The change in riding environment has been so rapid, and so profound that I still have not fully rationalised it. The memories of the months spent on the high, cold, austere altiplano amongst the volcanos and salt pans feel as if they belong to a different life. The transition from parched desert to dripping cloud forest happened within the space of a mere 40km or so. Sitting in the perpetual sunshine of Cafayate it was possible to anticipate the change, in addition to looking at satellite photos of course while finding trails and route planning, as at times the tops of the clouds could be seen spilling over the peaks of the arid mountains to the east, much like a high tide lapping against the top of the sea wall in the village in which I grew up.
I spent much longer in Cafayate than anticipated, I was quite run down I think when I finally descended off the puna so picked up a cold. Moving on too early and risking a chest infection did not seem the wisest thing to do, and with an abundance of good food, good wine, good beer, and good people to hang out with it was an easy decision, easier than eventually leaving. As a solo traveller the longer I stay in one place then the stronger the friendships formed; a good time was had and I felt quite down saying my goodbyes.
As I write however I’m having a day off in a small town called Frías, in Santiago del Estero province, about 450km into the ride to Córdoba. So far I’m enjoying a look at this part of Argentina, away from the relatively well-known paths through the high Andes. Although not exciting in the way the high altiplano is, the riding here is bringing a different flavour of reward. I do have a few days ahead that are likely to be a bit dull however; in order to reach the sierras and dirt trails of Córdoba province I must cross the vast salt flats that lie across the intersection of Catamarca, Córdoba, and Santiago del Estero provinces. Some 250km of flat, straight line riding. Other than that the only slight difficulty I’m having is language; heading deeper into the heart of Argentina it doesn’t even sound like Spanish anymore…
One of my favourite things about travel is the people you meet… occasionally things can take a slighty surreal turn however. Ewan McGregor, Charley Boorman, and their filmmaker Claudio von Planta turned up at the place I was staying. They were riding prototype Harley Davidson electric motorbikes from Tierra del Fuego to Los Angeles, making a film for Apple TV+ with sponsorship from Harley. Without the pressure of being recognised in these parts they proved to be great company and conversation as we hung out and shared stories from the road. There is some footage of me apparently rambling on about how great bicycle travel is.. and how awesome cargo bikes are, that I’ve signed a release for so I may well have ruined one episode of the documentary for those folk that think bicycles are stupid :-) Part of me hopes that bit ends up on the cutting room floor.
The weather was distinctly sweaty as I left Cafayate, in the high 30’s Celcius.
So with a long, steep climb to look forward to, a short trundle of 70km to the village of Amaicha seemed like a good idea, leaving the bulk of the climb for the following morning in, hopefully, lower temperatures.
There have been fewer of these old motors as I head east; I rather suspect they ‘dissolve’ more readily with the higher rainfall and humidity.
From Amaicha it’s a steep climb of about 30km up to 3050m. There is a good road, but the dirt version is more fun.
The pass, the Abra del Infiernillo, was living up to its name… it was “hotter’n hell”.
From the pass a delicious 20km descent to the village of Tafí del Valle, at 2000m asl. I found it an odd place that lacked any heart. It primarily seems to exist as an escape, and second home destination for the wealthy, for folk from San Miguel de Tucumán. With the weather forecast looking even hotter followed by thunderstorms and torrential rain I stopped and put my feet up for a couple of days. I met nice folk so the time passed easily.
Tafí sits in something of a bowl in the mountains, it’s where the transition to a much greener land begins.
I left town on a pleasant dirt track around the reservoir at El Mollar…
…before plunging into dripping cloud forest.
A radical transition just 10km or so from Tafí. It rained all day…
After 120 damp kilometres, and having negotiated roadblocks of burning tyres and armed protestors I stopped in the town of Juan Bautista Alberdi. Not sure if it was just the damp weather or something else but it felt a somewhat dour and downbeat place. The protests I’d passed were to do with the privatisation of the provincial water supply. No doubt various government ministers will receive a decent amount of shares while prices go up and investment goes down… pretty much as happened at home. This is the bank, ATM queues in Argentina are always unfeasibly long. ATM withdrawal limits are very low, while fees are sky high.
From Alberdi I was able to get off the road again and hook into a network of rural trails for the next few days.
Initially passing orange groves…
… and cane fields.
Muddy at times, and also with 2500 metres of steep ascent via a series of ups and downs. It’s been slower going than I expected.
I’m using a mix of open source mapping, satellite imagery, and a gps track sharing repository (wikiloc.com) to find these trails. Sometimes they’re very overgrown. Thistles are an invasive species, presumably the seed arrived with shipments from Europe.
Stretches of singletrack.
Nice murals in the village of La Cocha.
Into the Green Room.
I spent a night camped by a lake about 5km outside the village of Alijian. The forest and lake was alive with birdlife. Hummingbirds flitted through the undergrowth by day, and fireflies by night; it was a lovely spot to spend some time drinking tea. A few locals keep boats at the lake for fishing.
Alijian. Little more than a tiny grid of streets lined by orange trees. I did meet a great bunch of folk on my way through however and, for the umpteenth time this trip, a seat was pulled out for me and a cold beer thrust into my hand.
Signage… Mostly the weather has been warm, humid, and drizzly.
It’s been pretty nice to see a rich variety of flowers and listen to the phenomenal variety of birdsong after the months of austerity. It feels like a good wind down as I approach the end of this journey. I would have happily revisited the mountains and lakes of areas south of Mendoza, and Patagonia, but I also wanted to see a different side to Argentina.
Forest trails of Catamarca province.
Really very fine riding. It’s not often one gets to enjoy a couple of hundred km of continuous forest trails.
Forest milestone, somewhat reminiscent of home.
It was situated on a bend in the trail about halfway up, 10km, a long, steep climb. It rained the whole way up, happily the soils were sandy and drain well. It could have been miserable…
Arriving into the little village of Guayamba around mid-afternoon I was hijacked by this gang, visiting from Santiago del Estero capital, to join their grill-up. Mountains of meat, and a bit of tomato as a nod to the concept of a salad.
The Fernet Branca was flowing freely, but despite the fact that some people tend to become more boring and boorish with an excess of alcohol, it was a pretty chilled afternoon. I was not able to extricate myself without being rude until after sunset so had little choice but to camp on a patch of waste ground behind someone’s house. They were cool with it and it was a quiet night.
More fine, flowing forest riding followed with the usual complement of birdlife…
..and the occasional tiny community.
Frías is a pretty chilled and friendly place. I imagine there’ll be some pics when I next post, hopefully from Córdoba city in another 400-ish km or so.