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 19 June 2010


Since Liz´s last post, we´ve been getting high.  Really high, man.  Nothing illegal - we haven´t even resorted to the all pervasive cheek pouches of coca leaves to alleviate the symptoms that come with higher altitudes.  No, it´s just been all about climbing on our trusty steeds.  Up and up and up.  And then more up.  We even crossed the Tropic of Capricorn, which had us reaching for our Geography textbooks.  Yesterday, as the last vestiges of daylight disappeared, we descended into Abra Pampa (altitude: 3454m) - or to those of a statistical/geographical bent, just a little further above sea level than Ben Nevis, Snowdon and Scafell Pike stacked on top of each other.

We knew yesterday would be a big one.  In fact, we reckoned on it possibly being the toughest day of our trip.  But I don´t think either of us quite reckoned on what was in store.
The previous day, we had ´walked the course´ from Humahuaca to Abra Pampa with the aid of a nice big comfortable bus.  This was partly for research purposes, and partly to make constructive use of an acclimatisation day that we had awarded ourselves.  Actually, there wasn´t a lot of choice - I was feeling about as much use to a bicycle as a haddock, with aching head and woozy brain from the climb to Humahuaca, so we had delayed our climb by a day.  No point in taking on a challenge like yesterday when you´re not 100%.

That it had taken over an hour and a half to cover the 84km of ground, even with one of the kamikaze Balut bus drivers at the wheel, told us it would be - as the Australians would say - ´a big ask´.  So we left Humahuaca well before the sun had gained its full daytime furnace-like strength, and began pedalling.  Even before we were out of town, we realised that first gear would become still more of a friend than on recent climbs.  The day´s task meant 58km of climbing from just under 3000m to a peak of 3780m, before a 25km coast down to Abra Pampa.

The experts reckon that as of 2500m, altitude becomes an issue for some, and from 3200m onwards 75% of humans are affected somewhat.  We were no exceptions, but fortunately the prospect of spending a sub-zero night in the tent anywhere short of Abra Pampa was incentive enough to keep us going, despite aching heads, lungs and legs.  We had known it would be a long grind, in strong sun, and with fully laden bikes.  The factors we had not reckoned on were: 1. a ripping headwind all day long; 2. clouds of dust blown into our faces by the aforementioned factor no.1; and 3. just how deceptive the view from a bus window can turn out to be.  It all made for a heady combination.  At one point, the wind gusted so hard whilst we were plodding through a sinuous canyon section that Liz was neatly blown 180 degrees from one side of the road to the other and ended up facing downhill just to stay on the bike.  Another time, we had to stop dead and shield our eyes like moles emerging from a hole, for a particularly dusty gust to pass.

We stopped for lunch at the 34km mark, sitting munching our slightly stale sardine sandwiches outside a bus stop in baking sun whilst two of the Pampa Azul (population: 30) village elders made incisive comments about our task.  "Oooh, it´s a big climb... the worst is still ahead... you´re bound to suffer from the altitude", etc.  Four hours of climbing in the morning had already left its mark on us, and we set off with legs not exactly warming to the task of the same again.  It´s funny, however, how in the lower moments, something has always happened to raise morale.  This time, shortly after leaving Pampa Azul, and just as we were passing a sequence of small iced waterfalls clinging to the shadowy cliffside, I looked back and saw two familiar faces gaining on us - on bikes.

We had met Fernando and Lorena two evenings previously in Humahuaca - wierdly, the first long distance cyclists we had encountered since leaving Cruz del Eje.  Natives of Mendoza, they had started their trip in Tucuman.  It soon became clear that by working as a peloton of four, taking it in turns to break the wind at the front, we could keep both our pace and spirits up.  We soon emerged from the the morning´s steep, craggy, wind-funnelling gorges and onto an open upward sloping plane.  There was a layer of cloud/dust cover ahead of us, which became more pronounced as we went, but we probably surprised even ourselves by how we all willed each other through the next 20km.  Not a sniff of downhill, and a headwind that just wouldn´t let up, but finally at 5pm we reached the metropolis of Tres Cruces.

Aside from the overmanned customs checkpoint, which gleefully broke to me the news of England´s desultory 0-0 draw with Algeria, Tres Cruces was so bleakly devoid of attraction that hard core camp-anywhere merchants Fernando and Lorena decided not to stop there after all.  And so the four of us pushed on up one final cuesta to begin the descent to Abra Pampa.

Descent, huh?  You could have fooled me.  Until the final 10km, we somehow had to keep pumping eight legs that had thought their day´s work was done just to stick at 15kph.  The pale sun dipped behind stunning sequential layers of monochrome mountain ranges to the left, candyfloss pink clouds floated teasingly to the right, and those last few straights of road never seemed to end.  But, with darkness almost upon us, the ´Hotel´ sign that we had identified from the bus the previous day hoved into view.  Rarely have either of us been more completely broken.

So, Abra Pampa.  What a place.  After Tilcara´s homely pleasures and Humahuaca´s charmingly cobbled streets and Andeanness sometimes verging deliciously on the llama-hat variety of twee, this is about as ´forlornly bleak´ (thanks, Lonely Planet) as you can get.  As with so many of the places we have been through in Argentina, it is a tale of a lost railway.  The rusting rails and rotting sleepers are now a dusty path for the inhabitants to trudge along.  The population is almost entirely indigenous, and good cheer is in short supply from what we have experienced so far.  By day, the scene is one of almost navy blue skies and dust coloured everything else (buildings, streets, dogs), dotted with occasional splodges of the most extreme brightness: tiny ladies in eye-piercing shawls, venerable scarlet or mustard delivery trucks, and doors and windows that are about as distressed as you can be before falling off your hinges.  With its altitude-enhanced clarity of air, it has a curious, raw beauty.  But perhaps best appreciated if you only spend one day in it.  And if you avoid the nights, when temperatures up here can fall well below -10c.  The less said about that the better.

Who can blame the locals for their lack of a radiant sense of humour?  Their town feels positively post-apocalytic, dropped in the middle of a massive desert plane at a height where trees have given up and gone somewhere nicer.  For the gaggles of 11-year olds clustered around the other internet terminals where I am writing this, what prospects?  And what entertainment options beyond these mind numbing computer animated deathfests?  If they have any ambition at all, they simply have to get out, and if they do then what prospects for Abra Pampa?  As Liz said, it is like a living ghost town.  No sense of belonging here, and not even a sense of being complete - the nearest any building gets to an upper floor is those metal wires sticking out of the ground floor.  Even the housing estate started by the notoriously corrupt local governor seven years ago is still unfinished.  Perhaps the biggest event of the year is a llama fair.  Still, those freshly squeezed half-litres of orange juice by the bus terminal are second to none.

We leave here tomorrow for our final day´s biking in Argentina, up to the Bolivian border at La Quiaca.  When we think about it, we are well into the next chapter of our trip already.  The Europeanness of so much of the Argentina that we have experienced is now well behind - and indeed, below - us.  We are into Andes-land, a region in which post-colonial borders mean far less to many of the indigenous people than their millennia-old set of beliefs and customs.  It is a moot point whether Bolivia will actually be so different to what we have found here.

Nevertheless, South America´s poorest country beckons.  It feels as though we have upped a gear on the adventure scale.  For all its problems and injustices, there is so much that has outweighed them for us, and so much that we will miss about Argentina.  But it is time for new experiences on this trip.  For now, we will continue acclimatising to heights at which only the maddest dogs and Englishmen would pedal overladen bicycles over long distances, flying the Argentine flag with pride.

Gracias por todo lo que hiciste para nosotros, querida Argentina, viva la Patria - y hola Bolivia!

1 comment:

  1. HOLA!!!
    (Posada de Luz, Tilcara, Jujuy, Argentina)