April 18, 2009 GMT
North on the Puna

From San Antonio, Chile we ride north, skirting Santiago through pastoral wine country to the west and north then head east through Los Andes, Chile towards the Argentina border. Our route crosses the Andes mountains at Paso Cristo Redentor, which involves sixteen hairpin turns to gain altitude before entering the tunnel that crosses the continental divide and empties us into Argentina.

IMG_1198 16 hairpins Paso Christo Retendor.11.JPG

IMG_1202 Sulphur Springs y Inca.11 Bridge.JPG

We catch occasional glimpses of Cerro Aconcagua (6962 m asl) as we approach and exit the pass. After a very organized customs process at the Chile/Argentina frontera, we stop for a coke and view the natural bridge and sulphur springs of the Inca Bridge. Although the pass is relatively low at 10,100 ft asl and the air temp hovers in the mid 20's C, we are mindful the sun is still mercilessly UVīing everything in sight.

IMG_5118 Puna y Cerro Mercedario.11.JPG

After a night in Uspallata, we head north on Ruta 412 and the open high mesa near Los Andes mountains that defines the puna, defined as the "bleak Andean tableland". Ruta 412 starts with a few kilometers of asfalto but itīs not long before ripio - a road surface of sand, gravel, dirt and dust, become our companions. Off to our left, where the Andes stand tall, we see the white peak of Cerro Mercedario, only a bit shorter at 6770 meters than itīs tallest-in-South-America brother, Cerro Aconcagua. What it lacks in height, apparently C. Mercedario makes up for in being a more challenging, technical climb.

IMG_1217 ripio a Barreal.11.JPG

In the lovely little town of Barreal we find an oasis of cool and shady trees, running streams and truly a peaceful setting, where the gauchos (Argentinian cowboys) are still king. A horseman or horse drawn wagon are right at home on main street.

IMG_1218 P in Barreal ARG.11.JPG

After the best lunch weīve had since we hit South America, we sit under the shade of giant eucalyptus and alamos outside the restaurant and have a cup of tea. Since it is, after all, 2:45 in the afternoon, we decide to stay the night in Barreal. El Mercedario, a restored estancia orginally built in 1928, calls our name with its tranquil green pasture and orchard surroundings. Horses and cows graze the old orchard, but the goats are more enterprising. Standing on hind legs, they bend the low branches with their front feet to get at the fruit.

IMG_5154 Villa Neuva hay wagon.11.JPG

Good thing we stopped last night at Barreal. The next day starts with pavement but then 100 km of ripio slows us considerably. The Bumblebee (referred to more and more now as Chicitita) has trouble with her low clearance. Sand drifts and deep gravel wash bog her down. The road is a grader-blade track through desert, where even a rare thunderstorm destroys the road where it crosses an arroyo. It takes us four hours to get from Villa Neuva to Iglesia. The landscape, though harsh, is fascinating. Scrub brush grows in the sand and gravel. No grass grows. We see condors as specks in the sky, circling in the updrafts. By late morning it's 30 C. Riding at 15 to 20 kph even with jacket open is hot work, but taking off our helmets and motorcycle jackets would make it worse. Weīd bake and have heat stroke in no time. The arms and legs get a workout as the bikes snake through the soft drifts and gravel washes. Katie and Chicitita, donīt let us down now. No flat tires and don't fall down. No wonder the gauchos still prefer their tried and true "four-wheel-drive" caballos. Later in the day we are back on better ripio and can rip along at 25 to 30 km per hour. Playground zone speed, I know, but it feels much faster, trust me.

IMG_5171 Ruta 412.11.JPG

Riding the puna gives us a sense of wide open country that knows little of man. The haze that obscures the distant, dark blue mountains is dust in the air, not manmade pollution. Our world again seems like a very big place and we are very, very small dots crawling across its surface.

IMG_5207 Chicos en Huaco.11.JPG

The daily ritual of stopping for a Coke has become habit. When we stop in Huaco, the young lads are typically respectful but intensely curious of the two extranjeros with the monster bikes. Step-though 100cc scooters are commonplace in Argentina's cities and pueblos: in comparison our bikes look extravagantly oversized and odd. Of course, they also amuse themselves with the table game of foosball. These metal tables all have soccer players and looks like it was built about the time Pizarro set foot in America.

IMG_5250 Los Cajones.11 Canon y msc.JPG

The landscape is amazing as we wander Northern Argentina. The parks of Valle de la Luna and of Talampaya capture the imagination. Outcrops of deep red rock, then layers of copper green, coal black ribbons twisted from geological stresses, and tan sandstone slickrock remind us of parks in southwest USA, of Zion, Bryce and Arches National Park.

IMG_5267 Map advice Patquia.11.JPG

A typical day starts with coffee and desayuno (breakfast) at about 8:30 to 9 am. We'd start earlier but then we wouldn't get fed. We are riding by 10, looking for a Coke break by 11:30. Lunch is popular between 1 to 3 PM so we don't want to miss that. When we ask the locals for advice, which is often, on the most scenic route to take, information offered is always enthusiastic and generous. And that goes for the police at the numerous checkpoints along the roads.

IMG_5269 police checkpoint.1.JPG

By 5 PM we are looking for a place for the night. Hotels are comfortable, with (well, mostly) hot showers, occasionally with cable TV. Sometimes we even find an English speaking movie on TV in the evening. A litre bottle of beer costs a few cents more than a litre of 97 octane, so both humans and motorcycles are happy. It's a nice relaxing life, this exploring northern Argentina.

Posted by Murray Castle at April 18, 2009 09:00 PM GMT

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