Route 40 or La Cuarenta is the Route 66 of Argentina. While not quite as commodified as it’s North American cousin, it’s the most iconic road in Argentina and has it’s own little symbol and the occasional roadside themed restaurant. More than 5,000km long, it stretches the length of the country and has been my home for the last few weeks. Unfortunately iconic doesn’t necessarily mean interesting and much of the last 1000-odd kilometres of cycling south from Cafayate has been a boring slog through the desert. The days have begun to blur together into an unseasoned stew of straight roads, unchanging scenery and identikit towns.
But for what the Cuarenta lacks in excitement it makes up for in camping opportunities and comfort. A couple of storms aside, the weather has been fantastic – the impossible dream of an English summers day on repeat – despite us still technically being at the tail end of the Argentine winter. It’s hot during the day, comfortably cool at night, and never humid (although some poor bastards cycle this section in the summer when the afternoon heat can reach 45 degrees) and it’s easy to find a good spot to pitch a tent . From Salta to Mendoza I camped for 22 days straight in a mixture of free municipal camp grounds, private camp sites and wild camping, paying a combined total of about $35. Perversely I’m spending less in Argentina than in any other country despite it being the most expensive.
La Cuarenta is lined with shrines. Red ribbons dangle from tree branches signifying the presence of Guanchito Gil, the picaresque folk hero of Argentina – essentially Robin Hood if he wore red and had a Tom Seleck moustache. As the story goes, Guachito Gil deserted the military and started a life of roguish philanthropy. The Man didn’t like this so poor old Gil was captured and executed. His executioner then found a letter from our hero stating that his son was sick and that he should head home and tend to him. The executor did so and thanks to Guachito’s warning was able to save his life. What a guy.
At one such shrine I found mountains of booze left in tribute. It was hot and I’m weak so I nicked an unopened can of beer. As I sipped the lukewarm lager which, being Budweiser, wasn’t very satisfying, I was racked with guilt. I remembered that scene in The Goonies when the gang, finding themselves at the bottom of a well, start pocketing handfuls of coins before they realise that, in effect, they’re robbing people’s wishes and dreams. And there I was sipping at the tepid yeasty swill of some Argentine grandma’s heartfelt blessing. To rub it in at that very moment a couple of locals showed up to pay tribute. Like a teenager robbing food from the fridge I surreptitiously hid the can in my waistband and waddled off to finish it under a nearby bridge.
10 minutes later I got a puncture.
I first met Vassily and Zori on the roadside back in Southern Colombia. We stopped for a quick chat which was curtailed by Zori’s puncture and my desire to avoid the impending rain. 6 months later we bumped into each other again in San Pedro de Atacama and here we were meeting for the third time in the middle of the Argentine desert. The 3 of us spent the next few days cycling together.
Well, not right away. I stuck around till the afternoon to watch the football, planning to meet them at the next town 50km away. That 50km was riddled with (yes, you guessed it) punctures and a lethal crosswind that kept pushing me off the road. This miserable journey took much longer than expected and was only somewhat assuaged by a friendly fat man who pulled over to give me some of his Oreos (and toilet paper!). Come nightfall I reached the fringes of town and spotted a pavilion. It was filled with burnt rubbish and creepy graffiti but I couldn’t bring myself to go any further. I padlocked myself inside to protect myself from any teenage death cults that might show up and went straight to sleep.
Vassily and me had some enlightening conversations on his favourite subjects: the masochism of some Western cyclists (I’m with him on this one), how all those pesky French cyclists take the exact same route, and the differences between “Balkan Man” and “Canadian Man” (who didn’t really seem that different to “British Man” to me). With my soft Western character I’m starting to doubt if I’ll ever be able to please “Balkan Woman”.
Tunes: The National – Sleep Well Beast, Jeff Rosenstock – WORRY, Brand New – Science Fiction, The Very Best of Otis Redding
Reads: War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy, My Booky Wook – Russell Brand, How Not To Be A Boy – Robert Webb, Stasiland – Anna Funder, This Is Water – David Foster Wallace, Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls – David Sedaris