La Ruta 40

December 20th, 2013

As I slumped down into the sand in our chosen patch of desert scrub for the night, flies simultaneously tried to swarm into my eyes, up my nose and into my mouth. I peeled my shirt off my back, un-sticking a three day paste of dust, sweat and sun cream as it went. I cast my mind back over the last 8 hours: 100km of dead flat, scrubby desert into a headwind, with the highlight being a bend at 30km. How exactly did we end up on this road, I asked myself?

I thought back to what other cyclists had told us about northern Argentina: the asados, the red wine, the ice cream, the warmth of the Argentines. Not once, I now noticed, had anyone mentioned the roads as a highlight – in fact the opposite. “Don’t bother with Ruta 40 after Cafayate” they said. “Take the bus – there’s nothing to see”. And it’s true, after the dirt road adventures of Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia, riding the northern deserts of Argentina along Ruta 40 was – to put it lightly – something of an anti-climax.

However – as we’ve learnt many times over the past two and a half years – on a long bike trip, context is everything. And, for us, that context was sitting in an internet cafe in Uyuni, Bolivia a month earlier, hovering over “Buy now” on a direct flight back to London. After a year and a half of on-off sickness and a further two months lost off the bikes in Peru and Bolivia, we had reached a tipping point. This trip was always meant to be fun, and right now the fun was seriously lacking.

In the end, we didn’t click. We decided to give it one last roll of the dice, in the hope that the lower altitude, better hygiene and warmer weather of Argentina would weave a miraculous cure. That was why I was sat in this desert, riding this road. And, given that context, Ruta 40 was probably one of the best roads we have ridden for a long time. It was flat, fast and paved – everything we would usually go out of our way to avoid. But now, it gave us the perfect chance to regain some of our fitness and confidence, with a healthy dose of direct southerly progress thrown in. If we wanted to reach Ushuaia before winter did, then southerly progress was exactly what we needed right now.

And so was this leg of Ruta 40 really the tedium-filled sweatfest that everyone had made it out to be? Well, not really. For sure, it had its moments. Yes, it was searingly hot. But try a few weeks of pulling on sodden clothes every morning in rainy Patagonia and you’ll soon realise what a pleasure it is to camp in the warm and dry every night. And yes, there was some ugly, uninspiring desert. But we also saw plenty of beautiful desert, and with it experienced the unique peace and solitude of a desert camp miles from the nearest human being.

As always on routes which don’t run past “must see” places, I was reminded that it is the small things that are at the heart of what I really love about bike touring. A moment of exquisite dawn light. A hat tipped in greeting. The shade of a tree at midday. To anyone else they are incidental, un-noticed even. But on a bike, on these routes with “nothing to see”, these the are the things which come to the fore; the memories that you will dream about for years.

And when it felt like we had come so close to losing those moments before we were ready, it was just bloody good to be back on the bike again; doing what we love and immersing ourselves back into the hypnotic daily rhythm of this simple life on two wheels.

James

Sign on Ruta 40 outside Cachi

Ruta 40 is a an Aregentine classic, running 5301km from the Bolivian border to the Straits of Magellan at the tip of Patagonia. Depending on the state of your legs and the direction of the wind, that rolling countdown can either make you feel heroic, or just downright miserable.

Cycling the Ruta 40 Valles Calchaquies

We join the 40 at Cachi, after crossing the Cuesta del Obispo from Salta. This dirt ride to Cafayate proves to be by far our favourite section. Up and down we roll through the Valles Calchaquíes…

Flowers along Ruta 40

…a verdant oasis of lush vegetation following the river…

Parrots in the Valles Calchaquies

…populated by roving patrols of screaming parrots.

Dog licking Sarah on a bike Argentina

Here the welcomes are of a slobbery kind.

Church sign in the Valles Calchaquies

We pass through friendly and well cared-for rural communities…

Community housing in Argentina

…with immaculately tended squares, and gleaming social housing projects. It all feels a million miles away from the bleak harshness of the Bolivian altiplano.

Camping bike touring Valles Calchaquies

A perfect desert camp spot…

Riding the Quebrada de las Flechas

…before a dramatic ride through the Quebrada de las Flechas sees us into Cafayate.

Grapes in Cafayate, Argentina

This is wine country…

James sampling wine in Cafayate

…and so it would be rude not to taste some – even if, like me, your wine knowledge doesn’t stretch much beyond “Ooh, that’s a nice label”.

cycling la 40, Argentina

After Cafayate, we’re onto pavement. This is undoubtedly the 40 at its tedious 50km-without-changing-direction worst.

Dawn cycling the Ruta 40 near Cafayate

And so, you learn to appreciate the small things: the dawn light…

Ruta 40 mountains at dawn, Argentina

…is definitely when the 40 is at its best.

Shade on the 40

The shade of a tree for lunch…

Plaza on the ruta 40

…and the delicious coolness of the mid-afternoon town square siesta…

Grazing horses in plaza on the 40

…where the only thing that might interrupt a cyclist’s snores are the grazing horses.

Mural on la 40

There’s always something of cultural interest too: intriguing murals…

Church at Hualfin, la 40

…a beautiful church at Hualfin to discover…

Guachito Gil shrine

…and the ever present Guachito Gil shrines to peruse.

Roadsign on the 40

Too high brow? Then how about the cartoon road signs…

Peligro sign, Ruta 40

…never lacking melodrama.

Tarantula crossing la 40

Just make sure you don’t nod off and run over the crossing wildlife, both small…

T-Rex on the 40

…and slightly larger. (Don’t ask, I still have no idea)

Frutigran

Of course, it’s vital to keep energy levels up: always ensure a good stash of Frutigran – Argentina’s official cycle touring biscuit, straight out of the ovens of the Seventh Day Adventists.

Salta negra and empanadas

Empanadas and cheese tortillas make a good treat lunch, washed down with a Salta Negra…

Grido's in Argentina

…but come mid-afternoon, the race is on to the nearest town to score the daily ice cream fix. Don Facundo Grido, we salute you – if not always for artesan flavour, then always for good, honest, peso-per-scoop value for money.

Margaux cycling la 40

Speaking of food (for a change), we make some French friends: Margaux, a soon to be organic farmer…

Jérôme

…and Jérôme, a soon to be artisan brewer extraordinaire.

Camping at Eber's ruta 40

We stop together at Eber’s quirky but beautiful Ruta 40 campsite/open air barber’s shop in Salinas…

Dog at Eber's ruta 40

…where Bedders quickly makes friends…

Duck at Eber's ruta 40

…and I ponder the prospects of sneaking a pet duck into my pannier.

Crêpes

In true gallic style, Jérôme and Margaux teach us Brits a thing or two about roadside cuisine.

Crepes

Before long they’ve whipped up an enormous batch of crêpes bretonnes with a delicious caramel topping, which lasts us for the next couple of days.

Cuesta de Miranda, La 40

Still fueled by crêpes, we head up into the all-too-brief coolness of the Cuesta de Miranda and onwards to San José de Jachal. Here, we sadly say our farewells, as the French take a direct route south to visit some organic farms.

Cuesta del Viento, La 40

We leave the 40 behind and head south west towards the Cordillera and some dirt. It’s a dramatic change in landscapes: the greys of the Cuesta del Viento…

Laguna

…the surprise turquoise of its dique

Lush pasture near Rode, Argentina

…and the lush pastoral greens of Rodeo.

Dirt road south of Iglesia

From Iglesia we’re onto dirt, following the spine of the Cordillera south.

Simpsons clouds Argentina

The Simpsons-esque clouds above offer little respite from the heat…

Cooling hat of water over head

…calling for desperate cooling measures.

Gaucho ruta 40

On the hillside above us, Gauchos pass…

Sand cycling south of Iglesia

…and for a few moments everything goes all Bolivian.

Light over la Cordillera

We’re treated to an evening light show…

Camp spot la 40

…before we call it a day and settle in for a night of perfect peace and solitude.

Morning sun

The next morning we soak up the morning sun…

Calingasta

…and then it’s back onto the ripio – heading for Calingasta…

Coffee

…and leaving a caffeine-inspired message for our friend Anna, who is on our tail and chasing hard for a Christmas rendez-vous.

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9 Responses to “La Ruta 40”

  1. Sam Wyld Says:

    Perhaps I’m feeling a bit emosh today, my babies, but I am very, VERY happy you didn’t click. I miss you so much but I am every day in awe of where you are and how far you’ve come. Really, really inspiring blog entry and, as always, cracking images. Yessss… even the eight-legged freak..!!! Love you both, be strong and enlightened with every rev of the pedals and we will see you soon xxx

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  2. Inge Says:

    “Don’t bother with Ruta 40 after Cafayate” they said. “Take the bus – there’s nothing to see”….who told you that?! Your pictures tell a different story, one of a stunningly beautiful countryside, full of colour. Stunning.
    Keep pedalling and don’t wait too long with the next instalment of your epic journey!

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  3. Ma and Pa Says:

    Excellent blog as always. I, too, am glad you did not click as you would always have wondered what you missed! It is great to know that you have a date now and we are all working towards it and looking forward so much to monster hugs and time together. Love you so much and miss you millions

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  4. Nathan Haley Says:

    “… it is the small things that are at the heart of what I really love about bike touring”.
    On your side there Mr. Butcher.

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  5. Edmundo Says:

    I would definitely have clicked! Right, are you guys on the home straight yet, I’ve been waiting ages?! Good, so are you going to be free for Ibiza in September then??

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  6. Margy Says:

    Hi Both, A belated “happy New Year” to you. good to see you are much brighter, pics are lovely as usual. Great excitement in P’Boro’ that the wanderers will be home this year, even a date for a flight!!!! Lots of mixed feelings for you both I am sure!
    Half Term here just finishing, not bad weather for a change and I think all have enjoyed the break!
    Danielle is much better, I’m sure you have heard about the accident, she still has headaches but not so bad and she is able to concentrate more now, thank God. She picks up her new car on March 1st, a MAZDA 2 in bright red! She only has a few more weeks to do at Uni then long holiday!!
    Looking forward to seeing you soon, take care and ride safely!! Much love, Margy xxxxx

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  7. mario kausel Says:

    Hi there:
    I’ve been occupied in many things but now I am happy to hear that your amazing journey is coming to an end.Your blogs as always are amazing very explicit not mentioning your photography!!Ride your final stretch safely and hope to hear from you two in the near future.

    Big hug and love!!

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  8. Fraser Says:

    Hi James,
    Great Blog!
    When you say “Don’t bother with Ruta 40 after Cafayate”, do you mean to the south or to the north of Cafayate?
    Thanks,
    Fraser

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    admin Reply:

    Hi Fraser. Sorry, we haven’t checked the blog in some time! If you’re still wondering about Ruta 40, we meant to the south which was the direction we were heading in. This is what we were told by other people, but we found there is still enjoyable riding to be had and peaceful desert camping. Happy riding! Sarah

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