North West Argentina (Bolivian border to Salta)

Oh the ignominy! 30km into a long 40km rise between Atocha and Tupiza and my left pedal just seized. It’s buggered. 10km from the top and the bike is stuck. Decided to roll back to Atocha and put the bike on a van and fix the pedal on the other side in Tupiza. Heartbreaking to see the bike on the mini-bus. Soft.

Out of Tupiza after bike maintenance it is a little rise and rumbling across to Villazon and the Argentina border. Getting across the border is a two hour wait for Bolivia stamp and a two hour wait for the Argentina stamp. Just silly and a living hell of a morning which shoots the whole day down.

Your humble correspondent plunges across the southern most part of the Altiplano to the tourist trap town of Humahuaca then down through the Quebrada de Humahuaca a magnificently coloured valley that takes Route9 down toward the Argentinian pampas. Left and right there are statuesque cactuses lining up the foothills and tortured layers of rock thrusting up in bold colours.

The municipal sculpture series continues. Not since the memorable day on the north Rockies trip when we had the great fortune to come across the giant beaver in ‘Beaverville’ in Canada have we have the great fortune to see such fine examples of kitsch. Or perhaps the turds in Washington State, In (I can’t remember. perhaps the place was called ‘Llamaville’), I came across this marvelous example of misguided council spending. However, the head is a tad small I fear.

The contest to serve the smallest possible thimble with a straight face continues throughout Argentina. See photo of the latest entrant served up in Tilcara.

The Argentinian propensity to hide their businesses away for fear that someone might actually utilise a paid service continues to intrigue. Hostels that refuse point blank to let people know where they are by perhaps placing a sign outside the establishment with a name on it are of particular interest. Your humble correspondent spent a pointless hour looking for the ‘Tierra Andena Hostel’ that cleverly hides its facilities behind the teasingly nonspecific sign ‘hostel’, in a town with 300 of the things. It seems that I have the place to myself, the other prospective guests most likely still engaged in what will most likely turn out to be a fruitless search for the place.

Tupiza is 100km from Atocha and a really pretty little town nestled tightly in a valley. Tuk-Tuks buzz around the streets and the Macro hotel is a really welcome (read two star) change from the jail cells and camping.

Around the corner Tonchi’s bike shop is an amazing fillip. Tonchi is really nice guy and fixes bicycles too. Juan, a Colombian cyclist I met in Salar de Coipasa is there getting his wheel repaired. So Tonchi, Juan’s girlfriend Valentina and I have a day celebrating bicycle maintenance, lovely thin crust pizza and coffee from a shop across the road run by his friend.

Tilcara (170km north of Salta) is a trendy little tourist town neatly nestled in the long valley and a good place to loosen off some money paying for overpriced coffees and outrageously tasty bits of llama and cow. More hotels per square mile than any other town I’ve seen in south America to date. But the vibe is relaxed and everyone settles into the tourist fleecing activities with a practiced determination on the part of the fleecers and a grim resignation on the part of the fleec-ees as we all engage in this age-old little dance. Our hardcore adventure cycling type is happy to engage as opposed to other travellers, we just don’t see so many of the lattes and pizzas rather spending days or weeks in the land in-between, passing through the towns with one chicken and chip shop. Therefore, I too am happy to join the fleecees and tuck into what ever Tilcara can offer. $30 steaks? Sure, seems excessive in a country with an average wage of $600 per month, but bring it on.

Fascinating also are the explanations for the 5% or 10% percentage need to be added to your bill. There are few options for getting cash (upon which this country runs) so desperate for cash one must front an ATM and basically get shafted right there in the street. The screen message reads, “Are you happy for our bank to kindly bend you over and take whatever liberties we might think appropriate with the lower sections of your digestive tract”, then, “Most grateful if we can we take 1,900 pesos (A$15) flat fee of the tiny limit (A$100) that we allow you to withdraw. Click ‘Yes’ to continue. Have a nice day!” Since I was in Argentina last at least the 21% hotel tax has been excluded from charges for international tourists (in theory), but this can be countered with any number of town, bank, hotel or you-name-it charges establishments like to impose.

That is not to distract with the charm of Tilcara. Yes, the central square is stacked with the usual llama wool things and tetra-cotta donkeys that seem to be identical in all ‘artisan’ shops in this part of the country. But the mountains loom over the town and I’m not eating instant noodles and instant coffee, so I’m rolling with it. Riding past yet more chicken and chip shops, speculation turns to where all this chicken comes from? There must be massive warehouses churning out the chook meat somewhere in Brazil. On googling, Brazil actually contributes a ‘paltry’ 15 million metric tonnes of chook carcass per annum to South America. Chook carcasses must be flying off the conveyor belt day and night to feed the seemingly insatiable hunger for chicken and chips up here.

Argentina is great! Some bastard is trying to learn trombone in the building behind my guest house, and they are really really bad at it. But they are giving it some. The trombone player’s friends have just arrived. They can’t play either and they brought drums, and everyone only appears to know one song. This song goes something like Bang Bang, Fart, Blurt, blurt, Bang! Bang! Blurt! Bang! Bang!, Fart!…Bang Bang. Oh dear. Am going to eat more then roll on down to Jujuy and then up and over a one-day rise to Salta. Will pit stop there.

National Route 9 between Jujuy and Salta proves to be one of the more beautiful roads. It is a gentle climb through the morning on a very lightly trafficked road winding up through sublime quiet sub-tropical forest. Each turn leads to a slight incline and then relaxes for a little while before repeating. It then gives up about 65km in swooping down into Salta, where there is a dilapidated guest house oozing old world charm for a tired touring cyclist.

These may well be the best empanadas in the world (Salta, Argentina)..

The Posada Casa de Borgona hostel has paint chipping off it and a few ill-fitting doors, but it is three blocks from the central square (Julio 9th) and has lovely tile floors and high ceilings.

Lovely dinosaur steaks (950grams each!) at the El Charrua Parrilla. Great cycling fuel!

Buff3y, Juan, Claire and Valentina are very nice cyclists all. Buff3y is heading south east towards Buenos Aires while the others are heading south.

The trail takes me over some remnant foothills of the Andes tomorrow and then it is onto the Pampas low grasslands across the continent to wards Buenos Aires.

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