Argentina is a fantastic place for a cycle tour. We planned on staying a couple of months, but only managed to drag ourselves away after 10 months and over 10,000km in this wonderful land. The variety of landscape this huge country has to offer is simply astounding. If you’re looking for a challenge, the Puna in the north-west or the Patagonian steppe on Ruta 40 will test you. If you prefer to cycle in more populated areas, the well established camping culture, great food and wine and gregarious locals will all make for an enjoyable trip.
Argentina has borders with Chile and Bolivia in the Andes (as well as with Paraguay, Brazil and Uruguay in the lowlands).
There are over 40 crossings with Chile, though as this involves a crossing of the Cordillera de los Andes, many (including Pircas Negras and Agua Negra in the northern half of the country) are not open year round. Check before you head off as finding a border closed could result in days of backtracking on more remote roads.
Routes into Bolivia are to be found in the provinces of Jujuy and Salta. The crossing from La Quiaca (the northernmost point of the legendary Ruta 40) to Villazon is the most westerly and by far the most frequently used by cyclists.
The Automovil Club Argentino (ACA) produce the best road maps of Argentina. They can be bought in ACA offices in large cities and also at some of the ACA service stations which are dotted round the country. These maps of the country’s road network include nearly all minor unpaved routes and mark accurately the distances between junctions. For the north-west of the country they come in provincial sheets, with separate maps for: Salta & Jujuy, Catamarca, La Rioja, San Juan. For the southern Andean provinces of Mendoza to Tierra del Fuego they come in more useful zonal maps which cover larger areas than the provincial sheets.
Despite these maps generally being extremely good, be aware that occasionally small ‘settlements’ shown on the maps may be abandoned and not places you can stock up on food and water. This is especially true in the north-west. The maps cost A$20-A$30 each in 2010. If you don’t need that much detail because you plan on sticking to larger roads the ACA full country map should be sufficient.
Other brands of maps can easily be found in towns and at service stations throughout the country and while they will not be of ACA quality, the standard of road mapping in Argentina is generally good.
The seasons should play an important part in planning any cycle tour in Argentina. The sheer size of this huge country however means that at any time it is the good season to cycle somewhere in the country.
Patagonia has a well deserved reputation for strong winds and unpredictable weather, but despite this sees a steady stream of cyclists from October to March (spring and summer). These months are the mildest, the driest but also the windiest. The prevailing winds are from the west/north-west so if cycling along the Andes, going from north to south is easier than battling up from the south to the north. Winds build up in strength during the day so an early start is usually advisable.
In autumn and winter the winds are much less strong, but temperatures are lower and snow can make routes impassable. These are the low season months, so many tourist facilities will be closed.
Further north in Mendoza and San Juan, summer (December to February) in the lowlands can be unbearably hot to cycle. However once you head up to higher altitudes the temperatures become more pleasant. Autumn is a good time to cycle for the beautiful colours. Winter sees snow in the high Andes, and severely limits your options for cycling over the mountains to Chile.
In the north-west the weather is normally best in summer for crossing the high passes to Chile (but again is hot in the lowlands), though late summer sees a period of stormy weather with some afternoon electrical storms, rain and snow at higher altitudes. At any time of year, but especially in winter, the weather on the high altitude Puna in La Rioja, Catamarca, Salta and Jujuy can be brutal and any crossing of the Andes can be a serious undertaking. The prevailing winds are from the west/north-west so usually crossing from Argentina to Chile is much more effort than cycling in the opposite direction.
Main, paved roads are generally narrow with no paved shoulder and if you have to share the tarmac with any trucks it can be an unpleasant and dangerous experience. Fortunately there are enough options to mean that you rarely have to take these busy roads. Most of the fun (we think) in the Andes is to be had on the unpaved, ripio, routes. The surfaces on these vary, though generally they’re a bit better than those of their Andean neighbours.
Gradients are rarely steep on roads in the Argentinian Andes.
The once proud and efficient Argentine train system is no more. You’re unlikely to see a train outside of Buenos Aires, though you will come across plenty of train tracks, mostly built by the British at the beginning of the 20th Century. If you don’t fancy cycling out of BA, it is possible to leave the city by train, though always check whether you’ll be allowed to take your bike on board. This can be at the whim of the guard, who may only allow it if you remove the front wheel, or pedals, or whatever else he decides. Beware that trains, especially overnight ones, have a reputation among locals for thieves and pickpockets. Take care of your belongings.
By far the most useful mode of transport if you need to jump on something with your bike are coaches. Because of the large distances involved and the lack of train alternatives Argentine coaches are generally modern, comfortable and run mas o menos on time. If there is room you will be allowed to put your bike in the bodega under the coach with the other luggage, though rules vary on whether you have to pay extra for this privilege, need to remove parts, or need to box up your bike. Note that double-decker buses have smaller bodegas so you’re less likely to be accepted if it’s a popular route. Some companies insist on carrying bikes as encomiendas (cargo) which can mean simply an extra charge but the bike goes on the same bus as you do, or can mean that you travel on one bus and it goes at a different time on another. We wouldn’t recommend taking this second option unless you have no other choice. Like anywhere make sure you keep your wits about you in bus stations.
Hitchiking isn’t particularly common in Argentina, though it happens more often in the north (especially with vehicles from mining companies) than in Patagonia. If you get into trouble in the Andes the large number of 4x4s and fact that locals are friendly and helpful should mean that you will find a lift to the nearest town.
Argentina has a well established camping culture so you won’t find yourself the subject of strange looks if you turn up in town asking for somewhere to put your tent. Municipal campgrounds and private campgrounds are common, but facilities and costs vary. If you turn up in a town that doesn’t have a campsite try heading to the police/council/some other official body and ask them if you can erect your tent somewhere. Often you’ll be pointed to a park or area with benches, tables and barbecues where the locals go for their weekend asado.
Many campsites are noisy at weekends and in school holidays when the locals use them to hang out, eat copious amounts of beef and drink wine and beer till all hours. If after a day in the saddle this doesn’t sound like your idea of fun, check with the proprietor beforehand (and have a quick recce to see if any of your fellow campers have brought a guitar along) to see if this is going to happen, and if you’ve forgotten your earplugs stay away. There are only so many times you can listen to a heavily accented ‘Hey Jude’ at 3 a.m. before it sends you insane.
Wild camping is easy enough as most areas of the Argentine Andes are sparsely populated. Take the usual precautions of hiding from the road, staying clear of rivers which might surge when it’s raining, avoiding ridges if there’s lightning around and you should be fine. In Patagonia and the Puna the challenge can be to find somewhere out of the wind – which will inevitably provide you with a rich source of tales that begin ‘Did I tell you about the time I camped in/behind a ….?’.
Note that on the Puna the atmosphere is so dry that tent fabric shrinks and it can become very difficult or impossible to get your tent poles in. Zips become fragile and regularly break in the dry atmosphere, so treat them carefully. Also be aware of how much damage UV can do to your tent. Tent fabrics degrade in UV, and it is particularly strong in the high altitude areas of the Puna.
Food & Drink
The food is a highlight of any cycling trip to Argentina. The steak is all it’s cracked up to be, the pizza is good, and you’ll soon learn to make sure the first thing you do when you arrive in town is to raid the panaderia for facturas (pastries), best bought by the docena (dozen). Those with a sweet tooth should also try dulce de leche and plenty of alfajores. The locally grown fresh veg is excellent, as is the ice-cream – Grido Helados will soon become a close friend. Supermarkets in larger towns are well stocked for camp-stove friendly food.
On the drinks side, the local wine is good quality and good value; there are some tasty cervezas artesanales; and sharing a mate is an excellent way to socialise with the locals. When buying ‘litre’ (97cl) bottles of beer from shops note you have to pay a deposit for the bottle (envase). Keep the ticket you’re given and you’ll get your money back when you return the bottle.
When shopping for food or anything else, beware that the siesta is taken across the board in some small towns and villages and during this time (which can last up to 5 hours) you’ll be hard pressed to find anything at all open. In cities there are always some places which stay open throughout the day, so the siesta is less of a problem.
Because cycling is popular in Argentina, decent bike shops can be found in many of the major cities to the east of the Andes. Many towns also have bike shops for basic needs, but don’t expect to find good quality gear for touring. 26” tyres are the most frequently stocked size. Imported gear is expensive. Where we saw them, we’ve tried to remember to indicate in the route descriptions the towns we passed through which had bike shops.