Santa Cruz, Copacabana, San Jose and Londres (also known as London) – what do they all have in common? They’re all the names given to friendly little towns of dusty dwellings, doing their individual Argentinian ‘thing’, a world apart from their counterparts elsewhere on earth. Most boasted tree lined central plazas bearing ripe oranges and one had a cluster of trees whose trunks were patriotically painted in Argentinian flag colours – blue and white. Heat shimmers rose off the road as we rode through the aforementioned towns en route to Santa Maria, giving a dreamlike quality to our surroundings ahead.
Passing through Tinogasta was perhaps more memorable. It was akin to a waste disposal bin overflowing with litter; piles of plastic, used tyres and unwanted household items strewn about everywhere. Pretty this place was not. Around a corner, a snarling Alsatian flung itself towards Pearl and me. The pair of us was a split second away from being grappled by a voracious dog suffering clear anger management issues and sporting a love for wrestling moving motorcycles. I opened Pearl up and off we shot, just out of reach from the mongrel’s gaping maw. Phew. Yards down the street saw a bunch of ragtag lads charging on their mopeds, some being lairy wolf-whistling louts, others paying no one else any mind. A rowdy duo ‘two up’ in particular made me chuckle as the rider beamed a dashing smile my way and waved wildly, while the pillion gave me the finger. At least the motorcyclist was a decent chap!
In hindsight, Londres would’ve been a spot worth staying over in. We only stopped for the morning. It was a Spanish settlement home to some Inca ruins of El Shincal. We climbed one of two hillocks – aligned with the rising and setting of the sun – to survey the vast valley to the south. The mingling of deciduous trees and cacti-prevalent desert flora formed a fascinating ecological paradox.
The sun was a white hot penny beating down like a fiery hammer, which in South America’s winter was perhaps another charming contradiction. It was the first day in months the weather had permitted us to strip layers of clothing and ventilate air through our suits, as opposed to locking out the cruel cold to keep the insulation in. Unlike Tinogasta, our passage through Londres caught us both unawares; we radiated in practically the whole town’s warmth towards us: waving, tooting on their scooters, kids running after us and people gravitating towards the bikes I guess to seek out a story and take back to their family and friends. I still forget how the bikes sometimes magnetise people to us, it’s marvellous.
The Ruta del Adobe, the road of clay on Route 40 turned into the Ruta del Vinos, the wine road that took us to Cafayate. Argentina’s second largest wine region, which was as lovely as it was grapeless – go figure in South America’s winter. Cafayate to Cachi took us via La Vuelta a los Valles – Return to the Valleys. Oh my, what a ride! Valles Calchaquies oozed a seductive, off the beaten track rugged landscape. Perhaps the most soul-singing off roading we’d experienced in South America to date. We encountered: bee eaters flying above, gravelly sand, sandy gravel and well, more sand. Inevitably we stumbled through some rough patches of sand, me more than Jason. I performed a beautiful head slam into the sandy roadside at slow speed, had one of those ‘Pick yourself up, brush yourself off’ moments like a dog shakes water from its head. My helmet had come into its own, splendidly saving my noodle and some!
Up at one of the dusty settlements en route to Cachi, Jason met a guy who had fought for the Malvinas in the Falklands War. He showed Jason a big scar running down his thigh from being shot. Needless to say, he wasn’t too fond of Maggie Thatcher. Further on, we got caught behind a farmer’s flock of sheep up a stony hill. I cooed at the lambs although my attention soon got distracted by the sheeps’ shiny black balls popping out their rears like Mint Poppets at a chocolate factory, creating a handy breadcrumb trail for me to follow. I was so ravenous, they almost looked appetizing.
Vernacular architecture was common in the valleys that to my mind deserved some special attention – even I couldn’t fail to notice some of the adobe houses that boasted neoclassical columns and Moorish arches. Cachi was full of cobblestones, boasted a tranquil plaza overlooked by noble mountains and led us on a road that crossed the Parque National Los Cardones. Interestingly, the local furniture was made from the wood of cacti, cardon; in the treeless Andean foothills and puna, it’s an important timber source and can be seen everywhere up in northern Argentina. It has a distinctive Morse code pattern of dot and dash shaped knots running through the wood. A superb little spot in the desert and one I’m glad we took the time to deviate from our route to Salta and discover.
Our passage to Salta saw the prettiest proliferation of cacti I’d may be ever seen. In the space of an afternoon, the diversity of landscape became borderline ludicrous. One minute it felt as Mexico as cactus populated sandy plains can get and around a corner we peaked our ride at 3,300 metres to feast our eyes on Icelandic foothills. They looked completely covered in cocoa-powder – not what I expected after the desert scene previously encountered. We decided to deviate off road down a rocky track with the odd sheer drop and holes in the road; it got my heart racing as I chose a careful downward line in first gear.
I narrowly avoided a steep ravine although had been practicing my weight shifting technique, which paid dividends on Pearl at that moment. Going back up was a piece of cake by comparison. A few miles further, we entered a New Zealand inspired Lord of the Rings scene that transformed into a sub-tropical rainforest, which in turn altered into Scottish hills and then lush green English farmland. All in the space of an afternoon. All in the smallest segment of South America – a slice of Argentinian pie I could continue to dine out on for months.