Cactus Country

The high puna/altiplano can be a punishing place to ride a bicycle, and inevitably at times when battling the wind, the cold, the altitude it is impossible on occasion not to want to be somewhere else. The moment it is left behind however it is missed; the landscapes, the quality of light, and the sheer emptiness of the place. It is something of a drug in that respect.

Having descended from the puna all the way down to just 1680m / 5533ft I cannot help but miss it, albeit while enjoying cold beer and icecream in the shady plazas of Argentina’s towns and villages. The difference from just a few days ago is remarkable. While in San Antonio de los Cobres the locals celebrated the first day of spring; it was so cold the river through the center of town was frozen. Not bad for a town just 100km or so south of the Tropic of Capricorn. By contrast, as I sit here just 320km later, the temperature is forecast to reach 37C this afternoon. It is still emphatically early spring however; the trees are just coming into leaf, and spring blossoms are appearing. In the early mornings when the air is soft and the birds are singing, the days have the feel of the most perfect early summer days at home. It is highly agreeable. For a couple of weeks at least I can also enjoy my elevated red blood cell count as a consequence of four months spent at between roughly 3500m / 11,500ft and 5200m / 17,000ft; cruising into Cafayate yesterday on a stretch of paved highway at 30km/hr I felt as if I hardly needed to breathe.

San Antonio de los Cobres. For 3 days I did little more than sleep and eat; I felt myself slowly coming back to life with each day that passed. The Sacred Heart butchers here was opposite the place I stayed, the Hosteria of Hope…
San Antonio de los Cobres. A small, slightly crumbly place with friendly locals.
San Antonio de los Cobres
San Antonio de los Cobres
San Antonio de los Cobres
San Antonio de los Cobres
One for the railway enthusiasts. This is the Tren a las Nubes that runs once or twice a week I think taking tourists on the ride over the Viaducto Polvorilla (in my previous post). On the day it runs the town fills up with tour buses making the day trip from Salta.
San Antonio de los Cobres. Just as an aside, arsenic levels in the water here are something like 20 times the WHO safe limit. Water comes from a nearby spring.
From San Antonio, if not going to Salta, the road rises 1.2 vertical km to the summit of the Abra del Acay; at 5000m Argentina’s highest road pass. The cone on the horizon is the Tuzgle volcano, crossed a few days prior (previous post).
It’s a long, long climb, taking a significant chunk of a day. Enroute, after months of solitude on remote trails, I met Tadeo. From Buenos Aires he was cycling the entire 5140km length of Ruta 40 in celebration of his 40th year. I slowed down and joined him for the climb; company always makes these things more fun,and he was indeed good company. Unfortunately, I think by the time I’m in Buenos Aires for my flight home, he will still be on the road somewhere in the south.
About 3/4 of the way to the summit we met another great bunch of cyclists, also from Buenos Aires. I’d met them in San Antonio a couple of days before, they left town 24hrs before I did to make the climb, but were travelling in truly relaxed fashion with plenty of stops for maté.
Cyclists on the Abra del Acay.
Abra del Acay
The summit. Tadeo was telling me that Argentina has a law that says no national highway can be higher than 5000m, so officially the pass is at 4995m, but in reality is a bit higher. It’s not a particularly remote pass and, as a gateway to the puna, is relatively well visited compared to some…
…  the scenery is breathtaking however.
Pampas fox. Generally thought to live at altitudes up to 3500m, this one was hanging out at 5000m. Possibly it was me, I’m a little bit feral these days so perhaps I smelled like a potential meal, or mate…
Either way, beautiful animal.
Not so beautiful animal. Just for the record, and my memories for when I’m a grumpy old duffer (more so than I am already), a rare photo of yours truly.
The descent…
Dropping 1000m in the first 15km on a precipitous track; it was a fantastic, eyeballs out descent.
Those puna skies.
I thoroughly enjoyed the descent, and it felt like a fitting way to wrap up the last few months of high altitude riding.
The track descends into the beautiful Valles Calchaquíes, with a number of river crossings, and ups and downs along the way.
The valley is very much cactus country…
…with a couple of tiny communities along the way. This is the village of La Poma at about 3000m ASL. All of us that met on the Abra del Acay agreed to try and meet here, 90km from San Antonio de los Cobres, to camp for the night.
I made it by 6pm, just a bit less than 10hrs from San Antonio. Perhaps not surprisingly given my big tyres and the rough terrain I was on my own. I did however meet yet another cyclist from Buenos Aires camped on the little camping area on the western edge of the village. Good company. It felt like a very civilised way to spend the night… water in taps, table and benches, and trees full of raucous parakeets. I was also hijacked on my way into the village by a group of twenty-somethings who thrust a cold beer into my hands. A fine welcome.
Valles Calchaquíes at La Poma. Wonderful lighting.
Leaving La Poma I met this chap. He threw an empty plastic bottle at me as I passed and then wished me a “buen dia”.. I love parrots.
La Poma village shop.
From La Poma just a 60-ish km cruise along the valley to the pretty little village of Cachi.
Enroute to Cachi.
‘Belligerent’ cacti…
Cachi turned out to be a pretty, sleepy little place, pleasant to hang out for a bit and enjoy the first icecream since leaving La Paz.
Cachi. Happily all the other cyclists made it into town late the evening I arrived, so off out for beersies and dinner until the small hours. I was happy to have a day off after.
Cachi. I enjoy seeing all the well-worn old Renaults and Peugeots clanking around the place. Memories of my childhood.
From Cachi it’s 160km or so to Cafayate, 140km of which are heavily corrugated sand. It was hard going and left me with a somewhat battered backside,…
Hot too, mid-30s Celcius, with plenty of steep climbing, but very beautiful…
.. as the road winds its way through the quebradas.
It was a good ride.
Ruta 40
Desert highway.
Tiny communities along the way.
By 4.30pm I’d made 110km so when I stumbled across a patch of dry forest, seemingly offering a luxurious camp spot with shade and shelter from the afternoon winds, I stopped and put a brew on.
After the highlands it was a delight to be able to lounge in t-shirt and bare feet in the balmy late afternoon temperatures with just the gangs of parakeets for company.
View from the tent. The night however was not quite so peaceful. Something that had not occurred to me… there are wild boar here; introduced by the conquistadors, they can be quite aggressive. My camp was invaded by ‘angry monsters’ around midnight and I spent a couple of hours poised ready to leg it up the nearest tree should the need arise before they moved off. I did not sleep well.
The final 50km or so to Cafayate were a particularly relaxed affair. Late morning I stopped in the quiet little pueblo of San Carlos for coffee and pastries. Ahh the delights of civilisation; the trees were just coming into leaf, spring blooms were everywhere; I enjoyed my coffee to a wonderful soundtrack of birdsong.

Cafayate is a lovely spot, and is also the place at which my current route crosses my route of ten years ago. I’ve been in a somewhat reflective mood as my arrival here closes the high altitude chapter of this journey, and opens a new one as I move east away from the Andes. I don’t yet have a route plan; inevitably there will be a much greater proportion of asphalt roads but so far asphalt represents just 15% of my journey total so it’s not too bad. By all accounts Córdoba is a beautiful province so it should be a nice ride. I have time on my side so before I set off a few days here in Cafayate enjoying the weather, the food, and the beer are in order I think.

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