With the warm sun beating over my helmet, I cruised down the 50 km of perfectly paved road towards the little town of San Predro de Atacama, I was already missing the remoteness, wild landscape and dirt roads of Bolivia. I arrived at the border where the temperature was 20 degrees warmer.
San Pedro de Atacama is a dusty little town located in one of the Oasis regions of Northern Chile, an area that receives very little rain and one of the most touristic in Northern Chile. Sitting at 2,400 meters with no more then 2,000 inhabitants, it is the starting point for many heading to Bolivia with a guided jeep tour.
I hastily found a nice campground in town to set base camp and wash off the weeklong dust off my body. While eating diner one night, I met Markus, a young German fellow traveling solo who bought a motorcycle in Ecuador. He had also just arrived from Bolivia. We shared stories over a few beers about the bad roads and wild landscapes we both witnessed along our Bolivian journey.
We quickly made plans to ride together on a remote pass to Argentina, “Passo de Sico,” a 500 km passage through the Andes between Chile and Argentina where breaking down or running out of fuel isn’t recommended.
The next morning Markus showed up at my campground on his little 250cc red Chinese dirt bike wearing a massive rucksack over his shoulder pads under a padded bike jacket.
“ You going to a football game with all this padding?” I said with a laugh.
“You don’t have a rack on your bike for your bag?”
“No,” he replied.
I couldn’t believe he’d been riding since Ecuador with a 40 kilo pack over his shoulders!
“I can help you rig something for your pack if you want,” I offered.
“Nah, I’m used to it now, it’s ok” replying in his strong German accent
I finished loading up my organized bike and we got on route towards the pass.
We rode off under a bright blue sky, both excited to be back on the road.
Passing along large salt flats with pink Flamingos feeding in desert lakes, we soon found ourselves back in a remote world surrounded by Guanacos (looks like a llama) and ostrich running around in the vast lunar landscape.
It didn’t take long for our clean bodies to be covered with dust again as the road turned into another sand pit.
Several hours later, we noticed far in the distance a green building with the Chilean flag; the border – in the absolute middle of nowhere. Upon arrival, two very friendly officers dressed in green uniforms gave us a firm handshake and offered us a cup of tea and some kind of meat that we refused to eat. (probably some road kill)
They were surprised to see two Gringo bikers on this remote road, telling us that no one comes this way anymore since a new paved road leads to Argentina on Paso de Jama.
“We like the adventure,” Markus says to the officers.
They both looked at us with a smile and stamped out our passport again asking us if we wanted meat for the road. We finished our cup of tea, thanked them with another firm handshake and rode off in the dust to the Argentine border 5 km away.
This border looked more like a prison then anything. A young fellow came out to greed us and after over an hour filling out papers and getting our gear searched, we were free to enter Argentina with an 8 month visa, the longest available time in Argentina.
The road continued in deep sand and strong wind made the riding long and tiring. The sun was getting low over the horizon and temperatures plummeted dramatically. We arrived in San Antonio de los Cobres, a copper mining town at 3,700 meters in altitude. It was now pitch dark and freezing cold.
“I’m starving, I want meat! “ I told Markus stopping in front of a little restaurant. After all, Argentina is known for some of the best meat in the world – and wine.
We walked in with all eyes starring straight at us. I couldn’t stop laughing when I noticed Markus had the biggest raccoon eyes from his goggles with his face caked in dust.
We cracked open our first Argentinean beer, a cold Quilmes. It tasted like gold after our long epic ride.
Stuffed from a massive steak and tipsy from a bottle of red wine, we rode around under the dim street lights looking for a place to rest for the night. With only several hostels in town, we found one that could keep our bikes safely inside.
The next morning we continued on to Salta, dropping in elevation from 3,700 to 1,150 meters with more spectacular scenery – the air felt warm and fresh.
Founded in 1582, Salta (also nicknamed “la Linda” – the pretty) is the largest city in the Northwestern part of Argentina and eighth largest in Argentina with a population of nearly half a million. It is also known as the Romantic City with it’s incredible old Colonial architecture and central plaza. It is the gateway to the famous “Tren de las Nubes – Train of the Clouds” once used to connect Argentina and Chile, 434 kms over the Andes, zigzagging its way up to 4,220 meters, the third highest railway in the world. Now it serves as a scenic ride for tourists.
We rested several days and filled up our stomach with the best Milanesa sandwich, (meat, egg, veggies and tons of different sauces) and not to forget the best ice cream I’ve ever tasted – a great way to gain back the few pounds lost in Bolivia.
It was now time to continue on our journey south along the very well known Ruta 40.
Argentina is about 4,000 km long from north to south, and 1,500 km east to west, making it the largest Spanish speaking country in the world and the second largest country in South America after Brasil.
On the western side, the Andes mountains run along the Chilean border and Ruta 40 parallels the east side of the Andes – a long stretch of highway over 5,000 km in length.
At its traditional southern end near the city of Rio Gallegos it starts at sea level and crosses 20 National Parks, 18 major rivers, 27 passes on the Andes, and goes up to 5,000 m above sea level in Abra de Alcay in Salta.
There are a number of internationally important sites along this route, such as Cueva de las Manos, which contains cave art dating back some 13,000 years, Los Glaciares National Park, the second largest National Park in Argentina, and the Calchaqui Valleys, the wine region where we were heading for.
From Salta we ventured on a nicely paved road along tobacco fields and lush green vegetation until gaining an elevation of 3,500 meters at Cuesta del Obispo. After reaching the summit, things dried out rapidly. Before we knew it, we were on a narrow dirt road winding through a desert with cactus, dry creeks and forever views of different colored hills leading to imposing 5,000 meter snow-capped mountains scraping the sky.
We stopped in Cachi to re-hydrate from the beating sun.
Sitting outside a small adobe cafe, we watched life move at a slow pace with its cobble streets and ancient architecture. It seemed as if we had gone back in time hundreds of years. We were not in high tourist season, so we were the only Gringos around.
After devouring over a dozen empanadas each, we rode on some of the most fun roads to date.
We continued winding our way down a narrow dirt road, passing along small villages, vineyards, and wild looking landscapes like Quebrada de las Flechas with it’s strange sand spire formations or Quebrada de las Conchas, a valley of red rocks that looked like something out of Mars with towering cliffs reaching over the road.
With every kilometer that we gained, I felt as if I was part of the Paris to Dakar race, standing on the pegs of my bike following the rhythm of the music playing on my ipod – it was a biker’s dream road.
We arrived in Cafayate and found a camping spot to call it a day. In high season this town would be filled with tourists coming to sample some of Argentina’s finest wines – but on that day it was a ghost town.
Initially thinking it would be a great place to go wine tasting, we were told that many wineries were closed for the season. Without having to go to far, the corner store had plenty of good quality wine to choose from at less then a few bucks.
With more meat and red wine in our blood, we quickly fell sound asleep under towering poplar trees chanting in the wind.
The next morning we continued our journey until we reached the ruins of Quilmes. The Quilmes Ruins are considered to be one of the most important constructions of Argentina’s pre-Columbian period. The ruins of the 8th century settlement once held a thriving population of around 5000 who fought vigorously against Incan invaders in the 15th century and fiercely defended themselves against the Spanish until they finally succumbed in 1667.
The Spanish invaders relocated the last 2,000 survivors to a reservation 20 km south of Buenos Aires. The 1,500 km journey was made on foot and resulted in the deaths of hundreds of Quilmes. By 1810 the reservation was nearly deserted and was abandoned. The remaining survivors eventually settled in what is now the city of Quilmes. (Also the birthplace of Argentina’s local beer)
The site was as large as Machu Picchu in Peru. But after seeing Machu Picchu, it was somewhat disappointing in comparison, since only 15% has been excavated.
As it was getting late in the day, we asked the guard at the gate if there was a safe area to camp for the night. He pointed out at a spot about 100 meters away near a dry riverbed. It was a perfect place to set up camp only a few hundred meters away from the ruins. We grilled sausages and drank red wine under a starry night sky, imagining how life would have been thousands of years ago.
It took us another 3 days to reach the city of Mendoza. As we got closer, Ruta 40 straightened and became a wide, dusty highway with occasional towns.
Five days after leaving Salta, we reached Uspallata where the road turned back into asphalt at the junction where the road branches toward Mendoza or toward Chile. It was a relief to get off the dirt road after riding over 1,000 km of dust.
Markus’s raccoon eyes were back and we were desperately in need of a warm shower to heal our aching bodies. (especially Markus with his 40 kilo rucksack over his shoulders!)
We made our last push in the dark to Mendoza and found a good hostel near the center so we could spend the next few days exploring the city.
The city of Mendoza is centered around Plaza Independencia. Trees drape gracefully over the wide avenues giving the city a beautiful ambience – a welcome change from much of the stark feel of many Argentine cities. Bars, cafés, and restaurants line the streets making it an ideal place to sit at one of many outdoor seating, sip on a Café con leche (Latte), eat amazing Parilla or Churrasco (grilled meat), or simply savoring a glass of wine while watching the fast city pace day in and day out.
Mendoza is the heart of wine country in Argentina; producing 80% of it’s wine, it is the largest wine region in Latin America. Mendoza is situated in the foothills of the Andes and the consistent weather, mountain runoff, and extreme temperature fluctuations from night to day results in a perfect growing location for Argentina’s famed Malbec wines.
With more bodegas to visit in a lifetime, the best way to get around for wine tasting is simply renting a bicycle or joining an expensive tour or one of the hostel’s cheaper alternatives. Luckily we had our own bikes to move around.
Well rested, bellies stuffed from so much meat, and with a mild hangover from too many bottles of amazing cheap wine, it was time for Markus and I to say our goodbyes.
He was to continue on east towards the city of Buenos Aires and I was headed toward Santiago, Chile.
Back on the road, I managed to get out of the city without getting lost. I was now back in Uspallata, which brought back great memories of our week-long journey along the dusty Ruta 40. I was now entering a climber’s heaven; massive walls rose left and right as I got higher into the Andes until reaching Aconcagua, 15 km from the Chilean border. Standing impressively near the highway at 6,962 meters it is the highest mountain in the Americas. I was very fortunate to arrive before sunset and witnessed a breathtaking alpine glow reflecting a pink sky over the majestic peak. Luckily the park wardens allowed me to ride to a view point after closing hours so I could take a few photos. I really wanted to camp in the area so I could try to capture a sunrise, but I had to ride several km away to find another campsite. Camping is not allowed in the area unless you have a climbing permit.
I set up my alarm very early the next morning so I could return in time to see the sunrise. More dramatic colors set the sky ablaze while I shot more photos and sipped on warm mate. (Traditional Argentinean herb tea served in calabash gourd with a bombilla, a metal straw)
I couldn’t help but to admire the incredible beauty of the towering snow capped mountain peaks. I hope that one day I will come back to climb this beautiful giant.
I jumped back in the saddle and headed towards another border crossing, en route for Santiago Chile.
World-traveler and adventure-photographer extraordinaire, Alain Denis goes to the places the rest of us talk about going. How many of us have ridden a motorcycle 90,000km from Canada to the tip of South America? Even Che Guevara didn’t make it that far, and he got a movie made about his trip. That would be enough to fill anyone’s lifetime adventure quota, but Alain is constantly pushing the limits, scaling mountains and shooting incredible photos around the world.