Flooding. We hadn’t expected it in on the Puna. But this was a La niña year, said the locals. Clima loco. Crazy weather.
In this part of Northern Argentina, undulating Ruta 40 and the other minor roads we bounced along crossed dozens of (normally dry) watercourses. Normally dry.
But not this year. Unusually heavy rains have transformed these ‘normally dry’ watercourses into fast-flowing rivers. Since these watercourses are ‘normally dry,’ there are no bridges. Think flash floods and landslides, raging torrents and falling rocks. Ruined roads and towns cut off for days on end due to abnormal deluges.
All in all we were pretty lucky, with the worst of the weather never quite catching up to us.
Now and then we had to slip off our sneakers and wade across one of these watercourses that had washed out the road. Always a bone-chilling experience and, once or twice, slightly scary since the current turned out to be stronger than expected.
The only casualty of the crossings was our video camera. Sadly, it popped out of my bar bag on one particularly rough and rocky crossing. Immediately it was swept down the river and, alas, our film making days are over for a while.
Far more serious was the hapless family whose car got crushed under a giant boulder. I pumped the pedals with all my might through that hazardous stretch of road south of Chilecito.
Since we first entered Argentina more than 5 months ago, the variety of landscapes has been mind-boggling. From the lush semi-tropical region around Iguazu Falls to the icy-cold lakes of Tierra Fuego and the long, empty stretches of pampa.
Now we’re in wild-west like territory. Great sandstone canyons and vast expanses of scrubland broken up by the occasional oasis. Here spring up remote villages filled with vineyards, fruit trees and tall poplars which give shade from the powerful sun.
We venture off onto minor roads which the locals warn are ‘muy feo.’ In bad condition, they say. Not so bad, in my opinion, but then after Africa the bar’s pretty low.
I like these quiet backroads. The only traffic is the odd pick-up truck belonging to the Canadian-owned mine. The mines are controversial in these parts. They’ve apparently poisoned the local water supply and have done little for the development of communities in which they operate.
As a cyclist I can’t help but appreciate the mining company. The mining company keeps the road maintained, the miners operate camps at which we can stop and fill up our bottles with cool mineral water, and the miners who pass in the pickups usually slow down and ask if we’re doing all right.
Once a big truck from the mining company even pulled over and the driver leaned out the window and handed me a hot meal all wrapped up in tin-foil. He told me they’d just had an asado (barbecue) and wanted to share.
When I peeled back the wrapper I discovered a fresh green salad with plump, red tomatoes, vegetable rice and tender new potatoes smothered in butter. This was my manna in the wilderness. The asado went to Eric.
I believe there is nothing in the world that can bring more pleasure to a suffering cyclist than an unexpected offering of food.
It was in a pure state of bliss that I shoveled in the nourishing vegetables. Argentina is not the easiest country for a non meat-eater. I’m sure this comes as no surprise to you. Five months of pasta, porridge and pastries pretty much sums up my experience with Argentine cuisine.
After the asado I was pumped up with energy. We pulled into Tocota not an hour later. Tocota, it turns out, is not a small town, as one might imagine from a fast glance at the map.
Tocota’s denoted by a regular sized dot. A small town you might think. A place with a general store, a primary school and a church or two.
But no. Tocoata is nothing more than a large ranch and a tiny outpost of the gendarmerie. Which was fine with me. We pitched the tent out back in a grassy field with a stunning view of the surrounding mountains. The kind officers on duty welcomed us in for hot showers, which was much appreciated since I’d gone my maximum two days without bathing.
There were more days like this. Lonely backroads, sleepy villages and stunning scenery. Northern Argentina seems a world apart from the rest of the country. Locals farm small plots of land and many homes resemble the simple adobe structures found in neighboring Bolivia. My blonde hair stands out here, which certainly isn’t the case in Buenos Aires and other regions of Argentina.
The siesta, which I continue to find exasperating, is even longer. Shops close at half past one in the afternoon and many don’t re-open until 6:00 or even 7:00 pm.
In spite of the frustrations, I think this is my favorite part of Argentina. Pitching the tent under a spectacular sunset, rising early to set off under a fiery orange sky, rattling across the rutted roads. This is the kind of biking I like best.