Cycling above the Clouds

Riding the Andes by Bicycle

Gaucho land

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From Salta the scenery continued to amaze as I descended then cliumbed back up again through the Quebrada de Cafayate. This is another road passing weird and wonderful rock formations forged through glaring red rock (the temperature has been hotting up now I’ve dropped a couple of thousand meters) by the Rio de las Conchas. Some great names for the rock features that sounded like they’d come straight out of the Canterbury Tales kept me entertained as I rode my way upwards: ‘The Devil’s Throat’, ‘The Toad’, ‘The Plasterer’, ‘House of the parrots’…and the more mundane ‘Aunty Jocelyn’.

Checking out the ‘Garganta del Diablo’ (Devil’s throat)

Stunning views riding along the Quebrada de Cafayate

Three days of riding through the Quebrada (ravine) also showed me I’d well and truly entered the land of the gaucho. As it turned out, I’d happened upon the Fiesta de la Virgin Santa Maria, a big local festival, for which local gaucho pilgrims trek north from Cafayate to Salta on horseback. For those not so skilled in horsemanship, making the journey by bicycle will do.

Passing me heading in the opposite direction, I rode past loads of horsemen and women and hundreds of people on bikes (judging by the amount of pushing going on – which did make me feel just a little smug as I hauled my heavy bike and kit up the hills – I’m guessing many wouldn’t have called themselves ‘cyclists’!). I was often the recipient of shouts of ‘Amiga – you’re going the wrong way!’ to the great amusement of the rest of their group.

The Gaucho pilgrimage procession

The modern-day alternative – more bikes than you can shake a stick at!

As I continued my way along the ravine, having cycled 50km without a break whilst gradually ascending and with an ever increasing wind in my face, hunger got the better of me. As luck would have it, I rounded the corner from the  Quebrada de las Conchas (ravine of shells) and spotted a small house selling empañadas. The food in Argentina is definitely an improvement from Bolivia, especially for these tasty snacks you can pick up on the road.

Tucking in to meat empañadas at an impromptu roadside stop

‘Tamales salteños’ – another local specialty, that tastes a bit like shepherd’s pie, but is cooked with corn flour and steamed in a corn husk.

Since hitting Argentina, I’ve been camping more often than not. In part because it’s now a lot warmer at night than in Bolivia and Peru and Argentina is a hell of a lot more expensive, but also because many towns and villages in Argentina have municipal ‘campsites’ (although I’d use that term loosely – they generally come with BBQ grill racks and a picnic bench, but have no running water or toilets). There’s a great culture here of spending the afternoon and evening at one of these sites with friends and family, firing up a BBQ, singing along to a guitar or tunes from a car radio, having a few drinks then heading back home at nightfall. This also means I’ve had some superb camping spots all to myself – and usually for free.

I did wonder if I’d have sleepless nights when camping alone, twitching at every leaf rustling outside the tent, and wondering if it was someone coming to nick the bike, or worse. Thankfully that hasn’t been the case at all, and so far I’ve felt perfectly safe and slept extremely well. That is, until one night camping along the Quebrada de Cafayate when I woke with my eyeball bulging out from under my eye lid. I literally couldn’t shut my eye properly due to a blister covering the whole of the white of my eye.

After some slightly panicked late night SMS messaging (thanks to being outside 3G coverage) to my emergency support team of Sara-Ann and Rupert, I figured out I just had a bad case of allergic conjunctivitis courtesy of a new sun block I’d just bought. I got further confirmation as my other eye also began to protest and a rash bloomed over my neck and face. Being 2 day’s ride from civilisation (as I thought at the time), I deliberated over hitching a lift in the back of a pickup to get to help sooner rather than later.

Thankfully after lots of washing with water, the pain started to subside and I was lucky to come across a tiny town not marked on my map later in the day, with a small pharmacy that was able to sort me out with some eye drops. Crisis averted, I continued on my way to Cafayate.

Had a bit of a shock waking up like this – not my best look!

The blister on my eye starts to subside

The scene of the crime – a rather nice but secluded campsite!

This poor little chap also wore himself out, by tapping away at some wood through the night

Sheltering from the wind at another little camping spot along the route

Now on the mend, I made my way towards the winelands of Cafayate, looking forward to a rest day and some nice wine to help me recuperate from the trials of the night before!

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