May 2012


Route map

Today’s ride was planned kinda last minute. We’d thought about doing a ride out of Blanco that mimicked yesterday’s Real Ale ride but it wasn’t in the cards today. So Jim and I ended up going for an old familar favorite out of Liberty Hill. The route picture at the right shows today’s 36 mile loop. Click here for the details.

This is always a scenic ride and traffic is usually pretty limited on all the roads. I like doing it counter clockwise because it’s more scenic on the south side of the loop as you finish up. You’ve got to cross hwy 29 a couple times – once in Liberty Hill and then again later in Bertram – and that traffic was pretty high today, but thankfully we didn’t actually have to ride along hwy 29.

Central Texas is still surprisingly green and the temps are surprisingly moderate compared to what we’ve come to expect for late May. Usually by now it’s getting just plain hot. But with some cloud cover and a light breeze, it was down right pleasant out there this morning.

Despite low traffic on the roads, a ride out this way doesn’t seem to be complete without a few knucklehead drivers to give you grief. Today was no exception. Early in the ride a cretin in a black pickup floored it and blew by us at full throttle. He was easily going 80+ by the time he blew by us. Why? who knows. We were single file on a rolling country road. The road is probably unsafe at 60 mph. A complete pinhead.

Later in the ride, a black SUV gave a quick swerve toward us on a straight wide section as we headed back to Liberty Hill. More friendly hill country cedar choppers thinking it’s fun to put the fear of God in us I guess. Where does this kind of thing come from? I can’t explain it. Yeah sure, there’s probably a few bad apple cyclists that at some point have been hogging the road out there and made them slow down a second or two but it’s still uncalled for. It’s unfortunate some cyclists feel entitled to take the whole road at times but there’s got to be something more to it than that.

Anyway, it was otherwise a good ride. I had to stop and take a picture of a favorite windmill scene I’ve ridden by many times over the years but have just never taken a photo. Today the cows, colors and windmill made for a good shot and I snapped this one. I took it with the iphone camera and it still came out pretty good I think.

A favorite windmill spot that just happened to have cows in the foreground for a change.

Our hotel in Purmamarca
The colorful hills around Purmamarca
One of a thousand sleepy dogs in Argentina
Group dinner in Purmamarca
Me on the salt flats

At the end of the 2nd day, we arrived in Purmamarca. Our hotel was a great little place called the Hostal Posta de Purmamarca. Click thru for their web site. Nice place and a beautiful setting. The colors of the hillsides in all directions were impressive, especially in the late day sunshine. One of my photos here is a shot of the hotel from its parking lot.

Like Tilcara, a lot of the little town was gravel streets, so pretty much everything was a little dusty. There was a great little market around the town square in Purmamarca. Our guide on the tour said they didn’t really negotiate on prices but things were not terribly expensive and as it would turn out, relatively economical compared to other towns further south. Lots of interesting bags, hats, blankets, rugs, sweaters, metalwork and jewelry. Picked up a bag for Kem here. One of the other guys on the tour, Grant, found a great sweater here. I wish I had looked for one. We didn’t need one in Purmamarca, but it’d turn out later that I’d really want a sweater.

A hill right in the middle of town had a trail up to it and it made a great spot to get a birds eye view of the town and take some pictures. Herb and I hiked up and took some photos.

The next morning, our 3rd day of the tour was a pretty jam packed one. It was intended to be a ‘rest day’ where you explore Purmamarca but it was effectively only the 2nd day or the tour and the 1st day wasn’t all that taxing a ride. More than a couple of us were up for a ride that morning. Plus, the weather that morning was outstanding. Little or no wind, bright blue sky, cool temps.

The ride choice that day though was non-trivial. Especially considering it wasn’t really a ‘supported’ ride day. Route 52, our road for the day, goes through Purmamarca toward Chile and over the Andes. It quickly heads up at a steady 7% grade or more to a mountain pass that peaks at 4,170 meters. That’s about 13,600 ft. My Garmin data for the day indicated our overnight stay in Purmamarca was roughly at around 7,400 ft. Given all the hills and mountains around us it was hard to imagine we were already at altitude. So to get to the summit is a considerable climb from Purmamarca of about 6,000 ft.

Our bikes for the trip were outfitted with triple cranks and some really low gears. The extended 7% grade wasn’t going to be that bad in low gear. My main concern with doing the ride was running out of water and what the effects of altitude would be. We weren’t backed up by a van that day and there’s literally nowhere out there in that part of the world to stop and get water. It’s basically a desert and few people live there. I would have loved to give a shot at going all the way to the summit that day but it would probably have taken 5+ hours at the pace I was going and certainly more water than I had. I started out with 3 water bottles and went as far as the water allowed.

Aside from the limited water, our group was on a timetable that day. We were supposed to shuttle up to the salt flats starting at 1pm, beyond the summit on route 52. If I wanted to join that excursion I kinda wanted to get back in time to shower, grab a bite and be ready by 1.

The ride that morning was great mostly because of the stunning views and fine weather. Thankfully the road was good as well. There were a few places where it had crumbled or been washed out but otherwise much better than I imagined it would be.

These kind of climbs are not bad if you just find a gear you like that allows you to spin and then keep a pace that has you just this side of breathless. No doubt at that altitude it’s a little easier said than done to keep from being breathless but my pace was quite slow. You can look at the Garmin data again (that link has 2 days of data, so look at 2nd day) to see that my pace hovered somewhere around only 5 mph. I rode up somewhere above 10,600 ft and then the Garmin seemed to quit registering for some reason. Maybe it only quit telling me what the grade was, I don’t know. In any case, as I headed to 11,000 ft I was down to my 3rd water bottle and I wanted to be ready by 1pm so I turned around and flew back down to Purmamarca.

It may have taken 2.5 hours to climb up but to get back down it took very little time. Trust me, you want to bring a jacket or more to wear going back down. It gets cold. You’re no longer working hard and you’re going fast and you’re at altitude. I had good weather even but later in the day the clouds rolled in and I would have been riding through fog on the way back down. Assume the weather’s going to be bad.

The photo here of the road behind me was taken shortly before I made my U turn back toward Purmamarca. The view back down the mountain gives you some perspective of the winding hair pin turns you take as you ride up. Going back down the turns are a bit treacherous because many of them are strewn with gravel. You have to go pretty slow on the descent. I never got over 30 mph going back down.

It’s taking me forever to get my notes written up on the tour. Can’t believe I’m only on the 2nd day. I want to get notes down before I forget what the details of the trip were like….

Looking back on the road/mountain I've just climbed.ju

Chas and cactus at the ruins in Tilcara
Herb north of Tilcara

Day 2 of our tour was the first we’d actually get some riding in. All the gear we’d brought – pedals and seats – were fitted and we made adjustments. I’d sent my bicycle geometry in advance and aside from fitting the pedals and seat, I didn’t have to adjust anything. Later it would be clear the headset had some issues and they would eventually replace it but it wasn’t a major problem. Just maybe a little unnerving to hear that thing rattle every once in awhile when the going got bumpy.

Our first day of riding was a pretty easy one from a level of effort perspective. Ultimately our landing point for the day would be Purmamarca and but because that wasn’t very far away and it’d be interesting to say we’d made it to the Tropic of Capricorn we first rode north till we got to the sign that marked the Tropic of Capricorn and then turned around and headed back south.

There aren’t that many paved main roads up in that part of the world. The road we traveled was a pretty major road. There wasn’t a ton of traffic but there was enough traffic to make you a little nervous. It became clear early on that Argentine drivers don’t give cyclists all that much room. Certainly it was less room than I typically get around Austin except in rare instances. That a significant chunk of the traffic was gigantic double decker buses crusing along at high speed made such encounters pretty unnerving. More than a few times I pulled it off the road and into the gravel shoulder when I heard or saw one of these buses coming. The gravel shoulder isn’t ridable for a road bike so this amounted to coming to a full stop when they went by.

There were fully loaded cyclists out on the same road that day. They were riding in a pack and generally on mountain bikes with panniers so not hard to catch and pass. I stopped and snagged a picture of them along with Herb, one of the guys on our ride. They were in it for the long haul. My Spanish is non-existent and their English was not so good so I had a hard time recognizing where they said they were going.

The early part of the ride went north and winds were light. Neither lasted all that long. We circled back once we hit the Tropic of Capricorn and headed south to Purmamarca. The winds picked up and what was otherwise a slight downhill into Purmamarca turned into real work against the winds.

Chas at Tropic of Capricorn

On the way to Tilcara
Church in Tilcara
Hotel Viento Norte
Hotel room view
Because I liked the shadows

Day 1 of the tour – a Monday – was mainly about shuttling up to Tilcara and meeting up with the folks we’d all spend the next week or so with. Tilcara is way up in the far northwest of Argentina and by the time you get there you’ve gotten into the mountains. At 2500 meters, our stop for the night was around 8000 feet above sea level. I didn’t notice a problem with the altitude though apparently it’s the sort of thing that can creep up on you.

We left Salta a little after 2pm and it was easily a 3+ hour van ride up to Tilcara. The terrain in Tilcara is much different than down in the valley in Salta. Mountainous, dry and populated with cactus. Tilcara is a dusty little town – like many of the small towns in this area. Dusty in the sense that most of the roads in the town are dirt and gravel and there was a bit of a breeze by the time we got into town. Seemed a little like something right out of a spaghetti western. Rooster’s crowing. Stray dogs everywhere.

We arrived at Hotel Viento Norte with just enough late day sunshine to catch some good photo opportunities of the hillsides surrounding Tilcara and a few in town. A couple of us wandered further into the town and found the main square. (A few blocks.) Across from the square was an old church. We snagged a few photos and then needed to make our way back for the first group meeting. Time to meet and greet and have some snacks, wine & cheese before dinner. Most of us of course had already had some time on the 3 hour ride up to get acquainted, so intros were pretty brief.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, everyone on the tour had done more than one tour like this before. The fewest I think was 3 tours like this. The oldest guy was 76 years old! followed closely by another that was 75 and then the rest of us are somewhere maybe near or north of 50.

Dinner the first night was right there at Viento Norte. Really enjoyed it! It started out with a vegetable soup that was delicious. Not sure how it was prepared exactly but it was less broth than vegetable soups often are and more pureed vegetables. Enjoying the soup might have been helped by the fact it cools off pretty quickly in the evening at that altitude. There was also a green salad with tomatoes, local corn (which has a very big kernel and is lighter in color and certainly a lot less sweet that we would typically see) some cheese (not sure what kind) served over a bed of quinoa. Quinoa is big up there.

That was followed by tamales and humitas. The tamales had pork in them along with their corn filling. The humitas we were told included cheese though I’m not sure what kind. Both really tasty. Wine along with dinner was a Malbec from Elementos (Bodega Esteco and one we’d at least bike by later in the tour). Also very good. For dessert, we had something I’d never had before: a green squash that was sweet but not too sweet – how it was sweetened I don’t know – topped with some nuts. I don’t know the name of this one but I thought it too was very good. I could only eat so much of it though. Very sweet.

We were up bright and early the next morning for breakfast and then bike fitting/setup. I brought pedals and seat as had most people. At least most people brought pedals. Not everyone brought a seat. I can’t imagine switching to a different seat for days worth of riding.