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Northern Argentina


My arrival in La Quiaca, Argentina felt a bit like arriving in Oz. When I asked the receptionist at my hostel whether the tap water was safe to drink, she said that it was, and moreover went on to tell me that she prefered the tap water here to the water in Chubut (a Patagonian province). So, from this I learned that the water is safe to drink, and the receptionist of my hostel had traveled throughout her coutry… This was very different from what I was used to. Anyhow, I filled up my bottles with the tap water, and gave it a hearty quaff — and she was right: it was tasty!

So, filled to the gills with delicious non-disease carrying water, I set out the next day. The road was flat or gently uphill for maybe 60 miles, and by a stroke of luck I didn’t have any headwind to impede my progress. I finally crested at a 13,000 ft pass near the mining camp of Tres Cruces and then began a long descent down the Quebrada de Humahuaca (Humahuaca River). The river had carved out at times a canyon and others a river valley through yellow and red colored rocks, and I followed this for the rest of the day, finally stopping in the town of Humahuaca itself. That day, thanks to the flat road and pavement I saw my first 100 miler since probably Colombia.

The next day the descent continued on down from Humahuaca at 10,000 ft to Jujuy at around 4000, but this wasn’t the downhill funfest that I’d hoped for because I had to battle a very strong headwind from about 10am onward. Still as the scenery continued to green, and the air became thicker and more humid, and especially because I crossed the Tropic of Capricorn somewhere along the way, my spirits remained high the whole day.

From Jujuy to Salta was another order of magnitude better than the previous days had been. The most direct road to Salta from Jujuy is not the main highway, and for that reason is largely devoid of traffic. It is also a single lane winding road through densely treed hills and along several lakes. In short, it is a road that is ideal for bicycling. So it was after 50 miles of pure pleasure and 5 miles of entering the city along a seperated bicycle path that finally I arrived in Salta. I found a cheap hostel with free breakfast and a swimming pool, took a shower, ate half a pound of ice cream (!), dropped off my clothes to be washed (is it normal for your clothes to smell like vinegar?), and set myself to relax. Ah, the developed world!

In Salta I also was far more productive than I’d expected to be. Remember how my bicycle was covered in tar? Gone! Remember how my rear cassette went wacky after my derailleur went postal? Fixed! Remember how in the same event my hanger arm bent and subsequent unbending went too far? Corrected! Also, I trued the wheels and degreased and regreased everything (pretty much had to after removing all that tar). Also, I found a produce market where I could get three pounds of tomatoes, an onion and a carrot for around 60 cents, and made some fantastic, yet dirt cheap sauces several nights in a row. And astute readers will remember how I got my haircut in Coban, Guatemala and haven’t mentioned cutting it since. That’s because I hadn’t — until Salta. Now I don’t look like a raving hippie anymore, and in fact after a day of careless riding after leaving Salta, my neck is a vibrant shade of sunburnt red!

And that brings us nicely to the riding. The first 60 miles leaving Salta went through flat hot land whose flora was thorny trees, except where agriculture was practiced. I stopped in a town called Colonel Moldes for lunch and tried my hand at taking a siesta in the shade. I arrived in town, took my leisurely time eating and drinking my apple juice, and then just sat and watched. Satisfied with a siesta well taken, I got back on my bike and consulted my watch. 30 mintues had passed. I need to practice siestas more…

Now the noon-day heat was in full swing and my thermometer was reading in the high 90s. I went through my water at a faster rate and knocked off the rest of the distance to a town promisingly named La Viña. When I got there I discovered not a vine in sight, so I pressed on to the next promisingly named town: Alemania (Germany). I got there, and the town was nothing but a train stop for a train that hadn’t rolled along those tracks in several decades. But they did have a water spigot which supplied me with fresh cool water. I loaded up on that and set out further down the road, resigned to another night of wild camping as opposed to the municipal campground with running water and hot showers which I’d hoped to find at the end of my day.

Luckily for me, I’d just entered a natural reserve called Quebrada de las Conchas (Shell River). The river wound through tall mountains and improbably eroded rocks, and the road followed the river as best as it was able. I eventually came to a dried up tributary river, walked the bike up that a ways, and set up camp.

Unfortunately, I didn’t take into consideration the swarm of ants all around me, and the next morning the were crawling over everything. I brushed them off as best as I was able, broke camp and set off the remaining 35 miles to the capital of Northern Argentina wine country: Cafayate. Still a few managed to hitch a ride with me, and very occasionally I’d discover one crawling along my sunglasses.

But I managed to make it to Cafayate, and headed for the municipal campgound (running water and hot showers? ¡Sí!). And after setting up camp, I wandered into town to see what wine might flow my way.

I did all that, but there is only so much you can do in a town that is basically an oasis of wine. It was time to head back into the desert…

I planned on a short day, in keeping with my resolution of trying to not exhaust myself at every opportunity. The first day I succeeded, only taking a small detour to the ruins of Quilmes. I got there and the combination of having to pay 10 pesos to enter the site and the intense desert heat put me in a foul mood. And after seeing the ruins in Peru, how could these compare?

So I pedaled on, 10 pesos poorer (those tens pesos could have bought a kilo of dulce de leche or a bottle of wine, but now they’re gone…). I ended the day at a municipal campground in Amaichá del Valle, a town with absolutely nothing going on, except about 60 teenage kids having a good time at the pool.

The next day I had a surprise 3000 ft climb into the fog. The fog grew denser and became mist, and the mist became rain. Then I had a 3000 ft descent to the town of Tafi del Valle and I got cold, cold, cold! I had to spend an hour over a lunch and various cups of coffee to warm back up.

From Tafi, the descent continued on through increasingly lush landscapes. I had no idea that this would exist here when I started the day, and I felt like I was back in the highlands of Colombia or Chiapas. Eventually the descent bottomed out around 8000ft lower from the pass I crossed earlier in the day, and I found myself riding though fragrant orange orchards and then sugarcane fields.

I continued riding on to the town of Concepción, where I hoped to find another municipal campground, but was told there was none. I continued on my way, using tried and true methods to find a free campground, and found an ideal spot under a large tree behind a ruined building. After I secured permission to camp there from the only people I could see, I set up my tent, cooked some dinner and crawled into my tent to avoid the continuing rain and to write in my journal.

While doing this, someone started pounding violently on my tent, and demanded that I come out. I decided that answering him would best be done in as broken Spanish as I could muster, and I set about speaking so poorly that it made me cringe. It turned out that the man pounding on my tent was the owner of the land, and after I explained what I was doing and why I was there and how I thought I had permission, he let me stay. And thank god for that, it was pouring rain and pitch black, and I wouldn’t have found anything else.

The next morning, it was still raining, so I packed up my things as best as I could, and tried to warm up. In the late morning, the headwind picked up and the rain had done nothing to abate. I ended the day in a town called San Pedro. While in the main plaza, asking where I might be able to camp, an old man who loved learning English invited me to camp on his lawn, right across the street from a public thermal bathouse.

The rain let up, and so I hung out my things to dry on a bush. I fell asleep, hoping that in the morning they would be drier, and therefore much lighter. I woke up to the sound of rain pounding on my tent. Sighing, I took everything down, wrung it all out as best as I could, packed up and left.

It rained the whole day again until just before the town of Recreo. Just outside that town I met a group of local cycling enthusiasts who guided me to the public pool, where I was allowed to camp for free. They also bought me apples and crackers and sent me off with their good wishes.

I hung up all of my clothes on a tree to dry them again, and this time it managed to not rain the entire evening. This time it started ten minutes after I woke up. But in those ten minutes, I was able to put away all my clothes and take down my tent. It rained again the whole day.

I made it to a town called Deán Funes, found their luxurious municipal campground, convinced the groundskeeper to let me camp for free, and to use her shower (the only one with hot water). That was wonderful. Expecting rain, I took shelter in a gazebo, and it stayed dry the entire night. In the morning, finally the clouds were all cleared out and the sunny weather came back.

I rolled through rolling hills until the main highway to Córdoba, and when I got to that the truck traffic had intensified so much that I was being blasted off the road every thirty seconds. I decided that I had enough of all that crap, took a dirt road away from the highway, and immediately wished I’d done so much earlier in the day. It was so quiet and serene, and nothing as terrible as the dirt roads in Bolivia. I actually pulled out my iPod, and for the first time since maybe Costa Rica, listened to music while I rode. In fact, I decided I liked this so much that I took more wandering roads through the hills, and decided that getting to Córdoba could wait another day.

I ended the day down by a stream outside a town called La Granja and was variously entertained by a local group of drunken teenagers. They were really good kids, and my approval of Argentines increased a lot. The next day I finally entered Córdoba along a bicycle path, found a hostel by chance, and set about relaxing.

This ends the Northern Argentina portion. I’ll have to think about how to divide up the rest of this trip in the coming days.

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