Chilecito – Vichigasta – Patquia – Chamical – Chanar – Villa de Soto – Cruz del Eje — 399.4km
In Chilecito, we had a choice between continuing to head south to Mendoza or heading southeastward to Cordoba. For the time we had left in our trip, it was one or the other if we wanted to actually enjoy and explore the area. We chose Cordoba and decided to save Mendoza for a future day and headed out of Chilecito first on the RN 40 but soon shifted to RN 76. We stopped at Bodega La Puerta just outside Vichigasta which was a winery but also did olives and olive oil. We sampled some olive oil made at the farm and bought a half litre of the amazing stuff. There were olive trees just outside the office/sales/sampling room and a big bucket of them inside. Unfortunately, they didn’t sell in small portions but she gave us a bowl of them to sample and then filled up an old jam jar of them to give to us.
In Vichigasta, a small village with an old church but not too much else going on, we had a bit of an adventure. There was no campground or hotel. We asked the hospital for suggestions and they pointed us to the police station next door. The police werent there at the time so we waited in the cool air conditoned waiting room in the hospital while they were closed for siesta. The police truck pulled up and we talked to a very nice police man named Daniel who readily agreed. He moved the truck so we could camp in the prime location behind the station under the willow trees and grape vines. After setting up, we walked over to the main plaza where we checked out the old church, apparently the oldest in the area dating back to 1600 AD, with an old statue of San Buenavista originally from Peru. We walked back to the police station, relaxed for a bit and then Daniel’s boss came up to us and told us that it was private property and we had to leave. He was just not interested in talking to us and kept just saying that we couldn’t stay here. We walked over to the hospital hoping that we could just shift our already set up tent over to behind the hosptial. The nurse we talked to said that it sounded alright but just had to ask her boss. She walked us over to an older gentleman who listened to our story and said yes, of course! We got excited and then he said…but let’s ask the director. He was actually just the pharmist. He flagged down another nurse who went through a closed door to talk to the director. The director said no. This launched into a committee meeting as to where we could stay. The ambulance driver said we could stay at some property of his but it had no electricity or water. Then, a young man came up to us and said that we could stay at his family’s place. His name was Christian and we had unwittingly barged into his consultation. We first thought that we worked there but he was actually a client with the pharmacist at the time when the nurse first brought us in to see him.
Christian lives with his aunt and uncle and their two kids and brought us home to his welcoming family. We sat around for the rest of the evening drinking mate with them, his other aunt who was visiting from Catamarca, their many dogs and children and even a baby pet parrot. We spoke our broken Spanish all night and they were very curious about our trip and Canada.
It was a really good time and I felt really connected to this place – we had visited an olive and wine farm today and here we are staying with a family who works on an olive farm. They are originally from Catamarca but moved here because there is more work here. During the harvest time in February, 2000 workers (for one farm only I think) are hired to pick all the olives by hand. From a small tree, there are enough olives to fill 5 crates and from a large tree, 22 crates!
As we were riding out of Vichigasta the next day, my mind boggled to think of how many crates of olives there would be as we rode though over 20km olive groves. We had olive trees on one side and grape vines on the other, all bathed in the soft glow of the morning light filtered by clouds in the sky and clinging to the nearby mountains. As Bryan said, we are in the land of the gods. The olive groves faded to desert brush but after the Los Colorados park, there are some really interesting red rocks. What makes these rock formations really unique is that they look like red icebergs melting in a sea of green and the contrast between the bright red rock and the green desert bush all around and the blue-green mountains in the background is really stunning.
However, for the most part, this section featured uneventful riding. In other words, it was pretty boring. For example, in the over 40km ride from Chamical to Chanar, the ride was completely straight except one turn in the road a few kilometres before Chanar and that was it. There was a very gradual hill here and there placed a bump on the road infront of us, blocking our view for seeing our whole day’s ride in one stretch. My excitement for the flat desert landscape that I used to have when we first entered the pampas has faded. Yes, we seem to be able to do big days but it’s really hot, there’s always a headwind and it’s boring. Basically, the road is a thin ribbon of black parting through a sea of green thorny brush, short trees and a couple cactuses here and there.
As the same landscape rolls by kilometer after kilometer, I get pretty sleepy. I start to close one eye and alternate with closing the other eye and then both eyes shut for a moment. A warm breeze blows against my face and my legs keep pedaling mechanically. Then, I quickly open them realizing both how dangerous it is and how easily I could actually fall asleep! There are many shrines to Difunta Correa on the road, an Argentinean saint who died of thirst wandering in the desert looking for her conscripted husband. She died but miracurously, her baby survived suckling at her breast. Her shrines are filled with old pop bottles filled with water and really speaks to the harsh, dry and hot environment we rode through. In the final stretch to Cruz del Eje, starting a long gradual climb into the Sierras de Cordoba, the landscape started to change and it became more green and lived in. Cruz del Eje is an olive oasis with lots of little roadside stands selling some of the biggest olives I have ever seen!