0072: Into Las Pampas - Argentina Part 2
This already feels like a completely different journey.
The Road South
A sad and tearful departure from Cordoba was masked my the torrential rainstorm I had to ride in.
I was sad to leave my friend as I know she is struggling to adapt to life in Argentina. While she has the advantage of the same language, the systems and culture here are different and having to adapt to a new way of living is a challenge in its self. It isn’t helped much by her partner being a little selfish and seemingly unwilling to help her integrate.
Their relationship has hit a rocky patch.
Still I was glad to be back on the road. Despite the heavy rains.
My departure was made more dramatic by both the crazy drivers and my front tyre exploding, quite literally, in the middle of busy traffic.
A very pale faced young couple managed to jump on the brakes behind me and pulled up alongside to offer assistance.
It could have been very serious, but fortunately was not.
I think they were more shocked than I was.
The road south was just that.
Barely a deviation as I pedalled on through intermittent heavy rains.
Flat agricultural land with few trees, bushes and plants bigger than the fields of half grown sunflowers.
I had expected to see more animals.
Argentina famous for its beef, but herds of cows seem to number in the tens and twenties rather than the vast herds I had expected to see. But this is a huge vast country and the wide, open skies and land unhindered by trees, walls and big buildings magnify that effect.
I had a contact in Rio Tercero, my first destination. A friend of a friend of a friend of someone who had invited me to a Parrilla barbeque over the Christmas period.
I sent a message ahead.
"Ah, yes no problem. I can host you, When are you arriving? " I had already sent and received confirmation a couple of days ago.
" I will be arriving in a couple of hours" "Ah" came the reply" I'm not at home, I am in Buenos Aires!" (Well I wish you had told me that a few days ago when I gave you the information and you confirmed! ) "I'll see if anyone is at home, to help you. "Don't bother" I replied. "I have a second option". I didn't actually have a second option , so stopped ahead in Almafuerte instead. A small slightly touristy town on the edge of a reservoir popular with water sports enthusiasts.
I asked at the Bomberos, automatically.
They invited me in, as one officer went to check with his boss.
The reply came back as a “No, sorry” but they said "Don't give up yet. We'll find you somewhere to stay." He jumped on the phone again to the tourist office.
In the mean time the volunteer officers invited me for tea, biscuits and cake.
I'm guessing they didn't have many callouts as they were all a bit chubby! But extremely friendly.
They explained that the chief no longer allowed travellers hospitality as someone in the past had been caught damaging property and smoking marijuana on the premises.
How stupid could you be?
After a long chat with the guys and girls, the tourist office responded with a slot in the campsite a few kilometres along the road.
I was happy to ride, but one of the officers loaded my bike into the back and made sure I was fully settled at the site before heading off.
"The site is free, but you have to pay for food". I thanked the officer and shook his hand.
He grabbed it firmly, “ Don't let them charge you for the site!” he said with a stern look on his face.
I half expected to be pounced upon by ticket collectors as soon as he left, but the old man managing the site came over for a chat and asked the usual questions. “ “Oh we don't get many Ghanaians visiting here!”
I had explained that while I was born in Ghana, I identify more with the English as I have spent the majority of my life living there.
But this chap seemed content to call me Ghanaian, which is perfectly fine with me.
Many people ask me in Spanish “¿De donde vienes?” Which means “Where are you from?”
But like many phrases in the Spanish language, it can have multiple meanings.
They could be asking,
Where have I come from - today?
Where have I come from - on my journey?
Where do I come from - my home?
Where are my origins – place of birth?
It’s very confusing and depending on the conversation and the person will determine the correct answer to the question.
More often than not, I give not the wrong answer but one out of context, leading to confused looks on their faces.
The road continued to Rio Cuarto. The weather cleared and became hot in the afternoon as I was met by Ignacio who was another friend of a friend of a ……you get the idea.
I only stayed one night with him and his daughter Clara made me very welcome by acting as a shy guide to the town as well as pulling all the books and toys off the shelves in the bedroom I was spending the night in!
Ignacio was an architect and working on several projects in Rio Cuarto. It would have been interesting to spend more time in the town to explore and learn a little more about this more rural part of Argentina.
But time would not permit it this journey.
At Vicuña Mackenna another overnight stop with Leoncio. A couchsurfer with an interesting history.
His English was not great but he spoke fluent French having worked in several high class Swiss and French hotels. Both as concierge and later in the IT departments.
He started telling me tales of how to rob these hotels, and get away with it!
Explaining that in many of the bigger, older hotels, the service corridors are now used to route the cables for internet, phone and satellite TV are also still back doors into many of the rooms. As in the old days the waiters and service staff would discreetly enter and exit through disguised panels in the walls or hidden in wardrobes so as not to disturb the wealthy guests.
“Yes, if you go to ‘X’ hotel, the front room doors are locked but you can still get in the back. I have walked in to check a TV or connect a computer and seen clients leaving money, jewels and valuables on the bed without realising they could be robbed at any second” It sounded a bit James Bond to me! He told me of an old hotel in Paris which has many prints of famous paintings on the walls but in fact they are originals. Many famous artists passed through over the years and could not afford the rooms so left a painting. These are now priceless and the total value of the painting probably total more than the overall wealth of the hotel itself. But the paintings still hang on full view with no security.
He also told me of the indecent exploits of some famous American athlete I had never heard of and another story of an Arab Sheik who rented a whole floor in a Swiss hotel, for several months and wanted it ‘simple’
This meant literally stripping everything back to the bare walls. Decorations were all painted white, carpets removed and even light fittings, plug sockets and switches disconnected or concealed.
But he insisted that a chair be placed at the end of every corridor to make it ‘comfortable.’
Money buys whatever you want….
Sore legs and Angry Bees!
After another night in a forgettable hotel, and a scruffy campsite the next night, I arrived at my first rest stop in Santa Rosa.
Romina was my host here for 3 nights and I definitely needed a rest after not having ridden for 3 weeks in Cordoba.
My legs were very sore.
The rains of Cordoba long behind me, and now I was getting sunburn. Mid day temperatures were easily above 30C and were it not for the wind, possibly higher.
I slept a lot and began to understand the need for a siesta. Despite its inconvenience shutting all the shops I needed to visit and chores I needed to complete.
Romina worked in a bank and we spent a lot of time chatting. Another future traveller and a new couchsurf host she had ambitions to see more of the world after her divorce from a man who became more and more obsessed with religion after they were married to the point where their relationship collapsed.
Her family invited me to share a meal.
Her family invited me to share a meal.
A parilla of course, but a refreshing change to have Lamb instead of Beef.
I had been told that Lamb was more popular in the south of Argentina, so I guess this first meal marks the border between north and south?
Into the Deserted
My southern route was now interrupted by a turn west and I spent the next few days travelling though some very isolated territory as I headed west to reach the famous Ruta 40. The main road that runs north south along the Andes west of Argentina.
“Why are you going this way?” asked a man in a roadside restaurant. I was eating another dry Milanesa sandwich and trying to gather information of my road ahead. He told me I should turn back and follow the east coast road.
“Its windy, but much prettier” he said. Still confused about my route. I had been told the opposite and was considering riding the Carratera Austral route in Chile. Or at least part of it.
I arrived in General Acha dehydrated and sun burned and opted for an additional rest day.
“Do you accept credit cards" I asked in the hotel having seen the Mastercard and Visa logos in the window.
“No sorry, that is from the former owners. We only accept cash now. Everyone asks, I guess we should take them down?…” replied the lady at reception.
I’m glad I don’t know any Spanish swear words as judging by the condition of the decals and the hotel, the ownership changed hands quite a long time ago.
I did have cash, but not enough and though conveniently there was a bank next door, it was attached to a network that does not accept my card.
I explained to the lady and she allowed me to pay half today and the second half in the morning. She also gave me back some cash to buy a meal. She told me of a second bank a few blocks away and I walked through uncomfortably hot streets to withdraw some cash. No luck, even though it was a bank I had used before.
I sent a message to Romina in Santa Rosa. Working in a bank she replied with some good advice and I managed to get the machine to work.
I paid for the hotel, a mediocre meal and bought some additional drinks for the trip into the desert ahead.
I had visions again of sand dunes, Cactus and the sun bleached skeletons of other cyclists who had failed in their attempts before me.
The “desert” as it was called by the locals could more accurately be described as the “deserted”
A huge unpopulated region with occasional small and remote farmsteads set well back off the roads along the base of the low hills. Travelling west, I faced hot winds for the first time. I saw a weather forecast on the TV in a bar and they were predicting a heat wave.
35c to 40C temperatures were predicted and I was feeling it already.
Even though I was carrying extra water, I was reluctant to drink it, wondering where the next refill would be.
There are no towns, no gas stations, no rivers, and not even a crazy Argentine driver to flag down and ask for water.
This is clearly not a popular route with a car passing every hour or so.
After a hot, tough day I arrived in Puelches, into a gas station and stuck my head in the fridge till the owner asked me to choose my drink then close the door.
I sat in the shade and drank my sugar free fruit flavour pinkish orange drink.
Full of chemicals but at least the water will hydrate me.
I sat and looked around at this one street town.
About 10 houses set well back on each side of the main road and many were offering hospitality.
A small police station was located next to the bar. Not far to go if you go a little crazy on the bottle.
A small farmacia and bakery combined. A butchers and oddly a large shop selling childrens toys.
I asked the gas station owner about the big sign offering Cabañans, Cabins behind the property.
She called a second woman who looked at my dirty dusty clothes, bike and dishevelled appearance and suddenly there were no rooms available.
No problem, it seems there were plenty of other options available.
I walked across the street to an old guy watering his plants. In the yard of a small hotel
A dusty touring motorbike with a Swiss number plate parked outside was a positive sign.
And sure enough, in amongst the old man’s very thick accent, lack of front teeth and me distracting him from watering and accidentally spraying the now annoyed chickens rather than the plants we managed to establish there was a room available and that I did not want to share with the motorcyclist.
“ So, how much is it? “ I asked. “I have no idea, my wife deals with all that….” A pause…….
“Can I speak with your wife please?” “She is over there” pointing to a group of three ladies sat under a porch of another hotel on the opposite side of the road. I started to walk over and one lady also got up and began crossing the road.
So I waited…. And waited….as the little old lady took her slow steady time crossing the road.
She eventually arrived and was clearly not in the mood for the long walk in the hot sun to give a filthy biker a room.
Barely a word was spoken as she gestured and scowled her way through the registration process.
Taking my money and grunting to the second room on the left.
“Put your bike in the room, but you have to be OUT BY 12 NOON!!” she ended by shouting at me” Slightly shocked, “I’ll be leaving at about 0730 tomorrow” I calmly replied.
She now gave me a suspicious look, grunted again and walked back into the shade with her friends after admonishing her husband for wetting the chickens again!
He shouted at her in his thick toothless accent, and then turned his back and continued watering muttering to himself and shaking his head.
I showered, drank a lot, ate salty snacks, drank more had an evening meal at the shade hotel restaurant across the road then slept early.
I left promptly the next morning. I even made the bed!
I didn't want a crazy old woman chasing me down the road for some minor misdemeanour.
The heat was intense and the wind died a little as the day seemed to drag.
The End of the Road?
I stopped in a bus shelter for a drinks and a snack. It was a great place to shelter from the heat and my mind began to wander. But I had to keep moving as the sun was getting hotter.
I packed up and moved on. The narrow road and busy traffic kept forcing me onto the dirt shoulder and I stopped for a moment.
Frustrated by inconsiderate drivers.
One car beeped his horn as he passed and then did a U-turn in the road stopped and gave me a bottle of water.
It lifted my mood a little and I tucked under the bungee cords of my bags.
Then a horrid feeling as I saw my bag was missing.
THE most important bag I have as it contains ALL my valuables.
PASSPORT, CAMERA, CREDIT CARD, MONEY….. EVERYTHING!
I didn't hear anything fall off the bike.
Looked back up the road and could not see anything.
I turned the bike round and sprinted back the 7 or so kilometres I had ridden since leaving the bus shelter.
Please still be there I kept repeating to myself.
The distance seemed greater when I was panicking. If it has gone I am totally lost. The road would stop here
No money, no passport, not even my phone to call for assistance. Not that I had anyone who could help me!
But eventually the shelter appeared on the horizon. I didn't recall any buses passing so was hopeful no one had touched it.
Lucky for me it was still there!
On the seat of the shelter, where I had left it.
What a relief, but draining as the sprint and the heat made me dizzy and so I sat again drinking the water the driver gave me. Feeling like an idiot and thinking of riding that road all over again.
That evening, tired, stressed and dehydrated, I arrived in Casa de Piedras
Another brief stopover in General Roca and a whirlwind tour by my super enthusiastic host Guillermo and his friend Mario.
A few days later in Neuquen, I found out that Puelches is the geographical Centre of Argentina.
My host Camilo and I were chatting about it over one of the interestingly flavoured fruit and vegetable smoothies he had made.
But no mention of this was made in the town itself. You would expect something like that to be advertised and the town to be a little more prosperous as a result.
But apart from wet chickens, a toy store and the angry elderly, there was little to indicate it’s significance in the country. Perhaps people here don't care about such things?
Camilo had travelled by bike through Uruguay and Brazil and was repaying the hospitality he had received during his travels.
His parents owned a modern health food store around the corner and he lived in a second house build on the property of his grandmother.
The yard was a quiet haven off the main street and shade was provided in part by grape vines trained on a pergola. Small, under ripe and acidic grapes made the mouth water in and the humidity rose as his grandmother proudly watered the plants in her walled garden.
“It’s going to rain” she kept repeating, so on my little walks in to the town I took my jacket, but it never did rain.
Camilo and his family were vegetarians and while I personally have no problem with this, my stomach does.
I stayed at his home for several nights, spent a day on the river banks, got stung by another bee and he served some excellent home prepared food in the evenings.
But after many years of experimenting with different foods I know I need more variety and too many raw vegetables, seeds, high fibre and other normally delicious and healthy ingredients sent my system into chaos. I left with mild stomach pains and rode out of the town feeling very uncomfortable.
In Cutral Có that evening, I found a small restaurant, and though I ordered a nice meal, I had no appetite when it arrived. And picked at the food. Barely eating half.
Then regretted it the following morning as my appetite had returned and the hotel breakfast of dry toasted bread , butter and a small tea was not enough.
I cycled into the centre looking for a second breakfast and had same issues with the cash machines again. A second attempt though and I managed to get money this time.
Around the corner I found a kiosk selling a prepacked Milanesa sandwich and the shop owner delayed me longer than I wanted as he didn't have change and wanted to talk about my bike.
And another hot and windy day dodging potholes on the bad roads as I arrived into Zapala. The Ruta 40 junction town.
I somehow expected this town on a famous road to be a little more prosperous.
But apart from a few businesses offering tours into the mountains this was actually a Ski resort town and I had arrived mid summer.
It was quiet and lonely. And had that grey concrete dustiness that ski towns in summer seem to have.
My escape the next morning was just that.
As I exited the hotel, a piece of gravel slipped from under my tyre as often happens.
Except this one had the perfect trajectory and velocity to hit a car window on the opposite side of the street, crack the window and set off the cars alarm!
I heard breaking glass and accelerated the last 20 metres to the street corner and turned before anyone could see or catch up with me.
No one did….yet.
At the edge of the town, my sins were rewarded with a cycle lane.
15 kilometres of perfect tarmac just for bicycles and headed in the right direction.
As the idiot drivers sped past on the parallel road, I wondered why there were not more routes like this throughout the country. Its not like they are short of space.
I later found out that many of the resources for road infrastructure and many other countrywide improvements were ‘stolen’ by the previous Government and the new recently elected government is still sorting through the mess.
There are many issues in Argentina that have surprised me.
It is known historically as the “Europe” of South America. After the successes of European immigrants from Italy, and Spain in the early part of the last century. And while it is clear there is a strong European influence in many aspects of life, the heydays of the country are well in its past due to neglect and economic decline.
A country almost 100 years out of date.
Chile, on the other hand has made massive advances over recent decades and you get the feeling comparing the two countries that Argentina, was and could be again and huge and influential power in South America.
It just needs to do some internal spring cleaning first.
Typically the history is that of many of the other south American countries I have visited.
Spanish conquistadores arrive and take over. Assimilating or annihilating any local indigenous populations then proceed to build on the land they ‘claimed’
Into the mountains and permission to camp on a farm owned by a Mapuche farmer.
The Mapuche are the indigenous peoples that have lives in this region of the continent for tens of thousands of years.
They are genetically distinct from other populations in south America and while many northern peoples have a connection though the Incas in Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia, the Mapuche remained more or less isolated until the Spanish arrived intent on pushing their territories south from Peru.
The Mapuche is the collective name for a large group of indigenous peoples that still populate this part of the world
The majority of the peoples live on the Chile side of the Andes, but large communities still live and farm successfully on the pampas of Patagonia and foothills of the Andes.
While still a very independent group, many modern Argentines and Chileños have Mapuche DNA. Just as many North Americans and Canadians have first nation DNA
The Mapuches genetic marker though is distinct enough though that scientists believe that the peoples may have been part of a separate migration or migrations than the people who inhabit Northern south America or the North American continent.
But no one is sure yet, where they came from?!
It has been shown that some populations share DNA ancestry with another genetic group.
A group of humans that migrated out of Africa some 50,000 years ago and evidence has shown a genetic link with the peoples of North east Africa, the Andaman islanders in the Indian Ocean, Melanesian islanders. The Australian and Papua new Guineas Aboriginal people and some Mapuche groups in the south of Chile and Tierra del Fuego. Specifically, the southernmost Yanghan people of Tierra del Fuego.
The art and culture of some groups is so distinct that hand paintings and animal drawings that look much like those of Aboriginal Australians are found in South America too, and carbon date to a similar age. Whether they arrived over land from the Bearing straits or by boat across the Pacific is still being hotly debated.
In Junin de los Andes I ran out of money again. I could not even pay for the camp site. And a panicked plea on the Couchsurfing forum was answered by Flor and Nahue who offered me a bed for the night.
Flor, a Physiotherapist working with the elderly and her boyfriend Nahue was a forester. Working in the many timber forests that now crawl up the mountainside.
In a former life I was also to follow a similar career path but illness blocked that direction in life.
San Martin de los Andes was a stunningly pretty and stunningly expensive tourist town where I camped in the campground at the north of the city.
Here I met two ‘proper’ cycle tourists. While I have met many Argentine and Chilean cyclists on holiday for a week or two, Geric and Virginia from France and Spain respectively were travelling south from Lima.
It reminded me of Eliot’s family starting also in Lima and I wondered where they were.
“ Ah we met them a few days ago!” We started chatting and I established they were three days to a week ahead of me. I know they travel at a slower pace, so I had hopes I would meet them again.
In Villa La Angostura, I stayed with another Cordoba invitee. Ricardo ‘Chori’ and his daughter were on vacation in their little summer cabin. On the edge of the village.
The directions I was given were made more confusing by the fact there are two streets with the same name in the town but several kilometres apart. The only difference being one has a Ski centre at the end.
Confusion over, I rested in their little wooden home for a couple of nights and enjoyed the tourist town.
Bariloche is the main hub of the region. It has a very Austrian German feel in both its natural surroundings and its architecture.
I was fortunate that I had a host. Esteban and several of his friends hosted me for 2 nights.
I also heard that Eliot had visited just two nights before so I was catching up with them.
Esteban spoke excellent English having being educated in an international school and was a keen carpenter.
He was in the process of making a house in the form of a Geodesic dome on his land and as a keen host was considering making it available for travellers in the future.
It would be a very interesting place to see built as well as sleep under the huge self supporting dome.
The Hills are Alive
I considered making the next stage a two day event.
The scenery I was passing through was stunning.
Deep blue lakes. High craggy mountains. Wide valleys. Still, clear mountain air and a fresh blue sky made me want to camp around every new corner. But a favourable wind in the afternoon sped me to just beyond El Bolson and another invitation from the Daniluk brothers back in Cordoba.
They were the bosses of Milagros and had arranged for me to stay on the property of their cousin who had a quiet little half finished cabin attached to a wood yard just outside El Hoyo.
It was a comfortable night, but being a little cut off and isolated there meant I was not able to enjoy the town famous in this region for its international and cosmopolitan lifestyle.
Leaving El Bolson, the landscape changed dramatically and very quickly from the Alpine heights and green of the past week or so, to the dry desert I had experienced before that. Though much cooler now as I had made more of an impression on the country than I had imagined.
My map is running out of land rapidly. And feelings of finality grow stronger.
Argentine roads don't have a good shoulder. It is often a gravel or sand strip difficult to ride on or simply overgrown with plants and weeds.
As the Argentines will regularly force cyclists off the road, its not uncommon to see bike tracks carved into the dirt.
And being a bit of a bike geek, I could identify both the type of wheels, the direction and from the angle, how quickly the cyclist was forced off the road.
However the track I kept spotting looked different and initially I could not work out why?
Later on, I spotted it was not one bike but a bike pulling a trailer.
The tracks were not fresh. So I estimated I was a day or two behind Elliot, John and Beatrice.
But a nice surprise late in the afternoon. Clearly fresh tracks and about an hour later while looking for a camp spot myself, I saw the family ahead of me!
They were also looking for a place to camp and together we found a good spot under a bridge with a cool brisk stream flowing past for water.
Elliot looked a good deal bigger and after a few puzzled minutes, seemed to remember who I was.
And once he did, he was presenting me with stones, sticks and his favourite toys and getting upset when I put everything in the wrong order! He was a tired little man.
Sadly, my French had not progressed since we last met in Bolivia and though we struggled with our respective languages we managed to have a good conversation about our adventures over the past couple of months.
Specifically the car accident involving Elliots trailer.
Sticks and Stones
I crossed the Salar de Uyuni and entered Chile through the Atacama Desert and the family travelled directly south into Argentina.
They were about 40 kilometres north of Mendoza when a vehicle clipped the trailers left wheel and flipped it off the road.
Of course the driver was going too fast, but did stop on this occasion. And was distraught at what happened.
The photos Beatrice showed me were distressing and Elliot is a very lucky little man.
He naturally rests with his head on the left side as well and the car missed him by centimetres! It could have been a lot worse.
The family naturally panicked and phoned the French consulate in Buenos Aires for help and advice. Hoping to get a translator and assistance in dealing with the local police.
They were shrugged off by the French and had to struggle through alone.
Now uncertain of the rest of the journey, they travelled to Santiago in Chile to check out options for repair or replacement of the trailer or stopping the journey completely.
As they got off the bus and wandered the streets of Santiago, a lady asked about the damaged trailer and they were told the story.
In a few moments the stranger invited other strangers into her home and Eliots family spent Christmas and New Year with this lady and her family.
In the mean time, they checked with bikeshops about replacement trailers but all said it would not be possible to repair.
So they sent an email to the manufacturer and received a French language response from the Americas distributor in Quebec, Canada.
After relaying their story via several further emails, Thule the manufacturer sent them a completely brand new trailer and accessories free of charge and post paid from Canada to Santiago Chile!
The family were stunned to say the least. What a Christmas present!
So their journey continued form Santiago and back into Argentina, with a bigger safety flag and a reflective yellow vest hanging from the rear.
We camped for just a night and they set off before sun up to beat the heat and the traffic. Not that there was much on this quiet road.
I set off an hour later and expected to meet them again in Esquel, just down the road.
I sent a message but did not receive a reply. A week or so later I found out they had hitched a ride to the east coast and would continue to Ushuaia on the coast rather than the mountains.
A Bit of a Tiff
Esquel was home for 2 nights and I found a hostel in the Centre.
After my usual chores and several large meals I relaxed in the hostel and tried to plan the route ahead.
Two English girls were having a very polite argument with each other.
It seems they were sick of each others company on their travels.
And the way they were talking was almost comical but sad at the same time.
But VERY VERY English.
“Oh, you are a horrid person!”
“Oh you are horrid too!”
“ I can’t believe you think that”
“ I can’t believe you think it either!”
“Well maybe it’s best that we do split up?”
“Well maybe if you think that’s a good idea?”
“Well I do!”
“Well maybe you better just go then?! “
“Well maybe I will”
“OK Well then, in that case....!”
With polite finality, one girl picked up her bag and stormed off.
“See you later then!” she said angrily.
“OK, bye then!” said the other, somewhat tearful as she stared into her iPad.
She looked up at me not realising I understood everything and gave me red eyed smile and shrugged her shoulders.
I felt like saying something but didn’t want to embarrass her further.
Stiff upper lip and all that.
I continued using the internet and researching and the English girl was writing in her journal as an Aussie hosteller came up to me.
“Hablas Ingles? “ he asked. “Perfectly” I replied. The English girls head shot up as the Aussie asked me questions about my bike locked up outside in the yard and She realised I had understood everything that had happened a few minutes before.
Her face went red as she buried it in her journal again.
Time to leave I thought.
I got up and left.