Weeks 89-91 – The Pampas

Why the hell?!
After our Sep7imo Dia run in Asunción was over we had yet another tour break, this time three weeks long. For a moment, I thought about going to Madagascar or Greenland but it was too far, too complicated. Still, I needed to do something with this free time. I reckoned the “simplest” way to do so would be to cycle from Asunción to Córdoba, our next stop on our Sep7imo Dia tour. To spice things up, I would go via Salta. A mere two thousand kilometers.
After I set my mind on it I realized the distances were longer than I had envisioned. The worst part: the road goes through scarcely populated pampas with accommodations far apart. Sometimes very far. Tricky thing about those accommodations – they were only listed on an obscure Argentinian website. None of them had their own website for me to see what they were like, let alone to make a reservation. I enlisted my Argentinian colleagues to call these places because, sure thing, nobody spoke a word of English on the other end. After a bit of wrestling with phone calls and emails, I got most accommodations on my way reserved.
I prepped Greengo as well as I could, packed my only bag, and off I went hoping for the best.

Day 1 – Asunción to Formosa | 124km
My bike trip started on a ferry: saving my legs, I crossed the Paraguay-Argentina border by boat. Otherwise I would have had to pedal for an extra 30 km. Fifteen minutes later I landed on Argentinian soil. The flag on the immigration office was representative of the state in which the country’s economy is – it was in very poor condition.

I spent over an hour at immigration because of an incompetent official who couldn’t properly read a visa issued by his own government in his native language. Afterwards, it was mostly smooth sailing, with favorable wind for a big chunk of time. There were about 30 km of road work though; it slowed me down but I still made it to Formosa for the second part of the Belgium vs Japan game.
As for the Formosa city itself, well, it has a main square, a main street with odd sculptures, a big church, and even a theater. There were a bunch of banks with lines of people waiting to withdraw money. I chose one without a line, and my card was swallowed by the ATM. As it was after hours, there was nobody to help me out. I will deal with this first thing tomorrow morning. Hopefully I can sort it out, otherwise I am f@%#ed.

Day 2 – Formosa to Resistencia | 180km
First thing in the morning I got my debit card back, and that was the bright spot of the day. I left Formosa before sunrise and arrived in Resistencia after sunset, although I didn’t see either because it was cloudy. It was gloomy, cold and windy. On top of the wind, every time a truck passed in the opposite direction, the air it displaced would practically stop me. I was tired after the first twenty kilometers – and there were many more ahead. I chugged away ten kilometers at a time. I stopped at gas stations only a couple of times to grab a sandwich and rest my legs for a few minutes. At some point I was so hungry I was shaking inside. Finally, about 25 km away from Resistencia I stopped to refuel myself. I was reinvigorated with a couple of empanadas and an alfajore. I pushed as hard as I could and reached my hotel by 7 pm. I was on the saddle for almost twelve hours. You would think my knees or wrists would hurt me most, but it was the perineum. But I made it! It came at a price though: the debris from a passing car hit my Apple Watch and cracked the glass. I guess I am bound to buy a new one. But still – I made it!

Day 3 – Rest | 31km
After a tough 180km ride I took a day to recover. Massage, sightseeing, dinner. Still cycled to my massage, sightseeing, and dinner.

Day 4 – Resistencia to Presidencia de la Plaza | 111km
Recharged, I switched direction and went eastward towards Presidencia de la Plaza. The weather wasn’t any better than the last couple of days but what a difference a smooth road with no headwind makes! I didn’t have to hunch over and look down; I could look around, mind you there was nothing to see. It was a divided highway with a wide shoulder, albeit for only half of the way. I breezed through it in five hours. On the way I encountered two incongruous road signs – the first read “Joaquín V. González 444 km”, the second one, a dozen kilometers further, read “Joaquín V. González 567 km“. That’s way bigger discrepancy than the usual few kilometers.

Today’s destination was a very small town: one can cross it on foot in about fifteen minutes. It was the first one-gas-station town I came across but it won’t be the last one. I am cycling through Argentina’s backcountry and I better get used to it. On the upside, since there was absolutely nothing to do, I rested for my longer ride tomorrow.

Day 5 – Presidencia de la Plaza to Pampa del Infierno | 145km
I wanted to see the FIFA World Cup game between Brazil and Belgium. I got up at 5:30, quickly packed, had breakfast at the same gas station I had a dinner at last night, and long before sun came up, I was on my way. Actually, there was no sun because the weather was still dank.

The ride was as boring and monotonous as yesterday. At one point I passed a heard of cows who suddenly looked at me as if thinking: “WTF! You are terribly out of place, stranger?” I was called “loco” (crazy) on a couple of occasions. Someone yelled “Vamos, albuelo!” (Come on, grandpa!). Other than that – uneventful.

I reached Pampa del Infierno, which can be loosely translated as Pampa of Hell, on time to see the game. I even had time to take a hot shower, if one can call the trickle that came out of showerhead a shower. When the game was over, I went out to find something to eat: good luck, because everything was closed for the siesta. Although it isn’t summer here when it is infernally hot, still, siesta – it’s sacred! I had a Gatorade and chips for lunch. Dinner was late and heavy, it’s Argentina after all.

Since I rode a bit further than initially planned, I will have a short ride tomorrow and should be able to see both matches of the World Cup, especially Russia against Croatia. Let’s go Russia!

Day 6 – Pampa del Infierno to Pampa de los Guanacos | 72km
I left before 7 and beat truckers to the road: for a half hour there were no cars in either direction. It was dark, quiet and peaceful. The road began gently sloping upwards but the ride wasn’t difficult, I just shifted to a lower gear. I will climb up until Salta, the closer the steeper. When I crossed into Santiago del Estero province, I was stopped at a police check point just so they could take a photo of my Brompton.
The unpleasant weather persisted: it was drizzling and at one point drizzles turned into flurries. Brrr! Luckily, I bought leg warmers and gloves. If this trend of sunless skies continues, I may develop vitamin D deficiency. My expectations were low regarding sightseeing in this neck of the woods but I definitely hoped for sunny weather.

I arrived in Pampa de los Guanacos as planned, just before first game started. As unwelcoming as the owner of the hotel was, at least there was a real hot shower and a heater. Since people now call me abuelo, it was only appropriate that I stayed at “Hotel Mis Abuelos” (Hotel My Grandparents).

Because of siesta it was a ghost town. That’s until around 6 pm when everybody got out of their hibernation and music started to blare from shops and restaurants. This time I was on local meals schedule but just because I was watching the Russia-Croatia game with overtime and penalty shots.
The famous quote “Happiness is a journey and not a destination” is sometimes applied to travels. Well, so far on this trip the journey has been, mildly put, underwhelming.

Day 7 – Pampa de los Guanacos to Monte Quemado | 112km
I did not sleep well last night. Changing beds every night doesn’t help to establish a good sleeping pattern. What compounded the problem were the mattresses – they were absolutely terrible in most places I stayed so far. Based on this past week, my chances of sleeping well on this trip are close to zero. Hence, I got up early again, had a couple of bananas for breakfast and started to pedal towards another forgettable town. Every day, like a groundhog, I am hoping to see my shadow when I get out of hotels but no luck so far. Today was particularly mucho frio. My feet were frozen; I couldn’t feel my toes after about an hour of cycling.

It‘s Sunday, so the traffic was very light. For long stretches I was all alone on the road. To entertain myself I was singing bits of songs I remembered, mind you, I am tone deaf but in this case only I was suffering. I also was working on my cursing vocabulary, addressing it to the wind, the cold, the clouds. I was making animal noises as well, and even got a response from a pig. It was sort of a one man show, it helped me get through the cold.

Monte Quemado. What can I say – same s#@t, different day! In this godforsaken place, mobile internet ain’t working. My hotel doesn’t have a heater, so I am writing this covered under a couple of blankets, since inside is as cold as outside.

I am dreading tomorrow’s ride: long distance, cold day, higher elevation.

Day 8 – Monte Quemado to J. V. González | 165km
After another sleepless night I got out of my cold room and – Hallelujah! – I saw, not the sun as it was way to early, but starry skies. I was immediately in a better mood. It was short lived though: right out of Monte Quemado the road became practically impassable: the surface was in such horrific shape that it was easier to ride on the unpaved shoulder than on the road. It was still dark, which made it very difficult to navigate around potholes, and sometimes I just couldn’t avoid them. I was afraid Greengo would be damaged. This ordeal lasted for more than 40 km. This significantly slowed me down. And I was cold. I tried old trick of wrapping my toes in newspaper but it didn’t work. Once again I couldn’t feel my feet.

I am sometimes called Crazy Russian for various reasons, one of them being my traveling choices. While going this rough patch I was thinking that maybe I am not crazy, maybe I am just stupid. Why did I decide to cycle on a Brompton through Argentina’s deep backcountry in winter without appropriate clothing when I could’ve gone to a beach instead? But then sun came up, I started to warm up, the road got much better. And I thought nah, I prefer to travel off the beaten path.

For the next 5-6 hours I pedaled very hard, barely making any stops, to make up for lost time. I didn’t want to arrive after dark. I expected to land into another small town with run-of-the-mill street names like Belgrano, San Martin and 9 de Julio. And it was, but still a little bit more lively than the others.

Or, maybe I was just in a good mood because it was sunny. The main street was decorated and I realized that 9 de Julio is Argentina’s Independence Day, and today is that day. To celebrate this, and to pat myself on the back for the hard work I did today, I bought a quarter kilo of ice cream. I could see mountains at a distance from here.

It’s a good sign, it means I am close to Salta. It’s a bad sign, I will have to pedal my way up. But it will be tomorrow. Today, I’ll try to sleep tight.

Day 9 – J. V. González to San Jose de Metan | 127km
The temperature this morning dropped to 3°C, with clouds covering the skies. I knew that chances for me warming up during the day were as close to zero as the temperature. But there was nothing I could do about it, so I started to pedal away the 120 km to the next town.

As if 120 km weren’t long enough, I left a gadget at one of the rest stops. I realized it about 5 km later, turned around and cycled back to retrieve it.

Once arrived at my destination, the owner of the hotel picked me up just outside of town. After 8 km of off-road driving in the mountains, we arrived at the Ecolodge. There was no phone reception, no WiFi or TV. As there was no TV, my efforts to make it on time for the World Cup semifinals were futile. To top it off there was no heating in the dorm. I settled on four thin blankets over an air mattress. But David, the owner, was very nice: he cooked lunch, set up hammocks, prepared an asado for dinner.

A cyclist himself, he warned me that the prevalent wind will be blowing in my face all day tomorrow. That’s besides an upward 143 km in distance.
That’s why I think maybe I’m neither crazy or stupid, maybe I’m a researcher like Dr. Clemens Pirquet who injected himself with a virus and then documented the consequences.

Day 10 – San Jose de Metan to Salta | 119km
I slept fully clothed, gloves and all. David, my nice host, prepared breakfast, drove me outside of town and sent me off with a bunch of bananas. But it didn’t make up for the bitter cold and lack of sleep – I was tired before I even started.
As David promised, the wind was blowing in my face for the first 75 km. What else could I wish for? The absence of any kind of roadside cafe or some sort of shelter to hide from the wind while munching on bananas!

I could’ve flag a car and call it a day, and I entertained this idea. But my tête dure kept on pushing my legs to push the pedals. The road turned towards Salta and the wind subsided. I rejoiced, however, there were still 45 km of a steady assent. After I missed France-Belgium game the day before, I was determined to see the second semifinal game of the World Cup today. Easier said than done: mentally and physically I was exhausted and I was moving very slow. 10 or so kilometers from Salta, the road began rapidly descending and I was flying downhill. I arrived at my B&B in time for the end of the second half and overtime. Look at those pesky Croatians, a country with a population half that of Moscow, close to winning the World Cup.
The first leg of my trip is done. Hopefully, Salta will be worth the efforts I put to come here. I cycled close to 1200 km, so it better be!

A few days off the bike! Hurray!

Days 11-14 – Salta | 31km
I am in Salta, back to civilization. It’s roughly the half point of my trip. I spent one day exploring city of Salta. It’s pleasant. There are few pedestrian streets, churches, cafes, museums, colonial architecture. But everything is relative: compared to what I saw for the past ten days it is a huge upgrade; compared to what I saw the few weeks prior to this trip it is still a small town with a handful of attractions. Besides, I think when people say that Salta is nice, they mean the Salta region with Cafayate wine, Salinas Grandes, Purmamarca and a couple of other places.

I was looking for places to visit nearby. Salt planes – I already saw Uyuni and Atacama and seeing another one felt like overkill; Cafayate – a wine tasting tour would be nice if only I would drink. I decided to give a shot to the Train to the Clouds, one of the highest train lines in the world. It reaches La Polvorilla Viaduct, at an altitude of 4220 m. The train used to run all the way from Salta but nowadays, the train only runs the last 20km and must be reached by bus. That was a bummer. The round trip took 12 hours with a bunch of unnecessary stops to help local communities to sell their crafts, which sometimes looked machine made. I think organized tours are as bad as organized religion: too many instructions and restrictions. Oh well.

Another daytrip was to Purmamarca and its Hill of Seven Colors. I didn’t see the Rainbow Mountain in Peru, so I thought this was a good occasion to make up for it, without the altitude sickness. This time I went on my own. A four hour bus ride and I was there. Well, almost there: 4 km away at the intersection of two highways, a bit of a surprise. I wouldn’t have mind walking but the driver of a passing car offered a lift. I didn’t refuse. It was a sunny and mildly warm day and I kept pulling layers of my clothing off – it was cold in Salta when I left. The view of the colorful mountain was very nice but the mountains behind it looked even prettier. The town’s main square was full of vendors selling crafts and tourists readily buying them. As it was a little windy, it was also full of dust. After lunch I still had a lot of time on my hands before returning by bus. It’s a very small village and unless you hike nearby mountains there’s not much to do after you saw the main attraction. For the second time in as many days, I got the confirmation that it is better travel on your own schedule with your own transportation, be it a car or a bicycle.

While exploring Salta, I somehow tore my only pair of pants. I found a tailor who agreed to fix them while I waited. He had seen the Moscow Circus forty years ago in Buenos Aires. I happened to know a few people who performed there at that time. What a coincidence!
On my last day in Salta I watched the final game of the World Cup, ate famous empanadas salteñas, and got my bike ready for the second leg of my trip. This time I’ll be going north to south. The destination – Córdoba. I’ve already been there, but hey, I have to work sometimes too.

Days 15 – Salta to San Jose de Metan | 136km
Time to move again. I left Salta at 6:30 in the morning for Metan, where I had stayed a few days earlier. I usually don’t like to ride the same road, finding it boring, but this time I chose to go back the same route for a couple of reasons. One being that the alternate route had more of an incline, and the other, best to go with the devil you know than the devil you don’t. Coming to Salta, the wind was in my face, so leaving Salta, it should be in my back.
The first third of the way was easy, I was going down. But when I turned south, instead of tailwind I got headwind again. I thought we had a deal, devil! Then there were a hundred kilometers of rolling hills. Et hop là – I arrived in San Jose de Metan! It wasn’t easy but wasn’t too bad either. I am in a roadside hotel with really hot water with good pressure and heating in the room. What else does one need after a long ride?

Days 16 – San Jose de Metan to San Miguel de Tucumán | 165km
I kept on testing my endurance, and I kept outlasting my Apple Watch battery. Today was another very long ride. The watch stopped working at the 115km mark, and I rode for another 50. Probably since the ride was long enough, there was variety of conditions today: uphill, downhill, headwind, tailwind, clouds, sun, cold, warm. But I pushed through!

San Miguel de Tucumán is the capital of the namesake province and a relatively big city. I’ll have time to check it out tomorrow, because between Booking.com, AirB&B and telephone reservations I somehow inadvertently ended up with an extra day here.

Days 17 – San Miguel de Tucumán | 10km
It was here that the Independence of Argentina was declared on July 9, 1816. The museum of Casa de Independencia was built around the room where the declaration was signed. Most of the city attractions are located around the Plaza Independencia, so I didn’t have to venture far. While strolling around I stumbled upon a re-enactment of the meeting between San Martin and Belgrano, and the change of sentinels at the Independence House. The weather wasn’t enticing so I retreated to my B&B for a siesta.

After, I went out to see the “night life” of the city: it was quite busy. Restaurants and shopping malls were full. The peso loosing half of its value and installment payment plans for just about everything did not stop people from enjoying life. Maybe there is a financial crisis but you wouldn’t tell looking at people going out in droves.

Days 18 – San Miguel de Tucumán to Taco Ralo | 119km
Coming out of my B&B under a drizzle did not make me feel particularly happy. The roads were wet and gunky. The first 15-20 km were paved with concrete. It may have worked in Germany, but this was no autobahn: cracks of various width and depth every couple of meters made my bike thudding nonstop. I started to worry about Greengo’s well-being. The bad road eventually turned into a relatively well paved one and the drizzle stopped, and I continued towards the next stop on my trip, the small town of Taco Ralo. The road was flat so I made it there quite fast.

The reservation for the hotel was made over the phone under the name “Igor from Russia”, that’s how I go these days. I had time to have lunch, enjoy the outdoor jacuzzi (they also offered to fill the pool if I wanted), clean my bike, and walk around (there was nothing to see) before night came down.

Tomorrow should be an easy day, not even 100 km ride, unless the weather will unpleasantly surprise me.

Days 19 – Taco Ralo to Frias | 93km
I said today should be an easy day. Paf! – Over 50 km of steady incline. Slap! – A sustained headwind of over 20 km/h for the entire duration of the ride. I guess I jinxed myself. A ride that should’ve taken no more than five hours took seven and a half. But it was sunny! Ah, screw that: I’ll take a windless day over a sunny day! All the lower part of my body hurts now. Hopefully tomorrow… oh no, my lips are sealed.

Days 20 – Frías to Recreo | 75km
Last night was El Día del Amigo with all sorts of festivities. There was live music everywhere, including at my hotel, but I slept through it. I had a king size bed and allowed myself to sleep a bit longer. I left Frías at 7:30am, an hour later than usual, when the sun started to come up.
The road was flat, the sun was getting higher, wind was blowing in my back, the distance was short. A perfect day, if only a bit too cold in the morning. I could’ve rode for longer but it was either stopping at Recreo or riding for an extra 120km, and that wouldn’t be fun, even on a day like this.

I arrived in Recreo before noon. Checked in the hotel, took a long hot shower, had a proper lunch before everything closed for the siesta, had ice cream (yeap, another one), got more cash from the bank (not as easy in small towns as you may think), strolled around this dusty little town, soaked in some sun, lubed my bike, all that before 3pm.

A day of joy in otherwise mostly joyless trip.

Day 21 – Recreo to Quilino | 119km
Checking the forecast last night, I noticed that the wind would be gradually changing direction as the day progressed. Not in my favor. Just as a scalded cat fears even cold water, I feared repeating the previous day’s headwind experience. Trying to outwit nature, I got up earlier than usual and was out the door before 6. I pedaled hard and did not stop for the first 50km. By the time I made it to 70km the wind started to shift. But the shift and the speed of the wind was negligible. I continued with more or less the same speed, even though was going uphill. It was sunny and pleasant. I took off my windbreaker and gloves and was enjoying the ride.

I swung by Salinas Grandes, yet another one. I think Argentinians need to differentiate them, let’s say by calling one of them Salinas Más Grandes. For one, people will know which one we are talking about; and two, people can say: “But we were in a bigger one!”.

With just 8-10km left, the wind picked up. It became more difficult to push but it was only for a short distance. By the time I took a shower, changed into civilian clothes and went to find a supermercado the wind was blowing quite hard. There was no stores open except an ice cream shop. Could I resist…

Days 22 – Quilino to Villa del Totoral | 74km
I knew I was in trouble when I was woken up a few times during the night by the rattling window in my hotel room. When I got up and checked the weather, I was demoralized: it was -1°C with winds up to 35km/h. I didn’t want to get out of the room. But what was I supposed to do, curl up and cry? So, I got my s#@t together, material and mental, and got on the road.

Over two hours later I reached the town of Dean Funes, covering a mere 25km. I spent some time at a cafe to warm up. There was a gas heater and I stuck my feet there. My feet were so cold I didn’t feel anything, but I smelled my sneakers burning. At least my feet got warmer.
I moved on. Just over 60km remaining. I played my feel good playlist but even that didn’t help to boost my moral. Only when the endless incline came to an end and the sun was high enough to exude some warmth did I feel better and willing to continue.
Somewhere along the way I saw a sign pointing to the town I was riding to. It wasn’t the way Google suggested. I made the turn and ended up on a dirt road. It was a shortcut so I pressed on. I cut 15km from my ride, and I avoided headwind.

I arrived in Villa del Totoral, another small town in rural Argentina, where cash is still king. After spending all the liquidity I had on my hotel room and lunch, I went to the town’s only bank to get money. Of course, my card didn’t work. Cashless, I still need to get dinner and bananas for tomorrow. We’ll see if anyone accepts my credit or debit card.

My patience is wearing thin with my inability to get cash when needed, the non-existing internet connections, the cash only economy, and the damn siestas. The little towns in the middle of nowhere I am passing through evoke a song called Common People by Pulp, with these lines in particular: …And we dance, and drink, and screw, ‘cause there’s nothing else to do…
Luckily, this is the last one of this trip. Proxima parada – Córdoba!

Day 23 – Villa del Totoral to Córdoba | 112km
One last push. As I got to a higher altitude and latitude, the temperature dropped. The last couple of days, I started off in negative temperature. Even though my upper body heats up quickly from pedaling, my lower body freezes over as quickly. Today, in the first 30 km, I stopped a few times: a roadside cafe, a car dealership, a gas station, just to warm up a little bit. My ankles were exposed and I was afraid I’d get frostbite. I was questioning if I’d be able to finish the ride.

Fortunately, Jesús María, a town on the way, had a bank where I got cash out, and a sportswear store where I bought a pair of long socks with that cash. In a matter of minutes I went from desperation to jubilation. Like in Paolo Nutini’ song: “Hey, I put some new shoes on, and suddenly everything is right”. In my case, socks. It would have sucked if after 2000km I would have given up and finished the last few km by bus.

I finally made it to Córdoba but my arrival was unremarkable: there was no “Welcome to Córdoba!” sign, nor was there anyone to greet me. I had a sigh of relief rather than a feeling of celebration when I finally reached my final destination.

Maybe I’ll feel different once it sinks in. Although if you could’ve been in my head when I arrived at Cordoba’s San Martin square, you would’ve heard the Rocky theme song.
For now I am glad it’s over, my body is in relatively good shape, and I arrived on time for work.

I woke up at 5:45 this morning, just as did for the past three weeks, much too early for a work day. I couldn’t fall back to sleep and was thinking of why this trip had been somewhat entertaining but not all that much enjoyable. My thoughts:
It was hastily decided upon;
It was poorly researched;
I was on a tight schedule;
I was inadequately prepared for the cold weather.
I now know Argentina’s out-of-the-way places better than Russia’s. I gained experience and hopefully I won’t step on the same rakes again in the future.

I am starting to plan my next trip. Stay tuned!

The Pampas in numbers:

760000 km2 – area covered by pampas
3 – countries where pampas are found: Argentine, Uruguay and a little bit of Brazil
2106 km – distance cycled
17 – days of cycling
110 h – time on the saddle
8 – Argentinian provinces visited
15 – different beds I slept in
4220m – highest altitude, reached by train on a day trip
7 – bananas I ate per day on average
78kg – my weight now, I lost a few
10000 – cost of the ferry un Guaranis, it’s about a buck less than a NYC subway ticket
10 – museums in Residencia
15 – streets from one end of Presidencia de la Plaza to another
2 – penalty shots missed by team Russia in 2018 World Cup against Croatia
3°C – real feel according to Accuweather in Metan
9th – of July Argentina celebrates Independence Day
1 – spoke was broken riding that horrible road out of Monte Quemado
6 – bananas and a few granola bars, today’s ration due to lack of eateries between J.V. Gonzales and Metan
1187m – Salta’s altitude, above sea level
105 USD – ticket price for Tren de las Nubes, money not well spent
2003 – year when Purmamarca was added to the UNESCO World Heritage Sites list
8th – most populous city in Argentina is Salta
February 13, 1813 – date of the first oath to the new flag of independent Argentina
548866 – people lives in San Miguel de Tucumán
1565 – the year San Miguel de Tucumán was founded
52°C – temperature of Taco Ralo’s thermal spring
600000 – ounces of gold produced annually by Bajo de la Alumbrera, one of the largest gold mines in the world, located in Catamarca province
6000 km2 – is the area covered by the Salinas Grandes in the center of Argentina
27.59 – Argentinian pesos for 1 USD as of July 22, 2018
-4°C – was the temperature on July 23, the coldest
6 – universities are located in Córdoba