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Saturday, February 28, 2009

Northern Argentina II, Potosi and Sucre

Although there has been a few up and downs and challenging moments, we´ve had an amazing time riding over 1200km in Northern Argentina. After a relaxing time in Salta exploring the city and even going to a film - "Slumdog Millionairre" - we headed up a side valley to a small village called Cachi. We decided to go one way by bus as we were not keen to ride the same road in and out. Kate had calculated the ride out would be all down hill given the difference in altitudes....what we´d failed to calculate into the equation was the 3500m pass in between! (our map has no contour lines.) After a quick empanada lunch we started the hot desert climb out of Cachi. We rode late into the evening and set up camp among the cacti. We enjoyed another amazing desert sunset with a ring of thunder and lightning storms in the surrounding mountains. The next morning we expected to have a short climb to the pass....but the road just went on and on and our one pass turned into two joined by a high flat plain. With head winds and mist swirling around us it was tough riding. We finally reached the top only to find the road sign had been typically inaccurate underestimating the distance by over 20km!We descended down the cold winding road and were stoked when the cloud began to lift and we were rewarded with stunning views of the lofty peaks and green valley. Kate had not been feeling well for a few days with a persistent sore throat and massive tender lymph nodes so we stopped early in a small town called Cichoani. We found the local camp ground, that strangely had no other campers, and set up our tent in the rain. As we walked into town we were warned by the rich looking neighbour that the campground was "peligroso" (dangerous) and "no bueno" (no good) for two girls then advised us to speak with the police! This made us both feel pretty anxious. We had a confusing spanish conversation with the policeman who after several cellphone calls said there should be no problem. We decided to stay, although I slept pretty badly and felt annoyed with the interfering rich lady who probably would have said everywhere we camped was dangerous! Still alive by the morning we awoke to pouring rain. We packed up quickly after cooking our porridge in the shelter of the toilet and headed out on the only road out of town. Unfortunately the overnight rain had turned the dirt road into a thick, muddy, mostly unrideable mess. After 7km of pushing our bikes were so caked with mud the wheels would barely turn! Once we finally reached the main road we attempted to clean some of the mud off in a small dirty stream. We set off on a road busy with traffic and as we began to descend down the paved road Kate was shocked to see me flying by, gathering speed and yelling "Kate- I have no brakes!" I managed to pull onto the grassy curb and slow down enough to make a safe crash landing. The combination of only one functioning brake and the thick mud and grit had somehow stopped my brake from working at all. We had a go at fixing them - but didn´t have much success and as the cold rain was getting worse we decided to try and get a ride to the next town. Turns out Argentinians with flash four wheel drives aren´t very interested in wet, muddy cycle tourists in distress. After trying unsuccesfully for an hour we decided to change tact and rode the 20km slowly into the town. This turned out to be the best decision as we found a lovely hostel where we could wash our bikes thoroughly and have a hot shower. We spent the afternoon doing bike maintenance, playing cards and drinking cervezas. The next morning the rain had eased off. We spent an hour tuning Kate´s gears- bike repairs are not quite so easy without Shane! Clean and refreshed we had a stunning days riding through the Quebrada de Cafayate (Canyon of Cafayate). With its rust red rocks, beautiful rock formations and high peaks, it is like being on another planet. We found an awesome campsite in a natural rock amphitheatre that was perfect apart from the occasional rock shower from the steep slopes. The following day we rode the final 50km into the touristy vineyard town of Cafayate. We found an amazing big swimming pool and were stoked to meet four other young cycle tourists at the campground. The Australian couple had been riding from Ushuaia and were new to cycle touring with all the flash gears. The other couple were American and travelling very lightweight having bought all of their gear in Buenos Aires after two years Peace Corp work in Malawi. It is so interesting all the different approaches to cycle touring. Some people are so committed to cycling every last kilometre...we call these people "purists", whereas we are definitely cycle touring "hedonists"! We enjoyed a delicious steak meal out with the American couple - Pace and Laura. Kate continued to feel unwell and her neck was becoming more sore and swollen so we decided to start Augmentin. This worked brilliantly overnight and we decided to ride south with Laura and Pace that day. It was really cool having cycling buddies again and we loved hearing all about their amazing work in Malawi. We camped at the Quilmes ruins (Argentina´s most extensive pre-Columbian site) and enjoyed cooking Pace and Laura a meal, as they travel without a stove. The next day was a tough 1500m climb over a pass into Tafi del Valle. It was a pretty gruelling ascent and made tougher by the fact that it was 37km longer uphill than the 10km we were told by the locals! (We had now ridden off our map). We were all stoked to reach the pass late in the afternoon and cruise down the gradual descent into Tafi. After our hard days riding we treated oursleves to another amazing steak (the meat seems to be even better than down south) and a few celebratory drinks, as this was Pace and Laura´s last day riding. Kate and I set off the next morning for the city of Tucuman. We had an awesome 60km descent through a stunning green forest and gorge and then a horrible 60km ride along a busy narrow road into the city. Kate came within centimetres of being hit by a truck, then had one a puncture and then the screw that holds my carrier on broke- again! We were both very happy and relieved to reach Tucuman and find a great hostel.
We really liked Tucuman and spent one day there exploring the city, swimming, eating good food and watching a local soccer game with the locals at a corner pub. We then caught an overnight bus back up to the Bolivian border. While crossing the border we met a couple from Scotland, Alex and Lauren, who are cycle touring with their two young children - Ash and Poppy. They have been on the road for around 6 months having ridden through New Zealand before flying to South America. Cycle touring with children is a whole different story and Alex and Lauren do an amazing but exhausting job. We also met up with a guy called Sam who we had met a few weeks earlier on the road. Sam had also been working for the Peace Corps in Paraguay. He is hoping to cycle through to the United States, but has had a few hiccups along the way including an African Killer Bee attack and having his Bob trailer bag and all its contents stolen. Despite this Sam generously gave me a spare set of brake pads as we have the same model- Thanks Sam!! Through his cycle trip Sam is raising money to help save the threatened forests he had been working near in Paraguay....if you are interested in reading more or making a donation his website is.... We had a great day hanging out with Lauren, Alex, Sam and the kids.
I´ll hand over to Kate (the historian) now to write....
We took another overnight bus to Potosi - the highest city in the world (about 4100m). Unfortunately the bus broke down and we were stuck in the middle of nowhere for several hours in the night, but eventually we got there. We were looking forward to visiting Potosi as we had both read quite a bit about its fascinating history.Potosi was founded in 1545 as a mining town after the discovery of pure silver in the mountain (now called Cerro Rico "rich mountain") which towers above the city. It soon produced fabulous wealth, becoming the largest and wealthiest city in the world. People flocked there...huge buildings, theatres, and nearly one hundred churches were built. There was such an excess of silver that the streets were lined with it!! It is from Potosí that most of the silver shipped through Europe came. According to official records, 45,000 tons of pure silver were mined from Cerro Rico from 1556 to 1783. It is a typical example of how the European powers exploited, raped and pillaged other nations. Despite being one of the most mineral-rich countries in the world, Bolivia is the poorest South American country and poverty is rife. The local indigineous population were forced into labour in the mines and died by the thousands, from exposure, accidents and brutal labour (a person typically lived for only three or four years once working in the mines). To compensate for the diminishing indigenous labour force, the Spanish began to import African slaves and an estimated 30,000 African slaves were taken to Potosí throughout the colonial era. Over 8 million Indians and African slaves died mining in Cerro Rico, and that is why it is also called "the mountain that eats men".

Nowadays the mountain is depleted of most of its minerals but continues to be mined for silver, zinc and tin. Due to poor work conditions the miners still have a short life expectancy with most of them dying from silicosis around 35-40 years of age.

We visited the mine and it was an eye-opening and unforgettable experience. Runway trolleys, explosions, falling rocks and carbon monoxide poisoning are just some of the daily occurrences down the mine.....its pretty scary! The mine is not regulated at all, and children begin working there from as young as 8 years old. There is also no organisation as to where each group of miners work, they just blow up dynamite wherever they want and follow veins of mineral. This means that the hill is like a honeycomb and some experts have predicted that the whole thing will collapse in about 15-20 years!!
We wore hard hats and gumboots and walked deep into one of the mines. There was lots of scrambling, crawling in low, narrow, dirty shafts and climbing down a series of rickety ladders and slippery planks...OSH would not be impressed at all!!! We met and talked to miners, watched them work, and gave them some gifts. Miners chew coca leaves and store them in their cheeks for hours while down in the mines. The coca is supposed to ward off hunger, pain and give them energy to work very long hours.

You can buy sticks of dynamite in the shops in Potosi for around NZ $4. We bought some and blew it up on the side of the mountain after coming out of the mine. The explosions were bigger than I thought and I only wish that we had Anna´s bunny or Didymo to make it even more fun! Yesterday we rode our longest and perhaps toughest day. We started from Potosi at 7am with a steep climb out of town amongst the snow-capped hills. We rode 160km through to the beautiful city of Sucre (the judicial capital of Bolivia). The first 50km were cruisy downhill, but after lunch we had a good 50km of climbing having dropped well below the 2800m altitude of Sucre. It was gruelling hot day, nine and a half hours of riding, with multiple dog and people chases (see below), not quite enough water, mild heat-stroke and a sore back. Matilda didn´t find the day too bad- but was up all last night vomiting! Sucre is a lovely colonial town with amazing architecture and perfectly manicured gardens in the plaza. It has a number of universities and the centre of town is buzzing with young people, cool bars and cafes. The contrasting scenes you see in Bolivia sometimes make it hard to believe you are still in the same country.
A few photos...

Biking in rural Bolivia....this "cute little old lady" was soon chasing Kate with a whip demanding money! Fortunately we could bike a bit faster than she could run! The older, rural Bolivian women are really suspicious and hostile towards us.

This is a typical picture of the Bolivian propaganda you see everywhere (on buildings, the road and rock faces)- we`ve seen nothing other than politically related graffitti about the current president Evo and the recent constitutional elections.

Typical looking Bolivian Mum and baby.

Here is an update photo of the "mullet". Kate has been getting a few compliments lately..."I love your haircut", followed by us saying "really??" with astonished looks and laughter!! I let Kate cut my hair in Salta and she actually did a pretty good job!

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Sorata and Northern Argentina

Hola everyone from Salta in Northern Argentina. Now we are well and truly recovered from our giardia (also known as “Beaver Fever”....according to Anna´s research!!) and we are both loving being back on the bike. We both felt pretty weird after the other three left- there was certainly a big gap! We kept kind of looking for them and expecting to hear their voices! Sounds like they are settling back in at home and enjoying New Zealand summer.

We decided to head to Sorata (a small town north-west of La Paz) for some rest and recovery. We had heard it was a beautiful town with fantastic mountain biking. After negotiating some of the worst roads we had seen in South America we were lucky to find the beautiful Altai Oasis. This camping ground/hostel set high in the lush green moutains is owned by a lovely Bolivian couple- Roxana and Johnny. They have lived there for over 27 years and have gradually developed an amazing garden, cool buildings and relaxing verandah restaurant. It had the most chilled-out atmosphere with farm animals wandering around. The lawn mowing is done by leading the llamas and fresian cow around as they gradually chew down the grass! We did lots of reading, playing cards and eating (Kate had a lot of making up to do!)

And just when we thought mountain biking in Bolivia couldn´t get any better... we met Travis.
Travis is a laid back American guy who lives and breathes to ride. He has been living in Sorata for some years building up a mountain biking/adventure company. When he´s not taking trips, he´s up in the hills track-building or riding. Although it was the off season and he wasn´t working, Travis agreed to take us riding on some of his tracks. We set off early from the plaza and drove high into the Andean clouds. On reaching the top we were met with incredible views of mighty Illampu mountain (6,368 m) and the deep valley below. Travis´ tracks were amazing - beautiful flowing singletrack, quite steep, but not too technical. He entertained us with his crazy dare-devil jumps and drop-offs and stories of the annual race held on his tracks. We wound our way down through seriously wicked tracks dropping thousands of metres into the town square. Already buzzing from our morning ride we headed up again driving 20km into the sky on terrible Bolivian roads. The landscape at the top was being on the moon. Travis continued to impress us with his skills as we watched him ride near vertical scree slopes, turning his bike as if on skis! We descended through banked single track, farm-land tracks and through overgrown bush riding all the way back to Altai Oasis. An epic day riding…..we only wish that Shane, Sophie and Anna could have been there- you will have to come back Shane!!As out time in Sorata drew to a close Kate and I started making plans for the next leg of our journey. Kate had hoped we could ride down to the jungle from Sorata and had visions of skippering a dug-out canoe in her pirate singlet! Unfortunately the rainy season started getting pretty rainy and the roads turned to mud and the rivers became dodgy. We also found out there was a dengue fever out-break in the jungle. So we changed our plans and headed back to La Paz. On arriving back in La Paz we joined Phil and KJ (our new Kiwi friends) for a poker night with the Gravity crew. After chatting with Phil and KJ about their cycle touring in South America we decided to head south again to do some riding in the north of Argentina. We had only heard good things about the riding here and were really keen to be touring again.

The Bolivian roads south to Argentina are terrible and just plain boring so we were keen to catch the only remaining Bolivian train service. Obtaining a ticket to this service was a mission in itself. As there are only a few trains a week and the train is so much more preferable than the bus everyone is after a ticket. On arriving at the ticket office in Oruro (town south of La Paz) we discovered it was a public holiday and the office was closed until the following day. With limited seats left we got up early the next morning to queue....not quite early enough as we went to the back of an already long-line. The local Bolivans pushed ahead of us and we were glad to receive a numbered ticket guaranteeing our place in line. The atmosphere was tense as people entered the building one at a time not knowing if their would be any remaining tickets. With the help of a friendly policeman we secured our tickets. We had been initally disappointed with dusty, bleak Oruro, but ended up having a cool night in the Plaza watching the public holiday celebrations with elaborate costumes, fire-works and music.The journey south on the train was long but comfortable. We were lucky enough to meet an Argentian man who had cycled all through the Americas in his twenties..taking four years! He assisted us in negotiating with the train staff and getting our bikes onto the train just moments before departure. We got off the train at a town called Villazon, jumped on our bikes and headed to the border. The Bolivian-Argentinian border crossing was slow and tedious- but for once being on bikes was to our advantage, getting shunted ahead in the bicycle line with warm cries of “All Blacks” and “Jonah Lomu” from the Argentinian guards. We were both stoked to be back on our bikes and touring again!! We rode out of La Quiaca that evening on perfect sealed roads (you would have loved it Soph!) and found a good campsite in a sheltered gulley. We both agreed it was really weird not having the other three around us on the road- no Bob, no ginger beard, no Pari to chat with! But cool just the two of us and we enjoyed our tomato pasta beneath a spectacular sunset. In the morning it turned out we had camped in the middle of llama farm and we were visited by a friendly, inquisitive gauncho and his dog (who made light work of our cheese for breakfast). The conditions for riding couldn´t have been better- perfect blue skies, good road, little traffic, amazing scenery and not much wind. Although barren and dry the landscape was ever-changing with colourful rock formations. We got through well over 100km on our first day. The altitude and gentle climbing (3850m at our highest point) definitely took its toll on me and we both went to bed exhausted after another breath-taking sunset.

The next day we rode over 100km to the small town of Tilcara. With the wind against us, but gravity on our side we cruised through canyon-country with cacti and llamas lining the road. We enjoyed empanadas and delicious fresh fruit for lunch. Arriving in Tilcara in the late afternoon we chilled out and re-discovered Quilmes beer and of course helado (ice-cream). It was so much cheaper than down south - a quarter the price and just as delicious! The next day we relaxed, walked to a pre-Columbian fort on top of the hill, ate more helado and rode out of town late in the afternoon. Strong head-winds and lots of traffic meant we made camp amongst the cacti early. We set off early the next morning and had the most dreamy riding of the trip. Slight down-hill with not a breath of wind we covered over 60km in two hours. The scenery changed dramatically from colourful rock cliffs to a lush green valley. We had heard there was a thermal reserve near the city of Juyjuy. The 30km detour turned into a bit of an epic afternoon riding. Climbing over 1500m on steep gravel roads through stunning green mountains we were really glad to finally arrive at the pools and soak in the late afternoon sun. We cruised the final 20km into town and set about looking for the camping ground (that turned out not to exist, grrr stupid Lonely Planet!!) Being late in the evening we had not option but to stay in an inner-city hostel. The following day we rode the 90km stretch between Juyjuy and Salta. Our 90km actually turned into 125km as we made a slight wrong turn (map rather than navigator error- Ken stayed calm luckily!) Although our route was the shorter of the two between the cities ours was the road less travelled, being narrow and winding….but perfect for cycle touring. The riding was so so good with no traffic at all! Thick green rainforest lined the winding sealed road and as we rode our way toward Salta and we met 3 other cycle tourists. Tired but pleased to reach Salta we rode the cycle lanes to the central city and set up camp. We spent the evening in the beautiful plaza. With a back-drop of a stunningly lit cathedral and old colonial buildings, this leafy plaza had an amazing buzz about it. We ate dinner at one of the outdoor restaurants - amazed by all the people - young and old, despite it being late on a weeknight. It is certainly a lot easier touring in Argentina- the roads, the people and the terrain all make life a bit simpler. After 500km in five days, we are going to have a wee rest in Salta and enjoy what the city has to offer...We are looking forward to exploring further south enjoying the local vineyards on the way. We will then head back to Bolivia as there are a few more cities there we want to visit and still want to make it to the jungle before heading to Peru and Ecuador.

PS. I´ve been getting a bit of unfair credit for the blog. Although I do most of the writing it is Kate that slaves away uploading and rearranging the photos before fixing all my spelling/gramatical errors. Its a team effort!
Baby cute!!
Kate finally cooking the Macaroni cheese that she had been carrying for 3 months!!