Hi-de-hi. Another Epic,
I only stayed in Julio's house in Mendoza for three nights, going into the town in the evenings to sample what was going on. When I took the keys back I asked them to check who was supposed to be feeding the dog. The house is in a secure compound with security staff so maybe they were feeding it, and stopped when they saw me living there.
The more I looked on the map the more interesting N.W. Argentina looked. Why don't we know or hear anything about these places? It just got more and more interesting. The roads are pretty bad in places with lots of gravel and sand, but some are beautiful new tarmac. The area seemed so interesting that I decided not to go back over to Chile until the very North of Argentina (there is only one North/South road in Chile and I went south down that.). However there was one pass 15,700 ft high, the top of which was only 50 miles from where I was. So I decided to nip up, camp at the top and come back down the same side. These passes don't have Customs posts at the border, they have them at the nearest town or village either side. This particular one had 100 miles of "no mans land" between the two. When I came back down there were different people in the Customs and Immigration to when I went up, and I had problems getting back "into" Argentina, as I didn't have the exit paperwork from Chile. I never actually left Argentina, but I couldn't seem to explain that to them. Eventually I took one of them on the back of the bike to another office in the village to sort it out. I sometimes wonder what my Spanish must sound like to them. Having seen and heard myself on video when I stayed at Valparaiso, the nearest I can think of is the British Agent speaking in "Allo Allo".
On the way up the pass I met two Austrian cyclists, who I had seen on the pass between Santiago and Mendoza, but didn't get a chance to speak to. They were also planning to camp at the top so we arranged to meet there. I've been higher than 15,700 ft before, but only in passing (no pun intended) and haven't been affected by altitude sickness. Staying in La Paz for a week at 12,500 ft gave me slight symptoms but nothing much. This was different. All three of us were really bad in the morning. Violent headaches, feeling sick and dizzy, unable to walk properly. Also your face puffs up - it was difficult to get the helmet on. The only good cure is to go down, but that is a problem on a track like that when you feel dizzy. To cap it all there was a clear, deep blue sky and brilliant sun, but everything was frozen solid. It took half an hour to thaw enough water to have a drink. I eventually wobbled off down the track but hadn't thought about all the wet areas from melting snow. Now of course they were sheets of ice, I seriously thought about waiting 'till the afternoon, but I wanted to get down. So I stamped a path across each one and rode very, very carefully. The drop at the side was, I should think somewhere between one and two thousand feet, but it wasn't vertical. You wouldn't get the luxury of free fall and then splat at the bottom, you'd feel every foot. What's that expression I used to keep repeating? "I do not have to be here, I am doing this for pleasure, I am enjoying myself."
So, everythings back to normal and tootling along in the valleys, the roads getting more and more scenic. I got onto one that was nice and bendy, tarmac and heading into a sort of gorge. A car appeared round a bend, fast and on my side, swerved and just missed me, but something about the confident way he was driving made me suspicious. It was hot and dinner time so I found some trees, put up the hammock, had something to eat and waited. In two hours only about ten or so vehicles went past, but all in the same direction as the first car. Nothing the other way. I eventually crept on slowly to the next police post where, sure enough, they had been waiting for me. Apparently the road is one way in the mornings, a dead period in that afternoon to make sure everybody gets out, then one way in the other direction in the evenings. How very civilised but it would help if there was something to tell you all this. There is, apparently a police post where there should have been a barrier, but he leaves it open because "everybody knows". An open barrier in Argentina is nothing suspicious as they are scattered all over the place from the stricter control in the days of the military government. Luckily I was less than halfway along and the best part was still to come, one way and with the sun behind me. Picture the old Loch Lomond road only tighter and narrower; sixty miles long with a good proportion cut out of the rock half way up a cliff. What a way to end a day.
The scenery just got better and better. Farther North (back on route 40 again) it got drier and drier, but not like the Atacama in Chile where it never rains. Here they have a wet season and the damage done by the flash floods is awesome. Stopping on some of the high points it's like looking down on a toy landscape and everything man-made seems very insignificant. It looks as though you could pour a cup of water on the hill the other side, and watch all the roads wash away. There was one fairly modern concrete and steel bridge, all twisted in the middle of a dry river bed about half a mile wide, with no sign of there ever having been a road either side of it. With my usual lack of research it occurred to me that I didn't know when this wet season was, and from what I'd seen I'd rather not be around when it arrived. Fortunately it had just been. I stopped counting when I had been round the fiftieth diversion round a washed away bridge. Some seasons are wetter than others. It seems they get quite a high annual rainfall, but it can all come in quite a short tine. I suspect a bit of exaggeration, but one person told me it could all come in one day. He made his point. I had been heading for the Atacama to visit the "moon valley" which is quite well known. After passing through, more or less by accident the forth and fifth "moon valleys" (lunar type landscapes) in Argentina which aren't at all well known there didn't seem much point. One of them had all sorts of fossils and things, some of which were carbon dated and found to be older than you. (This was addressed to Paul Mullis).
When I was staying somewhere up in the mountains I was shown the best way to get rid of mosquitoes. It's so obvious I can't think why I haven't been doing it for years. You build a fire with dried cow shit. Sure enough after a while no mozzies. It must be something you get used to though, because after another while, yes me, I went and joined the mozzies.
One place I stayed was a small town in the mountains of N.W. Argentina called Londres (doesn't take too much translating). It's very, very friendly and was named back in 1558 in honour of the marriage of Mary Tudor to Phillip II of Spain. Bet you didn't know that! It's also a lot more civilised than our London. Very basic, simple sort of life. More people ride horses than drive cars, and beer costs 40p a pint. In the touristy places in the South you can't buy large beers, only 285cc for 2 1/2 dollars. In the North you can't buy small ones, only litres, for about 1.6 dollars and sometimes as little as 85 cents, bit like England really, quality of life's better up north.
So more tootling along etc. when in quite a short distance everything changed from desert to almost tropical rain forest. Signs of recent rain everywhere and thunder clouds building in all directions. Came as quite a shock. I couldn't remember the last time I'd ridden in rain. Not on my list of things to do and all that. I just got to the municipal campsite at Salta and under cover at the reception building, when giant hailstones came down, yet the weather was hot. Very strange.
Seems I just caught up with the end of that areas wet season. Most days were hot and sunny, but there was spectacular lightning all around in the mountains every evening and just the occasional shower. Not too bad. Having decided not to go back to Chile, I got rid of my remaining Chilean money in Salta at a lousy rate. In my usual style, 4 days later I was back in Chile changing dollars at another lousy rate, oh well.
I looked at the map and decided to go North almost into Bolivia and then turn left over the last (or so I thought) remaining pass between Argentina and Chile. I use synthetic oil and couldn't find any in Argentina so that was the excuse to go to Chile, change, the oil and come back again (I had a bit of time to kill.). This was to be the end of the gravel, sand and dust. Two or three hundred miles each way, then wash everything and stick to tarmac for a while. The Paso Sico wasn't going to be very adventurous, buses use it, then an old man asked why I wasn't using the Paso de Jama. more direct. This one wasn't on any map I'd seen but that was never an excuse. So off we go. The usual fabulous scenery, salt lakes and 14,000 ft plus. There were signs to the Paso de Jama and plenty of tyre tracks so no problem. Then the signs got sort of confusing, so I used my instinct. I came to an enormous silver mine so asked the way, and they confirmed that I was on the road to Jama. Twice I had to turn back and check that I was on the right track. They corrected me a bit, but said go up the steep bit, then the zig-zags and you're almost at the pass. The steep bit had me walking beside the bike, as it wouldn't pull up it at that altitude. The zig-zags were OK if you didn't look over the edge, then I thought that was it. It got dark so I camped, everything frozen in the morning again but I set off and very quickly realised what a good thing I stopped when I did the night before. Deep soft sand, washed away sections of track, and various other 'almost' points of no return. When I came to a steep downhill bit with deep sand drifts that was it. I could have got down but if I had to turn back later there was no way I could get back up that one. With two or three people it would have been worth a try, but alone would be stupid. This wasn't like the roads elsewhere where somebody always comes along eventually. This had one set of 4 wheel drive tracks, which were quite old, and nothing else. Also no water anywhere.
Back 20 miles or so to where I'd turned off and I headed south to the Paso Sico. After another 20 miles there were signs to the Paso de Jama. It seems I'd been on the original track, which had proved too difficult to maintain so they diverted round some of the hills in the next valley. Further but flatter. About 90 miles after I'd turned back, I was 2 or 3 miles from the same place. I recognised a funny shaped hill that I'd noticed before. If only I'd known - I was only a few miles from the border and it was reasonably flat. Never mind.
The roads in Argentina tend to be better maintained than those in Chile. At least they run a grader over them occasionally. Once in Chile the road got quite bad. It was 3.30 in the afternoon and 110 miles to San Pedro. The further I went, the more it looked as though I might have to camp again. I had water but very little food and there was a bitterly cold wind coming up. I just didn't fancy it. There were 4 wheel drive tracks taking short cuts around some very rough sections of track, but when I followed one I sank in the sand after a couple of miles and couldn't get back to the track. I had to drag the bike round, go back the way I came, and then stick to the track, which at least had firm ground somewhere underneath. By that time it was impossible to go back to Argentina as I'd been sledging down deep sand drifts that it was just not possible to ride back up. So I just kept going as quickly as I could without shaking everything to bits. This track really was a bastard. There was a sign at one point saying 4,700m (15,400ft) and the track was way below the snow line. Further on when I stopped to put more clothes on I was standing in snow. Then I went onto reserve approx. 48 miles from San Pedro. At normal altitude the most I've ever had on reserve is 40 miles, so there was no way I could make it. I figured San Pedro had to be lower than where I was, so there had to be downhill stretches somewhere. Wherever I could I freewheeled, but after 25 miles I'd only freewheeled a total of 1 mile, so it wasn't looking too good. I still figured San Pedro had to be lower, then I came round a hill and there it was spread out before me. The vast valley of the Atacama 6000ft below with the track running almost straight down the side of the valley. I switched off and freewheeled for 18 miles before it levelled out, only stopping to take clothes off as it got hotter. When I pulled in to the customs and immigration post just as the sun went down, they must have wondered why I had a stupid grin all over my face. Some days are like that. A French couple waiting for a bus said they thought they'd heard of me and did I know Stephan the Austrian on the Transalp? If so, he was on the campsite. It's a small world. San Pedro is a nice little village so I put the tent and hammock up, staked a place in the bar at the plaza and hung around for 4 days doing nothing much. Nipped across part of the Atacama to the nearest town, changed the oil, and then got a puncture in the middle of the desert, mid afternoon with no shade, but that's almost normal nowadays. Back over to Argentina on the Paso Sico, the last 300 miles of dust to Salta, back to the excellent campsite with full bike washing facilities and a fabulous swimming pool almost 300 yards long. I spent 1 1/2 days washing absolutely everything. The dust gets everywhere and sticks. Then 800 leisurely miles east to Paraguay, very definitely out of the mountains. One road across the Chaco in northern Argentina is dead straight for 300 miles. I managed to talk my way out of the country (I had no import permit for the bike or entry stamp in my passport. The office in the village where I came in was closed with a note in the window saying he'd gone to the library or somewhere. I'm not wandering around town looking for a customs man.), had no problems entering Paraguay and went to Asuncion. I had difficulty finding a cheap hotel with safe parking for the bike, but a couple of posers on some exotic Yam. adopted me and took me to one in the suburbs. Very nice, air-conditioned, private bathroom, breakfast etc. but £8 is way too much. This is South America. The bar where we had all arranged to meet later was all BMWs, Mercedes, and fancy 4 wheel drive things without a spot of mud. You know the type, I can find that sort of place anywhere. The little bar down the road where the real people go was much better. The next day I moved to the campsite where I am now. Whoever organised it had a sense of humour. It's in the botanical gardens so has the right sort of jungle setting, it's also next to the zoo. When I woke up the first morning and heard lions roaring I went into shock before I remembered where I was. I can see the lions from the tent, which means of course that the lions can see me. Don't like the way they keep looking at me. Walking around there is a pretty depressing experience. Large animals in small pens all looking half insane, and a sign at the exit saying these animals are all part of the world, respect them and don't mistreat them, some joke.
It's still the wet season here, and when it comes it doesn't half come. The ground is sandy and well drained so that's no problem, but the rain has bounced sand 18 inches up the side of the tent. I've been going into town on the bus, it's very entertaining especially when the rain hits. I was told No. 40 was the best (there are hundreds of buses), and once I got to town it seemed logical that a No. 40 would get me back again. It's a fixed charge of about l0p so you don't have to try and explain where you want to go. Asuncion is a big place and the No. 40 seems to go to most of it. I had a 2 hour 5 minute ride for l0p before we passed the botanical gardens. I've been to places I bet most of the people who live here haven't been to. When the rains came and the streets-turned to rivers, it was fun watching peoples faces when they saw the bus coming - fast and in the gutter - then seeing how fast they could run. He could get the spray right over the roof of anything waiting to come out of a side road. I haven't seen a wake like that since the last time I was on the Cowes hydrofoil.
Hot dry and sunny again today, so if it's nice in the morning I'm heading east to the Iquazu falls. It’s dry, hot and sunny today as well - not a cloud in the sky, so I'll have a shower, say cheerio to the lions and try to find the post office. I suppose you'll be looking forward to summer by now. It's time I started thinking about changing hemispheres. I haven't had a winter since 1989 and don't intend to see the next one either.
All the best Steve.