Cycling above the Clouds

Riding the Andes by Bicycle

Clocking up the miles on the RN40

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Riding the iconic Ruta Nacional 40 (RN40) that runs from the top to the bottom of Argentina


The distance is marked every kilometre – reminding me just how far there is still to go!

From Cafayate I had four days of riding and camping along the RN40 to reach the small town of Belén, climbing and then descending 1000m (very manageable) but with very little in between, so I set off loaded with plenty of food and water for the ride. When budgeting for food, I need to make sure I have enough in case of any delays/emergencies (e.g. a serious mechanical failure), but also need to avoid carrying too much excess weight which will slow me down. I’m constantly amazed at just how much food a person needs! Here’s what a typical daily allowance looks like when on the bike:

Breakfast:

Porridge oats with a mashed banana; Cup of tea

Mid-morning and mid-afternoon snack:

2 pieces of fruit, or nuts; Might have a small pastry in the morning if I’m lucky enough to get hold of one!

Lunch:

2 bread rolls; 1 avocado (which I use instead of butter which would melt inside my pannier bag); 1 tomato; cheese, salami or tuna for protein; 1 orange

Dinner:

Something with carbs and veggies, for example pasta and a sauce, which means also carrying:

Pasta; 1 onion; 1-2 tomatoes; 1/2 red pepper; tomato purée (if available); tuna or salami if available

Cup of tea and a couple of biscuits or chunks of chocoalate for ‘dessert’

Water: 3-4 litres per day to drink, cook and wash with

Other bits and bobs: alongside the above I also carry a small amount of oil, salt, bag of powdered milk, tea bags, and small pots (courtesy of Sara-Ann before she left!) of oregano, cumin and cinnamon for flavouring.

Multiply the above by four and then include a little extra for emergency rations (a tin of tuna and some crackers), and that’s one hell of a lot of extra weight and bulk I had to carry. Some extra creativity also required to make sure the food will keep, given it’s in my panniers in the heat of the sun all day.

One thing I love about South America so far is the relative lack of supermarkets, which means buying all fruit and veg from the local corner shop. The produce isn’t picked to look pretty and everything comes loose meaning it’s easy and cheap to buy in small quantities. The buying process reminds me of going to the Coventry food market with my mum as a young kid, having a natter with the stall holder, being called the Spanish equivalent of ‘duck’ or ‘darling’ (usually ‘mi hija’ – meaning ‘my daugher’ and in Bolivia it was common practice to refer to the casseros in turn as ”Mami’ – tho somehow I don’t think that would go down so well here in Argentina). I enjoy taking time to find the juiciest looking tomatoes and oranges and ripest avocados. It also avoids so much of the shameful food and packaging waste we have in the UK.

Ruinas de Quilmes



Having got a bit sidetracked talking about food, back to the story in hand… First stop on this next section was the ‘Ruinas de Quilmes’ – ruins of the largest pre-Colombian settlement in Argentina. The indigenous inhabitants of Quilmes were forced out in a mass exodus having been exiled by the Spanish. With no time to prepare, they fled on foot with insufficient provisions to make a trip of 1200km in the direction of Buenos Aires (this land is hostile, and most perished). They left their homes behind, trapped in that moment of time. Tucked and terraced into the hillside of the Calchaquí valley, the ancient city is well preserved and makes an impressive sight. As a visitor you’re allowed to walk throughout the ruins of the ancient streets, houses and squares wherever you like (not sure if that’s a good thing or not in terms of keeping them protected, but it definitely made for a very interesting experience).
I pitched my tent in the desert campsite not far from the base of the ruins (apparently now in scorpion & tarantula land = time to start checking shoes before putting them on!) and learnt there was a guard in a hut there 24×7 to protect the ruins. Once all the visitors had left, I cooked dinner on my camp stove and got chatting to Rafael about his job there. I invited him to watch a Spanish film on my iPad with me, and in return received an invitation to join him and his colleague for the evening in their small but warm guard’s house. Heading back to my tent to sleep later on, I was treated to an explosion of stars across the desert sky.

Desert camping in tarantula territory


Hospitality at La Clemira 
Day 2 was a long haul down some very straight roads and, in the afternoon, into some very strong and tiring head winds. I expected to be wild camping that night, but just as the wind started to become insurmountable, I was grateful to reach a tiny pueblo and spot ‘La Clemira’, a little shop, cafe and campsite (free for cyclists!) by the side of the road. I hauled my bike round to the front and rang the bell and was met by an extremely warm and friendly couple who were clearly no strangers to frazzled cyclists stopping by. Even better, the lady of the house made absolutely superb fruit tarts and boiled me some water for an accompanying cup of tea. It was a relief not to have to cook outside in the howling winds that night.

Superb fruit tarts at La Clemira – a cyclist’s dream!


English tea drinking habits are definitely baffling: I love that when I ask for ‘just a tiny little bit of milk’ to have with my tea, this is what I often get given;)


Thermal bath campsite in Hualfin

My last camping spot for the four days was at the thermal baths in Hualfin. I was looking forward to a good soak in some nice hot outdoor pools, to ease my muscles and as a reward for the miles I’d covered. Sadly these were the most underwhelming ‘thermal baths’ I’ve ever seen! Two huts that looked like a toilet block at best, housing two ‘baths’ in darkened rooms. Lots of graffiti on the walls inside and the baths full of soapy water from previous visitors (despite all that, the baths actually seemed to be pretty popular with a steady stream of locals driving up the 5km gravel road from the nearest town to use them). It was 3 days since I’d had a shower though, so I took the plunge and had a wash, making the most of at least having a continuous flow of hot water to enjoy and doing my best to ignore the rest!

Some underwhelming thermal baths…

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