ESCAPING THIN AIR

We were not far from the border with Argentina, having made it to the Campamento the day before.  I had heard from several cyclists that it was very worthwhile taking advantage of the hospitality of the Argentinian Aduanas (Customs) who, it turns out, have an entire block/building dedicated to hosting weary travellers!  What’s more, they even have Wi-Fi in the main building (it really is in the middle of nowhere)!  So, with this in mind and wary of not arriving too early to ‘qualify’ for a bed, we found ourselves a nice sheltered spot and chilled out for a few hours!

Once we felt we were suitably late, we headed over the final pass of the day and towards the border.  It turned out that Chile had a few scenic surprises to spring on us before we left, our jaws once more hitting the floor as we rolled through fantastic changing landscapes.  The final hurrah was a dead straight stretch of perfect ripio, powered along by a fierce tailwind that meant total silence (besides the noise of the bike rolling on the road) whilst flying along at 70kmh!  The smiles were abruptly wiped from our faces as we crossed the border, however, and the road quickly turned into exceptionally uncomfortable washboard.  Once again, Chile was clearly making a statement about its economic superiority in the same way it had at the three border crossings that I had passed with Bolivia, by providing exceptional roads!

Having traversed 11km of spine-shuddering washboard, we rolled into the Aduanas.  Accustomed to the international rivalry of all the previous borders that we had crossed, it was nice to find both Chilean and Argentinian Customs based out of the same building, something which is commonplace at several crossings between the countries and indicative of the relatively good relations that they enjoy.  Given that they share many thousands of kilometres of borders and many remote mountain passes, I guess it makes a lot of sense.  Our accommodation lived up to it’s billing, with hot showers and a kitchen to boot.  It was with a certain reluctance that we pulled away the next morning, still two days riding from our destination.

Having managed to stock up on a few basics at a small village, we were relieved to once again find ourselves a sheltered gully the next night which made for a great campsite.

And some beautiful stars…

The day had finally come to climb up over our last major pass (that is, above 4500m!) and we thankfully continued to be aided by a strong tailwind.  The relief at reaching the summit was mixed with a slight tinge of disappointment at leaving what really felt like another world and certainly marked a progression to the next phase of our respective journeys.

We soon headed off down a small descent on bumpy washboard towards San Antonio de los Cobres, nervous that Argentina was already showing itself to be a somewhat careless keeper of its ripio!  After a night in San Antonio, we set off early, having read about the propensity for a strong headwind to build later in the day on the descent to Salta.  We were very happy to find that a yet-to-be-opened asphalt road led all the way out of San Antonio to the final ‘hump’ to get over, at a mere 4100m in the form of Abra Blanca.  Keen to make it to Salta and wary that I’d have to crack on to make it in one day, I left Thomas and Tina at the top and began the long descent down to 1200m, tucked up as aerodynamically as possible!  As with all my major descents, however, the aforementioned headwind soon sprung up and, before long, it became seriously hard work to keep the speed up.  Indeed, at times I ground to a complete stop as the wind gusted past me up the valley.  I started to think that I wouldn’t make it to Salta but kept plugging away and, as I reached the lower sections, the wind eased a little and, despite, a 20km stretch of dirt road, I broke out of the bottom of the valley and rolled gently towards Salta, arriving at the friendly Hospedaje La Posta at around 5:30pm.  To my surprise, shortly afterwards I received a WhatsApp message from Thomas to say that they were going to try and make it too and, sure enough, two hours later an exhausted Thomas and Tina arrived, Thomas having led Tina the entire way down!  In the process, we had all broken our daily distance records for the trip, myself clocking up 164km.  It was certainly hard-earned, despite the nigh on 3000m of descent.  Once cleaned up, we headed out for dinner and a well-earned beer, somewhat dizzy from the day’s effort and the thick oxygen-rich air!

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