“I never travel without my diary. One must always have something sensational to read on the train”
We loved cycling Argentina’s Ruta 40, an iconic road stretching 5,194km and almost the entire length of the country from La Quiaca in the north to Rio Gallegos in the south. We rode 670km of it from Cafayate to Alto Huaco, before turning off to head to San Jose de Jachal. We passed through mostly semi-arid desert flanked by a chain of imposing mountains, with the odd “oasis” town thrown in for rest days. We were joined by Jay the Kiwi, who we’d met on our brief detour north along the Quebrada de las Conchas.
While not particularly eventful, this stretch of cycling was for us one of the most impactful. This wasn’t because of anything momentous, but for the little, day-to-day occurrences. So we thought instead for this blog post that we’d dish it up straight from the source material itself: our diaries. Enjoy…
(PS – scroll to the bottom for maps, to give an idea of the where and the what)
Milla: We left Cafayate this morning, an hour and a half later than planned, but soon caught up with Jay on the road. It was nice to ride with someone else again, and he has a similar humour and attitude to riding as us. The day was just smooth riding, past vineyards and not much else but desert, with the odd small town thrown in every now and then.
Had a starting contest with a vulture. I won – he took off from his perch with an almighty beating of his wings that created the most awesome whooshing sound as he slowly launched himself into the air.
Chillo: Stopped for lunch in Colalao del Valle – a small village which felt like arriving in Paris or Barcelona such was the monotony of the 15-20km leading up to it.
Chillo: Lunch next to a roadside shrine called La Casa de Nuestra Madre del Valle del Pie del Medano – Jay recounting tales from his first cycle tour in Tajikistan with Mancurians Marty and Jon involving Taliban snipers and incidents with watermelons.
Cycling into a headwind is never easy no matter how flat the road is, but what could have become a ‘ratty’ day turned out okay with lots of laughs.
Milla: Beautiful, peaceful wild camp not far from the road, surrounded by mountains. Went to go for a number two when Chillo and Jay called my name – a herd of sheep were approaching, followed by a gaucho, so I went into stealth mode trying to find a spot; quite the challenge when the largest hiding place comes up to your knee and you’re surrounded by flat land…
Chillo: Glorious descent into Hualfin. Pedalled for about 3km out of 30km. Sitting outside the bakery with Milla and Jay munching on bread rolls thickly spread with dulce de leche.
We stayed two nights in Belen at Villa San Ignacio, a family home converted into a guest house. Even though one of the brothers lived on site – Facundo aka “Pump” – it was difficult to tell who was exactly in charge. Pump was extremely vain and walked around in a pair of shorts with one ‘leg’ rolled up, and if he could be bothered a wife-beater. When an elderly Argentinian couple arrived he greeted them topless. I know it was hot but surely that’s no way to run a guesthouse!
27 – 28th September
Chillo: 220-odd km in two days. Intense heat – mid to high thirties – head winds and super straight roads, nicknamed the Gibraltar Strait, Cook Strait and Bearing Strait by Jay.
Milla: Lots of road cheerleaders. It’s fricking hot. All my water is warm and doesn’t make a difference – rehydration sachets to the rescue. Dead cow on the roadside – birds circling above it. Good snack break under a tree. Out of Pitiul, the wind flips! It’s on our backs! Finally we are absolutely gunning it, all together, cruising along at 40km/hour and feel amazing. The wind then drops and it’s sweaty, sweaty, sweaty.
We turn off the Ruta 40, turn a corner round a big rock and it’s back into a headwind. This sucks. Chillo falls behind and when I reach the top of a hill I stop in the shade of a tree to wait for him as I don’t think he has water. He emerges – he is really struggling and I’m worried that it’s only going to get hotter, but I don’t know how best to encourage him – I tend to freak out a bit when I’m worried and get cross. I hate it when people say to me “you’re doing so well!” when I’m clearly not, and I don’t think Chillo likes it either. In fact, I think he prefers to be left alone, but there’s no way I’m doing that. So I turn into Sergeant Milla and we both end up getting pissed off. But it kind of works and almost an hour later we’ve made the final 5km to the hotel.
Chillo: The last 5km into Chilecito were slow, tedious and painful. Milla’s so-called words of encouragement were anything but.
Jay: Did you see the plane?
Chillo: I did, yes.
Chillo and Jay: In the sky..?!?!
Chillo: We were supposed to leave today but at breakfast decided to flip a coin – HEADS we stay an extra night, TAILS we leave. HEADS it was and I was quietly relieved
Milla: HEADS WE STAY! I get some yoga done, read a tiny bit, but still know I’m putting things off. We have a film night – watching “Wild”. Body is still aching – everything is sore. We were never sore in Bolivia – we’re definitely pushing ourselves harder.
Chillo: Milla and Jay were waiting for me at the top of a small hill and once I got there I threw my bike down and stormed off to go and sit on a rock in the shade of a tree. I completely threw my toys out of the pram and when Milla came over to comfort and help me I just mumbled answers and rudely got up and walked off while she was talking to me. I didn’t know what I wanted or was trying to achieve at the time but in hindsight I think I just wanted to spend the night in a bed because I was tired.
It was a climb I would have relished in Bolivia but after several weeks of relatively flat cycling in Argentina came more as an obstacle.
We pulled over to find my back rim had cracked in several places. How this happened I had no idea and what frustrates me is that I don’t know how to rectify bike maintenance problems because of my lack of knowledge. I’m always reliant on the expertise of others – in this case Jay, who said it was risky and dangerous to continue cycling. We decided that Milla and I would hitch a lift to Villa Union and Jay would cycle it – 60km – a tough ask with only a couple of daylight hours left.
Villa Union is much bigger than it appears on our map. There’s a Grido heladeria and even a casino. The pavements, however, are a complete nightmare and have been built all at different heights.
We pitched our tents at Camping Liz Grey (“Can we call it Camping Lady Grey?”) and began to cover ourselves in mosquito repellent.
Milla: It’s been an interesting week – even though the cycling has been hard I enjoyed the challenge. But now I just feel fatigued and weary. I’m bored of feeling stuck in towns, and I hate this unpredictable wind. Nothing feels right. We’ve lost our rhythm a bit, but the good thing is we’ve acknowledged it, we’re talking about it and we want to push on.
[later] Ice cream fixes everything.
Chillo: A new back tyre and I finally gave in and bought a pair of padded cycle shorts.
Milla: Finally feel properly rested and the mental fog has cleared a little. Leave Villa Union at 12pm. Make it to next town, find more ice cream, use the loo in an odd building of one room + bathroom with Jesus posters everywhere, but the man there is very sweet.
Cruise along a little further and it’s all rocky scrubland and lots of litter. Not so appealing for a campspot. We have time though, then spot a track, follow it and lo and behold there’s a flat, non-rocky patch that’s shielded from the road by a small dune. Boom. Currently writing surrounded by these bright red ants that keep crawling over me and freaking me out, but I don’t think they bite. Hope they all bugger off once we get a fire going.
Milla: Forgot how much I love that wild camp feeling when you leave in the morning. We woke up at about 7.45am, I got up fairly quickly, as usual Chillo took his time. Got to work on breakfast – banana porridge with Toddy [chocolate] powder, accompanied by coffee. All v straightforward – pack up, take the last look at the beaut of a spot you just slept in and leave. Nobody else knows you were there, there’s no one to answer to. You’re back on the road and wheeling along just like the day before. It feels so free – we’d all been craving a wild camp and it did the trick – my head felt clear, I’d slept well (the road is so quiet) and finally fully in the mood to cycle again.
Left the Ruta 40 behind, then started cycling up this big pass that had laid ahead of us all day. The scenery changed straightaway. It was beautiful. My good mood meant I was ready for it this time, too – Chillo put it well when he said the climb the other day felt like an obstacle rather than part of the route. So today I told myself this was part of it and I was going to enjoy it – which I did! It was steep as fuck and I was absolutely dripping in sweat, but I got to the top and looked out over the entire valley we’d been cycling the past two days.
Chillo: Despite wanting to wild camp we pulled off the road and followed a track down to Camping Los Cauquenes, a five-minute walk from a dam of the same name. Pretty and tranquil by a small stream – went for a quick dip. “We’d be pretty fucked if the dam burst” – thanks Jay, a lovely thought to go to bed with.
Milla: Winding uphill to the dam above the campsite – snowcapped mountains appear in the distance! We’re getting closer… straight, straight roads lead us to San Jose de Jachal.
Chillo: Looked round several hotels and finally settled on Hotel Hualta Picum where we met a Polish couple from Warsaw – Daniel and Carol – sitting one the steps outside reception in their motorcycle gear. Ended up going for lunch with them and showing them the delights of a Grido Heladeria.
Dates: 24 September – 7 October (14 days)
Total distance: 711km
Cycling days: 9
Rest days: 5
Longest day: 120km
Shortest day: 23km