I hope you enjoyed getting a little peak into our diaries last week. This week’s blog comes to you almost a month after completing this stage of our trip, in which we took a remote route from San Jose de Jachal to Uspallata, near the Chilean border.
Before writing it up I once again looked back on my diary to remind myself of all the little details of that time. “My god”, I turned to Chillo, “I was a grumpy cow”. If you were to draw a graph of our collective mood swings that week, there would be lots of zig zags, jumping up as dramatically as they plummet down. However, after reminding myself of all the little challenges and victories along the way, I’d say the overall trajectory would most definitely be an upwards one.
We pedalled our little socks off. I cried a little bit and laughed a lot. Sometimes hysterically because there was no other option. But having a third member of our team in Jay the Kiwi made a marked difference. By this time our dynamic was firmly in place and there were definite roles in the group, which would rotate according to how we felt.
Let me introduce to you The Slow One. Legs heavy, body sore, The Slow One is having a hard time of it and would much rather be curled up in bed with Netflix and a hot chocolate. This is closely followed by The Grumpy One. Often in cahoots with The Slow One, The Grumpy One is facing more of a mental struggle. Their mind’s not in it, but the Grumpy One will power through, just to finish the day quicker. And last but not least you have The Motivator. Endlessly chirpy, preppy and full of beans, The Motivator reminds the other two that, actually, this is the opportunity of a lifetime and how beautiful is this barren landscape and oh my god how amazing is it to push ourselves to the limit, we’ve got this and it feels awesome! When you’re not The Motivator, you hate The Motivator.
So we set out from San Jose de Jachal, me slow, Jay grumpy and Chillo firmly motivational. The wind is blowing hard in our faces, almost telling us that if we just turn around it will gently push us back into town, where we can return to our nice mini apartment and eat more Grido ice cream. But no, Chillo The Motivator is determined we’re going to have a good day and we push on through.
An energetic Argentinian pulls over on his scooter, asking “selfie?” I would normally roll my eyes, especially in my current mood, but something tells me I like this guy. It turns out Jairo is an endurance runner, so sort of understands what we’re going through. He’s super excited for us to get up on the Puna (the Argentinian word for the altiplano), tells us to keep drinking water, look after ourselves and have fun! His energy and kindness is infectious. And then as if the landscape is reflecting our mood the beige road and beige mountains I was complaining about give way to a dramatic, deep reddish-purple valley with an emerald green river cutting through it. The road ahead of us winds upwards towards snowcapped mountains just peeking out in the distance. The mood-o-meter has done a full swing from red to green. I’m back.
We reach the puna. Our aim is to get to the other side of several villages, into the wide open nothing to find a wild camp spot. It gets harder again, but little stops along the way give us the boosts we need – at a tourist centre in the middle of nowhere – Jay: “I could do another 36km from here. I’d want to kill myself after 2k, but I could do it”. This is hysterically funny to us at this point. There was the very grand YPF station (the Argentinian national petrol company), where some fruit sellers hand us bananas from the back of their truck: “do you think if we cycled for six months we’d be as skinny as you?” I’ll take that.
We reach the other side of the last village and tarmac gives way to gravel. We have to cycle on further than expected as there’s a big power plant in the middle of nowhere with lots of workers travelling to and from it, but we eventually reach a nice empty spot, pitch our tents and collapse in a heap.
The nap of a lifetime
The following day we got to sleep in an abandoned house. There is nothing to make you feel more of an adventurer, and it couldn’t have come at a better time. I’d had an upset stomach in the morning (not a pretty situation in a desert wild camp, I can tell you) and was running on empty. We had to move on as there was nothing around – the nearest village was 75km away – so we’d just go as far as we could.
Ahead of us was 25km of gradual uphill on rough roads. It was the slowest I have ever pedalled – the only thing keeping me going was distracting myself with back to back Adam Buxton podcasts. Chillo maintained Motivator status, but this time knew to keep his distance. Perhaps, as my mum later pointed out, this may have just been due to the “gastric disturbances”, but either way, Adam Buxton plus Chillo’s gentle encouragement saw me through. Thanks to both. We eventually made it to the top at 2pm, a full five hours later, where there was nothing but a police outpost, the abandoned house and Jay waiting for us.
As we ate our lunch the wind started to rage and there was no way we were going to make it any further. We set up our tents inside the house, had the best afternoon nap of my life, then settled down to some Netflix in the evening. The wind was still blowing outside, but inside I felt safe, warm and almost fully restored.
For the next two days, getting to Uspallata was all about pushing ourselves beyond our expectations. From the abandoned house we cycled 80km to Calingasta but couldn’t find a place we wanted to stay there, so decided to push on and camp somewhere as we were making good time. We get to the suggested camp spot early and Jay, who by this point is The Motivator, peps us up to push on an extra 40km to the next town – “we’ve got a tailwind, let’s make the most of it!”.
Remember me saying when you’re not the Motivator, you hate the Motivator? Well, that so-called tailwind turned, it was now in our faces, and with every rotation of my pedals I would utter another curse in Jay’s direction. Tailwind my arse. One guess as to which role I’ve taken on here. But we’re here now and a couple of hours later roll into Barreal, having cycled a whopping 120km. “I’m so proud of you guys for pushing on like that. Well done”, says Jay and I’ve got to say, despite my cursing, I quietly agree. We check in to the first B&B we find and it turns out to be lovely. The next morning we’re treated to a feast of a breakfast: meats, cheeses, homemade jam and bread. Happy, happy cyclists.
Bellies full, outlooks sunny, music blaring, we head out of town and into Parque Nacional Leoncito, for empty roads and nothing but pampa for miles around. We’re sure we’ll find the perfect spot for our last night’s camping with Jay before reaching Uspallata and then heading in different directions. But for the next curveball, a roaring sidewind picks up, spraying us with gritty bullets of sand. I now see where the park gets its name from – Leoncito means “Little Lion”. It’s so loud we can’t hear a thing and we’re being blown in all directions. However, such was the upward trajectory of our mood graph, the three of us just laughed at the absurdity of the situation. What on earth are we doing?!
A few hours in it starts to become less of a joke as we realise there really is no shelter from the wind, so nowhere to camp. I check iOverlander, a map app on which people mark points where they’ve camped, and there is a spot 35km away that is apparently sheltered with trees. This is a seriously tough ask considering the wind and the distance we’ve already covered today, but what choice do we have? Hopefully something will materialise sooner.
It doesn’t. The road turns to washboard and I am weeping a little to myself. It’s just heads down, pedal hard. Not even podcasts can distract me, and this time I’m The Grumpy One. I dig down to a new level and cycle as hard as I can out of necessity. Jay takes Motivator to a new level, “just 5km left, we piss 5km!” – I know I’ll laugh about that one later – and slowly, slowly, the trees come into view. It’s dark now, I put my head torch on and see Chillo is lagging behind. For this last bit it’s finally my turn to motivate and I wait for him to catch up, cycling alongside him in silence. There’s nothing left to say. We finally make it, set up camp, cook pasta and slowly become verbal again and chat into the night before crawling into our tents. This time, we’re all The Sleepy Ones.
Dates: 9 – 13 October (5 days)
Total distance: 350km
Cycling days: 5
Rest days: 0
Longest day: 123km
Shortest day: 24km