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And then, the big day. An early start, the sun was barely up, and it was cold, patches of ice in the river. 13km retracing our way back towards Salta, then the start of the Acay road. A long straight stretch of wide ripio, across a plain, towards the ridge of Nevado Acay, but we had no idea where the road might go after this – it turns out to bear right before veering back to make the climb. More than once we stalled in the sand, and the road took an age to get anywhere near the true climb, but there were llamas to look at.

Once we reached the hills the climb began with zigzags, ascending the slopes at first with views above a pale greenish valley, and vanishing into the thick of the slopes, as if trying to find a way through them for the first time; and because the lie of the land and the trace of route was a mystery to us, it felt that by moving into the land, we were creating it as we went forward. The valley below was unreal, magical, with delicate pale grass, and serene, with gentle vicunas and burros.

The numbers on our altimeters racked up satisfyingly; 4000m seemed commonplace now. After a steep section the road came out onto a corniche above the valley and climbed to 4400m. As we rounded a flank, we could see the ridge at the head of the valley, much much higher. And this ridge far above us really was where the pass was – we could see the glint of sun on a car coming down, and we could see the thin lines of the road. We had doubted that the pass height would be anything like the 4900m claimed, until now, when we saw it for real.

Three cars came down in the course of the climb, with cheers, and even photographs. We tried to make it look easy.

snaky road

Towards the end we came out onto the ridge again, and to expansive views of a whole universe of puna. The last few zigzags looked exactly like the last bend on the Alpe d'Huez. But so do all climbs, and so do all dreams of climbs.

The summit of Nevado Acay crowned the pass – a dark and steep scallop. The height appeared to be barely 4800m, not quite that of Mont Blanc, but the air pressure was certainly an impressively low 555mbar. We ate some peaches and read a few lovely sentences of Proust's Nostalgia; we surveyed the road snaking down the gentle valley to the plain.

The other side was very different – a rugged, steep and narrower trench. The scenery is much more dramatic, with polychrome rocks, and outcrops, and cliffs, and the contrasting colours and different ridges were highlighted by the sunlight playing between the clouds, picking them out like a spotlight. The road dropped steeply at first, and lower down cut through sections of precipitous cliffs, where the valley was almost a gorge. The unexpectedness was truly exciting – it felt as though anything could happen in this landscape. Above the place called Negra Muerta, a huge dark valley led up into the clouds – what would it be like to climb it? Had anyone ever been there?

We were losing height fast, and soon reached the level of the stream, where springs have left weird mineral deposits on the rock faces; we passed the first farm, where Doñas Damiana and Flavia herd goats. The valley walls now became interesting red rock strata, and we began to see patches of grass, and trees, and farms, and fields, and hamlets, and schools, and tidy white churches, and people. Onwards down the valley, more mountains came into view and went; but we always had Ruta 40 leading us onward, telling us stories of its 5000km along the wild Cordillera, from high Bolivia, to Patagonia, to the end of the earth.

Routes do not become classics by being easy. We had left the pass at 3pm, and from there it was 45km to La Poma. There is an hosteria there, and we had reckoned we had more than enough time to reach it that day – it was, after all, downhill all the way. But we had lost most of the height in the first 15km, and from then on we had several fords, and that wretched headwind yet again, and about 100 short steep rises. It took us four hours.

The ride on to Cachi wasn’t that far but we were tired and there was a slight anticlimax the day after the pass, simply having to churn out flattish kilometres in less spectacular and remote scenery. We met the Salta road, and its lovely tarmac at Payogasta, where we had a pleasant, but huge, lunch in a restaurant serving the tourist trail, then at Cachi, over the course of an involved search back and forth several times up the side valley, for the former best hotel in town, which no longer existed, these journeys all giving us views from all sides of the imposing, and unignorable, very splendid and white building on a commanding promontory above the town, an irresistible gravity developed pulling us towards the building - which was a spa-hotel, La Merced del Alto. Clearly it must have been obvious from a long distance that we were not all that clean, since we were greeted with lawn sprinkers as we rode up. Colin also had two large holes in his shorts. We had champagne that night.

We had a couple more days in hand and could have pottered around Cachi, maybe have ridden to Molinos, maybe not, but there were storms and rain forecast so we left for Salta. There was a mere 3600m pass to climb and much of it was tarmac. We climbed a first ridge and into a plateau which has been designated a National Park as it is full of those cacti, as is everywhere else, so we were not sure why this bit is special. They are not really all that attractive, as the ones you see in the postcards have been selected from millions as the symmetric 3-branched ones that conform to what a cactus out to look like. The rest are a misshapen lot, really. Nor is the rest of the scenery all that pleasant as the ridges are really quite ugly rubble. There is a noteworthy stretch of road, the Recta del Tintin, which is 11km dead straight, and does not look that far, but it is.

a little snack

We climbed through another ridge to another plateau at about 3000m and wondered where the next 600m was hiding. It wasn't because it didn't exist. The road climbs interminably slowly to a mere 3200m, to a pass with a millstone and a pretty stone chapel, and a grand view of the huge face of Cerro Tintin. Like the previous ride, the other side of the pass was much steeper and much more scenic, a procession of ridges in the distance, coloured rock and zigzags and so on. I think it would make a nice ride up, but Colin would say that I would say that. There were a few flowers here and there.

The rest of the ride down was attractive and varied. A deep valley, red cliffs, the trails of dry waterfalls, fields and horses and farms, then a high-walled gorge, trees with beautiful flowers, widens, then narrows, and now trees on the hillsides and refreshing shade, and at last onto the plains, with a wide straight road, and tobacco estancias. We had hoped to stay at a finca, but you really have to book these places in advance and instead had a hostel in Chicoana, which at least was not the tent, which somehow we had escaped using. We rode back to Salta via the Popy Helados in Campo Quijano.

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