As I rode out of the pass and river valley I shook off any remaining tension from dealing with all that Zonda wind the night before, and simply enjoyed being in this wonderful environment. The sun was shining and the wind was now a lot more manageable. I pedalled into the small town of Calingasta and sought out a cafe to grab a few empañadas for a relaxed lunch.
One brilliant initiative in Argentina is ‘internet para todos’ – or ‘internet for everyone’. In most towns and even villages, the central plaza with have free wifi service so everyone can access the internet. It’s extremely useful for travellers. The cafe was right on the plaza so having been out of signal for the past few days, I checked in and found an email waiting for me from Franck…
Franck and I first met at the Casa de Ciclista in La Paz, then had the joy of experiencing out first Zonda sand storm together just before Chilecito. I knew Franck was about to spend 6 weeks volunteering at a vineyard, but I had no idea it was directly on my route. An unexpected interaction on the road a few days earlier as I embarked up the pass should have given me a clue. A pickup pulled in just in front of me and a man jumped out to ask if I knew ‘the French cyclist’. I asked him if he meant Franck, and he said yes. I had no idea how this random passerby knew of him – even his name. He asked me where Franck was – I didn’t know for sure, but imagined that by now Franck was probably 2-3 days riding ahead. He thanked me then drove off. How on earth did this person from this chance encounter even know who Franck was??!
It turned out this was the enologist from the vineyard where Franck was heading to volunteer, with his father in the passenger seat. Franck’s email mentioned he’d arrived at the vineyard just 2 days earlier and he invited me to drop by and perhaps stay there for a night on my way past. It was only a few kilometers away and directly on my route. I couldn’t believe my luck at picking up his email just in time, and jumped at the chance.
Alta Bonanza de Los Andes
‘Alta Bonanza de Los Andes’ is a high altitude vineyard (1550m) sitting on the banks of the Rio de los Patos (Ducks’ River). It is protected by the ‘Precordillera’ to the east with peaks at over 4000m, and by the high Andes to the west (nearing 7000m). Thanks to the altitude, sun, winds and resulting lack of pesky insects, their wine is organic. They first started making their own wines in 2007 and now produce 500,000 litres of Malbec, Torrontes, Cab Sav and Syrah combined. The also grow apples, peaches, cherries, pears and quince.
The vineyard in its stunning setting, with the Andes in the background
The main house and tasting rooms
Warm hospitality from Bavi (right) who manages the estancia with his son Patricio the enologist, and Marco (left) who works there. Bavi invited me to join them for dinner and showed me round the vineyard.
Franck already hard at work tying up vines
Irrigation the old fashioned way
Bavi introduced me to ‘Arrope de uva’ – a drink / syrup made of 3 parts grape juice and 1 part sugar boiled down until it becomes viscous. It’s very rich, like a non-alcoholic caramel. A little goes a long way so it’s best sampled with bread.
That stuff is sugary!
The laboratory in the adobe shed where Patricio does his work
The wine store – the adobe structure keeps the steel tanks cool, even in the midday sun
The bottling and labelling machine
A filter to remove red pigment
An adobe house for the workers at the end of the vineyard, where I was able to stay for the night
Alcayota jam (according to google it’s known in English as ‘fig-leaf gourd’ – never heard of it myself!) – a local speciality that goes well with walnuts.
I couldn’t believe my luck at crossing paths with Franck again and being able to stay at this beautiful vineyard. It had been fascinating to visit and Bavi had made me feel extremely welcome despite my turning up pretty much un-announced.
The next day I pushed my bike up out of the vineyard (accompanied by their slightly mad dog for a good 5km) and rode the short distance to the next town of Barreal. With dirt roads lined with poplars, weeping willows and eucalyptus trees, and with views of the Andes peeking through, Barreal is truly picturesque. The back roads went past horse breeding farms and understated designer country pads – one of the first times I’ve seen evidence of significant wealth from the road.
Trees and the Andes – the view from Barreal.
The trees twinkled silver in the wind
Having not spent any money for the past four days, I treated myself to a room in this gorgeous traditional adobe B&B.
My room: house of the wise;)
The road to Uspallata
I had 115km to ride to Uspallata across the last of the Argentinian desert the next day, then 100km more to reach Mendoza itself. The weather forecast was pretty dire with very strong winds expected. There was nothing but desert, thrown bushes and a good amount of gravel road, plus hardly any road traffic in that direction, so I knew if I couldn’t make the distance in one day – quite feasible if the wind was strong – a wild camp without any shelter would be extremely unpleasant.
I toyed with the idea of hitching a lift in a pickup (as it turned out Patrick and Johann had been forced to do). After speaking to a couple of guys at a mountain bike rental shop, I convinced myself that if I left early enough before the wind really got going, I would be fine.
By the time I’d packed everything up and had breakfast, I set off at about 8am and had done nearly 70km by lunch. The wind was getting incredibly strong at the top and pushing me into the side of the gravel road as I tried to keep my steering under control, but despite the inhospitable and slightly sinister feeling of riding alone in this windswept place, my progress was good and I felt quite cheery. Further into the distance I could even occasionally catch a glimpse of Aconcagua’s peak – the highest mountain in South America.
I was able to see the positive side of things when I bumped into Rodrigo, who hadn’t been taken by surprise by the road turning to gravel. His Brazilian biker friends were all on enduro bikes and had left him behind struggling on his BMW road bike which wasn’t suited to this terrain. He was petrified he might get a punctured tyre but happy to have a bit of a natter before we each rode on.
The last 18km or so the road turned back to tarmac and riding down into Uspallata was bliss. Even more so when a couple i’d met in Barreal the day before passed by in their clapped out old Ford honking their car horn. Even better still, when I rounded a corner into the start of a small hippy-ish village just before Uspallata, they they were in front of their small house waiting for me, ready and waiting to crack open a cold bottle of beer. Result!
I checked in to a hotel in Uspallata right on the main junction. As I wheeled my bike into the swimming pool room at the back I spotted two other bikes propped up that unmistakably belonged to Patrick and Johann. I found out their room number and we arranged to meet up lataer for a slap up Argentinian parilla (they area obsessed by BBQs (asados) over here!).
Patrick and I set off to sail down the road to Mendoza the following morning whilst Johann planned to head up to the summit. A couple of hours later whilst we were taking a break Johann reappeared – the summit road was closed due to wind and snow. He’d pegged it to catch up with us but wasn’t feeling great having been forced off the road twice by overtaking lorries. I was grateful to be cycling down to Mendza with two others for company – the road was single-laned and was very busy with trade traffic between Chile and Argentina. There was a small gravel hard shoulder heading down but none heading up for most of the way in the opposite direction. I was keen to ride up to the summit on my way back, and knew that I could manage it, but decided then that the road was just too unsafe – especially with the cross winds that would be pushing me into the path of the lorries when heading back upwards.