Plucked from the Desert

Funny What You Learn

Yesterday we walked into the tourist kiosk in Cafayate, Argentina to ask for the wifi password. For that, we were unsuccessful. However we did happen upon a map of our upcoming route that marked altitudes at various towns along the way. Turns out, “our biggest achievement yet” at Paso Agua Negra will be dwarfed in comparison to the meanderings of Route 40. Quintessential CactusWe’re laughing now to think what would be going through our minds a few days from now as the elevation unexpectedly climbed to 5000 m. It pays to have a topographic map when you’re resolving to see a road through to its end. For us, that road is Route 40, the longest and most fabled in Argentina. Further south, we’d looked off in wonder at the old Route 40, sinuous and semi-parallel along the new paved version we were riding. At times the road reverted back to its old self, giving us a sense of what it must have been like to ride Route 40 twenty years ago. Hats off to those who did.

We’ve ridden 750 km since we left Huaco on the April 20th. Route 40 has wound through a few lush gulches, carved like oases out of the desert void, but mostly stretches on straight and flat, reawakening areas of our bums with whom we’d rather not be conversing. Quintessential cactus shapes accompanied us, sprinkled amidst small-plot corn fields and dotted in the depths of vineyards, catching the last rays of sun in spindly halos. Our newest challenges are the omnipresent roadside thorns and long straight slogs to the next water source.

Walnut Oasis 

We haven’t had to wild camp since Paso Agua Negra, since the small towns have free municipal campgrounds or a plaza where no one gives you a bother except the bees in the olive trees. At one such municipal campground, a man who’d heard of our arrival in town rode up on his moto and invited us to lunch the next day. Jorge’s invitation unfolded into three days at his hacienda, built in the 1850s around the time the Argentine constitution was written.

Walnut Sifter

This walnut sifter took center stage on Jorge’s back terrace. Sheltered by grape vines from the sun, Jorge’s employee sifts through sizes, shapes, and colors of walnuts, since each sell for a different amount.

The next afternoon, after our last bites of a traditional beef stew called locro, he stood announcing it time for siesta. He showed us through 150 year-old doors to a side hall with beds. He pointed to a linen closet and closed the doors behind him, leaving us in the dark room with only a bit of afternoon sun streaming through another set of doors that once led to an outdoor arcade.

Our flan went in the oven around 10:30 am the next day. Jorge left to give maté to the men working his walnut fields, and we set to work changing our chains. Unfortunately, we’d waited to long to do so and our chainrings were too worn for a new chain to fit. Hands greasy with kilometers of hot desert, we monitored the flan using toothpicks. Jorge returned and moved deftly from his moto to the kitchen, dictating a list for the corner store, years of experience ticking through his mind as he remembered the recipe for our late lunch. Earlier he’d alluded to milanesa (a breaded, fried slab of meat), but all plans had changed with the discovery of hooligan dogs and the unfortunate rabbits in the backyard that morning. ¡Paella! he’d decided. After two hours of tending the outdoor fire, stirring the garlic, onion, and green pepper, and waiting for the rice to set, we found ourselves around the table, once again enjoying the fine tradition of mid afternoon family style meals we’ve found to be so rich in Argentina. Flan TutorialOver dessert we debated bread pudding versus flan and determined the 9 eggs, liter milk, and 1 1/2 cups sugar we were eating was indeed flan. The encyclopedia, translated to Castellano (Spanish), stood on our side. Jorge, exhausted from recounting stories of Basque country, family in Toledo, Spain and Chile, beliefs about caring for his workers, and the merits of the tiny pocket in a pair of jeans, stood and excused himself for siesta.

We left the following day, departing with a joke about pocketing the town church’s virgin saint. We rang our bells twice before waving and turning north off the plaza. Jorge had gifted us not only walnuts, but a deeper connection and understanding of Londres’s close ties with Chile, an old gaucho (genteel Argentine cowboy) trick of checking the health of our bicycle chain, and a night reciting famous Argentine poetry in folkloric ballad.

Bolivia Beckons

Each town we ride through has showcased the glory of irrigation, some systems dating back to pre-Columbus, pre-Inca civilizations, refined and added to over the millennia. The irrigation allows us to see a town on the horizon up to 15 kilometers out, marked by grandiose Alamo trees that beckon us closer. We learned the town allots each family a set of days per week to open the irrigation gate to their property, allowing water to flow in from the intricate aqueduct and canal system.

We’re leaving tomorrow for the final 700 km push to the Bolivian border. This afternoon we bought handmade macramé jewelry from an Argentine cyclist who has spent the past four years speaking in schools across Chile and Argentina about the dangers of smoking and about following your dreams whatever they may be. The laundry’s been hung off our bikes all day and the only errand left is to provision eggs, vegetables, and dry soup mixes for the challenging summit of Abra de Acay, perhaps the highest pass in South America.