Northern Argentina: Wine, Ice Cream and a Whole Lot of Desert

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Heading down to Jujuy. This was the most clouds we’d seen in months.

Crossing Paso de Jama felt momentous. After 6 1/2 months in the Andean countries that once comprised Greater Colombia we were crossing to the Southern Cone: the more
developed, European part of the continent. And on my quest to reach Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world, it felt like a half way point. Were this Super Mario World I’d have jumped through a white pole and doubled in size, though unfortunately if I die I doubt I’ll respawn on the Argentine border.

It also meant higher prices. My days of $2 almuerzos and cheap hospedajes were over. From here on out I’d be camping 95% of the time and the ol’ alcohol stove would be seeing a lot more use. Thankfully the temperate climate of Northern Argentina is well suited to camping and the Argentines love a good camping trip. Consequently there are well maintained campsites all over the place, while the sheer size of the country makes wild camping a doddle.

Descending from rainbow mountains and desert canyons, it was a shock to see the grey carpet of cloud that smothered Jujuy. I’d spent a year in a half in countries without spring or autumn, their seasons simply defined as wet and dry. In dropping down from the Bolivian antiplano we were entering a Northern Argentina on the brink of spring. Deciduous trees denuded of their leaves covered the hillsides and a frowning sky threatened to burst at any moment. For the first time in a long time I felt like I was home.

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On the outskirts of Jujuy we passed golf courses and ugly, modernist mansions. I wasn’t sure if I’d seen a single golf course in the prior 6 months.
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Can of Stella in a supermarket car park. What is this? 2004?
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We camped by a lake and, despite being mauled by ticks, were taken at how starkly different everything felt. We’d gone from a freezing cold, high altitude expedition to a leisurely European camping holiday.
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The following day was one of my favourites of the entire trip. In the misty Sunday morning light I felt a real kinskip for this country – a deep nostalgia for somewhere I barely knew.
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We lunched on baguettes and salami in the El Carmen plaza.
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Living up to the stereotype, the Argentinians were queuing up to buy meat for their Sunday asados. BBQs are a big thing here.
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From there we headed off towards route 9…
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…past lush green fields…
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…and up along the quiet, tortuous mountain lane.
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I went full Rambo for a while there.
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Then down in Salta we went out for dinner with Tony and Sarah, a nice English couple we first met back in Cusco…
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…and had our first taste of Argentine steak. It was damn good.
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Salta is a nice city. Here’s a token picture of a church.
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My trainers had taken a hell of a beating and one of them was on the brink of splitting so I replaced ’em with some $20 Converse knock offs. Goodnight sweet prince(s).

 

 

Talking of goodbyes, after 6 weeks of cycling together it was also time for me and Philipp to part ways. He had to rush down to Cordoba for a meditation workshop, while I was planning on taking things a bit slower. Cycling through Bolivia and Paso de Jama was tough and I was so grateful to have shared those hardships with someone else. Those long cold nights would’ve been a lot longer and colder without the fireside chats and bullshitting sessions. It was a pleasure riding with you, mate!

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On the first night camping alone I promptly replaced Philipp with this dog, who I named Philipp. He lay in the dirt and stared longingly at my food through the darkness. Not much difference, really.
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The cycling was fairly flat and boring but there were lots of pleasant little towns with ice cream and free wifi.
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Then on the 3rd day, just as the mountains began to loom large…
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…I bumped into Philipp in a town appropriately named Alemania (Germany).
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So we ended up cycling through the incredible Quebrada de las Conchas together.
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La Garaganta del Diablo (The Devil’s Throat)
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Me. Cycling.
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View.
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At one point we crossed the bridge used in a classic road rage scene in the Argentine film Relatos Salvajes, which is well worth a watch.
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“The Toad”
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Then after a long ol’ day of desert cycling…
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…we pulled into Cafayate, one of the wine capitals of Argentina.
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Where we spent a couple nights living it up Argentinian style: eating asado and drinking litres of box wine.
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Before leaving town I had to try some of the Malbec ice cream. It was good.
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Alone again I set off into wine country. Despite this being the winter off season it was still roastingly hot.
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My second day cycling started off well enough. A friendly shopkeeper gifted me a big bottle of water and I had a good chat with Manuel, who runs a little tienda/camp site. He also thinks Maradonna is better than Messi.

 

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Then things turned shit. My old enemy, The Puncture, reared it’s pock ridden visage then I got caught in a huge sand storm.
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The winds weren’t quite as strong as the ridiculous ones I’d faced in Bolivia but they weren’t far off. And being out in the desert there was no place to hide. I just had to keep on trudging onwards.
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I then made some terrible decisions. First I tried to fit my tent in this drainage tunnel. It didn’t fit. I then naively tried to set up my tent behind some dunes. Bad idea. I was swept around the desert like a small child holding an oversized kite. Somehow in the middle of all this I dropped my mp3 player and thus plodded around in a sandstorm searching for the disembodied whisper of Christopher Hitchens for an hour. By the time I found it nightfall was moments away and was reduced to balling up in my sleeping bag in the underpass. To make matters worse it was freezing cold (I thought those days were over, Argentina!) and in the morning my water bottles were full of ice shards. I punctured my sleeping mattress in like 4 places too. Joy of joys.
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The next day was much better. 30km of strong tailwind swept me into Hualfin where Armando and his family warmly welcomed me to their little shop/restaurant.
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I had a plate of empanadas (the Argentine ones are small but delicious) and he threw in a couple extra free, along with some bread and water for the ride. Top bloke.
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Peekaboo.
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The Falklands (aka. Malvinas) are still a contentious issue in Argentina and signs like these can been seen every now and then. Time to put on the Scottish accent, methinks.
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After passing through Belen and Londres I hit the desert yet again and am now in San Blas de Los Sauces, exactly 4000km from Ushuaia – the roadside markers a constant reminder of how many kilometres separate me from my destination. Just a few more to go…

Tunes: Brand New – Science Fiction, Queens of the Stone Age – Villains, Metric – Fantasies

Reads: Hitch 22 – Christopher Hitchens, Modern Romance – Aziz Anzari, Neuromancer – William Gibson, The Secret Race – Tyler Hamilton and Daniel Coyle

 

 

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