Published: April 7th 2007April 7th 2007
The first few weeks touring on a bike is hard. Your legs and bum hurt, you're constantly stiff across the shoulders and you're completely stuffed at the end of the day as you set up camp, cook dinner and crawl exhausted into your sleeping bag to enjoy the sleep of the dead. After 8 months of riding smooth paved highways, rutted dirt roads, climbing high mountain passes, hauling bikes and gear around washed out bridges and unridable walking tracks, the benefits are showing. It's like spending 4 hours a day in the gym, 5 days a week (yes, we manage to get the weekends off). Our bodies are lean and hard. We can ride for hours and not feel stuffed at the end of the day. We can eat what we like and enjoy it guilt free. The feeling of wellbeing as we push through these wonderful landscapes is overwhelming. You know you are alive when the wind is in your hair, the sun on your back, your heart is pumping strongly and your legs are propelling you effortlessly along quiet country roads surrounded by magnificient mountains and lakes.
This was how we were feeling as we pushed out
of Bariloche to complete the last section of our southern Argentina leg. After 3 weeks getting on and off long-distance buses and being in the high humidity and temperature of the north-east it felt good to be travelling under our own steam once again.
Our route from Bariloche took us west then north through the edge of the dry, arid pampa, then directly west into the more mountainous and lush foothills of the Andes. From Villa La Angustora we picked up a quieter dirt road that headed north towards San Martin de Los Andes through a beautiful region known as the Seven Lakes Route, even though there are dozens of lakes in this area. We passed many peaceful lakes fed by tranquil rivers surrounded by majestic mountains. We met a French cycling couple in this area and shared a simple lunch of bread and cheese together, under the shade of a tree and out of the dust on the road. They were heading over the Andes into Chile and wanted to follow a similar route that we had taken months earlier but in reverse.
The last 45km to San Martin de Los Andes is paved with an added
bonus of a 10km exhilarating downhill stretch that brought us speeding into the sleepy lakeside town. We were congratulating ourselves on having managed, for a change, to organise our kilometres and campsites so that we were arriving in a town (read: place of resupply) on a Monday. We often arrive on a Sunday, with no food left, and everything is closed. However, we had celebrated too soon: we arrived in San Martin de los Andes on a Monday alright, but once again on a public holiday. Everything was closed as Argentineans commemorated Dia de Malvinas (Malvinas Day), held on 2 April. The holiday is a tribute to Argentinean soldiers who died in the Falklands War against the United Kingdom, which began with the Argentine occupation of the islands on 2 April 1982.
We were still in southern Argentina, and so, conscious of time disappearing and our desire to spend some time cycling in Bolivia, we decided to catch a bus from San Martin to take us much further north into the Jujuy province, where we would pick up our cycle trail again.
Argentineans know how to do long bus trips. Many of the long-distance buses have bed seats,
known as cama, which are padded and much wider than the coach seats Australians are used to. They recline to about 45 degrees and have big, comfortable footrests. The capacity to recline means there is more space between rows, too. It's a bit like flying business class. And passengers are served food, usually by young men barely grown out of pimples. The food is pretty disgusting, but several of the companies help you wash it down with wine. The supply a pillow and blanket, and the worst movies in the known universe. Because food is supplied and there is a toilet on board, stops are for only a few minutes to pick up or let off passengers.
A few hours out of San Martin, outside the town of Zapala, in Nequen province, were held up by a road block. Teachers of Nequen and two other provinces (including Santa Cruz, the home province of the president) were blockading roads as part of their stalled campaign for higher wages. Argentinean teachers are paid about 1,000-1,200 pesos (roughly $450-$540 Aussie dollars) a month. On the day we went through, they were allowing traffic through on the hour. (Would they have let us
Lago Espejó Chico
Dave relaxing with a beer
through on bikes?) We got out of the bus and had a chat with them about their cause. Their spokesperson told us that when they stepped up their campaign the next day, Maundy Thursday, the first day of the Easter long weekend, they would not let any traffic pass. We wished them well in their campaign. Tragically, the campaign spiralled into anger when, the next day, one of the hundreds of teachers at the Zapala blockade was killed by a police tear-gas canister that hit him in the face as the police tried to break up the protest. Here, as in other countries, the police tend to be heavy handed when it comes to crowd control. The campaign escalated, and on Easter Monday, which is not a public holiday in Argentina, tens of thousands of people joined marches all over the country in support of the teachers, and public transport in Buenos Aires ground to a halt for a couple of hours. By this time, we were in Jujuy city. There, thousands of workers, many teachers among them, marched to the provincial government house to protest. Although it was obvious that people were angry, there was also a sense of
festivity in solidarity. In the square across the street from government house, barbecues were lit, and wandering dogs chased away from grilling meat. After speeches, the marchers took to the streets, and traffic in central Jujuy ground to a halt for an hour. The question of teachers' pay has still not been resolved. In Nequen province, there is now a tent embassy in front of the provincial government house.
Meanwhile, back on the bus, our route took us to Mendoza, where we had a 2 day stopover to stretch our legs and pick up some snail mail.
We eventually made it to Jujuy after another overnight bus from Mendoza. The bus trips have been long and tiring, and we are thankful when they are over and have a degree of respect for backpackers who can travel like this all the time. Here, we restock our supplies and head up into the clouds!
There are more photos below