Cycling in Neuquen, Argentina – Sand, Lava and Heat in the Desert

Cycling in Argentina, at least this part of Argentina, is very different to cycling in Chile. We had been used to towns or villages being only a days ride apart and the countryside having trees and some sort of green agriculture. Here the landscape was stark volcanic desert which was very hot, had no shade and a lot of wind.

The distance between small villages, that had no facilities, was often 2 or 3 days cycle and there was a total lack of larger towns. It appeared that this area was a lot poorer than Chile but it did seem as if someone, possibly the government, was trying to do something about this. Each village we passed was trying to double in size. Strangely all the infrastructure was in place, the roads, new (empty) schools, parks, even works of art. They were just waiting for people to buy the plots of land and build a house. This was why villages looked large on our maps, but were in fact tiny. There appeared to be no work for anyone in the villages so I don’t know why anyone would build a house there. Although later when talking to some Argentinians they said that there may be little work but at least it was less violent than in the cities and had a “everything will happen eventually” culture. Or as they said to me during the impossible queuing at their banks “tranquilo”.

We had had a lot of trouble getting any Argentinian pesos before we left Chile and that had involved standing in a bank queue for over two hours then waiting another hour in another queue to get ripped off by a Cambio Exchange. So we were carrying very little cash. No one in this area accepted credit cards and we were about five or six days ride from a big town were we hoped (in vain as it turned out) we could get some cash.

As we left the campsite in Los Loicas we had a strong head wind for the first time. So what should have been an easy roll down a gentle slope on tarmac turned out to be very hard work.

The whole area here is full of dust from the Volcan Peteroa eruption and this has really made my throat  sore. So the one positive about the headwind is that it is blowing the ash plume back to Chile.

We arrived at a small pueblo called Bardas Blanca which did have a hospedaje that looked Ok from the outside but the rooms were fairly sordid on the inside.

It was here that we were introduced to Argentinian plumbing. Either the water does not drain away at all or it drops down into a wider pipe that then promptly overflows over your feet.

There was also no Wi-Fi here or anywhere else we stayed until we got to Chos Malal. What was good is that we could understand more Spanish here as the Argentinians speak so much slower than the Chilenos. Luckily there was a small shop attached to the hospedaje so we were able to stock up with some provisions before setting off again.

We were cycling down what appeared on the map to be the largest road going south in the area so we expected tarmac. But the road builders had other ideas and had removed the old tarmac but hadn’t quite got round to replacing it, so it was a hard slog along ripio with a lot of very bad washboard and it was 130 km to the next village.

We crossed the Rio Grande and entered the National Park Reserva Natural La Payunia, with hardened volcanic lava flows.

It was very striking and dramatic but like cycling in an oven with the heat radiating back up of the black, shiny rocks.

There was no shade anywhere and by midday, after 70 km, I could feel the effects of heat stroke starting and knew we had to find shade somewhere soon or I would have a bit of a problem.

We tried setting up our ground sheet tied to the bikes as a sunshade but the gale force wind made that impossible, so we ate lunch crouched in the tiny bit of shade under a lava flow.

We found what looked like an abandoned farmhouse and stopped to pump water as we could access the river there for the first time.

I was really struggling to keep going now on the rough road and against such a strong wind. So when we saw a bridge with two large culverts we dropped off the road, spread out the ground sheet and lay down inside the culvert in the shade, with the hot wind howling through.

After a couple of hours and a couple of litres of water I started to feel a bit better but I wasn’t going to be able to go further that day, especially as we had a big climb from this point. So we waited for sunset then put up the tent when we were not quite so visible from the road.

We got up before dawn the next morning so we could get up the hill before it got hot and the wind got strong, which it seemed to do about 11.00 a.m. But the weather had other ideas. Yesterday it was about 40 degrees C but today it was freezing, around 11 degrees C with a very strong wind chill feeling about 3 degrees C.

We battled up the hill on the very bad ripio surface against the strong, cold wind for 25 km

Some drivers where less considerate than others, there is a car under that dust cloud.

Then miraculously we reached tarmac and the small but very pretty pueblo of Ranquil Norte. We had hoped it might have a cafe or a hospedaje but it had neither so we plugged on to the grim looking pueblo called Barranca which not only had a hotel of sorts but it’s plumbing worked and it had hot water. There were some small shops in the village but none of sold much you could eat.

We then spent some time studying the map. It was about 140 km to Chos Malal, the nearest town, with not much in between except desert. We couldn’t see any rivers en route or other sources of water. I know we take some calculated risks sometimes but we do know our limits and we knew the next section was beyond us.

So we dug up our best Spanish and got the hotelier to find us a man with a pick-up truck to drive us to Chos Malal.

This was arranged but was going to cost slightly more than we had left in cash. We thought that if he dropped us off at a bank this would be no problem. How little we knew of Argentinian banks!

I would rather not think too much about the alarming drive where our driver would turn right round to talk to me, with one or no hands on the wheel, at 120 km per hour, while doing 4-wheel drifts around the sharp corners. Suffice to say we arrived alive.

Luckily the driver was happy to take the cash we did have as we couldn’t get any out of either bank at that time. This left us with no cash sitting in the shade in the park wondering what to do next.  No one seemed to take cards. After 1 hour waiting in the bank we were told to come back at 13.00. Luckily Bernie went back 5 minutes early as they shut the bank at 13.00 with Bernie still inside. Persistence paid off and he emerged victorious with just enough cash to last us two days if we were careful.
Of course by now everything in town was shut and it was getting very hot. As we had discovered in the villages everyone here has a siesta between 2 p.m. and 5 or 6 p.m. This includes shops, cafes and hotels. Luckily we found a hotel eventually that was not only open but it took credit cards and would still serve us lunch. They also had an Italian ice cream parlour attached. Happiness!

We now had to decide where we were going to go next as we both agreed we were not really enjoying our time in Argentina. All the people we met here were lovely and very kind and helpful. It was just such a tough place to cycle through.