After biking through the incredible Cerro Castillo mountains, and crossing the emerald waters of South America’s second largest lake (after Titicaca) to picturesque Chile Chico, we decided to have one last hurrah in Reservo Lago Jimeneni, a National Park 45km away on the border of Argentina, where we punished ourselves on hardcore hilly ripio road (and almost turning back) so we could hike an unmarked trail so see the Piedra Clavada (125-foot tall dick-shaped rock), the Cueva de los Manos (aboriginal art cave), and the Valle Lunar (space valley). We found the tall rock, climbed up and around another huge hill, found some random colorful caves and a bunch of sheep (some dead, plus a horse carcass), we almost got blown-off the hill, and exhausted we declared ourselves defeated, unable to find the other sites or further navigate the wet, melting valley.
We also had our last couple nights of awesome Chilean camping (where I wrote my 21 list by the campfire). Our return the next day was twice as hard, struggling against headwinds that literally knocked me over and with bad washboard roads that rattled my brains, claimed my nifty compass-bell, and broke some links on Jeff’s bike chain. It was a great adventure, and Chile won, leaving me with experiences that trump man and reward me with the rare feeling of awesome insignificance, being a wee human in the incredible wild kingdom. We got back to Chile Chico, re-upped on food, and hit the road west.
I haven’t written much in my last three weeks (already?!) since we’ve been in Argentina because it’s been an almost transitional visit and I haven’t been sure what to make of it. We didn’t plan to come here, our traveling rhythm has become non-existent, winging it from week to week, hopping around, taking long-distance, fancy overnight buses between big cities, drinking and eating too much, ‘sight-seeing’, going out, being social. The difference has been night and day. It all started…
When we exited Chile unplanned, or rather by inspiration, deciding that the nearby border crossing, and the hot, dry, flat antithesis that is nearby Argentina was too attractive to pass up. We had a successful run (1000+km) in Patagonian Chile, the cold nights were getting to be a bit much, and it was time to shake things up and head for our next bike tour, in Bolivia! Our decision to go west, instead of cruise up the Chilean shoreline to a northern border crossing, signified a radical re-route, and so began our little adventure working our way north on the other side of the Andes.
The border road at Chile Chico had to be the easiest possible crossing into Argentina of them all (lucky for us!) It was flat, no pass to cross. As we biked straight out into the flat Pampas, the Cerro Castillo mountains and beautiful dramatic sunset-infused nimbus clouds filled the pink sky behind us, and the contrast with our view ahead couldn’t have been greater: flat, cloudless, and blue-grey.
I don’t know if I saw a single image of Jesus Christ in Chile. Countless little shrines punctuated the roads, some to honor a deceased family member, or the Virgin Mary, but none especially more than to their favorite: Saint Sebastian. (It took me a while to figure out that Chileans on the road weren’t honking at me whenever they passed by one of these, but it was customary!) At some of these San Sebastian sanctuaries, license plates would be a defining motif, bringing me to the conclusion that he is their patron saint of safe travel.
In Argentina, however, my introduction to Jesus Christ was immediate: the first sight after the Welcome to Argentina sign was a life-sized Jesus, hanging up there on his 15-foot cross. Distributed along this 6km border road to the immigration check-point were the Stations of the Cross, quite large and elaborate, sculpted from concrete and stone. Welcome to Jesus Land! (Much more to come on Jesus later, I promise.)
The first town, Los Antiguos, was like another world. Shops, neon lights, banks, pizza delivery, lots of cool classic American cars, girls in tight jeans and short skirts, suburban homes with grass yards and chain-link fences, landscape topiary… I had instant culture shock. I need camping! We found an unmarked municipal campground back in the beginning of town and pitched our tent, before the craziness starts, on the other side of a bridge that spans an impressive river flowing from Chile. Feeling a little nostalgic for the land I’d left behind, and quite tired and thrashed from our intensely memorable hellacious escape from Lago Jimeneni earlier in the day, I slept for the first time under the stars (without our rain-fly). There wasn’t a could in sight, nor any mountains to make any, and it wasn’t cold. Now, as we break for the Northern border (3 weeks later), we still haven’t used our rain-fly.
Next morning we biked hard along Lago General Carrera, 70km through the flatlands, to an uninspiring town called Perito Moreno, where we could catch a bus somewhere. Along the way we found an delightful place to make lunch, the all-red Sanctuary to Bandero Antonio Gil, a robin-hood of sorts who is commemorated all over Argentina at road side shrines much like San Sebastian is in Chile. Bandero means bandit, [smiley face]. It was very windy but thankfully it was working to our advantage, (and quite cold once we stopped pedaling despite the strong sun), so to keep warm we took a long break, laying on the tarmac to warm up, as pickup trucks would honk at us (or Gil?) as they sped by at 120+ km/hr.
Upon arrival at Perito Moreno, we had to figure some things out. We knew nothing of this country, not where to go, which places might be of interest, we didn’t even have a map (and definitely not a guide-book). Our loose plan was to head north, so some nice random local guys at the bus station helped us figure out that we had only one option, which was to take a bus to Bariloche. But that left yesterday and there wouldn’t be another heading up there for 3 days. So we asked the lady at the ticket window if there was anywhere else she would recommend that was nice. In 45 minutes we could depart for the east coast, 2 buses and 16 hours away, to a beautiful place called Puerto Madryn, where we could hit the beach and see cool wildlife. “Two tickets please!”
That pretty much defined the way we would travel for the next 3 weeks… at this moment I’m happily camping, river-side, at the head of a 1000km tour into the high altitudes of Bolivia (including the highest city on earth), and needless to say I’m psyched. Feels like I’m back on track. But the way we skipped through Argentina, first to touristy Puerto Madryn, then to the metropolis of Buenos Aires, and to the beautiful colonial city of Salta, never actually bike touring, but still racking up almost 400km exploring the areas, it’s been weird. I love Argentina, and I feel like now, for the next week, I will actually get to know it a bit more intimately, in the wild country sense. And even better, I’ll return in March, for some quality time in nature with old friend (and hippies). And to see many more bits and pieces in-between the leaps and bounds of this segue.
Can’t wait to write about Salta, the lovely city we just left this afternoon, but I must sleep before our 6am start for Jujuy tomorrow… so excited to be back on the road! Hopefully I’ll get to catch-up this week on my back-log of Argentine goodness. The only thing more I’ll say here tonight is that I could live here someday, and hopefully I will, at least for a while in 2011!