On Cycling the Argentinian Andes, and the Kindness of Strangers

We should not have flagged them down, I think to myself – there’s no way we’ll fit.

But the young man in the cab has already stopped in front of us. His friends in the bed of the pickup truck step down curiously from their perching places on the tailgate and side panels; there are four of them, teenagers, carrying backpacks ready for afternoon school and grubby with road grime from riding out in the open. Fiona gestures to the incapacitated bike lying next to us and starts out in broken Spanish to ask for assistance – but they’ve already guessed that we need a ride, and before she’s even finished explaining, are helping load our bags into the back of their pickup. There’s an attitude of “just get in the car, we can talk about it later – it doesn’t matter who you are, we can give you a ride”.

With our bags and panniers crammed in amongst the human occupants, attention turns to our bike. It’s in a pitiful state: the front tyre has stripped away from the wheel, and there’s a huge gash in the inner tube that it used to protect. But the issue at hand is even bigger – the two-seater tandem bike is clearly too long to fit in the bed of the diminutive pickup, and I gesture worriedly to that effect. But it’s no problem for the Argentinians – our friend in the driver’s seat gestures back confidently with a smile. He flips open the tailgate and together we lift the bike on, letting the front end of the bike hang out over the flap. The previous human occupants of the bed, now displaced, have to sit on the edges of the truck, and Fiona and I join them, the six of us almost spilling out over the sides. But incredibly, we’re all in.

Soon we’re on the road, roaring down the Ruta 40, a warm desert breeze on our faces. It’s my first time hitchhiking, and my first time riding in the bed of a pickup; I cling on a little nervously to the bike, but for the first time all day, there’s a smile on my face.

We’re all in! - Ready to set off

We’re all in! - Ready to set off

It is just past midday on the 31st of July. This is the eighth day of our cycle expedition in Argentina. My cycling partner Fiona and I have only made it 190km along our planned 1500km route. We had started cycling three days ago from the northern mountain town of Salta, and were now winding southwards along the Andes on the legendary Ruta 40, with hopes of reaching the southern wine capital of Mendoza in around a fortnight’s time.

But things had not been going to plan. We had set off that morning from the town of Cafayate with high hopes – we’d treated ourselves to a solid hostel bed, enjoyed the local tapas (an Argentinian specialty called picadas), and watered well on wine that came from the very vineyards that lined our route. The plan was to ride for three hours in the morning, rest through the hot afternoon, and make it at least 100km south by sunset. We had not even made it an hour out of town before our bike troubles started.

First, there was a puncture. It’s on the back tyre, which is especially frustrating, because all the brake lines and drive train have to be unhooked to remove the wheel and repair the puncture. Fiona and I have rehearsed this many times though: unload panniers – detach wheel – deflate tyre – find puncture – patch tube – reinflate – reassemble – load bike; the entire process runs like a well-oiled machine. Before long, we’re back on the road, praying that that’ll be our only puncture of the day.

Yet another puncture - repairs on the side of the road

Yet another puncture - repairs on the side of the road

The Ruta 40 does not go through the Andes Mountains themselves; the 5000m high mountain passes are treacherous at the best of times, and absolutely impassable at this time of year. The road instead winds along the foothills to the east of the mountains, but even here the gradients can be steep, and the going tough.

Soon we begin a long descent. I’m in the front of the tandem, and steering and braking are my responsibility. This makes long descents especially hairy. The main problem is the weight of the bike: not only does a tandem have to support the weight of both riders, in our case it also has to carry the weight of all our baggage. We’re doing the ride unsupported, so all of our clothes, tent, equipment, food and water are loaded onto racks on the front and rear of the bike. All up, we weigh over 200kg! There’s a lot of momentum, and a lot of gravitational energy to dissipate on downhills.

To supplement the rim brakes on normal road bikes, we have a hub brake fitted on the rear wheel, similar to those found on motorcycles - it helps to slow us down on the long descents. But this descent is especially long and especially steep. I try my best to keep the bike speed down, and Fiona worriedly reminds me to be careful. (Tandem biking is a great exercise in trust; her life is quite literally in my hands.) But it’s very difficult, and as I squeeze the brakes harder, I can almost feel the rims and brake pads get hotter and hotter. Suddenly, there’s a loud hiss and the front of the bike slips as if we’ve gone over a patch of ice – I slam on the brakes and we half tumble, half fall into the side of the road, a quarter ton mass of whirling bike and human.

Thankfully, we both escape unscathed. Still shaking with adrenaline from the fall, we dust ourselves off, and our concern turns instinctively to the bike: the front tyre has stripped off completely from the rim, exposing the delicate inner tube inside, which has then been caught in the brake pads and ripped apart. This is not good. Not good at all.

By now, it’s almost midday and there are beads of sweat dripping down my face. Even though it’s winter here in the southern hemisphere, we’re very far to the north of Argentina and the climate is distinctly desert-like, with a harsh temperature gradient between day and night. In the early hours before dawn, the temperature outside our tent gets to near freezing, but as soon as the sun rises, the temperature escalates until, by lunchtime, it’s blisteringly hot. We’ve picked the absolute worst time of day to break down in the middle of the desert, miles away from any civilisation.

To make matters worse, we’re out of bike supplies. In three days of cycling, we’ve had almost as many punctures as hot meals, and were already riding on our spare inner tube; we were waiting to find a bicicleteria in the next big city to stock up again. But even if we had another inner tube, we had no replacement for the outer tyre which had also failed. Something had caused the rubber to lose all structural integrity: perhaps it was the desert heat, or the rough roads, or maybe it came from a bad production run. Whatever the reason, the tyre refused to even fit back on the rim. Without any spares, the bike – our only lifeline – is completely out of action. It’s the stuff of nightmares.

Of all the hot, dry, and remote places to get stranded...

Of all the hot, dry, and remote places to get stranded...

Looking back on the trip, Fiona and I both remembered this moment as one of the most difficult points of the entire journey. It wasn’t just the morning’s troubles and the crippling heat that made it the situation seem so bleak, it was the culmination of a week’s worth of misfortune; everything that could have gone wrong had gone wrong. Our bike had been a nightmare to transport by bus to our starting point in Salta, and we were delayed by two days before we’d even begun; coming out of town on the first day of cycling, we’d had an accident with a truck and damaged both wheels; we’d been plagued all the way with incessant punctures caused by cactus spines on the road. For us, Cafayate was supposed to be a turning point: we had fixed the wheels damaged in the accident, and it was finally time for things to start going well for us. But they didn’t, and it felt like everything – including the land itself – was working against us.

It is also in the toughest moments that you discover the most about yourself. I’m quite proud of what we did next: there was no panic; we simply sat down, opened a packet of digestives and a can of tuna, and just ate and chatted until the shock and anxiety wore off. Eventually, we concluded that the only thing we could do was try and hitchhike. Neither of us had hitchhiked before, and we were well aware of the risks, but there was little other choice. We weren’t sure what to expect: this section of the Ruta 40 was remote and few cars passed here, especially during the midday heat. We prepared ourselves for a long, miserable wait.

It was more than half an hour before we saw the first car. It was a little red Volkswagen Caddy pickup truck – and I waved at the driver, expecting him to most likely speed on past. But to my great surprise, the young Argentinian man stopped for us. It was he, and the friendly schoolboys in the back of his truck, who eventually helped deliver us from our miserable predicament.

On this day, I learnt a lot about the Argentinians. On a road in the UK, dozens of cars might have passed us in half an hour, but we would have been lucky if a single one had stopped to help us in that time. Here in Argentina, quite literally the first people to see us had offered to help us – complete strangers – at great inconvenience (and potential risk) to themselves. In the end, our rescuers took us all the way to the next village more than 10 miles down the road, where we were able to take a bus to the next big town and repair our bike.

After our Cafayate ordeal, our luck did improve, and the going got a lot smoother. We still encountered many bike problems, and had to hitchhike on two more occasions, but things never felt quite so hopeless again as that morning in the desert. Wherever we were, we knew that we always had friends on the road who would help us – and not once were we disappointed.

In a country where the land is harsh and unforgiving, the people have learned to rely on each other, and to support each other in times of need, without hesitation and without expectation of recompense. The economy is not so good, and the people do not have much, but somehow this has made them all the more willing to share with each other what they do have. This we found not just in our hitchhiking experiences: on many occasions on our trip, we were invited by local Argentinians (again, strangers) to camp in their gardens, and dine with them in their homes. The selfless hospitality was universal.

We made it to Mendoza!

We made it to Mendoza!

On 14th August, exactly 14 days and 1300km after our rescue at Cafayate, Fiona and I arrived at our destination Mendoza. We saw many things along the way that took our breath away, and experienced extremes of fatigue, of frustration, of elation, but the thing that moved us most – and the thing that we will remember forever – is the warmth and generosity of the Argentinian people whom we had the fortune to encounter, and without whom we could not possibly have completed our journey.

Now that I have returned to the UK, and had some time to reflect on all of this, my only hope is that I have been able to bring a little of this Argentinian spirit back with me.

This article is adapted from a piece originally written as a travel grant report for the Thesiger Travel Award, whose generous grant helped make this expedition possible.