So, now I am in Tolar Grande and I fancy some creature comforts, such as ice-cream, beer and hot showers (although not all at the same time). From glimpses of my waistline, I can see that the gentle folds of flesh are gone, and my ribcage is looking like a xylophone. Less to carry up those hills, perhaps, but there is a happy medium and, with Halloween rapidly approaching, I don’t want people thinking I am a cast member from the Day of the Dead.
If I am going to indulge myself, I have to head south, as there is a place I have heard of called Belen that has supermarkets, oxygen and ice-creams that have not been sitting in a freezer since the cretaceous period. Unfortunately, there are mountains everywhere and I know the ice-creams are going to require a hard few days of cycling across salt flats and over dusty passes. I calibrate my expectations accordingly and set off back across the Salar Arizaro, making a mental note to turn left after 10 miles in case it all goes a bit Groundhog Day.
The road south across the flats is a decent affair and the wind is cheerful (ie behind me). I can smell the lithium, as evidently can the SUVs and trucks I am sharing the road with. There are tourists too, some of whom I have been chatting to (with the help of my Spanglish app) in Tolar Grande. It is a 76km “shot” from TG to the Cono de Arita, and I hope to make it in a day despite my late start. The Cono is a sandstone “mountlet” around 150m high that graces the southern end of the salar. According to the guidebook it has mystical properties, although, when I am there, I do not see any druids nor do my razor blades unexpectedly sharpen themselves.
I find myself shelter of sorts, ruing my lack of arms as I try to assemble a three-man tent in the wind by myself. I have given up on the thought of lighting the stove and enjoy, instead, the boiled eggs, tuna and mayonnaise I picked up in TG. With salt, pepper and an incongruous dollop of Italian spices, this is catnip for a cyclist taking refuge from the wind and dust that make the afternoons so challenging.
My plan to capture sunset over the Cono de Arita becomes a rescue mission, as my drone struggles with the wind and announces it is short of battery 5 minutes into the flight. After an anxious 10 minutes of reducing altitude and looking for landmarks, dronio is safely back at home-base, blinking at me with sad eyes. I promise to do better in the morning.
The following day sees me skirting the southern section of the salar, looking for a plausible road to take me up and over to Antofalla (pronounced Antofasha in an apparent, and successful, attempt to confuse foreigners). The road is on Maps.me and Garmin Explore, so my confidence levels are high, as I take a right and head up a shallow valley. I look into the distance and can see it is one of those “everlasting” climbs to a col that will continue to recede as one false summit is replaced with the next. Never mind, the surface is ok, the tyre-pressure is reduced to a soggy custard for traction, the gradient is kind and there are lots of strange drilling rigs to look at when the next truck has passed and the dust has cleared.
Predictably, the wind picks up and I am almost happy to have to apply the brakes on the final uphill section. There is a right-hand turn to Caballo Muerto that I have heard good things about, but an extra 15km detour this late in the day doesn’t swing it for me. I need to get up and over the final section today, in case someone comes and installs a further couple of false summits overnight. Thankfully, the ground finally recedes and I am working my way down from 4,300m to the Salar de Antofalla 850m below. The road is atrocious and the tailwind becomes a headwind as I pummel the last 2km into town, but I know the cycling gods are on my side today when four strangers take pity and invite me to stay in their hospedaje, where they ply me with food and wine. Santiago is from Catamarca and owns a vineyard which certainly helps!
The next day there is an infamous climb from the salar up and over a 4,600m pass. I bravely cycle and haul my bike up the first 500m before flagging down an SUV that takes me up to the pass itself. Looking at the difficulties the SUV is having with the road surface this is a sensible choice. From the top, it is now a long ride down a pretty river valley and the sight of flowing water after all this time is something to savour. The wind is blowing hard again, making the final 20km into Antofagasta de la Sierra a mixed bag, but I arrive safe and sound at 6.30pm, ready for food and accommodation to be presented at my feet. Unfortunately, other tourists have got there first and I work my way from the best place in town to the worst over the next hour, eventually with begging-bowl in hand.
Safely in my quadruple room (paying for 4 people…), I find an excellent Comedor to eat at and, on cue, Santiago and friends appear and offer me wine. Things are never so bad!
From Antofagasta de la Sierra, it is a hop, skip and 286km jump to Belen on some of the smoothest, scrummiest and greyest tarmac I have ever had the pleasure of riding on (after miles of dirt road). Ok, there is a 20km gravel section towards the end, but I won’t dwell on that. All told, it is a fantastic 2/3 day ride in anyone’s book and, even if you haven’t been bumping along on unspeakable roads for 7 weeks, I can royally recommend this section to cyclists who enjoy spectacular desert scenery on smooth and relatively quiet roads. There are a couple of mountain ranges to cross (of course!) to satisfy one’s masochistic tendencies, but with a drop of 2,500m from the high point, there is time to freewheel and enjoy the looping birds and squeaking vicunas as you whistle past.
After the first day, I have reached a high pass and entered the Laguna Blanca Provincial Reserve. The signs cheerfully inform me that camping is not allowed, not that there are any flat or protected areas I can see. I spot a hacienda and approach cap in hand for shelter to put up my tent. There is no-one there, although the unlocked doors suggest the place is occupied. I decide to wait and, shortly before sunset, an old Mercedes truck is working its way up the “drive”. I have a speech prepared but, before it is delivered, the man has unlocked a dormitory room and ushered me in. No payment is requested (nor do we speak again apart from when they leave early the following morning) but I leave a thank-you note and small token of my appreciation anyway. What a great place Argentina is when it comes to hospitality.
Day 2 starts with a climb but it is soon over and the long descent to Laguna Blanca follows. Despite the lengthy descent, I am still over 3,000m, although I am pleased to note it is getting warmer. More great scenery, colourful rocks and sand-dunes, and suddenly I am in Barranca Larga having lunch. By lunch, I mean toffees, fruit drops and a coca-cola substitute. I feel like Jeff Goldblum in “the Fly” but I have cravings to satisfy.
As I started reasonably early, I am at the main road to Belen by 4.30pm. It is another 48km to Belen, which would mean another few hours of cycling and a 110-mile day which is beyond the call of duty. I make some enquiries about accommodation at the petrol station I have stopped at. Predictably, although the place is empty, I am told all the accommodation has gone. I make a note to have my olfactory system checked when I reach Belen as the flies have been ignoring me lately.
There is a bus stop close by, but I don’t fancy my chances of getting on a regular bus. I half-heartedly stick my thumb out at a white SUV that is going so fast it has acquired a tinge of blue. A four-wheel skid later and, with the bike in the boot with a cactus (I kid you not), I am hurtling through a canyon and pulling up a couple of blocks from the hotel I have been able to book while Sterling Moss (and his cactus) have been setting land-speed records.
Belen will be my home for the next 3 days before I move on to Fiambala. It is a comfortable place where I can eat like a horse and get some money for the next section of the trip (thank you Western Union). I have not found any scales so far, but if I have not dropped from 78kg to something with a “6” at the front I would be very surprised indeed. Calories in and calories out. I am exercising all day and not eating all that much, so no great surprise there. But the bottom line is that I am a bag of bones with a suntan whose mission is to work my way through every flavour of ice-cream Heladeria Don Fresquin offers (and he offers a lot).
Being skinny at my age is not necessarily a good look, but I am sure with the right focus and encouragement I will put those kilos back on soon enough. Exactly where they go is another story…