Here’s our latest video capturing the highlights of the two wheeled journey so far – we hope you enjoy:
Another ‘Top Ten’ post devoted to roads leading to some of the best South American offbeat travel hotspots through Argentina and Chile we’ve experienced over the last few months. The ‘Top Ten’ riding roads below aren’t ranked; if they’ve made the list means they get our thumbs up.
Top Ten: Riding Roads, South America
Carretera Austral, Ruta 7: Chile (approx. 1,240km)
The Carretera Austral through Chile is a road that will satisfy your soul beyond conscious comprehension. It begins from the seaside town of Puerto Montt in the north where Chile’s Lakes District ends to the village of Villa O’Higgins in the south, snaking south for 1,240 kilometres into a land of dense forests, snow-tipped mountains, glacial streams, islands and swift-flowing rivers. Don’t let the potential wet and windy weather put you off (we rode it in May 2014).
We spent a week riding Carretera Austral’s dirt roads, which was well worth the extra effort involved through the gravelly, muddy and corrugated parts. The pothole-peppered track took us hundreds of metres above sea level on Mount Jeinemeni, which gave us day long views of a lake the size of a city. It was so lofty from atop, I felt like I could see half the world. Mammoth-sized mountains engulfed us as well as voluminous lakes under even bigger skies.
Everything was super-sized – the only missing piece of the jigsaw was the dinosaurs. Feeling like a dot in the landscape, we wound our way up. Everything was – the only missing piece of the jigsaw was the dinosaurs. Feeling like a dot in the landscape, we wound our way up and down the mountain passes taking extra care; there were no barriers on some of the steep hairpin bends, which were loose and corrugated to add to the fun and games. Some had described these mountain passes as “hair-raising on two wheels” although it was often so stunning, forgetting I was on more technical terrain was made easier.
Further north past Chile Chico, the ground either side of the Carretera Austral changed dramatically where barren plains gave way to a grassy, lush landscape. The orange, reds and russet leaves of autumn were just appearing for us here. Soaking up the vegetation-dense vista was like having a sponge bath, it was good to drench the soul in something green for a change. Incredible. Queulat National Park is definitely worth the detour off the Carretera Austral too – here you’ll find The Hanging Glacier.
San Pedro de Atacama to Paso de Sico, Ruta 23: Chile (approx. 209km)
Some fantastic off road riding and your efforts over the loose gravel, stretches of sand and corrugations will reward you with a pastel watercolour painting scene of soft textures. The landscape is intermingled by a myriad of harmonious hues on the colour wheel. Chiefly creamy mochas, milk chocolate and swirling dark browns. You’ll chance upon Laguna Miscanti & Miniques. Two sparkling brackish lakes, one a blue curacao liqueur and the other starkly beautiful in its crystallised white but beckoning us by its inky midnight blue. En route, you’ll also come across Salar de Talar. A glittering salty lake in the same aquamarine blue found in the Indian Ocean and you’ll get to dangle your legs over the edge of iron red rocks, perfectly rounded and smoothed by the blasting winds. It’s possible enter Argentina at the border of Paso de Sico but remember to stamp your passport out in Chile’s San Pedro de Atacama, 145 miles away.
What you’re store for is an earthy, rollicking, lip licking feast of fun. In August 2014, we bobbled over loose gravel, frozen streams crusted over in ice, slushy mud and oodles of slippery sand. I imagine there wouldn’t be any ice in the summer months. The 176 mile ride was worth it just to see what I labelled ‘Boulder world’ alone, bestowed on us in its breathtaking enormity. There sat an incredibly impressive legion of stand-alone rocks bigger than an average sized house. Some were the size of ships. It was a movie set from Raiders of the Lost Ark. The unpaved road became a dirt road, which became a track and the track a mere suggestion of one. Both our bikes went down but survived the animated fun. Not for the faint hearted or those that prefer the smooth tarmac.
Zapala to Caviahue, Argentina (& if you’re feeling feisty onto Copahue), Argentina (approx. 173km)
Imagine a wanderlust cocktail of Freddy Flintstone boulder-lined desert, mountain lakes and pehuén forests but best of all, monkey puzzle trees amid big snowy mountains dominating the landscape. Welcome to the road between Zapala and Caviahue. In the nineteenth century these evergreen coniferous trees, native to Chile, were named in response to a remark that an attempt to climb one would puzzle even a monkey, uh uoo!
The roads left the senses tingling as we were riding into the onset of the ski season. In June 2014, we ventured the ten mile ride over on thick gravel ripio to Copahue. We’d heard the mud baths and hot natural springs were still open to invitation of the slightly crazed. I got four miles in when the dirt road dwindled to a pebbly thread, finally to a mere suggestion. The stones, slushy mud and injurious ice were too much for me although the return ride felt like a piece of cake with my back to the unwanted wind. I hear Copahue is a sight to behold, shame the snow prevented us from getting there. During the summer months, the ride to Copahue would be straight forward in easy conditions.
Ruta de los Siete Lagos – Seven Lakes Road, Argentina (approx. 107km)
The Road of the Seven Lakes is the popular name given to the provincial route 234 between San Martín de los Andes and Villa La Angostura in the Neuquén Province, Argentina. Definitely not one to be missed, this is popular with folks on four wheels, two and on foot. The 107 km road that crosses the Lanín and Nahuel Huapi national parks provides access to several lakes in the forest area of the Patagonic Andes, as well as to other sights. The seven primary lakes of the road after which the route takes its name comprise:
The lakes are aptly named for their salmon fishing, beauty, clarity and hidden aspects – we wouldn’t have missed this road even if it did feel a little wrong to be riding on so much asphalt through virgin coihue and colihue cane forests. The day’s song ended on a sweet note as we dared to hope that a steep trail would zig-zag us down to a mysterious looking lake. The day hit a harmonious crescendo as we stumbled upon it, Lago Lacar. A long, narrow bar of opaque blue mist hung beautifully over the freshwater. Behind me, I saw hills rising wild as far as the eye could see covered in trees that no axe had ever touched. I saw the sunlight glinting off the lake and clouds sweeping in from the west. I even saw a caracara circling. I waved at him as late afternoon drew upon us, shadows growing long. Dusk arrived and left to a tune of pinks and oranges. Overhead a half moon peeked out through the scuttling clouds, beneath which a stillness settled over my mind. The stars looked like eyes, watching over us in this secluded spot with only each other for company.
Via La Vuelta a los Valles – Return to the Valleys. Oh my, what a thrill ride waiting for you! Valles Calchaquies oozes a seductive, off the beaten track rugged landscape. We encountered: bee eaters flying above, gravelly sand, sandy gravel and well, more sand. Inevitably we stumbled through some rough patches of sand, me more than Jason. Vernacular architecture was common in the valleys that to my mind deserved some special attention – even I couldn’t fail to notice some of the adobe houses that boasted neoclassical columns and Moorish arches. Cachi was full of cobblestones, boasted a tranquil plaza overlooked by noble mountains and led us on a road that crossed the Parque National Los Cardones. Interestingly, the local furniture is made from the wood of cacti, cardon; in the treeless Andean foothills and puna. A superb little spot in the desert and one I’m glad we took the time to deviate from our route to Salta and discover.
Ruta 46 via Laguna Blanca to Zapala, Argentina (approx. 123km)
To my mind, Ruta 46 is in direct competition to the Carretera Austral. You won’t believe it until you see it. Church bells were chiming inside my head, rejoicing alongside the ring of a quieter alarm bell as to why this road is so unknown and underrated. It took us from one national park to another via a scenically steep mountain pass. We were riding 1,200 metres above sea level through big sky country where the striking volcanic deserts led us all the way to Laguna Blanca. The laguna was a drainage lake that formed when lava flows dammed two small streams; now host to coots, grebes, upland geese and the odd flamingo, primarily under protection for the black-necked swans. The road led us to Zapala, is a touristic city in the Patagonian province of Neuquén, Argentina for an overnight stop.
Puyehue National Park, Chile to Villa La Angostura, Argentina (approx. 100km)
Ruta 231 marked as the 215 on Google maps will lead you through Puyehue National Park, out of Chile and back into Argentina. After the 231 road, it appears on Google maps that the road comes to an abrupt halt. It doesn’t, refer to any good map and you’ll be taken on a road that most assuredly exists..! Around the sweeping roads you’ll ride, curving up around the mountains, back down until you’ll be hit by a powdery place of volcanic ash. Tall trees robbed of life and leaves perforate a thick carpet of brown flakes. For us, it was like riding through the land of the dead and apart from each other and the roar from our bikes, the world was awash in sepia. Nature woke up in Villa La Angostura, a village in the south of the Argentine province of Neuquén, on the northwest shore of the Nahuel Huapi Lake. It’s an upmarket town and ski resort.
Your passage from Cachi to Salta will bestow the prettiest proliferation of cacti you might ever see. In the space of an afternoon, the diversity of landscape becomes borderline ludicrous, at least it did for us. One minute it felt as Mexico as cactus populated sandy plains can get and around a corner we peaked our ride at 3,300 metres to feast our eyes on Icelandic foothills. They looked completely covered in cocoa-powder – not what I expected after the desert scene previously encountered. You may like we did decide to deviate off road down a rocky track with the odd sheer drop and holes gaping in the road like hungry bites from a sandwich; it got the appetite primed for a perfect picnic spot at the bottom. Back up onto the main drag on ruta 33 and a few miles further along, you’ll enter a New Zealand inspired Lord of the Rings scene that alters into a sub-tropical rainforest, which in turn transforms into Scottish hills and lush green English farmland. All in the space of an afternoon. All in the smallest segment of South America – a slice of Argentinian pie I could continue to dine out on for months.
10. Mendoza to Barreal via Uspallata, Argentina (approx. 235km)
If you swing a right westward off ruta 40 back onto the 7 north towards Uspallata, it’ll give rise to quite a dramatic scene-stealer. Dense clusters of brooding clouds, dark grey steely skies and the purply presence of the Andes with hoarfrost gripping at every low level bush was as Wuthering Heights as you’re likely to see that side of the southern hemisphere. In July 2014, we got lucky and hit an unpaved track between the 39 and 412 roads – the first time I’d off-roaded smiling in a smattering of snow!
Arriving in Barreal that afternoon felt like someone had turned up the colour saturation in Photoshop. Up to then, I’d been blasé to the bland landscape of wind-tortured plains and dusty mountains, the appearance and texture of elephant skin and had no idea what lay around the corner. I’d read that this part of the San Juan province gave locals around 300 days of ultra-clear, pollution-free skies each year. Like a tap of a wand to a magician’s hat, out popped stark poplar trees against fiercely blue rivers running clear and an ancient dried out lakebed ‘La Pampa del Leoncito’. Every square centimetre of the 10 kilometre mud-flat was a pattern of cracked crazy-paving. It turned the colour of Maldivian sand when the sun shone down. Needless to say, we spent nigh on an afternoon simulating spirals, figure of eights and playful attempts at crop circles leaving only traces of our tyre-streaked fun. Back in open country, a blending of the soul took place once again by means of my motorcycle and me.
Plan A: To vacate Uyuni in Bolivia via 237 miles on routes 5, 701, skirting around lagunas Pasto Grande, Capina and Colorada, through the
Eduardo Avaroa National Reserve of Andean Fauna, by-passing Laguna Verde to eventually cross the border into northern Chile’s San Pedro de Atacama. Why the need to re-enter Chile for the nth time? It seemed silly to venture any further north when we’d made November plans in the southern most aspect of South America again.
Appreciating that only around 10 per cent of roads are paved in Bolivia, acknowledging there is only one road rule in the country: There are no road rules as well as knowing little and less about the true road conditions, we jumped straight onto the online forums and ascertained the consensus of our desired route to be a long six-day road that was “slow-going but not technical”. I was on board with that – vamoose, lets go!
With food, fuel and water provisions seen to, we set off in the highest of spirits interlaced with a determination to ‘see it through’. Around five days allocated, lets keep the pace nice and easy. Canadian KLR rider Matt, Jason and I were happy with slow going but not technical. Sand I could do in smallish, thin-ish quantities, a little gnarly ground here and there – no problema. The morning’s ride was hard-going but we were fresh. Full of beans. We departed shortly after the sun’s first smile: encountered more sand in a greater thickness than we’d anticipated, some rocky terrain, climbed over rugged hilly sections and whether Matt’s presence influenced my riding – I guess it did – inspired me to forge ahead with increasing confidence. It was still a touch technical, for me anyway.
A culmination of my experience to date, the group dynamic of positive influence beaming my way and Pearl’s unremitting ability turned every step into an adventure. I looked upon my comfort zone from afar and observed a gulf between where I’d been the day previous and where I was now, flying through space over thick sand! I didn’t want to overthink it, I’d painfully recoil to ‘Captain Slow’ status if I did. Jason remarked how amazingly well I was doing, told me “I am so proud of you right now Lisa, you are just getting on with it and this is not easy, not even for me!” I let the glory of victory consume Pearl and part of me in that moment. Every nerve in my body demanded that I rise and charge headlong over the sand; I blinked sweat out of my eyes and freed some more potential from Pearl. We’d always set out for an adventure – this was an adventure and a half. Immense even.
Inside a morning, I’d endured three spectacular crashes in the sand; banged my head twice and bashed my wrist into Pearl’s handlebar. I was barging past my limits with a hungry gusto to prove I could ride better than ever, pushing my luck in the bargain. Back soaked with sweat, water beaded on my skin before trickling down the lines of pain. I was left with a thumping headache, throbbing wrist and a pair of pumped forearms. If not altogether unscathed I was in one piece at least, could ride on although my energy reserves nosedived soon after a late lunch. We were getting sand dunes more than we bargained for – beach size. I looked at what lay ahead with a simmering loathing – unridable sand burying our wheel arches a foot deep in the unforgiving stuff. What was just about doable in the morning, with fatigue setting in post three crashes up at considerable altitude, our adventure started to turn sour. Did it cross anyone’s radar to turn back at that point? Sadly no, we had come too far and had tipped the point of no return. Time to implement an unscheduled Plan B.
Clinging onto scraps of strength combined with a fear of really hurting myself in a remote place was like a serpent forever coiling and uncoiling inside me – forever striking, biting and filling my insides with poison. That, coupled with spasmodic thoughts of mortality compelled a stubbornness to manifest itself that refused to play any further part in martyrdom. I became ridiculously ‘risk averse’ and lost every shred of confidence in the process. With waning physical power to hand, I entered an irreversible state of task-loaded tiredness. My fill of crashes and the wrench of dragging Pearl through sand at over 4,500 metres simply blocked any further incentive to get up on my foot pegs, only – in my mind’s eye – to then royally ‘lose it’ at some point from the aforementioned variables at play, and twist, sprain or break something. I was making life very onerous for myself at such agonisingly slow speed but my pain threshold could take no more. The strain had begun to seep into my neck, shoulders and back, legs, forearms and fingers. I was reluctantly pressed on by two men, stronger than me – what else could we do?
Despite the hours of back-breaking tribulation afflicted by the sand, I should have felt euphoria upon descending the The Stone Tree. Exhaustion, however, marred any potential euphoric feeling and consequently the beauty of The Stone Tree. My breathing was rapid and hard, my heartbeat pulsing in my ears. An awareness of where I was, was not altogether lost on me but it was acutely difficult to appreciate the moment. Physical suffering outweighed any accomplishment in reaching what lay before us. The effort we’d sustained was like quarrying stone beneath a blazing sun, hour after hour just to see another lump of stone shaped like a tree. I was so tired, it just hurt. It was easier to sit down, feign a small smile and think no thoughts in the shade. Revelation wasn’t always fun, revelation became pain. I closed my eyes – plagued by an aching hollowness, the lingering living nightmare and bruise of regret. The day was far from over.
A new surge of fear drove me forward; up at 4,500 metres what if we were headed into a survival situation? Borne out of worry, Jason shot me looks that bordered on the murderous, his calls down the helmet’s intercom like thunder over a distant and baron land. Under stress and strain and deadline, the harsh bite of his words stung me, “Come on Lisa, I need you to come on! Plea-se Lisa. JUST COME ON! NOW! NOWW!” My acid-laced response might have been the droning of insects for all the attention he paid.
A burning sensation lay heavily in my gut, “NO! I CAN’T! Please, leave me alone!” I bristled. Engulfed in heavy fatigue edged me closer towards falling into an abyss of total inactivity. I bit my lip, a sinking sensation folding around my hammering heart and under dire duress kept going. Ul-tra slowly. Sighing wearily without relief, I rode on sand like it was the first day of my riding career. No skill, no clue, no courage. Not a car, building or person for miles. Nothing had prepared me for this battle with my body that washed through me atop of my mental anguish. I felt as harangued as I did haunted by the situation but dug deeper than ever before to keep a hair’s breadth inside the group dynamic’s request of ‘carrying on’. Resuming the riding took every personal resource and all the internal grit I could muster. Just where in seven hells do you two stubborn buggers want to reach before the black of night will consume us whole? The sky like my mood was darkening deeply.
Matt’s military experience kicked in flawlessly. His eyes still gleamed with brightness and danced with an internal light. He compelled me to remember the feeling I’d harnessed so well from the morning, flying over the sand like a hovercraft on water. Must you be so cursedly pragmatic, man? I knew he wasn’t going to give up lightly and wanted desperately to kill some more clock on the move. Although Matt puissantly persuaded me otherwise, I was still remiss not to have demanded we stop sooner; my continued silence and the chert-hard look in my eyes indicated I was anything but placated. His thoughtful blue eyes were taking the measure of my own despite his heartfelt attempt at ameliorating my situation. I pursed my lips, biting off the harsh comments leaping to my lips.
It was as though my soul was twining around itself, frightened, frozen in place – trying to sort my churning emotions. I felt as impotent as a brick and watched on with a kind of mute horror. I just hung there on a precipice of indecision, knotting my mind around the problem. I ground the heels of my palms into my eyes, twisting them to scrub traitorous tears from my face as they dripped in liquid misery. My ears burned with self-humiliation.
With frown lines that had begun to eat into my forehead, I asked plaintively, “How much further, Matt? I CAN’T carry on much longer.”
“Just to the lake, over there – you can see it – it’s not far, at all. I promise.”
My eyes narrowed, “Mmmn”, I said in a breathy exhale and the smallest of sand churned in my wake. I could see Laguna Colorada but perceptions were dangerous without anything in sight for scale. My expectations had been mismanaged all afternoon, wavering on the receiving end of “Lisa, the road really improves up here, it goes to gravel and rock again. Come on, just a bit further…” Yes, for about a tenth of a mile then we’ll be back to bike-swallowing sand. This endeavour was too wearing on my thinly frayed hopes – I all but collapsed in a heap. I was beyond use to anyone or anything.
Eight senseless miles on and from the north blew a bitter wind that sucked the heat from our bones, sending it whimpering away toward the lake. Fighting against some group deliberation, we finally stopped with 20 minutes of rapidly fading light. Fortuitous as it was. Blackness soon entered as a trespasser, unwanted and unwelcome. The stars – always unassuming and consistent in their stance – wove patterns of white across the midnight black sky, while a sliver of moon hung just above the eastern horizon. Wind howled over each of us, poking cold fingers through any traces of exposed skin.
We erected the tent in pitch, clawing at the black belly of the night. I consumed a cold meal, pushing food past my teeth with no appetite whatsoever and by 9pm, every muscle in my body vibrated like a stretched cord. The darkness gulped me down. The wind made a rustling whistle as it blew around our fabric and pegged saviour, clamped down by sizeable rocks for support. Gusts shook the tent, shaking the outer-walls roughly. It wasn’t a night to be out. Temperatures dropped to around -10 degrees Celsius. Matt had no camping gear so as honorable Brits, Jason and I helped to layer the lad with every spare item of clothing available and ungrudgingly ‘spooned’ our new friend with all the body warmth we had.
Ghostly fingers of breeze stirred the awakening morning air. By sunrise a crude layer of ice had formed on the inner tent roof and sides of the porch area. We awoke all puffing white and as the condensation with our body heat started to warm, droplets began to rain down on us inside the tent. All our consumables were frozen solid. After a sluggish start over a gloopy can of peaches and claggy can of sardines, the day proved to be another ludicrously long one; bodies already worn out from the day before. Admittedly, the riding was not quite as treacherous. We had planned as many days it required to ride us out of the nightmare, endured oodles of aggravating sand but a slightly higher concentration of ripio – loose gravel made the never-ending journey a trifle more tolerable. The smallest boon at least. After detouring to the migration and customs offices tucked off the beaten track in Bolivia – miraculously – we legally made our way into San Pedro de Atacama by evening fall. We three were royally ruined.
Was our two-wheeled slog worth the route we took to take in a few pretty lakes and The Stone Tree? Sadly and honestly, no. I agreed with Jason that had the terrain been half as challenging, we would not have taken it. Minus Matt, we would have long turned back; the prolonged paved road via Potosi should have won over but without the luxury of hindsight, we did what we all thought best at the time. Leagues beyond my skill level, I was as swollen as I was spent, felt utterly broken and bruised. Wow, what a way to go!
Two days later, we’d caught up on some restorative sleep, allowed our bodies to engage in the healing process and refuelled with many riojas and a few feasts. It never takes long to bounce back and we still smile incredulously as to what we did. Thank goodness for the power of a third person because on our own, I would not have fared half as well for even half as long. I owed Matt a world of debt or a world of pain…I can’t decide. Either way, I could only wonder if the peoples’ descriptions of the road conditions on the forums had been accurate; probably if at the time of their travel the tracks had been freshly graded. I, however, would forever put Bolivia’s 701 section heading to northern Chile into black repute.
Our intensely short stint in Bolivia had been blindingly beautiful to brutal. A contrast that could not have been starker. A terrific whirl of emotions – joy at our success, shocking amazement at what we’d endured as a trio and pride in Pearl – swirled within me like mixing floodwaters. I erred on the side of wistful but still allowed myself to smile with an oily satisfaction.
Around only ten per cent of Bolivia’s roads are paved, the rest are tracks fashioned from: varying thicknesses of sand, compacted and soft dirt, dire corrugations, rocks and largely ungraded gravel. A portion of both the tarmac and trails are occasionally: blockaded in protest by the locals and a playground to drunk and half-wit drivers thereby forcing the hard shoulder of dirt to become your favourite ‘Go to’ place when things go awry. They are sunbathing spots for cattle and llamas alike, runways for raging feral mongrels with a death wish to intercept every passing motor vehicle and go figure, site to the odd ill-fated dog whose entrails have slid out like a nest of greasy eels, its life blood staining the road. Such ‘roads’ are sporadically broken up by the hillside’s fallen rocks and boulders – forget riding at night, I wish we had – and unusable sections exist to keep you on your toes where Doozer styled workmen have dug up your lane leaving swimming pool-sized potholes and gone elsewhere, thereby giving you no road signalling assistance to the oncoming traffic ahead. Namely, no option but to join the fray, assume the wrong lane on the brow of hills and around blind corners.
Bolivia’s roads are also disrupted by a succession of toll kiosks whose staff sometimes relish the opportunity to rub their index finger and thumb together demanding a few Bolivianos. Goodness knows why, the money isn’t being ploughed into the upkeep of the roads. And now seems apt to mention the gasoline stations whose attendants may blankly refuse you fuel as a foreigner, be inclined to refill your petrol canister if they don’t spot your wheels or more likely think nothing of charging you three times the local rate, clobbering you for gringo tax. Forget to ask for a receipt and they’ll probably pocket the difference. Although who could blame them, Bolivia is one of the poorest if not thee impoverished South American country. Nonetheless, that is a very expensive skin colour you’re wearing Miss Morris. Welcome to Bolivia!
Why would any life-appreciating, level-headed human ride the beast that is Bolivia? Once you crawl through her underbelly without allowing her to consume you whole, digest all of the above – albeit with your wits set to high-alert – her heart will open up to a whole world of wonder. What lies within will burst your gut, calling for a boldness of spirit to embrace the cultural, historical and spiritual depths of one of Latin America’s most indigenous nations. There are ‘at-risk’ languages and cultures that could disappear within our lifetime, and traditions and beliefs that stretch as far back to the days of the Inca kings and Tiwanaku cosmologist priests. Home to the rich and poor, educated and underprivileged; at every corner a new image, a new understanding will disrupt every stereotype, preconceived idea and paradigm you ever had.
At Hotel Casa in Tupiza, an apathetic-faced adolescent greeted us. Too much time wasted in a virtual world?, I wondered. Hostel Compania de Jesus in Potosi saw a strikingly similar reception from a young woman as did Hostel El Salvador in Uyuni. Oh well, at least they could all safely accommodate our bikes even if the rooms were all on the pricey and shabby side. Because the main road from the town of Uyuni was under construction, we rode the bobbly bumps over deep corrugations and tracts of sand to reach the largest salt flats on the planet. Panic curled and flexed under my ribs and within heartbeats I started to worry about screaming out my fear, which brought a wary reality back to roost in my soul. Not again! It’s Groundhog Day, AGAIN; the relationship I’d worked so hard to forge with the sand flitted like a leaf in an autumn wind. Grit your teeth and just keep going, Pearl urged. Blunder through with the throttle positively open but don’t resist. Simply go with it when Pearl’s back end flutters out now and again in a state of tremulous excitement. The sand is not out to hurt you, toss you into jeopardy nor will Pearl put you in peril. Work as a triangular team and it’ll pan out okay.
Salar de Uyuni. The most magnificent pure white expanse of the greatest nothing imaginable on Earth; just crazy-paving patterned ground, azure sky and you. It felt like we were on another plane not just on the flawlessly flat, rather in another space; evocative and surreal in its 12,106 square kilometre entirety. Between 40,000 and 25,000 years ago, Lago Minchin evaporated, its area lying dry for 14,000 years before the appearance of another lake lasting for around 1,000 years. When that one – Tauca dried up, two large puddles emerged as did two major salt concentrations, one of them being the supersized white condiment that is Salar de Uyuni.
The vastness, austerity and crystalline perfection of the salt flat effortlessly created a defining moment. It was just Jason, Canadian Matt, whom we’d met at a petrol station on his KLR that morning and me. Intoxicated, we all just looked at where we were, my mind triggering a series of reactions and feelings but I too was unwilling to break the spell by speaking. Ululations of joy soon broke out on all sides. We behaved like overexcited children for an hour. A recent acquaintance had all but railroaded me into riding the salt for ten seconds with my eyes tightly shut. What the heck, I thought and managed about two seconds. After a succession of riding big arcs, spiraling curves and flittering from deviation to deviation with no purpose but to enjoy, we reached the salt flat’s island. Matt had bought me a sandwich bag brimming with the local corn, potato and beef; it was all my puerile sense of humour could do not to make me mouth, “Be a doll and pass the salt.”
The outward 16 miles undergone was more than worth the salty site gifted to us. The return 16 miles of challenging terrain took me once again by surprise. A pleasant rather than an unpalatable one. Pearl added nectar to my hopes, which leapt within me like a fountain of honey. My heart hammering with anticipation, Pearl started to rise and fall over the rugged terrain with the grace of a cat. Hello, big fellow, I purred as I readily reacquainted myself with the loose stuff. This sand business was starting to become a ‘going concern’ and I was decidedly profiting from its steady dividend.
It’s only when we allow ourselves to experience the divine presence of each moment that we live our lives to the fullest. That’s the challenge we all seem to face. The primary purpose of a miracle is not revelation. It’s redemption. A by-product is enlightenment. It gives us opportunity to look at what has been created, a ‘summons to wonder’ that we all so often turn our backs on. Why are we too busy – leading a life of over-activity – to be mindful, too much of the time? Is it for a future we’ll never experience? It’s only the now we will ever experience. As well, why don’t we listen attentively to our body as opposed to blindly ignoring it whatever the cost. I let the glory of Salar de Uyuni’s creation fill me, felt it throbbing in my nerves and pulsing through my veins. I might have been a child again charged with the sheer joy of being alive.
The following morning’s start saw an unsettling ache in my soul that continued to muddle my thoughts. Jason wished to revisit the Salar although a hasty wind blasted me into the thick sand, caught me unawares plummeting both my riding ability and Pearl’s front end into the loose stuff. Disconcertingly, fear bloomed within me like a lotus glowing bright in my veins. My heart hammered in my ribs, a stricken look etched on my once-indomitable features. My skin was hot with the prickle of nervousness, making my soul squirm like writhing worms. With a leaden heart, I started to feel tendrils of clarity. There would be many a day more when the situation dictated the process of ‘learn by doing’. Presently my energy was used up and I felt wrung out. Why was I in such a lather about declining a two-wheeled afternoon venture? It was a self-pressurisation I refused to cower under. The sky was overcast, grey with a thick bank of clouds that threatened a storm. Unbeknown to me, mini-twisters could be seen from the salt flats, ever brooding in their spiralling force. Guilt seemed to grip the bottom of my throat but I had to remind myself, patience is the straightest dart in a hunter’s quiver. In a flash of understanding, I decided my destiny on sand could wait another day. Sorry Jase, you’ll have to go without me.
Late afternoon that turned to dusk saw the weather oust the wind and retreat into a calm light. It invited an idyllic sunset – no further excuse required for the three of us scoot over to the train cemetery three kilometres outside of Uyuni. The afternoon sun sent shining bars of light through gaps in the milky white clouds as they drifted across the sky. I had expected an eerie, creaking series of railroad carriages casting ghostly shadows – whispering to one another at every turn. What we received was a picture-perfect scene of disused trains against a sandy expanse in the setting sun. Mother Nature radiantly painted the evening sky with a display of red-orange, a fire spun through the clouds. The western horizon – glowing like a liquid blaze – outlined the distant peaks in black silhouette. I stared at a little dog that watched with faraway eyes, tinged by the same wistful look as we had.
The route out of Salta kick-started with a warm send off from our Hostel Salta Por Siempre’s obliging manager, after which wended us once again on the frilly edges that is ruta 9’s rah-rah skirt. Its snaking width narrowed down to four metres at best and three at worst. I intimately encountered three fly-sized hapless individuals that left a smarting sting after pinging straight onto my face. I think I swallowed one. That coupled with an all-consuming tortuous road, which when taken unawares by a speeding oncoming four-by-four kept any emerging hunger locked up til lunch.
The skirting road’s silver lining however was two-fold. We met Lloyd from France who was in the middle of pedalling his way from Peru to the southernmost city of the world, Ushuaia. Not an inch of fat was visible on this guy, he was just bones wrapped up in enthusiasm. I rather liked his blonde dreads that hung down his back. The guy’s high-octane vigour was contagious and we blitzed through some banter at a high-energy speed. The second positive – post the Kamikaze driver oblivious to one and all – was scrubbing my new tyre in. It’s surprising me more to confess such a declaration. What good road manners this shiny ‘straight from the mould’ tyre had; Pearl now cornered like she was on rails.
Route 9 we were heading on was taking us the 288 kilometres to Iruya, northwestern Argentina. Pearl never skipped a beat for the whole duration. We descended a whopping 1,220 metres over 19 kilometres through an intense set of gravel and sandy hairpins. I lost count to the number we twisted tightly around but I’d guess in the ballpark of around 50. Practice I was getting but improving I was not. The terrain around most of the hairpin bends was a whisker above my skill level or at least they were on that day, changing every turn into a near-mis-adventure a shade too close to the edge. The nervous tremors in my major organs became serious quakes on a couple of occasions. Fortunate for me, Pearl’s innate aplomb as well as instinct kicked in and more than once, saved me from myself.
Reaching this faraway town obscured from the mainstream became a real escapade; we totally underestimated the time it’d take to reach based on the distance. Maps give little and less clues on the conditions of the road; mayhaps I should be rising earlier than I had been. Much of the road to get there kept us neatly inside Jujuy province territory, until we met the town of Humahuaca. This is where we came upon the diversion to Iruya, deliciously tucked away from the masses.
Psyched to take the diversion, the first interesting point was the Iturbe Station. After endless curves and always climbing, we peaked at the highest point of the trail, Abra del Condor 4,000 metres above sea level, which served as a natural boundary between the provinces of Salta and Jujuy. The view of gargantuan mountains brightly streaked in ribbons of reds, pinks and a browny green moss – the green of moss in deep woods at dusk just before the light fades – evoked an awe-inspiring reaction. By now we were getting supremely spoiled with beautiful riding roads and it took something special to lure our sights.
Iruya was a tiny town accommodating around 1,000 people. An old town too, whose name means ‘Place of high grassland’, was surrounded by two rivers: Milmahuasi from which our hostel took its name and The Coranzulí. We caught sight of a colonial-style building that was dominated by mud, stones and straw for its construction. Its streets were exceptionally narrow, steep and cobbled to prevent erosion of water. The most curious and wonderfully heartening aspect of the place was that its residents still retained their dress, values and traditions from over 250 years ago. A magical place where the odd traveller doesn’t pass unnoticed.
Chin cocked up in the air, Hostel Milmahuasi was half way up a sharp slope. This is where my day commenced its crescendo on a note of melodic mayhem. Obliged into dodging donkeys, excitable children darting like a shoal of minnows in shallow water and the odd parked vehicle consuming the width of the road, I had to ride 100 metres past them all. Up a hill of rough-hewn cobbles protruding like chunky ice cubes. I stood on the foot pegs intent on giving Pearl enough momentum to power us both up, balanced with the required flair to skirt around all the local obstacles and avoid scraping if not altogether colliding into them. Zooming up, it felt like a 45 degree angle to Pearl and me. I was assured it most certainly was not. Not altogether sure how, Pearl and I negotiated the 30 degree bobbled incline, circled around the obstructions and dealt with a couple of sharp turns part way up – signalled by the local whistle-blowing police officer thrown in for helpful measure. Jason was leading me a merry dance up to the town’s highest point.
At the summit, I wondered about the effect of adrenaline spiking through me. I rapidly removed a glove to determine how shaky my hand was trembling. I think after the day we’d both just enjoyed as much as I’d endured, my body was in a calmer state than I’d anticipated. My hand was as still as a statue. Suffused with the glow of success, the swell of triumph expanded under my heart. A trace of ecstasy in my heart manifested itself as I grinned at the vista from the top of town, which was radiant in the late afternoon ephemeral light. Wow. It bowled us over epitomizing the beauty that is Argentina.
The day’s enchanting marvels mingled with a handful of misdemeanours over, we checked in at our lodging. A happy fatigue ran from my fingers, up my arms, down my back and through my lower limbs. My stomach had pretty much run on empty a while back; nothing but wariness lay behind my overworked muscles. The bed duvet was downy and heavy, I slept like a baby full on milk.
We took a rest day of pootling strolls down the zigzagging, tiered layers of Iruya. Past every stony switchback, I saw children playing with mud, sticks and stones sat on their haunches while their parents were busy with work. What looked like big natural buttresses – underneath those typically offering up Gothic style cathedrals – formed the hillsides, eroded by water and weather. Docile donkeys drifted past us with curious eyes to any nibble of food on offer and old looking men took their packed lunch to the town’s hub, a small cobbled square overlooking the never-ending magnificence of the valley.
We spent a pleasant evening with an Australian couple Neil and Mel that treated us to a couple of crisp beers in their plush hotel. Lovely people from Perth visiting their son after nudging him to take off and see a bit of the world. What a parenting pair! And another night with Cristina and Dora, two ‘larger than life’ women from Buenos Aires. They reminded me of school dinner ladies, singing away to themselves during the kitchen preparation: ‘Just keep cooking, just keep cooking!’. They rustled up a plethora of homemade pizza for us and a handful of other travellers, which after a day of gorging my senses outdoors my stomach followed suit on the lovingly prepared feast. We were all fit to burst in a foodies’ corner of heaven. Over a babble of excited people, dozens of questions were cast out of the inquisitive crowd; we swopped stories, supped on the local red wine and gregariously laughed the night away with one another.
Two hikes up both sides of the towns’ noble mountains turned into a pair of extraordinarily errant albeit furious footslogs. The first one we spotted a hummingbird, heard a chirping grasshopper and watched a couple of condors riding the thermals. High atop a ridge on the sloping edge of a sheer drop, we chanced upon a lady called Terradora whose makeshift windowless house boasted Iruya’s most enviable view. She calmed her dogs into a muted quiescence, kindly acquainted me to her one-year old daughter Evelyn – wrapped up in warm layers from her head of tousled hair to toe – and continued washing clothes in the front yard.
It didn’t take more than a thimble of sense to realise this woman had endured a life of hardship living off the land. I catalogued her face; deep wrinkles hatched her hollow cheeks and her mouth had thinned. She appeared well into the autumn of her days although was clearly of child bearing age. Her features were etched in weathered lines that were hard like drawn wires but somehow softened by intrigue. Her face was quiet and she gave me a curious look through eyes like the timeless eyes of a statue. I liked her a lot.
We chatted for a while when Terradora gestured for me to feed her kid, the baby goat variety not her child. I tentatively enquired if it’d be okay to capture a photograph and although her smile remained infectious, gently shook her head from side to side. I’ve read that in some cultures taking a permanent image of someone is tantamount to taking their soul. Seeing the interplay of emotions on Terradora’s face, Jase popped his camera away and we thought nothing more of it. Up here time had stood still, it washed over me and washed me away.
My eyes leapt across the velvety landscape adorned in rich fragments of burnt oranges, sienna and deepening rusts and reds. A warm wind was blowing around my head, the strands of my hair lifting and swirling in it, like ink spilled in water. The greyish pinks looked the most striking against the spearmint and pistachio greens amid an unknown violet presence piercing through the ribs of rock. The colours were so rich in the light they might have been shades cast by another world. On a precipice, I mused this must be the most kaleidoscopic land in which I’ve been immersed. If Jason was Joseph, he was definitely cloaked in a technicoloured dream coat living out his own photographer’s fantasy. It was ample to make me fall in love with Argentina all over again; I already couldn’t wait to revisit the region.
Crossing the river, slogging up the hillside through a labyrinth of twists and turns on trek number two, we met Izara. I admired the character reflected in his face – a picture of two hamster cheeks bulging with cocoa leaves sandwiching an almost toothless smile – thrilled that he was happy to pass the time of day with us. I deciphered the gist of his conversation, slightly distorted by a mouth preoccupied with chewing; the pronunciation practically impossible to wrap the human tongue around. He introduced us to his workhorses and pack donkeys including a pregnant one loaded up with supplies; presuming by his direction of travel for trading with the town folk. With legs like wood, I took my time traipsing along the mountain trails. Picking my way carefully not just because they were steep and we were at altitude but some were gravelly ruts no wider than half a foot across accompanied by a fatal drop. I marvelled at how sure footed the donkeys we’d encountered were on the treacherous terrain and surmised they only needed a hoof-width to get just about anywhere. I didn’t hear a single one’s braying call from these beasts of burden.
By four in the afternoon, we meandered around jagged peaks that rose as if to scrape the sky, passed the odd mud bricked house on open land home to man and his donkeys – Izara’s of whose had led their way back by themselves – and made it to San Juan. It was a village only accessible by the precipitous mountains we’d climbed; the inhabitants had no electricity and such folks had to face the long arduous journey back and forth to Iruya to replenish their provisions and supplies. This corner of the world blew my mind another notch. It whet an insatiable appetite for more of these pearlers, those as solitary as they were special. That night I lay deep in sleep drained of physical strength. Weariness still hung in my muscles at the sun’s first smile, the night’s rest hardly a payment on the debt I owed my body for the unyielding hours of uphill trekking. My well-being however was reawakened and revived.
The finale took place when my ears pricked up to some singing piquing my interest – emanating from a small town hall. Towards the end of a ceremony or service of some kind, people began shaking hands with one another in time to some appeasing Argentinian music. As well as exchanging polite kisses, pecking one person on the cheek to another. Someone noticed me peering half a head in and didn’t think twice in greeting me in the same manner. Before I had chance to discern my whereabouts, I was inside a sea of warmth and tactile reception, friendliness flowing from every direction. I got this incredible feeling of togetherness, family ties bound in a congregation of fellowship and companionship. It was overwhelming yet I felt calm, in possession of the moment. I was received by every local, dark haired member of the room, about 50 in all from a community of: waddling toddlers; curious children stroking my face and hair; young boys carrying out their obligations towards both the familiar and a strange white woman wondering through; teenage girls and elders well into the winter of their days; the women organisers of the event and parents pleased to see an unknown face. To this day, I have no idea what I walked into, I just know it made me feel wonderfully wanted and part of something.
Iruya was a grand-scale projection of the human mind onto a petite piece of landscape. To my mind, its form wasn’t accidental or random but an enigmatic reflection of shared vision of the peoples’ physical as well as spiritual world, their kinship systems. A gem buried deep within Argentina’s trove of treasures whose soul-enriching and life-rejuvenating energy was impossible to miss.
Sometime during the trip, my nickname and I mysteriously parted company, ‘Captain Slow’ merely evaporated like a ghost out of my being. I hoped to high heaven that was indicative that Pearl and I had begun to finally get a ‘wriggle on’ as and when required. It wasn’t rocket science picking my preferred of the remaining ones, courtesy of Jason: ‘Snot dispenser’ – doesn’t everyone have a runny hooter in cold weather? ‘Afternoon shadow’ from all the dirt and dust clinging to my face after a day in the saddle like iron filings on a magnet. ‘Princess’ when I’m being told to “Suck it up” on the sand or ‘Mozza’, an adaptation of my surname Morris. I might have some choice alternatives for my ‘marvellous other’ too.
Terms of endearment aside, the ride from Susques like the last time we tackled it, started in -6 degrees. We had more or less acclimatised so didn’t feel as beaten by altitude’s clenched fist. As gluttons for offbeat travel, we decided to take the old ruta 40 that joined the 51. What we were prepared for was 176 miles of tarmac giving way to unpaved roads drawing a conclusion in Salta’s sunnier clime. A lovely little ride you could say – ignorance is the opposite of truth, is it not?
What we were in store for was an earthy, rollicking, lip-licking feast of fun. We bobbled over loose gravel, streams crusted over in ice, slushy mud and lashings of slippery sand. My sand skills must have been on the up that afternoon when Jase casually observed, ‘Some of what I’m telling you must be going in”. That was good, one straw at least I could clutch. The ride was worth it just to see what we labelled ‘Boulder world’, bestowed on us in its breathtaking enormity. There sat an incredible legion of stand-alone rocks bigger than our old house. Some the size of ships. It was a movie set from Raiders of the Lost Ark.
The unpaved road became a dirt road, which became a track and the track a mere suggestion of one. Narrowly escaping big gaping holes and negotiating mounds of compacted dirt, I dropped my bike and somehow twisted my leg beneath one of my panniers. Jason jumped to my rescue and relieved a smiling damsel wedged in the dirt. My leg was surprisingly bendy but I was more reassured by the fact it hadn’t knocked my confidence. Jason uncharacteristically lost control over an icy stream, the front wheel caught and he head-slammed into the ground. His noggin remained unharmed by his helmet, albeit his ego was a little dented. Both bikes went down now and again but survived the animated fun. Day-dreaming in a sleepy state 25 miles to Salta, I almost micro-slept while riding on the road. I saved myself in time and pulled over for a 10 minute ‘Nana nap’. Sleep came to me like an unseen assailant.
Weeks ago, we took the initiative to purchase two tyres in Santiago having seen the hammering to my back tyre and the wear on Jason’s front wheel. A fabulous friend Juan-Pi in Mendoza had offered to send them to Salta, which fit with our direction of travel and carrying them on the bikes to Bolivia. We received delivery confirmation from Juan-Pi; the tyres were awaiting our pick up. It would be like Christmas knowing how difficult it was to source the brand of tyres we wanted in Argentina. Wonderfully, Argentinians have a service whereby you can just about wrap anything up and the local bus service will deliver it anywhere inside the country. You simply need a tracking number and a few pesos upon delivery for the privilege. Another aspect I adored about Argentina.
Just 23 miles from reaching Salta, we each got a flat tyre. At the same time. On the aforementioned tyres that needed replacing. That left me tickled pink for the entire day. My Heidenau K60 Scout dual sports tyre had done over 10,500 miles; I was thrilled we’d decided to replace one with the same brand. My new back tyre boasted a 140mm width, a mere 10mm more than my previous but Pearl would benefit from a noticeably greater ground clearance, stronger grip and wider footprint. She would also be faster and handle corners much happier putting us both in our Zen place.
After a thrill ride from Susques, it took the rest of my reserves to wobble the 23 miles over loose gravel and blunder our way into town without totally destroying the rims. Riding with a flat made sand-riding look positively simple. Jason and I stopped nine times in 23 miles beneath Salta’s baking heat in order to buoy up and cajole our abraded tyres back to base. Jason indulged in a quietly smug second in having brought an air compressor. A priceless item saving him a patch repair job on the inner tubes, by a remote roadside. We were battered. It had been an ace day though, same again on the morrow Jase?
Another Argentinian friend of ours Toto confirmed my long overdue parcel had finally been released from customs. Hurrah – there is a mitigating god! It had only taken 75 days to reach me. After preposterous levels of persuasion and copious amounts of paperwork, Toto told me how it took time to convince the customs official that it was in fact a ‘gift’ eventually saving the daylight robbery expense of forking out 50 per cent of the contents’ value. Moreover, coaxing customs to finally release the package would fulfill Toto’s yearly quota for overseas deliveries by default. Namely because of me, Toto wouldn’t be allowed to receive anything further as an Argentinian citizen until the following year. He exclaimed, “Lisa, I feel like I live in Cuba!!” Toto and Juan-Pi were salt of the earth guys whose friendship we’d made with them, I hoped would be life-long.
Departing San Pedro for the fourth time funnily enough felt like the final time. We waved a fond farewell to a woolly band of domestic llamas, sauntering over the tarmac and grazing atop the hillocks against an arresting backdrop of Lickancabur volcano. It was Siberia, the wind was screaming at the top of her lungs and the air hitting us at punishing temperatures. Whether Mother Nature was ticked off at something, I couldn’t quite tell but she was determined to ‘get my knee down’ on the straight as an arrow desert ruta 27. I wondered if she was playing with me because the more I leaned into her, the more she pushed back. My grunts made those of Venus Williams during her US Open tennis tournaments sound like soft newborn whimpers.
There were no weathervanes, trees or wind socks present but at that moment, if I’d been able to perceive the wind’s movements with an equivalent infrared spray: namely its raging swirls, violent thermals, currents blowing from all directions, hostile gusts crossing this way and that, I would not have ridden my motorbike. This began as a blessing in disguise, short-lived and replaced with a white-knuckle ride, testing my resolve to bite through it and chew harder than I’ve ever gnawed before. I knew that six months previous, I would’ve ‘lost it’ – Pearl and my nerve would have been blown off the road. Now I was 15,000 miles into my riding career, two thirds of which comprised capricious roads and challenging conditions such as these. I was in no mood to give in so easily. The Venus Williams’ standard grunting continued, Jason pressed me to keep counteracting; leaning into an imaginary corner so lean on Pearl I did – against a vicious wind with an inner-strength I didn’t know I had.
Off the plateau we came, twisting tightly and descending around a corner. Low and behold, an oncoming white minibus driver faced me square on. Same lane. Both of us exchanged a startled split-second glance ‘What the hell…!’ and swerved at 40 miles per hour – me into the hard shoulder and him back into his own lane. There goes yet another of my nine cat lives, how many had I spent already? I decided not to dwell on my spiralling number of near misses.
Our neck-straining efforts against the gusts were rewarded with a geological genital looking monolith, ‘The Indian Stone’, near Salar de Tararock. The last of our longed-for ‘Wish to see’ sights in Chile. It didn’t disappoint. Discovered by happy accident we were overjoyed despite our precarious position on a nearby plateau; it was still raining down a savage wind lashing at any traces of exposed skin. At least its substantial presence meant I could get a good enough look from afar – size on that occasion undeniably mattered. Approaching Argentina we were lulled onto a calmer road having left the plateau. We took a renewed pleasure in lifting the visors. Out of nowhere, a zooming freighter whizzed past and sandblasted us both in the faces. Still invigorated by the bracing wind and now exfoliated, these were the instant gratifications of two-wheeled travel.
At the border, a bonny Chilean lady who spoke superb English greeted us. She processed us in record time while remarking how well the pair of us must be doing in such merciless winds and cool climes. She winked at me as I handed her Pearl’s registration document and revealed, “I can’t even ride a push bike in this weather, I think you’re cool.” What a lovely lasting impression of Chile.
The next lady to process us at the counter assumed an officious persona. Lets call her ‘Miss Customs’. With a warm menace in her narrowed eyes, she sharply beckoned Jason over. No time-wasting pleasantries, her hard-boiled instructions were, “Come here. Documentation. Passport.” No problem señorita, as Jason handed her the said items with passport open on the photo identification page.
“Where is your passport number?” she bridled. I was surprised to hear the question coming from as official customs officer. She spoke swiftly in Spanish at Jason and her rhetoric was unmistakably clear, “Why are you travelling through South America without speaking Spanish? You don’t understand do you, do YOU?!” she barked in a moue of distaste.
“Er, umn, sorry”, Jason apologised – his eyes darting as his mind raced wildly with excuses.
“Why do you NOT speak Spanish? This is BIG problem”, she said with eyes that swam with rage. Jason simply stared back at this lady.
“Where are your friends that speak Spanish?”, she continues to glower down at Jason. Without coming up for air Miss Customs wanted to determine, “Which border you use to exit Argentina?”
“One closest to Salar de Uyuni, south of Bolivia.”
“Yes but what is the name of the border there?” The scowling intensifies another notch.
“I have no idea.”
“Urgh! How long are you staying here in my country?” Jason had already stated three months so confirmed this again in his most lucid Spanish.
“Mmn”, she bristled again with a look that could’ve boiled cheese.
Projecting a profound loathing of Jason whose face clearly didn’t fit with this woman, she continued to harangue him. It appeared she was playing a game of billiards with us as the caroming cue ball successively striking two other hapless balls. This was not going to end well. Or was she just sick and tired of foreign travellers whose Spanish was ‘work-in-progress’? I made a mental note to learn more of the language and rapido.
This woman was a study in ego. Jason sat on the receiving end of more unfathomably fast Spanish in a tone that was patently taking pleasure that what she was saying would not be understood. Miss Customs was getting her Schadenfreude-induced kicks in reducing Jason to a scolded child. She was a living Miss Trunchbull from Roald Dahl’s Matilda and Jason royally failing to please at Crunchem Hall Academy in standing before her. I had to hand it to her, she was enjoying herself immensely and a character I wouldn’t forget in a hurry. Jason was getting increasingly riled even if this individual was our gateway to the rest of our road trip. And as well, he really had no choice but to eat all this excrement and praise the taste; just bite your tongue Jason, graciously swallow it whole and smile sweetly. Miss Customs eventually processed Jason’s paperwork despite her reluctant misgivings. For her, he was clearly disappointing in the most gormless gringo approach possible. She had a tortured soul and I wondered what hidden truths lay beneath all that hostility.
As a ‘forgetting nothing and forgiving less’ type, I thought I better try and curry a little favour with this lady. Otherwise, I’d be toast. My turn. Oh Lordy Lou, here goes nothing. I tried to change tactics and initiated a well-intentioned conversation in the best of my limited Spanish. I knew full well she could speak a little English although being conscious of this fact was as useful as mudguards on a tortoise. I unleashed my most disarming smile under hopeful eyes and politely informed her in Española, “We speak a little Spanish but it is difficult when learning from zero. It is a pleasure to meet you in your very beautiful country and thank you so much for stamping my documentation.” To my surprise, she relaxed a little, measured out a small smile and responded, “No problem chica”. I was free to go.
Our final encounter before entering Argentina comprised a 20 minute wait for the barrier to be lifted. I asked a casually dressed young man in a sports cap if it would be possible to let us through. Boom! It was if I’d whacked a wasps’ nest with a stick. The guy exploded in a Spanish tongue, spat out that I needed my paperwork processing and gestured aggressively which way I needed to go. It reminded me of the sound of a hornets’ nest might make an instant before the hornets all came boiling out. It took everything I had not to get rankled and rapidly produced my stamped documentation. It seemed to semi-appease him somewhat and annoy.
We rocked up to Susques, a spit and sawdust settlement we’d once stayed overnight in the Jujuy region. Our hostel was called ‘El Cactus’, very befitting as the ladies hadn’t been overly obliging the first time round. What a comeback! Exhausted after a long day, we settled quickly in our spartan room and Jason thanked the woman. Cue a deadpan expression. Our heater didn’t work and in desert-dropping temperatures, Jase didn’t hesitate to appeal for one that emitted heat. Not too unreasonable? The lady liked his request not one iota. She threw a dart in his balloon of hope and waved him off like an irritating fly. Jase looked at me in despair to try the Morris powers of persuasion. I walked to the nearest unlocked and unoccupied room and helped myself to a functioning heater.
With our fair of share of warped misogyny and misandry consumed, we could only laugh about it afterwards. What an unparalleled obscenely comical day – there’s nowt as queer as folk.