To San Antonio de Los Cobres: up, up, up and over Abra del Acay.

Cafayate-Los Molinos-Cachi-La Poma-Abra del Acay-San Antonio de los Cobres

I’ve now joined forces with Mike the Yorkshireman and together, we’re headed to the high plateaux of Bolivia with our respective Surlys (Ogre and Pugs). I’ll be sure to post an account of the 1200km desert slog from Mendoza to Cafayate at some point… But in the meantime, I’m fast-fowarding to the north western corner of Argentina, beyond the wine connoisseur’s enclave of Cafayate, to where our journey is finally taking on a more dusty flavour.

It’s from here that paved Ruta 40 peters out and crumbles into ripio, before beginning the arduous task of wending its way up, up and over Abray Del Acay – Argentina’s loftiest pass, perched at a hair under 5,000m – to the windswept settlement of San Antonia de los Cobres, cupped high in the Puna Mountains.

Even without the monotony of the cycling that proceeds it, this is a startlingly beautiful ride, following a road that courses first through a mass of elemental rockscapes, before delving deep into the saturated hues of the Calchaquis Valley. Those headed north face both a stout prevailing wind (unbelievably, winter in the Puna is even more blustery than Patagonia), as well as a hefty hike in altitude over a relatively short distance. But it’s not all hard work. A string of timeworn adobe villages, centred around churches bleached so white they make you squint in the midday sun, offer perfect pit stops and excuses to loiter in leafy plazas.

As ever, thanks to the Pikes on Bikes for such meticulous route notes; their site, Andes by Bike, is an excellent font of information for those in search of the Andean road less travelled.

If you would like to keep up with where I am between blog entries, I try and keep my While Out Riding Facebook page regularly updated – along with posting extra photos and gear ponderings. You can find it here. Occasionally, I pop some pictures up on Instagram too. 

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Argentinian empanadas are lilliputian compared to their Chilean counterparts. But catch them when they’re piping hot, straight out of the horno, and there’s little to beat them. Una docena – a dozen – sets you back $4. Perfect rocket fuel before taking to the road.

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Despite my aversion to cars, my fascination for old Argentinian bangers continues. Compared to neighbouring Chile and its flashy new models, these old classics make up a large proportion of vehicles in Argentina, and reflect the different spirit between the two countries.

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Leaving the fruity Torrontés of Cafayate behind. Fresh snow on the mountains… winter is chasing us.

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Finally! After hundreds of kilometres of monosyllabic paving, Ruta 40 finally splutters into more opinionated ripio. At around 5,000km in length, the road spans the entire country.

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Much better, thanks.

Thus begins a medley of geological, shadow-catching protrusions.

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Dusty villages and their whitewash churches. Sunglasses required.

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Bean-like, and occasional bendy Saguaro cacti sprout to either side. In my mind, each has its own personal character and flair.

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Am I back in New Mexico?

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Some cacti are more social than others.

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Headwind = head down.

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La Poma provides an abundance of opportunities for me to add to the banger montage.

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Fords seem to be the manufacturer of choice in this sleepy little village.

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As do ’80s Peugeots. Along with pre-millennium classics like Renault Fuegos, they hark back to the cars of my childhood. It’s strangely comforting.

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We camp on the edge of a football field. But by 7am, a fierce sand storm and tent-crushing gale drives us out of our flimsy abodes and into the sanctuary of a half built building for breakfast.

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If you like doorways, the old quarter of La Poma is the place for you.

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One for the Antiques Roadshow.

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Highnoon showdown. Ogre v Pugsley.

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A landscape that could swallow you whole.

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Splitting the climb into two, for the sake of acclimatisation, affords us an easy day and some prime picnic real estate.

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A series of hopscotch river crossings mark the beginning of the real gain in altitude.

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That night, we sleep in the storeroom of an empty dwelling. It comes complete with pendulums of meat and tempting morsels of dried skin.

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Waiting for the sun to creep down the hillside, and infuse warmth into cold bones.

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Breaking ice. More river crossings mark a toe-numbing start to the day.

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Up, up and up, through a landscape streaked with minerals. Back into the high country.

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Still smiling. Although the road surface is good and the grade reasonable, a crescendoing, post-lunch headwind forces upon us the ignominy of pushing our bikes, heads bowed humbly into the elements.

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Wind doesn’t photograph too well. But it was there, honest, jostling our bikes from one side of the the to the other.

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Finally, only one last switchback remains…

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Cresting Abray del Acay, we’re greeted by a near tangible wall of wind, so we huddle behind rocks for just a few moments. Not the triumphant, lingering summiting we’d envisaged, perhaps.

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Our descent into driving headwind means our day’s work is yet to be over. After losing over a thousand metres, the road levels out, reducing us to a grovelling crawl once more. It’s dusk before we eventually limp into San Antonio de los Cobres, faces caked in dust and grit in our eyes… But still smiling.

14 thoughts on “To San Antonio de Los Cobres: up, up, up and over Abra del Acay.

  1. Tom

    Go the Puna! :-) Fine line between squandering the quiet of the morning to warm the bones and being able to move to make the most of it… Second the motion to take all possible side-roads across Paso Sico. Enjoy the miners’ camp on the way through – was a great refuge from a snow storm for us coming the other way :-) (had internet too). Hope you’ve got a non-standard route through the Lagunas of SW Bolivia planned to take advantage of those fat tyres? I would, if I was going through again… Shame you didn’t get to do the Antofagosta route into the area.

    T

    Reply
    1. Cass Gilbert Post author

      The original intention was to link a dirt road beyond Villa Union, all the way up to Sico via Fiambala and Antofagasta. But it turns out that winter in the Puna is rather intense – aside from snow and extremely cold temperatures, it makes Patagonian blusteriness seem mild… which is saying something! One to go back for…

      Abra del Acay was an awesome consolation prize though (-:

      Reply
  2. jeff

    Hi Cass
    great post as always ,I was wondering what the Yorkshire mans gearing was,
    is it a Rohloff . Those empanadas look like mini Cornish pasties , be well !.

    Rgds Jeff NY -Lon

    Reply
    1. Cass Gilbert Post author

      Hey Jeff, yep, it’s a Rohloff. It’s currently 16T x 42T. But a 38T will be winging its way to Bolivia for a more Andes/Altitude friendly gear range.
      All the best!

      Reply

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