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Archive for June, 2010

Visual Sensory Overload

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Visual Sensory Overload

Uyuni, 21-Jun-2010

Our plan was to get an early start, cross the border to Bolivia and try to reach Uyuni today.  Although “only” ~310Km separate us from our destination, these are Bolivia roads and it is expected to take us ~7 hours (buses need 10hrs).  An initial delay due to Laurent’s bike low oil level meant we were at the border crossing at 10:00… only to find it closed?  Wassup?  “Che, es el Mundial”.  It was Argentina’s 2nd group game, vs. South Korea.  Just great! I went wondering around the checkpoint and following the cheering (and swearing :), I reached the custom’s barracks.  Here were all the custom agents huddled around a TV screen.  They gladly opened the door for Laurent and I to enter and watch the game :).  Luckily, Argentina was winning and when the final whistle blew and our celebrations over (you’ve got to join them, don’t even think otherwise), we asked if we should head back to the bikes and get the paper work started.  “Tranquilo… Maradona is going to give his analysis of the match. Then we will listen to Mesi, Teves, Veron,…”.

Finally, half an hour later the border opened.  On a bridge/path parallel to our border, hundreds of Bolivian man and women were hauling on their backs merchandise from Argentina to Bolivia:  food, juices, hygiene products, beer (lots of it), cellular + electronic equipments… it resembled an ant’s path.  As soon as we crossed the quiet Argentinean border we were faced head-on with a bustling Bolivia:  People everywhere, some (especially women) dressed in traditional dresses, sidewalks filled with vendors, food stalls everywhere, taxis and other cars honking madly… all this in less than 50m.  Incredible! After all, they are practically the same people in this split town across both countries, yet different politics transform and shape the society distinctly.  My first impression? I liked this authentic Bolivia.  As for us, we had another hick-up.  Paul, as a US citizen, needed a VISA to get into Bolivia but they do no issue one at the border.  So he had to cross back to La Quiaca (Argentina) and get one.  The remaining 3 of us waited in no-man’s land guarding Paul’s bike and waiting for his return… only to see him being stopped by the Argentinean custom.  When he crossed back to Argentina, he effectively entered the country anew but he did not go and get his passport stamped.  Luckily, a 5min explanation solved the mater and we could finally cross into Bolivia.

12:15pm and we were on the road towards Uyuni.  First stop: Tupiza, 100Km away; Kilometer 24,066; Tupiza, 17-Jun-10 @ 14:15.  It actually took us 2hrs to get here and since the road will only get worse as we go along I lobbied hard and got agreement to stay in Tupiza for the night.  We found a good hotel with a pool and chilled (literally) by its side.

It was a good decision not to keep riding towards Uyuni.  The following day it actually required us 7.5 hours to arrive to destination: Not only because the gravel and sand road made it very tough riding but the scenery was just amazing and so diverse, we stopped way too many times to admire it and snap pics.  Our ride started through a green and fertile valley surrounded by brilliant red rock hills, then headed up sinuous mountain roads to reach the dry altiplano where for the next few hours we were riding on top of high plains and ridges.  A truly mesmerizing and unique sceneries.  The earth here is so rich in minerals that the rainbow of colors the cordillera takes is breathtaking.  We had tremendous views across the surrounding mountains & volcanoes and down to the deep valleys and dry river beds below.  Our road then descended a little toward the high deserts (still @ 3,800m), passing dunes and herds of llamas, even being faced by a sandstorm.  The road condition here turned nasty as we had to ride on undulating bumps rattling the bike to pieces and shaking our bodies as if we were riding a lawn mower!  We also crossed so many sandy patches giving each one of us a few scary moments.  And the dust from incoming traffic, from the wind, from the guys ahead,… was blinding, sometime forcing us to stop in our track as we could not see the road or worst an incoming bus.  I was riding fast & ahead of everyone as on these roads, to reduce the vibration amount, I stand up and pull up on the handlebars to offload the front wheel and accelerate until reaching a speed where the wheels, especially the front, stay on top of these bumps.  By the time we arrived to Uyuni we were covered in this beige and reddish dirt and I was praying our bikes air filters will withstand this dust better than our noses and lungs.

Kilometer 24,311; Uyuni, 18-Jun-10 @ 17:15. Once in Uyuni we were flooded by the infinite number of Salar tour operators.  But at Tito tours, we immediately knew we would have a winning option to visit the Salar.  We decided to book the whole LandCruiser for only us 4 (vs. the 6 tourists usually) and have a customized tour with Tito himself as our guide/driver.  We rode in comfort (that 3rd row of seat can’t even fit a hobbit) and we also agreed to do the Salar tour in the opposite direction than the other agencies allowing us to visit the sights at different hours from anyone else.  This was only possible with a few tour agencies as a lot of tourists will want to cross to Chile on the last day (vs. returning to Uyuni), forcing most tours to do the circuit counter clock wise to accommodate them.  As for the Bolivian salar and altiplano tour itself, just check the pics.

Ride up


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The Beautiful Road Is Not From A to B

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The Beautiful Road Is Not From A to B

La Quiaca, 16-Jun-2010

I had the full day to reach Rosario so on my way I took the opportunity to visit Palacio San Justo, where Argentina’s first president resided once his term was over… and where he was murdered (Kilometer 20,991; Palacio San Justo, 26-May-10 @ 13:00).  The opulence of his residence wasn’t what surprised me, rather his garden “decoration”: there’s a small square courtyard in the middle of the garden and at each of its corner stand the marble statues of: Cesar, Napoleon, Hernán Cortés and Alexander the Great… get the thinking of this man?

Continuing my road toward Rosario, locals suggested me to take the road to “el puente”.  Little did I know that this bridge is a beautiful 54Km path made of digues and bridges crossing the wetlands of Rio de La Plata.  It was truly a mesmerizing ride with breathtaking scenery.  The closest I can compare it to is the Florida Keys road (well, not quite…).  Funny, they even had ranches in some of the small wetland islands with cows knee deep in water :).  Argentinean love their meat cows! J  As for Rosario (Kilometer 21,259; Rosario, 26-May-10 @ 17:50), it’s an average city with 2 big pluses: 1) it was here where Belgrano created the Argentinean flag and where it was raised high for the first time at the Paraná River and 2) it is widely known that the most beautiful Argentinean girls are Rosarian.  And since it was the weekend, I was soon going to find out first hand.  I hooked up again with Kate and Sarah (met them in Uruguay; they reside in Rosario via university exchange from the US) and I was taken to Rosario’s happening spots.  During the day – once I woke up – I did a few visits and we hanged out by the river front.  I also went to see the building where Che Guevara was born… which is now partly a hostel. Who said with communist revolutionaries there no business opportunities?

The last 2 days in Rosario were cold and miserable but as soon as the rain subsided I was ready to hit the road again, direction Cordoba.  Cordoba is a festive university city and getting there on Tuesday was not the best of plans: Nightlife will be dead.  Along the road at a gas station, I mentioned this to the attendant to which he quickly replied: “there are so many good roads here! Give me your map, I´ll show you”.  5 min later, Sami was taking a left and heading toward these new roads he just “uncovered”.  I had a little of a euphoric sentiment, riding into the unknown.  I reached Rio Cuarto and found this small hostel owned and managed by an amazing family (Kilometer 21,681; Rio Cuarto, 31-May-10 @ 17:00).  I actually spent the night with them, sitting in the kitchen with the whole family from the grandmother to the baby grand-daughter.  But here´s the funniest part:  There was no parking for the bike (wait, that´s not the funny part ;). On my trip I parked in many funny/weird places, in hotel’s entrance hall, inside a convenience store, in hostel’s living room, in gardens (first riding inside the house and/or climbing steps before reaching the garden),… but here it was the best: Next to the hotel was a restaurant. The owner opened his big kitchen door – where the meat and vegetable are usually delivered – and I rode my bike in his kitchen, parked it in a corner behind the stove & cooks.  That was hilarious!  To top it off, the chef’s food was delicious and I even got a discount on my orders!  What´s not to love about Argentina? 😉

Today, I am finally going to ride some twisties!  I started my loop by passing a few charming villages then took “la ruta de la costa”. This strange name (we are thousand of Kms away from any coastline) was given because the road snakes at the base of the mountains while on the other side lies plains of bushes and cactus (cardones), as if it was a sea.  I reached Merlo (Kilometer 21,871; Merlo, 1-Jun-10 @ 14:45) and decided to take yet another detour to ride up to the Mirador del Sol, a mountain famous for paragliding.  It was a sweet ride up! I hanged out with a few of the paragliding boys and I was so tempted to go on a flight with them.  But I decided to just leave the flying to when I ride my bike.  I had my lunch there then headed back down to Mina Clavero (Kilometer 22,038; Mina Clavero, 1-Jun-10 @ 17:00) where the real fun starts: a ~70Km road up the Quebrada Del Condorito then down to Alta Gracia.  That my friends was the best riding I did for months: hairpins, 1800 curves, never ending “S”s,… so many twisties with gorgeous views.  I was in heaven and that’s flying!

Kilometer 22,117; Alta Gracia, 1-Jun-10 @ 19:00: Alta Gracia is a nice little town and an important stop for me.  Not only they had a lovely Jesuit estencia, one of the most important satellite estancias responsible of generating money to support the main Jesuit complex in Cordoba, including its famous University (known as  the Jesuit Collegium Maximum founded back in 1610), but also Alta Gracia is where Ernesto “Che” Guevara grew up.  His house is now an excellent museum retracing his life which is well worth a visit.  I spent the full day visiting both places before heading to Cordoba where I decided to crash in the student neighborhood, right in the street where all the bars are: Kilometer 22,157; Cordoba, 2-Jun-10 @ 16:40.  My hostel had a great vibe and it was small enough to meet everyone staying here.  All were in a party mood and for the next 5 days we just hanged out together, had dinners, went to bars and of course hit the clubbing scene.  To top it off, the hotel Señora was actually Colombian so the music, dancing and drinking were always on tap.  During daytime, I mostly did visits with Carmen (from Belgium) an absolutely amazing, smart and funny girl and we shared some good laughs.  Cordoba is a wonderful city, home to many universities including the 120,000 students of Cordoba University.  So the city center is always alive, there’s a few very interesting Bella Artes museum (but skip t”Genaro Perez”, the one in the center…), lively outdoor ferias, concerts and exhibitions and of course, beautiful women.  It’s also the “home” of Fernet, this bitter and strong alcohol of Italian origin.  However the Argentineans mix it with Coca-Cola and drink it abundantly.  Not to my liking and a glass of it will definitely buzz you.

I then received an e-mail from Fernando, the rider I crossed back on the road to Ushuaia (we actually first met on the HUBB).  At that time he was a couple of weeks behind me and still heading south; he then went up to BA via the 40, flew back home for a wedding, visited some family for a week and now back on the road and guess where he was? Yep, Cordoba.  So on Tuesday (Monday was needed to treat the hangover… damn Fernet!) we met at the exit of Cordoba and headed to Tucuman; Kilometer 22,742; Tucuman, 8-May-10 @ 18:30.  Tucuman is a boring city and other then visiting the downtown and its municipal buildings (where the independence of Argentina was first proclaimed), it’s better to skip it.  So the next morning we decided to hit the road again but this time making a detour via the partly un-asphalted but gorgeous road through Tafi Del Valle then visit Quilmes before reaching Cafayate.  We started riding in a lush valley where a microclimate of humid and rainy weather turns this zone into a mini cloud forest.  Then, after climbing the mountain, we emerged on top if these valleys, piercing through the fog and clouds to reach a semi-desertic and dry environment.  All this in 40Km or so: absolutely spectacular.

Kilometer 22,994; Cafayate, 9-Jun-10 @ 19:00: Cafayate is the 2nd important vineyard region and wine making in Argentina, although the wines here are on average of inferior quality to the ones from Mendoza province: they have some interesting white wines, a little too sweet for my liking, but their reds are below par.  Cafayate itself is a sweet little village definitely worse a couple of nights stay.  And it’s a good center for many activities:  visit the local wineries (as usual, cycling is the best option, especially after a few tastings ;), going hiking or cycling in the surrounding mountains and best of all, the main road to Salta passes through the beautiful and multicolored Quebrada de Las Conchas (no dirty thought guys!;).  I had to visit the quebrada via a tour bus since with Fernando we decided to ride through yet another detour/scenic route to Salta, the one going via the “gravel yard”: the (in)famous “ruta 40” (yep, this road keeps calling me).

Next morning, we left for Salta via Cachi (Kilometer 23,160; Cachi, 11-Jun-10 @ 17:15) and what a fabulous route it was: gorgeous scenery, winding roads through plains, up mountains and riding down gorges until finally reaching the main road 30Km south of Salta.  As we stopped to fill gas, 2 other riders pulled in: Paul (USA) and Laurent (Belgium) both on KLRs who actually just met on the road.  We were all funneling through Salta on the road to Bolivia.  I took the lead (Suzuki rules 😉 and headed this train to Salta: tonight, the celebration will run late (Kilometer 23,324; Salta, 11-Jun-10 @ 19:30).

We stayed 3 days in Salta, enough for each of us to get his stuff in order: Laurent was fixing his bike, Paul needed to make a fake license plate as his original one shattered after a fall and Fernando’s bike was burning way too much oil (1l every 1,000km!! – he had to actually ride to Jujuy to see another mechanic).  As for me, well, remember that I swap my tires depending on the type of road I am ridding and send the other set via bus to my next destination?  Well, my tires didn’t reach Salta.  As it was the weekend, Andesmar, the bus transportation company needed to wait until Monday to start looking where my tires ended up (suspicion was that they are in Mendoza, Andesmar HQ).  My problem was not finding the tires, I took insurance anywayZ; all I wanted is to ride with the guys through the mountains around Salta and up through Bolivia’s infamous dirt roads.  So many riders I met along the way crashed in Bolivia as the roads are not only gravel but have sections of pure sand…

At least the world cup started and on Saturday we watched Argentina’s first match at a local bar.  It’s was great: first, everyone was wearing the national team jersey, waving flags and the festivities was in full swing in the main Plaza.  All the city stores, balconies and gardens were decorated with the national colors, restaurant published world cup menus and street vendors flocked the plaza selling all type of football memorabilia.  And then by 10:00, the city turned into a ghost town.  All businesses closed, the streets became empty, even the police where perched at the windows of local bars watching the game. They take their football seriously here.  Worst, TV adds shows BA’s 9 de Julio avenue full with people celebrating:  I could have sworn Argentina had already won the cup ;).

I also took the opportunity to meet my mom’s other cousin, Khadija.  If you remember from BA, I found long lost family; my grandfather’s brother family.  His daughter lives here and she is extremely sweet, reminds me of my aunts.  I visited here then went for lunch but the best, she had pictures of both my grandfather + her father from 1966!   It was so good spending time with her and her husband, felt like I was home, I even visited a second time.

On Monday, Laurent, Paul and I each went to take care of our own business.  By the afternoon, my tire finally re-appeared and next day, Tuesday noon time, we were all ready to go.  We decided to take the 2 day loop via San Antonio de Los Cobres (Kilometer 23,556; San Antonio de los Cobres, 15-Jun-10 @ 19:20) and then next morning ride… (drum roll)… you guess it: la ruta 40 up to Salinas Grande.  This route actually climbs to 4,200 m.a.s.l., rides on the high plains (called “puna”) before dropping towards Salinas Grandes (3,350 m.a.s.l.).  We then turned east and climbed another mountain range (4,170 m.a.s.l.) before heading down to Purmamarca @ ~2,300 m.a.s.l. (via the asphalted road).  We then turned northbound and reached La Quiaca, Argentina’s border town with Bolivia, by nighttime (Kilometer 23,970; La Quiaca, 16-Jun-10 @ 19:15).  And talk about timing, Fernando arrived to La Quiaca 10min after us!

We all went out for a final Argentinean asado and wine as tomorrow we will be crossing to Bolivia.  Wow, can’t believe it’s been more than 4 month I entered Argentina… what a grandiose, diverse and rich country with amazing people.  I felt a little sad, I will truly miss it.

Don’t cry for me Argentina...”

Ride up!


Photo Album

or click on “page 2” below to see the photo album.