We didn’t make it to Salta until the late afternoon. Some confusion led to Dom being separated from Ben and Tym for a few hours but eventually we convened in the one spot we knew would have good internet for uploading our blog and finding an insurance office – McDonald’s. However, after almost two hours sitting in the office of a local insurance broker, it became clear that nobody would offer us insurance in Salta! We had no choice but to take our chances riding without Argentinian coverage and stocked up on water and snacks before heading off south out of the city.
Leaving Salta was beautifully evocative. The low evening sun cast long shadows across rugby fields, crowded sidewalks, children on bicycles and the old cars that seem so perfectly at home in the busy streets. These streets are just dirty enough to be charming without being depressing, the city developed yet rich with character. The city streets faded into country roads as blurry farmland, lined with tall trees and overgrown fences, shone in the golden sun as we ventured west down Highway 33 hopeful for somewhere to sleep.
We followed the bright white lines of the narrow single-laned pavement along which there were no shoulders and the high foliage spilled into our path creating a tunnel of sweet leafy aromas – a nostalgic taste of home. The sun faded away as we pulled down a gravel road to the banks of a briskly moving stream. It was our second attempt at finding a campsite - the first was snubbed as it seemed to be a meeting point for devil-worshippers as indicated by the black flags hanging above a dark cage in which a grim reaper figurine stood menacingly in the bright lights of our three bikes. And on Halloween of all days!
In the morning we awoke, free of evil spirits, ready to reach the famed Highway 40. After a brief dip in the chilly stream, we followed a slow-moving ancient-looking teetering tractor up the gravelly road to the highway, a hardened face behind the wheel as his two amigos bounced around on the big rusty wheel well. The morning’s ride was incredible. We soon left the company of leafy greens and re-entered the world of brown barren hills clad with clusters of cacti amongst the fields of gravel and rock. The road warped around the contours of the slopes overlooking the impressive valley of the Rio Escoipe. Our elevation grew steadily as the tight corners presented themselves on the road that had now lost its pavement. The deepest sand lay, of course, in the tightest corners and though our wheels spun slowly our breath was taken away by the view which improved with altitude. A brief stretch of pavement at the top of this mountain pass carried us along the high Andean grasslands towards the pebbly Highway 42 whose wash boards, ruts and bumps carried us to Highway 40.
Upon reaching Highway 40, Howie’s latest blemish surfaced this time in the form of a sheered off license plate. Great. The three of us doubled back over the washboard, back over the bumps, back through the sandy ruts scouring the road and the ditches for any sign of the small, dirty, Alberta plate. Two and a half hours of searching yielded no results. We didn’t know on which stretch of road it had broken off so the search was widespread, and given the high winds and dusty conditions it was a big task - like trying to find a needle in a haystack, but we couldn’t find the haystack!
Once we began the 40 in earnest, it too was gravel. It was bumpy and sandy and it was slow - a demoralizing continuation of the frustrating day. We stopped as soon was we could for some food, eating our first meal of the day at 3 o’clock. Staying on the gravel we navigated blind corners and got stuck in encapsulating dust storms kicked up by other adventure drivers. We stopped for gas in Molinos where we were forced to fill up out of a local man’s garage as the pumps were closed for the day. The dust and fatigue was overcome by the incredible geological formations that framed the road. Jagged rocks and folds of coloured rocks danced alongside us as the afternoon sun began to run its course. We finished the day on the dry skeleton of a riverbed, hidden from view of the dirt road. A small fire warmed our campsite and we were convinced the next day we would make some serious headway…
We awoke in our desolate riverbed to the sounds of excited birds and angry donkeys neighing in the distance. On our way south to the town of Cafayate, the red hills that were glowing in the golden sun the night before were now shrouded in a thick, foggy cloud of either mist, sand, or a combination of both. Much of the day was chilly and boring as the elusive hills hid behind a constant haze. Their outlines could be seen with some effort, and occasionally we got close enough to make out some detail of the scraggy stone walls. We had rediscovered the pavement, so the riding was good, and as we passed town after town, we noticed they were decidedly more prosperous than those we had grown accustomed to since leaving the U.S. over two months ago. The stretches of highway did little to hold our attention, and the consistent presence of kilometre markers along the way made the painful process of counting progress difficult to avoid.
As we tired of the road in the early evening, our criteria for a suitable campsite grew less and less stringent. We settled on a patch of gravel down a rocky road off to the side of a construction zone. Just as we turned off the bikes, a man in a bright orange jacket began yelling at us from the road. Just what we needed. Between our imperfect understanding of Argentinian Spanish, and our limited capacity to respond, we thought he might be trying to help us so we rode back towards the highway and sure enough, on the other side of the fresh black pavement, was a hidden gem. Flat ground, big trees, rushing water. He explained that this is where the crew comes on Sunday nights to feast and to drink. He helped us amass our night’s supply of firewood and then went back to duty. As the lone night guard of the project he spent the night on the road (probably sleeping in his truck) while we were cozied up in our tents assured that we would not be bothered.
The hum of diesel engines was in full swing at six o’clock in the morning as we packed our things. The morning’s road was again a treat to ride. We rolled along switchbacks to the views of nearby hills, richly painted red, crumbling into dark orange dust as green-speckled hills of brown occupied the background. The hills this morning were less timid than yesterday’s and broke free of the fog, though a thin blue haze poured over the rocks as the pale blue sky was ceaselessly trying to swallow the hills from behind. We arrived in Villa Union for ‘breakfast’ where our growing suspicion was finally put to rest. After asking a handful of restaurants for ‘desayuno con huevos y carne’, a traditional breakfast of eggs and meat, we were repeatedly denied. Instead, the offerings of breakfast were eagerly stated over and over: ‘café, café con leche, té, maté, agua, agua fria…’ each item spoken with its last syllable drawn out as if to emphasize the long list of options. However it was clear only drinks were on offer. That just won’t do for three Canadian boys before a big day of riding so after some convincing we were brought out a big plate of croissants, ham slices and cheese. And it was delicious.
After filling up on our nutritious breakfast we followed the long, undulating road for many miles as we fought to reach its thin, unattainable point on the horizon. Reflective waves of heat rose out of mirages on the road ahead and the monotony led to blurry brains dreaming up incalculable questions. How many litres of road paint have we passed? How many tons of asphalt have we crossed? How many revolutions have our engines gone through? How many houses could we have powered with the fuel we’ve burned on this trip? These tedious miles brought us through San Juan and towards Mendoza. Planning on stopping short of Mendoza for the night, camping options were looking grim as each mile of road was met with two miles of fence on either side, protecting the uninviting land from people like us.
Returning to the camping lifestyle has been a welcome change since mostly sleeping in hostels through Central America and northern South America. The motorcycles stand resolute next to our tents all through the night, and no stairs or elevators complicate the packing and unpacking processes. And, sticking to public land on the side of the roads, the price is right too! However, this night we decided to try our luck at asking a stranger to camp on their land – a first for us in almost 28,000km. Well, after some uncertainty while trying to reach Papa, the Jefe, it worked.
It turned out to be a little farm with a handful of stray dogs, dozens and dozens of goats, chickens, horses and cows. We observed the chaos of feeding time as little billies were snatched by their scruff and thrown under the utter of a doe who had been wrangled up using a long wire hook around her hoof. The billy would repeatedly smash his head into the udder before finally latching on, while the others jumped and bounced in their pen, some even managing to escape. As we boiled some pasta on our camp stove, a cousin from next-door slaughtered and butchered one of the little goats for the night’s slow roast. The dogs feasted on what was thrown to them and the fascinating process was eye opening to say the least.
In the morning we packed up in the midst of another feeding session after which the goat herd stormed through the dusty farmyard, across the highway, and into the fields for a day of grazing on the stark plains. We had planned on a short day to set us up for the self-imposed 1000km challenge we would tackle the following day. We stopped in Mendoza, the capital of Argentina’s wine country, but instead of loading up on Malbecs we instead filled up on gas, breakfast, and snacks to see us through to Bariloche the following day. We encountered another long stretch of gravel after Mendoza, but it was easily navigated and didn’t do much to slow down the convoy. The attendant at the small gas station in El Sosneado confirmed our plans for camping off Highway 222 along the nearby Rio Salado, and we made it early enough to set up camp, touch up the bikes, make supper and go to bed before nine. An early bedtime was crucial as alarms for Saturday morning were set for 3:45!
In the dead of night we hastily tore down our tents and prepared a good Canadian breakfast of hardboiled eggs, buns, cheese, salami, avocado, and bananas. Argentina – take note. If we were going to have a big day it wasn’t going to be on an empty stomach… At 5:30, under the veil of darkness, we set out, taking only a few minutes to reach Highway 40 from our campsite. We rolled through Malargüe as the sleepy streets slowly came to life. To the east, our left, the sunrise splashed a thick rainbow across the cold horizon. Dim whites washed out the oranges that swallowed the purples and as the golden glow strengthened the sun itself threatened to conquer the sky. Before the sun had showed itself we had climbed into the hills, twisting through the rocky roads over spring streams pretending to be rivers. High behind the hills we were unable to benefit from the warmth of the sun that now swept over the roads that we had been on only moments before. The time was going by slowly, ribs chattering in the cold, and eyes tired in the dim light until we had hit a gravel road. It was in pretty good condition and lasted about 100km and, by the end of it, we were well and truly awake.
Our first stop for gas was at on old station where the main pumps were out of order but a third pump, sitting precariously on a wooden pallet, balanced on a gravel slope. Our stops were kept short, keeping the time for the many kilometres that lay ahead. We stopped for an Argentinian breakfast of croissants and coffee at another gas station in Chos Malal. While enjoying the rest, a nonchalant motorcyclist popped his head in the door to let us know that our bikes had fallen over. Oh, good. Howie had toppled into Babar the DR, and Dom’s bike lay spewing out gas from a loose petcock. Not good, but it seemed to tighten up just fine. Howie’s fairing had been bent out of shape but a little muscle power soon rectified it to the point that the steering was unimpaired, though it still looked pretty crooked.
After stopping for gas and a quick meal in Zapala, the road wandered west towards the mountains. Finally - the day’s scenery had been pretty boring for many hours as we focused mostly on staying between the lines in the face of a relentless wind. Approaching Junin de los Andes we passed treeless hills covered in an earthy green felt and then descended beneath a flat plateau along the path carved out by ancient watercourses thousands of years before. We reached San Martin de los Andes and filled up for the last time, impressed by the beautiful Banff style resort town with chic timber frame storefronts and perfectly maintained streets in the shadow of snowy peaks emerging above the emerald forests.
As the sun set leaving San Martin, the swollen streams swallowed the shores and connected a string of idyllic mountain lakes on which ruffled blue-grey water reflected the fading sky above. A dim pink glow was unable to warm the brisk spring air in the land of lakes, forests and mountains where the best of Ontario, Alberta and British Columbia had all been mixed together. Even the road was amazing, as though it had been custom-made for motorcycles, the twists and turns forcing the sun to dip and reappear from behind mountain tops and slopes as rich lodges, log cabins, and fancy ranches lay tucked away behind corners. The ride was satisfying our Canadian appetite for the trees that had been notably absent in this rich forest context since southern Colombia. The occasional whiff of wood smoke also conjured up images of our northern home, and as the light faded away, the darkness of the lakeside forests consumed the shoreline cabañas and the water blackened with the sky.
We flowed forward, our string of single headlights uncovering the mysterious will of the dark road ahead. We came across little towns along the way; cabin lights sprinkled cosily into the lakeside slopes, warming the families inside. On the outside we were cold and, ending the day as we had started it, shivered on the roaring engines beneath us. We did finally hit 1000km just shy of Bariloche, though there was no roadside celebration as we were eager to get warm and horizontal. Highway 40 approaches Bariloche from the north across Lago Nahuel Huapi, and makes a big detour to the east of the city. This means the mass of sparkling golden lights taunted us for a good thirty minutes before we completed the diversion and reached our hotel at about 10:45, 19 hours after waking up. Total kilometres: 1,028. It was a long day. And it wasn’t over yet.
The final obstacle was entering our long-awaited lakeside apartment-style room. The reception was nowhere to be found, and the phone outside the office wouldn’t connect. After making some noise a friendly English-speaking voice spilled out from behind a door. It was a girl from New York. “They’re never here, but check above that door for your key. They left ours there.” What an angel. There it was: the key to our room and the warm beds that would welcome us after five nights sleeping on the side of the road.
Yesterday was a sleepy Sunday. The cool spring air was ripe with vigour and the sun was hot. Small peaks of white danced on the dark blue water of the big lake as families busied themselves on the streets. Today we will try, yet again, to buy insurance. We will change our oil and give the bikes a once over before pushing the final 2,500km to Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world. Until now Ushuaia has been a faraway place, a distant destination, an abstract idea. It is now on the horizon, emerging slowly into our reach. We can almost taste it.