Reflections on Argentina

Trip Start Mar 11, 2005
Trip End Jul 15, 2005

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Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Greetings from the sunny city of Salta (well it was sunny when we got here, but it's really rather cloudy and cold at the moment), our second major stop of this trip after Mendoza. We're relaxing here for a few days before heading off to the Andes proper and into Chile. There seems to have just been an earthquake where we're going, which is a little disurbing: it's bad enough having to climb the mountains without them shaking around as well!!

Rather than go straight to Salta from Catamarca on the flat land through Tukuman, we decided to head northwest into the hills. This seemed quite sensible until before very long we came across a diversion for a new road which would take us a further 5km out of our way. As is our custom we ignored the signs and headed for the new road. Normally this is no problem as there's usually plenty of space to cycle alongside the newly-laid road. However, in this instance the new road was in its earliest stages as they were still blasting the rock to make a gap through a ridge. There were mounds of soft earth over which we tried to drag our bikes, and a massive digger moving the loose rock. But as usual in Argentina, people like to help, and we soon realised that far from blocking our way, the driver of the digger was clearing the earth and rock so that we could get through! We like the Argentinians.

Our short cut!

At Monteros we stopped for the night as it was the closest town to the mountains that we would have to climb in the morning. Our friendly landlady recommended a restaurant in town and we duly turned up for a dinner of about 2 kilos of the best roast beef (sorry Hulmey, but it really was that good). We'd also ordered a half decent bottle of wine and the whole lot would cost about five pounds. But then came pudding: fruit salad. And then a whisky. And then a top-up. And then more wine, and more whisky. The rest is a bit hazy, but we were left with the owners of the restaurant late into the night, and the boy who was our waiter for the evening (night?). He had been given his job by the owner as his parents were very poor and the restauranteur wanted to help, so he was being taught the skills of waiting in a restaurant. We wanted to give the owners some money to help cover their generosity, but they asked that we give anything we might want to the boy. We gave him $50 (about 4 pounds) as we had no change but had had plenty of wine - and the boy burst into tears! We rocked up at our B&B at 5.30am and got the landlady out of bed to let us in. She was amused. We like the Argentinians.

The only sober creature to be found in Amaicha.

The Argentinians like their dogs, and, on the whole, we like them too. OK, so we've been chased by one or two and Starky managed to deal a sharp and surprisingly accurate blow with his cycling helmet to a snarling snout that sent one hound whimpering away, but it would seem that most dogs are disciplined from a young age. Early on, in Patagonia, we passed a gaucho on horseback with his dogs, but one hapless puppy had obviously misbehaved, for it was yelping and running for its life with the gaucho galloping behind at full pelt wielding a very, very long whip. The rest of the dogs completely ignored us as we cycled past, but stood and watched, their faces etched with pity for the poor puppy and with relief that it wasn't one of them. Other dogs have joined us in our accommodation: one puppy (child of a wolf it would seem) was desperate to join us in our tent, whilst another was intent on staying in our room, but was banished for trying to chew everything we possessed. (Just a little aside here which is worth noting and we found ever so slighly scary: we came across this little fella in a small town called Amaicha, where the whole population was apparently absolutely hammered. This included our landlord who was reeling as he showed us the room and whom we never saw again, and a guy who ever-so-carefully drove into a wall as we quaffed coffee in a cafe. Presumably the puppy would have been sozzled too if it weren't very obvious to all that she was under age. But we digress.) The downside to this Argentinian love of dogs: doggy popo. In Buenos Aires it's everywhere; in the rest of the country, caution is recommended. But Philsy has come up with a just solution to dealing with this rather unpleasant problem: having slipped on a really rather impressive pile, he got the worst off his shoe by scraping it on some grass and in some dust, then buffed it up nicely on the nearest labrador. What comes around goes around. We like the Argentinian dogs.

Starky, keeping a close eye on the approaching bull, advises Phil to hurry up and take the photo.

But we don't like their bulls. We were climbing up the very steep and winding road to Tafě del Valle when we saw a layby containing a Gauchito Gil shrine which would be a handy place to stop and maybe have a biscuit - as we do. We sat down, but were rather disconcerted by the sight of a heifer and a bull eyeing us up from a clearing on the other side of the road. It might have been slightly naive too to be sat in a Gauchito Gil shrine for, as followers of this travelogue might remember, these shrines are bedecked with red flags, and we all know that red rags and bulls are traditionally thought to be an unhealthy combination. So we kept a beady eye on them, but weren't too worried as we thought there should be plenty of room to get past, as long as we were careful. But, they moved. They walked up the hill into the road that was so steep and so narrow - and stopped. Now that's a whole different kettle of fish. The prospect of us cycling at walking pace up towards a bull in a narrow road with a vertical cliff on one side (an option I suppose) and a rockface on the other, was not appealing. We waited. The bull waited too. Eventually we stopped a car and explained our predicament. The occupants dismissed our concerns, "as the bulls around here are friendly . . ." Now we're both farmers' sons and are well aware that bulls are bulls are bulls. From a car it is easy to be blasé about the danger, but on heavily-laden pushbikes, it's a whole different story. And this bull wasn't your old overweight Hereford; this was a feisty, young Spanish bullfighting type. The car drove on. We had no choice but to give it a go, so we mounted our bikes and cautiously cycled up the hill. We had only got a few yards when we saw the heifers (there were now two) running down the hill towards us. We country boys soon worked out that the bull wouldn't be far behind, so we turned tail and headed back to the layby as fast as our little legs would take us, followed rather closely by the two heifers and a really rather excited young bull. We pulled into the layby and fortunately the young suitors went on by - the bull seemed to have other things on its mind. Soon we saw the occupants of the car walking down towards us. In an effort to help, they had driven ahead of the cattle, then driven them back down towards the layby. We appreciated the thought, but for our part we would have appreciated being let in on the plan and perhaps we might have waited in the layby, just a little bit longer! We like the Argentinians.

Horseriding in Tafě

To get to Tafi del Valle we climbed for most of the day, first through lush forests, then through forests of leafless trees before heading into the mountains to a bare but beautiful plain. At one end was the small town of Tafi del Valle (Valley of the Welsh?). We stayed a couple of days principally so that we could go horse-riding. We booked for a full day and at about 10.30am we mounted our steeds and headed up into the mountains. This wasn't pony trekking in the New Forest as we soon discovered when our gaucho stopped to tighten our girths (well the horses' actually) to stop the saddles slipping off the back! At the top we galloped (unintentionally) to a tiny cob farmhouse (one room) where we shared some wine and were cooked just a little too much barbecued steak. After a suitable amount of time to allow for digestion, we cautiously made our way down another cliff, very much relieved to arrive safely at the foot. It wasn't the Beaufort, but very pleasant to swap saddles and let Dobbin take the strain. Safety? We were advised to bring sunhats . . . We like the Argentinians.

Where`s Wally?

Six hours astride a horse was of course excellent preparation for the next day's cycling. We turned left at the garden gate and cycled up 12 miles to the dizzy heights of 3,042m. Although hard work, we were pleased to have done this bit as it was a good test for the coming Andes. 3,000m is high, knocking on 10,000 English feet, and it was good to know that we're fit enough to climb reasonably easily. From that high point we meandered down through some extraordinary scenery straight from the Wild West: massive desert hills scattered with huge cartoon-like cacti surrounded us - a line of Indians appearing over the ridge would have just about completed the picture. Talking of Indians, we stopped off at the Quilmes ruins: the Quilmes were an Indian tribe around these parts, but perhaps more importantly have given their name to the local brew, which is everywhere and can be extraordinarily cheap at about 50p for a litre. It's not normally our thing to drink beer at midday when cycling (no, really it's not), but we felt obliged to sup a glass of Quilmes at Quilmes!

The Quilmes Ruins

We cycled from beer to wine, to the wine-producing town of Cafayate: really quite bizarre to see fields of vines interspersed with giant cacti - there really must be some very effective irrigation going on around here. Other crops have appeared too: sugar cane, maize ('corn' for the benefit of our US friends) and tobacco, and some other crop that we can't identify. We left Cafayate behind and cycled through the Quebrada de Cafayate (Cafayate Canyon), with yet another change in the scenery that keeps surprising us as we cycle through this fascinating country. We were now in the middle of a geologist's dream, surrounded by cliffs of predominantly red, but also green, brown, beige and yellow striped stone. We're no geologists, but presumably the weather has carved the stone so that much of it has been left in fascinating shapes: an obelisk here, an amphitheatre there, a castle here, and a toad there. We have been privileged to see and experience the ever-changing landscape of this extraordinary land. We like Argentina.

For the geologists amongst us

And so we came into Salta, a once-wealthy, gracious city that retains much of its former glory. We're staying here for a short while, finding out the logistics of heading over the pass to Chile. Although we've already been to an altitude of 3,000m, apparently that's child's play, as it was humid. We'll now be climbing to 4,200m: it'll be very, very cold; it'll be windy; and the air will be dry. We're advised that altitude sickness might be a problem and also we have to be careful what we eat, as digestion slows in those conditions and we will have to ensure that we eat easily-digestible food - so bread and jam it is! We're thinking of stopping at Purmamarca, which is a bit of a tourist spot in itself, and at 2,100m will be a good base at which to decide when it's best to tackle the pass. We have the phone number of the border pass at 4,200m and will be in touch with them to get advice on when it's best to start. It'll only take a few days, but of course weather conditions will be critical. So we think this will be the last page to be posted from Argentina, a country that we'll be sorry to leave. It's a fascinating and beautiful landscape and the people have shown us kindness all through our journey. Only yesterday we collected the bikes after having them fully serviced: the shop would take no money for the labour and charged $15 (3 pounds) for parts. Their policy is to charge the locals but not charge foreigners - all they wanted was for us to sign their visitors' book. Not a bad country this. We like Argentina.

Salta Cathedral

We've now covered more than 3,000 miles and have passed another milestone for us: our previous longest cycle was from London to Lisbon - well, we've now gone there, turned around, and come all the way back again! But this time we're doing it for a reason, to raise much-needed funds for St. Cuthbert's Hospice in Durham. This cause is personal, particularly for Starky whose mum died of cancer (and to whom this trip is dedicated), but all of us will be affected by cancer in one way or another, whether it be ourselves, a relative or a friend. So if you would like to help the hospice, and are able to, please visit the "justgiving" website and give what you can. We, and the hospice, would be very grateful.
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