We rode to Campo Quijano and ate ice-cream; the next two days riding promised to be hard.
Hard indeed. The route towards San Antonio starts, along with the railway, by following a valley. Roads and railways like valleys and so do winds. Todays wind was in the full and youthful vigour of Spring. Mostly it blew energetically against us; occasionally it hid in a side valley, where it would summon its full strength, and from where it would blast an ambush at us. Never mind, we werent even trying to go that fast in any case, the road being uphill ripio and the luggage now supplemented with the tent.
The mountainsides were arid, simply rock with cacti and scrubby clumps barely identifiable as vegetation, but where there was water in side valleys, there were oases of astonishingly lush willows and poplars. There are places named on the map, but they prove to be just names, perhaps one or two houses, but no shops. There was more of a village at Chorillos, and from here the road is paved not that it made much difference to our speed, with this wind, and the mounting heat.
The valley opened out and as we came to midday we found perhaps the wind was beginning to turn, and slowly we approached Alfarcito, where there are smart new signs counting down the distances, with enticing promises of the delights to be found in Alfarcito, though we werent entirely sure if food was mentioned as such. I think, perhaps, there is some sort of religious institution here. We rounded the bend to find to find a small church and a couple of other buildings, and a non-operational comedor; lurking 500m further was a restaurant, this one rather more usefully supplied with food, rather nice food, in fact.
Santa Rosa wasnt much further and there wasnt much to this place either. In such a small place you would think that everyone would know everyone else, but nobody seemed to know who was supposed to provide any accommodation, which is especially puzzling as it happens to be the museum curator, and tourists are only going to stop here because of the museum. The curator and his wife are a friendly and very generous couple : they have a small dormitory for travellers, and they made us tea. Elsa said that Salta had had a lot of rain.
Too bad for Salta. We were up here, where the next day the sky was perfect unbroken blue and we only had 60km to cover. The gradient was gentle, in the broad valley, and the road was tarmac. The wind, however, was back, and as strong as ever. Now apart from a few patches of faint green by the river bed, there is nothing but rock. Even the cacti have given up. It is hugely empty: I find myself greeting a horse by the roadside it will be road signs next.
The road climbs over a ridge to a large plateau below a summit Nevado Acay, presumably and here the wind can have a free run directly at us. There was a sort of wave of tourist traffic on their way to a delicious lunch in San Antonio, something which we ourselves had long given up hope of. One bus advertised that it was supplied with oxygen, and we could feel smugly superior because we were cycling without the need for extra oxygen, but this hardly made anything to balance the fact that in an hours time the passengers would be enjoying tasty food and we would still be suffering this horrible road.
There is some relief from the wind when the road makes the final climb of the pass in zigzags. We see flocks of bright green birds, and flocks of yellow-and-black birds, which launch themselves in a burst of startling colour, like fireworks. While the climb up hides itself in zigzags there is no view, which builds the suspense for when you do reach the top. And here, we were looking over miles and miles of the puna, the high Andes, the roof of the continent : a huge open expanse, mountain ridges far around on the horizons, and far away, much further, snow peaks in another country.
We had a stretch of jubliantly fast descent before the gradient flattened out and the unopposed wind blew more fiercely than ever, and the ripio recommenced. Our lunch-deprived legs struggled to find the fragments of surface that were less sandy or washboarded than the rest. But this was one of those rides where you know that however slow it is, you will get there eventually, and however awful it is, when you look back at the photographs, and remember the journey, you will have forgotten the sensation of pain and despair and tiredness and hunger, and you will remember only the adventure, and the achievement, and the grandeur of the miles of straight road traversing the land.
There was not very much to do in San Antonio which suited us perfectly; I think we would have rather resented the presence of things to do. We were grateful for the Hosteria, which was comfortable, warm, and had a menu worth spending four days to eat through. We spent a day doing nothing.
Then we rode up to the Abra de Chorillos, the next pass on the way to Chile. The land was ever emptier. A strange mountain watched over us dark minerals made it look as if it was under a permanent cloud, but the sky was still the same unmarked, untouched perfect blue it was slightly unsettling, like something intangible wrong in paradise. But everything was perfect : from the pass, another marvellous and mysterious, unknown, deserted vista, and for some reason the wind had gone elsewhere to torment some other victim, and had left us in peace to enjoy an idyllic picnic at 4400m.
Earlier in the trip we had entertained the idea of riding out to camp one night by the Salinas Grandes. At 60km from San Antonio, it would have been too long for a day there and back, even if unladen, because of the quality of the ripio and the wind. I'm afraid to say we thought it too much trouble, and attempted to organise ourselves a taxi, which proved surprisingly difficult. The people at the hotel found us a man with a white van late in the day, who sped us there over the bumps at great speed. We had already seen faint sights of the Salinas from the passes and the hill above San Antonio a shimmering white glow. The Salinas are marvellous absolutely flat, and absolutely white, with the surface cracked into irregular tiles, and, in the low sun, with long distorted, otherworldly shadows.