Published: April 7th 2008April 6th 2008
It was a bad ball bearing day. New ones were fitted to Richard´s front hub, and I had new pedals for my bike, as no more new bearings were to be found. Thus refurbished, we bade fond farewell to Ramon and his family, getting up extra early to wave them off to their respective workplaces. Mother Tina saw us off with presents of chocolate rabbits and easter eggs to complement our new collection of cuddly toys. A few kilometers later I chuckled when I bit into my chocolate egg to discover a small plastic spanner and a hoard of sugar ball bearings. What a fun family! I was glad that we had coached them into a perfect rendition of "Och aye the noo" in readiness for Nick and Vicky´s visit in a few days´time. Thus fortified in body and spirit, we continued along the Quebrada de Toro following the route of El Tren de Las Nubes towards San Antonio de Los Cobres. Unfortunately the train to the clouds isn´t running just now, which is why we find ourselves cycling towards the 4080 m pass to make a circuit to San Salvador de Jujuy, passing the Salinas Grandes salt flats en route.
The road winds gently upwards, the adjacent landscape watered by small rivers and green with pampas grass and cacti as a result. Richly coloured rocks flank the route and the road and rail track are intertwined, criss-crossing all the way.
Searching for accomodation in Ingeniero Maury, we are told by the señora in the shop that the local Gendarmeria has tent space, and make off in that direction. A friendly Gendarme introduces himself, shows us where to pitch a tent, says that showers are available and even offers us hot water to make a drink. Marvellous. Then arrives Gendarme Grumpy, and withdraws all our priveleges. He further torments us by leaving the bathroom door ajar, revealing glimpses of gleaming porcelain and shower taps. Nontheless we enjoy a comfortable night, and make off the next morning with two carrier bags of pears from the orchard. Only the police dog raised the alarm, but they ignored him. I gave one bag of pears to the Señora in the shop, and we continued onwards and forever upwards with Santa Rosa de Tastil in mind.
Santa Rosa is a tiny village, comprising a short, cobbled street. At one end the tiny
stone church greets visitors from the highway. Nearby stands the museum, with artefacts from the ancient village excavated close by. After an exhaustive tour of this tiny village in search of accomodation, we are finally installed in the home of Lucho, the museum archeologist and his incongrously smart wife, Elsa. Lucho has spent the morning tiling the museum floor, and the afternoon recovering in the bar, and by now is slightly worse for wear.
An invitation to tea was made and we were just in time to listen to Cristina Fernandez, La Presidente, as she made her address to the nation in response to the farmworkers´ blockade that was currently strangling Buenos Aires. Elsa was of the opinion that La Presidente´s political strife was due to her being a woman in a machismo society. Lucho declared this nonsense - she was just useless. QED. As La Presidente came on to speak, Lucho made to switch off the television; he was firmly put in place by Elsa, and then banished from the room for having a lighted cigarette. It may be a machismo society, but there´s only one person wearing the trousers in this house.
Elsa stood throughout the
national anthem, which was in places stirring and patriotic, and in others rather jolly, I thought. Even La Presidente switched between clutching her hand to her heart and tapping her fingers along to the tune. We listened intently to the speech, with the newly admitted Lucho snoring gently in the background. It was a firm and passionate speech, and it will be interesting to see what response it receives.
The following morning, Elsa and a much recovered Lucho showed us around the museum. Inside were many of Elsa´s paintings - an engaging fusion of modern style and the ancient art and symbols of the region. There were ancient stones, used for music making, which produce a clear ringing tone when struck. Elsa gave us a demonstration; it was a lovely moment, and a potent reminder of home, when we recognised "Fur Elise", one of our favorites.
So, having had a lovely glimpse of life with the artist and the archeologist, we made a donation to the museum in exchange for their hospitality, and continued to San Antonio de Los Cobres. We parted company with the railway for the climb to Abra Blanca pass at 4080 m; the train
must take an alternative spiral route to make the climb.
San Antonio de Cobres is a dry, dusty town. The locals wrap up well in fleeces against the chill wind, and so do we, until the sun has climbed in the sky and we are on the worst ever ripio, heading through an arid land of cactus, llama and nandu towards Salinas Grandes - a huge salt lake some 100 kms away. The road was awful - deep, soft sand interspersed with gravel and then, after a few kilometers, one of the "man things" happens: a van pulls up beside Richard and, sensing an offer of a lift and a likely rejection, I scuttle up to join them. "We don´t want a lift, do we?" says El Peart. I swiftly correct him on this misconception and in we jump. We fly along the dusty, bumpy road until we reach a junction unfortunately a mere 6 km along, from where we must continue our battle with Route 40. Spirits improve when, in the middle of nowhere, we find somewhere to serve us empanadas, soup, meat and rice, and a sweet polenta pudding. Happily, the route improves to an almost rideable
standard and we finally find a beautiful camping spot overlooking the distant salt flats. As the sun sets we watch lightning strikes flashing about the sky in the mountains beyond.
One last bit of ripio before we reach Salinas Grandes - a pure white, immense, shimmering "ice" field, then a long climb up to a pass at 4170m - our highest yet. But what a downhill; forty kilometers to Purmamarca, with nothing to do but hang on and watch the panorama of coloured mountains flashing by. Not striations of colour as previously, but bold slabs; moss-greens beside dusty aubergine, pale terracotta beside greenish-greys. It is simply stunning. We screech to a halt beside a possible guest house. Cold hands and feet in a tangle, I plop unceremoniously off my bike sideways. A passerby rolls her eyes; Richard pretends that he doesn´t know me.
The following day sees us heading for San Salvador de Jujuy. Once over the low pass to the neighbouring valley, we are shrouded in mist and drizzle and then persistant rain. We arrive in San Salvador steaming gently. Our first stop is the bus terminal, where we find out that there are no coaches to
Misiones, due to the road blockades. We start work on Plan B - car hire - then go to the work place of Benjamin and Ana Rosa, friends of Ramon, who are expecting us. They give us a house key, directions and the loan of a small child, who is to be transported home on the back of Richard´s bike, and will pacify their two dogs. Balking at the responsibility, and being told that the dogs are friendly, we decline this amazing offer. We are told that numerous children are due to arrive home from school imminently. And so they do; estimates vary, but there seemed to be eight in all. All friendly, lively and interested in these two foreigners. The youngest boy chattered incessantly, despite the fact that we can neither understand him, nor get a word in edgeways in reply. We had a lovely evening and were warmly welcomed as their own. It is tremendously humbling to meet such warm, generous people who, despite having few of the luxuries that we enjoy, want so much to share their homes and their country with visitors. All they ask in return is that same openness, warmth and willingness to share.
It is with some regret at not spending more time with Benjamin, Ana Rosa and their famly, that we pack all our goods and chattels into a VW Gol, as it is called here, and begin the 1500 km trek along the ruler-straight road that crosses the Chaco to Misiones and the great waterfalls at Iguazu. We pass several road blocks, cunningly constructed to allow cars to pass while excluding larger vehicles. At only one is the road completely closed and we have to find an alternative route, following a local driver around a farm track.
There are more photos below