The Valley opened up and then the road began to drop right out of northern Argentina. I had been waiting for this for along time. I had pretty much been in the Andees since Peru and couldn’t wait to drop to some normal heights. It was spaced out over a nice four days full of small towns full of young boho Argentinian backpackers, camping in the green corners under the shade of huge trees cooking up Asados and making music. Perfect. I barley pedalled during these days and got to play some music for some folk in a Pena, a typical local venue through my new mate Patricios loop system and indulged in some odd melodies and time signatures to a bizarre mix of rich Europeans in their hire cars and more humble Argie travellers.The young boho Argies were really good fun and so welcoming. We shared lots of mate with which although I liked the culture of sharing that came with it I couldn’t help but tell them wasn’t as good as English tea. It was strange to hang out with people from a more modern world, women growing their body hair as political statements and guys concerned about their sugar intake and industrial farming. This culture hadn’t really showed itself on local people since the west coast of the states and I imagined a mirror in the Americas clearly defining the two more modern parts.
The road running down from the Bolivian border occupied the dusty valley bottom all the way to Jujuy before other options appeared. The next few weeks were to have in note a few natural distasters as heavy rains had caused a landslide in the small town of Volcan, wiping away 90 percent of the houses and sadly a few people with it too. This had completely cut off this part of Argentina with the only route out being to Chile. As my only option south I was hoping on a bike I could still pass but was a little apprehensive about an area which was nationally recognised as being in a state of emergency. I approached expecting it would be home for a few nights. Fortunately a path had been opened up around the town and hoards of people trudged along its muddy path with their wheels bags in hand. Overly polished ladies squirmed as their fancy shoes were caped in mud as their husbands nervously reassured them. I couldn’t help but think how different this situation would have been different in Bolivia, with the pull up your socks up and get on with it attitude. I was wondering how I would cope with this change. It was on odd scene in Volcan, the army was out in force with helicopters up above and emergency shelters set up for those stranded. I took of my shoes and socks to push through the final stretch of mud and felt odd to be able to pass through with relative ease as a weeks worth of cars stacked up the small highway on either side and busses queued to take people away from the site. I rode on down the hill to hundreds of people carrying their supplies up the way.
My route took me into the first major own of Argentina of Jujuy which was completely dead on a Sunday night and had nothing of note, just the steady hum of crickets as the humidity rose. I watched football with the hostels family and rode out of town with Mel and Michael, the kiwis I had met up in Bolivia. We climed 300 meters out of The Valley bottom and crossed into the next valley which was incredibly fertile and green. The rolling hills were blanketed top to bottom with full green trees. The landscape opened up and reminded me of the Amazon. A wonderful days riding landed us in Salta. A steady paced, steamy yet impressively smart city. I met Sylvia and we went for a ride into the almost tropical, luscious hills overlooking the city, I got a great lesson in Argentinian politics and then out for a night of craft beer for a friends birthday. Things felt very comfortable and safe yet a little tepid and worryingly so boring. Yet the challenge of understanding Argentinians was keeping me on my toes. I’d developed at least some confidence in my Spanish if not much ability but this was being challenged here. Even some basic greetings were lost on me in Argentinian Spanish, it was so hurried and colloquial with a flair that sounded charming but not much use for me.
I what felt prematurely rode out of Salta, taking advantage of the good roads straight south through the routa del vino. I camped up for the night outside Rodrigoe’s solitary self built ranch and we shared fruit and mate. He had ditched Buenos Aires to follow his childhood Gaucho dream and seemed wonderfully happy for it. He was making forays into wine production and guided me through every step of the process in his wonderfully calm manner, his eyes would drift off into the distance in a contemplative and captivated fashion. He invited me to stay the next day so he could teach me to lasoo but tales of his horses erratic ways had put me off a little. I was making a big effort to stay focused too if I was to make it to the south before the close of summer. Cafayates wine country sat in the next valley. Spectacular rock formations carved out of the red rock which apparently gave the regions grape and wine world renowned quality. At 1800 meters it was also one of the highest wine producing areas. I found a few friends from further up the road in the overworked tourist town where we hit a pena for the night but was kind of glad of the hectic atmosphere which made it a little unimpressive and easy to leave. I was feeling great again on the bike, riding had essentially been all down hill for over a week. I celebrated my 32nd birth in Santa Maria, a small dusty town of 6000 as the route 40 turned to dust and lost a lot of tourists with it. Camping with the Ortega’s I was treated to Asado for lunch, a trip to the local waterfalls and an afternoon in a vineyard.
On the way out of town I found Nebraskan Dan, looking wonderfully dishevelled riding his barley loaded bike with a huge smile on his face. He passed me resting in the bush but I caught him up noticing we were riding the same bike. We partnered up side by side on the emptying road, got the customarys out of the way and settled into some conversations that were going to have us riding side by side for a while, only the wind stopping us intermittently as we used all our breath to push into it. The south from here was Barron and windy and we instantly gained a little respect from each other from just being here. “Most bikers are on holiday, they are not travellers so skip this bit, your an adventurer” Dan told me stroking my ego. “If you can’t ride into the wind with a calm head then your missing one the greatest lessons a bike can teach you”, he continued. I definitely hadn’t the calm head he was talking about but I wanted it for sure. “Expectation, deadlines and worst of all the clock is what stops a cyclist from taking in his experience. Just as it does the man in the regular world, I should know I’m from the big US”. I instantly took a liking to Dan and we were pulling jokes at each other from the moment we met. That night we exchanged camp fire histories. He wouldn’t tell me his age but he was mid fourties, short, stocky and gentle and had just finished five years of development work in Africa which he summed up as whole load of do-gooding. He was taking his once every 5 years year off to “re-align” and bemoaned the careerist nature of his humanitarian colleagues . He had left the states in his thirties saying the society with its mixed values was not good for his mental health and with it left his sense of needing a permanent base. The desire of a house, a car and a membership to a local golf club were things he could forgoe for a life of different experiences. My favourite story was his refusal to climb to the top of Kilimanjaro, stopping a few hundred meters short because he felt happy and also as an illustration of what we all know but don’t really believe, it’s the journey not the goal. He had the equivalent of 25 dollars and was selling bracelets and playing his violin to fund his travels, much like many of the Latin Americans I had met, as an exercise in humility.
We pushed on and made great progress, Dan insisted we stopped for lunch in a truck mechanics where he played them his Violin and we drunk a good few litres of Sangria before riding off all over the road. I found him fascinating to ride with and chat to. We shared similar political views though his a little more ferocious and informed than mine. Despite his harsh criticism of the way of life of people in the western world he was incredibly attentive and gave time to everyone we met charming the men, ladies and children too with his energy and stupid faces. We clocked 160 kilometres effortlessly of our first day which included a good few hours of boozing and trying to reach the town of Belen a storm broke out. After my near miss in Uyuni I was sure this electrical storm would be the one that hit me. It seemed absurd to be scared of lightening of all things but when it hits a matters of meters from you it’s another sight. “It’ll improve your guitar playing” Dan joked referring to the magical creative abilities certain people had developed after lightening strikes. We continued on soaked to the bone into the canyon before our destination as the day lost its light. Chunks of rocks started to fall from the hillside and we saw a car in the other direction with its rear window smashed and a huge dint in the door. The driver said it would be stupid to pass as the hill could come down. The incredible rain on the harsh hill had already washed a bridge out behind us which cars couldn’t pass so we were pretty much alone on the road. We decided to push on dodging the falling rocks until one a little larger than a brick smashed into my front wheel, flattening my tire, leaving me sprawled amongst the gravel and knocking out a few spokes. I insisted that was the warning and we backtracked a few kilometres to a camping spot which had turned into a camp for those stranded on the road. We all watched the incredible torment of brown water widen the river to ten times it’s original width and shared food, mate and laughed into the night, the Latin American spirit of embracing the situation I was worried would be lost in its more developed part was still in force for most. The next day on leaving we passed where I had come off the previous night to find rocks as big as houses in the road. We lifted our bikes over the mix of broken and smashed rocks to cheers from the drivers, many of which we had shared camp with, who were waiting for heavy machinery. Finally arriving in Belen nice and early to take my bike to the Doctors.
Another good and fast day and we pushed on past some tourist spot which I’ve forgotten the name of, but you have to stop, a bunch of backpackers told us. You didn’t cycle all the way here to avoid it did you? That we exactly did. Me and Dan had been talking about our love of small, noteless towns. For me time and again on my trip the more memorable experiences were in towns or villages I’d never heard of, and no one recommended I saw, yet the bigger, colonial cities had often provided a feeling of disappointment. Chatting with kids on street corners, sharing a coffee or a beer with an eccentric local was much more memorable that a colonial square for me and was much more likely to happen in these humble towns. The people seemed to have more character and be more open in such spots. This had been solified so profoundly in must see Cayafate, where everyone stopped but the place completely lacked spirit, charm and friendliness.Dan and I shared a similar philosophy to the way we travel, though his purism beat mine hands down, telling me to put my Camera away and maybe try to enjoy it instead, insisting there were more than enough photos on google. And all in all I knew he was right. We arrived in the nothingness spot that night as the lady at the gas station where we stopped to by Coke invited us to stay on her lawn. The family were around and we played music under the fig trees in the garden and Dan and Andrea got their dancing shoes on before I hit the hay. Preparing coffee in the morning dan stumbled out of the house with folded eyes yet a grin. We sipped on my cowboy coffee where he confessed “I’m gonna hang out, shit I’m in love”. I pushed him over and laughed, we confessed our love and said our goodbyes. I knew the way he liked to travel was exactly in this way, roaming and experiencing as the world offered it without much intentionality. I rode off with such admiration for this as a philosophy but also at the same time a hint of sadness, maybe even jealously that I couldn’t quite replicate it. As the morning breeze whipped the sand across the rode I reflected on the disparity between the person I wanted to be and the limitations of the person I was. It sounds a little introspective but it felt more like acceptance of something and I knew it was but a fleeting reflection. Despite just four days with Dan I felt something I could only describe as spiritually inspired by his company, he was a dude. Such a passionate, yet gentle, un-ambitious approach to the world it was safe to say he would not scratch a bad mark into it. I admired his meaningful work yet a lack of drive or obsession towards it, his musical ability and most of all his ability to connect instantly with the people he met. The ability to have such a strong personal philosophy and to be able to play this out with life and actions was something I held in huge regard.
I was bound on after this and a couple of weeks of positive energy propelled me forwards and further south. I knew full well this energy wasn’t ever present and I had decided that my goal right now was Ushuaia and to keep that in mind, the part of me that was a little scared of giving this freedom up was intentionally replaced with gratitude for having it and after Ushuaia I could reassess. The sand started flying past me as the wind picked up and I began to fly on the Pampa, the Argentinian low lands. I flew past Chilecito my intended destination and almost managed 200 kilometers finding a camping spot just before the sun came down besides flowing water which was scarce. Towns and even pueblitos were few and far between and with the wind blowing I managed two 160 km days on the trot landing in San Juan where I stayed with the Bomberos for the first time in a while. It was a while other experience here in Argentina, I got a bed, a shower, wifi, all the luxuries. Despite being completely shot Jiminez insisted I shared Fernet and played Truco with him. An easy two days took me all the way to leafy Mendoza, through the world famous vineyards just behind the snow capped Cordiellas separating Argentina from Chile. I had made really fast progress though Northern Argentina which gave me a much needed boost in confidence of making Ushuaia before the winter dug it’s heels in.
Rob… I’m simply wordless. Your experience is just incredible! You will have learned so much about yourself and what is really important in this world. Keep safe . See you soon I hope.