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Playing Catch-Up with the Past

First...

Three sets of new photos posted and don't forget to check the archives - lots of photos lately

New Google Earth kmz file: Peru to Chile!!! Download file (Opens in Google Earth)

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Salta or Waiting for the Bike Part

I arrived in Salta, Argentina expecting to be there for a few days while waiting for a part for my bike. The bike was doing something which I referred to as “wobble” and it was driving me crazy – it was impossible to ride. It turns out that my wobble (low speed and high speed) seems to be due to some combination of materials, part selection, handlebar bag use, and total weight being carried. This baffled me as I was not carrying too much gear. In fact, there was not much extra in there for an extended trip such as this one (OK – there is a lightweight computer and a book or two – but that is only 4 lbs more). It is not a design flaw though – it is simply a limitation of the pieces. My last bike – also a steel frame touring bike – had the exact same problem (and I was carrying much less weight). As it turns out, removing the handlebar bag solved the problem for the time being but I had hoped that a stronger headset would allow me to continue using the oh-so-useful handlebar bag.

Salta is warm and welcoming place after months at high altitudes and cold weather. It is possible to wear (and I did) a tee shirt and occasionally, even shorts. No socks, no long sleeve shirts, no gloves, and last but not least no HAT! I ended up being there a week waiting in vain; the part was sent by US Postal Service rather than Federal Express and arrived three weeks later – long after I had gone. But while I waited, I sat around drinking café con leche on the plaza, listening to the bells and visiting museums – what a hard life,huh?

Salta is a place where you can begin to appreciate Argentine beef and wine. There are some very decent restaurants and bars to while away the hours after you have finished drinking coffee. Some good basic selections are empanadas, bife de lomo with papas fritas or a minuta milanesa. The odd thing is that many of the restaurants appear to be catering to tourists (mostly Argentine), but somehow they manage to serve fantastic food in a cheesey atmosphere. I have no problem with that! Also, it is here where you can get your first taste of those famous Argentine wines especially from the Cafayate and Mendoza regions!


Cafayate

After Salta, I headed South for a few days only to be lured in by the wonders of wine in Cafayate. As I headed out of Salta, I kept passing masses of pilgrims who were on their way into town for a huge festival. One of these lucky devils found my wallet and probably attributed their luck to the Virgin. People were traveling groups or with their families or even sometimes alone. One of the most poignant images I have of the pilgrims is one of an older man walking alone. He was at least 30 km from Salta carrying a small statue of the Virgin. Where was he from? Why did he do this pilgrimage? Did he do it every year? Oh the unanswered questions.

The two day ride to Cafayate was a beautiful one that wound through horse and farm country before becoming drier again. The temperatures are pleasant here in the early Spring and most importantly, there is no rain. The first night I camped for the first time in ages and the next morning I could see the beginnings of the Quebrada de Cafayate – another beautiful and desolate canyon area separating the fertile valley landa from those of the desert.

Cafayate is a great little town to spend a few days in. The majority of the tourists only come in for the day so the evenings are rather quiet. There is wine flavored ice cream to try – Torrentes and Cabernet Sauvignon – both of which go quite well with chocolate! And, yet again, there was delicious steak to eat – a punto – medium rare. The Torrentes grape is what Cafayate is known for, but I cannot recall all of its history right now. I believe that no one else in the world really cultivates this grape or if they do it is used in blends rather than as a varietal. But here, it is the grape of choice and makes an absolutely delightful bottle of wine to drink chilled in the hot afternoon sun.

Tourist-wise I was able to take a side trip to Quilmes – a reconstructed ancient community. It was impressive to see these beautiful stone structures tucked into a natural depression on the side of a mountain. The next day, I spent a morning going horseback riding for the first time in years. It was much as I remembered – the horses were farm horses – pulled from working to carry around tourists. I was given a gaucho hat to wear and off we went up into the hills above Cafayate. The amazing thing is that the hills are just littered with the remains of houses and structures much like those at Quilmes – only they are not reconstructed. You can see dozens of mortar holes (used for grinding grains) in the rocks and everywhere you go there are pottery fragments on the ground.

Cafayate to Mendoza and Meeting Art & Judee

The night before I was to leave Cafayate, I received an email from two cyclists – Art and Judee Wickersham – who had gotten my contact information from a mutual acquaintance in Bolivia (crazy how that works, huh?). I went out to the campground to meet them, was greeted by an energetic couple in their early 60’s, offered a cup of wine and ended up talking for over an hour. It turns out that they are on a 5 year, around the world journey on their bike and were just finishing their first year on the road. They were happy to take me on as a cycling companion for awhile and we agreed to meet the next morning.

The next few weeks were a blur of camping, conversation, companionship, and wine. Art and Judee are on a tandem and when the going got tough due to winds I would just sit behind the tandem talking to Judee or watching her head swivel from side to side as she found interesting things along the side of the road to point out to Art and I. They were the best cycling companions that I have ever had – we rode approximately the same pace, liked to camp but stayed in the occasional hotel., drank wine, and stopped to see the sites instead of just powering through. I have to say these were among some of the best weeks of my trip!

Some highlights of the weeks with them…
The pass out of Cafayate and the amazing descent from ~2,000 m to approximately ~400 m. The pass was rough going, but not the worst ever. The winds increased closer to the top, buffeting us to the point of almost knocking us over. But reaching the other side was well worth it. The descent to the warmer, fertile valley took three days/two nights. On the second night in Tafi del Valle we were able to enjoy the foods of the area and got pastries and some great goat cheese and jamon for our lunches. The main descent was after Tafi del Valle and was exhilarating. We passed from an alpine valley with horses and cows and goats, to more wooded lands with raging streams below us and sheer walls on either sides, past the “Fin del Mundo”, downwards to the fertile valley on the Western edges of the pampas with rolling hills of green, green, green and as much sugar cane as the eyes could take in.

Somewhere here a few days back into the drier, flatter, windier parts of the terrain a little bug worked its way into my digestive system. I toughed it out for two days, determined not to take any Cipro but on a cooler, windy day, about a quarter of the way up an unexpected pass, it got the better of me and I left Art and Judee to hitch a ride to Catamarca where I felt so very miserable for about two days. There are stories here about the man who gave me a ride and drove me around to look for a cheap hotel, and about trying to send emails to let people know I was ok while needing to, very urgently, run for a bathroom, seeing Art & Judee on the street in Catamarca just as I was wondering where they were, and finally about beginning to feel human again – without the Cipro. I hopped on a bus to La Rioja to meet them and we were back on the road again.

The next week or so was more pleasant riding and a patchwork of details. There were more days of even dustier deserts and heavy winds, vistas looking out over pancakes of nothingingness, the annoying Argentine habits of music at all hours - Cumbia until your eyes crossed, side trip to Valle de la Luna, tourist bus breaking down – naps in the van and then came the final moment - the separation from my beloved riding partners.

We had just spent a few days sightseeing and resting in San Agustin del Valle Fertil. Recovering from the winds, doing laundry, updating journals and lazing about reading. We packed up our stuff after finally having a quiet night at the campground, headed off – me to the hostel to drop off a book and A&J to the edge of town to wait. Judee had said something that morning along the lines of “I wish I had another day to laze about” and as it turns out here wishes were granted. On the edge of town, only meters from hitting the road – their rear hub failed.

We headed to a bike shop to see what could be done and I whipped out the cassette remover tool that I had been lugging around for months. We all stood around and watched while Art and some bike mechanic took apart the pieces of the rear wheel to see what could be done. Long story short, the wheel went to San Juan while we waited, came back in working order, we headed off into a long stretch of desert and after a night of wild camping, the morning dawned with me getting a flat and the hub failing once again but this time in the middle of the desert. I headed off South to Mendoza alone and they spent hours hitching a ride and going on an even more twisted journey that eventually led them to Mendoza on the same day as me.

The Changing Journey

I rode that day and one more by myself and hitched the last hundred kilometers, skirting a huge thunderstorm, to Mendoza. It was at this point that my journey changed drastically – from a journey on bike to one in trucks, planes, buses, and occasionally the bike. Some of this was due to opportunities that came up – Easter Island for example – but some of it was taking a hard look what I wanted to accomplish with the time that I had left and what I enjoyed doing. Two things came out of this contemplation: 1) the distances left to cover are too great to finish by bicycle in the time I have remaining and to try to do so would not allow me to enjoy the sights of the countries I was visiting and 2) I have learned enough about myself to know that when I am lonely and sad and the weather is miserable (rainy or cold and snowy) I do not want to be riding – I could, I just don’t want to.

I suppose that some would say that I have no willpower, no fortitude, but honestly, I don’t care what some would say. What is most important on a journey like this is to look honestly at ones self and to learn. It is your life, no one else’s.

And I do enjoy bicycle touring, but I bit off more that I could chew with South America. This is a big continent and in five months, I have only touched the surface. The longer I stay here the longer I want to be here. And then there is the rest of the world to explore. Bicycle touring is special – it is a slow way to see a place – to absorb the people, the culture, the terrain, the food. I love it, but right now it will not help me fulfill the goals I have set for myself.

Next:
Recollections: Mendoza and Easter Island
The Journey: Heading to the Bottom of the World

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