We spent a few days in Chilecito trying to fix my drowned camera (didn’t work) and nuke Haz’s giardia with drugs (seems to have worked), before cycling north through the colourful Famatina valley. On emerging from this near Tinogasta we met Lorenzo Rojo, a Basque cyclist who left home in 1997 and has since cycled in more than 80 countries on the 6 continents. We teamed up and spent the rest of the month pedalling together.
We left Tinogasta by Ruta Provincial 3, the old Ruta 40 which is now intransitable for normal cars. On bikes though it was an interesting and not difficult day ride on a spectacular road through the hills. It rained on us most of the day – our first wet day of riding since Patagonia. This wasn’t that surprising though, as we ended the day in the village of Londres – not a name you’d associate with any other weather. The following day we left little London and in an hour were in Bethlehem (well, Belen) where we slept in a museum and spent a few days enjoying the Argentina bicentennial celebrations.
A stretch on the main paved road to Cafayate followed before we decided to make things more interesting by heading up the Valles Calchaquis on gravel to San Antonio de los Cobres, via the Abra del Acay – at 4,966m the highest road pass in Argentina. Getting up to the pass took us 5 1/2 days and involved 5,300m of climbing and a number of chilly stream crossings. It was a fascinating road though, and the scenery, adobe villages which looked like they hadn’t changed in centuries and the regular close contact with llamas and vicuñas made it more than worthwhile.
The day we crossed the pass was one of the hardest of our trip. We began only 13.5kms from it, but 900m below, and the altitude, average gradient of 7% and headwind meant it took us 5 hours to cover the distance. Haz ended up pushing most of the way, and Neil pushed the windiest 5 kms. At the top it was blowing a hurricane and both of us were blown off our bikes (see video!). As there was no way of staying on our bikes for the start of our descent, we ended up having to push down the first part too!
In San Antonio we were delighted to find out from the Gendarmeria that the unpaved and little used Sico pass was open, having recently been closed by snow, so we didn’t have to cut across to the main, paved road over the Jama pass. We went prepared for very low temperatures, very strong headwinds, sections of bad road and even the odd snow storm, but in the event the gods were kind to us and conditions were relatively ‘comfortable’. Every night we camped the temperature fell to -10C, and one morning we cycled an hour at a chilly -7C, but usually when the sun came up the temperature soon rose. Nearly every morning was still, so we were able to make good progress before the afternoon headwinds began. Only 1 day were these really strong, when we spent an exhausting 90 minutes pushing 4kms up a hill to the Chilean border post into a 100kph+ headwind.
The road was also in ok condition, with only 10kms of sandy washboard just before we reached Argentine customs. There were four 4,000m passes to cross to get to San Pedro, but being better acclimatized and with far easier gradients than the Abra del Acay we were able to cycle these.
The trip was also made easier by the fact we took our time and had 2 strategically short days to enable us to watch vital World Cup matches. (We were rewarded with the usual ‘below par’ England performances, to the delight of both Argie and Chilean companions alike.)
After a fun and long downhill cruise we arrived in San Pedro de Atacama, northern Chile’s tourist central, which was a bit of a shock after a fortnight in the wilderness. Both of us are already missing our beloved Argentina after more than 6 months and over 7,000kms there. The people, the scenery, the food….we’ll have to go back again sometime soon. At least in a couple of days we should be in Bolivia – our favourite country when we were here backpacking in 2002.
Days getting from Chilecito to San Pedro de Atacama – 31
Distance – 1,237km
Time cycling – 100hr
Cycle days – 24
Rainy cycle days – 1
Maximum speeds – 58.7kph (H), 58.2kph (N)
Unpaved roads – 677km
Longest day – 92km
Punctures – 1N
Total amount climbed – 13,707m
Maximum altitude reached – 4,966m (Abra del Acay)
Most climbed in one day – 1,150m
1000m+ climb days – 4
4,000m passes crossed – 5
Steepest climb – 19%
Number of cycle tourists we met – 3
Accommodation – 18 beds, 13 wild camps
New Argentinian beers drunk – Salta Rubia, Otro Mundo Golden Ale