Monday, April 10, 2006

Fin del Mundo. Argentina 2006

Of vineyards, gracious people, friendly dogs, painted badlands, lush forests, epic climbs, really epic downhills, and great new friends.

(Sit back, this is a little long.)
The trip to Argentina is over now. We are all back in our assigned spots in the ‘real world’. For a time we lived in a fantasy which was all too enjoyable and comfortable in a crazy sort of way. It was not comfortable in the sense of creature comforts. It was comfortable in the sense that it was invigorating, suspenseful, surprising and indulgent. We pretty much did only as we really wanted to for a brief time. We rode bicycles through the countryside of a mystical and exciting land. It was like riding through the Lord of the Rings. There were giant vistas of rivers and mountains; the throat of the devil and an amphitheater in a mountain-side; endless vineyards around fairytale estates; dogs everywhere and hardly one of them aggressive in any way; giant rocks shaped like frogs; goats; llamas; burros and ruins of civilizations wiped out by our European ancestors. And, finally, we got to see how the Argentineans really have a good time.

The last night in Cafayate we had an Argentine barbeque, which means lots of beef. Rick had made the acquaintance, from the campsite next to us, of a couple from Belgium, Petr and Saundra, and their toddler daughter that afternoon and they joined us for the feast. It was a great time with great Argentine wine, local beer and lots of conversation and laughter into the night. We had kilos of meat and luckily Saundra supplied a wonderful salad. The next day we took the morning to pack up and go into town to resupply for the next two day’s lunches. We got some small tasks done, like mailing postcards. Shockingly, this was the relatively most expensive thing we had yet seen in Argentina, four pesos, or about $1.25 per postcard. I have been home over a week now and they still have not arrived. We regrouped about 11:00 on the town square. We had our daily circle where we each check in with our self assessment of how we are feeling on a 1 – 10 scale, answer the question of the day, which might have been “What have you learned in Cafayate that you will remember?”, and got the plan for the day: where we will be riding to, when we should plan to stop for a rest and snack.

We rode out of Cafayate, I think all of us regretting that we had to leave, but realizing that some great sites and experiences lay ahead. We rolled along mostly flat roads with vineyards all around and down a slope to a rest stop in the sleepy pueblo of Tolombon. It seemed to be built around the wine industry and had national historic buildings and a quaint central park. The curious thing was how quiet and abandoned everything seemed and how ill kempt the central square seemed. The quiet could be explained by siesta time. The trashy square was unique in my observations as we meandered through the north of Argentina. I do not know why this little town seemed different that way. Our snack breaks had some consistency to them in that the energy source of choice was the bags of ‘Diversion’ cookies we would devour. They got us through the days.

Rolling on we made our way down long stretches of fairly flat roads and soon could see in the distance the foot hill ranges of the Andes with two snow capped peaks on these first days of autumn in the southern hemisphere. Two obviously fully loaded bike tourists approached and we learned they were Betsy and Katy from Minneapolis! They were on there way from the south of Argentina to Ecuador. Some of us had rolled by them wanting to stop but too surprised by their approach and apparently they did not stop because we looked too “hard core”. No, not really.

That afternoon we arrived at our destination, Quilmes Ruins. This is a restored indigenous settlement from centuries ago. They have built a hotel among the ruins in a manner to make the modern buildings blend with the ruins around them. This was our first direct exposure to the indigenous cultures but would prove to not be our last. To get to the hotel and ruins required a very tough gradual climb up a wash board, loose gravel, rocky 5 km road. It was a hot afternoon and getting to the destination was a welcome relief. We enjoyed a cold beverage and then found our way to first class rooms in the hotel and a welcome shower (ducha). The hotel was built among the ruins so immediately outside our room, there they were. The main area of the old structures was up the mountainside. After we cleaned up some hiked into the ruins. I stood and watched some llamas stroll down out of the bush and down to within 10 feet of where I stood. They are quite interesting creatures. Dinner in the hotel was forgettable but the wine was not.

After a good night’s sleep we had a simple breakfast in the hotel and then rolled back down that rocky road and on to a day of nearly constant climbing up to our next destination, the Observatorio at Ampimpa. Along the way we stopped for lunch at Amaicha del Valle and the Pachamama (Mother Earth) Museum. They had the most beautiful artisan gift shop that I saw on the trip and the museum looked quite interesting although we did not go through it. Much of it was in a courtyard outdoors next to the gift shop building and we could see large statues and icons and stonework through the fence and gates.

We rolled a short distance to some shops and someone said we should get some wine for the evening meal at the observatory. This resulted in two teams of eager group members headed in different directions to seek out such a commodity and so it happened that we hauled a total of 9 liters of local red wine up the mountain. The 5 liter box of Malbec that Rick and I found was certainly the more convenient packaging however.

The ride up was a good steady climb. Not steep but relentless. But a steady slow pace and soon you find you are at the destination and feeling good about what you just accomplished. Christian, the keeper of the observatory was at the gate to greet us. He is a professor and a student working for his doctorate at the University in Tucuman. He knows the flora and fauna and skies as well as the history of this area in some great detail and he was an enthusiastic teacher. All of his teaching was in Spanish and so we learned much by listening to him but even more by the translation of Koa, Kim, Nick and Rick. After we pushed the bikes up the 1 km climb to the observatory compound, complete with a cook shed, dining hall and bunk houses for us, we gathered with Christian to share some mate, the local tea which is drunk thru a metal or bamboo straw and to learn about some local herbs. Then it was off on a hike into the mountains to explore some real ruins which are not rebuilt for tourists. These are a true archeological site and we saw the original walls, burial sites, homes, market areas, grinding stones and pieces of ceramic pottery which the indigenous people had made and lived in many hundreds of years ago. There were even small pieces of bones and remnants of jewelry as we looked through the sand and gravel of the village area. To say it was exciting and awe-inspiring is not quite adequate. It is hard to put the sense of standing on hallowed, even sacred, ground into words. We got so caught up in that and admiring the giant cacti around us that we started back a little late and hiked the last half mile or so in the dark over fairly rough terrain. Luckily, there were no twisted ankles to complicate the next day’s biking.

A typically late Argentine dinner of rice soup, chicken, salad, bread and fruit, prepared by Christian, was enjoyed by a hungry crew. Some of us were too tired to do dishes so got our turn after breakfast in the morning. I think we might have had the harder job since the night crew left a few and we had to finish them all so we could depart without leaving an impact on the facility.

The area of the observatory is home to some plants which produce prodigious amounts of thorny burrs. Not too big but big enough to flatten a tire if not promptly removed. This resulted in some more flat repair practice and in some of us carrying our bikes down to the main road. So there were several trips up and down to get bikes and packs all in position to leave and start the day’s climbing to the top of the mountains, over the pass and down into the lush valley, leaving the arid desert climate behind. Halfway there we stopped for lunch at a Catholic shrine. This one, unlike most of the roadside shrines, which are numerous, was a building with a shelter to get out of the sun. It was a sunny day but as we were now around 9,000 feet elevation, cool. The vistas on this climb were awesome with sweeping views of the valleys and mountains all around. The roads were good and the traffic very light. There were occasional homes with a few goats and chickens around. My sense was that these were true subsistence farmers. Probably having enough to feed the family and perhaps making some local crafts to sell in the valley communities of Amaicha or Tafi.

We got to the summit of the pass, about 10,000 feet. On the way we continued to see llamas, burros and goats wandering. At the pass was a small stand with local crafts manned by a mother and her four children and a llama tied to a post. We bought a few things, gave the kids some cookies and a hacky sack ball and then, when the llama decided to empty it’s bladder near our bikes, ended our nice respite, checked our brakes and started the 12 mile descent to Tafi del Valle which we could see in the distance next to a large reservoir lake. The ride down was long and spectacular with several spots where the brakes were tested so we could stop to capture an image on film or memory card.

In Tafi we stopped to acquire the food for that night and next breakfast. We basked in the warm sun of this dusty but inviting farming and tourism/artisans’ community. The homes around and some of the facilities in town belied a community with some wealth, at least of a middle class, and not overwhelming poverty. Argentina’s economy has been down for some time but seems to be making a good comeback.

After our break we progressed down the road to El Mollar, on the other side of the lake and under the cloud bank which extended into the valley from the mountains on the other side, where the lush forests grow. We left the sun for a misty cool fog. Christian had suggested a location to stay which was a new one for Rick. He is still looking for the ideal destination for this leg of the trip. We ended up in a campground with a soft grassy tenting area and shelters for cooking and eating and it worked out great. Koa and I rode into town to get some beverages and he had this long conversation with the store owner which covered everything from poverty in Bolivia, where Koa was in the Peace Corps, to hurricanes in New Orleans. I just tried to pick up a few words and the thread of the conversation. Fun. One more evening of great food and great company with group. Late night shower in the funky facility in the motel next to the campground: shower, stool, bidet all in one stall. Tomorrow would be our last day of riding.

This was the day of the awesome downhill. Yesterday was just a warm up. This one followed a rushing white water river through lush forests and around numerous switchbacks and ran out on to the humid sugar cane growing valley where we would spend the next two nights in Yerba Buena, suburb of Tucuman, capitol of the namesake province. On the way down was a great little artisans’ outlet where most of us made some purchases to strap on to the back of the bikes. We also passed ‘Fin del Mundo’ (the End of the World) where the road appears to drop of into nowhere. We rode on past the lunch hour looking for a good place to stop because, in contrast to other days we had not supplied ourselves with food to make our own lunch. We ended up in Famailla where the 9 of us overwhelmed a little café but got our food eventually and meanwhile got to watch the midday community activity which included countless trips around the town square on motor scooters or bicycles each with a rider and a passenger.

After lunch we endured a stretch on a busy highway until we could turn on to quieter roads and then rolled into Yerba Buena, where after ice cream we followed our host Santiago Aragon through the streets of this city of contrasts in poverty and wealth, quiet and noise to our home for the next two days in a wonderful private home hostel on a quiet street. It was a couple blocks off the main drag and we were able to make good use of the cities shopping and eating attractions. Santiago, our host in Yerba Buena, had ridden his bike from there to Alaska, taking four years to do it. He left town with the equivalent of $20 in his pocket. The owner of the hostel, Fernando, had taken five years to ride his bike around the world. We felt we were among friends.

The first night we went to dinner, an art opening of an artist friend of Santiago’s and then experienced a vintage Argentine all-night session of talk and sharing the fruits of the local wine industry. I usually do not stay out very late, except on the night shift at work, but this night was energizing and it was so fascinating to see the animation in the personalities around me. Even though I understood only an occasional word or two, or struggled to communicate in some strange hybrid of the languages, it was great fun. Curt and I left, got a ride from Santiago’s brother back to the house, about 3:30am. Others in the group we left behind had to be at work later that morning. I am thinking there were a couple of ill calls that day.

Our last day before the travel day the morning was spent packing up the bikes and everything else in the mirror image of the day two weeks before when we did not know each other and were unsure what lay ahead. This day we were buzzing around and joking and got it all done pretty efficiently. Some of us despite ourselves. The afternoon started with some lunch down the street and then some naps and shopping and wandering. Before packing Koa and Phil had actually gone for a ride into the mountains just outside of town. They said it was great riding. As we walked the main street there were frequent riders obviously dressed for serious riding headed out in that direction.

Our last night in Argentina was the time for a great celebration. A barbeque had been planned by Santiago at a charming facility just down the main street from our hostel. It was a grassy compound which had a small house which contained an artisan’s gift shop and a kitchen with a barbeque cooker and a fire pit in the back. We made use of all of the facilities and had a great evening of interacting with hosts, making purchases and receiving some local promotional gifts, eating great food, drinking great wine, singing and generally basking in the hospitality and graciousness of our Argentine hosts. They were great, open, friendly people.

In the morning we loaded all the bikes and bags into Santiago’s truck and took three cabs to the airport to leave. The travel back included a few hours layover in Cordoba so we took advantage to go see the center of the city where we experienced the wailing blind woman and some young tricksters who are no doubt budding entrepreneurs. Maria taught them the disappearing and reappearing coin trick and that pretty much disarmed them. The larger cities we saw were pretty consistent: busy, lots of diesel fuel in use, bustling, reasonably clean and safe feeling, with signs of economic improvement and definitely trying to attract more tourism. The rest of the trip was pretty uneventful except for one close call on the connection in Miami. Twenty-five hours from the start, we were home.

On reflection, it is hard to imagine how the trip could have gone much better. For Koa, maybe having a current passport may have made it better, but maybe not. As a group it seemed we could hardly have been more compatible. We rode well together, helped each other out and socialized well. It was immensely enjoyable. A large part of this can be chalked up to Rick’s management of the whole process. From the day of preparation and packing, to the trouble shooting during travel, to the group process which kept us all in touch and communicating, to the guidance and direction to keep us moving and not least of all, to the on the fly bike mechanics, it is hard to find where he missed a beat. It is hard to substitute for experience and judgment and he has them both in quantity.

Thanks to everyone involved, including the board of Two Wheel View for supporting the idea of this trip. I know it will have an impact on the lives of all the participants and no doubt on Two Wheel View as well. Ciao.


At 10:38 PM, Blogger Phil Lucero said...

Great journal! I felt as if I just relived the whole thing. I also realize that I am a horrible speller and that I have to go back and change alot on my blog. It was great getting to know you and I hope we can reunite sometime for some vino tinto and empanadas!



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