La Quiaca – Abra Pampa – Humahuaca – Tilcara – Purmamarca – San Salvador de Jujuy – La Caldera – Salta — 412.4km
It has been almost two months and four countries, Peru, Bolivia, Chile and Argentina, making it four out of the six countries we visit on our tour transversing the South American continent. We have been cycling on the Altiplano, a huge plateau in the heights of the Andes mountains range around 3800m elevation….at its low points. We say good bye to the stark, barren beauty soon after we cross into Northern Argentina and find joy in all the green. We ooo-ed and awe-ed over every green cactus or prickly acacia thorn bush after our ride in the heights of the Altiplano where in vast fields of yellow or gray pokey pompom grass, the only greenery was coca leaf that people chew for altitude sickness relief (as well as a mild stimulant…).
Eventhough its still a dry desert for most of this ride, we feel like we have entered a lush paradise of trees, well stocked grocery stores even in the little towns and cold drinks that are actually refridgerated. Coming from Bolivia, the grass IS greener on the otherside….there’s actually green grass again. There is more life here including ants, dogs….as we stopped to adjust something on Bryan’s bike for five minutes, we found a black widow spider the size of a Canadian nickle spinning a web already on my bike!
We crossed into Northern Argentina at La Quiaca where a sign said 5121km to Ushuaia. It was kind of exciting to actually see a kilometre count to our final destination! We also had a lot of time staring at that sign as the line moved at a crawl in the hot sun and as we finally reached the window for Argentinean immigration and almost over the finish line, we were turned back for the first time ever from a border. Apparently, we needed to pay a “reciprocity fee” (not a visa since Canadians can visit Argentina visa free….but just pay the fee for it… which is what Canada charges Argentineans to visit) online before so we headed back into Bolivia to find an internet cafe. We had planned on riding a bit after the border but was exhausted after crossing and found a hotel for the night. The next day, we rode to Abra Pampas where we spent our last night on the Altiplano. We encountered rain for the first time in awhile and riding through thunderclouds on the Altiplano is awe-inspiring experience. Dust devils spun in the distance where the wind picked up the dry earth while lightning would strike right ahead of us. Thunder would boom all around us as we rode and I could hear its roar move from my left ear to my right. Hail and slushy snow pelted us as we tried to outrace the dark stormy clouds. It was a bit cold and wet but I was really enjoying the plus 30 km/hr the tailwind was blowing us along on the flat, paved road – a distinct change from our slow off-road riding. However, the same tailwind was also blowing the storm clouds so we had to keep up the pace to stay ahead of the edge of it. We found an old abandoned college to camp in for the night and woke up to clear skies the next day.
At the small town of Tres Cruces with some amazing colourful rocks that look like they have been kneaded like a baker in the process of making pastry dough, we descended out of the Altiplano in the gorgeous Quebrada de Humahuaca and spent our first night in the town the gorge is named after – Humahuaca.
The Quebrada de Humahuaca is a long gorge that is also a UNESCO world heritage site for its history and amazing geological features. It is an 155km long slash in the landscape between the edge of the Puna, Argentinean Altiplano, and the jungles at the southern end of the Amazon and has been inhabited for at least 10,000 years including a caravan road for the Incan Emprie in the 15th century then continuing as an important route between the colonial governments in Peru and Argentina, Bolivia, Paraguay and Uruguay and subsequently for transferring troops and arms in the fight for Independence from Spain. It looks like we are riding through a painting ..or well coasting down its gentle downward slope as the gorge drops from 3780m just before Tres Cruces at the northern end to Purmamarca at 2324m and then finally down to 1259m at the city of San Salvador de Jujuy. The mountains around us are layered with different colours and canyons dip down in time.
By the town of Tilcara, we went on a 10km hike to Garganta del Diablo (an exciting name – Spanish for “Devil’s throat”), a narrow canyon that was formed by a shift in the tectonic plates to fossilized trilobites at the bottom. The canyon was exciting but what was really awesome was the hike through desert gorges with tall cactus to a waterfall that we jumped into for a refreshing dip. Amazing!
The long descending gorge does become a wind funnel though it usually only starts in the afternoon. On our ride out of Tilcara, it started early and we decided a struggle downhill wasn’t worth it and stopped early at the touristy town of Purmamarca. It is an expensive little town catering mainly to Argentinean tourists but it is clear why people flock here. The landscape is stunning with the town built beside a mountain called the Mountain of Seven Colours. There is a short hike, Paseo de los Colorados that is absolutely amazing as visitors walk through some crazy landscapes where rocks seem to melt, hundreds of faces can be seen in the mountainside and mountains dramatically change from bright oranges, purples and reds to greens, blues and greys.
Leaving Purmamarca was a beautiful, gently sloping descent though a narrow river valley with tall mountains on either side. As we were approaching Volcan, about 20km from the junction to Purmamarca, the headwind started again almost at the exact time as the day before. However, we soon realized why it’s so windy here. We climbed a bit after Volcan and then it was a long set of descending lazy switchbacks down through the clouds. It is a narrow valley that drops probably at least 1000m from a hot and humid, lush green river valley at the bottom to a dry desert climate at the top. The desert heats up and wind rushes in as the heat rises. We crossed over the Tropic of Capricorn in the Quebrada de Humahuaca just before Tilcara but the hot, lush, humid valleys felt more tropical than anything we have experienced in many months. Humidity is a new experience and one that my chapped lips loved. There are so many birds chirping away in the green leaves all around us. It was a busy ride for the last little part into Jujuy where we met up with Gary, the English cyclist that we hung out with in Quito. We spent a couple nights in Jujuy hanging out with Gary and doing a couple errands – namely getting a new air mattress and finally finding a new back rack for Bryan that has been broken since the crappy roads in Juliaca in Peru!! Money is a little wierd here in Argentina. If you have any other currency, then you can get rates better than what the banks will give you. If you need money from the ATM, it seems that banks are reluctant to give you any. Even with international banks that we have gotten money from before, such as BBVA and HSBC, their ATMs did not work with our cards. So, groceries are cheap but anything imported is at least double their price back home.
Riding on RN 9 from Jujuy to Salta is a quieter route than the freeway in the flat, hot lowlands (RN 66). On our route, the road narrows to the width of a single lane, though it is still marked as two narrow little lanes that a car could not actually hope to fit in with a dotted line in the middle. It winds up and over lush forest hills around little lakes. The whole area seems like a tropical jungle with the air thick with humidity and tall green trees arching over the road.
We met up with four other cyclists from the US – Scott and Sarah, a couple from Texas, James from Minnasota and Matt from Lousiana. We rode the rest of the way to La Caldera together and camped out on a run down community wooden stage. Unfortunately, the caretaker did not want to let us stay there as he had bad experiences with someone before. They had gotten robbed and no amount of convincing could sway him that us cyclists will not steal their rebar and long planks of wood. However, we did find a loophole. He said that when the rain stopped, we had to leave. I looked at the dark clouds in the sky and said ok. The rain never stopped for the night and we never got bothered to leave. The rain flooded the ground all around us leaving us our little wooden island of dry and good times.
The next day was a bit of a lazy morning in the drizzly rain as we didn’t really want to go out into the wet and we all knew we had a pretty short ride today. The ride was amazing, however, and the misty rain kept things nice and cool on our gently downhill ride into Salta. Rio Caldera, which was a small trickly as we passed over yesterday entering the town, was now a raging muddy brown river. We walked around drizzly downtown Salta in the afternoon getting ice cream, getting ripped off at an ATM and checking out the really awesome colonial architecture in this town. The cathedrals have magnificent sky blue mosiac domes and colourful baroque facades with embellishments and corinthian columns. When we were entering Salta, it really reminded Bryan and I of riding in old residential neighbourhoods of Vancouver with tall green tree lined streets, slightly cracked pavement worn with use, coffeeshops on every corner and all in a kinda wet drizzly day. We had a wonderful bbq, grilling thick steaks in the Argentinean spirit and drinking lots of good, cheap wine.
Our first impressions of Argentina in this northern 400km ride has been wonderful. People are mostly very friendly, food is plentiful and the scenery has been gorgeous making it a little slice of cyclist paradise so far. Coming from the remote high, dry and cold Altiplano, it is amazing to be able to bathe in waterfalls again, see fruits and vegetables in the little stores in small towns (only cookies and pop in most stores in rural Bolivia) and greenery in the landscape again. There are trees! With green leaves! In campgrounds that many towns seem to have! A commercial campground in towns is a luxury because they have hot showers, plentiful water in general and located conveniently in towns that we can explore and get groceries from. Every little store seems to have cold drinks and is a mini deli slicing off remarkably affordable cheese and salami…and cheap boxes of wine! Last night, while drinking some cheap but good boxed wine, eating some delicious steaks we bought from the supermarket and barbequed at our hostel’s grill (all hostels, campgrounds and even road side picnic areas seem to have them!) and enjoying the company of our new cyclist friends, I thought to myself, I love Argentina!