Cafayate to Mendoza. 14th December. 14,396 miles
Our schoolteacher friend, Sergio, asked us if we wanted to visit his school to talk to his pupils and to answer their questions about our trip or about England. After all day at the school answering many questions from "what are teachers paid in England" to "what do you think about the Malvinas (Falklands)" we stepped outside to be met by the local television crew. Another long interview, but this time helped by Sergio who managed to do most of the talking. He always seemed to make our one sentence answer into a ten-minute reply.
Thursday 22nd November and three weeks after posting our passport application, we finally managed to contact the embassy by phone. Previous attempts only resulted in an answering machine and no reply to our request to phone us.
We do not believe it!!! They say they have not received our application and money despite a post office receipt showing a signature for receiving at the embassy two days after we posted it.
We are now back to square one.
The Embassy finally admitted that they had lost our application. At the local post office, Sergio again helped us to send further application for our passports.
The original postal draft was cancelled and a new one included. All together, the three week delay had cost us at least 500 pesos extra and we e-mailed the Ambassador to complain and suggest that we be compensated for our losses due to their negligence.
Meanwhile, we have another week at least in Cafayate. One compensation is that Cafayate is a wonderful place to be stranded in. The scenery is beautiful with the surrounding mountains changing colour every moment. In the evening, the mountains glow with red, orange, yellow and green (sounds like traffic lights). All the people greet us warmly and many have invited us to their homes for wine, food or anything. By now, all the children know us well and greet us with "ello" or "gutbye", and the adults always ask if our passports have arrived.
Joan has found a job in the hostel. She has made many cushion covers for the patio chairs and these now look so smart that we have had to put up a sign saying "Pleas do not sit on the new cushions"
Cafayate has a cycle club, but due to the terrain, it is only mountain bikes. On Sunday 25th Nov. they held a mountain bike event of 40 km over desert and mountain tracks. We were invited to participate and elected to ride in the social event and not the competitive one. A trial ride around part of the circuit proved to be quite difficult as some of it was soft sand and our road tyres gave us no traction. Other parts were technically difficult over large boulders and steep rocky paths. On the day, Joan was not feeling too good and elected not to ride, but David took it seriously and changed to knobbly tyres, which turned out to be a great help as he could now ride parts which were previously impossible. He also added English flags.
To cheers from the crowd in the plaza, David, Sergio and two others of about the same age sedately "sprinted" away from the start. David had four litres of water, but one of the four had four glasses and two bottles of wine! David and Sergio elected to cycle together over most of the circuit, and both took several tumbles on rocky sections. Some steep sections with loose rocks were walked very cautiously as neither of them wanted to risk injury.
The main racing bunch started half an hour after them and were soon upon them. Parts that we walked with caution were ridden rapidly with abandon by many of the much younger cyclists. It takes a lot of skill as well as nerve to go fast down steep, rocky, narrow tracks especially as one side can drop away vertically to a ravine.
David and Sergio crossed the finish line hand-in-hand to noisy cheering from the crowds. As expected, the local TV Company wanted another interview with this crazy old cyclist from England! We were presented with medals and a certificate from the cycling club, which we will have framed back in England.
In the evening, we had a meal with a French couple from Marseilles who we had met in the local campground while looking for cyclists. The wine flowed freely and we were soon joined by Emilio a local artist and potter who had been one of the four older cyclists in the mountain bike event (the one with the glasses and two bottles of wine). The drinking carried on until 2a.m. with much talking in a mixture of French, English and Spanish. After four litres of wine and two and a half bottles of champagne we all staggered back. Emilio had to ride his bike two kilometres on a rough unlit track to get back to his home and studio. Before parting, he invited us to dinner the next evening. When we all turned up for dinner, we soon realised that he had forgotten to tell his wife that we were coming, but a quick trip into town for salad and empanadas and we were soon all eating and drinking wine again. Emilio and Maud live and work in a lovely house with a studio. They are building another house in the garden and this has a wonderful view across the mountains. As well as a pottery, they have a wine production unit which can process 1,500 litres. They sell their wine in Argentina, but we do not think any is exported.
The British Ambassador replied to our e-mail and apologised for the problems. Apparently the new anti-terrorist measures for dealing with letters were responsible for our loss - it was probably blown up!
Our passports were on their way.
On Saturday 1st December, five weeks after the original application, our passports arrived. There was still a slight problem as the assistant who personally delivered them to our hostel expected us to pay $300 for them. After the initial shock, we found out that this was the value for insurance and he had misunderstood. The rest of the day was spent saying goodbye to everyone in Cafayate, especially Sergio and family who had done so much to make us welcome. A final Sunday lunch of empanadas with Sergio and family and we were on our way south again and camped at Amaicha only 40 miles away.
As the next stop Tafi del Valle was only 35 miles away we were in no hurry to leave in the morning and ambled across hot desert watching many guinea pigs rush around. The guinea pigs are what the desert foxes feed on, and smart silver grey foxes are fairly common. We saw three in one morning. The road soon turned away from the valley and towards the mountains. The going got tougher as the road snaked upwards for 5000ft and it began to rain. The rain turned to hail and snow as we reached 10,000ft and the eventual top of the totally unexpected pass to Tafi. Nobody had told us that we had a 10,000ft pass to negotiate. It was very cold and on the final descent to Tafi our hands were so numb that we could hardly use the brakes.
The next morning we awoke to brilliant sunshine and a panorama of snow covered mountains. The strange thing about yesterday's ride was that we started in arid sandy, rocky desert with scattered scrub and cactus. All the riverbeds were dry. As soon as we passed over the top of the mountain the terrain changed to lush green pastures, lakes and gushing rivers. We had actually passed from a dry season area to a wet season area. As with most mountainous countries, there is no such thing as a countrywide wet or dry season, it depends on where you are.
For our cyclist's readers, there is some bike maintenance to report. We had two minor problems for some time. David's rear rim had lost a nipple and had developed cracks around the spoke hole. He re-inforced this with a home made long washer. Joan's cassette freewheel mechanism had developed an occasional cracking noise and more alarmingly, sometimes slipped. All attempts to remove and overhaul the freewheel failed as the locking bolt was so tight that any increase in pressure threatened to destroy the hub. A replacement hub with the required 32 holes was not available and so the solution was to build a new wheel. David removed the good rim from Joan's wheel and built it onto his good hub. A new 36-hole hub and rim was purchased in Cafayate and built into a new wheel for Joan. Although the only rim available was single wall with no re-inforcing eyelets, building it with rim washers made a very strong wheel. The old rim and hub were given away in Cafayate. An advert for David's wheels - still true and not one broken spoke for the whole journey!
The next couple of days towards Catamarca were on fairly major but quiet roads. One campsite with swimming pool was 5 dollars and another was free. We passed many pilgrim walkers on their way to Catamarca and took advantage of the many stalls and kiosks set up to feed and water them.
A strong backwind blew us past Catamarca and we decided to investigate a campsite 12km off the road. It turned out to be all uphill and we were the only ones to use it. In the morning, we had about 80 miles to go to La Rioja and with the strong backwind it would present no problems. Our luck was out. In the morning the wind had changed to a strong headwind and the road was very boring, straight and hot. We finally arrived in La Rioja at 6p.m and feeling quite exhausted after 85 miles into the wind under a hot sun. Cold drinks were few and far between, but drinking hot water was better than nothing.
A couple more days of hot desert cycling and we reached VAlle San Agustin where the desert changed to fertile green plains with a backdrop of red mountains. The desert in Argentina is called Pampa and it consists of sandy ground covered in low thorny bushes and trees. Cattle, horses and goats wander around looking for green shoots to eat while guinea pigs, foxes and snakes lurk in the undergrowth. We saw a Rhea, an Ostrich like bird dashing across the road. (Unlike George's Ostrich, this was not an escapee).
David tried some fishing using bread as bait in a small lake and caught two carp about 2-3 pounds each. Both were returned to the water as unsuitable for eating.
More very boring, hot, extremely straight roads through the desert Pampa and wild camping in the desert. Again, punctures are a major problem when we take our bikes off the road into the bush. In one wheel, we had three punctures at once due to the thorns. Because of the afternoon siesta, everything closes between 1 and 5p.m and even if we find any shops in the few and far between small villages, it is unlikely we can buy food or drink. We fill up with water whenever possible.
At a bike shop we bought 24 tube patches and in two days used up 22 of them. The thorns are everywhere, especially if we wheel our bikes off the road. After a short tea-break stop just off the road, Joan had 3 punctures in one wheel and David two in one wheel.
After several days cycling into the wind, a final 70-mile slog got us to Mendoza.
Dave and Joan