Cycling above the Clouds

Riding the Andes by Bicycle

La Zonda

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From the two national parks, I had a spectacular descent out of the windswept ‘Sierra del Valle Fertil’ until I turned off to stay at a tiny town called Huaco. This was a quaint and sleepy town, with the first lush green I’d seen all trip. There were some fine horses in the fields and lines of poplar trees made me feel like I was in Italy.  I asked people in the main Plaza if there was a hospedaje in the town, and was directed two streets away, to the Hospedaje of Doña Irma. This was a large house that had been in the family for many years, and I felt like being a guest in her home with all it’s faded glory (and cobwebs!). At £5 a night it wasn’t going to break the budget.

The big descent – this little chap came to say hello when I stopped by the side of the road to take a picture

Horses and greenery for the first time on this journey!

Horse training by bike up and down the dusty village streets

Flowers and vines in Huaco

Faded glory at the hospedaje

Out of the national parks, I had another 500km to cover before reaching Mendoza. With no further ‘excursions’ planned, cycling was now the full extent of my daily entertainment. The scenery duly obliged. Riding from Huaco to Jáchal the following day, I took the harder option of the old road that went over a short but sharp pass crossing the La Ciénaga nature reserve. Birds sang and flitted in and out of the bushes to either side of me and once again, the views were amazing.

Stunning views crossing La Ciénaga nature reserve

Having dinner for one in Jáchal later that evening, two guys sat down at the table next to me speaking in French. From their clothes I thought they were cyclists. Patrick (from Belgium) and Johann (from France) had met a week or so earlier and had joined up to cycle a very similar route to me. I now had a slightly different plan (to bomb it down the main road to Mendoza) for the next few days, whilst they were planning to go up into the mountains again, but they did their best to convince me otherwise. Apparently the views in the mountains would be stunning. Cycling in Argentina requires some planning (food, water etc), so I said I’d check out the route later that evening, and meet them again at the shop in the main plaza at 8am to either join them or go our separate ways.

Checking out the weather forecast when I got back to may room, I saw there would be a very strong wind from the north west that should blow me down the road towards Mendoza but would be hard going if heading west into the mountains. So I decided to compromise and head down the main road the following day, but then branch off west into the mountains via a different pass straight after in the hope of meeting up with Patrick and Johann again couple of days days later.

La Zonda

The first 40km or so riding out of Jáchal was quite literally a breeze, with a tail wind blowing me along the road. Soon though, the wind got stronger, and the temperature started to rise. A local family in the know of what was to come flagged me down to top up my water and give me a huge bag of biscuits. Then it hit – what I have since learnt to be called La Zonda. La Zonda is a dry wind that occurs in the north west of Argentina at this time of year along the banks of the Andes. This day it was gusting at up to 100 km/h and also brought with it my second sand storm. As I was riding across desert there was no shelter, so I just kept going. There was hardly any traffic and with a now diagonal tail wind, I was at least able to make progress and have the sand coming from behind me rather than straight into my face.

I thought about Patrick and Johann who would be trying to ride into this head on. When I bumped into them again a few days latter, then told me the wind was so strong where they were, they’d had to lie their bikes down on the ground and use them as an anchor. A bus refused to pick them up, but thankfully eventually they managed to hail a ride to the next town in a pickup truck.

The Zonda is also a hot wind that raises the temperature within minutes – this day it rose from 20 to 37 degrees. That combined with the sand is thirsty work and I drank four times more water than usual that day.  I was grateful for the top up I’d been given earlier – without it I would have run out.

Eventually after another 20km or so, I came out of the other end of the sand storm, and stopped for the night at a small road stop restaurant where the owner told me to pitch my tent right in front of their house, under the cover of their garage to protect me from the wind. The following day I’d have a 1600m climb to do, but I bought 4ltrs of extra water to haul up the mountain with me anyway, in case of a repeat performance.

Patrick (left) and Johann (right) about to head off for the mountains, blissfully unaware of what was about to hit them!

I met this lovely Argentinian couple pictured here a few days earlier back in Villa Union. I love their home-made panniers fashioned out of large water containers. We passed on the road again during the Zonda sand storm as they were struggling with the wind and pulling off to set up camp .

Views from the top of the (very windy) pass

I saw a few plants and shrubs along the road decked out with Christmas decorations – an incongruous sight. Still baffled as to why anyone would do this!

It took 3 attempts to pitch the tent at this wild camping spot near the river after my climb, thanks to the crazy Zonda wind. The first two times the wind pulled the tent out along with the pegs. Spot the rocks I used to try and keep the tent down on the ground.

Big views of the Andes once I cleared the pass, which made the struggles of the past two days all worthwhile. The lonely planet describes the Valle de Calingasta as ‘a vast scenic smear of butter’. Riding along a part of the Andes called La Cordillera de Ansilta, I had a view of seven snow-capped majestic peaks, towering from 5130m to 5885m, to my right hand side.

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