So today I arrived in a small adobe town called San Jose de Jachal… The following post however I wrote yesterday in Rodeo.. I´ll update you on events at the protest in Rodeo (see below…) and the ride to San Jose the next time I can log on… so without further ado I present for your pleasure, hehe, Uspallata to Rodeo….
… in a pueblo called Rodeo.. a ramshackle collection of adobe buildings that manages to be pleasantly picturesque… and becomes truly spectacular at the bottom of town where a turquoise lake sits against the slate grey mountainside. Rodeo has the claim of being the windiest place in Argentina.. a quirk of the local geography means the afternoon winds are consistently accelerated to 120km/hr.. every day. It’s a claim I can vouch for having cranked my way slowly down the mountainside yesterday afternoon into the face of such a gale… We took a small apartment in town for a couple of nights, I have had a stomach bug for the last few days and the riding has been very hard, I’m feeling quite weak today so I needed to rest up… I’m sat in the kitchen right now where a vase of dead flowers sits on the table…. I’ve got the TV on too, the horrible news of the 8.5 earthquake across the border in Chile – the epicentre was Concepcion, on the coast south west of Santiago – probably at least 500-600km from here yet the quake woke me up at 4am this morning… apparently it was a 4.8 in this area. strong enough to send me scurrying outside to watch trees, poles and so on sway heavily in the moonlight.. an interesting experience in that I did not know if it would get worse… sensibly here all the buildings are solid single storey adobe affairs with thick walls and small windows so the only apparent effect was a blackout.
Anyway, no idea when I’ll be able to upload this but there’s a lot of catching up to… the riding from Uspallata has been extremely difficult but spectacular in equal measure… There were times when I almost wished I was cruising along the Pan American instead but sitting here now and given the choice I would not have done it any other way. It’s been mentally hard too, bit tired of having nothing available for breakfast other than some stale bread, the shops out in the small pueblos have absolutely bugger all… especially when it comes to fruit and veg.. usually all that’s available will be a few limp, blackened carrots and some even blacker bananas, or a few onions. It’s a meat and bread based diet for the locals… for the traveller choices are pretty much limited to bread, meat and cheese in various forms…
- tostada carlito= square, flat sandwich of ham and cheese toasted
- hamburguesa = tall round sandwich of meat and cheese
- pancho = long, thin sandwich of meat and cheese (basically a hot dog)
- pizza = round open sandwich topped with tomato ketchup, ham and cheese….
so there you go, various shapes of the same things…. even Juan, an Argentinian chap we met over lunch (and more of whom later) commented on it…. Argentina produces heaps of fresh produce yet precious little of it finds it’s way into the home markets… I’m not complaining, it’s just a consequence of life on the road out here… speaking of which – my diary of the last few days:
The morning we left Uspallata my enthusiasm wasn’t that great.. it’s never a question of not being able to reach a given destination, rather it’s just knowing that getting there will probably hurt… usually once I’m riding my head sorts itself out though, especially if I can find some good coffee and breakfast before getting on the bike – failed on both counts in this instance! Heading north then from Uspallata we very quickly left behind the shady trees and asphalt to spend the next 60km riding steadily, but not steeply, uphill on the usual corrugated, stony ripio.. and the next 60km after that riding what was supposed to be gently downhill but felt uphill due to the fresh cross-headwind.
This road was really quiet – once clear of the ‘road’ work going on a few km north of Uspallata I counted just 2 vehicles all day… and two cyclists… One, an American chap, heading north we passed about 10km out of Uspallata, he’d only just flown into Santiago with his bike and got a lift over to Uspallata. Must say at the time I thought he was bonkers – he was riding an aluminium road bike with skinny slick tyres… completely unsuited to the terrain.. his logic was he’d be quicker on the asphalt and thus compensate for being slow on the ripio (very slow…)… we left him to it and didn’t expect to see him again… the road was tough going.
The other chap we met just south of Barreal was a Swiss guy headed south from Central America on old Swiss Army bicycle… a bombproof looking piece of kit. His load was enormous though and he was also, rather amusingly at the time, carrying about 3kg of onions having found a bag lying in the road … the classic “fell off the back of a truck”.. Not sure I’d want to try and subsist on that many onions and he was glad to off-load some to us :-)
The road to Barreal was hard going, it went directly north with the mountains of the pre-cordillera on the right and the snow capped high Andes on the left.. and it just stayed that way all day, utterly spectacular but punishing to the cyclist… very hot, very windy, very dusty and very rough.. very everything in fact including fantastic :-) Somewhere along this road I also left Mendoza province having entered it many many km ago in the south.
After 105km the ripio ended…. the asphalt was heaven, every fibre of my body was tired and hurting… there really isn’t a lot more to say about this road except that Mark seemed even happier to see the asphalt than I was….
After 120km and 6.5hrs of riding (8hrs on the road) we rolled into the leafy shade of Barreal , a really pretty little village of a few dirt streets backed by red mountains. Here we found icecreams before looking for a place to camp but instead finding a very pretty, quiet little hostel with comfy bed surrounded by trees and grass for just 30 pesos/night.. it was a no-brainer really :-)
I also managed to find the only miserable sod in what was a really friendly little town when I went to buy some fruit juice in the local shop… at first I thought it was just me and my bike he didn’t like but soon realised he was just being grouchy with everyone :-)
At about 8pm I was sitting with a mug of tea back at the hostel wondering what had become of the American chap when a familiar profile rolled past the window on skinny tyres, hehe…. Jeremy had quite a rough day and was badly sunburned, dehydrated and exhausted but smiling nevertheless :-)
The village of Calingasta is just a further 50km from Barreal on a surfaced road that rolls it’s way along the edge of the pre-cordillera, perfect recovery riding for tired legs. Breakfast didn’t happen aside from some of yesterday’s bread toasted over the flame of the stove.. there was nothing much available in Barreal itself early on so it was just as well it was only two hours to Calingasta. This road was typically spectacular with multicoloured cliffs as it ran alongside the river.. Calingasta however turned out to be a very scruffy little place redeemed only by a very friendly little cafe that sorted us out with a lazy lunch of fried meat, bread and some salad (hooray!).
Jeremy showed up later and joined us for lunch before we all went off to find somewhere to stay.. options in the village were limited to patch of dust with no water available, or a pricey but empty, crumbling hotel.. so we rode about 3km out of town and camped in the garden of the only other hotel in the area :-)
Searching for supplies in Calingasta was the usual frustrating exercise so gave up and decided to rely on being able to find some fresh bread in the morning. I’d be laughing if my bicycle could be powered by brooms.. every shop in town had a rack of brooms for sale… but bugger all else.
Dinner was a slightly weird and very greasy pizza back at the cafe.. weird in that it was topped with grated egg. Not sure if it was that which messed my stomach up or just that my body is feeling particularly hammered at the moment. Ho hum :-) I did have a major breakthrough however in that I found a little shop at the back of someone’s house that sold cheese… having asked at all 4 other shops in town and being told that cheese wasn’t available. lol. Lunch for tomorrow… pending fresh bread.
We did get fresh bread eventually in the morning.. it took almost 40 minutes to actually buy it once it had been spotted (South America….) .. and also some bananas best suited for eating through a straw. The onwards plan from Calingasta involved taking two days to get to a village called Las Flores, around 150km away.. with 100km of that being nothing at all bar wilderness, with a wild camp at some unspecified point along the way.. I figured it was going to be tough, the road climbs on the map to the 2700m contour and once past Villa Nueva, 40km from Calingasta, all dirt and apparently quite ‘bad dirt’…
Feeling pretty weak the first 40km on asphalt to Villa Nueva was a leisurely affair.. as leisurely as climbing a 6% grade out of Calingasta can be anyway. The scenery was simply stunning in the clear morning air with the occasional adobe farmhouse and cultivated field green against the background of desert ochre.
Villa Nueva, as it’s name suggests, is a relatively new village of a few identical brick cottages and a school.. I guess to act as an administrative centre of sorts for the surrounding farms.
There was a shop there, we had to ask around to find it… usual limited selection but she did have some salami, some more bread for the road ahead… close in weight and consistency to the rocks in the desert around here… and a bottle of coke. We’d agreed to meet Jeremy here too – he had leftover pizza from the night before for lunch which he supplemented with two litres of beer from the shop, lol. We ate a picnic lunch in the shade of a yard belonging to the local school teacher while chatting to him and his two friends about pretty much everything.
Learned that Villa Nueva has about 100 inhabitants with about 50 children attending the school… also learned that the road ahead really was rather bad and that for about 100 pesos each we could put our bikes in the back of a pickup for the journey to Las Flores…. despite my weakened state (oh the drama of it…lol) I refused, hehe. These local chaps thought Jeremy was hilarious, I’m sure he was doing it deliberately, playing the ‘tipica yankee’ as one of chap put it.. riding along in his baseball cap and hawaiian shirt, eating pizza, hydrating on beer and somewhat unbelievably carrying a wine glass (real glass) and box of wine from a bodega near Santiago in his panniers. The challenge being to see how far he could get without breaking it…
After a short siesta we said our goodbyes and set off towards Las Flores. The road deterioted dramatically into the worst ripio I’ve seen so far, very soft sandy, gravelly stuff with a 6% upwards gradient. It made riding very hard, frequently losing traction and balance in the soft stuff.
With a further 10kg of water on the back of my bike hauling it out of such traps was a huge effort.
I’m trying not to over-use the word spectacular as I write… but it really was as the climb took us upwards into the teeth of a howling gale… deja-vu…!
After 20km or so the gradient eased but we were still only averaging 6 or 7km/hr so at around 6.30pm started looking for somewhere with some shelter from the wind to camp…. we could have kept on riding into the night I suppose until the wind dropped, usually around 11pm, but I just didn’t have the strength. It seemed more sensible to sit out the wind and recover somewhat and then set off again at first light the next day. The best we could do in terms of shelter was a man-made ditch which once looked like it had been an artifical watering hole for livestock… though now it was bone dry with the just the mummified carcass of a cow, ribs gleaming through the holes in it’s weathered hide, watching sightlessly over it. A pretty marginal sort of place, it was still a two-man job pitching each tent in the gale.
The evening was beautiful, ignoring the wind of course, as the sun set behind the mountains to the east a crisp ¾ moon appeared over the mountains to the east, rising with the purple then indigo of the night. The night itself was cold with a magnificent starscape overhead.
Come morning it became apparent our shelter from the wind was acting as something of a dew trap, despite being in the middle of desert everything was dripping wet. Up at first light and on the road just as the sun peeped over the mountains it was back to the uphill slog… with just a light wind and with a chill in the air progress was much better than the night before and we able to average a whole 10km/hr for the next 2 hours to the high-point of the day where the road just grazed the slopes of the peaks of the west before turning north east for the descent towards the village of Iglesia.
During the morning while climbing we were following Jeremy’s tyre tracks, quite distinct in the soft dirt, and figured he must have just plodded on and passed our camp at some point during the night. We caught up with him, picking his way carefully down the rocky track, shortly after the descent began. It’s this kind of terrain that my Nomad, and Mark’s Ripio, with the fat Marathon rubber really shines… descending this difficult track with a full load at almost 30km/hr, rocks bouncing off the down-tube and tyres bouncing off the rocks it really is unbelievable the punishment they’ll take.
Iglesia turned out to be a real gaucho village – it’s dirt streets full of horses.. and a few old bicycles :-) Sorted myself out with some sugar at the one shop in the form of a local version of Sprite – 2 litres, some chocolate and a bottle of fruit juice.
With no cafe’s or restaurants in town however it was a case of continuing another 11km to the dusty little village of Las Flores.. which has a cafe with icecream, pizza and sandwiches. With my dodgy stomach all I could face was a basic ham sarnie and a large pile of icecream.. very large in fact.. chocolate, lemon and ‘frutas del bosque’ :-)
It was about 1pm I guess when we arrived at this place and had promised to wait for Jeremy here. About 2pm he arrived… not on a bike but in a pick-up truck. His bike had finally succumbed to the terrain with three broken spokes :-( So, from there it was just a further 20km downhill to Rodeo… not that it being downhill made it any easier – see my earlier reference to wind.
Rodeo has a charm in a scruffy, single-street kind of way.. there’s bugger all here but I’m happy just to have a day off, it was 178km of hard riding from Calingasta.
Feeling utterly drained I’ve been craving simple junk all day…. alternately salty and sweet… I found a kilo bag of frosted cornflakes in one shop, hehe, which did for breakfast (not all of ’em I might add…) followed by french fries and lashings of salt with a litre of Sprite for lunch… which is when we met Juan… A most interesting character, from Mar del Plata on the coast south of Buenos Aires, he’s been hitching his way around the world for the past few years funding his journey by selling travel his writing and photography. Having hitched his way around the world, and notably through the middle east – Syria, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan etc he his now working his way north to Alaska. His writing really is very good, his website is at www.acrobatoftheroad.com and his book, in Spanish and available all over… or should be.. is “Vagabundeando en el Eje del Mal” (Vagabonding in the Axis of Evil..).
Juan is also acting as something of an advocate against the activities of the big mining corporations in this country. There are real environmental problems happening right here in terms of the heavy metal contamination of the water and lowering water table as a result of the vast quantities of water used by the mines. The corporations have so much power that unless something changes radically the problems will only get worse. The lake here in Rodeo used to be an international windsurfing destination thanks to the consistent winds but is no longer on the circuit – there isn’t enough water any more so sandbanks and rocks lurk just below the surface. I’d wondered what all the expensive crew cab 4×4 pickups were doing in town… they all belong to the mining outfits it seems. There’s set to be a protest/meet in the plaza tonight. I’m always interested in the issues facing the countries I travel so I’ll be there. In the meantime however in a local shop I have found tomatoes, onions, garlic, beef and pasta…. time to swap my grubby sun hat for my chef hat … mmm, a proper dinner :-)