Meandering to Merriment in Mendoza: An Xmas Excursion

12/10/2016.

Cafayate, Argentina.

Two restful days in the wine-filled town of Cafayate refilled my energy wells (and perhaps my internal wine cellars), thus it was time to continue South to the grand meeting of meandering cyclists in Mendoza. With 1400 kilometers to get there and about 12 days to do it, I’d be moving steadily but calmly South on generally smoother roads than my recent travels. I was curious what this area of Argentina had in store, given how  many cyclists have bussed, flown or hitched this section due to rumors of it being hot, dry, flat and not very interesting. Since hitching to avoid boredom is not my modus operandi, I set out down the famed highway 40 with an open mind and full water bottles. 

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 It originally said “camino sinuoso” (meaning curvy road), but the U was either worn off or scratched off. Now it says, “bear-free road”. So glad that I’m safe from bear attacks in the Argentinian desert! 

Oddly, I didn’t take any photos for a number of days heading South on highway 40. I get into phases where, even while riding through beautiful and interesting places, I just don’t feel inspired to pull out the camera. Despite a lack of visual accompaniment, it was however a lovely stretch of riding where I was able to ride long days and familiarize myself with Argentine customs and culture.

I spent my first two nights in “camping municipales” (town campgrounds), both of which had clean drinking water and functional bathrooms despite being free of charge. What a difference from Bolivia!! Regardless of the ease of use for roadside travelers, I wasn’t actually sure I liked it. Almost TOO easy honestly. I found myself missing the days of having to find my own stealth campsite away from prying eyes and blasting winds, like I was now just another member of the endless tourist train heading South on a main road. There wasn’t enough creativity in it for me in the spoon-fed-ness of camping comfort. The other challenge with these campgrounds is they are well-utilized by locals. That translated into an 11pm arrival of a group of cars my first night, where a gaggle of kids blared music and drank late into the night, knowing full well a person was trying to sleep nearby. I was at first frustrated by their apparent lack of consideration, but then remembered I was the visitor in their home. They showed no ill will or aggressive actions toward me, just wanted to party in their stomping grounds. Who was I to complain? The following night I ended up in a busier campground by a beautiful flowing river. Many big groups with their tents, picnic tables, tons of food and barbecues, and loud music filled the breezy river valley. I prepared for another noisy night but was pleased to hear them all clear out by late evening, leaving me and a few other international travelers to find repose by the calm burbling river. Nonetheless I decided to seek solitude in the nights ahead, away from the hubbub of local campgrounds. 

So, on my 3rd morning I awoke and decided to push a full sunrise to sunset day on the bike, to see how far I could go on pavement and camp wherever the darkness determined. The day allowed me to log 210 kilometers, just short of Chilecito, providing a strong lead on my daily distance quota for reaching Mendoza. I was chasing 4 cyclists whom I’d be joining for the holiday party so that we might share some road on the way South.  They had supposedly taken a couple of rest days in Chilecito and my big day landed me just 15km North of town in a cactus-filled but wind-protected valley by the roadside. 

I rolled into Chilecito in search of a hearty breakfast the following morning and randomly spotted the familiar rig of a German cyclist named Mike I’d met back in La Paz, Bolivia! He’d been staying with the others in an apartment the last couple of days and led me back to them. Yay! After a short catch-up, we all rolled out of town together. This would be my first section of road with company since Bolivia, a welcome change! So off I rode that morning with Tomas, Tina and Campbell (the German set out ahead of us). 

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 Curious. Apparently there’s a private MTB trail network outside of Chilecito… I was tempted to knock on the gate and explore it, but the urge to ride with the group won out. 

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It’s fun to ride with people for a change!

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The four of us reached some beautiful sandy hills and found a perfect little campground in some soft sand. So interesting to spend time with other riders, seeing what food they carried, how they cooked, and what tricks of the trade they’ve learned.

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After a couple of days, Tomas and Tina decided to take a more direct highway route South, while Campbell and I opted for a more circuitous mountain route to the West of highway 40. It was lovely spending the next week with him, a British cyclist I’d first met in Cusco a number of months back, who had a similar thirst for big riding days and challenging routes. Plus he was just a great guy overall, inspiring company. 

 Unfortunately my supposedly “fail-safe” Rohloff rear hub decided to fail just as we set out on this new route. It was skipping gears and would randomly disengage, leaving me only 2 very slow gears to ride with. Shit. 

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We hobbled it to the nearest town, luckily in a fantastically beautiful area by an enormous dyke. We found a cheap campground near a local market and Campbell relaxed while I got to work researching a solution to the problem. After much futzing and many shoddy-internet skype calls with the kind Rohloff rep in California, I determined I’d be needing a bigger city ASAP to do any real long-term fix. Mendoza was still a few days away, but luckily  I nursed the hub to minimal functionality enough to limp it over to that next city to seek a very specific set of bearings… Campbell was kind enough to wait patiently and support my repeated bouts of frustration at the gremlins that follow me through life, destroying all my “indestructible” gear. 

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Back on the road, passing enormous valleys and beautiful mountain ranges. 

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With high winds coming from the South, we found the perfect protection in an abandoned mining village off the highway, Las Ruinas de las Minas de Gualilán. 

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Set up tents. Yank out all food options. Stuff them into face. Repeat.

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Getting closer to the big peaks as we rolled South and West!  

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How strange is this? A caterpillar that creates a shell of sorts out of woven together twigs from a particular tree. We noticed hundreds of them in only one specific spot by a river. 

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After summiting a small pass, we found ourselves with an enormous tailwind pushing us into the small mountain town of Calingasta. The kind of wind that, if opposing our direction, would have held us at a standstill. At our backs, however, we were able to roll down this long valley at 30mph without pedaling! What a gift. 

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The fabulous mountains towering over Calingasta. 

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Only two more riding days to Mendoza! Realizing we would be a couple of days early for our planned arrival to the city, we decided to take a rest day in Uspallata, at the foot of the Andes. Along this stretch of road we noticed numerous oddly decorated road-side altars. This one at least included a plaque with the name “Difunta Correa”. We asked a some locals later that day and were informed this was among the various Argentinian roadside altars honoring ancient tales, this one of a mother who, in search of her lost husband, set out into the desert in Argentina’s San Juan province only to run out of water and die. When discovered days later by traveling cattle herders, her child was rumored to be alive, still nursing on her miraculously ever-full breast. So as all devotees of the pagan mythology pass by these roadside altars, they leave full bottles of water in tribute to the miracle…

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… LOTS of bottles. So much so that, upon encountering these seemingly enormous piles of trash, it’s quite a disturbing sight. There is no system of control or cleanup for such sites, so they just grow as years pass…

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Another roadside altar, this one for Santa Teresa de los Andes, a nun who was sainted in 1993 by Pope John Paul II. 

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Campbell reached out to a man he’d encountered by the roadside a few weeks back who’d offered him lodging upon arrival to Mendoza. He and his family kindly welcomed us into their home for a couple of nights, sharing their food and helping us navigate the enormous city of Mendoza. The timing was perfect for me, as I’d developed an increasingly intense toothache over the last few days, and it was approaching a crescendo of pain. The kind where you can’t really think or do anything but manage the endless throbbing. Our host kindly put me in touch with his friend who headed the department of dentistry in the local university who quickly took care of the problem. It’s funny how despite Argentina costing 2-3x more for food and supplies than Bolivia did, the cost of a root canal and filling totaled less than $200USD. I could only imagine how little it might have cost in one of the poorer nations just North of here.

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With toothache managed, I was again able to find peace and calm on the bike. Our amazing host kindly guided us through some single track trails that were conveniently located just down the street from his house! Great guy. 

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And so it came, that on December 24th, a grand gathering of dirtbags convened for a few days of food and spirits in downtown Mendoza. Campbell and I pulled up to the house after most others had arrived, and were so ecstatic to find a garage full of dirty touring bikes. 

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From the left table head going clockwise: Tomas (Germany), Cambell (UK), Mirko and Ina (Germany), Sebastian (Germany), Johannes (Germany), Neil (Ireland), Vicki (UK), and Tina (Germany). Interesting and unusual to be around so many German speakers for the weekend. English was clearly the 2nd language in the apartment and it was refreshing to be confronted with not understanding what was being said around me for the first time in a while. Luckily everyone could speak English, most fluently, so we were able to enjoy rich conversation, cook fabulous food together, and just relax for a few days. 

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 A Christmahannukah feast to rememeber. Each person contributed food from their upbringing. I of course had to make potato latkes to bring a little Jew energy into the room. So fun! 

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Remember my whole story about my history with Fernet Branca and it’s popularity in Argentina? Well this was a new level, finding pre-mixed Fernet and cola in a bottle. Unfortunately it was pretty disgusting, but worth a try.

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After 3 great days together, it was time to move onward. Everyone would be taking different routes from here, some crossing into Chile, others staying in Argentina. All heading South with hopes of crossing paths again someday. 

As for me, it was time to get back on some dirt. I’d found a hopefully rugged route up into the mountains West of Mendoza with plans to reach Santiago de Chile in 4 days where I’d have my replacement hub parts sent. Praying my hub holds up until then… I guess we’ll just see. The adventure continues… 

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