A good time was had by all at Yani’s 30th birthday party. They had hired a band, a 18 piece group playing ‘quarteto’, a type of music popular for parties were guys and girls dance together. I did a little bit of dancing with the ladies but through several litre bottles of lager, I was in no state to learn any of the moves. I had helped with the setting up the bar, and Yani invited me to go and stay with her folks in Chilecito, should I pass that way again.
The heavy weekend had me lazy to leave and I couldn’t get my act together till Tuesday afternoon. The Argentine hours of living are not very helpful to motorbiking around and my system of riding early that had served me well in Africa doesn’t work so well here. Besides the constant late nights making me lazy (people don’t eat their evening meal until 10-11pm), it doesn’t get light until 8 am and the huge siestas from 2-5 can make it difficult to find food or accommodation at times when I would usually be finishing riding for the day. However it stays light till later, around 7 pm and I thought that I could make up distances later in the day, but after riding in the dark twice I gave up on this idea.
I rode south out of La Rioja and went to the Talampaya national park. I had been told that I could enter with my bike but when I got there the official said I couldn’t and wanted me to pay for an expensive tour in a 4×4. I decided not to bother, but I camped there the for night and met 4 guys from Chile, who invited to join in with their asado and we went for a walk in the freezing twilight (Talampaya was at – 5 degrees that evening). The Chilenos were taking their own 4×4 into the park in the morning and they invited me to go with them but I wanted to make it to Vinchina so I could go to see the Laguna Brava, a lake 3000m up in the Andes.
Vinchina is the last big-ish town before the start of the Laguna Brava. It is the last place where you can buy fuel and you have to inform the local gendarmerie of where you are going. The gendarme I spoke too was great and he gave me loads of information on the route. The gendarme also pointed out to me the location of all the Refugios (refuges, bothys if you like) where I could stay in the event of an emergency as it goes below minus twenty at the laguna at night. It felt more like preparing for a mountain ascent then a bike ride. The gendarme directed me to a really nice hostel that was empty and had lots of wood for me to make my evening asado.
I managed to wake up early, even after the bottle of malbec, and after swinging by the gendarmerie, I was on my way. The sealed road turned into a dirt road passing through the Quebrada del Troya, with its jagged rocks looking very like the Ai-Ais national park in Namibia (I guess they are at a similar latitude). The ascending road was paved again for another 100 km or so but I couldn’t do more than 40 mph because of a strong head wind. The tar ended and became a dirt road that passes through narrow valleys. The wind was getting stronger and at one point I almost got blown off the bike when I stopped to take a photo, then I actually did get blown off it when I started to ride off again. Although I picked the bike up no problem, I was battered by strong winds for another 5 minutes to the point were I was constantly fighting to keep the bike upright and I couldn’t get back on it. A 4×4 with a tourist and a guide pulled up along side to see if I was okay, but I couldn’t even talk to them cos of the noise of the wind and because I had to keep my visor down as I was being showered with airborne sand and dirt. After a few more minutes of this, I decided to give up, and the guys in the 4×4 offered to take me to the laguna with them. This is the first time that I have had to give up on my chosen route but I was totally content with my decision. The wind was just too much and it got much worse the further we went on. It could have been different if I was on a wide road, but on narrow mountain dirt tracks without barriers, I wasn’t going to chance it and I got blew off the bike again later on the way back down! The laguna was fantastic, but with the silly winds it was so cold that you couldn’t have hands on covered for more than half a minute before they started to hurt.
After decending from the Laguna I went to Chilecito and say hello to Yani’s family. The route took me through the amazing Cuesta de Mirando mountain pass and on to meet Yani’s dad, Racho, at his Finca (little farm). I wandered around Chilecito with him the next day and I was introduced to pretty much everyone in the town. I even got interviewed for a radio show by one of his friends! I was back in La Rioja for the weekend again and Victoria had arranged for a group of us to go to the Señor del Pena, where you can ride around in those sail-car things for absolutely free. I had a go at driving one later in the day, but the wind had died down so I had motorised fun riding my bike around on the flats instead, until I was told to stop.
After another heavy La Rioja weekend, I rode on to Catamarca, another provincial capital located at the foot of stunning mountains. At the campsite I met a Czech rider and his Argentinian girlfriend. Ludovick had ridden all over southern South America and he gave me lots of information over an asado and wine. The next day I continued north by riding on to Tafi del Valle. It was a long boring straight road there but soon I was on a twisty mountain road that me and Ben had passed previously in the car we rented in Tucuman. From Tafi I went on to Cafayate, a town famous for its wine and I sampled a bit too much of it when I met a couple from the UK who had been backpacking their way south from Colombia. I was spoiled for choice as to where to go next, with both of the roads heading north out of Cafayate being famous for their scenery. I opted for the Ruta 40 to Cachi, which was a dirt road passing through some amazing rock formations. The road was mostly gravel but was also quite sandy in places and I almost got caught out by some particularly slippery bits. I found a cheap guesthouse in Cachi and decided to base myself there for a couple of days before heading further north to San Antonio de Los Cobres. I rode the nearby ‘Cuesta del Obispo’, the mountain pass that joins Cachi to the capitol of Salta province. The bike was handling the altitude well, although it started to lose power around the 3500m summit of the cuesta. I had heard that the ruta 40 from Cachi to San Antonio would go to almost 5000m , and I checked with the police in Cachi to see if the road was open and rideable before setting off. San Antionio de los Cobres is in the ‘Puna de Atacama’, a dry, high plateau in the Andes with an average altitude of 4500m.
The majority of the 160km journey was on a gravel road through farm land surrounded by beautiful snow capped mountains, but I knew that eventually I would climb up into some serious altitude before getting to San Antonio. At about 4000m the bike was really not liking the thin air at all and I couldn’t get it to move in any gear higher than 2nd. It was revving erratically too, and there were times that I doubted that it would make it over the pass at all. Near the 4800m summit I had to rev it hard in first gear while slipping the clutch just to get it to move. When it was moving, the lack of power wasn’t really a problem because I wouldn’t have wanted to go any faster anyway. The narrow twisty mountain road needed lots of concentration especially since it was covered in ice in some parts. The altitude was affecting me too, I felt really light headed and I didn’t want to have to do anything strenuous, like picking up a dropped motorbike. Eventually I made it to the summit and I was relieved to be decending again as I rode the last 30 km or so to San Antonio.
San Antonio de los Cobres (~3800m) is a small town the was built around copper mining but these days it is best known as the terminus of the Tren de las Nubes (Train of the Clouds), a train that takes tourists from Salta capital high into the Andes. I was actually going to take the train myself until I realised that there was a road and that the train is super expensive and slow. The trip at altitude had got me pretty nervous about riding further into the Puna. Even though I did it without incident, I didn’t like being uncertain of the bikes performance. I usually have a very good idea of how much fuel I’ve used but when I filled up in San Antonio I was shocked to see how the fuel consumption had plummeted. The bikes battery had also mysteriously gone flat and I was having trouble kickstarting it in the thin air, leaving me gasping for breath.
I was planning on crossing into Chile on the Sico pass and using the same fuel consumption that I had just achieved wouldn’t leave me much surplus, especially if there were strong winds to deal with, which there was. I decided to stay in san Antonio for an extra day. There isn’t anything to do there but the locals are all very friendly and I checked with the gendarmes again to see if the pass was open. They weren’t exactly as positive as the gendarmes at the Laguna Brava but they told me that the pass was open and I could stay with the guys on the border in case of emergency.
It was absolutely freezing when I set off at 8 am. There was ice forming on my water bottle and I had my heated grips turned up to max, but still had painfully cold thumbs. About 20 Km out of town, the bike was struggling again as we passed over a 4500m pass, but the roads flattened out afterwards and I was able to cruise along at 50 mph, smashing it to the border at only half past ten. I topped up the fuel tank and was very relieved to see that I had used much less fuel than before and that I had a full tank to make it to San Pedro de Atacama in Chile which was at a lower altitude and shouldn’t be a problem.
The Carabineros (Chilean Police) at the border told me that I had chosen a good day to cross the pass as there had been very strong wind for the last few days. After completing the paperwork at the border I went to set off but the bike had no electricity. One of the battery terminals had come loose and the Carabineros were very helpful looking for a replacement bolt. I’ve later found that its possible to kickstart my bike with no battery in it at all (gotta love old Yamahas!). The scenery of the Puna is breathtaking. Snow capped mountains of many different colours and lots of high altitude lakes, some heated by volcanic springs.
I was enjoying the scenery when the bike lurched to the right as if I’d been caught by a massive gust of wind. I managed to get control again just in time to stop myself going off the edge of the road when I released that it hadn’t been the wind. My front tyre was completely flat, making it difficult to bring the bike to a stop. It was not the ideal place to have to do a tube replacement. Although the wind wasn’t strong, it was cold and there was no shelter. I couldn’t understand how I could have such a blowout. My inner tubes have ‘slime’ sealant in them and any puncture big enough to cause a blowout would be obvious to see, but I couldn’t see anything. I decided to just pump it back up and see what would happen. It held. I checked it again further down the road and it was still holding. Later I found that the valve was faulty, but I was so glad to not have had to change the tyre there. It would have been a massive ball-ache. I rode down out of the mountains towards the Sala de Atacama salt flats in the Atacama desert, where the road was then sealed all the way to San Pedro.
San Pedro de Atacama is small town just north of the salt flats. With loads of interesting things to do nearby, its hugely popular with tourists and as a result almost all of the adobe-style buildings in the small town centre are either restaurants, tour companies or shops selling the usual alpaca-tat you get everywhere around the Andes. I stayed in a campsite which mostly had a Chilean clientele but I met some other overlanders there too. French couple Nicolas and Marion had been cycling their tandem up from Ushuaia in the very south of Argentina. They were planning to go back to Argentina via another 4000+m mountain pass. Listening to their plans, it put my worries of the previous day into perspective. I was worried about getting stuck and having to camp on the Puna but for them, wild camping everywhere is normal practice as they do not have the range to get to any other accommodation. I was encouraged by the travel stories, but since I’m traveling alone, I reckon I’m still entitled to be a little bit concerned from time to time!
I changed the oil on the bike and got the battery charged again. I couldn’t understand why it was always flat and I thought that it must have been knackered. The wind picked up for two days and sent dust clouds blasting through the streets. San Pedro is quite a nice place with lots of cafes and restaurants to sit off in but when its windy its a pain. My tent was completely full of sand by the time I came to leave.
After the wind had died down I went to head back to Argentina on the more popular Jama pass which is sealed and open all year round. As before, the bike struggled to get up the mountain but now I had other traffic compare with and I was happy that I still had the power to overtake everything in my way. At the Argentinian border I ended up on the wrong side by accident and got my passport stamped as leaving instead of arriving. The customs guy realised this and helped me sort the paperwork out for the bike but I’d have to go to the other side to fix the immigration. On Sico pass the border guards probably only had me to deal with that day, but Jama pass is a major border and there were bus loads of people passing through. The queue spread out into the street outside and I grabbed a Gendarme to see if I could jump to the front explaining that I had to ride on to Purnamarca before sunset. He was happy to help and the rest of the journey was really easy. I got to see the Salinas Grandes salt flats and ride the amazing Cuesta de Lipan mountain pass before arriving in Purnamarca just before dark.
Purnamarca in Jujuy province, is another super-touristy town, famous for its multi-coloured rocks. I keep mentioning places as being touristy, but that is not to say that I don’t consider myself to be a tourist, cos obviously I am, but touristy places tend to be expensive and can be less friendly towards tourists than a place that never sees outsiders. Luckily, Purnamarca wasn’t like that, and I enjoyed relaxing there for a day before continuing to explore further into the province. I was pleased to finally find a way to use engine oil to cook with when I used it along with an empty cardboard egg box to make a makeshift firelighter that did a fantastic job of lighting my charcoal asado. The knackered piston ring smell goes way before you start cooking!
The fantastic colours of Purnamarca’s rocks can also be seen all the way up the road north (Ruta 9), which is known as the Quebrada de Humahuaca. I rode all the way up this so that I could spend a day or two in Iruya, an isolated town that was recommended to me by people at the campsite. The road to Iruya was amazing, another twisty dirt road with a 4000+m mountain pass, kinda like ‘Die Hel’ in South Africa except with a town with people at the end.
Iruya itself is charming, wedged between colourful cliffs and a river with donkeys wandering aimlessly on the steep cobbled streets. Iruya is actually in Salta province but the road to get there passes through Jujuy. After Iruya I had decided to ride the most northern part of the ruta 40, mainly just so that I wouldn’t return on the same road again, although I also wanted one more opportunity to ride the Cuesta de Lipan again (did it 4 times in total!). I was around the 4000m mark again as I turned on to the 40 and headed south. This section of the 40 was pretty boring. 100 km of nothing really. The road was gravel again and I was concentrating hard but I still managed to get caught out by a deep pot hole that really put my suspension to the test.
As I indicated to turn onto R52 again the turn signal light went super-bright then died. I had a look and noticed that none of my lights worked any more and the battery wouldn’t turn the engine over. Something was wrong, but the kickstart still worked and I was confident that I could get to somewhere to camp and sort it all out. I had heard that there was free camping at some hot springs near Jujuy capital and the prospect of relaxing in the hot water after a long day of riding really appealed to me. I found the hot springs no problem but no sign of the campsite. I kept looking but it was getting dark, and I was worried about the police picking me up for riding around with no lights, which they do in daylight let alone the dark so I decided to ride into the capital and find a hostel. Later that evening I was joined again by Ludovick, who was on a visa run to Bolivia and the next day we had a look at the bike and found that my battery had died. It had swollen up so much that it was a complete pain to get it out of the bike. Finding a new battery was also a chore. As with all things imported in Argentina, the price is sky high at the moment because the government has banned the use of US dollars in an attempt to boost the economy. After a lot of testing with a multi-meter, I discovered that my regulator was faulty and had been putting out over 16V, hence the blown battery, bulbs, it even fried my heated grips, arcing over through a 5 amp fuse! I should have cottoned on to this weeks ago. I had noticed that two bulbs had gone on the console back in Cafayate but just assumed it was a bad contact and forgot to do anything about it. I replaced the regulator with a spare I was carrying and replaced all the bulbs. Ludo went on to Bolivia and I went on a massive night out with new friends from Jujuy.
Leaving Jujuy to ride to Salta I passed through ‘la Cornisa’, the super-twisty narrow section of the ruta 9 that connects the two cities. The road is less than 4 m wide in parts but still has two-way traffic. There are many blind corners and police guided me around the remains of one head-on collision that had happened that day.
Arriving in Salta, my front tyre had gone flat again and I pumped it back up. I’m still not sure why this kept happening cos I had been checking the pressure daily and before riding and it had been fine. The hostel that had been recommended to me (7 Duendes) by the guys in Jujuy was great for working on the bike as I could ride right through into the garden at the back. I changed the tube, replaced various nuts and bolts and got the broken contact repaired on my new battery. After a few days I was joined by another rider. David, also from UK had bought himself a cheap 200 cc dirt bike in Chile and had ridden over the Andes into Mendoza (http://goeverywhereseeeverything.blogspot.com.ar/). He had come to Salta after staying with Victoira in La Rioja so he had heard of me too. I was really interested to hear how the journey was with his bike. Me and Laas had talked many times about traveling with cheap Chinese bikes. I reckon it would be a great idea because you wouldn’t need to take loads of spares or tools as all locals would be able to fix them. You could buy them where you want to travel and sell them when you leave. However for South America, apparently Chile is the only place where you can buy a bike and leave the country with it. We met another rider while we were out searching for tools for David. Fletch is from the US (www.wheresfletch.com), is also doing a round the world ride, going in the opposite direction to me. He is going to travel up through Africa and we’ll probably pass each other again in Asia somewhere! Fletch came to stay at the same hostel, which was rapidly becoming a biker hangout. Another two riders from UK came to join us for an asado one night. David had met Mac and Helen on the road but they had been stuck in Salta for two weeks with bike problems. Ludo arrived back at Salta bringing the biker total up to 6, but he went to stay with some people who run a fruit and veg shop he worked at once. I had a fun afternoon sitting outside the shop with him and Carlos the owner while we supped beers to keep cool from the sun.
Fletch was going to ride on with me for a bit as we were both going to see the waterfalls at Iguazu but unfortunately he had problems with his bike and I needed to leave. My sister works as cabin crew for an airline and is be going to Rio de Janerio in Brazil in a week and a half’s time. My mother is going to come out with her too and I needed to get a move on if I was going to get to Rio in time to see them. Iguazu is 1400 km from Salta on a very boring straight road that goes through a very rural area with lots of farm land. It took me 3 days to ride it, with one puncture caused by a knackered spoke. I really need to have a look at my wheels. I’ve been very slack on looking after them and my front wheel has been dented so that there is a slight wobble when I’m riding slow. I reckon I did it on that big pot hole on the 40, anyway I’m getting used to it but it certainly wouldn’t pass an MOT! (International readers MOT = UK’s roadworthy test)
Iguazu is in the north east of Argentina, where it borders Paraguay and Brazil. There is a huge difference in the climate. I saw rain on the way over (I hadn’t seen it for months), and Misiones province is pretty much tropical, with palm trees everywhere. A big difference from the Atacama desert which NASA descibes as the driest place on earth. The region is home to the Iguazu falls, one of the New 7 wonders of nature, and a must-see if your ever in the area.
I’m riding into Brazil tomorrow. I’ve already been through the border once to view the falls from the Brazilian side but there was no immigration/customs formalities as I was on a tour bus. I have about 1000km to ride to get to Sao Paulo, the largest city, where I’m going to meet Andrei, who I met in Africa, then its on to Rio to see my family. I’ve had a great time in Argentina and I’m coming back for sure. After one or two months of seeing all that Brazil has to offer, Argentina will be heading towards summer and all the rutas of the south will be ready for me to ride. There will be many more asados to come!