Ruta 40 ARG – Part 2

04 up to 14 of february 2016: 341km
Colalao del Valle – Cafayate – Seclantas – Cachi -Salta

By cycling from Colalao to Cafayate we enter the region of Salta, like Mendoza famous for its high quality wine production. We cycle past widespread vineyards, some of them old and settled, some obviously younger and with modern glass and steel architecture.
The middlesized town of Cafayate is the charismatic center of the region, filled with tourists but nonetheless pleasant and relaxed. It has a lively Plaza which is shaded by many huge old trees, a lot of small shops which sell all kinds of regional handycraft and of course thousands of opportunities for winetasting.

We stay for two days in a hostal where we can put up our tent in the garden and enjoy two evenings with refreshening fastcoming and fastgoing summerstorms, what a nice and welcome change to the heat of the past weeks!
During the day we stroll around town, visit the really nice-made and interesting wine-museum and eat the best tortillas of Argentina: freshly baked on charcoal and filled with creamy cheese – delicious!!!

We leave Cafayate with destination of Salta (the city) but decide to make a detour through the “Valles Calchaquies”, some beautiful valleys which are carved into the mountainuous surrounding of Cafayate.
Twenty kilometers through vineyards on a good paved road, a short break in the small and sleepy San Carlos – then it gets serious: the road gets worse, temperature rises and a gradual climb begins and stays for the remainder of the day. But it’s really beautiful – a nearly dried-out riverbed sprenkled with green oasis, everchanging rock formations in various colors and no traffic.

From time to time we pass by small settlements, some of them abandoned and falling apart under the sun – sceneries like in old western movies.

We find a nice shaded place for Siesta but don’t stay alone for long, a drunk man finds us and starts talking and begging until we pack up our stuff and leave. Bad luck and not the first time that we meet a situation like this, as a gringo on bicycle one sometimes gets more attention than one would like…
More luck with the next place, nobody around and we can enjoy a long break.

The following day we cycle through the Quebrada de las Flechas which got its name because of the sharp arrow-like forms of the rocks and is also the pass to the second valley.

But valley doesn’t mean “flat”, we find an endless series of short but very steep up- and downhills and four hours later we are exhausted but have made just 20km and run out of water. No way that we will reach the next village the same day and so we decide to stop one of the few cars and hitchhike to Molinos.
A nice couple picks us up and like always there are mixed feelings. For this day it would have been surely too hard to cycle this part and we are glad to drive along by car. But at the same time we regret to miss the experience, the slow pace of cycling through quiet and beautiful nature.

Well, not much time for pondering, about half an hour later we reach Molinos and are in the middle of a big party, once again carneval.
Cycling out of town is once again uphill and slow advancing but we still manage to get far enough away from the Fiesta-noise and to find a nice campspot, just in time before a thunderstorm breaks loose. In the third valley we visit the small village of Seclantas, which is quite the opposite of Molinos and a nice surprise. No Fiesta, small and sleepy but with a well-shaded Plaza where we spend the whole day, let the hours pass by slowly, eat delicious pizza and have a nice talk with an argentinian couple who is on holiday here.

In the cooler evening hours we cycle on, along green parcels where local people grow all kinds of vegetables and tabacco and live in Adobe-houses. One night on a campspot next to a beautiful built stone church then we are in Cachi, the regions most popular village.

Every tourist who visits the region of Salta is being guided to Cachi, but to be honest we don’t know why. Okay, there is a nice camping and the surrounding is beautiful but in our opinion the village itself lacks atmosphere although there are some nice spots and a strike of ingenious humor as well 😉 Gives an idea about mass-tourism…

15km after Cachi, just outside the village of Payogasta the road splits up: La Ruta 40 turns left and leads to Argentinas’ highest inland pass, the Abra del Arcay at an altitude of around 4000m while the right turn leads to La Piedra de Molinas, a pass between Cachi and Salta with “only” 3457m. We turn right and have to say a final farewell to La 40 who has been our guide for the last seven weeks…
Our road goes up, but not too steep and with a lot of turns in it, so we quite enjoy cycling, also due to the few cars on the way.

On the Recta de Tin Tin, a 15km straight, we visit the miradores from Parque Nacional Los Cardones, which is actually an indigenous name for a specific type of cactus.

At the end of the Recta, we turn left, which turns out to be the wrong way. The heavy sidewind now becomes a headwind, and will torment us for the remainder of the day.
Worse, with the wind comes the cold and even the next 25km of false flat uphill are not sufficient to get us warm. Feeling like icecubes we quit the day almost 5hrs later, when we reach the Guardaparque settlement and get permission to camp on a roofed terrace. Once again we convert our tent in its stand-alone version…

The next windfree morning, we cycle the last km to Piedra del Molino, the highest point on the way and start the descend with the Questa del Obispo, a marvellous part of winding and turning road with spectacular views.

More descend through a marvellous canyon where Bram has to fix a puncture at his bike, then comes the best: forest!
Big trees, hundreds of plants, dense green vegetation as far as the eye can see – a long-missed view and we take in all these shades of green joyfully 🙂
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Then a long siesta in El Carril before we head out in the early evening in search of a campspot. Not our best of decisions, some 10km further we have to seek shelter in a bus stop because a big storm breaks loose: Three hours of thunder and lightning and millions liters of rain until it finally stops. By then it is pitch dark and we have to pass roads with 1/2m water in them to reach La Merced, where after some asking about we get the permission to put up our tent in the local swimming pool complex. Normally this is not allowed, but the two really nice ladies who take care of the place apparently felt sorry and made an exception for us. MUCHAS GRACIAS!!!
The next morning is a short ride to Salta, where we check in with our Warmshowers-host Raul Munoz, who lives at the outskirts of the city.

21 jan up to 03 feb 2016: 471km
Provincias de La Rioja, Catamarca y Tucuman
Pituil – Salicas – Londres – Punto del Balasto – Amaicha del Valle – Quilmes

What to write about neverchanging days of straight-on cycling and how to divert ourselves during these long hours?
We remember the former months of the trip, the best and the worst campspots, the most beautiful and most exhausting stretches, where we had the best food and of course we think a lot about people we met, friends we made and what they are doing now – some still cycling, some back home, others maybe receiving visits of other cyclists right now.
There are also long silent hours when we just listen music and let the mind wander free or we bet about oncoming distances and are both very bad at it. Without any orientation points it is nearly impossible to estimate how far or close something is.
In Pituil we get a glimpse of a struggle between big mining companies which want to exploit the mountains and activists who want to preserve nature. It is a more or less hidden struggle within Argentina and although there have already been some incidents with pollution of water and air, the financial interests value that much, that there are no consequences for the companies.
One can only hope, that one day the activists will get more publicity and influence…

Our best days in the province of La Rioja start when we pass by Salicas, one of the few small dusty villages along the way. An inconspicious sign announces a camping place and when Bram goes to have a look he finds a small heaven on earth: Literally an oasis in the desert, built by Ebert and his family over many years.

It is a place with all kinds of fruit trees and therefor shadow, there is soft green lawn for camping and everywhere are canals of water which cool the air, even in the spacey community room and kitchen.
But the best is the natural bathing place, filled with icecold mountainwater which then flows further into the canals.
No words to describe how we enjoy to jump in several times per day and stay inside until we get goosebumps, always in the company of Lalo the family dog 🙂

Coincidently this place is a workaway place so we stay for a week and give a helping hand for two hours per day to pay off our campspot.
The tasks we do are more or less easy, cutting grass with a machete, peeling the bast of trees and gathering and peeling duraznos (peaches) to cook marmelade.
Refreshed and recuperated we finally head out towards the next province Catamarca and in the late evening reach the first village: Londres.
Up to now everybody has told us that Catamarca is by far the hottest place of whole Argentina and so we were a little bit worried what will await us. But, who would have guessed, Londres keeps up to his name, it starts raining in the night and the water canals on our camping site are nearly overflown the next morning.
Temperatures drop, the clouds stay for the following days and in the end Catamarca turns out to be a very pleasant region to cycle through.

First for the moderate temperatures, second for the nice surrounding with traditional architecture and modern art

third for our nice warmshowers-hosts in Belen
fourth for the best Milanesas we get from Andres in Punto del Balasto (and on top a quiet campspot on his property)

and last but not least for the bonus of a loooong descent of 40km between Hualfin and Punto del Balasto which equals the oncoming wind and gives us a day of easy riding 🙂

In Santa Maria we make a last detour from the Ruta 40 to visit Amaicha del Valle and enter the province Tucuman. Unfortunately we take one exit too early, and instead of passing through Santa Maria, we go around town for a sightseeing tour of its waste- and junkyard. Not the nicest of views, nor the best smells in the world 😦
In Amaicha, a touristic but otherwise nice small village, we come right into the last preparations for the Pachamama-Fiesta (the local carneval) and although we are always interested in local culture and traditions we decide to leave this one out: Three days in which the participants throw balloons filled with paint and flour on each other, directed by an increasing level of drunkness, don´t sound really tempting to us.
Instead we head back to the 40 and visit the Ruins of Quilmes, a really impressive archeological site, worth the ride on 4km of shitty road in an oven.

The village dates back to 800 B.C. and due to its ingenious and strategic built the indigenous inhibitants could resist the Spanish conquistadores for 130 years, the longest resistance in Spanish colonial history. When at long last the city was conquered, the Spanish marched the surviving defenders to Buenos Aires, where nowadays a town is named after them, as well as Argentinas most popular beer.

Walking through the ruins, watching the geometrical patterns and imagining the people who built this and lived here that far back give us a somehow weird feeling but we are glad to be here instead of crowded Amaicha and let the day run out easily in Colalao, some kilometers further on the 40.
We relax on the Plaza, have delicious icecream and can camp for free behind the Hosteria Municipal, on soft green grass and envied by the neighbour who has to cope with sand and thorny bushes 😉