Bicycle Vacation Argentina
Pampas and Foothills of the Andes
Over rolling hills from Buenos Aires along the Rio Paraná to Rosario, to where the ships come in from the ocean. On the pampas, where that delicious Argentinian steak originates, to Córdoba and then rounding the Sierras de Córdoba, with many old estancias and Jesuite churches with farms. In northern Argentina from Salta over the slopes of the Andes, along varied landscapes, passing Quebrada de Cafayate and Amaicha del Valle.
Travelogue & photos: Gerrie & Aart Dijkzeul
It's a miracle every time things work and work out: that the plane arrives at the right place, that there is someone at the airport with a sign with our names on it and that there's a made bed waiting for us in downtown Buenos Aires.
We got up at 4 AM and now we are ordering a cerveza and a vino tinto in our best Spanish in the capital of Argentina.
Buenos Aires is easy to navigate because of its grid pattern. The trendy residential and shopping area along the Rio de la Plata is very much like comparable districts in European cities. The weekly rally of the Mother of the Plaza de Mayo takes place on the square with the same name. Today there are more tourists than protesters.
And then there is the Cementerio de la Recoleta, the cemetary where Evita Duarte de Perón is buried. It's a village inside a city: a maze of streets, along which sometimes modestly and sometimes exuberantly decorated mausoleums stand with the cascets of the dead in plain sight.
Along the Rio Paraná to Rosario
Rolling hills with vast farmlands
Today the real trip begins. The GPS leads us out of Buenos Aires and its many satellite communities. It takes almost a full day before we leave the city completely behind us. No wonder: 3 of the 40 million Argentinians live in the capital.
We plan to travel north along the Rio Paraná. On the first day we have it easy until we arrive in Zárate. It turns out that Friday nights in this town are for mating rituals: the colorful feathers are cars with their windows open, from which deafeningly loud music is heard. The mating dance irself consists of driving around the square and the park. The girls, who parade themselves on the sidewalks and in the park, are busy talking with each other.
When we leave Zárate, we have to search for two days to find accessible roads. The Route National, which looks friendly enough on the map, turns out to be a sand road. All paved roads lead to Highway #9. Eventually we find out there is no other option to cross the Rio Paraná.
Our hesitation to ride past the signs that say "bicycling prohibited" disappears when we see no other options.
After we pass Baradero we can avoid the highway. Roads that are marked as unpaved on the GPS map sometimes turn out to be paved; and the unpaved roads are in reasonably good condition.
The surroundings are beginning to look like what we expected in Argentina. Rolling hills with vast farmlands with fruit, corn, cows and horses. We see a school on a junction of two endless roads; there is no house in sight wherever we look.
It's nice and warm, around 30 degrees centigrade. But the nice weather ends abruptly when we bicycle from Ramallo to Rosario, a hundred kilometers distance, during which we ride in the rain most of the time. It's only 15 degrees centigrade. The sky is dull and gray, every now and then illuminated by lightning.
It fits the area, which has lots of scrap metal recycling plants. Fortunately we are pushed forward by a strong wind from the south.
Rosario is a wonderfully laid-back town. The promenade along the river is really beautiful: a park-like strip that stretches for a few kilometers, lined with renovated buildings in which cafés, restaurants, fitness centers and museums are housed. It has a view of the river and the ships from sea that can sail all the way to here.
We spend a day walking, lazying about and reading. And eating, of course. Those Argentinian cows must be very happy on the pampa, because you won't find steaks like these anywhere else in the world. Both in taste and size. We feel charged for tomorrow when we begin on our route to Córdoba.
Crossing the pampas to Córdoba
The wonderful Argentinian beef originates here
After a day of relaxation in Rosario we get on our bikes again. Onward to the pampas, to see where the wonderful Argentinian beef originates. Our route is simple: after we leave the city behind us, it's straight ahead for the next 100 kilometers to San Genaro.
The next few days to El Trebol, Las Varillas and Villa del Rosario things will become more complicated, because we'll have to turn left or right a few times.
Bicycling here is an almost meditative experience. The legs that go up and down monotonously for dozens of kilometers. The flat landscape also doesn't require much mental focus.
The only distraction is the question what's up with the sun: we are bicycling north, but we have the sun in our faces. And on top of that it also moves counterclockwise in the southern hemisphere.
Every day goes roughly the same. Breakfast at seven, on our bikes before eight. After two hours or so we stop in one of the villages we pass every 20-30 kilometers. They all have ten streets running north-south and eight cross-streets. The houses look well maintained, the streets are wide. Everything looks prosperous. The streets in the town centers are paved, the others aren't.
At the center of each village is a green and colorful park with arbours, statues, benches and playing grounds. The local cafés, which are at times very old-fashioned, but sometimes very trendy in larger towns, serve coffee with the ubiquitous medialunas (croissants).
After 60-70 kilometers it's time for lunch. We shop at the local autoservicio (supermarket) and eat our food in the park. A lady joins us for a chat.
That is easier told than done; she doesn't speak English and Gerrie's Spanish is okay for ordering coffee, but not for discussing the developments in Argentina in all their aspects. The lady leaves with a smile on her face and returns five munites later with an Argentinian flag, for the bike.
Another day, another village. We are eating our lunch when school goes out. Twenty to thirty kids in white school uniforms that look like lab coats. Not very pretty. Argentina is now counted among the prosperous countries.
Many children are obese (adults too, by the way); in order not to burden their tender backs with heavy books, they have schoolbags on wheels. The same kind that is used by elderly people for shopping.
We cause a stir when we digitally record schoolchildren with our bikes, because everyone wants to have their pictures taken. None of the children or teachers speak more English than the obligatory What's your name. Fortunately there's a lady in the village who speaks English. She is fetched and then the usual travel information can be exchanged.
We succeed every day in ending the leg of the day in a somewhat larger town with hotel. When we arrive, between two and four PM, the town is usually quiet because of the siesta. And then the best moment of the day: the shower, which rinses the dust and sweat off of us.
Then we take a nap, eat icecream, have a drink and try to get an early dinner. We still aren't used to the habit of dining late. We are usually the only guests when we ask for the menu around 8 PM.
After four days of headwind and one day of tail wind, we arrive in Córdoba. We could have taken the bus from Rosario to Córdoba, but we are glad we didn't. In some ways it's a boring route, but on the other hand we got a good impression of what the pampas are like and what it's like to live in an area with so much space.
Córdoba is the second city of Argentina, with a population of 1.5 million. It has a friendly and colorful city center with some pretty buildings. The oldest ones date from the early period of Spanish domination (sixteenth century).
Our planning isn't very fortunate. When we go into town on Sunday afternoon, most interesting sights have just closed. On Mondays they are closed as well, except during the tourist season.
Rounding the Sierras de Córdoba
Jesuite churches with their own farms to sponsor them
When we leave Hotel Vienna in Córdoba we are ready for some rural peace and quiet. On to Ascochinga. A school, a small store and a golf course with a super de luxe golf hotel; that's pretty much all there is.
The receptionist of the hotel raises an eyebrow when he sees us enter: we are covered in dust and sweaty, dressed in bicycle gear, which is clearly not according to their dress code. But that changes as soon as he understands that we are bicycling and are willing and able to pay for a night in their hotel.
The next day we take Ascochinga as our point of departure for a tour of the surroundings, with Estancia de Santa Catalina and the village of Jesús María. If it were just for the names, you'd already want to visit there. It's a beautiful area. The roads are less enjoyable: unpaved washboards.
In Santa Catalina we visit a church founded by Jesuites in the early sixteen hundreds and the farm (estancia) they founded here (along with others in other towns). They used the income from the farms to finance projects in Argentina. Just as other churches we visit this week, they are on the World Heritage List of Unesco.
In Jesús María we visit a comparable church and its museum annex, which shows the history of the Jesuites in Argentina. The museum's manager turns out to be a bicycle afficionado. We can't leave without having admired (ostentatiously) all his digital photos of the courses he rode.
Our next destination is La Cumbre, at an altitude of 1,180 meters in the Valle de Punilla. It's only a short distance, about 40 kilometers. But the ride still takes the better part of a day. The unpaved road is in terrible condition and the incline is a tad to steep for our bikes, loaded up with luggage.
During the first part of the leg we climb from 700 to 1,600 meters. The descent that follows is as taxing as the climb and our speed just as low. On average we don't go faster than 9 k/p/h today.
Depending on who you ask, the beautiful surroundings, complete silence and absence of any traffic, don't, or only partially do, compensate for the effort.
The next day, when we bicycle to Carlos Paz, it's completely different. The song What goes up, must go down plays in our heads when we glide over smooth blacktop for dozens of kilometers, without even having to move the pedals.
Carloz Paz and surroundings are not to our taste. A mix of Disney World and the busiest beach in Florida, with more hotels, restaurants and bars than houses. We'll keep moving then.
And so we end up in Icho Cruz. A village with a few hotels and restaurants which turn out to be closed. Fortunately there is a vacation home for elderly Argentinians which also rents out rooms to tourists. We unload our bikes in front of the entrance of what looks like an old-fashioned old-people's home, watched by spry old people.
The river that runs through the village has many pretty sandy beaches. We find a quiet spot and spend the afternoon there reading.
The old people wave us goodbye when we leave the next morning on our way south. Our destination is Alta Gracia. A short leg, but with many climbs and descents. We have to cross two hills or mountain slopes. For kilometers the incline is between seven en ten per cent. It's just doable because of the smooth blacktop.
Alta Gracia turns out to be a nice place to spend another day. This village also has a church with estancia, build by Jesuites and a museum that turns out to be worth a visit. The same goes for the Che Guevara Museum, which is housed in his childhood home.
We are both touched by the many photos, letters, and the story. This is history from a period which we lived through ourselves. It's romantic but also tragic. Guevara, from a wealthy family, took bicycle and motor bicycle trips all over Argentina and this way got familiar with the social-economic situation in Latin America.
Then there are the farewells when Guevara leaves Cuba to support the freedom fighters in Congo and later also in Bolivia.
When we wander through the village on Sunday night, we are attracted by music we hear from a large old building. We end up in a chapel near a monastery. There, a small choir and some instrumentalists are performing.
They perform both Latin American music and classical church music that we know from home. The music in the first category sounds much better.
It pours all Monday. We adapt our schedule and spend the day lazying about. We read and when it gets a little better, we take a walk. It seems to be a pattern: one day a week rain, the rest of the time bright with temperatures between 25 and 30 degrees.
We bicycle, with a southward loop via Despenadero back to Córdoba. There we visit the sights we haven't seen yet. Especially the guided tour of the Jesuite church and the university that was founded by this order in the early 1600's is worthwhile.
With some pride the expulsion of the Jesuites by the Spanish king in 1757 is linked to the fact that many liberation movements in South and Central America were led by Jesuite priests. This has to do with the Jesuite opinion that God does not bestow power to kings but to people in general.
Crossing the Andes slopes
Varied landscapes in Northwest Argentina
Tonight we take the bus to Salta, some 800 kilometers northward. Five weeks is not enough time to cover all distances by bike. Our bikes have to be wrapped as packages before we are allowed to take them on the bus.
The next morning we arrive in Salta, rested and in a good mood, because of the comfortable, luxury bus. The town lies in the foothills of the Andes mountains.
Salta has more shoe shiners than shoes. In other words: a touristy town. But a very pleasant one. A fairly green city, with many outdoor caf&eactue;s, churches and museums. The most impressive is the Museo de Arqueología de Alta Montaña.
The main exhibit is three mummified bodies of Inca children who were sacrificed five hundred years ago at the summit of the 6,700 meters high Niños del Llullaillaco.
They were children of wealthy people, who were honored that their children, together with their ancestors, would guard the wellbeing of the community. This leads to a discussion about the relativity of good and evil that lasts all night.
After a few wonderful days in Salta, we bicycle to the south. We cover about 250 kilometers in three days. It's a beautiful route with many different landscapes. From tropical green to dusty dunes. From vineyards to plains covered with acacias, with meters high cactuses between them, which look like the ones in cartoon books.
The middle leg of the route, Quebrada (ravine) de Cafayate, is a fairy-tale landscape. Erosion of the soft stone makes for 80 kilometers of spectacular vistas. Both in form and color. It's overwhelming.
Google Earth and our bicycle GPS give us two options for lodgings after the first 80-90 kilometers. When we arrive, it turns out that one doesn't exist and the other has closed shop. What to do? In an earlier stage we came up with a contingency plan: to hitch a ride to the next option for lodgings: Cafayate, at a distance of 180 kilometers from Salta.
The fact that there is hardly any traffic isn't helpful at this point. So, do we spend the night in an abandoned shed? We decide to keep bicycling for now. That works well. After five kilometers, during which we don't see any houses or buildings, there all of a sudden are two signs Comedor and "Cabanas for rent".
And so we spend the evening in a completely deserted area in a luxury cabin, with fireflies as a twinkling backdrop.
Cafayate, our second stop on this route, is a cozy town with many bodegas. In an outdoor café: with a view of the Andes we enjoy a glass or so of local wine. The next day we regret it: our legs are noticeably heavier than they are on other days.
In Amaicha del Valle, the third stop, we visit the Museo Pachamama (Mother Earth). A magical world of colorful buildings, squares, meters high symbols and old and new art, inspired by the culture from before the Spanish invasion.
Amaicha del Valle is a dusty little town (population: 3,000) with only a few paved roads and then all of a sudden there is this beautiful open air museum.
The alarm goes at 5:30 AM. With a thousand meters climb ahead and temperatures over 30 degrees centigrade, we want to ride the main part of this leg before it gets really hot.
Mother superior, as we call the owner of our hotel in Amaicha del Valle, waves us goodbye. We have breakfast in the local gas station. It sounds prosaic, but in scarcely inhabited regions it's the best spot for fresh medialunas (croissants) and a good cup of coffee.
The climb from 2,000 to 3,000 meters isn't so bad at all. The incline never exceeds 5-6 per cent. It's an amazing, wild landscape: bare, grit and cactuses. Every now and then a sprig of green in a spot where the high mountains release water to the surface.
The views of the lower lying valley are amazing. Except for a few houses in green oases, there are no buildings. Conquering the mountain pass Abra del Infiernillo (Little Hell) at an altitude of 3,042 meters is, despite its name, almost a piece of cake.
And then, after we have passed the summit, the world looks completely different. Green and fertile. Roaming llamas, with their arrogant stares, ignore us.
We descend from 3,000 to 400 meters and spend the night on the way in Tafi del Valle. We follow a stream which on the way becomes a river. The lower the altitude, the lusher the green gets.
Our surroundings look almost like a tropical rainforest. Lots of flowers and birds. But every descent ends. The last fifty kilometers we have to hit the pedals again. The road is smooth and it's 35 degrees centigrade. We've had it when we arrive in Concepción shortly after noon.
The next day we bicycle in the rain for over a hundred kilometers. It's too much even for our raincoats. Except for a comedor at a gas station we don't pass any place that serves food.
The rain stimulates the toads to cross the road. We're not talking about toads the size of muffins, but the size of shoes. Pretty animals.
We are drenched when we arrive in Termas del Rio Honda, known for its thermal baths. The hotel owner explains elaborately how to fill the bath with thermal water, but we ignore him. Our skins feel like wet newspaper and what we need is not a thermal bath, but a regular shower.
Our last day of serious biking ends in Santiago del Estero, the oldest city of Argentina. But little or nothing remains of its history. We spend two days with strolling, reading and collecting stuff (plastic and cardboard) to pack our bikes for the bus to Buenos Aires.
On a short ride we arrive at a cemetary where it's quite busy. It's moving to see relatives sit in a circle around an open family mausoleum, looking at six coffins which are covered with lace cloths.
They have dogwalkers here, too
After a relaxing night on a bus we arrive in Buenos Aires. We have bicycled 1,900 kilometers, but the five kilometers from the bus terminal to our hotel are the most dangerous. City buses that pass cars right in front of us, while at the same time swerving to the right to stop at a bus stop are the worst.
When a fat BMW cuts us in comparable manner, Aart expresses his displeasure by hitting the car's roof with his flat hand. It brakes, the door opens and a large man with a big mouth appears. Fortunately he doesn't speak English, so his rant is over soon.
We spend our time with long city walks. The Evita museum is just propaganda for Evita's "good work". In the evening we visit the Argentinian must-see: a tango show. In one word: great! We enjoy it very much.
We end our vacation with a bottle of Argentinian white wine in the film and theater district.
Looking back on five weeks vacation in Argentina, we have enjoyed the rest from our day-to-day lives and the time we had for ourselves and each other: talking, reading, bicycling.
It was surprising to us that Argentinian culture isn't all that surprising. It's not the Latin America we imagined. They live like we do, with dog walking services and gyms where Pilates classes are taught.
The large numbers of Italian and Spanish immigrants, as well as the Christian religion make the population and daily life in the parts of Argentina where we bicycled not so different from what we see in Europe. Only in the northwestern part of Argentina the original population is still dominant in numbers.
The parks at the centers of every village and city are wonderful. Both as points of orientation and as social meeting spots. The size of beer bottles and quality of steaks are also beyond praise.
Argentinian nature has much to offer. What is more beautiful than blossoming passiflora that grows like weeds. Views of the Andes, eroded mountains, endless plains. And all of this at temperatures around 30 degrees centigrade on average. We had a great time.