The beauty of crossing countries on bikes is that you appreciate subtle differences and changes as they appear; not just in the landscape but in the people that surround you. And you realise they change faster and more abruptly that one could in fact imagine, even if there is no apparent reasons for such transformations.
The first and most striking impression we had when we entered Argentina was that, despite being only separated by 500m of barriers at the border, it had a completely different vibe to Bolivia. The appearance of people, their houses, the cars they drove (many French cars in Argentina!)... the differences were everywhere; sometimes subtle but yet evident.
The differences were even more tangible in people’s character and attitudes: the way they walked, the way they carry themselves, the way they interacted and talked to us and to one another. Argentinians appeared immediately more self-confident and more outgoing than the Bolivians.
Our first interactions with an Argentinian after customs was with the seller of SIM cards: a large man, laughing, sipping mate and happily giving David’s fist bumps or chatting with him using Google Translate. As I waited outside the shop, a man on the street with his mother just stopped by to ask me about the bikes, where we were going and telling me about his own cycling challenges. And this would continue to happen everyday on the trip. At gas stations, in traffic, at restaurants: people would come and talk to us, enthusiastic and wishing us “welcome to Argentina!”.
There is a defined sense of belonging and pride about the Argentinian identity. We also felt there is a clear sense of shared culture and history with western countries, which got even more obvious when visiting larger cities. Parts of Argentina cities really reminded me of my own childhood memories of Naples and even my home town Marseille: the young people on their mopped with no helmet and happily chatting are not dissimilar to what my mum must have been like at their age, lack of helmet included!
So, in short, Argentinians were welcoming and made a great impression on us. I wish however that the roads we have taken would have done the same thing; but they largely did not. I must however issue an immediate warning here: the route we took in Argentina is far from the traditional one bikepackers follow. Most bikepackers remain in the Andes and follow road 40 all the way into Patagonia. They might venture to see Iguazu falls in the East, but they’d rarely go there by bikes. Because we had to maintain a ride from West to East, and had to catch our flight from Buenos Aires, we could not follow the postcard itinerary bikepackers usually follow. Of course then, we missed a lot of the beauty and remoteness Argentina can offer, and of I feel I need to come back one day to see it. But, I also feel we experienced a bit more of the real, everyday life Argentina, and explored some agricultural and industrial parts of the countries which are also its reality.
So what roads did we take? From the border in Yacuiba we managed to get to Salta. The landscape was typical to hot and humid areas with some low hills and lots of thick green vegetation full with the deafening sound of singing insects and birds. Up to there the road was relatively calm: contrary to Bolivia, there was no shoulder for us to ride on, but, like in Bolivia, we never felt any hostility from any drivers in Argentina. None of them seem to think the road belong to them alone: as much as possible they alway gave us space and sometimes even a cheerful honk of support. Argentinians drive fast, very fast at times, but they drive well and safe.
From Salta however, things got complicated. We had not expected to have to climb back up the Andes. Yet the route left us no choice: too busy and dangerous to ride with our bikes, we had to escape off-road and find a way to get back on a safe road which too us all the way to Cafayate. Being off-road was hard on our bodies and on the bikes. Finding our ways across rivers and single tracks was difficult, especially when the sky opened and we navigated through mud and rain. Luck did smile at us sometimes, such as when a bulldozer offered to help us cross a river and transported us and our bikes safely to the other shore.
The climb from Salta which took us all the way back onto route 40 and the Andes was also well worth it and I am glad we did not miss it: one of the best days of the trip! Gorgeous landscapes mixing jungles, deserts, rocky planes, Alpine climbs, and wine lands. All absolutely breathtaking. That was the picture perfect Argentina we all know - and it was a pity to have to get back down in the plain. From there troubles kept coming!
From Termas de Rio Hondo, all the way to Buenos Aires, we wasted time and energy everyday trying to find a way to cross the country safely. All this under unforgiving heat and with a permanent headwind which seemed determined to slow us down. Basically there were two choices of roads: either busy dangerous one with zero shoulders to ride on, or dreadful unpaved ones which kept damaging the nerves in our hands and the bikes. Our spirits were shot and it became not just a physical but a true mental struggle. Hours and hours of shaky gravel roads at 45C, with little places to find shade and water and each puncture a giant mosquito fest.
The biggest low point for us happened on day 7, when, after two days of pain, we reached Garza to realise road 34 to Rafaela was packed with fast moving cars, trucks, and was too dangerous to ride on. What to do then? Go back? How can you do this when time is counted and you have a fly booked… Risk it and pray no one hits you? Maybe some people would. But we have our family waiting for us at home and although we are up for a challenge, we have lives we love and we are not ready to make such a bargain. So we had to accept that we needed to find a way to get to the next cyclable route and had to ask around; we had to try and talk to people in a language we cannot even speak to find a car to take us to a bus stop; we had to try and convince the drivers of the bus to let us put your bikes on it… and all this mixed with agonising hours of waiting, hoping, praying, and feeling like a failure for having to take a bus to the next city. And of course this did not just cost kilometres, it costed money too.
The lack of cycling infrastructure and the bad tarmac in Argentina made our last days there very painful. And like with Bolivia, our spirits were a bit crushed when we arrived in Buenos Aires. Despite having only lost a couple of hundred km overall, we were left with a bitter aftertaste and the feeling momentum had been lost.
I hope and pray we can finish our challenge and once done look back onto our time in Argentina with nostalgia, thinking that the difficulties we faced there taught us a lot. If we fail to finish this trip, due to delays and covid, I am afraid we might look back onto it with regrets, and this is something I want to absolutely avoid. People very often say travel teach them a lot, and I don’t think it comes from looking at beautiful landscapes. I think it comes from the challenges they face. We were faced with hard choices to make, danger, and had to go out of our shells to find help without even speaking the language. I think this will make us better people going forward.
To conclude, I want to remember the good times we had in Argentina and the great people we met there. Firstly, Because we had so many issues, we met a lot of Argentinians and so many were kind and helpful to us. I want to give a special thank to Pablo at Quickstop bikeshop in Buenos Aires who helped us a lot in the last days. Secondly, more than making the expected mileage, what matters most is that we made it across the full continent, and we made it safely. Travelling teaches you that there is a place you call home, and coming back to it and to the people you love, that is the true wealth of existence.