RSF - The Off Road Cycling Club

The Adventure Starts Here

Argentina - Gringo in the Monte

by Ivan Viehoff


I am a Gringo on a Bicycle. Once I thought I was a Cyclist, but I have learned I am a Gringo on a Bicycle. In Argentina I meet Marc, the schedule-obsessed Frenchman. He wants to climb mountains and cross deserts. He wants to fight rough roads and gradients, wind and sun, heat and cold. That is why he is on the road in the desert with his heavy load. I will do these things also, but it is not why I am there. For me the road is the route between places and cultures, and the road is the place itself. Marc rides. I travel. Marc is a Cyclist. I am a Gringo on a Bicycle.


I arrive in north-west Argentina at 3,185m, the exit from the 4km tunnel at the top of Los Libertadores pass from Santiago in Chile. On this side of the tunnel it isn't snowing, but I have to scrape the ice off my rims before I can descend. Frozen into bottom gear, all I can do is freewheel. Shortly there is a view of Aconcagua, claimant to be the highest of the Americas. But more amazing is the natural bridge, Puente del Inca. From here are two days of stunning descents through canyons to Mendoza.



I head rapidly north to the city of San Juan. No sooner am I out the other side than I am in the monte. In Argentina monte means desert, and Monte is the name of this desert. Two or three downpours a year provide enough for a covering of thorny trees and cactus. Now late autumn, the temperature still gets up to 35°C. Sometimes I ride two days between water sources. So I carry large amounts of water and camp out in the desert. I have regular punctures, because thorn clippings are used instead of orange cones.


Unknown to me on the straight desert road, Marc the French cyclist gets me in his sights. An hour later he catches up. At Jáchal he wakes me before dawn and we ride 145km until it is completely dark. Passing a beautiful and unexpected lake, we climb the unpaved Cuesta de Huaco for surreal views. Late in the day, we make another unpaved pass to Villa Unión with amazing rock colours. He spurns my offer to share my tent. Without changing out of his lycra, he gets into his sleeping bag and braves the nightly frost on a picnic table.



I have a day off for repairs and recovery, and Marc chases off after the schedule which is still ahead of him. I climb the unpaved Cuesta de Miranda at my own pace. I have my first sight of giant cardón cactus in the badlands before the climb. I find a streamside campsite on the descent, with fresh water provided by snowmelt from the 6,000m Sierra de Famatina far above. I am scared out of my tent, stick in hand, when a fox pushes over an oil-drum searching through the rubbish.


There is an emergency source of water in the desert, though you risk a curse of bad luck if you dare. Many road accident shrines are dedicated to Difunta Correa. Correa died of thirst, while following her husband's battalion in the 19th century Desert War against the native population. But miraculously her infant survived, apparently suckling at the dead woman's breast. Passers-by leave bottles of water at her shrines so she will not thirst again in the desert. Today they leave her spare car parts too.



A couple more days brings me into beautiful Catamarca province. I cycle from London to Bethlehem in 45 minutes, for such, in Spanish, are the names of the towns. On a sandy road in the desert goatherds invite me to their encampment to share Sunday lunch of goat stew. The men gather round a table to eat it, while the old woman who cooked it sleeps in a cane shelter.


A pick-up overtakes me, guns sticking out in all directions. "What are you hunting?" I ask. "Ostriches" they reply, "have you seen any?" I saw rheas, American ostriches, in Patagonia 3,000km to the south. There are no ostriches in places where men may drive with guns. Nearby is a sign remote from anywhere. "Do not hunt the ostriches."


Approaching Andalgalá is a ribbon of one-room shacks of bare breeze-block. Small children run around with bare bottoms. The Governor of Catamarca seems impervious to charges of murder and corruption. Output has fallen 30%. The province is bankrupt and mints its own banknotes to pay its bills. Remote in the desert, in Andalgalá, the square is still a shady arbour of blossoming trees and songbirds. There are still bourgeois villas with flower-filled gardens and high walls. But the cafés are quiet and some shops have empty shelves. "They shouldn't hunt the ostriches", says the waiter, "but it does taste good." A new conveyor to the mine will increase unemployment in Andalgalá. People are leaving town to herd goats and hunt ostriches.



I climb another cactus-covered pass, but there is no immediate descent. I skid on a sandy-soft road over a plateau of pasturage, ever moister as the cactus are left behind. There is cold drizzle in the air, so close to the heat of the desert. Next day I climb a muddy pass and descend through heavy rain into fields of Tucumán with their sugar cane, oranges and pineapples. The edge of the desert is a narrow place. I will travel on, back over the edge.

(this article first appeared in the March 2001 RSF Journal)