08/08/23 – Highlander

Day 1 – Salta to Humahuaca

I started my Highlander bike tour in Salta on a bus. A couple of days before, I bought a new chain as mine was very stretched. The store didn’t have exactly the same one, but it was of the same brand. I installed it but didn’t test it. When I cycled to the bus station, I noticed that the chain skips, but it was too late to do anything. Upon my arrival in Humahuaca, I searched for a bike shop, but to no avail. Now, on top of my barely functioning gear hub, I have a more serious problem: the chain skips so much that I don’t know if I’ll be able to pedal even on a small hill. I will try to get to the next town where there are supposedly a couple of bike shops. Otherwise, this tour might be over before it started.
I did go see La Serranía de Hornocal, a colorful mountain range about 25km from Humahuaca. I went there by car, of course. It is an impressive site. I don’t know if it has fourteen colors as locals claim, but it certainly has many. It was the reason I wanted to start from here. As for Humahuaca itself, it is a dusty little town without much to offer.
Let’s see how Greengo and I will fare tomorrow.

Today in numbers:

0 km — distance cycled
14 — colors of El Hornocal might be an exaggeration created by locals to compete with Purmamarca’s seven-color mountain

Day 2 – Humahuaca to Purmamarca via Tilcara and Maimara

Humahuaca is approximately 3000m above sea level. It caused me a mild headache at night, unlike the excruciating one Julie and I experienced in Uyuni a few years back. I set off towards Purmamarca at around 8:30 am. The chain started to skip on the first minuscule hill, but luckily, there were only a few more of those, and the rest of the way was downhill. The protests by indigenous people are still ongoing, resulting in blocked roads and fewer cars for certain periods, which is good for cyclists. I dropped by Tilcara hoping to find a bike mechanic to fix the chain problem but had no luck. Fortunately, I stumbled upon a small bike rental shop, where the owner gave me an old chain from a pile of garbage, and it worked perfectly after cleaning.
Continuing my downhill joy ride, I visited Maimara’s “Painter’s Palette”, another colorful mountain. I now feel I had seen enough of them in the past two days. After another dozen kilometers, I turned to Purmamarca, where my fun abruptly ended as the gear hub disengaged, leaving me with only two sprockets. I managed to temporarily fix the gear indicator chain in the axle key with Teflon tape, that’s until I had to pedal harder uphill. The last six kilometers to the hotel were difficult.
Although I wanted to test myself with a long, steep uphill ride at a high altitude, it isn’t possible with my now two-speed Brompton. I had faced a similar challenge in the Atacama Desert, where my tire blew up without a spare. Maybe fate is protecting me from suffering. Nevertheless, I still want to go to Salinas Grandes tomorrow, but I’ll have to hitchhike there.

Today in numbers:

76 km — distance cycled
57 km — max speed

Day 3 – Purmamarca to Salinas Grandes

On the bus from Salta to Humahuaca, two foreign tourists were sitting close to me, and they sneezed and coughed the whole trip. I was thinking, “Hopefully my mask will protect me”. Alas, my hopes were futile: upon my arrival in Purmamarca, I started to feel the onset of flu symptoms.
So, the next morning, besides not having all gears at my disposal, I didn’t feel my best. This sealed my decision to flag down a car to bring me to the highest point on the road to Salinas Grandes. By a lucky coincidence, a tourist bus stopped at the hotel I was staying in, and the driver let me ride with them. On the way to the summit, I realized that my aspirations of going there by bike, even in better shape and with all six gears of my Brompton, were way too ambitious; the climbs along the way were too steep. I believe I made a good decision not to even try because otherwise, I would have been miserable trying.
From the summit, it was a piece of cake to reach The Salinas. I didn’t go through the official entry point and was able to cycle wherever I wanted without an escort. I think it was more fun, and I probably could have cycled much further if I wanted, but the sun and its reflection began to affect me.
The only accommodation I found was 5-7 km from the main road, and although after my trip to Mendoza, I vowed not to go on gravel roads, there was no other way. It took me forever to get there. By the time I reached my bed, my flu symptoms worsened, mixed with long exposure to the sun, and signs of altitude sickness (I was 3500m above sea level). By the time my friend arrived on his motorbike, I was lying under a few thick Andean blankets with chills and a headache, worse than in Humahuaca. He brought me some medicine, which helped a bit but not enough for me to be able to write this post the same day as I usually do.

Today in numbers:

55 km — distance cycled
3rd — largest salt flats in the world, Salinas Grandes covers an area of 212 sq km

Day 4 – Salinas Grandes to El Carmen

This morning, after taking numerous pills during the night, I felt good enough to cycle. Although the ascent on the route from Salinas Grandes to Purmamarca isn’t as steep as going the other way around, I asked the owner of the place I stayed overnight to bring me to the summit anyway. I don’t think I would be able to push through even on this slightly milder climb.
I started my descent just after sunrise, spending the next 45 minutes pushing my brakes because this road not only goes downhill but is also very sinuous.
At one point, I stopped to take a photo of this serpentine road. I put the bike close to the edge of the ravine, took my rearview mirror off my glasses, and put it on the front bag instead of my pocket, who knows why. While I was taking the photo, a gust of wind knocked the bike down. I was lucky it didn’t fly into the ravine, but my mirror did. Now I’m blindsided on the roads without shoulders. I guess this is one of those trips when nothing goes smoothly.
After I turned onto Route 9, the scenery became more mundane. I reached San Salvador de Jujuy at noon. I was supposed to stay there for the night but changed my mind and went slightly further to El Carmen to cut down on my tomorrow’s travel.

Today in numbers:

127 km — distance cycled
-1° C — the temperature at the summit when I started the descent
+28° C — the temperature in EL Carmen when I finished

Day 5 – El Carmen to Salta

From El Carmen to Salta I stayed on the Highway 9, a shorter but more challenging route also known as Camino de Yungas because it weaves through the region of tropical and subtropical forest called Yungas The trucks and buses aren’t allowed to use it due to its narrowness and curvature. For a while it was just me and the birds. At times it was so quiet it seemed I could hear my heart pumping as I pedaled uphill. The lush forest was in stark contrast with the barren landscapes of the highlands I was surrounded by just yesterday. I managed to cycle up most of the hills on my two-speed Brompton. However, the day wouldn’t be complete without some mechanical issues. At one point, I heard noise coming from the drivetrain, so I decided to investigate and found a pin of one of the chain links starting to come out. Fortunately, I managed to force it back in with pliers. When I reached the halfway point of the ride, the climbing gave way to a downhill section, and I found myself gliding effortlessly towards Salta, reaching the destination rather quickly. I stopped at a bike shop to see if they can fix my gear hub but they weren’t familiar with this type, so I decided to take my chances and continue the rest of the trip with just two gears. I visited a doctor, received treatment, and felt better. I hope to stay in good condition for tomorrow as I have a long day ahead.

Today in numbers:

71 km — distance cycled
61 100 sq km — the area occupied by Yungas, stretching from Bolivia to Northern Argentina

Day 6 – Salta to La Viña

Last night, after taking my medicine and feeling better, I hoped to catch up on a good night’s sleep. However, the insulation at my B&B was, to put it mildly, underwhelming. It felt like I was sleeping right on the street, and even the earplugs didn’t drown out the noise. So, I woke up feeling better but not well-rested.
Today’s ride was a necessity rather than a choice. My destination was Quebrada de Las Conchas, but it was too far to reach in one day. Strava’s graph of the road elevation looked more intimidating than it actually was. The ride was longish but relatively easy and uneventful, even a bit boring. I wouldn’t call it a highlander ride, although I was still at roughly a mile high.
I decided to stay overnight in the small village of La Viña, roughly halfway between Salta and Cafayate. Despite not having much tourist money, La Viña has more paved streets than Humahuaca or Purmamarca. There are no attractions here, but I enjoyed the calmness and laid-back atmosphere.
Tomorrow will be the final stretch of about 100 kilometers.

Today in numbers:

87 km — distance cycled
1196 m — above seal level is the altitude at my present location

Day 7 – La Viña to Cafayate

Last night in La Viña was quite a raucous affair. It being Saturday, I believe the folks were joyfully celebrating Pachamama. Music seemed to drift from every direction, making it nearly impossible for me to drift off to sleep. Fortunately, the internet was speedy enough to indulge in some Netflix before finally catching some much-needed shut-eye.
As always, my day began with the rising sun. The first twenty kilometers were a breeze, but upon entering Quebrada de las Conchas, it felt as if I had entered a wind tunnel. At times, the gusts halted my progress. Thankfully, the wind subsided somewhat, but it persisted until the end of day. The elevation of slightly over 1000m over 100km wasn’t a problem; the headwind made the ride quite challenging. Nevertheless, the spectacular scenery along the route made it all worth it.
If I were to stop and capture every picturesque moment, I’d never make it to Cafayate today. I wish I had as many hands as Shiva to take photos while riding, for I’d fill up my phone’s memory in no time. I did stop at a few popular spots along the route, but I skipped some others as they required a small hike. I couldn’t bear to leave my precious Greengo without supervision. Nonetheless, this ride has been my favorite of the trip, purely for its visual splendors.
Just before reaching Cafayate, I couldn’t resist stopping by El Esteco winery to savor a glass of Torrontés wine, celebrating the end of the long day.
Now, it’s time for some well-deserved rest, and tomorrow, I shall indulge in some delightful wine tasting—a proverbial carrot tempting me throughout this week of cycling.

Today in numbers:

106 km — distance cycled
3 — Torrontés varieties exist in Argentina: Torrontés Riojano, Torrontés Sanjuanino and Torrontés Mendocino

Day 8 – Cafayate

In Cafayate, I selected three wineries to visit, which were all quite distant from one another. As a result, I needed to rely on my Brompton once again. I began the wine tour at Bodega El Porvenir, conveniently located in town. It took me just a few minutes to roll downhill and reach the winery. There, I experienced a modern approach to wine tasting—a sort of vending machine. I sampled five white wines, choosing the smallest available quantity due to my plans to visit two more wineries.
The journey to Finca Las Nubes wasn’t as straightforward as I had anticipated: a 6 km unpaved road with a slight incline. By the time I arrived, the effects of the previous tasting had worn off, and I was ready to start anew. I consciously refrained from excessive indulgence and ordered just two glasses—one rosé and one white. I miscalculated the generous Argentinian pours; my two glasses could easily have satisfied four people. Growing hungry, I also ordered a few empanadas. While I was away, a dog leaped onto the table and helped itself to some. The kitchen sent replacements, and this time I was more vigilant.
When I was finished at Finca, I mounted my Brompton once again and pedaled to the opposite side of town, reaching Piattelli vineyards. There, I engaged in an extensive wine tasting—sampling eight different wines. Towards the end, I yearned for the tasting to conclude as I had reached a saturation point with wine. Returning back to town, I rounded off my Cafayate wine-tasting day with a serving of… wine ice cream.

Another bike trip is now a part of my experiences. I encountered breathtaking scenery, some dusty and unremarkable rural towns, even if they were marketed as destinations. I also inhaled a significant amount of exhaust fumes from outdated vehicles. I believe I’m ready to return to my natural habitat—a bustling city. Since my initial visit to Argentina in 2016, I’ve ventured to numerous different places, whether for work or leisure. I’m convinced I’ve seen most of what’s worthwhile. It’s time to check it off my list.

Highlander trip in numbers:

549 km — distance cycled
16 — glasses of wine sampled
23 — provinces make up Argentina, and I’ve visited more than half of them