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

Location: London. Back.

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

Wednesday 9 June 2010

Climb On, Climb Up, Chill Out, Fall Off

We've been doing some of each.  You could say equal quantities of each, although I would defend myself that there has been less of the last bit than the other three.  More of that later.  One way or another, whilst Argentina reaches a collective fever pitch of 'albiceleste' frenzy in the lead up to the Mundial (World Cup), hot on the heels of the bicentenary celebrations, we've been reaching our own frenzy of appreciation of tarmac and 'civilisation' in Argentina before heading up into the high Andean Cordillera tomorrow.  In our sky blue and white striped replica shirts, of course.

It has been a Tale of Three Cities since our last contribution.  We have spent at least one day in each of Tucuman, Salta and Jujuy, soaking up the atmosphere, differences and similarities of each.  Oh yes, and resting the legs too.  Tucuman was our first of Argentina's triumvirate of North Western cities, as described in Liz's last blog.  As we pedalled in over the roughest of tarmac flanked by the roughest of tumbledown dwellings and mechanics' workshops, dodging the rickety horse-drawn carts which rivalled the elderly Renaults and Ford Falcons in number, we had been struck by just how miserable it looked.

The poverty had already become increasingly clear to see in the small towns we passed through en route to Tucuman, more than anything through the lack of any discernible pride in people's existences and shacks.  And certainly, the North of Argentina could scarcely be further removed from the much heralded glitz and culture of central Buenos Aires.  Rubbish strewn verges and limping strays are the norm.  It is tough going making a life up here, and it is perhaps no coincidence that as people have begun to look more 'indigenous', the disparities in Argentina's actual and potential wealth have become ever more evident.

Imagine our surprise when Tucuman turned out to be one of the most pleasant city centres we've been to, helped by the wonderful Hotel Vasca where we stayed.  Once a 5-star mainstay of Tucuman's golden era in the early 20th century, it is now considerably less glam but deliciously perfect for us wandering wretches, with its 10ft high ceilings, tiles from Granada (Spain) and grand terraces.  The ice cream at Tello was right up in our pantheon of great heladerias, the breakfasts overlooking the Plaza de Independencia unbeatable, and the building in which the Independence agreement was signed in 1816 beautifully maintained and laid out.  The whole feel of the centre gave a sense of Argentina's potential.  When we wandered up to the Plaza Urquiza's smart cafes and restaurants on a warm autumnal afternoon, crunching through russet leaves, it might as well have been la Recoleta in Buenos Aires.  The disparities are such.

Onward, then, to Salta, but not without some enlightening stop-offs.  On the road out of Tucuman, we passed yet another complex of buildings with a large plaque outside it, giving details of the atrocities that occurred within it during the Dirty War of 1975-83 - torture, murder and 'disappearance'.  These places have been a constant reminder that, even in the corruption-ridden Argentina of today, life could be worse.

In Trancas we stayed in the most basic of motels in the midst of no fewer than dusty three service stations, surrounded by disused tankers and rusting combine harvesters.  Even by the time we left, we were still not sure if any of them actually sold fuel.  Nor did we quite figure out what our host, Umberto, had seen in this main road-side spot when he moved here for the 'tranquilidad' 30 years previously.  Perhaps it was quieter then!  What a contrast to the YPF service station next to our roadside hotel in Metan, which had spawned a veritable mini-village, including an extremely civilised wifi cafe, restaurant, nightclubs, shops and efficient mechanics workshops.

What had become unavoidably clear on the road to Trancas was the sheer weight of truck traffic on the road North.  We have been scratching our collective heads over how on earth one of the world's great railway systems can be allowed to rot away, whilst the unrelenting river of 50 tonne trucks plying the main roads might sometimes just as well link up and form an actual road train themselves.  Not much fun if you're just a pesky little cyclist and the road is single-carriageway.  All was explained earlier this week, when we learnt that - in cohoots with the Kirschner government, needless to say - many of the bus companies whose services we have merrily made use of, as well as the truck companies, find all kinds of ways to prevent any whiff of a recovery in rail freight beyond the once weekly efforts coming through places like Cruz del Eje.  One of so many reasons why Argentina's recovery to a great global force won't be happening any time soon.

Enough of the politics.  The trucks did us a favour, in fact, as they forced us onto a glorious 70km stretch of ripio and (at best) second rate tarmac to take us across the Salta border and on to Rosario de la Frontera.  Glorious partly because it showed us ripio can be our friend.  Or at least one of those flatmates that you kind of learn to live with despite their tendency not to do the washing up.  Partly because we passed about a dozen vehicles all day.  And partly because the golden fields of corn, the backdrops of rolling sierras, and the impressively maintained cattle farms that we passed - complete with gauchos galloping at full tilt to round up errant calves - made the detour more than worthwhile.  And by passing through Rosario, we got to experience the grand 1950s sanatorium style joys of the 'Termas' hotel, where we were variously plunged into naturally mineral-rich warm swimming pools, kneeded on the massage table and steamed in steam rooms whose smells left no doubt as to the richness of the mineral content.

Aggressive trucks were to do us another favour later on.  Their Friday evening gala performance (with special guest appearances from a massive troupe of  buses and hundreds of family cars playing bit parts), on a narrow stretch of road into General Guemes convinced us that the direct route to Jujuy would be less than fun.  Instead, we took a blend of roads into the city of Salta.  First a gruelling few kilometres of Liz's most biblical (see earlier blog!) ripio, which culminated in a dried up river bed which dumped me off my bike during a particularly sandy stretch in an unceremonious dusty heap.  Stop laughing at the back, please.  Fortunately it linked onto the fully fledged autopista up into Salta.

The unfortunate part was that the autopista involved an 800m climb over 25km, something that hadn't been on the agenda when we'd planned our night in General Guemes.  I have to say, however, we were mildly encouraged to tiddle our way up from 700m to just over 1500m without undue pain.  Only mildly encouraged, for the great unknown of biking the altiplano looms large...  And the descent into the bowl of Salta - as descents often do - made it 'all worthwhile'.  The only concern came when we ran into Jacques - a wiry middle-aged Dutchman who had somehow found a way last year to turn the Alaska-Ushuaia trip into a 30,000km bike ride, and with whom we shared a coffee overlooking Salta by dusk.  To call him potty would be harsh, but the eyes were wide, albeit in an extremely charming way.  He guided us into town as only a 'local' could, and having a third member of our peloton confused me to such a degree that, at one set of traffic lights I put my foot down on what I thought was the kerb, missed it lavishly, and ended up spreadeagled magnificently on a Salta pavement.  Twice in a day.  What a performance.

He had settled in Salta after his trip, assuring us that it was unrivalled of all the places he had passed through.  Our two day 'minibreak' in Salta gave him some decent ammunition to back up this argument.  We put all practicalities (laundry, bike tinkering, food buying, blogging, etc) that usually dominate our days off to one decadent side and revelled in Salta: drinking coffee under deep blue skies at the top of the cable car to the main viewpoint, eating outstanding fugazzetta pizza in the main plaza, guzzling deep from the joys of Bodegas Etchart's Cafayate Torrontes (beg, borrow or steal to lay your hands on a bottle...), and wandering the somnolent Sunday streets en route to our first cocktail since January.

We visited Salta's famous Andean archeological museum to see the star attraction - a perfectly preserved 7 year old human sacrifice victim from the Inca period.  Like most of the child sacrifices of that era, he is thought to have been from a wealthy family and to have been carried from a lavish ceremony in Cuzco, Peru, to his final resting place on a 6700m Andean peak.  Here, he was left to die of cold and malnutrition.  He was not just carried there, but carried as the crow flies - through the Andes.  Imagine.  They were serious about appeasing the mountain gods.  It was a strange sensation to see him sitting there, bundled up and crossed legged, as if he had been left the previous day.  We slightly got the feeling that, for all his archeological and historical value, he probably should have been left up there on his mountain peak.

Perhaps the highlight of Salta was an evening pena, one of Argentina's most underrated phenomena.  In La Vieja Estacion, whilst Liz tucked into kid goat with relish and I launched myself unashamedly into an outstanding llama casserole, we were treated to a show that makes Riverdance look tame.  The six dancers, complete with their whirling skirts (the girls) and ultrabaggy trousers tucked into ancient high heeled boots (the boys) gave such a display of knee-wrenching, foot-slamming, thigh-slapping, hanky-waving excellence that we were left cross-eyed with admiration.  Although the best bit, of course, was when 'the good looking one' invited Miss Hurran up to dance.  She did herself proud, of course - her years in panto paying dividends!  But I was relieved to bundle her into a taxi before he threatened me with the 14-inch knife tucked into his elaborate belt to pry her away... I think she might have been tempted to 'do a Jacques' and stick around in Salta.

On from Salta, then, and we now find ourselves in Jujuy, 100km North.  The road from Salta yesterday was one of the best rides so far, and included our own 3000km mark, celebrated with... wait for it... scones!  A 25km climb (varying from a modest grind to the kind of hairpins where you try to drop into first gear and realise you're there already), was followed by a spectacular descent.  For 20km, we flowed down a traffic-free ribbon of flawless tarmac, wiggling its way round one smooth 35kph bend after another, through the lushest of forests, complete with all the overhanging creepery, verdant greenery and squeaking, twittering soundtrack that I would have expected 1500m vertically nearer to sea level.  Glorious.

During the ride we crossed our final Argentine provincial border, 11 provinces on from Ushuaia, and then raced the dying daylight for the last couple of hours to arrive in Jujuy as darkness closed in.  Jujuy has surprised us almost more than either Tucuman or Salta - the road into town led us through well organised, solidly built barrios and into a thriving city, populated by much the most consistently Andean looking people we have come across so far.  Not many blondes knocking around these parts.

Maybe it's just a brief and/or mistaken impression, but the place has far more organised, sophisticated feel than we had ever expected from the last major stop before the Bolivian border.  Our dinner last night and our food today has fulfilled Jujuy's reputation as a bit of a culinary highlight; my llama steak was as good as any bife de lomo we've had on the trip, and the quinoa, empanadas, trout and polenta tamales have all been right up there amongst the best fare so far.  I am currently sitting in a fancy shopping mall opposite our hostal, surrounded by (Argentine) designer shops eating cake and drinking coffee.

Tomorrow, we will be climbing for 65km from Jujuy, at 1200m, to Purmamarca, at 2200m.  This will probably turn out to be our biggest climb of the trip in vertical metres, but the challenge will only just be beginning.  For it is above that height that we will find out just how different it is to pedal at altitude.  The good news is that we have our blue and white striped shirts at the ready - as Diego Maradona's World Cup kicks off, so does our serious climbing.  But with that kind of kit at our disposal, what can possibly go wrong?

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