There is more bumpy topography than the Andes here. The Central Sierra lies in the centre of the continent, roughly midway between Buenos Aires and Santiago. It is made up of several distinct ridges, as well as high rocky plateaus. The area may not be as celebrated as the Cordillera, but we found the scenery stunning, and the cycling exhilarating.
2011/05/02: To Alta Gracia 41 km
The ride out of Córdoba was bland, but Alta Gracia has it’s attractions. There is a Jesuit estancia which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but it wasn’t open on Mondays. We strolled around the reservoir that was built in the XVI century to provide irrigation to the area surrounding the estancia, and spent some time at the house where Che Guevara spent his teen years. A display chronicled his life, and artifacts included the motorcycle on which he made his pivotal journeys around South America. In the kitchen, we read the housekeeper’s recollections of “Ernestito”, as she called him. Apparently he was such an empathetic lad that he refused to eat meat because he felt sorry for the chickens, pigs, and sheep. He would eat beef however, having conveniently placed bovines in a separate category.
2011/05/03: To Dining Room Floor Camp 52 km
Our late start and our stop to repair the chain meant we arrived late at a comedor about 15 km before the summit. Here we were invited first to put up our tent on the terrace, and later the invitation was upgraded to an offer to occupy the floor of the second dining room –no longer used in late season. We’d already located a camping spot nearby, but they were concerned that we’d be cold as it might drop below freezing at night. The dining room was actually a cool but sun-filled conservatory where the geraniums and other houseplants were overwintering. If it was good enough for the geraniums, it was good enough for us.
2011/05/04: To Las Rabonas 88 km
In the morning it became clear that we hadn’t been in any danger of freezing, because there was a temperature inversion. We looked down through a streaky dawn at Villa Carlos Paz and Córdoba well below us. They were likely suffering frost while we enjoyed a balmy 17 degrees.
After the crest of the ridge we began to descend through a devil’s garden of boulders. We stopped often to look down across the plain, and could see condors perched on outcroppings or soaring on the updrafts. This part of the sierra is a reserve for condor nesting habitat, with certain gorges being key areas.
Once down to Mina Clavero on the plain, we turned south onto a built up road where signs every few metres advertised cabañas for rent, but most accommodation was closed for the season. We finally found digs in Las Rabonas, Señora brought crisp white sheets which I put on the bed, but when Chris climbed in first later in the evening he noticed mouse droppings on them! We think field mice, looking for autumn warmth, had partied in our newly made bed while we were out buying groceries. We collected the droppings carefully in an ashtray before falling soundly asleep.
2011/05/05: To General San Martin 115 km
Our hosts had already left on their own holiday, so we departed with no formal checkout. We’d been told the owners’ son would come along later, so we left a note along with the mouse droppings saying “¡Hay ratones en las sabanas!”
The built up area continued, and we stopped for coffee and WiFi at a gas station. Soon after, though, we found ourselves on an empty road heading into mountains again, and realizing we had nearly no water left. The transition from built up area to empty land had been sudden. We stopped to beg water from a tiny homestead, where an arthritic old man amiably fetched us first one and then another dipper full of water. He said it was from a stream, though we’d been unable to see any surface water. “You’re not from here?” he remarked. We were very grateful to him for saving us from our lack of foresight in this land of dry gullies.
We threaded our way through rocky hills and up onto a high plateau. Isolated farms advertised goats and suckling pigs for sale, and even provided roadside tables and BBQs for you to cook and eat your purchase right away,once they’d killed it or you. The evening light turned rocks and dry scrub forest to golden, but by the time we descended to General San Martin and found a welcoming hostería it was getting dark and cold.
2011/05/06: To La Carolina 101 km
Over breakfast, we asked Enzo, our kind host, which of two possible routes was mas bonita — prettier. His response was sure, so we followed his advice as we headed straight south. The landscape has been compared to the Scottish Highlands, a high plateau of rough pasture, divided here and there by stone walls. Every rise seemed to hide yet another climb, and yet another stunning view across open land. Pampas grass bent in the wind, and poplar windbreaks stood out in bright yellow.
The edge of the plateau was marked by sharp peaks, probably volcanic in origin, and we dropped down in sweeping curves to La Carolina, a pretty town that once had an active gold mine. We considered camping as dark was quickly falling, but the habitacíon that we found was easier on the weary old bones. and it had a tiny restaurant with excellent roast chicken. The days are short and the nights are cold, so we’re happy to spoil our weary old bones.
2011/05/07: To San Luis 86 km
It was payback time. We’d done a lot of climbing over the past two days, and now we got the descent. We did a few short climbs, but there were long, sweeping, looping, smoothly curving, descents, as we came off the plateau. A cyclist’s nirvana!
We stopped for empanadas in El Trapiche , where we sat at outdoor tables beside a weir. There was municipal WiFi, as there is in many towns in San Luis Province. San Luis has a policy of universal access, and is putting into place a policy of giving every child a laptop by the end of middle school, and providing WiFi to remote villages and tiny rural schools.
The road became a divided highway, and the land became more open as we continued to San Luis, the provincial capital. We saw lots of other cyclists, and saw a sculpture of a stylized road cyclist beside the highway that we later learned was the logo of the Tour de San Luis, a staged bike race that we are told is the Latin American equivalent of the Tour de France.
Chris stopped for several bird photos, but I screeched to a halt for a snake, and called him back to take a photo. Any takers on identification? It quickly turned and slithered away. A road cyclist stopped to join us, peering at it from a respectful distance. “Puede ser peligroso” he warned us. It could well be poisonous.
Once in San Luis, we found our best option was the Hostelling International hostel — a bit archaic with segregated dormitories, but an excellent kitchen.
2011/05/08: In San Luis
We’re having day off here. After six travelling days, our bodies need a break. The road to Mendoza from here is a straight 260 kilometres, and the chances of a tailwind are high. The wind builds early, so we may skip breakfast tomorrow.