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postcards from ruta 40

ARGENTINA: CAFAYATE — SANTA MARIA — BELÉN — LONDRES — CUESTA DE ZAPATA — FAMATINA — CHILECITO — VILLA UNIÓN — SAN JOSÉ DE JÁCHAL — IGLESIA — CALINGASTA

Ruta 40’s mystique is something akin to that of Route 66 in the States — it is the stuff of mythic road adventures. The young Ernesto Guevara, for example, travelled most of the length of it on his motor-bike before becoming the revolutionary guerrilla leader known to the world as ‘Che’. However, on the ground, all romantic legends are pushed aside and for the most part Ruta 40 is a long, hot, dusty haul through scrubby desert with barely a tree in sight to provide precious scraps of shade to a hot and weary traveller.

As PanAm cyclists work their south most get funneled onto the Ruta 40 at some stage or other. I encounter Lee and Heide in Cafayate. We haven't met before but know each other through the cycling network. Lee cycled though Mexico with Sarah and James, before meeting Heide in Guatemala, where he took a lengthy pause before continuing his journey through Central America. Heide - who hadn't owned a bike since she was 7 years old - heroically or perhaps innocently (or maybe both) opted to join Lee in Bogota and take on the Andes in South America on two wheels.

We all end up in a Cafayate campground where Lee and Heide propose an asado - the famous Argentinian grill. We do it gringo style and include a healthy range of vegetables in the feast, but without stinting on the meat, of course.

Or the wine -- this is wine country after all.

We are all heading in the same direction and end up sharing another couple of campsites over the next few days. Lee and Heide do it in style -- their kit includes camp chairs and a real pepper grinder. I can live without the chairs but I am sorely tempted by a pepper grinder.

Dramatic skies...

... and local wildlife add some interest to fairly monotonous terrain.

As does a diverting short cut on a disused section of the 'old' Ruta 40 which is now closed to vehicle traffic due to its poor state of repair.

This section of the road rises over the Cuesta de Zapata in entertaining loops and whorls...

... before dropping back into the vineyards of the valley...

... and the straight and narrow. Hints as to the number of cyclists passing this way...

... can be seen everywhere.

Leaving Chilecito, a sign marks the distance still to be traversed in order to reach Ushuaia - the classic PanAm riders final 'destination'. It's still a way off down the road. And I'm still not quite sure if Ushuaia is, in fact, my final destination.

Another diversion from Ruta 40, the Cuesta Miranda, provides more diverting climbing and landscape. The vivid red earth reminds me of other antipodean terrain. Various dangers...

... and obstacles present themselves. A heavy downpour the previous night has transformed the dry river beds into slippery muddy turbid torrents of uncertain depth. This one prompts me to ask the driver of a pick-up truck for a lift to the other side.

Thorns of all shapes and sizes continue to find their way into my tyres at any available opportunity. It pays to NOT push your bike off the road around here.

Sunset brings more dramatic skies and welcome relief from relentless heat and light.

Sarah and James are on the road ahead of me and strange messages start to appear in the desert and exert a steady pull. I push out a few long days and gradually close the 150 kilometre lead they have on me.

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