Argentina: Buenos Aires and La Pampa provincia

Route: Mercedes – Navarro – 25 de Mayo – Saladillo – Guamini – Macachin – General Acha – Casa de Piedra

South-America.  Argentina.  Buenos Aires.
The past year, while I enjoyed cycling in Europe very, very much, mentally I was quiet often at this side of the planet already. A 14 hour flight, the longest direct flight from Amsterdam Airport, was all that separated me from this new continent. Not being a town guy, I decided to stay three days in the city nevertheless.
I didn’t like it. But that’s no problem. I’m not here for the city. Not any city for that matter.

What I do want, is to discover the country, the nature, the plains of the Pampa, the Andean mountains, the glacier lakes. Getting to know the country that produced celebrities like Che Guevara, Juan Manuel Fangio, Gabriela Sabatini, Guillermo Vilas, Jorge Luis Borges and certainly the most famous of them all, Diego Armando Maradona.

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Plaza 25 de Mayo

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I got a police escort on my first day in town 🙂

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A big uncertainty for me was ‘how to leave Buenos Aires’. That huge metropolis, with it’s 12 million people more populated than the country I was born in, a city sprawling out to the west over 60 km. Cycling out of town was plan C only.
I’ve cycled out of big cities before; Bangkok, Saigon.
That was ok.
These were Southeast Asian towns, were I felt comfortable. Buenos Aires didn’t give me that feeling the few days I was there. So, the only viable options were train or bus.
The train was plan A, but according to the first information I found, trains were only running twice a week, on Tuesdays and Fridays, leaving Buenos Aires in the evening and arriving at my destination at night. I heard horror stories how my bike would have to go in a freight wagon, and I could only hope everything would still be there on arrival.
Plan B was the bus. I went to Retiro bus station in town, but with my limited knowledge of the Spanish language couldn’t succeed in getting a deal. ‘Bike on bus’ seemed a problem.

Luckily I found Once train station. Over there, trains leave every 10 minutes and, with a stop over in Merlo or Moreno, you can go as far as Lobos or Mercedes, both about 100 km west of the center of Buenos Aires. For 12 pesos (0,60 euro, the bike is free), you can roll your bike on a modern train.
Changing trains in Moreno was a bit of a hassle, as I had to change platforms (stairs vs heavy bike), but all in all, this seems to be the ideal way to leave the big town.

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Modern train from Buenos Aires to Moreno.
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A bit more rustique train from Moreno to Mercedes.

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My destination was the terminus of the train, the little town of ‘Mercedes’. This sounded like a great place to start my trip. Moreover, Mercedes was the place where I would meet Cycling Cindy for a bit of a pre-trip chat. We spent a couple of nights camping in soggy fields, exchanging travel experiences and just a lot of chit chat. And I learned baking my own bread !
Cindy, having covered Patagonia in winter (!) will continue on her own itinerary , while I go south from here, chasing spring to the deep south.

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Leaving Mercedes via little sandy roads was immediately a big succes. Zero traffic, the first taste of ‘the pampas’, blue skies and mild temperatures. The rain of the past days however left some parts of these sandy roads completely flooded. A few times I had to take my shoes off and wade through the mud. Finding a camping spot appeared surprisingly difficult. All land is fenced off, and all gates are locked with a chain. The first day, I have to jump a fence and load all my bags and bike over it. But a good place to rest my head always is important.

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After 30 km’s or so on the busy Provincial Road 41, I’m more than happy to be on the sand road, direction ’25 de Mayo’, another small town. Dates are important in Argentina and many villages and streets carry the name of important historical dates.
The road is bumpy, the sand sometimes is too loose to bike and at other times to sticky to get through, but again, everything beats traffic.

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After two more beautiful wild camps, I approach 25 de Mayo while it rains. The last 10 km on the sand road took me almost 2 hours, so the only sound option was to take a left turn on PR 51, down to Saladillo. Fierce head winds slowed me down to 8 or 9 km/hr.
If a truck came from the other side, it almost brought me to a stand still.
When a truck comes from behind while there’s upcoming traffic (almost all the time on these busy roads), I HAVE to dive into to side of the road. It’s that or being run over by the truck. They will NOT slow down.
I arrive completely exhausted from wind and traffic in Saladillo and end up in a hotel.
Not exactly where I wanted to be (not the hotel & not the town).

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Next day brings more rain. But hey, I’ve got excellent rain gear and it’s a Sunday, probably the best day to be out on the busy National Road 205.
After 8 km, I take a break in the last gas station of the town. It’s freezing cold, the wind is even fiercer as yesterday. I can hardly keep my bike up at times. If a truck comes by, it’s even harder to stay on the bike. But after a coffee, I ‘m heading out again.
For 3,5 km.
Then I stop at the side of the road.
If this isn’t plain ridiculous, it sure is plain stupid. It’s way too dangerous; the narrow sealed road with it’s fast traffic, trucks, rain and strong winds.
There’s nothing between this place and the next town, San Carlos De Bolivar, 150 kilometer away.
I turn back to the gas station and decide to try to get a lift to S.C. De Bolivar. A very, very wise decision. This gas station doesn’t see a lot of customers on a Sunday. While I sit there, the weather deteriorated even more, into a thunder storm with hail.
The electricity goes down.
At 16:00 hrs, there’s finally a truck stopping that’s going to S.C. De Bolivar and that has some space for me and my bike.

I’m very, very lucky. It’s a Scania with a nose, one of the nicest trucks ever made, and it’s driver, Martin proved to be a super nice guy.
Soon it was decided I would join him to Guamini, a place about 300 km west of Saladillo. The road between S.C. De Bolivar and Guamini was just as narrow, busy and dangerous as the one to S.C. De Bolivar.
All land left and right from the road is flooded. For hundreds of kilometer.
There’s a reason this region is called ‘La Pampa Humeda’.

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My ride further west, ab brilliant Scania with a nose.
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How the roads looks from a truck. You can imagine a cyclist has nowhere to go when there’s traffic coming from the opposite side, and these guys won’t slow down…
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Martin, my friendly driver to the west 🙂

It’s past 20:00 hrs when we arrive at the roundabout in Guamini. I say goodbye to Martin and cycle into the little town to the camping municipal.

From Guamini, I still had to cycle abt. 23 km on the busy RN 33, but then I turned west on the RP 60, a quiet road connecting RN 33 & RN 35.

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Guamini police station
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Guamini
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The map of Argentina, projected on Europe.  Same distance as going from the North Cape to the Greek coast.

The size of things here is incredible. This provincial road between two national roads covers 170 km. Barely a few centimeters on my map, while this is probably the same distance as going from the north of Belgium all the way south to the French border.

It’s along this RP 60 I’m leaving Buenos Aires province (with it’s 300.000 km2 it’s 10 times bigger then Belgium) and enter La Pampa province. Having the first 500 cycling kilometer under my belt, what are the things that strike me in this country ?

  • Still a lot of very, very old cars driving around. Magnificent !
  • Dacia cars are being sold as Renault here, so you have Renault Logan, Renault Duster, ….
  • They have big VW and Ford trucks we never see in Europe.
  • The VW Polo is called ‘VW Gol’ here, while the Golf remains Golf. So they have a Gol and a Golf.
  • Almost every small town has it’s Chinese supermarket.
  • The canned tuna is grinded into a spongy mess that looks like cat food.
  • Every night, there’s a giant nest with a dozen green parrots (called ‘catita in Spanish) right above my tent.
  • Fences. Argentinians sure like their fences. Typically, they’re about 140 cm high and consist of seven (!) wires at a 20 cm interval. No idea why they need seven wires, but that must be millions of kilometer of steel wire in the country. Literally ALL land is fenced off.
  • A lot of birds on the pampa. I saw a group of flamingo’s already.

I have to rethink my route as well. At home, I’d had put some time in making a nice route south all via small sandy roads. But as they’re all flooded, I’m already much further to the west as planned.

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Baking my own bread in the morning.

For the cyclists going this way. The little town of Quehué has a brilliant, brand new gas station with good wifi and clean showers. It might even be a good place to camp. If not, further on towards General Acha, about 10 k before you hit the RN 152, there’s a paved road going to the right. At the end (abt. 1 km), there’s a laguna with a camping municipal where I was, this time of the year, the only guest.

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After buying provisions for a couple of days in General Acha, I cycled on to my first national park in the country.
I also left the ‘Pampa Humeda’ for the ‘Pampa Secca’.
It rained.
For three days.
Some wind, but not too bad for Patagonia.
I’m cycling through flat land with nothing but scrub. The grey sky, rain, wind and temperatures of about 8 degrees aren’t helping to cheer up the place.
Two days after General Acha, I reach ‘Parque National Lihué Calel’.

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Parque National Lihué Calel:
(= Sierra de la Vida / Range of Life)
The puma is a native cat here. I assumed encounters with it would be more theoretical then it would happen for real, but the rangers seem to take their puma’s serious here.
You get an explanation on how to avoid encounters, what to do in case you meet one, and how to respond in case you get attacked (fight back, just like you do with grizzlies 🙂 ).
On my first rest day in the park, the rain continued till about 3 pm. Then suddenly, lying in my tent, … is that for real, a ray of sunlight ?
Yup, I head out immediately and start the hike up the Cerro de la Sociedad Cientifica Argentina.
(What a name for a mountain… In the park, they just call it ‘Cerro Alto’).
It’s too late and too windy to go all the way to the top, but I get some magnificent views of the landscape already.

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Some of the birds visiting me at my tent in the National Park.
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Catita.

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On my second restday, after doing some laundry, I hike up to the ‘Valle de las Pinturas’, a 12,5 km round trip. A nice and easy hike on which I got to see my first guanaco’s. At the end of the trail are a few rock paintings of circa 1300 years old.

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On the third rest day, after some more laundry job, I finish what I started on my first day here. You can’t call the hike up Cerro de la Sociedad Cientifica Argentina ‘mountaineering’, but it gets a bit technical at some stages.
In the afternoon, I made a new route, driving straight west towards the Andes via the little town of Zapala. That way, I can go down from there, visiting the Argentinian ‘Lake Region’ in October i.o. next February (busiest tourist season).

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Patagonian winds:
Everybody has heard of them.
Everybody imagines them in their own way (it sure can’t be that bad, right).
And then you have to ride it…..
My day from a wild camp in the middle of nowhere to Casa de Piedra was the toughest so far in Argentina. I was pushing and pushing, but unable to get the speedometer out of the single digits. Wind gusts must have blown me of the road about 25 times that day. I had to make it to Casa de Piedra, as I wouldn’t have enough water for another night at wild camp.
It took me over 8 hours to cover 80 km.
Pure madness, but the can of beer in the evening and the rest day the day after were only sweeter.
The unsettling this is, I know it can still be much, much worse here.

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After this long ordeal, another rest day was needed. Unfortunately there seems to be no wifi at Casa de Piedra. I’m further investigating my route options from here. Going (north) west from here along the ‘Embalsa Casa de Piedra’, then west to the Andes or going south south towards General Roca and then through the middle of the Patagonian lands towards Esquel. The route going directly west to the Andes, then via the Lake Region to Esquel seems to be 500 kilometer longer.
Going all the way down to Ushuaia, then back up, that would mean more then 5.000 kilometer before I arrive at Vill’O Higgins to start the famous Carreterra Austral’. But sure, riding the mountainous lake region just after winter will give me spectacular snowy landscapes, and there won’t be many other tourists. That way, I could stay on the Chilean side om my way up again, so I could visit the Lake Region over there as well.
Yes, that surely is the nicest option.

Waking up the next morning, I’m not so sure about making the detour via the Lakes Region.
Sure, the pass I will have to take to get there will still be full of snow, maybe camping will be difficult if there’s still snow everywhere, do I really need to see all the lakes both in Argentina and Chili ?
And then that distance…
Psychologically, having that below 5.000 km before reaching the Carreterra Austral also means something.

Yes, it is decided. I’m going to follow my original plan and cycle in a direct line, through the middle of nowhere to Esquel. A shorter option through very desolate country, rarely visited by other tourists. That will be very interesting.

During breakfast, I ‘m studying my maps a bit more, and new doubts are slipping into my mind.
The deserted Patagonian lands.
Or the Lake Region ?
It will be so beautiful and quiet there now.

After a shower, I hop on my bike.
Left turn is Lake route, right turn, over the huge dam, is the direct route through Patagonia.

I turn right.
It’s the shortest route and will give me the chance to visit some rarely visited places. And as I like to be out of Ushuaia before Christmas, it will give me less ‘time pressure’.
Happy to have made that decision, I put my bike on the side of the road when I’m about two kilometer on the bridge to make a picture of the lake.

Then I turn the bike 180 degrees and ride back where I came from, past my camping place and the gas station, taking a left turn on towards 25 de Mayo and the Lakes Region.
What was I thinking ?
Shorter routes ?
Ha ! I don’t have any time pressure.
My flight home is going in a couple of days and I never intended to take that anyway.
No, Let’s go to the lakes !

Gauchito Gil:
Everywhere along Argentina’s roads, you’ll find little red shrines. A bit like they have in Southeast-Asia. Here, you’ll find a little statue of a gaucho inside, ‘Gauchito Gil’. The shrines are always surrounded by red flags, old cd’s and water bottles. Drivers make offerings of cigarettes, wine, sun glasses, engine part, helmets, etc….
The Gauchito would ensure safety on the road and could help in other difficult circumstances. Some pics of the shrines and the Gauchito himself below (click to enlarge).

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