Saturday, 12 February 2011

San Juan, Argentina - Pleasant surprises

I wasn't really looking forward to the cycle from San Martin to San Juan. To avoid a busy stretch of Ruta 40 I was doing a dog-leg to the east across several empty inches on the map with no campsites for a few days ... in fact, with not very much at all for a few days. However, as is often the case in Argentina, there were pleasant surprises.

At lunchtime on the first day I pulled off the highway into the village of Asuncion, hoping there might be a spot where I could get permission to camp. It was a poor village, the poorest I´ve seen in a country I´ve come to think of as "European". A true desert town, there was only sand and bare soil, scoured by a wind that sent dust devils across the plaza. I´d arrived at the start of siesta and the deserted streets added to the gloominess. I settled myself down in a patch of shade to sit out the the heat of the afternoon. I was just thinking to myself "this is grim" when I spotted a tent between a gap in the houses. Investigations revealed a group of young Americans who were camping in the village while doing voluntary work in the area. My tent was added to the colourful little village of tents and there was even an unexpected shower and dinner invitation! Then of course, after siesta, the village came to life - women watered front yards with buckets of water to keep the dust down, kids flew up and down on bicycles and threw stones at chickens, and a trailer-load of grubby menfolk was deposited on the corner, presumably having come from working in the vineyards to the south.

The next dot on the map was Encon, an unattractive cluster of buildings around a road junction in the desert. At least I knew there was a service station here for camping, although when I got there it wasn´t the most appealing of service station stops. With a long afternoon ahead of sitting out the heat and waiting to pitch the tent, I decided to treat myself to lunch out at a wee "comedor" in the village. I had steak, eggs, salad, a cold drink and a coffee for less than six pounds. As I was leaving, the senora asked me where I was staying and when I said at the service station, she led me around to the back of the restaurant. Here was a little oasis - a lush lawn surrounded by a carefully-tended flower border that was alive with butterflies and shaded by tall trees. Noisy wild parrots flitted back and forth, watched over by the equally noisy pet parrot. His Spanish vocabulary was about as extensive as mine - "hola" and not much more. His English was excellent though! The senora´s house was above the restaurant and a smallholding extended beyond the garden - she invited me along when she went to feed the cattle, pigs and chickens. If they were the source of my lunch, then I can record very low food miles! My tent was pitched in the middle of the lawn and I pottered away a very enjoyable afternoon.

San Juan is another pleasant surprise - a modern city of tree-lined streets. Although there is a sad story behind this. The city was largely destroyed in the middle of last century by an earthquake so what we see today is the result of the modern rebuilding. It´s a wealthy city -the surrounding vineyards have generated the money here which is such that there are even shops where you can buy outfits for dogs!

One advantage of swinging out on a more easterly route is the incredible perspective it´s given me of the Andes, as a result of "standing back" a little. I´m cycling on a 600m high plain. At its western edge the mountains are a sudden uprising of snow-covered rock, snaking away to the south and to the north as far as the eye can see. These are big guys now of five and six thousand metres but yesterday morning the rising sun picked out in pink one peak that rose above the others. At 6959m it´s the highest mountain in South America - Aconcagua.

I´m pretty excited about the road north of San Jan which turns back into the mountains. I´ve picked up a lot of information from other cyclists such as locations of campsites and service stations, the most scenic routes, places to get shade and water and, most critically, where the coffee stops are! But I´m hoping there´ll also be more pleasant little surpises.

More photos on Fickr and an updated map below.

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