31 March 2011

Cuesta de Miranda 2 / Chilecito

Horses awakened me in the night. Two had come down into the red dirt clearing beside my tent and were stomping on the ground and grunting. I lay still, making no noise until they left. I awoke later with the glow of the sun coming up behind the red mountains. Everything was still. The zonda was not blowing. I checked for new flea bites and did not find any. I made a coffee and packed up.

The road wound up higher into the mountains through fields of cactus and streams flowed over the road and then there was a tall wall of mountains and there Ruta 40 became a series of long switchbacks up it. It was the Cuesta de Miranda. The road steepened but the red dirt ripio was gravelly enough that I had traction and I struggled up the pass and then through a corridor of red rock and the road continued higher until the marker at the top.

Then it was down, down on a narrow ripio road overlooking the gorge and with no guardrail you could not make any mistakes. The ripio was washboard in places and thick sand and it was dangerous to look to much at the scenery as you descended. It was a long descent that I took slowly and then I was down into the valley along the river and I hit asphalt again.

I stopped to eat some cookies and saw my rear left pannier was hanging on the rack by only one hook. I looked more closely and saw the other hook had been torn free from the rivets that held it to the pannier. With two screws, nuts and washers I reattached the hook. Something always seemed to break on the ripio.

The road descended slowly from the pass following along the river and then near Nanogasta the descent steepened and I blew through that town, the valley now stretching out in front and a new range of mountains, and I coasted into the neighboring town of Sanogasta. I stopped and bought some water at a service station and then headed up Ruta 40, now ascending, towards Chilecito.

In the midday heat it was a long 20 km ascent to Chilecito and I stopped in a bar and drank and coffee and a sparkling water. I had hoped to do some shopping at 4 pm when I expected the siesta to end, but here in Chilecito the siesta ended at 6 pm. It was that way throughout this region I was told. I supposed it was because of the hotter temperatures.

I waited around until 6 pm and found a kiosk near the edge of town. The old man there was a former cyclist and said that I should stay the night at the youth center around the corner. I could stay there for free and get a bed and a shower. I preferred to wild camp off the roadside but he was insistent and I finally said that I would take a look.

Inside the youth center there were young boys playing basketball. A man who ran the place said there was a room and that he would call another man who would bring the key to open it. Hours later the man had still not come. I said that I didn’t need the room and would just put up my tent in the room beside the bathroom. I was tired and wanted to cook up some pasta and to go to sleep.

It was not until after midnight that they closed the youth center. I pushed the doors of the room closed and propped up a heavy metal desk against them. Outside on the street I could hear people talking and the dogs were barking loudly. There was something wrong with one of the toilets and it flushed loudly every 5 minutes. I couldn’t sleep and wished I had just headed out of town to camp.

Then around 2 am someone on the street starts banging on the window to my room and calling into it. He must be able to see the tent and he’s asking me to open the door of the youth center. I don’t say anything hoping he’ll go away, but he keeps calling into my room. Finally, I speak out in English and tell him to get out. I start yelling at him but he won’t shut up. After 5 minutes of this he finally leaves.

10 minutes later I hear somebody inside the center. I can hear two people talking. I quickly unzip my tent and unfold my knife. I see them through the venting on the windows of the room walking towards my door. It looks like two teenagers. They start pushing at my doors. The desk is scraping across the floor as the doors push inward. They’re coming in. I creep up to the doors in the darkness. When the door is open almost enough for one to come in I jump into the light and yell “BOO!” which causes the one at the door to run. The other boy is standing there, terrified. I step into the crack of the doorway and start yelling at him in English and giving him the crazy eyes. Maybe he sees the knife too, I didn’t care. He’s not saying a thing. I want to keep it all in english--my language. I want every advantage.

I can see he's real scared and I mix in a little Spanish and ask him why he’s in here, the center is closed. His friend, hearing the Spanish, has now come back. I don’t like the look of this kid at all with the tattoos and the piercings. He asks me if he can come in and get a drink of water from the sink inside my room. No, I tell him. I’m sleeping here. Go home, I tell them. Then I get loud and start insulting both of them in English and give them the crazy eyes one more time and shut the door and push the desk up against it. I hear them leave. I hoped I scared them enough not to come back.

I didn’t sleep much after that. I was worried they might return with their friends or with weapons. I didn’t know and had to be prepared for anything. I pushed a second desk up against the door and put a beer bottle and a broom handle near my tent as other weapons I could use. It was past 3 am. I must have dozed off because the next thing I remember it was 6 am and the housekeeper was knocking on the door asking to be let in.

30 March 2011

Cuesta de Miranda

My stomach and back were covered in flea bites, red, itching clusters of them just above my waistband, and they had gotten my legs too around my thighs and ankles. There must have been a hundred bites in total. The fleas had gotten me good. My concern now was whether they had taken up residence in my bedding and gear. The itching I could ignore. I shook out my sleeping bag and tent and packed up.

Sierra de Famatina

I rode the 20 km to Villa Union and was stopped outside the town at a police checkpoint. They wanted to check my papers. I was a little annoyed to have to unpack my pannier to find my passport and when the one policeman said to the other that he was certain I was German I interrupted and told him I was American. They were very polite after that and the younger one gave me a map of the town.

I picked up some unsecured wifi outside one of the hotels and then went into the town center and bought a couple of sandwiches and ate them in the plaza. You could see it was a well-off town for this part of Argentina and I figured it was because of its proximity to the Valle de la Luna, a park of geologic formations 60 km south that is popular with tourists.

Outside Villa Union the road started to climb. It was midday and hot and there was no wind and the road went straight up into the hills. I could see the snow-capped mountain range of the Sierra de Famatina very well now. One of those high snowy peaks was the Col Graf Belgrano at over 6000 meters. Ruta 40 soon turned east and the snow capped mountains were behind me and it was a long gradual descent towards the Sierra de Sanogasta range.

The Sierra de Sanogasta mountains were a deep red and there were tall cactus growing on them and I entered into the range and began ascending between high walls of smoothed red rock. A small stream ran across the road and I stopped to wash my clothes in it and then sat on a rock in the shade of a thorn tree and rested. The zonda had started to blow down through the valley. The wind was against me and it was tough riding, but it sure was beautiful country.

Past the brown mud huts of Puerto Alegre the pavement ended and the ripio began. It started as washboard ripio that rattled your teeth and shook up your insides and I weaved across the whole road looking for a smooth line. The ripio turned red soon after and I rode higher and higher into the mountains until a small town called Los Termillos that was not indicated on my map.

There was a tourism office-hotel-restaurant-kiosk there and I went inside and asked about something to eat. The two old ladies offered me a sandwich which I had with a 2 liter bottle of water with gas. The one lady urged me to stay the night. There was a high pass called the Cuesta de Miranda that I would need to go over to reach the next valley. It was hard and cold atop the pass but very beautiful and it would be better to ride up it in the morning. I thanked her for looking out for me and explained I wanted to go just a little further and to camp. I paid and started to leave when the other old lady emerged with a sack of grapes and two apples. It was a dessert for tonight, she said, and they said goodbye and wished me much luck.

I started back up the climb out of the pueblo, the zonda beating down at me, and there wasn’t anything in my legs. They were heavy and dead and it was too late in the day anyway. The ripio and wind had taken a lot from me. I rode a few kilometers further and began to look for a place to put up my tent.

I found a spot right up next to the road but below it in a red dirt clearing. It was a low area with high brush along the roadside that would further hide the tent. I pitched the tent and then climbed up and walked along the road to see if it was visible. The spot was good. The headlights of vehicles would pass over the top of the tent, but if a camion or car should go off the road I was a dead man. I heard a whirring sound and saw hummingbirds feeding on the red berries of the bushes. They moved quickly and easily through the tangled branches. I shook and aired out my sleeping bag and was relieved to see no sign of fleas.

I laid down inside the tent. I was still full from the sandwich. I listened to the wind blowing through the brush high on mountainside. I took a nap and when I awoke made a cup of vegetable soup and ate some of the grapes the old ladies had given me. There was a big climb ahead tomorrow and maybe the zonda would be blowing down against me. The zonda had nothing on the winds of Tierra del Fuego though. The zonda by comparison was a minor wind. I hoped that the ripio would be good and that it would not be so steep or sandy that I would be unable to ride and have to get off the bike to push. The old ladies at Los Termillos had gotten me excited about the Cuesta de Miranda.

29 March 2011

Near Villa Union

In the morning while packing I saw a young woman raking leaves at the campground and asked her if this was the road to Huaco. She said that it was, that Huaco was just over the next pass. I rode out of the campground and started up.

It was steep and a longer climb than the day before and there was much evidence of falling rock along the narrow one-lane road. There were no guardrails and it was a long drop down into the canyon. The road flattened out at the top and I stopped to look far out across the valley and to the next ranges of mountains and I could see the smoke from leaves being burned in the pueblo of Huaco below. Then it was down the mountainside on steep switchbacks, back and forth and braking all the way, and out into the valley.

I needed food and water and passed the turnoff north for Ruta 40 and continued into Huaco. It was a little town of mud brick homes with a little kiosk. There was very little selection and I bought a couple tomatoes and the only apple they had and then went back up the road to Ruta 40.

It was 100 km to Guandacol and the road was a rolling climb between two ranges of mountains. It was hot but the zonda was blowing as a cool headwind and it felt good. Far in the distance beyond a nearer range of mountains I could see snow-capped mountains. There was no traffic on the road and I rode until I was hungry. I put my ground pad down under a thorn tree and had some bread, the apple and a roll of cookies and took a nap.

I stopped at a service station in Guandacol and bought some water and continued on in the direction of Villa Union. I did not want to make it there but to get within 20 km of the town and to camp. The mountains turned red along the road and there were fields of low growing cactus. Much of this area was a flood plain from rain water flowing down from the mountains and where the vegetation and trees grew was nearest where the waters passed and I did not want to camp there.

I found a sort of grassy field up off the road and behind some bushes and pushed the bike up. I set up camp and began to boil water for pasta and could feel as if tiny insects were landing upon me and biting me. I saw nothing and tried to ignore the feeling. But there was something biting me and after the pasta was finished I hurried inside the tent to eat.

There with the twilight coming through the tent fabric I saw them. Fleas. Tiny fleas. There were hundreds of them hopping about the tent and onto me. The grass must have been full of them. I began killing as many as I could, crushing them against the tent walls, but there were simply too many and I went to sleep knowing I would be bitten through the night. I hoped it would not be as bad as that flea-ridden hostel in San Juan. The dozen bites around each of my ankles had still not healed.

28 March 2011

Near Huaco

I awoke to the pitter patter of rain on the fly. It was gray and cloudy but from the tent window I saw clear skies in the direction of the wind. It would blow over and be a fine day later. I made a coffee and waited for the rain to stop and then began to pack up. I wanted to make San Jose de Jachal by lunch and also to purchase more supplies there. I had very little information on where towns were along this stretch of Ruta 40 and I wanted a max load of water whenever I could get it.

Like yesterday it was good rolling desert scrub between the mountain ranges and I felt good and even better when a light tailwind picked up. Past the pueblo of Niquivil (really a few mud brick homes along the road) the desert ended and it was lush with streams and poplar trees and fields of corn and even some vineyards. Along the road was a small canal bringing gray-green colored water down from the high mountains.

Soon after I was in San Juan de Jachal and rode in to the center of town and found a restaurant at the main plaza. For lunch I had a big, tasty piece of beef and a salad with a mediano Quilmes and afterwards a coffee. The town was on siesta when I finished and I went across the street to the plaza and put out my ground pad under a tree and took a nap.

Except for a little kiosk the town was still shuttered when I got up. I bought some water and rode out towards the mountains. My map indicated I would need to follow a smaller road, possibly unpaved, over a range of mountains to get back onto Ruta 40 near the pueblo of Huaco. I planned to camp somewhere near there.

I followed the road to a lake and then it started up into the mountains. A sign marked the area as La Cienaga, a nature preserve. It was a steep climb but not long and at the top there was the sound of rushing water and I looked down at the lake where it had been dammed. Then it was down, descending, down the narrow one lane road cut into the mountainside and then fast shooting out into the next valley. The mountains here were red rock and the dirt was red too and I had not seen any signs for Huaco or anything else and hoped I was going the right way. But there hadn’t been any other way that I remembered.

I climbed and descended and then down another descent I saw a sign that said “Acampar Permitido”, meaning camping permitted or free camping. There was an abandoned campground looking out at the red mountains and I stopped. There was still another hour of rideable sunlight and I could have gone further but the campsite had running water and electricity and I needed to wash some clothes and recharge my computer and cell phone batteries. I figured I was pretty close to Huaco anyway, that is if I was going the right way.

I washed my tshirts and socks and laid them on at log to dry. I made a pasta dish with a four cheese sauce packet and it was good, but the mosquitoes got too bad and I had to go inside my tent to finish it. Later in the night a dog found me and circled my tent barking and grunting. I lay quietly and soon he was gone, and soon after that I was asleep.

27 March 2011

Ruta 40 (100 km North of San Juan)

I woke early and packed and said goodbye to Diego. We both expected to see each other somewhere in Colombia in a few months. After he sold his motorbike he planned to backpack his way north. It was Sunday and most shops were closed as I rode back towards San Juan and the junction with Ruta 40. I still needed another fuel canister for my stove.

North of San Juan I stopped at a small town called Albardon and bought a lunch of a half dozen empanadas from a lady selling them out of her house. Then at the service station on the edge of the town I found a butane canister. I now had what I needed and from there it was a long, gradual climb towards the mountains.

I passed through neighborhoods of mud brick homes, the children playing in the dusty streets and yelling after me as I passed, and through an industrial park and a quarry where they were strip mining the mountain, and then around a small range of mountains I dropped down into a valley. From here the road turned north and a long stair-step climb began. It was slow and hot and biting flies attacked me as I climbed, swatting at them and unable to out-run them.

At the height of the climb I looked out across to a new range of mountains and in the long flat valley below there was the glistening of a stream running through it and then I dropped down, not needing to peddle, the road fast and winding down the mountainside and a long run-out into the valley. From here it was rolling country between the large range of mountains to the west and the smaller range to the east. It was desert scrub and sand and there were low areas where I could see the rains from the high mountains had rushed down and flowed over the road. But it was easy riding and there were no more climbs.
I pitched the tent off the road behind some thorn bushes and it was not until I had crawled inside that I realized I was visible to traffic. A few cars honked at me (a gesture of encouragement in Argentina) and I decided to move camp. I repacked my panniers and took down the tent, reloaded the bike, and pushed it further through the dirt to a depressed area, maybe an old dried up lake bed, and pushed the bike down into it. Down here I was not visible from the road and I could sleep easier.

With all the barbecuing we had done over the past few days I didn’t have much of an appetite. I made some soup, a cup of coffee, and ate a package of crackers. I read awhile but felt sleepy. The wind began to blow and the temperature dropped. I wondered if a storm was coming.
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