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Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Bolivia by Bike

How delightful it is to literally ease one pedal rotation at a time out of a country and into a completely new experience by entering another, with a simple turn of a cog. At times the difference seems gradual, the build up feels subtle as the scenes change kilometer by kilometer, village by village, as you encounter new flavors, cultures, textures and the ways of another country. When leaving Peru and heading into Bolivia, this was very much the case, however when arriving into Argentina from Bolivia, I was instantly faced with a brand new of everything which made for a rather exciting and somewhat exotic introduction. Already I have mentioned the paved and painted line I literally crossed when entering Argentina but I failed to mention the fact that I was, for the first time, considered on the road as traffic, an item which at times requires being ‘given way to’, it left me gob smacked! There was this overwhelming, fresh boost of sophisticated civilization as I cruised methodically through the canyons and valleys which led me into the true north soul of Argentina. In no way do I mean to put Bolivia down, only to say that I appreciated the somewhat organized way of doing things, times of departure, whether by bus or excursions was taken seriously, the hostels were fantastic, fully equipped and professionally run, the toilets were immaculate and… they had their priorities straight - wine was cheaper than water and it was bloody decent, (now how often can you use ‘cheap’ and ‘decent’ in the same sentence?). Initially the terrain was a gently undulating desert where Cardone Cactuses stood like soldiers on the rose tainted, sandy hillsides of the north. This vast open space eventually evolved into what looked like a giant amphitheatre, the entire valleys were fringed with the steepest, richest red cliff faces I have ever seen. They were decorated dramatically with an entire array of earth tones creating the most intricate textured rock layers like waves descending towards the valley floor. Every corner I curved and twisted around I felt forced to stop and capture the scenes with my eyes and camera. The mid-day sun drenched the cliff faces with constant rays and I could only imagine what the early light of sunrise and sunset would do to this already breathtaking and stunning scene. It was an easy three days as I cycled, dropping altitude a few kilometers at a time, the ups were brief, the breathing easy and the captivating scenery kept me completely entertained like an eager child. I was aiming for the sophisticated city of Salta which was evidently the end of the road for me and my cycling trip. This was the largest city I have seen for some time and I dreaded the bike ride in to the busy, traffic intense metropolis of Argentina, still having in mind my dreadful La Paz experience. However I was fabulously greeted by a very welcoming cycle lane, yep a lane built just for me, I was extremely surprised and delighted. Salta is a young city with a European complexion with its elegant architecture and picturesque plazas. It had an easy feel about the place so I was happy tether the bike for a bit and take a look around. But after two obnoxiously noisy hostel nights, one shower, an ice cream, a walk about the cathedrals and a rested blistered bottom, I was ready to head to the hills and explore the valleys and villages that grow the fruit of the gods…grapes, and it most definitely had to be done by bicycle as the scenery is described as the ‘best you’ll ever see in Argentina’. I untied my bike and began my journey along the most scenic road I have ever ridden and it was leading me to wine. It was absolutely gorgeous, like the grand canyon with a little less water. You could not find a rose with the deepest of reds that existed in this gorge of continuous rock, nor could you find such complexity in grain textures of sand on any beach. The rocks plunged skyward straight from the road side varying in shapes and sizes. There stood pinnacles, towers, steeples, some were mushroom shapes others had gaping holes, all beautifully and spontaneously designed. The local folk in these parts had established quaint habitations, making a living quite simply in this semi isolated but well traveled desert region. They moved about on horseback, growing a lot of their own produce and sold their various forms of art work to travelers both local and internationally. They were peaceful folk that had chosen to live away from the hustle and bustle of cities and developed villages, it was always a charm to chat with them. I eventually arrived to the mellow, friendly grape influenced village of Cafeyate and began my little excursion biking about the Bodegos sampling the local flavors. By nightfall, myself and 6 others whom I met amongst the vines had gathered together to wine and dine the night away in the company of local live and lovely music and some of the cheapest and tastiest wine. I’m talking $5 pesos ($1.75 US) for a yummy bottle and for a really fancy bottle its still only $21.00 pesos ($7.00 US). Could you not want to live here forever? The following day I bused back to Salta and wisely chose to take the bus to another quaint village called Cachi which sits at an altitude of just over 2400m. The climb to this mountain gem is constantly steep and a distance of 153km which I simply did not have the time or interest to do. However the scenery was another ‘You can not miss this’ and so I planned to bike from the village back to Salta. This was a reasonable distance for a single days travel, but the glorious part was the fact that it was the very same road that went up, but I was heading down. The groomed graveled road offered crazy switch backs, S bends, and hair pins sweeping beautifully down into this magnificent valley. I started with blue sky which stretched far and beyond like the Pacific Ocean. A blanket of clouds suffocated the lower sections of the valley as the sun was unable to penetrate. Above in this cactus studded country it was far too hot to grow grapes, but perfectly scorching for drying peppers. Huge patches of glowing red jumped out at me as millions of red hot chilly peppers dried in the valleys sun in people’s back yards and along the road side. The mountain range of this region sits like a pack of cards, as layers and layers of mountain flanks ease off into the distance as far as the eyes can see. I curved and weaved descending rapidly having to concentrate as I was carrying all my camping gear on the stern of my bike, making the front a little light and tender. Eventually bend after bend the road descended down into the belly of a lush, voluptuous valley. It was outstanding watching this desert scenery disintegrate gradually from a studded cactus country side to the moist green of a rainforest. I experienced a complete change in temperature from the snapping cold of the high terrain to the sheltered warmness of the valley. After cruising along a river bed, gradually easing into more civilization I eventually made it to the main road which along with lots of other traffic, lead me back into Salta. As this was my final day on my bike I decided to celebrate by indulging in triple decker divine Argentine icecream, wine flavored! Argentina is one of the most popular South American countries to travel. It is comfortable and civilized yet has a strong and potent culture. The cities are sophisticated and elegant yet there is a rich history that bites back into a timeless age. The people are friendly but they take their business seriously and are successful because of it. And for me what stands out in stunning Argentina, it has the most spectacular scenery I have ever seen with intense and extremely varied terrain with diverse and crazy wildlife to go with it. And let us not forget that it is the gateway to Antarctica. My 20 hour bus ride of lounging around and enjoying passing scenery without lifting a foot, slowly easing closer and closer to sea level, (this oceanmaid is overdue) I reflected on ‘My Argentina’. 1. I have become completely addicted to cheese and veggie empanadas 2. I am still a vegetarian despite having close encounters with what looked like gorgeously cooked chunks of various parts of a cow and listening to everyone “ooing” and “arring” as they indulge in ‘mucho carne’ . 3. I sat on a toilet seat more times in one day here than I did my entire month in Bolivia. 4. Drinking alone here is absolutely and perfectly ok. 5. My Spanish is still pretty average but hey I survived. 6. Horses who are free to wander wherever they want, beg like dogs at picnic spots (rather cute really) 7. My biggest scare was seeing a bug the size of a hamster cross the road and I could not find the nerve to get close enough to photograph it. 8. The men are absolutely gorgeous, hence why I have met so many pregnant German woman now living in Argentina. 9. It was all divine, but my butts done, and I’m ready for home!

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