Sunday, 30 May 2010

Tafi - Salta

Leaving Tafi we were immediately faced with our first pass of over 3000m. Luckily, as we had already climbed nearly 2000m to get into Tafi we had only 1000m left to do, and it transpired that we share a love of embarrassingly loud, tuneless singing which kept us going most of the way (who isn´t inspired by a selection of the greatest show tunes...?). Actually singing is pretty hard at that altitude, which is my excuses for the tunelessness. At the top we met an Argentinean cyclist coming the other way who recommended (not for the first time) that chewing coca leaves could help (I assume he meant with the altitude, as it would take a great deal more than that to help with the singing).
However as we were already at the top we declined his kind offer, speeding down instead to the little town of Amaicha, where we took a day to visit the ruins at Quilmes. These were one of the tribes to most fiercely resist both Inca and Spanish invasions, for over 130 years. When they were finally defeated by the Spaniards they were forced to move to Buenos Aires - on foot, with only 10% of the 2000 prisoners making the journey alive-, where it is reputed that out of defiance they refused to bear any further children in order to end their blood line.

From Cafayate (after an all too brief introduction to some of the local bodegas) we decided against the quickest route into Salta, and (unusually) chose to take a stretch of the ruta 40 that goes via some tiny and seldom visited pueblos, including the beautiful town of Cachi. This is a challenging route by bike due to the poor and very sandy ripio, and also the altitude; the highest point being at 3400m. Whilst it was easy to see why most people would chose the paved route, the challenge was well worth it-the scenery was absolutely stunning and has probably been some of the most beautiful to date (or do I say that about every new place we go to...?).

We had hoped to camp just before the pass, at around 3400m in order to help our acclimatization in preparation for the pass into Bolivia, however unable to find water, we had to make a very ill advised 20km 2000m decent in the dark, in subzero temperatures. Prior to this however we were treated to one of the most beautiful sunsets we´d ever seen, it was just a shame we didn´t get to see the descent into the valley in daylight, as it is reputed to be stunning.

We timed our arrival into Salta with the busiest weekend of the decade; coinciding not only with a religious 4 day holiday, but also Argentina´s bicentenary celebrations, meaning every bed in the city was already occupied. Dom had been eagerly anticipating spending her upcoming 30th birthday in style; preferably in some top hotel or Spa. She was therefore extremely disappointed when insult was added to injury and the only place on offer at the tourist office was a ´special´ hotel, which it transpired meant it needed to paid for by the hour. Declining this option, we ended up celebrating in the less than salubrious surrounds of a cheap hostel, sipping champagne from chipped coffee mugs. Perhaps not quite what she had in mind, but one to remember non the less.

My bike seemed to sense Ja´s imminent departure and, either out of distress at the upcoming loss, or sensibly realising it would be a lost cause if it broke when Ja wasn´t there, pretty much fell to pieces on the way into Salta. This meant Ja had to spend much of his last time before leaving South America giving it a full overhaul, sorting out gears, breaks, panniers etc etc. And then, bike fixed, and after 7 solid months of cycling together, 7777.77 (and a little bit) kms, and (disappointingly only) 6 countries, we had a very sad farewell as Ja left for Buenos Aires in order to return to the UK to start a new work contract.

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Aimogasta to Tafi del Valle

If we'd imagined that we were going to take it easy on the riding after Iguazu (or rather without Ben&Sylvies good influence), we were very wrong!! (Although without their invaluable translation services we did have a rather interesting meal in Concepcion where, in a rather rash decision to go off piste with the menu and sample some of the local delicacies, we chose the dishes of Cabra and Conejo. Later dictionary consultation led to the rather alarming discovery that we had been eating 'Cabra - goat; nanny goat; cud chewing mammal closely related to the sheep', and 'Conejo - rabbit; any of several small species of rodent; (vulgar) vagina'. I'm not sure which translation was correct, but this was a cautionary tale in the importance of checking the dictionary before ordering, and of our ongoing need for Spanish lessons.) Rather than just heading straight North to Salta we had decided on a route that would allow us to make the most of the beautiful rural surrounds and take in a number of the tiny picturesque pueblos, in the foothills of some very large mountains. In order to get into the towns of Concepcion and Tafi del Valle there were also 2 very high passes to contend with.

This has meant some of the most beautiful and varied riding we have had to date, but also some of the most difficult. In the last 6 days we have covered 450kms, with over 6000m of climbs. The terrain has varied from cactus lined ripio to lush sub tropical forest, whilst the weather has been throwing everything it can at us to test the limits of our (tiny) wardrobes, from massive electrical storms to glorious sunshine, from sub-zero morning temperatures to scorching afternoons. It has sometimes seemed that the massive condors circling above our heads might have known something we didn't!

An interesting side effect of such intense riding seems to have been the fast-tracking of our friendship with new cycling partners Dom and Michelle from strangers to a level of over familiarity usually reserved only for those related to you, all in the space of one short week of riding!

We have now started planning for Ja's imminent departure in Salta, and for the (rather alarmingly adventurous looking) 4700m Paso Jama route into Bolivia.

Monday, 10 May 2010

Aimogasta & Iguazu

Cycling with Ben and Sylvie has been a bit of a revelation for us, and we have rediscovered the possibilities open to us when we leave before 11 in the morning!! This has meant we've regularly been managing 100k days and have achieved our biggest day so far of 125km! Being in a group pf 4 has also given us more accomodation options, and we've been able to intersperse the wild camping with some rather lovely cabana's and taking every opportunity to perfect the art of Asado making.
The road has been mainly red rock and cactus lined desert - we're at a similar latitude to central Australia, and this may be why the area seems not disimilar to that surrounding Ayres rock! It has been entirely different from the barren windswept deserts of Southern Patagonia.

With the extra days off resulting from the trip to the lagoon we were glad to be back on the bikes again, planning to divide the 130km trip to Aimogasta into 2 days. Unfortunately, just 40km out of Aimogasta Sylvie developed a re-occurrence of a knee injury (exacerbated by some very challenging sandy ripio on the way into Chilecito) and she and Ben were forced to take a ride into town rather than cycling with us (a lucky escape from an unexpected heavy headwind!!)

In Aimogasta we had arranged to meet Dom&Michelle, (a South African couple we had previously met in Coiyhaique), thinking that as the route becomes increasingly challenging as we head North it would be nice to travel in a larger group for a while. Also Ja has a provisional date for starting a new contract in London, and in planning his exit strategy is keen not leave me making a solo border crossing into Bolivia!

With Sylvie needing at least a week off to recover, and Ja and I keen not to lose our new friends (and motivational coaches/guides), the 6 of us decided to take some time out and make the trip East to Iguazu to see the falls.

It would take an awful lot to make a 60 hour coach ride worthwhile, but luckily Iguazu is awesome enough to manage to do just that!!

The sheer scale of the falls can only really be appreciated by taking a trip into brazil where they can be viewed from afar in their entirety. This year there has been flooding in Brazil, and where the falls would normally have 1700 cubic meters of water falling per second, at the moment they have an incredible 7 times that amount, with 13000 cubic meters of water per second!!! This meant that many areas of the falls usually open to be explored were too dangerous to get close to; whole sections of the park were closed due to the sheer volume of water passing through. Even some of the areas that were open were impassable due to the falls spilling over onto them! I think it was a fairly unique experience to be able to walk underneath part of the falls!

It was a truly incredible sight and after spending the day in the Argentinian Iguazu national park, by night fall we had it nearly to ourselves except for the local inhabitants!!

After such an epic trip we were hugely disappointed to discover that Sylvie's knee was not yet strong enough to start cycling again. Unfortunately, (after nearly 1000 hard, sandy and thoroughly enjoyable kms together), as Ja has so little time left and is keen to get as far north as possible before leaving, we made the difficult decision to push on and hope that Ben&Sylvie will catch us again in a week or so, when fully recovered.

In their favour with this task is the likelyhood that we will slip back into our old tardy ways without their good influence, and the increasing evidence that Dom&Michelle share our enjoyment of the Argentinian vino and need very little encouragement to make the most of the opportunities afforded to partake in it; there may be a few more bodega visits to book in en route!!