1 October 2012

Argentina - October 2012

01/10/2012

Up and out the hotel early for the cycle to Parque Nacional Calilegua. Wind is blowing already at 07:00, unbelievable - when will it just give it a rest. A few km’s on the tar road before I hit the dirt for another 9km’s. The dirt road is a concoction of loose gravel, soft sand and large rocks. It’s a bouncy ride, completely rattle by the time I reach the entrance. Surprisingly, this is only the second national par that I have visited in Argentina. There is no entrance fee here, just a quick registration before carrying on your way. Ruta Provincial 68 runs through the park, but there are not many vehicles. The few that are cause a chuckle, two buses of the same number and presumably going to the same place drive almost in tandem. It would seem that busses ‘come in twos’ no matter where in the world you are. 

It is already warm by the time I reach the park at 07:45. I spend a few minutes familiarising myself with the layout, but still not sure where exactly the best birding sites are. Get to the campsite where I lock the bike up and get changed into more appropriate ‘bug clothes’. The little bastards haven’t found me yet, so best get the longs on before they do. Dollied up, I shift up the road to see what is on offer. A host of common species start the morning off, Saffron-billed Sparrow, Pale-legged Warblers and a few Buff-necked Ibis overhead. Large flocks of Scaly-headed Parrots form a cacophony with the Crested Oropendolas. 

By 09:30 the morning is getting very toasty. I have been making my way slowly up the hills, not really finding much. Bird activity has drastically reduced and I am forced to take a breather at a conveniently located picnic spot. A small mixed flock of species adds Greenish Elaenia and White-barred Piculet. The tree have mostly to get their new leaves, so the sun is now beating down of dry, scorched earth. All one can smell is the dry dust. One of the few flowering tree species has an attendant White-bellied Hummingbird. With the day getting unbearable by 11:00, I start to make my way downhill. I bump into an elderly birding couple from Halifax, Yorkshire. We have a quick chat, but they haven’t seen much either - despite having the ‘best guide in the world’ (her words) to show them what they couldn’t possibly identify themselves. I don’t like using professional guides when I bird. Having said that, I have had to se guides before (2 week in Ghana as well as the odd day here and there in other parts of the world). They are of course quite excellent and you barely miss a species when you are out with them, but personally I like to find my own birds rather than have them handed to me on a plate. I may miss a lot and struggle for days with species I cannot identify - but there is definitely more joy in finding a hard species on your own!

Having gotten back to the campsite, it is another swift change of sweaty gear for sweaty but dry gear. Take a good look around the campsite as I shall be coming back tomorrow for a few days. It has now become evident that the birding areas are at least another 13km along this road. The plan will be to leave the hotel at a reasonable hour tomorrow, pick up some supplies and then get myself set up at the camp site. Have a leisurely afternoon doing the washing before leaving very early the following day to cycle up to the birding sections. Not only is the road dirt, but I must also reach some an elevation of around 1000masl. Deep joy I suspect, this might have been much easier to have done in a vehicle of some description.

Back down the road, feeling like a pneumatic plate compactor over this road. (if you don’t happen to know what that is, I have linked to a particularly informative video showing said tool in action - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=V5bYDhZBFLA You can of course watch the entire video dedicated to various power tools, but the specific item is located at time set 1:51).

Back to the hotel and some food. Gone through almost 2.5litres of fluid in just half a  morning. The water at the park is not potable, so will need to take plenty tomorrow. Spend the rest of the afternoon editing images and updating the blog. I remember the days when I used to write for a local rag, a bi-weekly 500word column. Used to take me days to get that many words onto paper. Taken me less that 6 hours to churn out over 9000 words so far. Tomorrow is a another journey for a different blog entry. 


02/10/2012

Slept until 08:00 this morning, but only after forcing myself back to sleep at 06:30. Just what I needed, has been weeks since I last slept past 07:00. I took my time packing, there was no rush today. Once I had my groggy body ready, got the bike packed and stood for the obligatory photo with the host. If all the people who took photos and video of me knew my name, I'd be famous in Argentina by now. Which reminds me, I need to sort out a business card design and get them printed off somewhere - writing out my contact details is repetitive and time consuming. For everyone taking photos, it would be much easier to give them a card and they could look me up later. They would also understand what I am doing better, as it is still a language challenge trying to explain what it is that I am doing to everyone that enquires.

Cycled into the neighbouring town of Libertador General San Martin. Needed some supplies for the next couple of days at Parque Nacional Calilegua. Picked up some fresh beef, ham, cheese and bread rolls before stopping at a small cafe for some juice sachets. The women running the shop had a chat and soon became ensconced with my journey. Explained what I was doing etc, but think she may have gotten the wrong end of my answers, as she asked what I did - so I said I used to work on eyes. Some part of me believes that she thought I was going around fixing people's eyes, or perhaps she was simply very happy that I was going to Bolivia (she was originally from Cochabamba). Anyhow, a few minutes later out pops one of her staff with a frozen 2lt bottle of water. She was taking no money from me! Picture a big burly women of about 4'4, despite her short stature, she had a 'don't mess about with me' aura. So I accepted gratefully as I have had to get used to doing. I have always resisted or declined flat out any help from anyone for anything as much as I could previously, but here in Argentina, the people have been so kind and giving that I am started to relax a little and accept the help people have given me. I feel I owe the country and it's people more than I could ever give back - partly why I would like to have as many of the people I meet as possible read my blogs. At least they could read that I am most certainly very grateful, even if I have said as much at the time. 

Of course, now had a problem. I had already filled up every bag and loaded as much gear onto the back of my bike as I dared. Where was I going to put this? In the end, it got bungee'd on top my already over burdened bags. Wrapped it in a water proof bag cover and I just had to hope that no water got into my back pack, the only non water resistant bag I have. So off we went, proceeding as carefully as possible, not that it mattered - there was still the best part of 9km's of horrendously bumpy gravel and stone road to come. 

The cycle to the park was a stop start affair. Every km or so I had to get off and shift my bags back into position or shove a water bottle back into place. Managed to make it to the camp site without having anything fall off though, some minor miracle. The sun was beating down again, but thanks to some cloud cover, it was not nearly as hot as it was here yesterday. First action was to find a suitable spot for my hammock, not difficult as I was the only one in camp and there were plenty of trees to hook up to. With the sun coming back out, it was time to make use of my tarpaulin for a change. A bit of fiddling, but eventually I had it up, even if only folded. Dragged one of the very heavy wooden benches underneath it and went about sorting out the rest of my gear. The cold icy water was absolutely fabulous, although in this heat the ice didn't last all that long. 

With my camp sorted out, my clothes needed some attention. Down to the river for some washing. The hot and windy conditions meant that they had dried within a few hours. Now I had to find some wood for this evenings 'asado'. Down to the river again and I picked up a decent supply from all the dead trees washed down river during the wet season flooding. This river, as with the many dry ones I have crossed recently, would be some spectacle in flood. They are easily 4-500m wide and practically dry barring a small trickle. The size of the dead trees and other water damage is testament to the force and volume that must come raging down every now and then. I rather brightly took two bungees with me, meaning I was able to pack a large volume of branches, strap them up and carry them on my head back to camp. The things I learnt while growing up in Africa have made a significant impact on how I have managed to go about life here. (To anyone from Johannesburg - no I was not shouting ‘mielies’ as I went along).


Washing done, fire ready to start - I sat and chopped up some onions and got lunch sorted for the next two days. With a few hours to spare I headed off for a small walk on the short trail around the campsite. Almost immediately I got one of my outstanding target birds - Great Rufous Woodcreeper. Great it certainly was, this is a huge woodcreeper, must be nearly 4 times or more  the size of the other two species that occur here, Olivaceous and Narrow-billed. Snapped a few shots before it disappeared. Tried to find some mobile signal, but nothing doing around here. Spent an hour researching my impending trip to Bolivia. Going to be making quite a few changes to my itinerary when I next have a few days off. 

With the time approaching 17:00, I decided to get the fire going and sort out dinner. Tonight would not be pasta and tomatoes! Reduced onions and red peppers to go with some beef steak on a large bread roll. No problems starting the fire here, everything is so dry, it only took a few leaves to get it roaring away. Across the river is a large wild fire, given the ease of starting my own fire, I can only imagine how that fire is lapping up everything in its path. Despite the long clothing and insect repellant I am still being hounded by sand flies. My legs are now covered in large red welts that despite being bloody itchy also take a good month to disappear. Will have to try some of the local bug repellant, as this 100% DEET is not having the desired effect. Another tour cyclist suggested on her blog that one use Baby Oil, albeit with regular applications. I'm not a fan of oily stuff, but will give it a try when I am cycling at least - for these bastards get to you even when you are on the road! I haven't received too many mosquito bites thankfully, never the less it can only be a matter of time before I get Dengue Fever. Something pleasant to look forward to. Although it is the sand flies which concern me more at present, they are host to Leishmaniasis - although I am not in a known area for this disease, it is the mere fact that the buggers are still hitting me even when protected. Will have to find a way of preventing them before getting to Bolivia where there are known infected areas. At least the reports from the local Bolivian birdwatchers suggest that malaria is quite rare, contrary to the doom and gloom merchants in the UK. Then again, they have an expensive drug to push, so I suppose it is to be expected. Must come as some surprise to the that lot that people actually live here without prophylactics. I have never been one for malaria prophylactics, I took them once (Mefloquine) when I was 17 without undue side effect. Then I lived for so long in malarial areas, it was simply not practical to take the stuff. Had malaria once, worse than flu, you get slightly deranged but at least a diagnosis can be quickly obtained and treatment delivered correctly. Prophylaxis is not a sure method to stop the contraction of malaria in any case, if anything you may well mask the symptoms. In the case of cerebral malaria, that would not be good - death comes knocking awfully quickly. I do carry tablets with me, both Lariam and Malarone to treat the disease should I contract it. With the large adjustment to my plans in Bolivia, I am probably going to be avoiding all the known malaria areas for the most part in any case. 

Dinner was a fight between me and the flies. Had to keep everything covered or in a plastic bag until the very last moment. I eventually had some sort of peace when I put the steak bone to one side for them. Not that the flies got to munch on it for long the local Plush-crested Jays quickly swooped in and took possession. This must be really odd behaviour for these birds, eating carrion or meat is not part of their natural diet for sure. This flock have obviously become slightly habituated to the camp site, as they swarm the tables as soon as anyone has left to pick up scraps. I had no sooner finished and a few of them jumped down to pick up the remaining bits of onion and red pepper. Eventually that stolen bone ended life half way up and tree with mum chipping out bits of meat and distributing it to her teenage kids. The jays are the bird worlds answer to monkeys or coatis, very cute and conniving but probably shouldn't be eating human food stuffs. 



With a lack of water around the camp site - even the toilets are dry, I finally had reason to use my collapsible bucket. It is one of the last unused items in my pack. So today it was going to gets its first outing. Down to the river, bag filled - holed like a sieve. What a useless piece of junk, I haven't even used the damn things and it is holed. Well, I really wanted to have a bucket of soapy water in camp for hand and dish washing! Time to make use of some more useful information. 50 years ago, the US military made use of the relatively new glue called cyanoacrylate during the Vietnam War. The glue was administered in a spray form, hardening on contact with moisture. The idea being, that wound soldiers could have bullet wounds quickly sprayed to retard blood loss. Many years later, the commercial properties of the glue were realised, we call it Super Glue. So I put the glue to the test, apply it directly to the dripping and spurting holes. True to form, the glue immediately turned a white colour and took on the consistency of a gel before hardening to plug the leak. The only problem being that the useless bucket took almost the entire tube in order to fill all the leaks. Either way, I now had a working bucket filled with soapy water that came in very handy. 

A coupes of local young fellows had come up to the campsite to partake in the drinking of some boxed wine. To keep things fresh they also had a large 2lt Coke bottle filled with ice which they cut open and chipped bits off of, adding it to their wine. After an hour or two, they had clearly finished the wine and were setting off. Over came one chap with the remains of the ice - almost the entire bottle as it happens (they must have had a few) and gave it to me. How brilliant, more very welcome and refreshing ice. Only problem was how to use it. With nothing of any pressing urgency, I set to the ice with my Swiss Army Knife. I sat for the best part of an hour chipping the block into small enough pieces to fit through the mouth of my own Fanta bottle. I managed to fill most of the the bottle up, not only would it be cold, but I now also had an extra litre of water that I didn't have before. While I had arrived today with 9.5ltrs of liquid, I had already gotten through nearly 3ltrs, so this unexpected gift was very useful and cold!

Tomorrow would be an early start, another 10km's and 400m of vertical cycling to do on this gravel road to reach the good birding sections. Should get about 4 hours of birding in before the heat becomes oppressive and the birds shut up and disappear. Still have a good number or target species to see, so hopefully a windless and possibly even overcast morning if I am lucky. I have birded very well over the last few weeks, eclipsing my self set target of 2300 life birds by the time I had finished in Argentina. So in some respects everything I see now is a personal bonus. Another 35 birds would mean that the trip has delivered 400 lifers so far! So that is the new target for the rest of my time in Argentina, another 35 lifers. 

Bed time, won't be any need for sleeping bags tonight - must still be 20C.

03/10/2012

02:30. Wind is strong enough to wake me. Get up to baton the hatches down, in real terms - drop the angle and tighten my guy lines. Decide to take the tarpaulin down as well, making too much racket. Get back to sleep.

05:45. Alarm clock sounds, feels like I have only just gotten back to sleep. It is still pitch dark, consider lying in. Negate that idea and load the bike up with the bags I will need for the day. Push for the first few hundred metres as it is still too dark to see exactly where I am going. Then the pedalling starts, the road being no different to that of the entrance - plenty more loose gravel and rocks to bounce over. Regret that I didn't wear my cycling shorts today, backside is going to get shredded on this stuff. 

First bird of the morning is a Tataupa Tinamou, remarkably close to the road and seemingly unconcerned about my presence. Too dark still for a decent photo. Pedal onwards to the picnic site where I send off a few pre-written emails. After about 7km's of slog, I am soaking wet. Although I still have 3km's to reach the better birding sections, I decide it is prescient to dismount and walk from here. For a bit part provincial dirt road that goes nowhere, there are a number of vehicles coming and going. The two buses are right behind each other again. The first bird party I come across has most of yesterday's commoner species, but also a surprising first lifer of the day - Black-capped Antwren, hardly what I was expecting to see first up. The morning is overcast, a good omen for a longer period of birding. However there is little calling. 

On hearing the distinct tapping of a woodpecker, I crane my neck to find the source. While I can see a bit of it, the bird is so deep in the undergrowth that identification is impossible. I decide to use some playback and see what type of response I get. First I try Golden-olive - no response, then Dot-fronted - an immediate response has the bird flying in to within 4 feet of me to see who this interloper is. Snap some photos and leave the bird be. I try not to use playback injudiciously, but play the call of the Giant Antshrike on the off chance. Nothing responds, but just as I am about to walk off again - I hear a low purring. Bingo, now all I have to do is find it. Antshrikes don't make for good photos, they rarely if ever leave the confines of the tangles. Lucky for me, a female was close by and sitting relatively unobscured. A few snaps, one or two of which look pretty good. 


Further up the road and a few of the commoner species that I had yet to see finally show themselves : Common Bush Tanager and Two-barred Warbler. An odd call overhead has me scanning the skies for its origin. Some sight too, as more than 100 Swallow-tailed Kites swarm over the ridge. These birds are returning from their migration to North America. In amongst them is a lone Black-and-white Hawk Eagle and a Plumbeous Kite. Not much further along and another woodpecker, this time it is the Golden-olive. A Streaked Flycatcher screeches from high above, momentarily confusing me. They are perfectly identifiable on sight, but not quite so easy set 100ft up against a grey sky. Eventually I figured out the call, otherwise it would have remained a mystery. Another good bird in the tangles next to the road, Azara's Spinetail. Photos might well be OK for a species that hardly comes up from air. 

By now I am starting to get concerned about some bird groups that seem to have evaded me. For one reason or another, I cannot lay eyes on any of the parrot or hummingbird species I am after. Having just thought that, I finally make contact with a Red-tailed Comet. The bird is very close and making some decent poses, but the light is poor and moron has left the flash in the bike bag. Towards the end of the walk, I finally hear a Blue-crowned Trogon and convince both the male and female to come in for a closer look. Unfortunately they sit very high in a nearby tree, the grey background allowing for nothing much in the way of photos. 

By 13:00, I start heading back to where I had locked up my bike. Two Endemics still missing, no parrots, antpitta nor any other hummingbirds. So a decent morning, but missed all the major stuff.  Tomorrow I will have another crack at the antpitta, macaw and motmot. Get back to the bike to find I have another flat. Muppet has left his Allen keys back at camp, so I use the wire cutter to undo the brake cable. Am not going to tighten it like that, will just have to finish the cycle downhill without a front brake. No ideas about this one, the inner tyre has no obvious thorns in it. Flip the tube and get back on the bike. There is a large grader laying waste to the road. Not sure what exactly he is trying to accomplish, but he seems only to be moving all the loose sand and gravel further along the road. Makes life tricky on the bike as I cannot tell where the hard or soft parts of the road are anymore. Without a front brake, the downhill sections turn into a slip and slide affair. With the rear mostly locked, my momentum and weight simply drag it along. If I don't keep things in a straight line, then I simply get dragged in whichever direction the back wheel feels like going. 

Make it back to camp without any issue, other than that a sore left hand and a rear end that knows what kind of pain is to materialise later. Time has ticked on to 15:00 and I set off to find some more wood for tonights 'asado'. Get the puncture kit out and sort out the flat tube. Turns out this is the result of some very fine metal strands causing a double puncture. Use the last of my large puncture patches. What with fixing panniers and flat tyres, I have gone through a box and a half of puncture repair kits. Will need to pick some up shortly, along with a new bottle cage. The one that my bike came with broke within a few weeks, have been holding it together until now, but it is about to die.

Basic repairs and maintenance sorted, I ready myself for dinner and pack my panniers again. Then it starts to drizzle. There seems no let up to the rain now, has that distinct British feel to it, light and consistent. BBQ may not happen after all, although rain has never presented an obstacle before - will see how things progress a little later.

The rain did eventually ease off, allowing me to get the ‘asado’ going. The once dry leaves were going to need a little ‘help’ though. As someone who has always had a strong side interest in pyromania, any excuse to get some accelerant out is taken. I liberally pour some ‘Super’ petrol onto the leaves. For reasons unknown, I decide this is the perfect opportunity to test out my flint rod. Strike it a few times with a metal file, sending sprays of hot sparks onto the leaves, but nothing happens. One last try and the petrol exploded burning most of the hair off my fingers and forearms. Eyebrows may be a little curled now too. I never learn, despite my fascination for fire and things that go ‘bang’. Brings back memories of a time in Durban where I made a fuel mixture of petrol and kerosene to see what explosive properties could be achieved. Rather overestimating the volume required - I think I mixed a full 1.5 litres, the resulting flame and vapour explosion had me sitting on my arse for a while.

Either way, the fire was now well and truly going. I had already prepped the onions and pepper from the day before - thoroughly stinking my pannier out as a result and recking yet another jar of Dulche de Leche. The rain had been welcome in other ways thought, the flies seemed to have taken a break from molesting me. First course of action was to sort out a brew, then fry the veg. With the bread rolls ready, the veg sorted and my cup of coffee done - it was time to get the steak cooked. Despite being well sealed inside my pannier, in weather that was hardly very warm - things did not look or smell particularly good. This was some disappointment, I was very much looking forward to the steak. Brains told me it should go straight in the bin, but I relented and decided to cook it anyway. Having cooked the thing to death, had another sniff and small piece to see whether or not it was actually edible. Tasted fine, smelt fine - thus it went onto the rolls. Guess I’d find out sooner or later if I had made a bad decision. 

With dinner sorted and the dishes washed, I packed my bags in anticipation of my departure tomorrow morning. The sat down to continue reading the excellent book of Mr Hitchens and adding to my growing list of books that needed to be read. Despite having read both of Orwell’s major books, it seemed I would have to read them again. So 1984 and Animal Farm were added to the list. Surprisingly, I have yet to read Karl Marx’s Das Kapital - this will be the first book I add to my collection.

Having stowed all my gear under the tarpaulin, it was off to bed.

04/10/2012

Another early start. I would not be cycling today, only walking for 5-6km’s up the road and along the river. Unfortunately, I was unable to add the list - if there were antpittas here, they certainly weren’t making their presence known. I resigned myself to dipping on a host of species and shifted back to camp. Bags packed and the bike loaded, to notice that the front wheel was a little flattish. Couldn’t be another puncture surely, I hadn’t even ridden it since changing the last tube! Added some more air and hoped for the best. The road out presented itself a little easier than on the way in. The light rain had hardened the loose stuff much better. I cycled on through Libertador General San Martin en route to San Pedro. 


Stopped at the Shell gas station with the very fine restaurant and had a coffee. The good WiFi enabled a quick check on the email. Then it was off down the same road as I had come by 4 days previously. Being mid-week, the traffic was intense - fortunately a side road on a farm provided some relief. The road was dirt, but had been hardened with some material - it certainly wasn’t tar, I figured it was actually molasses or some by product from the sugar cane process. Either way, this allowed some decent progress with the trucks. ODO was playing up again. Tried everything, from moving my receiver to a different part of the bike to fiddling with the sensors again. It would work for a few hundred metres and then die again. Blasted crap. This was going to get replaced as soon as I found a suitable cycling shop. 

With the farm road finished, it was back on the live road. I didn’t stay on it long before jumping onto the gravel hard shoulder. At least it was receptive to the bicycle, I wasn’t sliding about in soft loose stuff. This meant I could haul out the earphones and find some extra energy from my music collection. The heavy metalcore beat of Hatebreed keeping the thighs pumping. After a while I tired of the dirt cycling, switched the music off and retreated to the tar road. I wasn’t really in the mood to cycle - a recurrent problem I have when I know it is only a short distance of 50-60km’s to get through. So I farted about for much of the time, stopping even to watch a nearby tractor cutting cane. 

Arriving in San Pedro, I returned to the hotel where I had stayed previously and was warmly welcomed. In went the bike and even had the same room. Got some work done before a small dinner. Would have a proper sleep tonight in preparation for another shortish cycle tomorrow.

05/10/2012

I had pretty much decided last night that I would not be going as far as Yala. The thought of cycling 65km’s with a vertical climb of 700m was one thing, but my mood and condition was having nothing to do with the short 15km and 600m vertical climb on a dirt road to finish it off. I was yet to decide if i would stay in Yala or the much larger town of San Salvador de Jujuy.

In the end, it took no more than an hour of cycling to make that decision. I would be staying in San Salvador de Jujuy for a few nights. My legs felt like lead, a sure sign of some fatigue setting in. There was also the need for some repairs to the bike, stuff I would probably only be able to find in a large city. The bottle cage eventually fell off during the early part of my cycle, the ODO refusing any persuasion. So both of their remnants were getting the bin. On I went, stop here, fiddle there,s top again. At no point did I have any rhythm, nor would the bike have let me. The heat was oppressive and I was having to stop regularly under a tree just to cool down. I was feeling very sorry for myself by now - but experienced enough by this stage to know that these days come along occasionally and I would just have to suck it up and finish the cycle. 

Arriving on the outskirts of the first small town, the first thing I needed was ammo. Stopped on the hard shoulder and loaded up a handful of decent sized rocks. True to form, it wasn’t long before a pack of inbred dogs came running out for a bark and chase. They miscalculated my readiness though, my years of cricket had given me a powerful and accurate throwing arm. Although the aim here was not to hit the dogs per se, just fire a few over their bows. Two stones were all it took to send the blighters scattering like a bunch of French or Italian war heroes. I was starting to get the hang of this. In some areas, I have taken to taping my Sog onto the bike frame in case a really nasty mutt doesn’t get the stone message. To all those saying I should just cycle quicker - I have tried this too. Even tiny dogs with legs no more than 4 inches long can still keep up with me at over 20km/h. It is really the small shitty dogs that worry me the most, especially from the rabies perspective, the big dogs barely bat an eyelid at me. The only dog that worries me in terms of real damage are the Dogo Argentino a rather frightening thing that I have only been seen attached to trees with chains so far. 
Still smirking from my victory over the mutts, I stopped at a bus shelter for some shade a small bite to eat. I strolled around the back, looking for a convenient spot to take a leak when I got whacked on the ear lobe by a wasp. Damn things were building a nest in the adjacent telephone pole and clearly in no mood for any interlopers. Yet another 6 legged bastard to add to the ‘been bitten or stung by’ list. 

With that, it was back on the bike for more torture on the road. Much later I stopped for lunch at a small cafe - 2 bags of chocolate chip biscuits and a Gatorade. My black Skins were encrusted in salt. Clearly my legs were not up to the job, but this cycle must have been a little harder than it looked. By mid afternoon I was rolling down hill for a change and into San Salvador de Jujuy. Quickly located the hostel and checked in for a few days. I had wanted to stay for 3 nights to let me body recover, but that would have meant leaving on a Monday morning. So it was going to be two nights only, allowing me to tackle the roads again on a Sunday when hopefully the traffic was a little lighter. At least I was not going to do anything today, so I sat down and responded to a host of emails and tapped out some more of the blog. Went for a wander around town in the evening to see where everything was. Dinner was going to be at the hostel tonight, no more meals out if I can help it. Some of the remaining food in my bag needed to be eaten in any case, so it was curried vegetables, pasta and lots of cheese. 

06/10/2012

Got woken at 06:00 by two returning party goers, who at least had the drunken decency to switch the light of and stop shouting - one developed the giggles, but I was back to sleep pretty soon. Woke again just after 08:00 and returned the favour of switching the lights on and making a racket in the bathroom. Filled up on coffee and did some quick research for bicycle shops and a laundromat.

First bicycle shop I went to had nothing in the way of spares, so off to the next one. This store was huge and had everything from top of the range road bikes to every conceivable spare. Picked up a new bottle cage, some more puncture kits, a new set of gloves and a wired ODO. All for the princely sum of $550 pesos! Could have bought all this stuff in the UK for little over £40, perhaps half what it cost here - and there went the budget for the next few days! Marched back to the hostel and walked another 8 blocks to the laundromat to get my gear washed. 

A few hours of fiddling with the bike to get all the new gear on and fix a few other minor snags. A few hours updating and checking my lists before heading back to the laundromat to pick up my washing. The women didn’t seem to be all that impressed with by quick return, but handed over my washing anyway. Of course, on returning to the hostel I was to find that one of my gloves was missing. I wasn’t going to walk all the way back in this heat for a glove. Tomorrow morning I would drop by to pick it up. Picked up some groceries for tonights dinner and to restock my pannier. Spent the remainder of the afternoon tapping away at this blog and sorting out tomorrow plans.


07/10/2012

Late lie in today as there was little hurry to cycle the 15km’s to Yala. Had breakfast while chatting to a some Norwegians and a Yankee (I would generally refer to people of the USA as Americans, but as most people in South America have pointed out - they are all Americans too. Thus I use the term ‘Americans’ from now on to refer to the inhabitants of both continents. Since the locals use the term ‘Yankee’ when referring to the USA, so shall I).

Tried to adjust my ODO, snapping the housing before I had even moved a metre. Rather luckily, the only corner shop open on this Sunday stocked SuperGlue. Couple of dabs and the housing was back in place. Short and easy cycle out of San Salvador de Jujuy and into the mountains. I didn’t have to ascend much, as the Yala turnoff was quite low down. Spent a few hours cycling the road towards the Parque Provincial Potrero de Yala. My intention had been to stay at a small hotel at the top of the mountain overlooking the lake. A few kilometres on the gravel road convinced me this was not a good idea, I hadn’t even reached the steep sections yet. This decision was soon proved a good one, as some dark and rain heavy clouds appeared at the valley saddle.

Back down the road to find somewhere to stay. First couple of places were way too expensive, but did find a hotel which seemed reasonable by comparison. At $250 pesos per night, I was expecting good things. No WiFi, how can you not have WiFi at an expensive hotel like this? You even had to pay extra for Cable TV. Typical though, the more expensive the hotel, the more ‘add ons’ there seem to be. Nothing else to be done, into the shower for a quick clean. Shower head was spraying water in every direction except where it should have done. I generally cannot be bothered to complain about such things, as I will undoubtedly fix these things more efficiently and accurately in any case. LeatherMan out and shower-head disassembled. Lots of small stones and grit removed. Shower-head re-installed, proceed with shower. At least the water pressure was good and the water hot.

Go for a small walk around the property to see what birds are about. Pair of Cream-backed Woodpeckers were good reward, but light was too poor for photos. Back to my room to fiddle about with plans for tomorrow’s hike to the park. Dinner will not be served until 21:00, so may as well get on with some planning. Couple next door are making an awful racket already, given that it is only 18:00!

Dinner time arrives, by now I am rather starved - but my hotel manager tells me that his chef has not pitched, so they are not serving dinner tonight. Good luck in finding food at 21:30 on a Sunday night in other words. Dinner ends up being a bag of sweet biscuits and a sponge cake. 

08/10/2012

I wasn’t sticking around to see if breakfast was going to be served, not when it cost another $30 pesos for a coffee and some hard breads. For some reason I decided to walk all the way to the lakes rather than cycle part of the way. So it was going to be a long and steep hike. Some fruiting mulberry trees were laying host to a number of Red-faced Guans. Yet another record of these species at much lower altitudes than they supposedly occur at. 

I stray mongrel decided to tag along, which it did fairly successfully until a large German Shepherd chased it back to whence it came. At least the German Shepherds still bring a smile to my face, the rest of these half-bred mutts could crawl under a rock and disappear for all I care. 

Further up the road and the birding improved somewhat, Black-backed Grosbeak, Yungas Dove, Tucuman Amazon and Fulvous-headed Brush Finch. My cursed bird family on this tour seems to be the Hummingbirds, as I again dipped on the all the targets I had here. After many steep climbs, the road peaked at a wonderful little hotel and restaurant overlooking one of the lagoons. Pity, would have been a fancy place to have spent a few nights and much cheaper than where I was currently. Plenty of locals fishing at the lake, I sat down for late lunch. 

Heading back down the hill was a much quicker affair, the birds didn’t improve much. Getting back to the hotel, I spent the remainder of the afternoon back on the computer working on photos and lists. Although I sat outside and did this, as the neighbouring room was rocking again. it would continue to do so for the rest of the night and even early the next morning. Either someone had put a porn film on repeat or this lot were drinking a lot of Redbull. I never did see who they were, I’m not sure they ever left their room for that matter.

The chef had evidently pitched for work this evening as the manager rather happily announced to everyone. To be fair to the bloke, he cooked a cracking steak. Having consumed a very satisfying dinner, it was off to get a decent sleep before tomorrow’s early departure into the mountains. Sleep was difficult to come by, necessitating the use of earphones and some of my loud and raucous music to drown out next doors action. 

09/10/2012

My desire to return to the Andes was somewhat tempered this morning as a thick and cold mist hung in the air. Well wrapped up, I left soon after 07:30 to tackle the first of many climbs today. Half way up a huge and continuous hill, I had to dismount and put another jacket on. The wind was blowing very hard causing the sweat to practically freeze on me whenever I stopped to catch my breath. This cold and wind was rather uncomfortable, the steep hill keeping me warm so long as I cycled.

Fully three hours after starting, I had crested the first major climb and now sat just over 1800masl. It looked as though the sun might be making an effort to appear. Comfortable in the knowledge that I only had another 200m of ascending to do, I set off with the satisfaction one can only feel having conquered yet another mountain. Bumped into a young Dutch couple of Jan and Hermien Willem (http://opfietse.wordpress.com/) cycling from Bolivia to southern Argentina. As we were cycling on opposing directions, we had a quick chat about the how, where and what of things. The sun had by now appeared, but the wind was only getting stronger. 


Never mind, the scenery had just become spectacular as I entered the Quebrada de Humuhauca. The sun got increasingly warmer, much relief from the chilly start. Stopped intermittently to take photos of the stunning rock formations. Not much in the way of birds yet, but I was still a little low in terms of altitude for my target species.

Arrived in the town of Tilcara in the early afternoon. Checked into a recommended hostel and proceeded immediately to work on the upcoming Bolivian trip. While I had been researching and planning my Bolivian trip for a while, I had at this point yet to confirm my itinerary. So I was starting to get a little worried about running out of time.

By the end of the day, I had some semblance of a plan forming. Dinner in a local restaurant, a thoroughly pleasant affair until the little rat of child across from me started playing up. Little mongrel had those passive/non-aggressive parents who simply pretended they couldn’t hear the little shit. Paid and left sharpish before the thing managed to irritate me. 

Tonight would be for some sleep, given my general lack of it over the last few nights. Fat chance I had of that though. Despite being mid-week, the locals were having a good knees up in town. People were checking in at 02:00 - where on earth had they been? Not long after I had rolled over for the umpteenth time, a pack of dogs started barking anf fighting outside the hostel. It was that noisy that even the drunken, recently returned Argentinians were heard to mouth off about them (said to a very sloshed Spanish accent, ‘perros..... puta de muerde’. Besides being sleep deprived, the dogs were the final straw. Jacket on and I stomped outside to hurl rocks and boulders and run after the damn things until the scattered and left the scene. A few salutary words of thanks from the other hostel dwellers and I attempted to put my head down again. More drunken locals staggered into the room at 05:30. I tend to rise early, so I would in my customary way make sure that I accidentally put the light on, kicked a few things over and made plenty of noise in the bathroom.

10/10/2012

Rather groggily I rose at 07:30 to much snoring and the smell of a brewery. I didn’t have to knock things over on purpose this morning, I felt almost drunk with lack of sleep. A few coffees and I was back up to normal speed. Got breakfast down and then sat for the rest of the day on my Mac working the final bits and pieces of the Bolivian plan. 

So not much excitement from your perspective. Dinner at the same restaurant, again some excellent food. I was just beginning to look forward to a Dulche de Leche pancake when I saw my ‘friends’ from last night walk in. With half the restaurant to choose from, they decided to sit opposite me again, despite a glare that would have cracked more than just mirrors. Well, there would be no pancakes tonight. I didn’t even wait for the waitress to see me - walking straight up the counter to pay and leave before change had even been arranged. Almost four months of me at my most blissful, all it took was a little brat of a child to arouse my hostile self. 

Earphones in and on with the very hostile music.

11/10/2012

Up at the usual hour after a slightly better sleep, I seem to sleep fine with metalcore blasting away. The locals kept the noise and partying going until the very early hours of the morning, but it only woke me once. Tourists are split into two essential groups here, the partying tourist and everyone else. In many ways, these groupings are firmly split along lines of nationality. Most international tourists are here to look or experience the country and it’s people, the local tourists (for the sake of simplicity this includes Argentinians, Brazilians, Bolivians, Chileans, Peruvians) are here to party. Thus, most of ‘us’ are about to get to sleep while the partying bunch are just getting ready to leave. It might be a useful policy of hostels to separate us if they want to get decent reviews from those of us who take the time to rate them. Either way, one of the necessary evils of staying in cheap hostels. At least there are many Argentinians travelling their own country which is a large improvement on many people who have never travelled, let alone seen their own country.


Breakfast sorted, gear packed and ready for the short trip up to Humahuaca. Would be another few days there to get used to the new height. So far my climbing has been rather swift to 2500masl, but these are altitudes that I am quite comfortable with. Humahuaca sits at 3000masl, higher than I have ever done any form of prolonged anaerobic exercise at. I was also looking forward to the view as I got deeper into the Quebrada de Humuhuaca.

The scenery certainly improved quite dramatically with large sections of multi-coloured rock faces. The Rio Grande was practically empty, but is surely a raging animal when it does contain sufficient water. The mountains are devoid of life in any meaningful way. The odd bit of scrubby bush perhaps, but the only green vegetation and trees grow very close to the river. 

The cycle was fairly straight forward, the 500m gain in altitude occurred over the course of 42km trip. If all altitude gains were this gradual, this trip would be a walk in the park. Arrived in the rather wind swept and dusty town of Humahuaca not long after midday. The towns roads are covered in cobbled stones, the type of hard surface that is most definitely not conducive to me or my bike. I have to dismount and push. Another hallmark of these smaller towns is a complete and utter lack of meaningful street signs. Feels like I am in Cuba again. The town is not large and it only takes one inquisition for me to find the correct street. Arrive at my intended accommodation, Hostel La Humahuacasa. Perform my usual check of the WiFi situation before deciding that this would do.


Was able to get most of the bike through the doors, rear panniers being just a little too wide. Bike stowed, gear unpacked and into the shower. Quite easily the best shower I have had all tour. I have long since gotten used to the toilet, shower, hand basin combination - but anyone fresh off the boat would probably find this setup much to their dislike. The rest of the afternoon was spent being completely unproductive, simply sitting and chatting to Paula (the owner of the hostel) and Belen (a local tourist). Has been a long time since I sat and did nothing for this amount of time, but I was hardly in any rush. Tapped away at the computer for for a few hours before it was time to start thinking of dinner.

Had barely begun to give this much thought when it became apparent that the opportunity to attend a large ‘asado’ down the road was on the menu. So, the three of us headed out for dinner at a local bar. To say that the steak was large is to misrepresent the facts, this was very much half a cow. Far too much wine and cow later, it was a mercifully short walk back to my bed. Besides not having had too much to drink over the preceding 4 months, I also neglected to consider the effect of altitude. 

12/10/2012

Woke up with the expected hangover, not that it lasted long. Quick breakfast and plenty of coffee later I was huffing and puffing my way back up to the main road for a spot of bird watching. The desert conditions, coupled with nothing in the way of flowering vegetation meant little in the way of birds. Giving up on the desert I headed back to town, rather disappointed. Sitting down for a breather at a large statue, the surrounding cacti seemed to have a number of birds. Cue an excellent half hour session simply standing and watching the various species move from one cactus to another. In short order, I had added Tufted Tit-Tyrant, Andean Tyrant, Black-hooded Sierra Finch, Band-tailed Sierra Finch and Bright-rumped Yellow Finch. Still none of the Hummingbirds I was after, but that at least cleared a number of the trickier species I was after.

Birds in the bag, it was now time to start doing some more Bolivian research. So the remainder of my day was hardly of any interest to anyone reading this blog. A new traveller arrived today, so I had company in the dorm. Jakob, a delightful German fellow was also moving in a similar direction to me. Like myself, he was also a rather intense - but seemed to be having a horrible time of the altitude. 

13/10/2012

The one major problem of this Hostel is it’s homely ‘likeability’. Given my lack of a home, I rather took to it. So, it was decided that I wasn’t going to be leaving today, probably not even tomorrow. Besides very much liking the place and people, it also allowed me to drown myself in coffee and get some work done. 

Again, not much of interest here unless you want me to describe the sensation of clicking my mouse 10 000 times while remarking my Bolivian map for the 4th time. Downloading a bunch a bird photos, reading pages and pages of text. Exciting stuff.

Dinner tonight was going to be a bunch of snacks, sandwiches and empanadas while we watched the mighty Argentina tackle Uruguay in the football world cup qualifications.  

14/10/2012

So I was going to be staying one more night - I had to promise myself to leave the next day. If I got anymore attached, hell I already had all my gear moved in. Little difference today though, more maps, photos and text to read up on. 

Paula figured we should have a decent lunch, so it was decided that ‘milanesas’ would do the trick. No such luck at the butcher, so a full chicken was bought for roasting instead. Managed to chop up some vegetables for the salad, but left the chicken to the competence of Paula. One of the bonuses of staying in a hostel like this is that most of us get together to eat, meaning we put together excellent meals for very little in terms of cost. Not only are the meals cheaper, but much healthier and different. After three months of switching between ‘lomitos’, ‘milanesas’ and various beef steaks, anything else was a bonus.

More research. Later in the evening, Jakob and I left the hostel to make a trip to the market. Being a Sunday night, we probably weren’t able to get everything we wanted, but at least enough vegetables for dinner. My contribution was limited to chopping up a few vegetables again, Jakob meanwhile got on with the job of cooking it all. Fine job he did to. 

15/10/2012

Early morning today, bags packed and bike loaded. A sad day for me, think I have become quite attached to both Paula and Jacob as well as the stability of not packing and unloading every day or so. After much delaying I finally put my bum on the bike and started pedalling just after 10:00, much too late to reach the next major destination. 


There was to be no gentle easing into this stretch. Despite only having another 700m of climbing to do today (I thought), this was not going to be set gently over the next 85km’s. No, we were going to start with a severe 300m climb for no more than 2km of horizontal gain. Then some more climbing followed by a large downhill. Downhills, as I have mentioned many times are bad, very bad. They mean that all that work you have just done is a complete waste. You will need to gain all that height back again. This was to be a pattern repeated variously today. 

Despite the heavy climbing, the scenery was quite incredible. As I got higher, the effect of oxygen depletion was becoming evident. Simply walking up a small hill at this altitude is enough to have you hyperventilating, doing it on a bicycle surely induces a fair amount of hypoxia. I started to notice a reduction in concentration, causing me to momentarily weave as if slightly drunk. Any incline required a fair number of stops to hyperventilate and get my pulse down slightly. During my stops, the flow of blood around my body was noticeably thicker - how often have you felt your pulse inside your calf muscles? I had started to get a cough too, something I had expected as fluid began to build up in my lungs. None the less, the cycling still progressed smoothly. 

I reached Azul Pampa thinking I might take it easy and stay here for the night and acclimatise. Fat chance of that unfortunately, as this was a village of a few mud huts only. So having taken just over four hours to cycle 38km’s, I had decisions to make. Tres Cruces was another 20km’s away, another two hours to get there would make it 16:00 - might give me a shot at getting to Abra Pampa. What I had not counted on was the monumental climb still to come. If I had thought the 600m ascent to Azul Pampa had been breath taking, another 300m climb to reach Tres Cruces was positively crushing. Oddly, I was still cycling like a champion, but was definitely struggling for oxygen. It was as if my legs were detached from my torso. They climbed without complain, but my lungs suffered, my arms hurt and I was getting nauseous.

I knew I was getting close to topping out, the road wasn’t going to get much higher than this. I entered Tres Cruces just after 15:30 and felt rather sick. I put this down to having not eaten since breakfast, but seemed not to have the capacity to bother with trying to eat. It vaguely crossed my mind that I was now suffering from Acute Mountain Sickness, but was simply too fatigued to bother about it. One thing I did know, was that it was necessary to descend from my current position. Tres Cruces sits just shy of 3800m (12 400 feet) - I had two options. Either I could head backwards towards Azul Pampa and face an interesting night trying to set up my camp in my current state or persevere towards Abra Pampa. I knew that Abra Pampa was fully 30km’s away but also 300m lower, so there had to be a downhill somewhere. I still had plenty of time left in the day and my cycling was as strong as ever. All I needed was to get a little lower.

One last climb out of Tres Cruces had me looking at the sweetest 10km of road I had seen in many months. I slight, but very long downhill. I couldn’t completely sit back, as a strong wind was making this a ‘non-gravity reliant’ descent. By now, I was feeling rather sick - a strong nausea but nothing else. Skipped the usual rest regime before collapsing for 20 minutes at a bus shelter all of 8km short of Abra Pampa. So, despite my generally poor condition - my legs had knocked out 20km’s in 50minutes. 

The last 8km’s were probably the hardest, as a string wind did battle with what energy I had left. Managed to find myself a decent looking pad and checked in for the next 3 nights. Just about sorted out a shower before lying down a for a rest. Despite my legs being quick to cramp, I started to feel a little better after 30mins. By 20:30 I was hungry enough to take a walk and look for something to munch on. Not that I really needed to be walking a few kilometres into and around town, but there was not much on offer here. Small corner cafe at least had a ‘lomito’ available.

Some basic details regarding altitude. For those of you that live at sea level - London for example. You have the highest density of air available - so we will term this as 100% availability. As one moves higher and higher, air density decreases, meaning that that amount of oxygen per breath also decreases. By comparison the Tres Cruces area sits slightly under 3800m, oxygen availability per breath say, is 64% less than that at sea level. I thus have only 36% of the available oxygen per breath. Most people getting up to these altitudes will suffer some form of Acute Mountain Sickness, but one has to very careful of the two killers, HAPE and HACE, High Altitude Pulmonary and Cerebral Oedema. So far so good. Oddly, given the altitude and very dry air, I didn’t get a nose bleed. 

Tonights sleep would go a long way to settling the nature of my suffering. 

16/10/2012

Managed to have a fairly decent sleep, with only one unusual toilet scuttle. Knocked back a coffee and some barely edible pastry things. So far so good, taste is normal, breathing pretty decent, no fluid on my lungs and vision good. Spent a few hours tapping away at the computer before taking a wander through town. 

Energy levels seem to be getting better. Found some decent internet access and got away a few emails. Rest of the day has been spent simply taking it easy. Tomorrow is another lazy day to get my gear sorted out. Long trip over high altitude dirt roads to get to Laguna de Pozuelos before heading to the Bolivian border. 

17/10/2012

Not much accomplished today. Besides tapping away feverishly on the laptop, I watched some television. There is one English channel and they alternate between House and Law and Order. Must not watch too much House as it will likely affect my attitude. Head into town to get some emails off before returning to the hotel feeling much better about my energy and stamina levels.

Hotel despite serving food last night doesn’t seem to be open tonight. Added to this disappointment is the lack of hot water in the shower. So, another relatively expensive hotel whose WiFi is useless, restaurant opens ephemerally, hot water not working and staff who are constantly MIA or ignoring you while the chat away on their mobiles. What a contrast to the hostel I stayed at in Humahuaca. It is something that one tries to get used to, the complete lack of consistency in the tourist industry. Some places are absolutely brilliant, normally followed by utter grub. Dinner would be a manufactured speciality of Madeira cake soaked in a can of condensed milk. Been a while since I did this, still able to finish the lot before the sugar rush kicks in. 


18/10/2012

Stuck around long enough for a coffee before heading off for the dirt roads and Laguna de Pozuelos. The first few kilometres were quite comfortable, a small wetland next to the road had many of my target species. Not wanting to pass up some easy additions to the list, I parked the bike and went for a short walk. In no time at all, I had added many of the species I was looking for : Crested Duck, Puna Teal, James’s (Puna) Flamingo, Chilean Flamingo, Andean Flamingo, Andean Avocet, Puna Miner, Sharp-billed Canastero, Short-eared Ow, Rufous-webbed Bush Tyrant and a Giant Coot.

Just as well too, it took me the best part of half an our to cycle the next 2km’s. By this time it was already 10:30 and decisions needed to be made. The lagoon was still another 55km’s away and the road looked worse further along. Ruts and rocks don’t bother me quite as much as this powdery sand, you just cannot cycle in it. The high volume of speeding dump trucks blasting me with clouds of sand finally had me turning around. Unfortunately this simply was not going to happen. Back to the main road and I set off for the border instead. 


Not much more than 8km’s outside of Abra Pampa was another large lake. Parked up again and walked the kilometre or so to the shore to see what else I might find. Many of the same birds here, in fact I added nothing here other than some improved photos of Andean Gull. The hoped for Plovers were not present. Oh well, I thought I had done pretty well all things considered - I still had many opportunities in Bolivia to see what I had missed here. The rest of the day was spent knocking out the remaining 70km’s to La Quiaca. Again, my legs were in good form - despite this road being well above 3500m, I covered km’s at the same speed I would normally do at sea level.

I was certainly much more comfortable with the altitude. I rarely hyperventilated now, only having serious difficulty when some very sharp wind tossed me quite literally off the road (and I was cycling on the opposite lane, so I blown clean across two lanes!). Even the cars and trucks came to a standstill while the wind tore sign boards apart and ripped up whatever scrub it could. I laid my bike down and lay down next to it, for standing or balancing was quite impossible. It is not always easy to gauge wind speed, but this would have been a 9 on the Beaufort Scale, with wind speeds of somewhere between 75 and 90km/h. Luckily this was a passing oddity, after taking what cover I could for no more than 3 minutes, I was back on the bike and vehicles resumed their journeys. The rest of the trip into La Quiaca proceeded without further interruption. My handy hostel guide bought me to a very decent spot, one last hurrah before leaving one of my favourite countries. It hadn’t quite dawned on me that I was about to leave, but there was Bolivia across the way. Suppose I had better get used to the idea of leaving what passes for the 1
st world in Latin America and entering the very 3rd world. 

Not that this will be my last take on Argentina. I will be returning again to see Patagonia in about 5 months time. I will shortly be posting what shall pass for a massive thank you to all the great people I met here. 

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