Cafayate – Santa Maria – Hualfin – Termas de la Quebrada – Belen – Londres – San Blas de los Sauces – Chilecito – 521.1km
Ruta 40 (Route 40) is a famous route in Argentina with a mythos around it like Route 66 in the United States. They are both incredibly long highways that pass through vast landscapes of lonely deserts where you can just let it rip and ride. Che Guevera did the route when he was young when he was known as Ernesto before he got his famous “Che” nickname in Cuba. Many people, both Argentineans and foreigners alike, continue the tradition tourng this epic road that runs from the northern border all the way down to Tierra del Fuego in the southern most end along the foothills of the Andean mountaneous spine. It is popular with motorcyclists but not terribly so for cyclists, though it is one of the main ways used to get south to Patagonia. I guess flying across the desert on a road basically all to yourself is freedom for a motorbiker but for a cyclist where it is a day’s ride at least for every hour driven, the horizon to horizon desert scrubland scorched by the sun can be more a chore than liberation. However, we weren’t in a rush and really enjoyed the ride.
I can understand why this route is so popular because, even on a pedal bike, it is fantastic to ride. The scenery rolls by in endless stubbly trees covered with sharp thorns and a tall cactus pokes out here and there. The road often runs alongside mountains, which are textured blues in the distance and golden tan as you get closer. The whole landscape is laid out before you with long waves and ripples across it, like a really scratchy blanket that was casually tossed across the bed. You can see for so far and your whole day’s ride is before your eyes. Heat mirages transform the road infront of you, especially at the tops of the long rolling hills so it seems like the highway disappears into the sky though the thorny green trees and scrubs surreally still line the road. As Bryan rides to the top of the hill before me, he looks like he’s taking off, pedaling off into the air.
It is a bleak and unforgiving environment where almost all the riverbeds are bone dry and a very few are muddy trickles and the sun shines so hotly that even a cold-blooded lizard who warms itself from basking in the sun was sharing the little bit of share we found under a tree with us today. However, the landscape is actually full of life and we saw foxes, quails and guinea pigs scurrying around, rustling in the bushes. The bushes themselves are loud with the sounds of cicadas, which have the whineing sound of a wood mill crossed with a water sprinkler. Overhead, majestic white banded hawks soar and cry out back and forth to their partner. Huge black vultures spread their wings in flight and I realized how big they were in comparison with Bryan on his bike underneath.
Green parrots sqwack endlessly and flash gorgeous colours of red, yellow, blue and green when they fly. You can learn to read the landscape and tall green poplar trees signify a village and people. The little villages we passed through on this portion were all really sweet.
In our first day of riding out of Cafayate, we rode about 80km to Santa Maria. It was beautiful riding out of Cafayate with fields and fields of grapevines that faded into the desert. It is really interesting to see lush green vineyards with huge cactuses poking out of them!
It was a pretty flat ride our first day back on the road though the road became partially paved for the last 25km stretch to Santa Maria. There were bits of pavement here and there like the road used to be paved but now it is mainly gravel. Santa Maria is a very friendly little town with a fantastic municipal campground with tall leafy trees. After Santa Maria are a series of small towns leading into a long remote area of scrubland, goat herders and a vast plain framed by snowcapped mountains.
After Hualfin, there are some hotsprings in a gorgeous sandstone canyon about three wild off-roading kilometres from the highway. The canyon was beautiful with stunning red rocks in crazy shapes but also included an adventurous river crossing where the water was very fast and quite deep.
When we got to the hotsprings later, we met a lady travelling with a young girl who was there for another night because they couldn’t cross the river with their car after the rains the night before! The hotsprings were nice but what really made it was the spectacular location in the end of a gorge. The water was not super hot, which was nice because the day was quite hot. There were parrots and so many cane toads at night!
From the hotsprings, we headed to Belen about 60km away where we celebrated New Years (see write up here). The last 11km before Belen was through a really cool narrow river canyon but it was a little too hot to appreciate fully. Londres, 14km from Belen, is actually the second oldest city in Argentina and today feels very sleepy with only a couple small stores, leafy green plazas infront of churches dating back to the early 17th century and a man riding his horse through the streets surrounded by a pack a dogs from his ranch.
San Blas de Los Sauces is not an actual town but actually a series of villages that stretch out 37km long and is an oasis of tall green trees, vineyards, olive orchards and really friendly people who all seem to know each other and want to know you too. It has a real small town feel and each little village has a central plaza. It feels like how I would imagine an Argentinean version of Anne-of-Green-Gables if it had developed gently into modern day. These little towns are oasises of green surrounded by desert and across the long desert stretches, we flew over the long undulating hills.
It was not planned but we ended up doing 105km from Belen to San Blas de los Sauces one day and a whopping 125km all the way to Chilecito the next day. On both days, we were carrying water and prepared to wild camp but the riding was great and then next town would be reasonably close. Both of the places also had ice cream shops, which was an influencing factor! We have done 230km in two days, which is a lot for us, and crossed over 14,000km ridden from home dropping into the desert after Londres.