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When Argentines inevitably ask me what I think of their country, I can rarely help but compare it to my own. Argentines, like Canadians, have been blessed with an infinite array of natural beauty, and a population small enough to allow plenty of room to move about and enjoy the land.
Never were the physical similarities more apparent to me than during our 2,300-kilometre traverse of central Argentina, from the rugged Andean foothills to the traffic-choked avenues of Buenos Aires.
Along with Damien and Gwendal, my two cycling mates, I´d cycled north from Tierra del Fuego, through the southern tail of the Andes, until bike problems forced us to bus back across the cordillera to Argentina.
The next part of our journey began in Argentina´s Seven Lakes route, an unabatedly photogenic network of mostly unpaved roads weaving through a wild mountainous countryside sprinkled liberally with dazzling lakes, a region starkly reminiscent of the Canadian Rockies. The route culminates with a fast, winding descent into San Martín de los Andes, nestled snugly between two mountains and the tranquil blue waters of Lago Láca. Eagerly expecting to unwind from our ride through the Seven Lakes region at the nearby Termas de Lahuen-Co, we instead found ourselves crammed into individual dirty bathtubs, at what we immediately dubbed “The Worst Hot Springs in the World.”
Perhaps the best therapy for our muscles, though, was the long, paved descent that marked our exit from the mountains and the start of the pampas, the vast plains that stretch all the way to the Atlantic. With the wind at our backs, we raced through an Argentine Alberta, oil dereks gyrating in slow motion in the otherwise barren fields, the steady hum of our tires interrupted far too frequently by the roar of tanker trucks thundering past our left shoulders.
Two days of easy, if generally uninteresting, cycling brought us to the city of Neuquen, an island of urbanity rising defiantly from a sea of pampas. Although Neuquen sits near the head of a fertile fruit-producing valley, it nonetheless conjures images of Regina and Winnipeg, prairie cities that seem to exist where they are only as a break in the monotony.
It´s in the most unlikely places that you often meet the most interesting people. A day´s ride out of Neuquen, in the 52-person hamlet of Chelforó, we were invited to join Carlos, the lone police officer on duty, for lunch at his home in the nearby, equally insignificant town of Colonel Belisle.
After introducing us to his pet budgie, which had a disturbing fetish for licking your lips if you got close enough, Carlos informed us that his was “a house of God,” and we listened to a tape-recorded sermon as we ate. None of this was particularly unusual, the French-kissing budgie notwithstanding, but what came next was completely unexpected.
After lunch Carlos´ brother left and subsequently returned with the strangest gift I´ve ever received. In his hand was an inflated rubber cushion, the sort you´d sit on if you were recovering from a hernia, or perhaps suffering from the itch and irritation of hemorrhoids. Emblazoned on its side, in bold black ink, were the words, “YO SOY JESÚS” (“I am Jesus”). Not entirely sure how to respond to being given a butt cushion that claims to be the Son of man, we thanked them profusely and bid them farewell. On the way out I tried not to notice Carlos´ young son sucking face with the dirty birdie.
We rode three more days to the port city of Bahia Blanca, whose ugly high rise apartments contrasted sharply with the ornate architecture of the colonial-era buildings between them, happy in knowing that we carried instant salvation, for both our souls and our saddle sores, bungeed snugly to Gwendal´s rear rack.
As I sipped an espresso at a sidewalk café, lazily watching the endless stream of impeccably dressed locals flow past my table, I realized that Bahia Blanca is without a doubt the Montreal of Argentina, a city so fashionable that you feel hip just for being there.
East of Bahia Blanca we left the highway and became lost amidst a labyrinthine tangle of farm roads before emerging in the aptly named town of El Perdido (“The Lost One”). Later, on the advice of a drunken cook, we tried unsuccessfully to ride our fully loaded bikes along the beach before retreating to another confusing maze of farm roads. Five days, a couple of wrong turns and an evening ride under a lunar eclipse later, we arrived in the seaside resort city of Mar del Plata.
In the summer, Mar del Plata´s population more than doubles to nearly 1.5 million, when droves of sun seekers flock south from Buenos Aires to lay on its sandy beaches and to partake in the hedonistic debauchery of its myriad nightclubs. In the off-season, however, Mar del Plata takes on the air of a crumbled empire, rows of concrete apartment blocks staring down at deserted beaches through gated windows, locked down for the winter by their fair-weather occupants.
Aided by a friendly wind from the south, we chewed up the kilometres past Mar del Plata at a record pace, through a string of quiet beach towns whose residents assured us repeatedly that we should have been there in January, and through another stretch of farmland further north. One day we cycled 212 kilometres before eating a second dinner and falling asleep on the sidewalk in a lazy little town called Pepinas.
Like Canada, whose population is concentrated in a thin band along the US border, especially in southern Ontario, a full third of Argentina´s 29 million inhabitants live in Buenos Aires province, which covers less than 10 per cent of Argentina´s territory. Nonetheless, the farmland continued to stretch north until it butted right up against the neatly arranged streets of La Plata, a satellite of Buenos Aires and a nice place to visit in its own right. Keeping with our comparison, La Plata could be Argentina´s Halifax, a youthful city swarming with university students, a city whose coolness far exceeds its modest size.
We´d heard conflicting reports on the safety, or lack thereof, of cycling the 60 kilometres from La Plata to the capital, through several neighbourhoods of questionable repute. Luckily, a fellow cyclist from Buenos Aires had read about our journey on the Internet and offered to drive us, our bikes and our mountain of gear into the city in his tiny Volkswagen.
Thus is the joy of bicycle travel. Everywhere we go, people want to talk to us, to ask what we were doing, to tell us how much they´d like to do the same and to offer a place to stay, a warm shower or simply advice on the road ahead. We spent the following nine days in relative luxury at the apartment of another new friend we´d met nearly three months earlier in Patagonia.
Buenos Aires, home to more than 10 million people, is often called “the Paris of the south,” but to me it was all Toronto: big, impersonal and all business, an urban gateway to a beckoning hinterland.
To me, Buenos Aires was also a milestone, marking the completion of the first stage of my South American journey. It was a place to bid farewell to a country that had almost felt like home, and to new friends who I hope to someday meet again, before venturing onward, to the adventures awaiting me in Uruguay and beyond.
Border Bound (a pre-trip introduction)
Against the Wind Through Tierra del Fuego
Hurry Up and Slow Down (cycling in Patagonia)
Chugging Through Chile (cycling Chile's Carretera Austral)
Argentina a Lot Like Canada (crossing the Argentina pampas)
South America's Hidden Gem (travels in Uruguay)
The Bolivian Paradox
Pushing Through Peru (misadventures on a Peruvian riverboat)
Jungle Journey a Drag (cycling the Brazilian Amazon
Grand Finale (cycling Venezuela)
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