Scooping up our things, we laid out the iron planks outside our colonial style backpackers ‘La Casa Roja’ for the last time, rolled a few feet down our makeshift ramp and set off for homeward bound: ‘Hogar Dulce Hogar’ – Home Sweet Home. Our return ride from Santiago to Mendoza went practically without a hitch. Canadian Matt had successfully sold his KLR, even if he had crashed on the way over down the slippery-smooth switchbacks near Portillo and lost his temporary import paperwork. Not ideal but luckily not a deal-breaker for his bike sale.
We cruised the 225 miles back, albeit stopping at the border crossing to profusely apologise to a migration official for not having a stamped form in our possession. To be fair – although irrelevant to our case – we’d never been issued said document despite needing one. A delicate situation started to brew and it seemed to me neither patience nor a willingness to understand others had historically been salient traits of this person. Oh well, the core feeling of perseverance persisted and with a little more resolve, we were processed and sent on our way.
Before throwing both legs astride Pearl, I realised the same border official had forgotten to stamp an exit ‘Salida Chile’ into my passport. She was either having a bad day or her mind had drifted towards dinner. Crisis was eventually averted after my passport underwent its own admin labyrinth when repeatedly passed from person to desk for the best part of an hour. Apollo 13, you are good to go.
An afternoon back in Mendoza saw us gawping at Chacras de Coria’s ‘Gran Festival de Jineteada’. Set in a ranch style environment, the village’s annual gaucho competition is an established tradition that goes back for generations in the cowboy culture of Argentina. The rider’s objective is to stay on an untamed horse for up to 15 seconds, dependent on category. I saw three categories: the ‘Crina’ bareback where the rider was only allowed a leather strap, placed around the horse’s neck. Spurs were used and the mounting time was 8 seconds. ‘Surera’ category saw the horseman ride with only a sheepskin as a pad, reins held in one hand and a whip in the other; mounting time was set at a gruelling 12 seconds. Lastly, ‘Basto with counter’ specified the rider used stirrups decorated with brightly coloured discs without losing them at any point. Mounting time was an impressively enduring 15 seconds. ¡Ay, caramba!
The morning’s mist vanished, which gave way to a burning midday sun. And fiery temperaments to match. I can only imagine what the layers of saddle equipment and fancy frills plus the weight of a man were doing to the wild steeds. Driving them crazy was an understatement. On one hand, it was akin to dressage in what looked liked the highest form of horse training – from the rider’s stance at least. Namely seeking to stay mounted in the saddle for as long as possible before being dragged off their own mare and relieved by another horseman. The risk of being catapulted off, trodden and on seldom occasion crushed to death was not altogether uncommon. These guys were not just skilled horsemen, they were nationalistic symbols of South America.
On the other side of the horseshoe, each and every stallion did their utmost to resist being tied to a post and blindfolded. No mount looked in the mood to lose their efficacy. Rather, reflex kicked in and they employed any combination of buckaroo-style charging to fight off their unwanted passenger with such fervour, I wasn’t convinced whether it made a good show or just seemed harsh on the horses. The more unruly and rough the horse’s behaviour, the less chance the horseman stood of making his time; the harder each of them furiously worked to counter one another’s blows.
I yelped out and gasped more than a few times to the countless near misses of ‘man-under-horse-feet’ injuries; congratulating the horses more than the gauchos for their instinct to step over riders that had fallen off in a heap. The horses were incredibly adept at getting out of the way, their muscular legs missing mens’ limbs and torsos by a hair’s breadth. But not always. The ‘sport’ wasn’t for the faint hearted. An inner morbid-curiosity wanted to see every shade of blue, black and purple colouring the magnitude of human bruises the following morning. It was a show if not a sight alright.
Pockmarked yet smooth, the colour of Maldivan sand emerged when the sun shone down on it, mocha when it didn’t; this was our second visit to Barreal’s mud flat ‘La Pampa Leoncito’. It was a dried up lake that spanned for around 10 kilometres, by no means were we on the scale of Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni but it was pretty special all the same. Its dips and rises defined a landscape in miniature, like the hills and valleys of the Andes from whence it came. The evening was warm, by six it was still touching a sticky 30. A hazy sky filled
with sporadic patches of cloud sailed eastward on an endless breeze. The land yachts whizzed along in an uncharacteristically tent-snapping wind – the ‘Zonda’ – cutting through like cruise missiles. They drained every second of light before the last smile of sunset gave them and us a magical end to a marvellous day.
Ten of us had set up camp on the crazy paving dried mud and in true Argentinean style, we satiated our gargantuan appetites with a mouth-watering asado. A stillness settled over the flats as dusk came and went. A deep red blush appeared in the west as the sun bedded down for the evening. Night’s soft dark cloak soon covered the sky as the stillness stirred. Our campfire winked around the span of bodies, a thousand yellow eyes flickered and filled the air with the sting of smoke. It made every shadow leap and twist making a monstrous mockery of our encampment, aspects of which would look ordinary and go unnoticed by day. Another outdoorsy day soaking up the scene, eyes gulping down the Andes while supping a full-bodied red. We were drinking from ‘the cup’ made from a formidable wanderlust cocktail.
October was the month to celebrate the birthdays of our Mendozan friends Toto and Euge alongside mine, which I shared in honour with all Argentinean mums on Dia de la Madre – Mother’s Day. Birthdays abroad are always memorable and I felt luckier than ever to be with these people with whom I now shared a little history.
Before the month was out, we were treated by Juan-P and Toto to a few complementary two wheeled trips. We were their guinea pigs to guide having set up a newly established tour company for motorcyclists: Argentina Moto Tours.
Please, guide away fellas; they bestowed the best of central Argentina on us: the iconic snow capped Andes, colossal volcanoes, glacier studded mountains – picturesque and panoramic as far as the eye could see. Sparkling lakes and deep blue lagoons, isolated desert and dirt trails galore. Ensconced in ‘The Waltons’ style retreat, home to a resplendent garden tucked away in an oasis village and hectares upon hectares of vista-beautiful vineyards to ride through. What more could you want to crank your gears? We were indissolubly in two wheeled utopia.
On one of the sorties, we cruised through Villavicencio to get to Quebrada del Hielo, which essentially meant we wended our way through the mountains leading to the ice. (A warning to how treacherous it becomes in winter). Having arrived on the Plateau la Pampa, we found ourselves situated in a big open space. Not a car horn, exhaust or whisper of traffic anywhere. Biking bliss. We fetched some dead wood for the asado while Juan-P reached for a cluster of Jarilla, a wild plant used to smoke and infuse flavour into our food. The meat took on the aromas like a sponge. As a former vegan turned vegetarian, I had long surpassed any need to reconcile my re-established relationship with meat.
Slowly sipping a good measure of Malbec actually loosened me up for the return journey, particularly the first section that was bone-jarringly gnarly. With a heightened lack of inhibition, I let the craft and guile of Pearl alongside a free flow of adrenaline carry me over the broken rocks. On terrain more suitable for enduro riders I wanted to pace back and forth irritably, to release the rampant energy that powered my bones and muscles. Not controlled, steady or confident, I shelved that counter-productive box. Every unbridled nerve atingle, more momentum and less trepidation was the winning combination, isn’t it always? Having fumbled my way with both feet down to begin with, powering forward in first on the way back caused ululation to break out on all sides. A sweet tasting moment, even if my heart had tripped and traitorous hand was shaking like a leaf.