a few days ... in fact, with not very much at all for a few days. However, as is often the case in Argentina, there were pleasant surprises.

At lunchtime on the first day I pulled off the highway into the village of Asuncion, hoping there might be a spot where I could get permission to camp. It was a poor village, the poorest I´ve seen in a country I´ve come to think of as "European". A true desert town, there was only sand and bare soil, scoured by a wind that sent dust devils across the plaza. I´d arrived at the start of siesta and the deserted streets added to the gloominess. I settled myself down in a patch of shade to sit out the the heat of the afternoon. I was just thinking to myself "this is grim" when I spotted a tent between a gap in the houses. Investigations revealed a group of young Americans who were camping in the village while doing voluntary work in the area. My tent was added to the colourful little village of tents and there was even an unexpected shower and dinner invitation! Then of course, after siesta, the village came to life - women watered front yards with buckets of water to keep the dust down, kids flew up and down on bicycles and threw stones at chickens, and a trailer-load of grubby menfolk was deposited on the corner, presumably having come from working in the vineyards to the south.

The next dot on the map was Encon, an unattractive cluster of buildings around a road junction in the desert. At least I knew there was a service station here for camping, although when I got there it wasn´t the most appealing of service station stops. With a long afternoon ahead of sitting out the heat and waiting to pitch the tent, I decided to treat myself to lunch out at a wee "comedor" in the village. I had steak, eggs, salad, a cold drink and a coffee for less than six pounds. As I was leaving, the senora asked me where I was staying and when I said at the service station, she led me around to the back of the restaurant. Here was a little oasis - a lush lawn surrounded by a carefully-tended flower border that was alive with butterflies and shaded by tall trees. Noisy wild parrots flitted back and forth, watched over by the equally noisy pet parrot. His Spanish vocabulary was about as extensive as mine - "hola" and not much more. His English was excellent though! The senora´s house was above the restaurant and a smallholding extended beyond the garden - she invited me along when she went to feed the cattle, pigs and chickens. If they were the source of my lunch, then I can record very low food miles! My tent was pitched in the middle of the lawn and I pottered away a very enjoyable afternoon.

San Juan is another pleasant surprise - a modern city of tree-lined streets. Although there is a sad story behind this. The city was largely destroyed in the middle of last century by an earthquake so what we see today is the result of the modern rebuilding. It´s a wealthy city -the surrounding vineyards have generated the money here which is such that there are even shops where you can buy outfits for dogs!

One advantage of swinging out on a more easterly route is the incredible perspective it´s given me of the Andes, as a result of "standing back" a little. I´m cycling on a 600m high plain. At its western edge the mountains are a sudden uprising of snow-covered rock, snaking away to the south and to the north as far as the eye can see. These are big guys now of five and six thousand metres but yesterday morning the rising sun picked out in pink one peak that rose above the others. At 6959m it´s the highest mountain in South America - Aconcagua.

I´m pretty excited about the road north of San Jan which turns back into the mountains. I´ve picked up a lot of information from other cyclists such as locations of campsites and service stations, the most scenic routes, places to get shade and water and, most critically, where the coffee stops are! But I´m hoping there´ll also be more pleasant little surpises.

More photos on Fickr and an updated map below.

Tuesday 8 February 2011

San Martin, Argentina - Roadkill cookery

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.

Saturday 5 February 2011

San Carlos, Argentina - Monday mornings

We unzip the tents at 5.30am. It´s still dark and there´s a sliver of silver moon. All is still and quiet around our wild camp in the desert beside a salt lake. By the time we are having breakfast, huddled in fleeces against the dawn chill, there is a band of golden light on the horizon. And as we push the bikes back to the road, the sun´s peachy morning rays are already touching the rocky peaks of the Andes to the west. We slip into our tow clips, push off along the road and share a smile - this certainly beats heading into work on a Monday morning!