Cycling days 229 to 233: - Belen to San Juan

Trip Start Apr 07, 2010
Trip End Jan 19, 2012

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Flag of Argentina  , Cuyo,
Sunday, November 6, 2011

We've been putting some good mileage in this last leg: 670 km in 4.5 days of riding...that's an average of 150km/day. One of the main reasons for it is that the days are long so we put a lot of time on the saddle (6 to 8.5hrs per day), the bugs are attacking us every time we stop and the wind never gives up (so we keep the breaks short), and there is very little shade along the way (so we don't break that often) we might as well ride and try to head to cooler latitudes as quickly as possible in the enless search for more enjoyable riding conditions.

Day 229 (11/2/11): 94km

We hang out at Antonio's house until almost 1pm, then start to exit Belen when a lonely New Zealander waves us down. We end up chatting with him for about an hour and he invites us for a beer, but alas, we must get this show on the road. The late start is okay because the hottest part of the day is passing, but even still, it’s a whopping 41⁰C. The air is so dry and we are guzzling down a lot of water. Beyond a small town called Londre, the road aims straight through the desert passed scrub brush, thorny trees, and the foothills of the Andes. For the next 80km, the scenery is so repetitive, we could swear we are going in circles if we couldn’t see the road stretch on ahead of us as far as the eye can see.

We make it to Cerro Negro, which we thought would be a town from the way it’s marked on our map and the road signs, but the point comes and goes without a single building sight, neither inhabited nor abandoned. Interesting. We ride until 7:30pm partly because it’s too hot to stop any sooner and partly because the flies are too annoying before dusk. We pull off the main road and onto a small, dirt trail, then into a sandy wash. The sun doesn’t set until about 8pm and it’s only the start of November. The days will only get longer as we head into summer and head further South.

Day 230 (11/3/11): 134km

We are on the move by 7:45am and immediately arrive at a series of small pueblos collectively called San Blas de Las Sauces. Stores don’t start opening until 9:30am and no one has fresh bread, so our awaited breakfast is a little less than perfect. As we sit in the shade to eat and get buzzed by hundreds of flies, we can tell today is going to be a scorcher.

A quick 50km across the desert floor puts us in Pituil for lunch. We ravenously guzzle down 1.5L of cold drink – ah, finally, something to somewhat satiate our interminable thirst. Not much is open at noon in this town, so we make ham, cheese, and tomato sandwiches yet again – this has been our staple meal ever since we entered Argentina, having it at least once per day. At 1:30pm, we go back to sweating in the desert and start overheating quickly. We stop under a tree with a measly amount of shade and leave our bikes in the sun on the side of the road. Shirley’s face is red hot and we fan ourselves trying desperately to cool down. After a few minutes, the Gendarmeria (not quite police, not quite military) pass by us, then u-turn. We are thinking, wow, I hope they’ve come to give us cold water! But no, they want to search our bicycles, great. They drag us into the sun and waste our precious energy. No, literally. The woman unwraps every little thing Shirley has bundled in plastic and lets the bags blow off in the wind, making Shirley go chasing after them before they fly away. The woman sniffs at everything, searching for particular scents. She smells the insect repellent, the facial cream, juice mix powder…and as she raises Shirley’s freshette/she-wee to her nose, Shirley exclaims, "That’s for peeing!" The woman eyes her as if she’s crazy, making Shirley think, “I shouldn’t have said anything, sheesh…” as she picks up business cards, her jacket, and other items from the floor to repack them properly. When other vehicles arrive the Gendarmeria lose interest in us and let us go on our way. Ugh, finally…as though we have nothing better to do in this 42⁰C heat.

Just as we are thinking about how stinky, sticky, and salty we are and how we would just love to hose ourselves off with all our clothes on to freshen up, we pass by a delivery truck that has spilled some goods on the road along a sharp turn. Hmm, smells like laundry detergent. We turn around and ask the guys if we could have one of the busted bags of detergent and they happily give it to us. How perfect is that, soap to de-stink us! Yannick announces it’s the 5-series with 25km to the next town, it is 5:05pm, we have put in 5hours and 45minutes of saddle time, covered 105km, and it is now 35⁰C. A little downhill, a little up, and we arrive in Chilecito. It’s 6:30pm, so stores are actually open! We buy a lot of apples, bananas, pears, and tomatoes that all uncommonly look in great condition. Afterwards, we pass by so many supermarkets…real supermarkets with variety and low prices. We buy what we need, plus a little more and wish we could eat everything, but it’s 7:30pm and getting late. We rush out of town to look for a place to camp. Just as we exit the city, Shirley exclaims, “Water spicket!” The police post conveniently placed at the perfect spot for us to freshen up and make use of our laundry detergent, nice. We camp in the dirt field behind the post, exactly 4,000km from Ushuaia.

Day 231 (11/4/11): 113km

We finished the Pacific Crest Trail precisely one year ago, and now we have the length of the PCT left to Ushuaia. Well, that is if we take the direct route South, but that likely won’t be the case – we are thinking of heading back into Chile and doing the supposedly super scenic Carratera Austral. That’s a little too far into the future to think about right now though; today we concentrate on getting over these mountains ahead of us without getting heat stroke!

From the edge of Chilecito, we have just over 10km of smooth riding to Nonogasta where we stop at a bakery. The owner is very friendly and inquisitive about our trip, so we finally feel free to clarify what all these new bakery words refer to, such as what facturas are (pastries such as danishes and croissants). As we are about to leave after buying just about one of everything, he calls us back into his shop and gives us a bunch of little cookies saying, “some energy for the last 1-1/2 years of work.”

The next 30km is mellow uphill on paved road, but when we see what’s coming, we get a little fearful: the dirt section is rocky and steep…and we can see the road climb high ahead of us. Oh boy, the wind gets still and it’s the hottest time of the day as well. Fortunately, as we gain a couple kilometers, the breeze comes and we are feeling pretty good. There are some cool rock formations and a beautiful canyon alongside us. As we peek down the cliff edge of the road, we can see some nice little slot sections that make it look like it would be fun to hike/climb down. To our surprise, we get to a 2,020m pass after only 7km of dirt uphill, which is much shorter than we thought. Now, downhill, yah! A long, gradual descent of 17km brings us back to the wonderful paved road, yah! More flat desert land that allows us to cruise at  good clip and we come to the intersection with the road to Villa Union. There is a police checkpoint where they ask to look at our passports, which is totally fine with us because it gives us time to use their water spicket to refill bottles and shower, yah!

After a little debating, we take the 3km detour into town in search of dinner – the supermercado has steaming HOT bread, so we have more ham and cheese sandwiches. By the time we are done chilln’ it’s 8:15pm and we ride out town as night falls. Another couple kilometers and we pull off the road to set up the tent…in mosquito land, aagh! We zip the tent closed, happy we don’t have to deal with dinner and start the killing spree. Ugh, this reminds us so much of the PCT…

Day 232 (11/5/11): 148km

The long, straight desert road undulates up and down in a mind numbingly monotonous manner. For 100km, Ruta 40 stretches ahead of us and we roll along, up and down, up and down for the next six hours. Yannick says, “It’s so harsh out here, there are no signs of life…just dead cows” as we pass yet another preserved carcass. It is so hot and dry that the hallow hides keep their cow shape around air and bones. We stare at the sand, the asphalt, the thorny weeds lining the road as we ride up and down, and aim dead ahead, slowly yet surely gaining altitude.

We finally arrive at an intersection with a confusing new road lacking road signs. The policeman who gives us a bottle of ice water says to take a certain direction on the new road, so we go there. The man in a truck half-ass gives us directions to take another way. The woman on the moped says to take the new road because the way the man in the truck directed us to go is longer and mostly unpaved. The man on the bicycle confirms what the policeman and the woman said. Okay, the new road it is then. After a few kilometers on the new road, the pavement ends and turns to washboard, making us wonder if this new road is too new, crap. Oh well, the other way was supposed to be dirt anyway, so at least this is supposed to be shorter. A few more kilometers later, the road is paved again, woohoo! We try not to get our hopes up too high though because we don’t know how long this will last. We’ll just be happy with what get because this gradual uphill in the heat is really sucking all of our energy.

We hit 120km and 7-1/2 hours of saddle time and we are running out of juice. We take another quick break to eat some cookies and nougat wishing our downtime could last longer, but we have to choose between trying to rest, but really wasting energy shooing flies from our legs, ears, eyes, and nostrils, or pedaling to outrun the annoying insects. We trudge on, waiting for our bodies to absorb the sugar we’ve ingested.

The road remains paved, smooth, and barely has any traffic – a cyclist’s dream. Too hot to stop any earlier, we ride until 8:15pm and go camp in another sandy wash, the only place relatively free of thorns. Even this late, it seems as though we stopped too early because we are swarmed by thousands of little flies – so many we have to squint to keep them out of our eyes as we rapidly set the tent. Ugh, at least they aren’t mosquitos! We climb into the tent, swat hundreds of flies out the door, have a dinner of cold mashed potatoes. We are relieved when the temperature cools, all the flies have gone to bed, and we are free to let the tent vent. Ah, cool breeze feels good.

Day 233 (11/6/11): 179km

Thousands of flies return in the morning to bid us farewell. We ride just a few kilometers to a tiny pueblo where we refill our water and buy some food. As we continue on, the next three pueblos on the map turn out to be abandoned and we make due with what we have until we reach a lone little restaurant along the side of the road. We buy a cold drink that is oh-so refreshing and worth it’s expensive price tag. We sit inside, enjoying the shade, sitting on chairs, and not being bothered by bugs.

Long days, little shade, irritating insects, a bit of tailwind, and mostly flat terrain means we put in a lot of time on the saddle and keep a good pace throughout the day. We didn’t plan on it this morning, but we make it 150km to San Juan by 4:30pm. We wash off and do laundry at a gas station, then proceed through the empty streets. It’s Sunday afternoon and everything is closed except for one bakery where we buy some goodies, of course! The city stretches on and on, giving us little opportunity to stop along the 4-lane highway with many more cars than we’ve gotten used to over the last month. As we pedal at high speed, Shirley suddenly feels a sharp pain on her inner thigh and reflexively swats her leg. She looks down and all that’s left is a tiny stinger…she’s been stung by a bee! We pull over and let her leg cool down and stop throbbing, then we have to push on because we aren’t in a good place to stop. We ride until 8pm and pull into a residential area, scope things out, and find an abandoned brick building. The neighbors say it’s safe around here and we would be fine staying there.

Just under 180km today, our 2nd longest distance day and surprisingly, we don’t feel that tired. That’s too bad because if we were exhausted, maybe we could sleep in this 31⁰C heat. We forego setting up the tent tonight to have a little more ventilation.
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