In which Pete struggles across northern Argentina spewing oil, finds beauty in the painted desert south of Salta, and takes a short mini-vacation within a vacation.
Begin: San Jose de Jachal, San Juan, Argentina @ 10:15AM
End: Famatina, San Juan, Argentina @ 6:45PM
Distance: 300km (187mi) in ~8.5hrs (35kmh / 22mph)
When I woke up, I thought about maybe sticking around Jachal for another day to spend some time with the awesome people I had met. I knew it was around 1000km to Salta, but I wasn’t in a big hurry because I was planning on flying out of there seven days from now; plenty of time to travel 1000km and coordinate some repairs.
Thankfully I remembered to pay attention to the day of the week and realized that if I took my time I would arrive in Salta on Saturday and might not be able to get the repairs I’d need done before leaving – who knows what kind of hassle it will be to coordinate a full engine teardown and rebuild.
I got a bit lost on the way out of town and ended up on a dirt road. As always seems to be the case with these roads, it started off pretty easy and around a half hour later completely changed to deep, nasty gravel. I have my crappy street tires mounted to save my on/off tire for Bolivia and, well, let’s just say it was useless. I made it around a hundred yards hoping the surface would change before going around a corner and seeing kilometers of this nasty river rock gravel stretched out in front of me. Not going to happen with these tires…
I’ll admit, I took the easy road (literally and metaphorically) and turned around to hit the pavement. A bit further north the road climbed into the mountains and the world melted away.
There truly is nothing like riding through the mountains, especially when you’re out in the middle of it on a motorcycle. It’s been so long since I’ve woven up and down mountain tracks, constantly overwhelmed by the beauty around me. No longer is the trip merely a struggle against distance and will – once again, it’s about finding out what is around the next corner.
And then, it was done. Rather than entering into a vast network of mountain roads, I had simply climbed a small set of mountains in order to get into the next valley. The mountains were still around me, but once again the roads were simply roads… straight, long, stretching out forever. It was so nice to have that taste that I couldn’t quite be annoyed, instead holding the memories in my mind and letting the emptiness around me fade.
Zona de Badenes. This sign always makes me laugh – it means “Dips Ahead” or something similar, but I always translate as “You are now entering a Zone of BADNESS!” Like some sort of zombie quarantine area that I must speed through watching for attack at all times. Each time I wonder what type of particular badness lies ahead for me…
This time the badness was legit – apparently during the summer, there are literally rivers that run across the road from the nearby mountains. At this time of year they are mostly just massive dips, often filled with sand and rock, but sometimes there is still a serious amount of water flowing over the road.
The first hundred or so were a fun game: I’d often accelerate as fast as I could to try to see how far I could throw water around me. I kept this up until I almost flipped Red as I crashed full speed into a foot of mud hidden from me by the fast flowing water. It was… scary? Sobering. This way lies madness and doom.
As the Zone of Badness began to thin out, I found myself gleefully approaching a new mountain range to cross. This time the road changed from pavement into a dense red dirt with a sort of dry clay-like consistency. I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to climb the hills with my street tires, but thankfully the packed clay lent me plenty of traction and the ascent begun without incident.
This time I was in for a real treat: a beautiful red clay road that took me through hours of amazing terrain. It is the kind of road I live for, the kind of road I’ve traveled all over the world looking for… a road that crawls inside you, spawns joy and fear in equal measure, becomes almost a lover for a brief moment in time. Best of all, I had it almost completely myself so there were no honking and waving passerby to shatter the reverie.
Only me, my moto, the road, and our pleasure. There are few better ways to spend an afternoon.
When I finally descended into normality, light and reality descended with it. As the sun set, I passed through a large city (Chilecito, if I recall) and some small towns but I was too alive, too thrilled by the red mountain road. I needed to ride more, ride the buzz while I could.
I kept riding into the dark, not really considering finding a place to stop, when I realized I was pushing too hard. I needed to stop precisely because I didn’t need to be anywhere fast, so when I saw a sign pointing towards the town of Famatina which would take me 20km in the wrong direction I decided to go for it.
Famatina was all right, but not what I expected after all the signs about kite surfing, trekking, etc. on the highway – I thought it would be a shiny tourist town, but instead it looked like a dried up mountain town that was desperately trying to re-invent itself yet was too early along to spend the money to do so.
The only hotel I could find wasn’t bad, but nobody at the hotel knew the password for their wifi. I couldn’t find any restaurants nearby and there was almost no one on the street to ask, so after wandering and asking around at various spots for an hour I decided to cook myself some pasta back in the room and enjoy another night in a warm bed.
Begin: Famatina, San Juan, Argentina @ 11:00AM
End: Unknown Location on Ruta 40, Argentina @ 6:45PM
Distance: 335km (209mi) in ~7.75hrs (43kmh / 27mph)
Apparently yesterday was more exhausting than I realized because I slept through my alarm for the first time in a long, long time. I woke up to the sun on my face and was immediately confused, only to realize it was well after 9AM and I had slept for a solid ten hours. Then I wondered why it mattered – why was I trying to get up at 7:30AM anyway? I had plenty of time to make it to Salta…
I loaded Red up and found the owner of the hotel had shown up, so I got the password for the wifi and decided to hang out for a bit in order to buy my plane tickets from Salta to Lima and generally muck about. The owner offered me another night at a discount rate, but I still had concerns about making it to Salta before Saturday and decided to crawl back out towards Ruta 40.
Yesterday I had lost about 300ml of oil during the course of the day but otherwise had no problems. This morning, however, something felt really bad. I may have just been overly nervous because everything was fine once the engine warmed up, but I kept stopping and checking stuff while it was cold because it really sounded bad. My conclusion was that it must’ve been some minor bad gas combined with the cold engine.
Back on Ruta 40, the day became another abstract. Road bent and unbent before me, glazed towards the horizon, varying in only minor ways. Time lost all meaning.
A new problem began to bounce around in my head: fuel. Every 50-100km or so, I would arrive at a gas station only to be told they had no gas. As I slowly emptied my spare tank I began to wonder if I should stop at a gas station and wait for the next morning instead of risking being stranded somewhere… but I wanted to get this endless straight road behind me, so I continued onward.
For almost the first time on this entire trip, I got so bored at one point that I simply pulled off the road and did almost nothing for a half hour. It’s so strange to have the desire to push forward removed, like I don’t understand what to do with myself. I have something like six days to cover a few hundred kilometers with no real haste. What to do, what to do?
I started playing around in the middle of the road, even doing a couple of backflips before having a flashback to the last time I did this in Utah when I broke a finger and cut myself to the bone – that wasn’t pleasant.
For a change of scenery the road started to wander through some towns, very spread out and mostly fairly poor. I was starting to get a feel for this part of Argentina and it’s definitely very different. There is a small hint of Bolivia in it, a sort of ever present poverty that contrasts markedly with the rest of Argentina that I’ve traveled through.
The road also began to surprise me again, as major portions of Ruta 40 would suddenly turn to dirt and gravel, often for many kilometers. I found it strange that the major lifeline connecting some fairly large towns up here would often be in worse stages of repair than roads down south that connected almost nothing. Much of it is being worked on, but it was a shock nonetheless.
As the day began to close, I reminded myself that I was in no hurry and found an incredible place to stop in a washed up riverbed – well hidden from the road, slightly hidden from the wind, and open and comfortable in a light, rocky sand. I could not stare at the horizon in any direction, but aside from this it was one of my favorite camp sites so far; it’s nice to be secure and comfortable.
As night fell and I puttered around cooking and watching teevee on my phone I noticed something that made me feel strangely happy: bugs! There were little flying bugs swarming my light, so much so that I had to put it on the ground away from me while I ate. For weeks now I’ve either been too high or too cold for bugs, so I took them as a welcome sign that the night would be warm.
The sky was really amazing, without a moon in sight I could see giant gas forms writhing throughout the Milky Way. I wished I had a telescope or even that I’d brought one of my larger spotting scopes because it would have been an amazing night for stargazing. Instead I contented myself with playing around with photos and ended up with some of the coolest night shots yet before crawling into my tent to sleep.
Begin: Unknown Location on Ruta 40, Argentina @ 10:45AM
End: Salta, Salta Argentina @ 7:00PM
Distance: 338km (211mi) in ~8.75hrs (38kmh / 24mph)
Today was not what I expected – I ended up on one of the coolest sections of road I’ve seen in quite awhile, almost by accident.
The night was warm and delicious, tucked away in my sleeping bag as I enjoyed the feeling of being back in a tent for the first night in awhile. One downside was that my air mattress appears to have developed a leak, but it’s so slow that it took hours to lower me into contact with the ground.
As I awoke with the sun I thought it had been a fairly warm night and I was in fact quite shocked to notice that my water bottles had frozen almost completely solid. It can’t have been much below freezing, but apparently I’ve become so accustomed to this that as long as I get into my sleeping bag before it drops below freezing I don’t really notice the cold. The lack of wind also probably helped by allowing the inside of my tent to be warmed by my body heat as well.
The best thing about the morning was that I was able to make some lukewarm coffee – it took half an hour to unthaw some ice and get it to a temperature where my coffee would dissolve, but not being in a hurry meant I could enjoy it! And while the water was warming up, I was also able to melt some more by simply leaving my water bottle out in the sun.
I knew I was close to Salta but I wasn’t going to push, figuring I’d take my time and ease through the day as I was well ahead of schedule. For most of the morning the road was the same as the day before, mostly boring, mostly straight, mostly endless. The only entertainment was wondering when I’d run out of fuel as I continued to pass empty gas stations.
In Santa Maria I finally found a gas station – I was low, but not dangerously so (though I later realized I would not have made it to the next one as it was much further than I expected). Coming into town I got completely lost and was unable to find Ruta 40 north again and none of the directions I got seemed accurate, dumping me on some small dirt road.
After driving in circles for awhile I finally figured out what everyone was telling me – that small crappy dirt road *was* Ruta 40! I was shocked, but apparently the major traffic into Salta comes up on Ruta 9 to the east, so Ruta 40 was not only unpaved but practically single lane dirt for quite awhile north of Santa Maria.
It was fun but occasionally frightening – one section was very deep dirt that I almost couldn’t get through with my city tires. If it had been sand I would have been screwed, but thankfully it was so fine I just sort of settled deep into it until I hit something harder underneath and just spewed dust everywhere for awhile.
South of Cafayate the world changed again. Pure beauty came back into play as I arrived in one of the rich wine growing regions of Argentina. Fields of green grass. Gorgeous red, orange, and green vineyards. Perfect paved roads. Open blue skies. Smiling people. Happiness.
I decided I would look for a Bodega where I could spend the night at a vineyard – it was really early in the day, but I was a bit hungry and this area was beautiful… and again, no hurry, right? It became a moot point as I would not encounter another Bodega for the rest of the day, because the town ended abruptly and I tore off towards Salta.
Here is where a bit of fate intervened: I had been thinking that since I was making such good time, I would continue on Ruta 40 north, then cut south into Salta on Ruta 51. It would add a few hundred kilometers to the trip, but allow me to see all of Ruta 40. I had no idea that Ruta 68 would be interesting.
As I was leaving Cafayate, I followed the signs for Salta without thinking and ended up on Ruta 68… and shortly thereafter, my mind was blown as I entered the painted desert of Salta.
This section of road is absolutely stunning. It’s hours and hours of perfect pavement winding through red desert mountains along a river valley, interspersed with incredible rock formations, caves, and other such sights. It’s also apparently a major tourist destination, as the road was fairly busy and bicyclists were everywhere.
As I stopped at one photo opportunity, I noticed how warm it was and my watch confirmed that the temperature here had risen into the lower 70’s – the warmest I have seen in over a month. As the afternoon dragged on I would eventually strip off almost all of my layers, all the way down to my fleece and t-shirt.
It was stunning, incredible, and so much fun. I took so many photos but even they can’t really do the area justice. If you’re ever in Salta, you *must* take Ruta 68 south and check this place out – it’s on part with anything we have in the southwestern US aside from our massive canyons.
By the time I had finished driving through all of this, I was pulling into Salta and the sun was going down. What followed was a miserable hour of navigating an unknown South American city at night trying to find a hotel, finding many without rooms, but eventually locating a place to stay and unwind. I absolutely hate driving in unknown cities at night in places like this and was happy I made it through it alive.
I celebrated with some of the local beer which I had been told is good (their stout is, indeed, fantastic!) and a typically excellent steak. It’s a little weird to put Red away for awhile, but the next few weeks aren’t going to be about him…
No moto adventure!
Locations: Salta, Argentina and Lima, Peru
Crunch! Time, smashed together. You don’t get all the details on this mini-adventure because it was for me. I hung out in Salta for a bit then flew to Lima to have a bit of time away from the moto. My first night in Lima I stayed up the entire night talking with two beautiful American girls, the first time I’d spoken English since Cusco. It was a revelation, nails pounding into the coffin. There are lots of awesome reasons for traveling solo around the world like I’ve been doing for ages now, but the scale is tipping – it’s hard to top beautiful American girls.
The next morning I picked up Cat, one of my best and oldest friends (one of the first I made in DC) along with her boyfriend Carl, who is also a really cool dude. We spent most of the week just hanging out, enjoying some quality alcohol and randomly stuffing our faces. I forgot how cool it is to hang out with people you know, where there’s no “getting to know you” nonsense and no need to be anyone but yourself.
I was a little melancholic the entire week because of this – almost like I didn’t want to have as much fun as I could because I knew I’d be going back to traveling alone in a few short days. Little emo Pete.
Now I’m back in Salta and already feeling like a puppy that got left behind. Red is all repaired* and tomorrow I’m heading north into Bolivia. Afterwards… I’m going home. It’s been long enough – I need to spend some quality time with my friends.
* It turns out that Red has a “rare” motor where the electrical stuff is supposed to be in a wet oil bath, so there’s no o-ring leakage problem like we thought. A little epoxy on the case to prevent further leaking and I should be all set. Go figure.