This little blog is almost like a therapy session as I still struggle with getting back to normality. Physically I am feeling the fittest I have for a long time, and it is showing in my cycling and swimming training sessions - but mentally, uurgh, why is it so hard? Along with my exercise, my friends, my singing and guitar have been saving my sanity. On the positive, my appetite is completely shot and I have lost almost half a stone in weight since I came back, and who else can say that in the run up to Christmas?
It's taking me a while to process all of the various parts of this three week cycling adventure and so as not to bore everyone totally, I decided to break it down into chunks of the trip. So, this three part blog will look at some of the detail of the route, the landscape, the stats, and some other bits of interest. When we were rerouted during the trip, I know we found other people's blogs really helpful in our journey to make the right choices of where to stay and some other little useful quirks. Just as importantly for me, however, is the music that kept me going throughout. No MP3 player of course, that would be dangerous, but the internal playlist in my head. A friend had put together some songs for me before I went which I listened to on the flight, but many of the songs which popped into my subconscious were quite random. I know some of my travelling companions shared these with me along the way, but some of them stayed internal and they will probably be glad that they did!
Part 1 - Salta to Chicoana
The first leg of our journey was from Salta to Chicoana. The seven of us gathered at our hotel and tentatively screeched our way down the very steep hill to exit Salta as we got used to being fully loaded up with panniers. Our first lesson was that buses in Argentina stop wherever they, or other people want them to. I thought cycling in London traffic was unpredictable! Most of this route was along a main road, with quite a bit of traffic, but even as we started off I found myself shouting excitedly "I'm cycling in Argentina!" Shortly after that I hit a large roundabout and almost came unstuck....But just before this, one of my fellow cyclists captured a shot of me cycling past some street art which we came to realise captured the mood of Argentina towards the Brits about the Falklands.
So this first part of the journey was fairly short, flat and uneventful, but as we got out into the countryside I was struck by the similarities with the landscape in my favourite place of Andalucia and so the amazing Paco de Lucia came to mind. This piece is called 'Entre dos Aguas' which translates as 'between two rivers' and I found quite ironic as every time we went over a bridge the riverbeds were bone dry. This piece is one which some of my fellow flamenco guitarist friends and I started to learn in Seville two years ago and I realise we will never be able to play at this speed! It truly is a magical piece of flamenco guitar.
Part 2 - Chicoana to Talapampa
Today was the first day I had a taste of what Argentinian breakfasts were to be like as I found myself eating cake and other 'sweet crap' in the absence of anything resembling normal breakfast food. That said, the little hotel we were staying in 'Bo Hotel' in Chicoana was really cute and welcoming, run by a lovely couple who were very cycling friendly.
The other thing I realised I had to get a grip of in this country was the currency which seems a bit bonkers. I totally confused a woman in the shop by confidently handing her the equivalent of £40 for 2 bottles of water. Today's cycling involved heading back onto the main route from El Carril towards Talapampa. This was a nice, gently rolling route where we started to get some nice shots of the mountains and could even feel the small climbs in my thighs. This is where I first noticed that there are various police check points along the roads in Argentina. What is it about police presence that suddenly makes you feel like you've done something wrong? Anyway, all good as I was waved through. We stopped for a short drink break in a small town called Coronel Moldes (look out for this one making an appearance again!). From here it was onto Talapampa, and some nice little moments including where a small school of kids ran out excitedly to see the crazy cycling lady and were laughing and waving. There were a few moments of confusion at the spot we had hoped to camp at, which turned out to be no bad thing as we then went onto the quirky little 'Posta de las Cabras' - a little restaurant with accommodation cabins, and of course plenty of goats! Although this was a cute little spot to stay, yet again, the food was to be a low point. This was our first taste of 'Chicken Milanese' (the previously mentioned mullered chicken) and the bizarre breakfast of flakes and strawberry milk. We were told it was probably goat milk, but have you ever seen a strawberry goat?
I felt like I was getting into my stride on this cycling leg, and finally getting to grips with the panniers which were no longer falling off every time I went over a bump. So the song that I was singing for this part of the journey was Florence and the Machine 'Dog Days are Over'. I had practised this one in a few singing lessons over the summer as a motivator for a couple of triathlons I did. I love the energy of it and the opening line of 'Happiness hit her like a train on a track....'
Part 3 - Talapampa to Cafayete
As we departed the 'goat place' we realised that perhaps some of the food was taking it's toll as a few people seemed to be suffering with dodgy stomachs. Enter Andy though with the classic line of "Chin up Princess" to make everyone 'feel better'! This leg of the journey was where things really began to change. There were now some real uphills, but more than that, some fantastic photo opportunities as the landscape changed from green to ochre, with amazing desert like backdrops and sculpted hillsides like the Grand Canyon. The heat started to rise and I thought to myself that I would stop at about 45km, which would be approximately halfway. Shade was scarce, but right on cue we came across a funny little shack called 'El Rancho'. As we sat an ate our sandwiches, Stu and Andy did some rousing renditions of some Wurzels songs - one of those hilarious moments which it is important to catalogue! As we set off for the second leg, things started to feel really tough as the wind picked up, making even downhills challenging. We realised that you could pick up some Malbec wine along the roadside, but could you find any water in this 37deg heat? There was also a scary moment as a pack of about 8 dogs ran up to Ricky and I - despite my full course of rabies jabs, I wasn't keen to get bitten! I asked Ricky "Where do they come from, how do they live?" to which he replied "They could be asking the same about us!"
The final 5km were really hard - the road looked flat, but definitely wasn't as I look at the stats below, and I drew up next to Andy as we both had to have a final sugar rush to get us into Cafayete. Ah, but when we got there, Joe had pulled it out of the bag again with Hostal Andino. A lovely little complex of rooms with a small pool, which although freezing was just what I needed to cool off my now sunburned thighs! As we arrived at the hotel, Ricky said to me "You are the terminator on a bike!" which I was both surprised by, and of course secretly proud of!
After dinner, Andy, Stu and I played a game of 'Name that Tune' 80's style which was lots of fun and brought out my competitive side, as we tried to guess the song in the shortest time. I think Andy was actually impressed by Stu and I's random knowledge on this topic. Although this wasn't a song in my head during the cycle ride that day, guessing the following song within less than a bar definitely earned me some kudos! I love Grace Jones, her energy and her craziness!
Part 4 - Deja vu! Cafayete to Rio de los Conchas
Poor Joe had been up against it for the past couple of days as it transpired that our second rerouting of the trip wasn't going to work out either as the pass we were going to use was going to be reaching temperatures of 45deg with extreme headwinds. We had spent a rest day in Cafayete, but one of our team had ended up in hospital with dehydration from the exertion of the day before. The suggestion for our next rerouting was to return the 200km we had cycled over the past 3 days to Salta and from there take a transfer to Mendoza to get us onto a route over another pass. We all signed up to this trip knowing it was a working recce, and so happily went with the plan. It's a funny thing really, as I always do my best to avoid doing 'out and back' routes when I cycle in the UK! However, we were going to split the route up differently to mix it up a bit. We were down to a team of five as two of our team decided to take the bus the 200km to Salta following the 'hospital episode'. Having spent the night in a campsite the night before though, there were a lot of bleary eyes as it seems that Cafayete is the town that never sleeps with loud music that went on until 6am.
The first 10k or so seemed like a nice downhill, confirming how uphill the final part had been a couple of days before. The heat was already starting to kick in though, and seeing some uphills ahead, I decided to dig in and try to get to the shady El Rancho before it got too hot. The song in my head for this first part related back to our 'Name that Tune' session a couple of nights before and the 80s icons that are Duran Duran and 'Rio'.
There was a really steep hill just before the ranch at 'Tres Cruces' and the heat was intense. I stopped at the long anticipated shady spot and had a lie down as I waited for the others. However, an hour passed before Stu arrived to say that they hadn't seen Ricky for a long time, and so they had decided to stop for a while to wait for him. However, by the time Joe and Andy had spread themselves out and arrived at El Rancho, two hours had passed. I tried not to let my natural disaster gene kick in, but where could he be? Joe explained that Ricky was resilient and doesn't like anyone to make a fuss - we had seen lots of trucks passing, and also other cyclists, and so were confident that he would have got a lift back to Cafayete in case of any bike problems and could then either get the bus or a lift onto our camp stop for the night. This is when you are very aware of zero mobile phone coverage, and I was feeling guilty for having gone on ahead.
Of course all the time we had sat waiting, the dreaded afternoon wind had picked up. Joe advised that the camping spot we had told Ricky about was around 20km further on. Well that wasn't too far was it? Oh dear, the head winds were brutal! Joe and I were taking turns at the front, but even cycling downhill was hard work. I could hear Andy shouting "This is bl**dy hard graft!". The stats below show how slow we had to go, although aren't a true reflection due to the 2 hour stop. Our camping spot could not have arrived sooner. And well, well, look at this, there was a little house, and even more goats than in our previous accommodation! These really were comedy goats who saw these new visitors as an opportunity to try and get into the house as the owner spoke to us. The walls were covered with messages from grateful travellers who had found respite there. We set up camp for the night, and even had a wash in the river. I've already referenced this camping spot in my previous blog, so no need to revisit the bad night I had thinking that there was a maniac on the loose around our tents....
Song of the day today that was in my head was Tom Petty and 'I Won't Back Down'. This is another one that had been on my playlist and that I have also done some singing and playing to. It really helped when we were up against the wind and heat in that final 20km!
Part 5 - Rio de Los Conchas to Coronel Moldes
As we packed up our tents we are acutely aware that our colleague Ricky hadn't arrived at our camping spot overnight. However, we would be in mobile reception within about 20km and so surely would have an update then. We had decided to leave at 7.30am to get ahead of the heat and wind and it was a welcome relief to be doing some nice rolling, and mostly downhills, as the sun was just coming up. We decided to stop back at the Posta de las Cabras to pick up mobile signal. The lady, remembering us from a few days previously, but recalling seven of us enquired where the others were? I wondered if she had seen the film 'Alive' where the plane crashed into the Andes and passengers were forced to eat their colleagues....
Imagination working overtime again!
However, the reality was actually quite depressing. Joe received a message from Ricky to say that he had had a mechanical problem and had ended up going back to Cafayete and had changed his flights to go back to the UK early. There was real shock and disbelief amongst us, particularly Joe, as this was his close friend. At this point I could almost feel the trip slipping away - we were three people down and Joe was constantly up against it with having to change the route by the day. There was a definite low hanging over our small group as we set off to get to Coronel Moldes. Not only that, but the wind was picking up. I can laugh about it now, but cue another one of Andy's classic quotes..."Just when you think it can't get any worse...it does!" It's hard to believe the profile of this part of the route was so flat looking back at it as the wind made it feel like it was all uphill. Plus it was 40degrees...this is spring in Argentina??
There is only one song that sticks in my mind from this day, as it was not a particularly happy one. 'Faith' by George Michael came to mind as it was one that had come up on the 80s quiz in Cafayete and this leg of the trip certainly called for a bit of faith in each other that we would finish this trip!
Not many photos were taken on this section of the trip, I think we just wanted to get to the next stop. However, when we got there, we were (eventually) rewarded with another 'accidental accommodation' scenario at a hotel called the Hosteria Cabra Corral. I hadn't actually realised that was it's name until now - another goat reference, but not a goat in sight actually. It had not one but TWO pools, the usual bad food selection, but that didn't bother us - we decided we would stay here for two nights and hence do some 'relaxing' that night. A few beers were consumed let's say - well it had been a hard few days!
Congratulations if you've managed to read this far! Hang in there, next week I will post the next few days cycling, songs and general shenanigans....
Denise Yeats is an events director, communications consultant, endurance athlete and avid adventurer.