Cycling Route 40: Boredom, Bulgarians and Boxes of Wine

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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.

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A rather grandiose Guacho Gil shrine. Most of ’em are a lot more modest than this.

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.

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Booze fest.

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.

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The other common shrine is to Difunta Correa – a woman that died of thirst in the desert, her baby allegedly found alive still suckling at her teat. People leave bottles of water at the shrines. Bit late if you ask me.
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In San Blas de los Sauces I had a rest day at Hebert’s campsite/creative workshop. He pulled up in his mad hippy bus, pointed to the sky then gave me a massive hug, telling me that he thinks us cyclists are messengers from God. Unfortunately for him on this occasion God just wanted to commend him on his cool campsite and ask where he could pitch a tent.
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Located at an oasis in the middle of the desert, it was the ideal place to spend a day off and I even caught the Spurs Everon game on DirecTV.
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On the second day Vasilly and Zori from Bulgaria showed up, 15 months into their epic voyage south from Toronto where they live and work.

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.

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Lucien kept me company on the roadside while I fixed my latest puncture and we cycled together for a bit, him telling me about his lady problems all the while. It was like therapy on 2 wheels.
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The next day I reconvened with the Bulgarians and we made a dash through the desert to Chilecito where, like so many places in South America, big JC’s beardy mug beams down on the town.
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Those on the Shelbyville side of the valley just get a view of his back. Snubbed.
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We went searching for a campsite to no avail. After a scumbag museum with a perfect little woodland grove turned its nose up at us we were getting desperate. Then Jorge waved us over to his cabanas where he allows cyclists and wayfarers to camp for free.
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There was a lovely little kitchen, a shower and Jorge treated us like family, offering us wine and dinner. Bloody love it when that happens.
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We took a day off and I replaced my torn up tyre (never buy Maxxis tyres. Just don’t) and my busted cassette that was skipping like a scratched CD. We also ate ice cream from the ubiquitous chain, Grido Helado. Mmm.
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Off we headed towards the hills.
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On the way up there were lots of little chapels and churches. I’ve seen a lot of evangelical churches in South America, a movement that is apparently growing at a heady rate with many converting from Catholicism.
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A long overdue PUPPY INVASION.
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We stayed at the free municipal campground which was eerily quiet but for the goats who bleated like idiots and kept trying to steal my food. Some good expletive ridden chasing put an end to that. Philipp warned me that he’d got 12(!) punctures at a campsite round here so I was extra careful given my record.
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No punctures attained, the ride up to the Cuesta de Miranda was actually very scenic. Mountains like piles of sleeping dinosaurs; valleys like rumpled bed sheets.
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The windy desert climb made me nostalgic for Peru…
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…albeit 2000km+ lower in altitude. I wasn’t so nostalgic for that part.
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After a lazy descent through the red rocks…
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…taking a few photos along the way, we spent the night at Villa Union.

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”.

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Keen to rack up a few more miles I set off solo into a horrible headwind. This stretch was really rubbish. And lumpy.
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What was this strange liquid falling from the sky? Could it be…rain? Twas the first I’d felt since one anomalous day in Shitsville, Southern Peru about 2 1/2 months prior.
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I took a 20km detour through the Cienaga nature reserve. It’s bright colours, peaks and troughs a welcome respite from La Cuarenta.
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Although the grey skies marred the empty municipal campsite, giving it the depressing mood of a forgotten British seaside resort. “Come Armageddon…”
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Things brightened up a lot the next day…
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…but before long my brief flirtation with the mountains was over and I left this view behind me.
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I saw someone waving at me from the side of the road and before I knew it Zori was welcoming me to a handily built roadside refugio where I camped with her and Vassily who had somehow overtaken me. Guess I drank a little too much wine at the municipal camp ground the night before.
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From there we busted out 95km like it was nothing thanks to an actual, bonafide tailwind (good to know they exist) and camped at an idyllic little farm on the outskirts of San Juan…
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…where we tucked into some prime $2 box wine. It ain’t half bad and you can buy the stuff everywhere. It’s perhaps a little too convenient as I can resist everything except temptation. Hopefully I can wean myself off it in Patagonia.
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San Juan is a pleasant, if unspectacular city that’s very European in style.
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In other beverage related news, the coffee culture in Argentina is great. There are coffee shops everywhere and the quality isn’t bad. There’s none of the pre-sweetened arsewater of Colombian tinto or Peruvian coffee cordial disasters. I daren’t even utter the name… Ecuador *shudders*. In San Juan not only do they give you a side of soda water (customary in Argentina) but some juice too.
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Vassily and Zori decided to spend the night in San Juan so we said our goodbyes and I set off south down some pleasant, tree shaded back roads.
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I turned in at the only campsite in Media Agua which doubled up as the venue for some booming party for all the adolescents in a 20 mile radius. I’m sure they thought the older guy with the flock of seagulls haircut sipping wine alone in his tent was one cool cat.
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And from there I was just 1 utter shitbird of a grey, windy day from my port of call, Mendoza, where I’ll be taking a break volunteering in a hostel and searching for the fat dog.
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Some things are universal.

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

 

 

 

 

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