The low life: Fiambalá to Mendoza

For the first days of low altitude life after descending from the Puna I am too hot, too bug-bitten, agitated and feeling I am not cut out for this style of touring. Give me the -10c nights over this any day. After weeks in the harsh desert though, it’s just a matter of time before we bond and trade in our old high altitude routines for new and novel ones.

There’s a parrilla (barbecue) at our Fiambalá accommodation, and we debate spending the few dollars on a bag of coal. With the hours of prep and cooking, and me not even wanting any meat, it hardly seems worth the effort. There is much hesitation before we invest, but let’s be honest, we have little else on the agenda. And so begins a glorious love affair with the Argentine asado, and a definitive end to any respectable attempt at vegetarianism on my part. Argentina has thrown me from the wagon, and my attempts to climb back on have become increasingly pathetic.

Helped along by aimless days spent waiting for Paso San Francisco to Chile to open, we have time to perfect our asado skills. It becomes an almost daily ritual. According to our companion on the first two nights, Eduardo from Buenos Aires, we’re doing it all wrong (it should only be meat and only with salt, none of this vegetable and spicy stuff business) but it tastes pretty right to us. Even he is impressed by our new dessert invention of whole grilled bananas smothered in dulce de leche. This quickly becomes our crowd pleaser to break out for anyone who joins us. Our time in Fiambalá soon revolves entirely around grilled food and cheap wine enjoyed over warm evenings outside, plus daily trips to the ice cream parlour and the plaza to use the public wifi. It’s a far cry from burrowing into the sleeping bags by 5pm, emerging only as little as possible to cook up some instant noodles.

After nine lazy days filled with these taxing activities the pass to Chile shows no sign of opening. No one seems to know what the problem is, but if there is one thing the Argentines agree on it’s that the problem is on the Chilean side. Reluctantly we make the call that it’s time to move on, and abandon our planned route over the Andes that climbs three vertical kilometres into a raging prevailing headwind, while carrying two weeks of food on our bikes. Yeah, we really wanted to do it too.

Our backup route is one we assume will be a busy highway compared to our usual choices, and we decide to blast it down to Mendoza, time trial style. Instead, we soon find ourselves slowing down and savouring the joys of Argentina. Though the cycling is hot, and sometimes far from riveting, Argentina is delightful. Long days, near perfect weather, some beautiful arid landscapes, leisurely park lunches, ice creams, occasional swimming pools, beers and boxes of wine, and of course many more asados. Days could fairly be summed up by an astute observation made by Andy on another roasting hot afternoon after consuming another half a kilogram of ice cream… “Oh, shit! Would you look at that… ice-cream o’clock just smashed headfirst into beer o’clock…”

Riding a small stretch on the famous Ruta 40 (a popular road with cyclists, motorbikers and roadtrippers running almost the entire length of the country) has the bonus of making a few friends with fellow cyclists. It’s novel for us, being the first time we’ve had anyone else to ride with, but we lose them when we peel off from the Ruta 40 onto smaller, quieter roads. There we find some lovely sections and nice little towns to laze about in. Argentine towns are consistently pleasant and friendly, always ghostly quiet during siesta, and springing to life in the evenings and mornings to varying degrees. All in all this new style of bike touring feels a whole lot more like a relaxing holiday than a challenging adventure, but one can hardly complain.

In Mendoza other tourists race around visiting sights and wineries, while we don’t fancy doing much except sitting about along the beautiful leafy streets, drinking beer and eating empanadas. The city is a dreamy mix of European sophistication and South American casual chaos, under a dense umbrella of big old trees. We can barely drag ourselves away after a week.

Fiambalá low altitude activities…

… and treats. That’s a half kilo of heaven. We tried not to make this a daily outing, but we didn’t try that hard.

Extremely civilised camping at the termas de Fiambalá. Only wished we’d brought more food so we could have stayed longer.

The most adorable tiny cabin in Fiambalá where, despite its cuteness, I had some miserable nights overheating and/or being eaten alive. Once we moved back in the tent (right behind the cabin) order and sanity were restored.

Good fun zipping around towns on unloaded bikes. Handy having the space for asado supplies too.

Our ‘commute’ into town during our stay in Fiambalá. Dusty little roads, backyard vineyards and warm evenings.

In Fiambalá we met two young English fellas travelling by horse. This is one of their horses, Pancho. He seems pretty happy about something. We shared a few beers and empanadas and sent them north on the route we’d just ridden, which they promptly named The Death Route

Strange substance under tyres leaving Fiambalá towards Tinogasta

Hills of cacti in full bloom

A stunning section over Paso Miranda on the Ruta 40

Fairly indicative of all the plants in this area. Vicious!

The natural conclusion to all the spiky plants. This particular incident involved a brief moment of not paying much attention followed by an hour of fixing the resulting seven punctures spread over both tyres

Riding with Charles, a French Canadian geologist we accosted at a gas station

Other company on the road, but I think I preferred Charles

Lovely pedalling from Jachal to Rodeo

Good roads, awful roads, no water for days, and some sweltering 40c days

Selfies with 11 year old Luciana, the camp caretakers daughter, who sat herself down while I was prepping dinner and quickly made me her sous chef

The empty swimming pools of Argentina became a cruel joke after a while

Asado life and grilled bananas with dulce de leche (it doesn’t look like much, you’ll just need to trust us on this)

Evening land sailing shenanigans on the Pampa del Leoncito, after which we pedalled towards the edge of the dried lake and pitched up. A wonderful spot for sunrise the next morning. Check out a short video of the landsailing

Oh hey there wine country…

Our final stretch on Ruta 13 is a highlight, with windy dirt roads through beautiful scenery and an exciting descent almost right into Mendoza

Mendoza strolling

Mendoza catch ups with the cyclists we’d met further north. Charles has been riding for over 1.5 years since leaving his home in Canada. Beatrix and Peter sold their business, house and all their belongings in Switzerland 5 years ago to follow this ~35 year old dream and have been riding all over ever since. They seem pretty happy about life.

Route notes

Download our GPX file

Fiambalá – Tinogasta – Ruta 78 – Chilecito – Villa Union – Ruta 49 – Jachal – Rodeo – Calingasta – Barreal – Uspallata – Ruta 13 – Mendoza

890km over 14 days, some of which were very short. Cycled in November 2017

This is a pretty straight forward route, so just a few pointers that spring to mind…

Between Tinogasta and Villa Union we had several punctures each from all the spiky plants, but nothing after that. Only one was from riding, the rest were from wild camping. Schwalbe Mondials or tubeless setups shouldn’t have any issues. It’s worth always checking tyres if you’ve been off the road.

Between Iglesia and Calingasta parts of the road get really sandy and progress can be slow. It took us a day and a bit and was obscenely hot. I believe the only water source after Bella Vista is a randomly situated Gendarmería station around km 559 of our route / 35km past Bella Vista. The guys here were super nice and offered us water, showers, camping and a lift, none of which we needed at the time!

The Landsailing takes place south of Barreal on the Pampa del Leoncito. We went with Don Lisandro who was awesome.

Ruta 13 from Uspallata to Mendoza isn’t passable by regular cars, but is an understandably popular route for local dirt motorcyclists. Water is scarce until the descent to Mendoza and we carried two days worth. There is a house at 32.789335 S, 69.021565 W where you could probably ask to fill up. The downhill to Mendoza is really rough and quite steep and would be challenging in the other direction. If that’s not your thing there’s another apparently beautiful road between Uspallata and Mendoza to the north.

Heat is the main challenge on this route, plus some pretty dull stretches, but there isn’t a whole lot of climbing. We found slowing down, riding mornings an/or evenings and sometimes doing pretty short days made it much more enjoyable for us.

Paso San Francisco was due to open at the beginning of November, but was delayed by at least two weeks this year. Paso Pircas Negras didn’t open for quite some time after, so we were far too early for this route we had planned to ride.

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