It must be because he had recognized me as a shepherd. A shepherd of piglet. He, an attractive Argentinean man a copy of an artistic talib, his beard more than four fists long.
It must be because we had laughed Spanish out loud at the thought of me herding elegant piglet in California. That was back at the border in Bolivia, when we drank yerba mate.
It must be because the Irish/Arab song I listen to over and over again sounded two years ago when I was plowing through the Himalaya. And I thought of my mom. Now I listen to it again and it was the song on her cremation, where it played over and over again.
It must be because I get into a clear shift of mind that where I am now is where I love to be. The nature surrounding me is perfect, I yell out of happiness. Tears of joy spring spontaneous. Suddenly everything fits and makes sense.
It must be because that fierce Northwestern wind is exactly in my back, pushing me like it did in the Sahara.
It must be because I rapidly cycle a 70 kilometer. And I don’t have to climb a bit. And I am at 3500 meter/11483 feet altitude.
It must be because the route is flat.
I like Argentina at once. Finally an easy day.
The inevitable kiss
I become cavalier and without a plan I have set off into lands immeasurable. I had decided to make up my mind once I got at Abra Pampa. And that is already too late. But little do I know.
I decide to go to Cochinoca. You could imagine Cochinoca as a tiny dot, a village with no service, in an expanse of high altitude flatness. This pueblito is only 20 kilometers away, so I decide not to take extra water. I count on passerby’s if I need extra. Passerby’s are virtually none.
The route becomes corrugated and sandy at places. The wind picks up. But everything better than Ruta 9 with its huge coaches and fast driving cars, some of the drivers careless, or drunk.
Jujuy gives it to me
This route is incredible beautiful. I enjoy to the fullest. It’s a blast. It all becomes about viewing the essence, touching clarity.
Little vertebra winds dominates the landscape. I spot a shepherd of lama’s on a bicycle. He moves through the dry bushes with his dog trotting behind him.
I slowly gain in altitude and when I still haven’t reached Cochinoca I get water at the first mud brick house I come upon. Only 3 cars have passed me in those 20 kilometers.
My camp overlooks the whole of the Andes it seems like. The quietness is incredible loud and the openness surpasses everything.
Yet I get a feeling. A feeling that this is not the correct route. That I either loop around a mountain range I don’t need to go to. That my map again shows roads not existent. That there are more direct routes. For sure is that there are not many villages to get food from. And certain it is that I haven’t got enough food to reach the first pueblo where there is food.
How do I know? I spoke to Anna, the lady of the house I got water from. The next day I get back to her and her juvenile lama. I have made up my mind, that cycling Jujuy without a plan, without having checked internet for distances and places, and randomly taking roads without sufficient food, is not smart.
Thankfully, the lama is around, which I hoped for all night. Now I get my chance to get close to this amazingly large eyed animal. The lama puts her snout against mine, and whispers ‘go back’…
Well, Anna’s answers suit me too: ‘Far,’ she says when I ask how many kilometer it is to Coranzuli, Ruta 40, where I want to be.
I notice at once that Argentinean people are way more enthusiastic: truck drivers wave, people in a car might stick their hand out in good-bye. Later on I receive thumbs up and folks seems not afraid of me, neither in the vastness of high altitude lands. Even foxes contribute to my well-being…
From La Quiaca to Susquez
Upon returning and continuing on Ruta 9 I am descending. A bit too much too my liking. I wanted to stay at 3500 meter altitude, so the ride to Susquez would be relative easy. I am highly enjoying the ride, tears of joy are brimming on the rims of my eyelids. Mostly because the downhill makes it so easy, certainly because the scenery is absolute stunning. Yet I worry, I think I have taken the wrong road again.
Soon I hit Humahuaca. As do thousands of tourists. Obviously: I am on the wrong route. I need food so I have to stop. Prices are steep, either that or my exchange rate is wrong. Food is terrible; it takes me hours to find a decent priced restaurant and when I do, I have a rotten piece of chicken. It stinks.
A bigger antidote to my initial feelings of joy are not imaginable. I know that after each glory comes defeat. The hot shower at the camp ground is such an example, and I am able to place the downhill, the flow of tourists, the expensive coffee and rotten food into perspective: it’s not that bad. I guess being in the Andes is about descending and ascending, not about staying at 3500 meter altitude.
I highly enjoy the downhill nevertheless. When I start sulking I think: ‘Imagine this evening I am dead? I rather die after a day on a pleasant downhill than on a day after a hard climb.’ Again, tears of joy, and the wrong sunscreen, are passing my cheeks.
I make an altitude plan, there is only one option which again involves a 2000 meter climb. Or I have to return and take the correct road, right at the border, where very few villages with shops to stock up are. Or I take a bus, a horrible thought. Anyway, I am in a confused mood…
The only little climb I did was a bit after Abra Pampa, at 3780 meter the highest point of Ruta 9 but from there it is a long, long descend. It would be a very smooth and relatively easy uphill. I ignore all further touristy towns, which are quite a few.
In fact, the whole Ruta 9 from Humahuaca onward is touristic. The biggest annoyance are the huge, high seated coaches on a narrow highway without shoulder. Nine out of ten buses is a touristic one. And about seven out of ten cars are hired by tourists. This makes the route solely busy with tourists.
Imagine how it would be without tourists? Well, I am one myself but it feels like Jujuy would be hardly inhabited if not there was tourism. I pass aboriginal settlements and Purmamarca, a bit after the turn-off for Susques.
One way or another, I need to be in Susques.
Purmamarca is yet another tourist draw. I am amazed. When does it stop? Sure, Purmamarca is beautiful as it has rock formations in many colors but suddenly prices are European and streets lined with stuff you see in every tourist town. I choose to camp right in the colored rock formations: that’s for free.
I meet with Richard, a tout. He’s from Chili and has traveled the route to and from Paso Jama often. Richard visits me in the evening at my camp. I am amazed he is able to find me in this labyrinth of red sandstone Alice in Wonderland-alike beauty. But he does and so does three other guys who set up camp right opposite me. initially I am pissed off, as I feel my space is invaded but later on they only add more atmosphere. They play the harmonium and guitar and set against a pitch black starry sky with the Milky Way and red walls where the flicker of fire reflect against.
Richard confirms my presumption. The route to Susques has no villages nor water supplies. As to this point, everyone I asked information about, was wrong. But this route will be strenuous and demanding. I need to know whether I can depend on water. Google map shows nothing whatsoever.
I have regretted every single minute of the 150 kilometer long downhill. I did enjoy the beauty and the easiness but I felt I’d made a mistake. It was again the wrong road! Most painful is the effort I had put in to reach 4000 meter and having enjoyed it too short. I feel my efforts has not reached its peak.
To be above 3000 meter feels magical. Everything changes. The air through my nose; breathing. The dryness; the cleanness of the body. Cracked skin and wrinkles which are more visible. The silence, the earth itself. I must have more of it.
Cuesta de Lipán
So… I take a bus. The rickety Andes transport, a white bus with blue letters which had passed me as one out of ten, the non-touristic option. And I don’t feel bad about it. I don’t even feel I need to be out on the road, the bus is suiting me just well. I probably could not have done it, as there are no villages and hardly any water supply.
In 4 hours I am where I would be otherwise in 6 days. The route was super strenuous with huge climbs. It’s an incredible beautiful ride to Susques, and I sat smiling in the bus watching the Earth move past me…