Cycling above the Clouds

Riding the Andes by Bicycle

Battling the elements

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I took a break from the camping in Belén to stay in a lovely old adobe house, inherited and renovated by an Argentine/Swiss couple. It was over 100 years old and very basic but filled with charm. They got the fire going for me to heat up water for a blissfully hot shower (I was grateful not to be sharing it with soap suds from other people, as was the case the day before at the thermal baths in Hualfin!).

As I rode through the main plaza in Belén, someone shouted out ‘Sarah!’. I’m finding increasingly that the odd person on the road ahead has somehow heard about me and knows my name (there’s definitely a benefit of having a name used in pretty much every culture there is, especially in that people can easily remember and pronounce it!). It’s a bizarre taste of extremely minor celebrity, although I guess a very obviously foreign woman on a bike, solo and carrying loads of gear is pretty easy to spot.

Cyclists speak to cyclists, and as we leapfrog one another, we pass on the word. A fellow cyclist, Franck, who I’d met back at the Casa de Ciclistas in La Paz, had mentioned me to an Argentinian cyclist, Benjamin, who’d paused in Belén to sell jewellery and make some money to fund the next part of his trip.  Benjamin was a total natterbox, and we spent a good couple of hours in the main plaza sharing experiences.

Benjamin selling his jewellery. He also makes wire brain teasers that he gives away to local kids for free.

From Belén I had 220km to cover over the next 2 days, mostly riding through desert. As I neared the end of my first day, and rode towards the municipal campsite near San Blas de los Sauces, I bumped into Franck himself. We’d both planned to camp in the same place so we rode the last few miles together. I thought I’d meet and join up with a lot of cyclists on the road, but this was actually only the first time I’d ridden any distance with another cyclist since Sara-Ann left.

The day from hell!

Opting for the not-so-hard shoulder due to poor visibility

Getting the giggles at the lunacy of our situation.

Franck ploughs on – if you look carefully you’ll spot the small tricolour on his bike – Vive La France!

The following morning Franck and I packed up camp early and were on the road before 8am to make our way through the desert to Chilecito. Ignorance of what was to come was definitely bliss.

The wind usually gets stronger at about 2pm here, but by 10am we were dealing with a strong cross-wind. We stopped in a small village to load up on water and contemplated whether to bail for the day or keep going. I’m not sure what possessed us, but we decided to battle on. Cue winds and the sandstorm from hell. Having 100km to cover that day, we were lucky if we were managing 10km/hr, now riding straight into a continuous head wind. As that whipped up into the sandstorm, we struggled to see the road ahead and ended up riding on the sandy hard shoulder. This was no joke, and without Franck’s help, there’s no way I’d have made the distance to Chilecito.

Aside from the obvious issues with visibility, you get sand EVERYWHERE. In your mouth and nose, in your hair, ears, every crease in your clothing, panniers (god forbid you need to open them for any reason!), and of course in the chain and bike mechs. If the sand gets down your cycling shorts, you will have a VERY sore bottom (thankfully I didn’t have that problem!). The sand makes you extremely thirsty and we both guzzled down water at about 4 times our normal rate. Even so, once you start fantasising about ice cold Coca Cola and bottles of beer glistening with condensation, you know you’re still dehydrated.

This was the first time the whole trip where I’d had to consciously manage my thought patterns and use different approaches to maintain motivation. I tried various things – focusing on very short term distance goals, listening to podcasts and playlists (one ear in only although with all the wind it was impossible to hear the limited traffic anyway), trying to clear my mind completely, turning my mind to thinking about other things in different places and time, and simply counting 100 turns of the pedals at a time. As Franck began to lose his sense of humour about 25km before Chilecito, I began to perk up – despite the ever growing sandstorm by this time – as the end started to feel within touching distance. Even though it was probably still well over 2 hours away, I knew we’d make it. By the last 7km, both of us were drained of all energy and running out of water. The small hill into Chilecito felt like a mountain. With a couple of short pauses to help keep ourselves upright, we finally reached the town.

The reward for making it! Two girls were selling buns filled with dulce de leche on the road into Chilecito – devoured in seconds. My face and top are both filthy, engrained in sand.

To top if all off, all that sand gave me another bout of allergic conjunctivitis, just as my eyes had recovered. Unamused!

An alternative kind of campsite

Chilecito was snuggled away between the mountains, saving us from the rest of the storm. Our campsite deserves a little mention. Since meeting other cyclists on the road, I’ve been added to a WhatsApp group, with probably over 50 other (mostly Argentinian) cyclists currently exploring Argentina and Chile. We often share help and tips about good (and cheap) places to visit and stay. One such place was this spot on the edge of Chilecito, run by an Argentinian called Jorge who loves travellers so much he doesn’t charge anything to pitch your tent there for a couple of nights. There are stoves and fires dotted around the place – a bit of a cave(wo)man’s paradise – and visitors often club together for a pizza or asado (BBQ) at night which Jorge helps coordinate.

Jorge’s cabins and campsite wilderness where he kindly let us stay for free

One of the old stoves dotted around the place which we used for cooking.

Banana pancakes for breakfast (recipe courtesy of Sara-Ann & Sarah R) – finally I’ve perfected how to cook them on my camp stove.

After a rest day to catch up on admin and restr the legs, I packed up again ready to cross some more desert on my way to visit two of Agentina’s national parks, famous for their rocks and fossils.

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