06 January 2015

San Antonio de los Cobres to Fiambalá: an Argentinian vacation

Getting to lowly San Antonio de los Cobres marked the start of a new stage in our trip. After nearly a year in altitude, barely going lower than 2600 m for more than a few hours at a time, the next few weeks ahead were going to be spent in the proper heat of a proper summer, at altitudes more similar of those found in Europe or the USA. The ripio roads were going to give way to some km of good pavement, mostly in the form of the famous Ruta 40 that traverses Argentina. No more sandy roads and calamina (well, except for a couple days), no more tourist jeeps (which will be replaced for tiny rental cars driven by Western tourists), and no more cheap almuerzos.

For a bit more than two weeks we were on what we now call "a cycling vacation". After leaving the Puna, it all became way too easy and comfortable - there were shops selling cheap and tasty Torrontés wine (a white grape typical of the Salta and Catamarca region, somewhat similar to the galician albariño), cheap butchers, tasty empanadas, late night barbacues, grilled pizzas, fast wifi and many more home comforts. It was a good summer break, especially when most of the Northern hemisphere was receiving the first snowstorms...

In San Antonio de los Cobres we opted to take the old Ruta 40, headed North, passing by the Salinas Grandes, en-route to the Paso Jama. The road was in extremely poor condition for biking, and we had to carry water for two days, not knowing what to expect.

These brazilian dudes on motorbikes also had similar plans. From Foz de Iguazú to Cusco, vía some 10.000 km in between, in less than 1 month!
With the usual afternoon wind howling, we are lucky to find some shelter in the ruins of an abandoned church in the middle of the Puna

After 100 km, this is the first settlement we see since San Antonio, and has nothing more than the church and a house with a young family living it, even though it appears as a proper pueblo on our map

Our route on ripio ended on the road from Paso Jama to Jujuy. The main reason we took this detour was to cycle through the Quebrada de Humahuaca, but another 4000 m plus pass was in between...
The final pass delivers us to 4300 m. Then a long and windy descent is all is left to Purmamarca (2300 m).  But as has become the norm in Argentina, we are faced with some stiff headwinds that make this one of the toughest descents of the trip.
At 2500 m we start admiring what we had detoured for...and doesn´t disappoint!

Once in Purmamarca, tourist central, we were allowed to camp for free in a yet-to-be-opened campsite. Here we pick up Colombian cycle tourist Elkin who had been following us on the climb, about an hour behind.
Meet the man - Elkin had cycled from his home in Bogotá taking some rather nice pictures along the way. We´re always happy to meet people from one of the most welcoming and interesting places we´ve cycled through so far.
In the morning we looped around the cerro de los siete colores, but because of time of the day, we are only able to spot three or four. (Note the different approaches to luggage!)
After our tour of the cerro, it was all downhill (with a headwind, for a change) to the town of Jujuy
After dropping to 1300 m, the lowest we have been in a almost a year, we realise how similar Jujuy is, for example, to Sevilla in Spain.  The people, the siesta, the chilled wines, the manic private car traffic... 

The old road from Jujuy to Salta is a far shorter than the autopista, but it being so narrow, has barely any traffic and goes through some really stunning green landscapes.
Gauchito is everywhere!
A late start and a relaxed day on the bikes mean sunset was upon us as we approached the outskirts of Salta

...which we eventually reached at night. Leo and Carol, in between us on the picture, welcomed us into their house, along with other travellers. A couple of days of asados, wine, and yet more empanadas and we were all ready to keep holidaying South to Cafayate
For the first time in ages, we get a tailwind and make fast progress after Salta on the road 68. We did consider the mountain road to Cachi, but the 68 is also lovely as it passes through the Quebrada de las Conchas, and it is almost all flat
Along the way, we passed through a few villages. This one strikes us with its name, and its brand new train station...that no longer sees any trains or tourists these days (the railway is disused!). 
As night approaches, we start seeking a place to camp...
...which we finally found and is all good. That´s until we see gigantic ants with fur on their backs...Thoughts of our expensive tents being eaten away by those powerful creatures keep Lucy half awake all night
But luckily nothing happens, we are happy and we keep holidaying South to the wine town of Cafayate
We admire the Quebrada...
...and all its crazy rock formations...

...which come most in reddish colours

Finally, 2.5 days after we left the comforts of Salta, we hit the vineyards of Cafayate
And unexpectedly reunite with our old cycling pals Quique and Alicia, who had taken their time tasting the local wine...
...as did Sol y Guille also from Bogotá. Cafayate, despite being touristy and all that, is still a chilled out place to rest for a few days, so we too got happily stuck there for more than we had planned for

When we leave Cafayate, finally on the famous route 40,  we have the pre-colombian Quilmes ruins in the region of Tucumán to look forward to.
Quilmes, apart from being the name of one of the major Argentinian beers sold worldwide, is an impressive site dating from around the 9th century D.C. and where it´s believed more than 3000 people lived.
After Quilmes, we pressed on towards San José, where our kind host Juan is waiting for us. He´s done plenty of touring in Argentina and knows the area well. With his invaluable insight, we convince ourselves that the 40 is a bit too boring and a bit too hot for our liking, and decide to leave it (and with it, our summer vacation) sooner than expected.
We enjoyed a few more days on the 40...

...stopping by our old hometown of Londres...

...before veering West on a shortcut that was technically closed, over the Cuesta de Zapata.

Back on dirt for a day, we felt at home again...

...but with the hot weather and knowledge that a comfortable town awaited us at the end of the day...
...we were still on vacation.

We went through ten liters of water in the eight hours that we spent on the Cuesta

Back in civilization on the other side, we again met up with the four Argentino cyclists that we had been playing tortoise and hare with since Cafayate. They are riding the length of the 40 in two week sections, since they only get two weeks off from work every year. At this pace they estimate it will take them seven more years to reach Ushuaia!

Camped in Tinogasta, they taught us to make pizza a la parrilla
Leaving Tinogasta on the road to Fiambalá we detoured to the small viallage of Anillaco which surprised us with its adobe church and altar made entirely of mud

The last day of summer vacation is always the worst. Leaving Anillaco on dirt, we are treated to some cool desert views...and some worrying sand clouds, meaning strong winds. The ride from here to Fiambalá was a test of both mental and physical endurance, as we were hit with winds of at least 80 km/h (later confirmed in town) coming in all directions except of course from the back. Add to that the 41 degrees C read by our thermometer (the water in our bottles was almost undrinkably hot) and you get the idea. The locals call it viento "zonda", and it really was scary at times.

Once in Fiambalá, and totally covered in sand and dirt, we rest and have a few icecreams...
Next up is Paso de San Francisco, and as experience has taught us, the wind always blows from the Chilean side. The pass should take us 5 or 6 days under normal conditions, no resupplying in between here and Copiapó, but with a headwind and having lost our beautiful acclimmatisation in the past few weeks, we take food for 8 days. All ready for a rather special Christmas on the Puna!

Route notes:
- San Antonio de Los Cobres to Purmamarca: 
The old route 40 heading North is unpaved and slow going. If in desperate need of water there are a few small farms en route and one village at km 30 or so (the village is signed but about 1km off the road). There is a small kiosko just after you join the main road from Paso Jama, and apart from that no services until Purmamarca. 

- Purmamarca to Londres: 
The route is all paved and very straightforward to Jujuy. We found it to be too high traffic for our liking, but there was always a large gravel shoulder, which although not as fast as pavement was in better condition than most of the roads we had been riding recently. 

From Jujuy to Salta, Route 9, also called La Cornisa, is paved, much shorter distance, beautiful, and almost entirely traffic free. 

From Salta to Cafayate we opted for Route 68, also paved, via the beautiful Quebrada de las Conchas. Locals told us there would be nothing between Alemania and Cafayate, but there are small tourist facilities where water and expensive drinks/snack food should be available. 

From Cafayate to Londres via route 40 is very straightforward.

- Londres to Fiambala:
We took the Cuesta de Zapata which is technically a closed road, although some local traffic still uses it. There were a few steep rocky sections that might require pushing but other than that it is all perfectly rideable. Locals told us it could get dangerous after a rain because rocks can fall from above. The Pikes also have route notes for the Cuesta de Zapata. No water (apart from 5km from the start of the road where there is a house) or other facilities on route, and it can get damn hot, so bring plenty. From Tinogasta to Fiambala is also a straightfoward, paved road.


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