After a few days we dragged ourselves away from San Pedro de Atacama, bidding a reluctant farewell to the French bakery conveniently located about 50m from our campsite. It was time to climb (again) as we headed back over the Andes via Paso de Sico and into Argentina…

Desert & donkeys
Passing another one of those ‘significant milestones’ on the road out of San Pedro de Atacama
And the scenery just gets better
With more on the ‘volcanos & lakes’ theme as we climb …
A palette of mountain colours
And a quick detour to get up close to these huge ‘penitentes’ 

Penitentes are narrow blades of hardened snow or ice formations that can grow up to 5m high, found in glaciated and snow-covered areas in the dry Andes above 4000m. They supposedly resemble either the tall white pointed hoods worn by brothers of religious orders for the Processions of Penance during Spanish Holy Week – or maybe a group of people kneeling in penance – depending on who you ask.

And then it’s over the border – Argentina welcoming us with 130k of rough corrugated road
The border post stands out like a beacon in the desert

Arriving at the remote border outpost a helpful official went off to rouse the necessary people to provide us with exit and entry stamps. A few minutes later we were settled into the bunkhouse accomodation available for travellers, shown the hot shower and gifted with a loaf of freshly baked bread. Listening to the wind battering the building that night we were very happy to be snuggled up indoors.

Lots of nothing out here …
 Rheas dash frantically off into the distance
The howling afternoon winds continue, & campsite protection is essential … if not always very effective
Ant-like, we crawl across this vast empty landscape …

Passing San Antonio de Los Cobres and with a drop of 2,500vm ahead we were gleefully anticipating a fast and fun descent into Salta – alas, it was not to be as we woke to a complete shift in weather conditions…

With heavy cloud draping the mountains & a ripping headwind our ‘descent’ turns into a struggle to do much more than 15kph ..
Eventually we decide it’s pointless to continue & find a hidey hole for the night

Arriving in Salta the following day it all looks much the same as our previous visit in 2010. It’s an attractive city with the central plaza having a  European feel…

All imposing churches …
And streetside cafes with people sipping drinks & reading newspapers
A block or so from the centre & things get a little dingier
And the frequency of protest marches seems unchanged since our last visit

You don’t have to venture far though before the rot sets in. Argentina is looking a little shabby and rundown with high inflation and continued problems with corruption. The queues here are staggering, maybe it was worse because of the lead up to Christmas, but trying to do anything from posting a letter to buying a few groceries involves a lot of time standing in line. The banking system is an experience in itself – long queues at ATMs which are frequently either broken, out of cash, or just disinclined to cooperate with foreign banking networks. Should you actually find a functioning machine after trying a dozen or so, you can only withdraw a maximum of US$180 at a time, for which you are charged a US$10 fee. Not surprisingly we ran out of cash a couple of times – and it feels decidedly precarious to have just 5 pesos and a packet of instant mashed potato left to your name. Happily, Argentinians are some of the nicest people you’ll ever meet, and never has a large cakie thing passed to us out a car window been more appreciated.

Gorgeous riding through the rivers and rocks of the Quebrada de los Conchas en route to Cafayate
Rock walls and vineyards – getting close to the famed wine producing region of Cafayate

You can’t cycle far in northern Argentina without encountering roadside shrines. The most prolific honour the Difunta Correa – a woman who, according to legend, took her baby and walked out across the desert in an attempt to reach her husband, sick and left to die by partisans during the civil wars. She ran out of food and water and died, but her baby was found days later alive and feeding miraculously from her still-full breast. Devotees (particularly truck drivers for some reason) leave bottles of water at these shrines – to ‘soothe her eternal thirst’. With temperatures hitting 45°C in the barren desert south of Cafayate we could definitely empathise.

I’m not sure about the Difunta, but I suspect many overheated cyclists have given thanks for the abundant supply of water
Although I’m less certain of the relevance of everything from an old TV to assorted car parts …

The other big hit on the shrine parade is Gauchito Gil, the biggest folk hero in Argentina. Revered as a Robin Hood figure, he was captured and killed – and credited with the miraculous recovery from a strange illness of the son of the police sergeant who killed him. Predicting both an imminent pardon for his crimes and the sons illness, Gauchito Gil urged the sergeant to let him go – but this didn’t wash with the sergeant who slit his throat anyway. On finding his dying son (& the letter of pardon) the sergeant did some fast praying, his son was saved – and the legend of Gauchito Gil was born….

Red flags indicate another shrine to the famed Gauchito Gil
Dramatic scenery, but not very hospitable – as well as the cacti almost every tree & shrub is adorned with giant thorns
A nice ‘short cut’ took us in to San Jose de Jachel
Hot, damn hot

And from there it was a quick run in to San Juan, our base for a week over Christmas. Having booked a room online using the Air BNB hosting network we weren’t entirely sure what we’d end up with. So we were delighted to find that we’d struck the jackpot … our hosts Carlos and Haydee treating us more like visiting family than paying guests. Haydee is a chef, and it was fun to watch her at work preparing traditional Argentinian Christmas fare…

Haydee at work in one of her two kitchens
Christmas Eve is when it all happens, & we were invited to join the family for an Argentinian ‘asado’ – a barbecue on a scale which makes the average Aussie offering seem pretty pathetic

Leaving San Juan the landscape gradually shifted, desert being replaced by farmland and vineyards, which transitioned into pampa – the fertile lowland plains dominated by native grasses. 

Into cowboy country …

Looking for an alternative to the main road through San Rafael we discovered that the old Ruta 40 was being upgraded with a new sealed road … although it was incomplete and still closed the local police assured us that we could get through by bike …

When the road ends …
And a storm starts to build …
Time to seek shelter
Which we find in a conveniently located culvert – not the most dazzling of sites in which to welcome the New Year …
But given our current lifestyle it seemed pretty appropriate
The next morning revealed a bright new year & the mountains previously shrouded in cloud
We head off into Malargue, battling the first of several days of intense headwinds
Meeting young Argentinian Nico, one of the more heavily laden cyclists we’ve seen
Cloud-watching is a favourite way to pass those hours in the saddle …

Having moved far enough south to avoid the heavily populated Santiago area we decided that it was time to head back to Chile. The wind had other ideas though, and we had to fight our way to the Argentinian border post at Los Loicas. From here the road winds up for 40 km to Paso Penhuenche – at a lowly 2,500m this didn’t seem like a big deal. Hours later we had barely covered 25 km, often stopped hunched over our bikes in the ‘brace’ position as gusts of wind in excess of 100 kph blasted down the valley. It was obvious that we weren’t going any further so we turned around to a small clearing off the road with enough shelter to protect the tent from the worst of the wind. No worries, we were soon snuggled up and dozing off as light rain started to fall. And then shouts outside the tent announced the arrival of the Argentinian border police. Unfortunately we’d been seen and the two officious officials wasn’t having a bar of our protests – it was going to snow they said (but that’s exactly why we are hauling around a 4 season tent we said). Thus we ended up being unceremoniously bundled into their crappy old Jeep and taken back down to the border post we’d stamped out of earlier that day. Thankfully the wind relented enough to allow us to make the crossing the following day.

Booted out of no-man’s land by the Argentinian border police …
Booted out of no-man’s land by the Argentinian border police …
We make it over the pass & back into Chile
Definitely a little cooler here
Once over the border we find a perfect campsite by a rockface popular with climbers
A perfect spot for afternoon contemplation
Zooming downhill it’s not long until the lush green valley gives way to the urban jungle of Talca

Realising that it had been over six months since we’d last seen the coast we decide to make a detour …

The roadsigns are only slightly exaggerated

Taking a series of back roads that dwindled to forest tracks, reality did not conform to our maps. Deciding to forge on, we eventually popped out near Chanco, finding a lovely campsite in the Reserva Nacional Federico Albert surrounded by giant gum trees planted around 1910.

But of course uphill it really is that steep…
Via the Alley of Giants to the nearby beach
And we arrive back at the Pacific Ocean

Next up – exploring the Chilean Lakes District en route to northern Patagonia and the much-anticipated Carretera Austral …

Until next time,

Rubber side down

Ed & Gaye

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