A site is announced by red cloth fluttering in the distance on the roadside, somewhere in the mindboggling Argentinean vastness where a view can hold the whole of Switzerland. Get closer and you see a small chapel, look inside and you’ll find invariably the statue of Gauchito Gil standing in front of a cross. 36-year-old Miguel Leivan and his family came to the shrine to prepare a parrillada “barbecue”. That was the promised that Miguel made to the Gauchito if he made his wish and prayers come true. The wish and prayers had something to do with the health of a relative that got better. We would have been welcome to eat and celebrate with the family had we arrived a few hours later. The Gauchito Gil is a popular saint that has its origin in the province of Corrientes. Born around 1840 and killed on the 8th of January 1878, 8km from the town of Mercedes. He was killed for deserting in the army, hung by his feet on a tree and beheaded. Not much more is known of the figure that is not part of the catholic liturgy. Still perhaps because of his popularity and the fear of the church to lose followers on his remembrance day, mass is given in his name. A devotee tells me, that now with an Argentinean Pope hopes are running high for canonization: “he makes miracles and on top he’s Argentinean why shouldn’t he be canonised”? Hundreds of thousands of Argentineans are devotees and a massive manifestation of religious fervour (that I have witnessed years back) takes place at the site of his killing. From nearby thousands of pilgrims arrive on horses and from afar busloads are unloaded everything turns red. It’s a festive atmosphere in the blazing sun, people drink, eat, dance, sweat and wait in line to get to the spot where the Gauchito Gil was killed in order to light a candle pray and place a wish.
After almost 5 entire weeks and 2600 Km of roads my mother Pia has left for Switzerland! Today my friend and colleague Andreas Schwaiger will join me for about one month. We met some 25 years ago as young aspiring photographers in the offices of the long gone Swiss photo collective Lookat Photos. With Andreas we have many things in common besides several friends and photography. We gave up smoking together, our fathers both died at a fairly young age, we had the same girlfriend (not at the same time) and we both love biking! Andreas knows very well northern Argentina and the high -plateau or Puna as Argentineans call it. I very much look forward to our trip that includes the Abra del Acay in La Poma Department. Taller then the tallest European peak the Mount Blanc Abra del Acay is highest pass in the Andes with an altitude ranging between 4895 and 5060 meters, depending on the consulted source.
In the town of Zapala with my mother Pia and plenty of travel days still at our disposal, we decided to travel south and see San Martin de Los Andes. To tour the Route of the 7 lakes, one of Argentina’s scenic wonders. Police informed us that the last spot where we could charge our eBike batteries would be 50 Km south of Zapala, at a police post by the bridge, over the river A Piccun Leufù on the RN 40. After the bridge we’d have 200 Km without electricity. So far in Chile we had managed 165km in one day, in favourable windless conditions, without emptying the four 400 Wh batteries, available to each FLYER. 200Km, which translates in 8 hours on the saddle, sounded a bit risky but worth a try. We left Zapala late in the afternoon with a strong headwind and seeing that we only had to travel 50 Km south to the next charging station, we happily emptied four batteries in the Turbo mode. All the way brand new electricity pylons, interconnected by shiny silvery cables accompanied us on the left hand side of the road. Until the cables began to hang from the pylons and finally disappeared, together with our happy mood. We found the new police station empty and could not see any electricity cables going into it. At that moment the lack of electricity seemed the worst form of underdevelopment. If this was happening in comparatively wealthy and developed Argentina how about in much poorer Bolivia? We approached the only other visible building on the south side of the bridge noticing first two square meters of solar panels catching the last rays in the sunset. The panels belonged to a farmhouse surrounded by poplars full of screaming parrots, a small vegetable garden a chained unfriendly dog, two fattening pigs behind walls and a toothless man in a red shirt sipping mate an spitting it while rocking in a chair. We explained our situation and after sharing dinner, Luis agreed to let us sleep in his home and let us try charging the batteries. Electro panic leads to electro greed, I immediately plugged the four empty batteries on Luis’s regulator attached to two big truck batteries hidden in a box. At first the green blinking lights on the side of the battery that in the dark look like glow-worms, blinked nicely accompanied by a buzzing sound emanating from the regulator. Then disaster struck, the buzzing stopped the glow-worms gave up the blinking, the kitchen light faded the fridge and the radio went silent. I thought I’d damaged the regulator but Luis unworried simply said that we’d have to wait for the next day, sunlight will recharge the batteries and spat some more mate on the floor. Later before going to sleep I tried switching on the kitchen light again it worked. I tried to plug in one battery silently not to wake Luis and carefully in almost religious respect hoping against hope that the glowworm would appear. It worked the buzzing was back on and in a night interrupted by three hour intervals (about the charging time for one battery) we managed to fill the four empty batteries. Finally we decided to go back north to Zapala and continue the journey to Mendoza, a detour to San Juan de Los Andes with the prospect of having the full weight of the eBikes without battery power under us looked too risky.
Die Ruta 40 in Argentinien zwischen San Juan und Salta ist ein Traum für Radfahrer, durchgehend asphaltiert und praktisch ohne Verkehr (wirklich: es gab Tage da sahen wir nur 2–3 Autos).
Wir waren schon 11 Tage und 1’200 Kilometer unterwegs auf der Ruta 40, durch atemberaubend schöne vulkanische Landschaften, am Ostrand der Anden entlang, als uns am Kilometer 4301 eine Ueberraschung erwartet:
Katharina, meine Lebenspartnerin, und ihre Schwester Regi waren dort bei ihrem Urlaub vor 1 Monat durchgekommen und haben uns eine Nachricht und Zauberpulver hinterlegt, die wir unbeschadet gefunden haben:
Mensaje para Luca y Andreas
Ihr seid ja Wilde, einen solchen Trip zu machen. Steht Ihr auch oft so neugierig in der Landschaft und seid so schnell wieder weg wie die Vicuñas*? Ihr stinkt sicher fürchterlich, deshalb hier eine kleine Seife für die nächste Dusche...
Und einen Glücksbringer auf den Weg – er kann einen platten Pneu verhindern, Staub wegzaubern, Kraft in lahme Beine pumpen und Bier auf den nächsten Tresen stellen...!
Geniesst Euer Abenteuer! Wir sind in Gedanken bei Euch!
It started when with my mother Pia in the town of General Alvear we approached the nice lady working out of a Swiss chalet type tourist office. You find them in most towns these chalet type tourist offices. Leaving with what information we could gather from the nice lady we made our way to a shopping centre. Water, cheese, honey and walnuts on the buying list. In a long cashier queue wait I ask the elderly lady in front of me, what requirements one needed to fulfil to be able to join the always-empty preferential cashier. She told me to forget it; only half dead people and pregnant woman had the right to that cashier. The shopping done, outside the mall a TV crew (a journalist and a cameraman from the local TVCOA) are waiting for us. The nice lady from the Swiss chalet type tourist office tipped them about our passing trough town. They had done pieces on groups of foreign bikers crossing trough town, but never on eBike bicyclers. This was considered more suffered and therefore more news worthy, we had to participate at all costs went the argument. After the talk we were asked to simply move on out of town on our journey, so that they could film us in movement. After about 2 km they had enough footage and left with the promise to send us the video that never came. Two days later we’re having a coffee break under a tree on the national route 151, nibbling at some nuts with honey, when a small white car coming from the opposite direction pulls over. A complete family, husband, wife and son come out and approach us. They saw us on TV and now live on the road and decided to turn around to say hello and to check on my mother’s well being. A song by one of my favourite Italian cantautori Enzo Jannacci, came to mind: «La televisiun l’ha gà una forsa da leùn». meaning “Television it has the strength of a Lion”. Indeed the strength to make people be concerned for total strangers. Regrettably we didn’t manage to cash in on our newly acquired social standing. The TV appearance didn’t translate into barbecue or cocktail party invitations. Fame, which we measured in the amount of honking and cheering we’d get from passing drivers, lasted for about three days or for about 300 KM.
Its early morning the 9th of February 2016, together with Andreas we’re leaving Salta, after a dreadful night, with the loudest fearful, thunder storm ever, a bit like trying to sleep inside an iron smelter processing plant. We leave the trailers behind in a private house turned hostel, run by a Bolivian lady a pensioned teacher that looks trustworthy. Without the trailers the FLYERS will have 30 kg less to pull up the gravel roads to the Abra del Acay that with its 4895 meters is the highest pass in South America. After 30 KM we make a stop in Campo Quijano a town at about 1500 meters that stands at the foot of the Andean range.
After drinking a cappuccino and partly charging the one battery that we’d used to come up from Salta at a café, we leave with the sky covered by dark brainy menacing looking clouds. It must be around 12 noon. People at the café assured us that it wouldn’t rain till late afternoon. (So far in almost two month of travel it never rained when it looked like it was going to. The usual signals like the smell of rain, a covered dark sky a strong wind pushing a dark sky in our direction, some thunder in the distance the first drops, all of this failed to produce the feared downpour. The only weather pattern that has emerged is the fact that when it rained It rained in the late afternoon).
From Campo Quijano the asphalt road soon ends and changes to gravel for about 20 km. The gravel has lots of “calamina” or “serrucho” as the road ripples are called here in Argentina. They are caused by a combination of heavy trucks passing trough as well as wind and rain. With a car or a motorbike you can drive above 60 km this way you won’t feel the ripples only your suspension will. With the eBike its impossible to avoid the permanent shaking and rattling that becomes really tiring in the long run. The road winds up parallel to the railway tracks of the Tren a Las Nubes with its perilous looking bridges and viaducts. In places the faces of the mountains are so steep and high above our heads that they seem to bend inwards as if falling into the valley below. Many sections of the road are covered with sharp stones recently fallen from the cliffs above.
Giant Cardones cactuses mark the landscape, growing straight out of the naked multicoloured rock sediments, that have been eroded by wind sun and rain into the strangest shapes and forms giving the journey a psychedelic quality.
Legend has it that during the war of independence to troops loyal to General San Martin, put hats and ponchos onto hundreds of Cardones cactuses to trick the incoming Spaniards into believing that they where much more numerous. Further up at a place called Ing. Maury we pass a permanent police control. We’re asked to show our passports and entry stamps. There is much curiosity for the eBike among the policemen and women but not for us. When I asked the police woman checking my passport whether I should take of my balaclava and sun glasses to ID my face, she said that it wasn’t necessary and waved me on my way. I lost site of Andreas at some point after the police check point, when I saw him again in the town of Santa Rosa de Tastil at 3100 meters, he’s having a break in a provisions shop together with two Argentineans drinking several bottles of Salta beer and acting drunk. Its about 5PM, we decided to find a place to rest and continue the journey the next day. Estelia the owner of the provisions shop agreed to let us sleep on the floor and take our eBike into the shop, on Andreas’s promise to bring her a Swiss watch when he next passed trough this place. It might be in two or three years Andreas said but its not unlikely that he will pass again. This is the fifth time he has come to this rugged region of Argentina that he loves dearly. In the morning we wake among cold clouds, and make our way up to the Abra Blanca 4080 meters where the primordial human urge to say “I was here” makes us stop for a selfie. The pass will lead us to San Antonio de Los Cobres where we intended to acclimatise for a few days before going up the Abray del Acay. In San Antonio de Los Cobres people are still celebrating carnival and run around in impossibly colourful dresses and painted faces. On Friday the 12th of February from San Antonio de Los Cobres we can see the snow peak of the Acay the sky is blue cloudless a perfect day for the 40 km of gravel road that will bring us to the highest pass in south America 4895 meters above sea level, once there we make another selfie.
Ruedi has been my first ever flat mate. For a while we shared a beautiful old town apartment with a roof terrace, together with his sister Kathrin in Zürich’s Niederdorf. Over the years we managed to keep in touch even if sporadically. We’ve even met by chance in a Bar in the town of Oaxaca Mexico.
At some point we both wanted to get involved in journalism and worked together on speculation on two stories. One a portrait of a glass blower, published in a local paper. The other story was on the auction of outdated Swiss military gear. A hilarious annual event where people literally storm a compound, to find the best gear that ranges from full thanks to headlamps. The work remained unpublished.
Ruedi went on to become an ecologist. He specializes in water subjects for the World Wildlife Fund in Switzerland. His main project concerns the reintroduction of the Atlantic salmon into the river Rhine basin. Where a century ago salmons could be found abundantly, today they are completely extinct, due to the many obstacles found on the way to their spawning grounds. When I was looking for a travel companion for Bolivia I dialed Ruedi’s number with little hope that it would be possible for him to join. Seeing that he has a family and a fulltime job. It turns out that Ruedi had plans of his own to come and visit me in Colombia where I’ve been residing on and off for the last ten years.
So by a stroke of great luck he jumped on the idea enthusiastically and we’ll cross the last stretch of northern Argentina and the whole of Bolivia together on the FLYERS. WELCOME RUEDI!!!