Buenos Aires, by Noelia Diaco. Photo is not visible, used only for sharing on social networks.

Motorcycle trip: Epilogue

November 29, 2011

(If you're just coming to the blog and want to read from the beginning of the trip, start here.)

Final thoughts from both of us:

There's a lot that could be said about the trip. Hopefully our stories and photos give some sense of the experience. One theme that was frequently on my mind, however, was about keeping track of risk. In any journey of this kind, there are a million variables and potential mistakes. It's a given that mistakes will be made. Some of those mistakes could be catastrophic, like driving recklessly on a gravel switchback; some are mere nuisances. So you do things to mitigate them: Drink tons of water. Constantly inspect your gear. Drive defensively. Stay alert. etc. There are "known" potential hazards, and they're worth being concerned with up to the point that they can be controlled.

But other risks are amorphous, like the probability of being attacked by bandits while camping by the side of the road. Unless you're in a region filled with roving bandits - like parts of Mexico, perhaps - that kind of risk is, I think, pointless to worry about. Such a crazy scenario is as likely to happen locked safely at home as in a remote field, and both are infinitesimally improbable. You do the little you can to prepare for such a wildcard - carry a weapon of some sort, or at least a phone - but otherwise it's not worth any thought. (And once that's decided, the choice of camping in a town square or a remote field is simpler: how much privacy do we want?)

Of course we did make some mistakes, of the expected kind. We skipped a side-case inspection in Tilcara and lost my good cold-weather gloves. I dropped the bike a few times on uneven terrain. (Fortunately the bike has steel bars preventing any actual damage from a stationary fall.) I probably drove a little too fast for safety (or passenger comfort) a few times. But we got home each in one piece, with no damage to the bike that a good scrub couldn't undo, and with an experience we'll remember (and hopefully repeat, in other corners of the world) forever.

- Ben

When we got back from our trip, my dad remarked, "Steph you are never the type of person I thought would get on a motorcycle, let alone take an eight-day motorcycle trip." And it's true. I never thought I would ride a motorcycle. I don't even like cars, I never dreamed about cross-country road trips. I tend to curse at motorcycles as they rev their engines and weave in and out of traffic.

We knew we wanted to use our year in Argentina to travel. Patagonia for sure, and Machu Picchu. But I also wanted to see Argentina, as much of the country as I could. Once I started researching, I knew I wanted to see the northwest — gorgeous desert landscapes, indigenous history, the Andes. Flying is expensive, 24 hours is a long time to spend on a bus. But on a motorcycle, you can cover a lot of ground and see everything along the way.

Before we left, Ben was describing how motorcycles lean into curves and he said that sometimes first-time passengers get scared by this, and lean the opposite direction, screwing up the bike's balance. But I got on for the first time, we turned, and I leaned. It was natural. And exhilarating. It reminded me of skiing — you would never lean out of a turn on skis, just as you wouldn't lean out of a turn on a motorcycle. And so I leaned into turns as we climbed through a cloud forest, as we made our way up switchbacks, through mountains canyons and down into river valleys. The closeness to the road makes riding a motorcycle a much more visceral experience than driving in a car. And I loved it.

As Ben said, it's an experience we hope to repeat in other corners of the world. And I might just learn to drive.

- Steph

Motorcycle trip day 8: Home

(If you're just coming to the blog and want to read from the beginning of the trip, start here.)

Day 8 (of 8): Villa Maria to Buenos Aires
Distance: 570km

The motel in Villa Maria served good pastries for breakfast and we got back on the road for the final day. Route 9 at this point was a high-speed autopista, speed limit 130km (80mph). This let us cover a lot of ground quickly, but the ride was not very pleasant. The temperature was in the high 90sF/30sC. The road had no trees alongside to block the wind, so we were riding at a constant lean to compensate. And the highway was filled with poorly laid bridge seams, so every few kilometers we'd hit a big bump.

To add some humor to the ride, the GPS was very confused, thinking the highway was under construction and we were riding on unpaved road most of the time. (I kind of doubt the highway was moved recently, so Garmin probably needs to fix their maps.) I imagined that it wasn't just our device getting confused; maybe we'd get home and read a news headline about a Golden Eye-esque hacking of the GPS network. Anyway, we couldn't really get lost, since it was a straight shot all the way home.

Fatigued and hungry, we stopped outside the town of General Roca for lunch at a gas station. The sandwiches were mediocre at best, but we had some fun improvising iced coffee in a place where it was clearly alien: hot coffee + ice (in an ice bucket not fit for drinking, because the waitress didn't understand what I wanted it for) + a wine glass = very refreshing.

Rather than get back on the highway, we stayed on a parallel road for an hour or so, going 100kph instead of 130 but enjoying the shelter of the trees. All afternoon, we stopped frequently to pour water down our backs and cool off. (We drank constantly from our camelbaks - we were very well hydrated all 8 days - but drinking warm water doesn't cool you off.)

At one random stop off the highway, we walked through some shrubs and came upon a little pond, and a rusted-out car by the pond, a little haven hidden from the highway.

Onward... ice cream at a gas station,  then Route 9 ended and merged onto the road ringing Buenos Aires, 8 lanes of rush-hour traffic. Then into the city, a few final kilometers, and we were home! We unloaded our stuff and changed our sweaty clothes, then I took the bike back to the northern neighborhood of Florida, where the rental company (GoodBike) is based. I was amazed, after riding such a heavy bike for 8 days, how maneuverable the Street Glide actually is when it only has a driver! Of course it started to pour along the way, but it was good to cool off. I spent some time telling trip tales to Alberto, the proprietor of GoodBike, and finally took the bus back home, checking my email for the first time since we left and looking forward to the tapas and sangria we were going to have for dinner at our favorite restaurant.

- Ben

Continue to Epilogue...

Motorcycle trip day 7: Pozo Hondo to Villa Maria

November 27, 2011
Our campsite by the side of the road, at sunrise
(If you're just coming to the blog and want to read from the beginning of the trip, start here.)

Day 7: Pozo Hondo to Villa Maria
Distance: 728 kilometers

We woke at our campsite by the side of the road in time to see the sunrise. We had a visitor:
Visitor at our campsite in the morning
We were on the road by 7:45, and got breakfast at a service station in La Banda. We were very close to the city of Santiago del Estero, and needed cash, so we followed someone's instructions into the city to find an ATM. We passed two which had lines down the block, and didn't have an hour to waste standing in them.

So we tried to get back on route 9, but got lost in the quagmire of Santiago del Estero. We realized at that point that our plan of taking rt9 straight around the city wasn't actually possible, because the road stopped being a highway at either end of the city, and was instead a very slow truck route cutting through. There were few road signs, so the map was useless; the GPS was useless because roads were inexplicably closed; and the drivers were rude, aggressively cutting us off. One car in front of us threw a soda bottle out the window towards us. It didn't help that it was baking hot, and leather doesn't bake comfortably.

At one point we got off the bike to check the map, and a older fellow, a town employee, stopped his car to tell us we were in a very bad neighborhood and should follow him out. With his help we found the way back to rt9. (And at some point that I don't remember, we found an ATM with a shorter line, the reason for being there in the first place.)

After at least an hour wasted in that hell hole, we were back on the road. A big Air Force plane was mounted on stilts a few kilometers outside the city, not sure why, but we didn't stop to take a photo. The road started to descend in altitude, and the terrain became shrubby and full of cacti. Several roadside stands were selling wood figures shaped like cacti. Signs advertised se vende tortuga - "turtles for sale" - though I'm not sure if these were actual turtles, or if a tortuga is a type of sandwich.

Then even the cacti disappeared and the terrain became barren. We were near salt flats again. The lack of trees (except the occasional olive tree) made it very windy. Herds of goats wandered by the road - sometimes crossing it - and I wondered if they were all owned by someone, to be collected at the end of the day, or if they were just wild.

We stopped at the town of Ojo de Agua (Eye of Water) for a steak lunch and gas. The gas station line was on hold and we waited over half an hour until they finished some kind of inspection; but it was the last gas station for a while and we needed fuel. The road after that, continuing south toward Cordoba, was amazing: long, undulating hills, rising and falling but not moving laterally; perfect roads for speed. We went over one hill and the terrain opened onto green fields separated by rows of trees. We were doing 160kph (100mph) at one point, the straight hills continuing forever, but Steph (seeing the speedometer) yelled "Bennnnn!!!" and I had to slow down a little. (Looking back on it, 100mph on that kind of road isn't really that fast. But the extra "speed limit" kept us a little safer, and that can't hurt.)

Then we reached the top of the next hill, and just as I was about to pass a pickup truck that was slowing down, I realized there was a police checkpoint. (We passed dozens of these along the way, so it wasn't unusual - sometimes they inspect trucks, maybe sometimes they're supposed to deter drug trafficking or smuggling - usually we were waved through.) The cop told us to pull over along with 2 other motorcycles that were racing the hill. We weren't being stopped for speeding, though - it was a random breathalyzer inspection! The cop handed me a plastic mouthpiece to put on his handheld device, I breathed into it for seven seconds, the result was negative (we hadn't had alcohol in days), and we were back on our way. (It should be noted that all the policemen and municipal employees we met were professional and/or friendly, and despite warnings about corruption, we had no actual police trouble at all.)

As we approached Cordoba, I was feeling pretty exhausted. We could have stopped north of Cordoba and had a longer [final] next day, but that was already going to be exhausting, so we wanted to get further  south. We stopped at a service station for a rest. I had a large coffee and felt recharged. So we made the call to push on, put Bon Jovi on the stereo at full volume, and hit the road again - now dark - for the final stretch past Cordoba to Villa Maria. There we found a motel and fell very fast asleep.

- Ben

Motorcycle trip day 6: Purmamarca to Pozo Hondo

November 26, 2011
route 9 south argentina

(If you're just coming to the blog and want to read from the beginning of the trip, start here.)

Day 6: Purmamarca to Pozo Hondo
Distance: 475 kilometers

Today was the start of our trek back home. By this point, we'd gotten pretty good at motorcycle travel. Within an hour of waking up, we had the bike all packed and ready to go.

When we had planned the trip, we had a good sense of how we would spend the first five days. There were places we wanted to see, so we had figured out how far we had to go each day to fit it all in. But the last leg of the trip was much more flexible. We knew we had three days to travel about 1,650 kilometers. Past that, we hadn't decided where we would stay or what roads we would take.

Overall it was a very pleasant day of riding. We hadn't made it back to the plains yet, so the roads still curved and the landscape changed every couple of hours. First, we left the desert behind and passed through gritty Jujuy. In the south of Salta province, the terrain was more wooded, with hills in the backdrop and plenty of fields and farm animals. It was the type of ride where you could just sit back and enjoy.

At times, we rode for at least an hour without seeing a single town. Unfortunately, one of those stretches coincided with lunchtime, so we were pretty hungry by the time we reached Metan. We had never heard of Metan before, so we drove down the main street until we saw a restaurant with some customers, and then pulled over for food. This was truly a "no frills" restaurant. There was no menu because there were only two options: a beef sandwich and a breaded pork sandwich. The only drinks available were 1 liter bottles of soda. But they definitely know how to make a sandwich — fresh bread, beef, egg, lettuce, tomato, and probably some other ingredients I'm forgetting.

I have been on trips where the food was half the point — Rome, Barcelona, Mexico. But not this trip. We ate at gas stations half the time. Our diet consisted mostly of pasta, steak and pizza. Ravioli felt a speciality food. I'm not saying that this sandwich in Metan was a sophisticated culinary achievement. But it did have more than two ingredients. And considering that butter, a slab of white cheese, a slab of ham and sliced bread passes for a sandwich a lot of the time in Argentina, it was a damn good sandwich.

We had thought at the beginning of the day that maybe we could get to Santiago de Estero. But around 4:30, we reached a town about 80 kilometers north, and decided to call it a day. We asked someone at the entrance to the town if there was camping nearby, and he said we could camp in the town square. We drove through town to see if that was a good idea. The town square was a big mostly-grassy field, but we didn't feel like being stared at all evening. We asked a passing cop where we could camp, and he gave us directions to the town's "hotel". So we headed out of the town a little ways, found a spot on the side of the road and made camp.

I was nervous about this arrangement. My mother had been worried we would get attacked by bandits on our trip. While back in Buenos Aires, this had sounded ridiculous. But off on the side of this road, I wasn't quite as confident. About an hour after we arrived, a man approached our camp. "I'm not police or anything," he said, "I work for the town." At that point, we figured we were about to get kicked out.
Instead he hung out with us for half an hour. "We see a lot of tourists around here," he told us, "but not like this," gesturing at our campsite. He even offered to let us camp in his yard up the road, if we wanted someplace safer. But after this, I was no longer worried about bandits and happy to snuggle into my sleeping bag.

camping pozo hondo argentina

- Steph

Continue to Day 7...

Motorcycle trip day 5: Salinas Grandes

November 25, 2011
salinas grandes salta argentina

(If you're just coming to the blog and want to read from the beginning of the trip, start here.)

Day 5: Humahuaca - Tilcara - Salinas Grandes - Purmamarca
Distance: 170 kilometers

I can now say I've been woken by a rooster at dawn. We even got up when he crowed. Made ourselves a fire, toasted some pastries and then were on our way. I had been looking forward to this part of the trip since we planned it. We were going even higher up into the Andes to see one of the world's largest salt flats.

First we traced our way south back through the Quebrada de Humahuaca to Purmamarca. One waiter  had told us the salt flats were 4,000 meters high, so we were suspicious when the road past Purmamarca was completely flat. But then we saw the switchbacks.

switchbacks route 52 salt flats purmamarca

Watch a short video as we climb the switchbacks (the audio is wind mixed with Rascal Flatts):

Up and up and up. My one prior experience with switchbacks — crossing the Andes from Santiago to Mendoza, in a bus — had been terrifying. So I was prepared to spend the whole time clutching Ben and counting down the kilometers. But I have to give the Argentines a lot of credit. The road was in great shape, no potholes, well paved, wide enough and with plenty of room on the shoulders. And the scenery was fantastic. I'll save the descriptions and let you check out the pictures.

harley davidson motorcycle switchbacks argentina

After climbing for a while, and zooming past plenty of tour vans on the way, the road started descending. Down into another canyon, through a pass, and there we were in the salt flats. The road cuts right across them, so we drove halfway, parked our bike and got off to explore. The salt was much crunchier than I expected, we sank in when we stepped.

salt flats salta argentina
motorcycle salt flats salinas grandes
After an embarrassing attempted turn on sand — when the bike fell and we had to lift it up again ourselves, much to the amusement of a boy working at a rest stop — we headed back down to Purmamarca. We had great views down into the canyon with all the roads we had traversed. We were riding as high as the clouds.

desert northwest argentina
switchbacks road to salt flats argentina

Once we made it back down, we made the wonderful decision to find a hotel instead of camping. The one we had looked up in advance didn't have parking, but the woman there called around for us, and found us a really cute place (Paseo de Los Colorados). (See Ben's previous post about dinner in Purmamarca.) Before we left, our Spanish tutor told us the Argentines have a phrase: "Ask and you can get to Rome." It was definitely true for us this trip, nearly everyone we met was helpful and friendly, far beyond common courtesy. Waiters gave us information about the weather, town employees led us to the roads we needed, hostel workers advised us on the best highways, etc.

The downside to the day was that we realized we had lost Ben's excellent warm-weather riding gloves. Unfortunately, at some point while stopping in Tilcara the day before, we accidentally left one of the side cases open, and — unbeknownst to us until the next day — dropped the gloves. We came back to find them the next morning, but they were gone. They had been vital during the cold rain earlier, but fortunately weren't needed for the rest of the trip.

- Steph

Continue to Day 6...

Motorcycle trip day 4: Salta, Purmamarca, Tilcara, Humahuaca

November 23, 2011
quebrada de humahuaca unesco world heritage

(If you're just coming to the blog and want to read from the beginning of the trip, start here.)

Day 4: Salta - Jujuy - Purmamarca - Tilcara - Humahuaca
Distance: 260 kilometers

We woke in Salta at 6:30, well rested from a real bed. The plan was to make haste to Purmamarca via Jujuy, so we skipped breakfast and were on the road by 8:15. In the road atlas, it looked like rt9 north was the most direct route, but the hostel manager explained that the newer highway east (also called rt9) was actually faster. The older road was "very dangerous," he said repeatedly while making spiraling motions with his hand.

The rain had passed, and the sky now was sunny and blue. The road was surrounded by mountains and occasional wheat fields. We rode 200 kilometers, past Jujuy (a city with not much recommending a stop) and turned off the main road toward Purmamarca. This was also the road to the Salinas Grandes salt flats, so the town would be our base for the next few days. (Originally we had planned to do the mountain ride to the salt flats on the same day, but Steph had the foresight to reverse the itinerary with the next day, making the time much more balanced.)

purmamarca town jujuy argentina
locro restaurant purmararca
Purmamarca is a small, dusty desert pueblo of four square blocks, but its position as a waypoint (and luxury spas outside of town) make it a tourist hub. We rode in before noon alongside tour buses and parked on an unpaved corner a block from the town square. Having eaten only trail mix all morning, we found an open (but empty) restaurant and devoured delicious locro, milanesa sandwiches (a very common breaded pork filet), salad with good fresh produce, and - possibly more important than food - coffee.

Energized, a little rested, and electronics fully charged (including our very important helmet walkie-talkies), we got back on the road for the 30km to Tilcara. Tilcara is another dusty desert town, but much bigger than Purmamarca, and is home to archeological excavations of an Incan fort city, Pucará.

In Tilcara my bike-handling skills were put to the test: The Street Glide is a heavy, strictly-road bike, and loaded top-heavily with a passenger and gear, was a challenge to handle even at city traffic lights. (Essentially, when not moving, the bike could lean at most 10° to either direction before the downward inertia overcame the strength of my legs, and the bike would fall over. This was compounded by the road angle or slippery surfaces.) The roads in Tilcara were steep, dusty gravel, with few signs, and barely wide enough to K-turn a small car, let alone this big bike with no reverse gear. So we got lost trying to find the ruins, but eventually found the bridge across toward them, and - having had enough of muscling the big beast - parked it and hiked the rest of the way.

pucara tilcara jujuy argentina
Pucará. (The pyramid in the center is a monument to the discovering archeologists, not part of the ruins.)
llamas pucara jujuy argentina
Llamas at Pucará
Some very odd cacti
Pucará was a strategic fort city for the Incans, but had no known fortifications; its value was purely in its topography, located on a mountain peak with a clear view around, the roads are nearly impassable and easily defended. It was no match for the Spanish invaders, however, who killed the chief and enslaved the population.

From Tilcara, we continued north toward Humahuaca. The mountain curves were wide, the kind that can be safely ridden at tight leans very fast. Unlike while stopped, the Street Glide surprised me with how wonderfully it leaned while riding. Curves are a vital part of what makes motorcycling so thrilling: a bike doesn't fight the inertia like a 4-wheeled vehicle; it leans into a turn the way a running animal would lean. In the riding course I took, we learned to accelerate through turns (after decelerating if necessary before entering it), to maximize control and traction with the road, and that feeling (multiplied by the thousands of curves we traversed) is incredible. Some passengers freak out at this, but Steph - as long as I didn't go too fast - loved it!

fort ruins pucara tilcara

This whole area is part of the Quebrada de Humahuaca, a UNESCO World Heritage site, a ravine that has served as a trade route for millenia. All along the way were bridges over wide, dry riverbeds of the Rio Grande, which was still dry from the winter, but which flows again in the summer.

quebrada de humahuaca jujuy argentina road

Campsite with laundry and rain cover drying
In Humahuaca we found a very cozy campground. Like most of the campgrounds we saw, this was a plot of land owned by a family, their house next to the campers' bathrooms, adjoining a farm that was probably also theirs. The property "managers" were two brothers maybe 8-12 years old, who played soccer all evening. (At one point the ball came our way, and Steph, who played soccer for years, tried to kick it back, but the ball hit a rock and veered off; she remarked later that she understands why Latin American soccer players are so good, when they play for hours every day on gravel growing up.)

Amazingly cheap feast
Dinner was an amazing experience in cheap living. The campsite had a grill, so we walked into town for provisions: half a chicken for 12 pesos; 2 peppers, 2 onions, a potato, and 2 peaches all for 5.50 pesos; 4 rolls of bread and 7 dessert/breakfast pastries for 5 pesos; beer, sprite, and 3 bags of charcoal for another 20 pesos. So we had an enormous dinner, dessert, and breakfast the next morning all for US$10. Camping was 15 pesos ($3.50) per person, and on this off-season night, there were 5 other campers, which would easily easily cover the host family's meals for the day. (This prompted a discussion of how well we could live out here, on dollar incomes - if only there was high-speed internet, and things to do... cities are expensive for a good reason.)

How many colleged-educated Americans 
does it take to start a fire?
Getting the fire started was rather comic. This wasn't the lazy kind of charcoal with lighter fluid baked in, and the kindling I had bought did a whole lot of nothing. With cardboard and twigs we got it going several times, but it kept going out. Finally we resorted to using gasoline as lighter fluid, and that (aided by much fanning) eventually stayed lit for long enough to burn the coals for cooking. Ironically, the next morning I lit another fire with only matches and twigs (using the lean-to method I had read in the US Army Field Manual android app), and that lit up immediately and stayed lit through breakfast. Lesson learned.

The bike covered in mud, dust, and splattered bugs

1926 Ford Model T
Randomly, a 1926 Ford Model T at a gas station

A wild horse
Herding goats

- Ben

Continue to Day 5...