Latest Update (as at 30/1/11):

Location: London. Back.

Total Distance Cycled: 10,325km
Days Biking: 140
Longest Day: 174km (2/12/10)

Saturday 24 April 2010

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness...

The leaves are turning, the grapes are being crushed, the days are shortening with the heat of the sun dimming, and all around us people are gathering, picking, plucking and reaping the rewards of the labours of spring and summer. Autumn has arrived in Argentina.

And so have my parents.

Waiting for them at Mendoza airport had a slightly surreal quality. We had washed ninety nine percent of our clothes earlier in the day and so had to manifest ourselves in outfits very definitely on the damp side of dry and quite certainly on the wrong side of weird. I have surely started a racy new fashion trend with my windproof biking jacket and sarong combination, to say nothing of Phil's down jacket and shorts number. The glamour.
And then they were suddenly here, and our biking bubble burst. They came bringing news of the election, of volcanic exchanges and volcanic ash, of grim weather and the state of the garden and of the antics of friends and family and all things familiar. They also brought a hilarious quantity of Boots-only items, malaria pills and memory cards, refined kit and reading matter and quite brilliantly, Easter eggs. And so our holiday began.

This holiday had taken on epic proportions in my imagination. As we pedalled through the 2000km mark and pushed on to a cunning route intersection from where our road turns directly north for the countdown to Bolivia, I had couched it in misty eyed soft light, all air brushing and slow-mo. There would be sweet silky sheets where I would bounce in feather falling laughitude, buckets of lushious grapes for revelling in Bacchanalian hedonism and soft sunlit grasses where I would loll staring at yellowing leaves as bees hummed dozily in the last vestiges of summer.

And there would be a car.

And it has been a bit like that. There has certainly been a car and some epic proportions. We have whizzed with absurd kilometre chewing speediness from one jaw dropping landscape to another. We have seen the dizzyingly highest heights of the Andes, the 'smear of scenic butter' (guide book parlance) that is the Calingasta Valley and the bizzare and utterly bonkers shapes of the 200 million year plus 'Valley of the Moon'.

And there has been wine. Wine, wine, wine and great food and some sophisticated city living as we have introduced my Mum and Dad to the tastes, smells, sounds and gossip of this part of the world.

We began in Mendoza. This was most notable because we had a hotel bedroom with carpet. Carpet that Phil and I found it necessary to run around on barefoot for quite a long time in an extreme state of excitement. We were then charmed by a city where we enjoyed shady plazas and irrigation channels, pavement cafes and landscaped parks, great food in classy joints, before diving back into the carpeted hotel (did I mention the carpet?) for about three baths a day and the enraptured use of the hair dryer [Liz only - Ed.].

Two days of carpet loving later we sidled into the hired pick up and headed for the hills to see Aconcagua, the highest peak outside the Himalayas. It meant an amazing climb through ear popping landscape, all wiggly roads, sheer cliff faces and ever mounting mountains. It was one hell of a road. The sort beloved of Top Gear challenges. It is properly difficult and often very dangerous to get over this spine that erupts down the whole of the western Americas, tearing the sky and joining forces with erratic weather to test man to his limits. There are not many ways of doing it. We took the pass chosen by General Jose San Martin (he of every Argentine town square) to cut from Argentina into Chile when he was leading his troops two hundred years ago, liberating South America from the Spanish crown. Unimaginably he and 3,800 men and 10,000 horses had crossed that way long before the liberal use of tarmacadam that now allows endless trucks to precariously thunder goods between the two countries. Along the road also ran a disused railway, a man killing feat of early engineering, too costly and difficult to maintain and now a lost world of audaciously laid track, ghost stations and quite wonderful tunnels and snow covers.

On the first day the mountain was hidden in cloud that dusted us with said snow and drove us to hot chocolate. On the next day the sun was out and the Aconcagua stared imposingly down at us and the landscape around glowed with absurd mineral colours, the sun drawing drama out of the rocks, creating light and shade that allowed us to see every crushing contour and sediment seam.

Colour was a theme because we then went on through stark, lifeless mountains into a hidden valley of lushness. The Calingasta valley. Hours in the car of menacing harsh beigeness was suddenly broken round a bend by a sight reminiscent of a child dropping their Christmas present paint kit all over the kitchen floor. The primary school greens of plants, the blues of glacial water, the yellows of leaf dropping poplars and the oranges of river side grasses cut a path of rainbow glory through the mountains. On both sides of a river rose the peaks of the Andes, on one side majestic grey and snow topped on the other all curled over cragginess and hot red iron rich rock. It was the garden of Eden.

We watched the sun going down before retiring to a wonderful colonial style residence where we sat by the fire in our rooms and rose again in the morning to wander by the river side skimming stones and soaking up one of the most beautiful locations we've ever seen.

Then we headed to where this colour is bottled. To the wineries of Mendoza province. We stayed overnight in one, in understated in luxury, and had our first smell and taste of what these colours produce. We dipped our noses into glasses where the ambrosia therein smelt of raspberry jam or sweet beds of flowers and then let it run over our tongues to be suprised by how these smells combine in flavour. I don't know how the wine experts tell unprompted between blackcurrant and cumin, between bog grass and liquorice but I found myself gobsmacked by what I could detect when prompted. Either that or I was several wine sniffs to the wind and so open to suggestion. Anyway, whichever way round it was lovely.

Two further wineries later it was time to leave refinement and revelry aside and hunt out more raw nature. This time a national park famed for extraordinary rock formations. Long before the Andes rose up the Ischigualasto Provincial Park was a tropical swamp that housed a jolly good selection of massive Triassic dinosaurs and then dried up, rose up, got blown about by wind and washed around by rain and now is a desert filled with truly odd rocks. Nicknamed the Valley of the Moon, because when moonlit it looks like it, it is where the Americans filmed the landing in '69 to save on time and money and to beat the Russians to it. Well, so some would have you believe. I loved the names for the rapidly crumbling shapes. The Submarine, the Mushroom, the Worms. It was amazing. We cooed and adjectived and stared in awe and took A LOT of photos.

And now we are in Cordoba. The desert is long gone and after passing through lots of small towns and nearly running out of diesel (no one had any for two days - bikes are so much easier) we are now in a European feeling city, home to the oldest university in Argentina and made famous for being the centre of Jesuit activity in the south. From here over 400 missions were administered. All those lovely priests who looked like Jeremy Irons and Robert De Niro and were followed everywhere they went by the pan piped theme tune we have all been subjected to on the end of phones when waiting to find out how many thousands of pounds our gas bill will come to. It has wonderful old buildings, churches, and museums. We are cultured up.

The holiday is nearly over. It has been such fun to have Mum and Dad here, to see what we see anew through their eyes, to explain things to them, to show them where we've been. We have touched upon so much of what makes this country special. The clash of old and new, the extraordinary scale of extraordinary landscape, the food, the wine, the fauna, the chat. It's been great.

But something remains to do. I have perhaps to stop biking for a little longer yet. Whilst the rest of me has been having so much fun on this brilliant trip my knees, as you know, have been having much less. I have an overuse injury. Too much, too soon. Damn. So, my parents are off home and we are off to plan what to do with an extended pause. We will keep you posted.

In the meantime, we are lauching into a final couple of nights of cups of wine and plates of food, heading to the great old theatre for classical music and sitting back, all Keatseque, to watch the 'gathering swallows twitter in the skies'.



  1. Hi Phil (and Liz)!

    Nice to meet you too, I've now been in Rodeo for 3 days waiting for the other Swedish cyclist and climber. It's a really small place, nothing to do at all except windsurfing but it's damn cold in the water so I haven't tried it yet.

    The climb was ok, but it took some time =) Then I had another climb which was higher and it got down to 1.8 degrees C at the top, so the 30 km downhill that followed was C O L D.

    Hope to catch up with you again!

  2. Glad you managed a holiday! A holiday from what exactly? From the trip of a lifetime? From sucking up the most unbelievable experiences, views, cultures and food? From fresh mountain air? From the best camping excursion EVER?!
    Thank goodness I do not have to think about getting a holiday!
    Wonderful writing Liz

  3. Fab to meet you guys at Iguazu on Monday! Hope your second day was a blast and you enjoyed the Argenitine side just as much. We will be following your blog with much enthusiasm and look forward regular updates (I think I even have some blury pictures of you both getting very wet)
    We wish you both peace and safety on your journey.
    Si, Jo and Elliot

  4. OK - bit worried now. 23 days without an update - let me know you're OK Liz.