In search of a new border (North to Bolivia)

In Mendoza I lost my wallet, which of course included all bank and credit cards. A minor setback, but with a little of extra cash on me I simply organised for the cards to be sent express from Australia to Salta in Northern Argentina. It was about 1200km away and I figured this would be enough time for me to ride onwards to pick them up.

Riding North from Mendoza I decided to follow Ruta 40, somewhat of a mythical route 66-type road that supposedly linked the nicest scenery in Argentina from bottom to top. At least for the first 3 days I was questioning my choice.

The road was hot, and flat. For the first few hundred km’s I was plagued by puncture after puncture and long days in the saddle. When I arrived in San Juan I feel like I circled the city three times looking for a place to camp. Argentina has private camping cooperatives that you need to be a member of, I guess to keep out riff-raff like yours truly. After spending an unnecessary 35km’s riding in circles I decided that (although it was dark) it would be better to put 10km of dusk riding on the highway and find somewhere hidden to sleep for the night. On the freeway link road I saw both of my tyres deflate simultaneously, victim to roadside debris from shredded car tyres. I patched, rode and gave up when I found a perfectly pitch black patch of grass right in the middle of the motorway and across the road from a gas station. I set camp in what would plainly be full view during the daytime and strolled across the off ramps to drink a coke and wallow a little in my situation.

The following morning I found a flat tyre again, and spent the morning fixing all of my tubes in the gutter. I messaged home to ask for new tyres to be included with my credit cards and set off on a long 160km stretch of nothing but baking shrubs on the roadside. Luck had it that I found a small refugio along this stretch inhabited by bored road workers, and when I saw they had hundreds of litres of agua fresca I eagerly approached to try and swap out the warm water I had on my bike for some of their stock. I ended up camping nearby their shed and had a roadside shower under a tap on the side of their trailer.

The road to this point was far less than interesting, and the day was spent riding through a flat, featureless, big-sky country and counting the minutes it took for cold water to become hot water. Relief was found with a detour from Ruta 40 to climb through the mountains around a protected nature reserve near Villa Union. The landscape was surreal, a mix of sandy desert outcrops contrasted starkly against red mountains and flowing streams through greenery, absolutely worth the detour and an unexpected surprise. With newfound energy and good twilight I cycled on shirtless to 140km and made camp by the roadside to take in a fast approaching sunset.

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The next stretch of road was like something out of a roadrunner cartoon. The landscape changed to ochre red and carved its way through shear rock faces before switching back and forth to 2000m, a welcome bit of climbing after such a flat few days to start.

A few nights further north I arrived into Cafayate and what was clearly a huge party. I was about to continue further north out of town when a familiar voice hollered to me from the side of the road. My French buddy from Mendoza had taken a different route and hitched, ridden and bussed along a different road. I quickly decided to blow off steam and stay for a few nights.

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The party was called La Serenata, and took place every weekend in February. Essentially a month long carnival. It was impossible to walk more than a few metres in the packed town squares without having someone come and cover your face with paint, or spray you with fake snow and throw a bag of flour at you immediately after.

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Two nights later we were on the road to make a quick 2-day ride to Salta. We stopped overnight halfway and found a dark children’s playground to make camp for the night.

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In Salta I discovered that although the packages with my credit cards were sent express courier, this only ensured they would be on the ground in Argentina quickly. Argentinian customs is a dangerous beast, and there is really no limit to how long they could take, and the lack of urgency in their processes – highlighted by the fact that they close at 11am each day. In all it took almost 3 weeks for the packages to clear customs, be sent onwards to Salta, be reexamined, have the arrival slip delivered, and then navigate the most absurdly bureaucratic processes I have ever seen. It afforded me plenty of time to have some welding done on my bike and have my wheels rebuilt (rim was broken by a bike mechanic).

The complicated part of these few weeks was that I was severely lacking in cash on account of having no access to my bank accounts, for a little while I was operating on credit at the hostel and accepting all sorts of discounts from the staff there to ensure I didn’t go hungry. The staff were good friends by the end of it.

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The morning I picked up the packages from customs was one of the strangest of the trip. I was repeatedly sent back and forth between the regular post office and the department buildings for customs nearby. The whole time I was watching the clock count down to the 11am closure and unsure if I would be stuck in Salta for another weekend. In the department buildings, I spoke to a chap with a smoke lazily hanging out of his mouth, he instructed me to go to the post office before deciding that he could use this as an excuse to walk around instead of stamping the huge pile of form in front of him. He took my paperwork and waltzed off down the hallway leering at the arse of every female he went past. In the meantime a chap came out of another doorway, held out his hands to be cuffed by a casually dressed cop in the hall and disappeared in a different direction. It was a truly interesting scene. My favourite however was when I opened the door to the bathroom and was met by someone who had his office in there, no kidding, he had a desk and a pile of paperwork loaded up in one of the stalls. He didn’t look shocked to see me, but I had no idea where I was at this point. Eventually the chap with my paperwork came back empty handed and sent me back to the post office again. It was line ball, but when I finally navigated the 3 different queues required, I got my packages with 5 minutes spare.

I celebrated too hard that night and ended up staying an extra day in Salta before leaving.

The road ahead was to Bolivia now, I’d originally planned to go East to Paraguay but after sitting still for almost 3 weeks I just couldn’t stomach the long flat days required and opted, on the advice of almost everyone I spoke to, to head north and steadily climb up to the Bolivian altiplano.

The first day was surreal and maybe my favourite day of riding, the road was barely wide enough to call a bike lane and the road wound slowly through the last of Salta’s greenery in a fog soaked valley. The road didn’t start going uphill until the next day.

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Suddenly I found myself above 3000m for the first time in a month, and by the time I’d climbed to around 3800m the next day I felt for the first time the mild effects of the altitude. It could have been the lack of sleep due to the cold high altitude air, but I found myself battling a headache for the next 2 days.

As I approached the border I intended to camp for the night, I stopped a few times to assess how hidden I could make myself in the landscape and then noticed a man with a cowboy hat waving at me from the distance. I could see he had a bit of land so expected his friendly salute meant I could find myself a nice spot for the night.

When I went to chat with him I learned that he was a caretaker type person of the local evangelical church. I talked my way into a covered camping spot and set up camp before helping him pull some trussed columns out of the ground.

When his wife and mother in law arrived they were quick to set off again to make up a feast for me for dinner. They laid out pasta and potato salads, juice, coffee, bread, chocolate and a plethora of other great options to ensure that I felt strong again after the climb.

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I told them I had a bit of a headache and one of the ladies quickly ran off to fetch me a full bulb of garlic for the road. She spent the next hour telling me how it would cure every ailment I could possibly think of, excepting garlic breath I guess. I was happy. They opened the church for me to sleep in when the wind picked up and woke me the next morning to feed me more before we said our goodbyes and I set off north for Bolivia.

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6 comments

  1. The incredible scenery and wonderful people you are meeting are making this a truly memorable adventure. I thought you might go across to Iguazu, it’s worth it. They make Niagara Falls look like a leaky toilet, or so I was advised by an American couple when I was there. Love Jenny xx

    • I thought about it Jenny but the ride across is a long flat one and I wanted to stay in the mountains. It’s very beautiful here in Bolivia but the riding is the hardest I’ve ever done, making about 30km or less a day in places. Should be in la paz in 6 weeks or so where I’ll relax for a while!

  2. Jesse
    Following 30 days of no rain and temperatures in the high 20s and 30s, we finally got rain. Its starting to be autumn here in Sydney. That means a light blanket at night – the doona is near but not until after Easter or late April. The sun is shining and its about 26!
    I do hope that you experience an interesting easter in South America – a mix of christian and pagan followings.
    Rosie

    • Weather sounds Topsy turvy over there. Here in Bolivia is cold, the altitude is doing is thing. I’ve been waking up with frozen water bottles but my sleeping bag is more than comfortable, haven’t had to zip it up yet!

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