A bittersweet love affair

December 1st, 2013

I have a tricky relationship with hills; at times it seems more complicated than the human relationships in my life. James simply says that I hate them, but that’s not entirely accurate. It’s true that I don’t love them quite as much as he does. Instead, my hills and I have all the highs and lows of a love affair: anticipation, thrills, desire, anger, hatred, defeat, frustration, elation. I go through more emotions during a big climb than you’re likely to find in even the most melodramatic of Latin American telenovelas.

I loathe the flat straight boring roads of plains and coasts and find myself longing to be amongst the mountains when we are not – but put me on a 25km+ dirt climb in the heat on a fully loaded bike and I am sweating, swearing under my breath and willing the ordeal to be over. On reaching the top, feeling the breeze, looking over the other side at the delicious descent to come, all the grunt and pain is forgotten in an instant and the victory is glorious.

After so long riding through the Andes, you’d expect me to be accustomed to the emotional and physical rollercoaster they present but every new ascent remains a new battle. It’s recently become more complex by the unwillingness of my parasite residents to take the hint and go away. Trying to tackle a big climb whilst hosting giardia and blastocystis has been impossible at times, and in the past six months there have been too many occasions where we have had to admit defeat, turn back and re-think our route.

The parasite issue had begun to dominate our trip; not just during the hill climbs but on and off the bike in all situations, my body had been loudly and violently reacting to its unwanted squatters. I am sure I present a conundrum to outside observers: to all intents and purposes, fine – aside from a heavily bloated stomach and some fairly anti-social farting. But when the parasites are active, stomach cramps, diarrhea and most importantly a lack of energy, have made it impossible to ride my bike well and often forced me to stop.

Medical advice about how to treat my condition had been varied and mostly ineffective as I didn’t seem to be responding to the conventional trusted methods of anti-parasitic tablets (over twelve months, I have taken eleven unsuccessful rounds of medication). After one too many turnarounds and more than a year of generally feeling ropey, a doctor friend suggested that coming down from life at high altitude (at which the body is always under high levels of stress) might help my body recover and fight better. However, as we were on the verge of embarking on the infamous, high altitude Lagunas Route in a remote corner of south-west Bolivia, Stubborn Cyclist Syndrome won out, and we pushed on.

The parasites of course had other ideas, and just two days into what was supposed to be an “epic ride”, I am not capable of continuing and we return reluctantly to Uyuni, leaving our friend Anna to carry on.

Catching a train from there to the border town of Villazón seemed like the most practical option. The new plan was to begin again in Argentina; to ride at lower altitude, to seek out easier routes and perhaps to consider slightly smaller climbs that might allow me to recover and actually finish this trip. The jury’s still out on my parasitic friends, but in the meantime our first few weeks in Argentina offered plenty of welcome distraction – and just one big climb…


Sarah sitting in the sand with her bike near San Juan, Uyuni, Bolivia

The moment of realisation – I am too sick to push my bike through deep sand and despite setting out with the best intentions to complete the eight to ten day Lagunas Route we admit defeat and return to Uyuni to reconsider our options. In one of the lowest points of the entire trip so far, we even go so far as looking at flights home.

Sarah wearing a pair of grey Converse boots in Villazón, Bolivia

Whilst racking our brains about how best to continue, I suffer another blow when my shoes are stolen from outside a hotel room. The theft is the first in a sequence of events that soon develops into a saga ending with new shoes, new pedals and a new left crank. Interim shoes are also needed to get me through to the first decent sized town in Argentina. In a retro moment, I opt for a pair of lightweight Converse boots – the first time I have pulled on a pair since I was a teenager.

Bikes leaning against a road sign for Ushuaia at the Villazón La Quiaca border between Bolivia and Argentina

Shoe dramas temporarily forestalled, the decision is made to hop on a train for the final 300km of Bolivia and cross the border at Villazón. We enter Argentina at La Quiaca and, for the first time on this trip, are confronted with a road sign that tells exactly how far lies between us and our final destination of Ushuaia. Scary. It will in fact be at least 1000km further for us than this sign suggests as – of course – we won’t take the direct route there, but still…not far to go…

Sarah riding with her leg stuck out along the road outside of La Quiaca, Argentina

…and in Argentina, the road starts positively; we set out – happy to finally be making progress – descending to lower climes, and the new boots seem to be holding up well. 

Roadside shrine to Gauchito Gil near La Quiaca, Argentina¬

Argentina is a land of roadside shrines. Three popular saints dominate – San Expedito (patron saint of lost causes), Difunta Correa (a miracle in the desert where a mother died of thirst but her infant child was discovered alive still feeding at her breast)…

Statue of Gauchito Gil in a roadside shrine, near Chilecito, Argentina

…and this chap – Gauchito Gil. A popular saint seen as something of a Robin Hood figure who broke the law to assist the poor and was executed in 1878. His shrines are always adorned in pure red, and even in the most remote spots, very well tended. People leave a whole host of offerings – from wine and cigarettes to entire bicycles and truck wheels. 

Red flag showing the face of Evita near La Quiaca, Argentina

Occasionally the shrines also pay homage to other popular figures – here Evita, beloved wife of Juan Perón, Argentina’s president from 1946-1955 and again between 1973 and 1974. 

Riding past rock formations in the Qubebrada de Humahuaca, Argentina.

Our route from the border to Salta runs through the Qubebrada de Humahuaca with some beautiful rock formations to admire… 

James camping amongst the cacti in the Qubebrada de Humahuaca, Argentina

…and some very thorny camping spots. 

Rock formations in the Qubebrada de Humahuaca, Argentina.

Riding towards San Salvador de Jujuy, we continue to soak up the colours, the shapes and the unanticipated heat of a new country

James, Guillermo and family at the table for asado in Jujuy, Argentina

…until an invitation stops us unexpectedly in our tracks. Guillermo, local to Jujuy and out for a mountain bike ride early one Sunday, starts chatting with us and asks if we have eaten Argentinian asado (bbq). Having only been in the country for four days, it’s something we have yet to try and with no further ado we are invited to join the entire family for this sacred Argentinian tradition.

A grill full of meat at Guillermo's asado near Jujuy, Argentina

Practiced in most homes, on most weekends, an asado is much like the quintessential British Sunday Lunch where the whole family gathers to eat together. The differences show however in both quantity and preparation of the food – with around four times the meat and cooked outdoors over a grill and hot coals. Argentinian asado is a food experience we have been anticipating; having been to many a rainy bbq in England, we receive a valuable lesson in how the experts do it.

James and Guillermo admiring a tray of asado meat in Jujuy, Argentina

Proud chef Guillermo continues to deliver course after course of delicious cuts of meat to the table…

Cutting a piece of pork at Guillermo's asado near  San Salvador de Jujuy, Argentina

…long after we have room to fit it all in. This pork was divine and it seems Argentinian steak – that everyone had raved about before we arrive in the country – is truly deserving of the hype. 

Sarah at the foot of the hill near Cuesta del Obispo, Salta province, Argentina.

With meat filled tummies, we spend a few days in Salta planning the next leg and sorting out my pedal/shoe issues. In a rash fit of naivety, temporary good health and enthusiasm, we decide from Salta we will tackle the Cuesta del Obispo instead of sticking to a valley ride. Not a particularly big climb when compared to those we have ridden in Ecuador and Peru, it nevertheless represents a challenge to me. It becomes clear that despite still being fuelled by delicious asado, I am not back to full strength…

Sarah sat in the shade at the side of the road on the Cuesta del Obispo, Salta province, Argentina

…and I find myself sitting by the side of the road once again cursing hills, parasites, baking heat and anything else around me that can be blamed for my lack of performance.

A plate of empanadas, Salta province, Argentina

This time though, we don’t turn back but James wisely calls an empanada stop. Delicious parcels of pastry and meat combined with cold Coca Cola help us on our way… 

Red rocks on the climb of Cuesta del Obispo, Salta province, Argentina¬

…through backdrops of burnt rock…

Sarah and bike on the dirt road climb of Cuesta del Obispo, Salta province, Argentina

…onto a dirt climb of some 25km which will take us back up to an altitude of 3457m – the fake positivity displayed here didn’t last long… 

Sarah snoozing on the grass on Cuesta del Obispo, Salta  province, Argentina

…and I soon need a break to take stock and have a snooze.

Sun rising over Cuesta del Obispo, Salta province, Argentina

Deciding that the climb is too much for me in one day, we make camp and tackle the rest early the following morning… 

Looking down at the dirt ribbon of road on Cuesta del Obispo, Salta province, Argentina

…crawling along the ribbon of road.

Chapel at the summit of Cuesta del Obispo, Salta province, Argentina

With some relief we reach the top and, as always in my complicated love affair with hills, the emotions swirl and compete…

Chapel shrine to San Rafael at the summit of Cuesta del Obispo, Salta province, Argentina

…and I mutter a quiet prayer of thanks at the chapel of San Rafael. 

James riding down the descent after Cuesta del Obispo, Salta province, Argentina

Time for the downhill…

Road sign of a cow with "bife" graffitied on it, near Cuesta del Obispo, Salta province, Argentina

…and we whizz by a reassuring testament that Argentians definitely know where their meat comes from (bife = steak).

Valle de los Cardones, Salta province, Argentina

Into El Valle de los Cardones – an immense field of cacti…

Cactus in bloom, Valle de los Cardones, Salta province, Argentina

…which at this time of year are in beautiful bloom.

Sarah riding downhill towards Payogasta, Salta province, Argentina

The downhill continues…

Sarah having lunch in the town square, Payogasta, Salta province, Argentina

…and we arrive in the small and welcome town square at Payogasta for lunch in the shade. Every small village in Argentina seems to boast a beautifully kept, pretty, tree shaded square with strong Spanish overtones. They beckon us to retreat from the sun and enjoy a long siesta.

James lying on his back in the grass at Cachi municipal campsite, Cachi, Salta province, Argentina

Most towns also offer good municipal campsites. Having become accustomed to ‘roughing it’ with wild camping, these havens of green with facilities and bbqs have added to the culture shock we have been undergoing since entering Argentina; a much more affluent and ‘European style’ of living.

A tub of Tramontana ice cream in Cachi, Salta province, Argentina

It doesn’t take long in a new country for us to discover our favourite treats. With an abundance of ice cream shops here it’s a done deal, a cyclists’ dream: we can eat ice cream every day. Now we just have to discover our favourite flavour: current winner is tramontana – vanilla ice cream with caramel and small chocolate covered balls of biscuit.

Pouring coffee over a cup of ice cream in Cachi, Salta province, Argentina

We celebrate the completion of another hill by turning the tramontana ice cream into the Italian classic of affogato…pour on hot coffee to enjoy a deliciously cold caffeine/sugar high that’s hard to beat…

Sarah and the bikes and tent at a campsite in Cachi, Salta province, Argentina

…then relax and contemplate…

Bikes leaning against a road sign for the wine route in Salta province, Argentina

…the forthcoming journey into wine country. 


11 Responses to “A bittersweet love affair”

  1. Lars Henning Says:

    Your words on hill climbing and parasites are oh so familiar! We both endured that infernal climb up to Zapatoca and had evil stomach monsters at least a few times. We’re currently stuck in Bogotá whilst I wait for the gastroenterologists to come back from Xmas & NYE holidays!

    Sorry to hear about your shoes. That’s a bummer.

    Oh… and I think you got me back with the affogato. I winced with longing.


  2. Jenny Says:

    Hey Sarah, Thank you for sharing your climbing love affair. It was very comforting to read based on my own relationship with the hills!

    Sorry to hear the parasites are back :( Lars and I got accustom to eating 4 or 5 cloves of raw garlic on our coke breaks.. Not sure if it helped kill the parasites, but our stomachs felt a lot better afterwards (unlike the smell of our breath).

    Beautiful photos and nice Converse mid-tops!


  3. Dave Says:

    Sorry to hear about your parasites Sarah, might have a solution for your unwelcome little friends.
    Have a search for collidial silver + parasites and have a read up on it.
    Email me and i can give you some ideas about how to make it yourself.


  4. Gayle and Mark Says:

    Oh wow how tough for you both, especially Sarah hope you can find something that works soon…bottles of whisky and raw garlic?! (though this might just make you drunk and stinky?!) loads of love the Whartons (currently ‘on tour’ in Brunei and Malaysian Borneo with the kids!) xxxx


  5. Sam Wyld Says:

    Beautifully stunning shots, as always. I’m sorry the pesky parasites won’t bog off, though. I would take all the shits and cramps on for you in a heartbeat. Love you both, Happy 2014 – the year we get to squish you again xxx


  6. Margy Says:

    Happy New Year to both of you!!!!!! it does seem to be getting very difficult for you Sarah, these parasites are very aggressive!!! Scenery is beautiful and very remote, but the lovely villages make it worthwhile I’m sure!
    We had a lovely Christmas and New Year, quite exhausting in some ways but great fun. I had a few friends here for New Year’s Eve, 10 of us, lots of drink, food and chat, good to see 2014 in with lovely people!!!
    New Year’s Day and the gang from 53 all descend on me around 2.30pm for turkey pie!!! It’s a tradition they say!!! Tony came over too and Dean was here as well!! Now off to P’Boro’ too see David & Susie at your Mum’s!! Katie and Amelie are coming too.
    Hope you are feeling better
    Lots of love Margy xxxxxxxxxxxxx


  7. Jorge Iván Ballesteros Toro Says:

    S&J, desde Colombia los extrañamos. Siempre están en nuestra casa como la estampillita de la virgen, su postal nos acompaña en nuestra repisa. Nuestro mejores deseos, bendiciones, alegría y buena vibra.



  8. Harriet Says:

    COFFEE in Tramontana! You guys make me sick! You don´t deserve to step into a Grido ever again! If Don Facundo Grido heard you were performing such sacriligious stunts he would blacklist you!

    Tail Winds, Harriet x


  9. Mario Kausel Says:

    Un buen antiparasitario es la Milenrama o el nombre científico MeAchillea millefolium L. Aquí hay un link: http://florabonaerense.blogspot.com/2013/06/milenrama-achillea-millefolium.html y la yerbabuena nombre científico: Mentha piperita L. La Yerbabuena se toma un gramo al día del extracto seco disuelto en agua caliente en ayunas.

    Hi Sara and James:
    The above comment was given to me by Pat.She says these two natural plants can help you out with your parasite troubles and you can get them there in Argentina. You won’t loose anything by trying out!
    Hope you recover your incredible energy shortly.

    Big big hug


  10. Daryl Says:

    Hang In-Hang On. Daryl (Cahuita, CR)


  11. james h Says:

    Andy Peat pointed me to your blogblog as we are trying to plan out our last three months in S America. We are on ‘the lid us off the cage’ on crazyguyonabike.com.
    Love your blog.
    Don’t know if anyone else has suggested it or if you have tried it but you might want to try a gluten free diet for a few weeks. I’m no expert but coeliac disease can come on very insidiously and mimic various presumed parasites. Friend of ours back home was in a proper mess for ages, then cured by going gluten free.


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