Dances with Bicycles -- Part 2: Expedition
June 25th, 2006
Dances with Bicycles (Part 2)
The truth was that all the cyclists were scared. Some had holed up in
Salta for nearly 3 weeks, waiting for European reinforcements to
arrive before entering the spare-parts wasteland of Bolivia. The first
task was daunting too -- a 4800m (15,750 feet) pass on dreaded ripio
(gravel/dirt) with no water or food for 3 days. That too, pales next
to the sequel on the Salt Flats: a 12 day odyssey of thin air above
4500m in an uninhabited land of volcanoes, colored lakes, and the
infamous sea of salt.
Claire and Liam, the British couple who'd invited me to join, leveled
me with the news that they couldn't wait for me, and were "so freaked
out, they didn't want another soul's weight on their shoulders."
So,what was I to do? After a heart-to-heart with them, I decided to do
a test loop of 5 days through the stunning valleys around Salta, and
perhaps meet them in Northern Chile by bus for the Salt Flats assault.
Somehow, the transition to solo cycling worried me less than the
prospect of hauling all my stuff. A laden bicycle, it's just not very
graceful. Lumbering like an ox at first, even pavement felt
precarious. My plan was to hitch a lift in an illegal taxi a fair
distance out of Salta, and then spend two days cycling to the town of
Cafayate through wild red canyons, before continuing on to several
little villages that make up the Valles Calcaquies.
At first, the plan went swimmingly. Buying two seats of four
available in the illegal taxi ($5 for 60 miles), I was able to start
the tour right just before the agricultural valley yielded to the red
wonderland that's largely uninhabited for 2 days of cycling. I had a
tent, a sleeping bag, water and rations, all packed onto the Squeak
(given all the improvisations, she's a little noisy.) Pumping out a
rhythm on kindly descending asphalt, I whizzed by dusty little houses
and the last fields of sunflowers.
There's a special kind of silence on a bicycle, on an empty road.
Just the wind and the sound of rolling rubber on macadam, like the
white noise of waves breaking on the beach. After a while, you stop
hearing anything, and just roll. Bliss, really. Just as I was
slipping into my zen moment, I came across another cyclist, heading
towards Salta. Jean Marie, French (not surprising) – had started in
Ushuaia 6 months ago, and was rolling north with a serene look on his
face. We talked for nearly 15 minutes on the
side of the road – a conversation born of the serenity of the road.
As I turned to pedal off, he said, "just enjoy."
After eating a lunch of veal in a deserted roadside café to the
resonant "goooooooooooooooaaalll" of the World Cup, I left
civilization behind and began to climb into the quebrada
(canyon) proper. The road wound up and around red rocks, next to a
stream. My goal for the day, La Garganta del Diablo (the
Devil's Throat), marked the beginning of wild rock formations, and as
I counted down kilometers, daylight faltered. Fortunately, I caught
my rhythm and pitched my tent right next to Sr. Diablo's maw right at
dusk. For dinner, I packed a sandwich and hiked up into the chasm.
On either side, black canyon walls, and above, the bright milky way.
Only wild donkeys ventured near the tent, and I slept well.
In the morning, I pushed off into the heart of the quebrada, past
canyon walls of red, green, purple and gold. The regional tourism
office marks these mountains and other bizarre badlands formations
with names like La Rana (frog) y El Obelisco (obelisk). By late
afternoon, I'd whizzed into the small wine town of Cafayate, and
lazily ate cabernet-flavored ice cream after pitching the tent in Luz
& Fuerza campgrounds.
The next day began with a cafe con leche and the first few minutes of
the Argentina vs. Serbia-Montenegro game. (Argentina, much to the delight
of the crowd, won 6-0) Sitting in the cafe, I considered staying
Cafayate, as my knee had been a little sore. But, the road beckoned,
and I pushed off after 20 minutes.
The first 30km of a planned 60km were over paved road to the small
town of San Carlos. On the dusty main square I bought a few empanadas
full of tasty onion and beef for a later lunch. Also snagged a bag of
coca leaves (to stave off hunger, thirst and fatigue) and pushed off.
Yes, coca is the predecessor of the evil cocaine demon, but the leaves
retain their cultural clout in the Andes from centuries past. More on
these to come..
The road turned very bad very quickly. Chewing my wad of coca, I
pushed up a sandy, rutted road to tiny towns like La Merced and
Payogostillo. They *may* or may not have a store to buy water.
Children appeared in Santa Maria and posed for photos, and I shared
with them some of my peanut stash. As the day waned and the kilometers
rolled past, I learned that the wild landscapes like Quebrada de
Flechas (arrow canyon) would endure for 15km more than I'd been told.
On severe gravel road this is no laughing matter.
My energy ebbed at 4:30 that afternoon, just after I'd visited a
bizarre cemetery wreathed in plastic flowers. All day, my knee had
been complaining, and at 60km, the rest of my parts joined the chorus.
Just as I crested one of several dozen dusty hills in the quebrada, I
decided to stop. Sitting on the saddle of the hill, as I disembarked,
my foot caught in the pedal, and Squeak the bike toppled. It was
horrible. Stupid, really. Especially when I realized I'd bent her
back wheel and she was not ridable, fatigue or no. I scuttled repair
efforts after 15 minutes, seeing the coming dusk.
At least 10km from the nearest town (Angastaco), I had no choice but
to push my steed up and down the sandy road starry sky for the next
two hours, into the night. Few cars passed, and all in the wrong
direction. I was genuinely surprised by a lack of anger, blunted by
the necessity to get myself to safety. Still riding a wave of self
preservation, I limped into Angastaco. Quickly, I found the best
local biker, and he was able to right the wheel enough to spin
correctly between the brakes. The town itself barely had
accommodation (I slept above a pharmacy), and two restaurants, one of
which served me enough cabrito and red wine to push me into sleep.
The fourth day of the tour was a sad one -- I had to hitchhike back to
Cafayate with the bike. It simply wasn't safe to ride on the oblong
wheel. Plus, my knee had evolved into four-alarm tendonitis at this
point and cycling was out of the question. I hitched first with a
family headed back to San Carlos in the back of their pickup, watching
in amazement as a very large pig first fell off the truck in front of
us, and then refused to re-embark. My second hitch was with a family
out on business, procuring adobe and fired clay for their construction
materials business. After taking the bike to a bike mechanic who
trued the wheel for an hour (3 pesos, $1US), Squeak was almost ready
to go again.
But I wasn't. Over the next few days, the knee pain simply refused to
subside. I went to a specialist in Salta, the capital, and though
there's no major enduring problem, I decided my only option was to
sell the bike and move on. Like an albatross, it hung around my neck
for a week. Not until a purchaser appeared, Marcos el Ladron de
Guevara (literally, "Mark the Thief of Guevara"), was I free to leave.
In the end, it was 2 weeks of bicycle mania. I learned enough to
maybe even try it again, but with a tender ear towards the knee. Not
all adventures turn out well, but some fare far worse. At least no
wolves ate me, right?