The promised land
What a contrast! Argentina may not be the richest country in the world but in comparison to Bolivia, it is certainly a couple of steps up. The change at the border was marked, dusty, bumpy road became beautiful smooth tarmac. Suddenly, there were road signs. Riding a little further proved these to be accurate in terms of both direction and distance. Quite a novelty after the previous three months. Showers were hot, coke was cold. In short, the type of Utopia that I’d been longing for.
Interestingly, the people of obvious European ancestry weren’t confined to television and politics, they were real and walking the streets. Sometimes they even drove cars. The other major change was the descent off the altiplano. This occurs over the first 250 km or so. It wasn’t all good news as I had a stiff headwind, which I believe is common here. In fact, it was the norm on all the big descents. You start enjoying the freewheeling and then come afternoon a breeze builds and the road flattens and you have to pedal just to go down. Most frustrating!
Showers were hot, coke was cold. In short, the type of Utopia that I’d been longing for.
Almost all of Peru and Bolivia has been very dry, but shortly before the first major Argentine city of Jujuy (pronounced Hoo-hooee), I began to encounter trees and farms. From Jujuy, there is an old road that leads to the nearby city Salta which was an absolute delight and I’d highly recommend it if you are passing through. The traffic is all taken by a dual carriageway and there is a police checkpoint which seems to prevent most vehicles from taking the direct route. The narrow, but well-tarmaced route winds through damp forests and fields, past lakes and over some hills. They are definitely hills here, not mountains but there’s still some climbing to be done.
Cities and vineyards
It took me about two weeks of hard riding to reach Mendoza. I was really pushing to make up for the time I lost riding with the English guys in Bolivia and rode 100 to 170 km most days. The area is climatically a desert as it lies in the rain shadow of the Andes but in areas where there are settlements, the land has been irrigated for centuries. Using snow melt from the mountains, irrigation ditches criss-cross fields of vines and fruit orchards. It all makes for a schizophrenic day’s cycling as you pass from barren desert to lush green. No prizes for guessing which I prefer.
I loved Argentina. It is not immediately obvious why this would be the case as neither the riding nor the scenery was as amazing as it was to the north or south. The Argentines however are so friendly that it is hard not to have a good time here. I was invited to stay in several peoples’ houses and was regularly offered food, drink and lifts (which were politely declined).
Coupled with the fact that Argentina is reasonably developed, this makes it a wonderful place to ride after the central Andean countries. One thing that comes as a shock is the siesta. Everything, with the notable exception of ice cream parlours, is closed from about 2 pm till 6 pm or so. That is exactly the time that I usually arrived at the end of a day’s ride – I ate a lot of ice cream. Forget about getting dinner before 8.30 pm at the earliest as well, most Argentines go out for dinner at 11 pm.
On the plus side are the bakeries which provide all manner of cycle-friendly goodies for a song. I still miss my regular bag of 10 mezelunas (a sort of sweet croissant) which could be had for around £1. The towns themselves are pleasant colonial places, inevitably built around a plaza and with plenty of shady trees. They’re welcoming at the end of a long day, but don’t really need more than an evening to enjoy fully.
My plan from Mendoza was to cross over the Andes again to Santiago, Chile over the Uspallata pass. had read that this is the most spectacular pass in the Americas and while I wouldn’t go quite that far (there are a lot of them after all), I would say that it is one of the most impressive that I have ridden. Uspallata was used as the location for the filming of Seven Years in Tibet and it is easy to see why, above this point the mountains are bare rock and snow. The top at 3100 m is not really the top at all, the road crosses the border in a tunnel, somewhat akin to the Mont Blanc tunnel. Fortunately, since riding through would be somewhat suicidal, the authorities take bicycles through in a truck. The border is somewhere in the middle so when you arrive on the other side, the scenery is Chilean.