After a wonderfully luxurious break in Uruguay, turning cranks again out of Mendoza seems almost foreign. Ruta 52, El Camino de las 365 curvas, lives up to its hype as I turn a corner and find myself staring up at nearly 1500 m of sinuous switchbacks. Payment for your little break, buddy, starts now.
I sleep mid-pass under crystal clear, starry skies marveling in the silence before running into these jokers from Brazil the following morning. They are all tire-squeezy and run me through the “are you solo? kids? house?” before I even get both feet on the ground. Bruno was especially stoked to practice his English after first wondering if I was from Uruguay given my Spanish accent.
The pass, the Cruz de Paramillo, tops out at 3050 m with spectacular views of the Andes as Cerro's Tambillo and Mercedario hold court together over the bone-dry valleys below.
Out of Uspallata, I expect an easy day to Barreal with a bit of falto and a bit of ripio. Tomo’s “I’m tired of so strong wind” looms at the forefront of my thoughts as morning tranquility gives way to a day of blasting side-wind/sand loofas.
The next day's epic clouds, barren grounds, and calm winds usher me along as I noodle up to Villa Nueva to line up the “long cut” to Iglesia.
I'm up early and leave the sleepy town of Villa Nueva at first light. Washouts from this year’s rains means no one other than a few hearty souls are coming out to play.
Some days are Chile days and some are Argentina's depending on which direction your head tends to turn for the bulk of the day. Today it's both. Yellow tussocks of grass and green spikey bushes stretch out towards the snow dusted border mountains and deep into the sun baked barrenness of Argentina’s San Juan Province.
Other than wild horses and a few skinny foxes that stare as I pass, it is a pure sea of semi-aridness with an absolutely engulfing silence.
That's headspace right there.
Caroline and Henry from Germany are the only people to rumble up from behind all day. They top of my water and we share memories from our travels down south.
I make a brief side trip as I near the days final climb to see this guy with his arms outspread taking it all in.
Tucked amongst a distant stand of poplars is a Gendarmerie seemingly more unnecessary than Fabian’s southern holdout, but they assure me they’re there for the flora, fauna, and the few that pass. As we chat, the youngest of the bunch disappears inside and returns with fresh bread after seeing my shredded tortillas.
We trade hearty handshakes after lunch and I descend for almost 50k into Inglesia. Its hardscrabble living out here in sun and wind weathered mud brick houses.
Back on the hardpack, I pass through Rodeo and enter into a tightly winding road through a canyon linking up to the town of San Jose de Jachal.
More canyons and gorges cut through the shark-finned reds and greens.
Low slung clouds flatten out the day towards Villa Union into horizontal sweeps and make for a nice break from the sun.
Much different than its southern leg, a nearly deserted Ruta 40 makes for pleasant northward progress as it snakes along.
After a night in Chilecito over beers and pizza with Uruguayan cyclist Tabare who sees me roll into town, the man from Famatina greets me the following morning and assures me a ripio reward is waiting out there just beyond the horizon.
Gracias amigo! The straight shot between Tinogasta and Londres on the old Ruta 40 is one for the Argentinian favorites list. Tough, remote, and impassable to cars.
Sandy wash past smoldering trash piles gives way to a steadily climbing jeep track before it takes a hard right and slices up through the canyon. Each turn gets better and better.
Others have not fared as well.
A couple of glorious switchbacks out the backside and it's time to watch Slime do its thing as I reach the road again and extract multiple goat head thorns and other spike bits from the days adventure.
I roll into the tiny pueblo of Londres after baking in the sun all afternoon and decide to shut it down for the night in the nearly empty municipal park. Karmic winds whip up the next afternoon past Los Nacimientos as the Rohloff screams along in neutral down another dead straight shot into the Argentinian expanse.
Tiny specks in the distance turns out to be the first south bounder group I've seen in ages. Steve from the UK has blasted the Pan American highway from Alaska in 10.5 months and is surprisingly still sane. The couple from Spain have been out for over three years. Looking every bit like long haul truckers, they are already eyeing Africa once they take their "Fin del Mundo" shot. I eye a shank strapped to Adriana's down tube. She smiles and says Darien Gap.
Riding down the last light of the day, I come tantalizingly close to my first fatbike hundo before staking a claim in Punta del Blasto.
Rounding the final bend into Cayafate is almost surreal as barrenness gives way to wineries and lush green valleys.
I had heard northern Argentina was notorious for its kind-hearted people. The hearty waves, broad, toothy smiles, and road side conversations with locals reveals unexpected life gratitude at each turn; people proud of their country and proud to be sharing it with another. The interstitial space is what biking is all about. The interstitial space it's always the best space.
Route: Mendoza - Uspallata - Barreal - Villa Nueva - Inglesia - San Jose de Jachal - Guandacol - Villa Union - Chilecito - Tinogasta - Londres - Punta de Blasto - Cafayate