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 1 December 2010

Back in Argentina? Gorse we are

And so we reached the end of 10 special weeks in North America.

There was so little to dislike, so many truisms and fallacies about that part of the world disproved to us, so much to love about the West Coast.  The bike lanes and considerate drivers, the Pinot Noir and fresh salmon up North, the Giant Redwoods, the drive-thru coffee stands, the great cities of Seattle, Vancouver, San Fran and LA, the raw and underdiscovered coastlines of Oregon and Washington, the beaches of SoCal.  And just that ubiquitous cycling-is-good vibe pervading that side of the USA.  We met a wonderful selection of characters along the way, and caught up with (and indeed introduced each other to!) several of our most important friends who live there.  And then that mad week of Disneyland, Vegas and LA.

By the time we arrived at LAX on November 14th, complete with our now familiar caravan of cheap/old/unwanted/large suitcases and heavily taped bike boxes, it had almost become a blur.  But one that it was time to move on from.

We were jolted back to reality by the practicalities of avoiding being charged for excess baggage.  Amazingly, Avianca, Colombia´s impressive national airline, allowed the bikes on for free.  And we sneaked under the luggage weight allowance thanks to my subtle (I think) and cramp-inducing foot levering whilst the cases sat on the scales.  No matter, we got away with it.

As we took off, we banked away from fabulous views over the LA coast that we had been cycling down just a few days previously.  We flew South over part of Mexico´s Baja California that we might have been cycling were it not for political and time concerns.  We couldn´t quite hear the gunfire emanating that everyone warned us about, but it looked dry and barren and empty.  We reckoned it was something that could wait.

Our transfer in Bogota was a thing of almost poetic elegance and comfort.  Indeed Bogota airport, despite heavy rain falling outside, put the rather jaded LAX completely in the shade.  And astonishingly, we managed to find not only a camera to replace the one that had been attacked the previous night by an aggressive Venice Beach bannister, but also a pair of sunglasses for Liz.  An hour and a half later we were airborne again.  Sitting in those exit seats, with our legs stretched out, we felt like globetrotters David and Victoria Beckham.

Neither of us slept, however, and by the time we touched down in Buenos Aires the morning sun was rising in the sky over Ezeiza and we were feeling distinctly woolly headed.  Fortunately for all concerned, our comically smooth passage continued.  All of our luggage was already on the carousel by the time we came through immigration.  In moments, we were back at the same airport cafe table that we had sat at on February 4th, drinking the same overpriced cafes cortados and rubbing our eyes only marginally less bewildered than all those months ago.

The deja vu didn´t stop there - sitting in our minivan taxi into town, with the boxes and cases (and Liz) in the self same configuration as in February, it really took some processing.  When we arrived the first time, our intention had been to head North from Tierra del Fuego, and just keep going.  We never expected to be back in Buenos Aires, far less to be arriving again by aeroplane.  And yet here we were, in spring sunshine, buzzing past the Aerolineas Argentinas and Movistar billboards and greenery en route to the grey blocks that flank the autopista nearer central Buenos Aires.  Weird.  It was all so familiar, and so carefully planned from North America, and yet so surprising to be there.

We made it to the wonderful haven of the Sibbalds´ flat in Palermo, where Toya charitably put up with our jetlagged gibbering for a couple of hours as she packed for the weekend.  That shower was one of the more important ones of the trip, for we were soon back out on the pavement hunting vainly for suitable sized taxi to take us to Retiro Bus Terminal.  Nearly an hour later, we were both close to passing out from exhaustion and still no sign.  Time was running out, an our deliciously hatched plan was looking like hitting the rocks.

Not so.  Along came our knight in shining armour (or rather, a Renault Kangoo) and bundled us in.  In our mild state of delirium, it was hard to be sure we weren´t hallucinating, but the extraordinary purple colour of the flowering jacaranda lining Buenos Aires´ broad avenues was almost blinding.  Everything was that kind of vibrant green that only spring can provide.

As was the light at the bus station - almost before we knew it, the bikes and cases were in the safe hands of Via Bariloche and at 3pm sharp we were settling into our deliriously comfortable flat bed seats on the lower deck of the bus, whirring past the docks of Puerto Madero and out onto the lush green pampas outside BA.  I barely made it through the wedding scene of ´What Happens in Vegas´ before I was asleep.

The bus journey was 21 hours, but rarely can a bus journey have been more appreciated.  We both slept for more than half of it, and spent the rest of the time watching DVDs on our individual screens, gazing out of the window at the changing scenery, eating the trays of food brought to us, and sipping on the Scotch the steward gave us before bedtime.  Who wants the Orient Express when you can have Via Bariloche?

Pulling into Bariloche´s bus terminal, the air was fresh and springlike, the sun warm, the mountains still snowcapped on the far side of Lake Nahuel Huapi, and huge yellow bursts of flowering gorse were everywhere you turned.  It was almost as though the town had been built in a field of oil seed rape.  Squinting slightly, and at leisurely pace, we arranged a camioneta taxi and a small apartment to spend a few days recuperating and preparing for the next leg.  The flat was priceless: a few blocks up the hill from the town centre, it was a perfect throwback to the 1950s, complete with rattly gas hob, faded formica kitchen cupboards, well aged vinyl floor and a sliding door into the bathroom.  But it was just the ticket for our purposes.

We spent five days in and around Bariloche.  There was no rest for the wicked when we arrived.  We´d hoped to be there in time to coincide with Stu and Laura Seymour, whose wedding in England we had sadly missed the previous weekend and who were on honeymoon in Argentina.  And sure enough, when we wandered down to the appointed bar later that evening, there were the Happy Couple, Laura giving Stu some lessons in gin rummy over a large cold Quilmes.

Having used Via Bariloche to recharge our batteries, we had a fantastic evening with them, starting with a celebratory bottle of fizzy Chandon overlooking the lake, followed by an exceptional parrilla during which Stu managed to retain his unblemished record of ´at least one steak every day´ with some aplomb, and topped off by our return to the Holy Shrine of Jauja - the best ice cream in the world.  Well, I say our return.  Obviously we hadn´t waited that many hours to go back.  We´d been for our traditional 1/4 kilo already that afternoon.

Next day, we were collected by Seymour Limousine Services (OK, perhaps limousine might be overstating it slightly) and headed off as a team of four to explore.  It was a joy, for one thing, to be in a car, with Stu taking the strain on the driving front.  We spent much of the day bumping happily along a narrow ripio road to and from the Ventisquero Negro - or Black Glaciar.  One of the mild irritations about North America had been the whole ´World´s Only´ thing.  In the case of this glaciar, however, it was hard to refute the uniqueness.

We marvelled at the deep brown/grey of the iceflow, the icebergs bobbing in the water beneath it looking for all the world like giant brownie chunks in chocolate milk.  Above that glaciar were the menacing overhangs of the more traditional glaciars of Cerro Tronador.  Stringy waterfalls of meltwater cascaded down the rock faces high above us, and distant condors circled on the thermals from the black craggy cliffs.  Throw in the bright green spring foliage of the trees around us and the deep blue sky and it made for one of the most invigorating views we have seen on the whole trip.

We headed back to Stu and Laura´s fabulously stylish and cosy lodge a few kilometres the other side of Bariloche above the lakeshore where they generously treated us to a great dinner.  We may not have improved the romance quotient of their honeymoon, but we loved seeing them and being eased so enjoyably back into all things Argentine.  By the time we went to bed that night, we were starting to believe that we were indeed back.

The next few days were invaluable to us.  Grey clouds rolled in and the wind blew and we did not venture outside town.  We did, however, achieve plenty.  Emails were written, photographs updated, bikes rebuilt (a now well-honed five hour process to get them really squeeky clean and ready for action), food bought, pizza eaten, wine drunk, wedding presents arranged, camping gas restocked.  It began to feel quite like home in the end.

Thereagain, anywhere we have spent a few days on this trip has begun to feel like home.  Indeed, having spent the night in over 180 different places so far, anywhere we don´t move on from the next day usually qualifies as home.  We have ´lived in´ a lot of places.

But Bariloche does have a special something about it.  Its setting is unique, its pre-season vibe relaxed and sophisticated, its people bright and cheerful and active, much as you might find in an off season Chamonix.  We have spent several days there twice now, on this trip, and in a way it has become the fulcrum of South America to us.  By the time our departure date dawned, however, we were well prepared to move on.

And so, for the second time this year, we pedalled away from Bariloche, Patagonia bound.  Only this time we were heading South.

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