Beers and Bikes on the Backroads
Boneshaking, teeth chattering, hand numbing ripio is what greeted me upon entering Argentina once more. For 40KM we crawled along, trying our upmost to find the best line through the horrendous corrugations and rocks; but it was a futile effort. Nathan and myself were periodically blasted with clouds of thick dust when a pickup truck sped past. After what felt like an eternity we rolled into the town of Trevelin.
It was time for a feast. At the supermarket we relished the relatively cheap Argentine prices, coming out with armfuls of food and beer we hit the plaza. Here we met with Jacob, a likeable young English hitchhiker we’d met the day before. The three of us cooked up a delicious lunch and enjoyed hearty swigs of dark ale. As our stomachs filled and the buzz of the alcohol set in a plump and scruffily dressed Argentinian approached us. He was animated and wild eyed, alternating between English and Spanish, and accompanied by a haggard looking pitbull. His name was Juan and he seemed to be trying to warn us of something “You know henta birus?” We exchanged puzzled looks. Around us the sun shone brightly, families relaxed and children played. Juan became increasingly agitated “Birus!? Like an apocalypse! Zombies. The poo of rats, the disease is spreading. Two dead here already, red alert! No joke. Leave the area! I’m going back to Buenos Aires”.
With that he washed his hands with Nathans cooking alcohol, flashed me a Star Trek salute whilst saying “May the force be with you”, and was gone. We stared at each other bewildered and amused. Later that afternoon we discovered there was an outbreak of virus on the region, but it was less serious than “Juan the man” (as we begun to refer to him) had made out. On bikes we had no chance of leaving the area anyway and carried on as planned. We camped that night by a river out of town and bid Jacob farewell in the morning.
Summer had truly struck on the Argentine side of the Andes. The air was choked with haze and dust, shimmering as the sun glared off it. The tarmac melted as we slowly pedalled between patches of shade or the cool relief of mountain streams. My pores oozed sweat and salt stained my shirt. I wasn’t used to this heat and it reflected in my crawling up the hills. We headed towards Los Alerces National Park, lured by the promise of mountain roads, crystal lakes and lush greenery. The reality however was pretty different. After paying a pricey entry fee whilst hoards of locals streamed by in their cars for free, we were soon coated in a thick film of dust. Our first sight of the lakeshore was thronged with people. The holiday season was obviously in full swing, asados smoked away, children shrieked excitedly, stereos blasted and beach balls wafted through the air.
It was all a bit overwhelming. We sought solace in the undergrowth, pitching our tents high up a hillside hidden from the designated campsites. As I washed naked under a nearby waterfall I felt the days stress wash away with the grime and dust. Later that evening a rustling in the bushes startled us. It was a rat. Memories of Juans warning about the virus came flooding back. We laughed nervously, then attempted to throw large rocks at the poor creature, but he scampered off and unsuccessful we went to sleep with our food securely stashed away. We made a speedy exit from the park, flying along backroads towards El Bolson for the next few days. Passing the cabin of Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid, my mind raced with romantic images of them hiding out down here in Patagonia, living the simple, good life.
In El Bolson we relaxed into the towns laid back, hippy vibe. A lazy afternoon was spent sampling local ales and enjoying a live band. That evening I was hit like a freight train with a bout of aggressive food poisoning; the culprit a stick of sweaty salami. Whilst I recovered, Nathan enjoyed fishing the river in-between checking on me. We posted up at a family run campsite and made plans for an overnight hike to the border. The hike itself was fairly average, but we enjoyed the hospitality of the Gendarmerie at the border and a swim in one of the most beautiful and serene lakes I’d ever seen.
Two days later and we returned to town at midday. At the campsite we’d arranged to meet Emma and two of Nathans friends Gotye and Paulina from France. Sure enough they showed up right on time. We shared a special evening catching up on each others misadventures and grilling up a veggie feast. The night was capped off by an unplanned sighting of the red moon.
Nathan and me planned to separate for the next stretch. He wanted to leisurely fish the rivers of the area, and we could meet up further North. He rolled out of town early. By the time I was ready I left in the sweltering midday sun. The road took me East onto the pampa once more. As the landscapes gradually became drier, the horizon broader, so too did the roads become silent once more. With the crowds behind me and just the steady crunch of gravel under my wheels, the excitement built for what the route held. A lone policeman stopped to check I wasn’t lost and had water. He wondered what I was doing out here, but after much reassurance that I was fine he drove on.
Scoping out a riverbank that evening for a place to sleep I was startled by a shout “Toby!!”. It was Nathan. We couldn’t help but laugh, the road had brought us together again. We agreed to cycle the road North together once more. As we rolled further across the pampa signs of civilisation became sparse. We occasionally crossed a long derelict railway line. Short protracted climbs gave way to rolling descents, generously giving momentum for the following hills. The music coursing through my headphones seemed to perfectly synchronise with our rhythm and landscape. I was riding the crest of a wave. Kilometers ticked by effortlessly. Eventually the bubble burst and the headwinds picked up. Tucked squat against the invisible force we pushed on for some hours.
Nathan got another flat tyre that we quickly repaired. A small structure of the horizon slowly drew nearer, we realised it was an abandoned railway station, complete with old goods carriages. The place had an eerie atmosphere. Ghosts of a not so distant yet forgotten past dwelt here. Onwards we went. A degraded track took us up and over a mountain pass into the next valley. The route up was lined with Puma droppings in various states of decay. The pass proved steep, some sections were rideable with gritted teeth and enough enthusiasm. Other parts required a plodding push. Reaching the top the view as the sun began to set was magical. I let out my best impression of a wolf howl. A rock strewn downhill led us to a beautiful campsite under an old willow tree. That evening dinner was cooked on an open fire. Just as we started eating the wind began to roar across the valley floor. The tents shuddered like leaves and we each retreated to their shelter as the shadows of night drew in.
After a tranquil morning sipping coffee in my tent, and a few navigational issues involving a laborious hikeabike and sloshing up a river, we were back on track. The following days we traversed an unspoiled section of pampa, our forward momentum only pausing to cook meals, enjoy views, clamber over the odd fence or pitch camp. Those camps were some of the trips best. Secluded, grassy and always near a water source. Often I’d conclude the day with a refreshing dip in a river. Nathan fished for trout. The stars illuminated the sky every night.
One especially hot afternoon I ground my way up a pass; one of the journeys toughest so far, its difficulty increased by the heat. I was riding ahead of Nathan whilst he fished. Reaching the summit sweaty and exhausted, yet triumphant I sat topless to enjoy the view. A car with four Argentine men pulled up, they were locals, come up here to sink some beers. Impressed I’d cycled the pass, they shared a hoppy, golden ale with me. I resisted the offer of another as I still had to get down the mountain.
The descent was a fun one, however at the bottom disaster struck. Coming fast round a bend the road narrowed for a wooden bridge. As I tried to ride across, my front tyre locked into a gap between planks. Everything was in slow motion for a second. My momentum sent me smashing sideways into the guard rail. By some miracle I managed to bail off the bike, staying on my feet. Nerves shaken I assessed the damage; just a bruised thigh and some rather tender testicles from smashing the seat. Sitting in the dust I took a minute to recover. I’d have to take the downhills a little easier in future. That night camping by another river Nathan surprised me by catching a huge trout, I promptly got a fire going and we wolfed down the freshest fish I’d ever eaten.
We dropped into the tourist town of San Martin Los Andes to resupply, before making another speedy exit. One more dusty ride through a national park confirmed we had to escape the holidaymakers. It was like cycling inside a vacuum cleaner for 15KM. Surprisingly Parque National Lanin was virtually deserted. Our days here were more tranquil, I loved cycling the peaceful forrest track around the lake. We edged closer towards Chile. At Paso Carrine we met a group of clueless but lovely Gendarmes, they fumbled over our passports and paperwork before eventually stamping us out of the country and on to Chile. We pedalled up a broad curve in the road and into the denser green forrest ahead.