Salta was over 300 km away. Normally, a reasonable approach would be to get there in three days. But I knew a lot of it would be downhill. I'd try and do it in two.
A cold and calm morning almost immediately changed into a fierce headwind, reaching full strength by 10:00 AM. Or so I thought. It only got stronger from there...
Most of the morning, I felt like I was riding through a scene from "The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly." I don't know if I've ever seen as much saguaro cactus in one place. Even more astonishing was the fact that some of them were as tall as telephone poles.
I went downhill almost the entire day, but the headwind was strong enough that it felt like the opposite. I was pushing hard in my middle gears to hold a decent speed, and that was when the downhill was in earnest. In the places where it flattened out, I had to shift down to my climbing gears to keep moving forward.
By the end of the day, I'd lost half the altitude I'd earned from all that climbing in the Andes. And I didn't have a single easy km all day to show for it. But somehow I ground out over 190 km. I think riding those unpaved roads, sunup to sundown, has given me a newfound level of grit, so I'll push through anything from sunup to sundown. Despite the gale-force wind, I did twice the distance today that I did on unpaved roads. That's how important road surface is.
The town I was in had no place to stay, so a couple cops helped me find a safe place for my tent. Their solution was a public park, 10 meters from a soccer field where people were playing.
"Do they play all night?"
"No, no, not at all. Only until 11:00 PM." That would qualify as "all night" to me, and as it turned out, they stayed until midnight. But this guy was helpful, and that was the only lie he told me, which isn’t bad by Latin American standards.
Pedro, one of the police officers, took me over to the police station so I could charge my phone and get some water. As he walked me back to the park, he gave me his charger (outlets are different here and I don't have a plug). I only accepted it after making sure he had another one at home.
I had nothing that I could do in the dark, and I was exhausted, so I got in my tent and waited more than two hours for the soccer and equally competitive shouting to finish. The participants were of all ages, anywhere between 10 and 50. It was a Monday in October. Isn't there school tomorrow?
With significantly less wind, I did the last of the descending out of the Andes in the first two hours of the morning. Within a large city, I checked my phone. Still no signal. It's possible I simply don't get any service in Argentina whatsoever.
Not only am I out of the Andes, I'm finally out of the tropics. I crossed into them only a couple days into Mexico, which seems like an eternity ago. A lot of my eastward progress has been made in the tropics, which based on the shape of the Earth, makes the distance even longer.
26% of Earth's lines of latitude are in the tropics, but 40% of the Earth's surface area is in the tropics, due to the round shape of the Earth. Since I didn’t start at the poles, 36% of the lines of latitude within my tour are in the tropics, and I’d assume about 50% of the surface, or in other words, half the distance I covered, was in tropical latitudes. Half of this tour was in the tropics.
What does it mean now that I'm out of the tropics? The midday sun, when it's at its strongest, will be slightly north, usually behind me. It should start getting colder after a while, though summer is coming on as I head south. But most notably, I'm in a part of the world where the seasons make a difference, especially in terms of hours of daylight. And now that I'm pointed due south, and it's spring here, the days are going to get dramatically longer in the coming weeks.
Someone I'd met in Cusco told me that Salta was OK, but the surrounding area was beautiful. They couldn't have been more spot-on. The landscape changed in a huge way; now at a reasonable altitude, deciduous trees have made a reappearance. I was in a hill region, covered in green. It was nice to look around and see so much life everywhere. It reminded me of California, only hotter. Maybe it reminded me more of Texas Hill Country, if the hills were bigger.
For all the landscapes of epic scale I've seen, I sometimes like these smaller hills and more subtle scenery the most. Enormous mountains are cool, but it's hard to appreciate them up-close. Land like this, and like Texas Hill Country, you get to know it personally and intimately. And the road itself, and its immediate surroundings, are more than worth looking at. Makes for some of the best riding.
In short, it was pretty, and I liked it. More than I have been in weeks, I was happy to be here.
North of Salta, there were a lot of places to stay, at least half of them offering cabins. The next couple days were going to be short anyway, so I considered cutting this one a little short and making up for it later, just to stay somewhere pretty. But none of the signs gave me the most important information: what do they cost, and do they have WiFi? Where I was going in Salta, a HI hostel, was cheap and had WiFi. And I needed an internet connection to contact a few WarmShowers hosts. I went with the sure thing.
Salta was a big enough town that it took almost an hour to get from city limits to the hostel, located near the center of town. As far as Latin American cities go, I liked this one! Traffic was well-organized, people drove well, and it was easy to get around. There were no sections that looked like a dump, at least from what I saw, and some parts were pretty.
It wasn't until after I reached my hostel and thought about it that I realized why riding through this large city seemed so stress-free, even pleasant. And then it dawned on me.
NO ONE HONKED, not even once! In a whole hour! No one honked at me, at being cut off, at a red light, at a green light, to say hello, nothing! The fact that there was a honk-free hour in a large city, even once, automatically made Argentina the best country in Latin America, hands-down. I'd been in this country three days and it had already destroyed the competition.
I spent a lot of time on the computer at the hostel, trying to plan out my route in Patagonia. More and more, I was thinking I'd take Ruta 40 in Argentina instead of the Carretera Austral in Chile. There are pros and cons to each (wind vs. rain, most notably), but a major factor is the Carretera Austral requires four ferries, which may or may not be running with any frequency by the time I arrive early, in late November. I'd rather not risk getting stuck waiting for a ferry for as much as a week. Ruta 40 might have better pavement too, and that would be the clincher. I'll keep asking locals as I get closer. But considering how consistently I get good information here...
I met two New Zealanders and a Dutch woman (who lives in New Zealand) at the hostel. At least two of them were teachers. They told me physics teachers in New Zealand make piles of money. Hmmm...
We wound up walking to the other HI hostel in town, where you could buy a beer and get a free plate of pasta. After that, we went to a bar called Barney's, named after the drunk guy on The Simpsons, complete with drawings of Simpsons characters all over the wall. Good times.
The HI hostel had the same standard breakfast of bread and coffee, but to their credit, you could have as much as you want. I had a whole basket of bread, with a variety of peach jam, butter, and dulce de leche (my favorite sweet thing ever). I did a little more mapping on the computer and headed out a little late.
My solar charger barely does a thing anymore, if anything at all. I left it at the hostel for the next person that wants it. Before leaving Salta, I found an electronics store and bought a new external battery, a little bigger than the one I already had. I'd like to have one as large as 20,000 mAh, but those are rare. Instead, I have a 7,000 and a 10,000 mAh battery. Combined, those should give me about five days of charge. In Patagonia, that may or may not be enough between recharging opportunities.
It had been warm the day before, but now it was hot! It still looked like California, but felt like Texas. I hadn't thought about the heat before I set off with only my three water bottles filled, leaving my big jug empty. Luckily, it was a short day.
The road was named the "Wine Route," but I barely saw anything of the sort. The town I was going to was even named Viña. When I got there, I found no hostels or places to stay, but I found a church with its door wide open (they're usually locked here), and someone told me about cheap lodging in a restaurant. Instead, I turned around and rode back 2 km to the hostal I saw outside of town. I normally would've been OK with camping, but game 7 of the World Series was tonight, and I couldn't miss the chance to watch the Royals win it all, possibly for the only time in my life. Go KC!
The hostal, which only had a couple rooms, was full, but I could still camp out. About half an hour after I got my tent up, it started raining - hard - and then grape-sized hail began to fall. Glad I hadn't pressed on through the afternoon!
I didn’t have much to do, so I read "The Secret Sharer" from cover-to-cover (it's only 42 pages). My verdict: meh. I only had it because it came in the same volume as "Heart of Darkness," another incredibly short book (so the volume is still thin, even with two books in it). I thought it would be cool to re-read "Heart of Darkness" as I went deeper and deeper into the wilderness of Patagonia, but I wonder if it would've been more appropriate for the jungle of Central America.
Something about the people working at the hostal was strange. They talked funny, kind of mumbled a lot, and didn't change a thing about their speech pattern when it was clear I didn't understand. Nor would they rephrase anything, they merely mumbled the same thing again. And almost everyone there spoke at least a little English, so it was a little strange that they would have this speech behavior.
But the weirdest part was that they'd say things that didn't matter. After I'd already been shown where the bathroom was, the same person who showed it to me told me where it was and that I could use it. And he didn't just tell me, he walked all the way over to my tent from 100 meters away to tell me a second time! Another guy told me that since it's 8:00 PM now, and dinner will be ready in half an hour, that means dinner will be ready at 8:30. Again, he walked out of his way and started a conversation just to tell me this, and I already knew. At another point, one guy started a conversation seemingly to establish that yes, I was watching the TV right in front of me.
The Royals, sadly, lost game 7 and the World Series by one run. In the bottom of the 9th, they could've won it with one more hit. So close to a championship, after decades spent as a doormat. But no one expected them to get this far, and they played their guts out all playoffs. I'm still proud of you, KC. If I'm still a Royals fan after all those rough years, I'll be a Royals fan no matter what.
I spent the better part of a day exhausted, if only because I stayed up past midnight watching the Royals. I only had 100 km to do, but it was nearly all uphill, following a river upstream. I just wanted to pull over and sleep the whole time. Fortunately, for the better part of the day, I had a tailwind. That helped.
100 km should mean I'm done by 1:00 PM. But it was a pretty day, and pretty days always take longer. They're usually harder (interesting landscapes are rarely easy), and you keep stopping to take pictures.
I was still on the Wine Route, but today mostly looked like the American Southwest! Texas Hill Country, California, the Southwest, it's like I've seen all the best parts of the Unites States in a span of only three days!
As I got close to Cafayate, the land resembled California again, first like the coast, sandy earth and dense short vegetation, and then wine country finally made an appearance.
Cafayate is either a nice place all on its own, or it's touristy. I think both. There were plenty of hotels in town, and everything looked polished. But compared to where I've been, any decent town would look nice. Thus far, Argentina had been head and shoulders above everything else in Latin America.
I still get honked at on the highway, but only a couple times a day, and they're almost always friendly honks. Even then, I wonder if it's a Peruvian or Bolivian tourist, because it seems so out of place here. Which means this place is awesome.
Cafayate is known for wine, so I latched on with an Argentinian from Buenos Aires and a couple German-Swiss guys and went out for garlic rabbit and white wine. When we got back to the hostel, a small group was hanging out. Coincidently, they were mostly German-Swiss. Why the German part of Switzerland was so well I represented, I'll never know. Friendly people and good times. I love meeting people at hostels, beats the crap out of any empty hotel room.
Hill Country, California, Southwest. Good people, calmer cities. I'm feeling right at home again.