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Month January 2014

Valparaiso

The track. You’ll notice I took a couple of wrong turns. Santiago must have put me to sleep
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Before the Panama Canal was opened in 1914 Valparaiso was the major shipping port on the west coast of South America. Then it went bust.

I saw on the Business Insider site recently that Valparaiso is one of the 25 most serious partying towns in the world. Here’s part of what they said
” The views are gorgeous and the homes and bars extremely colorful. Plus, they drink in a very particular way: “A mixed drink here is five to twelve ounces of liquor poured into a glass and served with a bottle of soda. Mix as you like.”

But guess what, Whistler also made the top 25 list. Here’s what they said, exactly
“With the right snow conditions, Whistler is all time during the day, and then at night turns into a fucking hot mess of beautiful people with goggle tans and Volcom V-necks.” 

Other than partying Valparaiso is famous for graffiti. Here’s a tour of Valparaiso’s four main graffiti’d hills, Cerros Bellavista, Alegre, Conception and Cordillera. The hills are steep
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There’s a network of ascendors, some like this
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Some super-steep like this
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A quick tour
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… yup a moose…
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Very colorful. But isn’t graffiti a flag of discontent? Not here – it was completely free of social or political content.  Not exactly Bogota, where the graffiti was extreme.

Then there’s the waterfront
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I’ll save you guys the trouble of importing the last pic to iPhoto and cropping – here you go
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It’s a beautiful coastline
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It’s about half industrial
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Right above, the town mostly looks like this
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And in between
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There’s a big difference between flip-flopping and changing one’s mind, depending on who’s doing it. So despite generalizations I made about Santiago, Valparaiso is nowhere the same safe place – it has an edge, like most big ports. Just not the graffiti.

Santiago

Santiago looks like this
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The 65 story tower (the Gran Torre Santiago) is the tallest in Latin America and they’re proud of it. Here’s a close-up
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The building at its base on the left is called the World Trade Center and the Canadian Embassy is on the 12th floor
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I’m here to get my passport renewed so I’ve been here a couple of times.

Around 6.3M people live in this valley at the foot of the Andes. You hear over and over again about how European Santiago is. But at first blush it’s Latin. You don’t see European-looking people walking around more than, say, in Lima.

What it is though is crazy rich. The last capital I was in was La Paz and it’s hard to believe that the two cities are on the same continent. La Paz is broke, wild and dangerous, Santiago is rich, civilized and safe(ish). Every other Latin city falls somewhere in between these two. The biggest difference isn’t any of these things though: La Paz is almost entirely indigenous and after a couple of weeks I have yet to see a purely indigenous Chilean in this town.

And whereas other giants like Lima or (in particular) Panama City are constructed to some extent from dirty money, Santiago is legitimate. So after walking through the streets where everyone’s shoes are polished and a couple of hours in the Canadian Embassy where they have a giant screen in the waiting room showing some Canadian astronaut singing a Bowie song in an endless loop, you want to go out and mug somebody. Arrggh.

Lot’s of construction going on like Panama City – it’ll be interesting to see which is more sustainable against opposing forces, capitalism or crime
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That river is probably reasonably clean. This is the only latin city that treats 100% of the sewage.

Grocery shopping in Santiago. Boring.
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They have tons of walking-around-money and love to buy cars and bikes. The BMW dealer is the 2nd biggest in the world. The MV dealership is the biggest. The car of choice is Aston Martin and the bike of choice the MV Agusta, and they’re everywhere.

But anyway. I needed a new helmet. My old one has lost its last spoiler and has packed out. I should have dumped it after the hard knock it took in Mexico but haven’t been able to find the model
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Until Santiago
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Have a coffee while we’re there. Try not to notice or laugh at the dude with the matching shirt and glasses eating tiny little pastries. He wouldn’t survive for ten minutes in Guatemala City
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The outdoor MV dealership is casual but impressive
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Bikes are nearly double the US price so be prepared to drop maybe 50K on this crazy Bimota. They have lots of Bimotas
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Or much more on this carbon one
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This bike is from a custom shop in Italy
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Some were limited edition, such as this 129/200 MV
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Chatted to this guy with his MV F3. He was taking his bike to a private track the next day. What a beautiful bike. I love where the exhaust exits, neither under-seat or new school under-bike. Big silver sides, just the right % balance with the red and almost clean of logos, confident in its exoticness. The kid knew it, he was very proud.
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Out back is the owner’s truck he raced in last year’s Dakar
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You get the idea. It was the same at the Ducati dealership where it seems they only stocked Penigales.

Lucinda is leaking from her left front fork, so we headed off to the BMW service shop, which was a mistake because they said they wouldn’t work on a WP fork from a KTM. The service manager said I had a problem for sure because apparently the KTM guys won’t work on a WP fork attached to a BMW. I told him this was insane and he disappeared into an office and got on the phone to the KTM guys. Things can go very slow in Latin America when rules are involved because, and this isn’t at all intuitive, they sometimes take them too seriously when they aren’t ignoring them. He comes out of the office and tells me they have sorted it out, hooray. Off I go to the KTM dealer to buy the parts. As usual KTM are the kings of cool and have a great shop. But for some reason I neglected to get a good shot, but took a pic of the new 1190. Old news I’m sure to North Americans but I’ve been in the sticks for over a year, although I did see one in Medellin
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Back to BMW to get the job done
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Santiago’s bit severe at its core
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And strangely quiet. We parked wherever we felt like it.
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But enough of this town. I really wasn’t interested in it and was forced to spend way too long there. Since Christmas 2012 Lucinda and I have travelled through 14 countries, nearly all of them lawless by comparison to Chile so it’s been a culture shock, and not a welcome one. But interestingly, although it’s much safer, it’s no friendlier. The Chileans so far are unwelcoming, quite like Panamanians in a way. A strange aloofness – they don’t want to know you. Throughout Latin America for the past year it’s been a wonderful blend of people wanting to love you or kill you. But never ignore you.

The telling thing is (and I can say this after a few weeks) is that this is the first place in my travels that there’s been no moto brotherhood to fall back on. You park at a bike dealership or beside other motos on a street and they studiously pretend you’re not there. I rode with a Aussie a month ago who told me this would be the way and I didn’t believe him. This is very strange – I thought the bond was universal. Maybe it’ll be better further south.

More on this another time or when I figure it out.

two days to Santiago

The night of the Dakar we were up late with the ex-pat farm owners, specially since another Aussie has shown up, and looked over maps.

But we’re headed for Santiago because there’s a few jobs to do, and that’s where we’re going to start the next leg of the journey.

No point in posting the return track to Mendosa, so here’s the track over the Andes to Chile
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The Aussie, Trevor, is headed out north too so we head off to Mendosa together. It’s a privilege to ride with him – he’s a pro. He’s been riding long distances for over 30 years. His bike is the excellent Super Tenere
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We have a fast but uneventful ride into Mendosa. As usual I don’t like to hold people up for photos.

So the next day Lucinda (who’s a bit tired and in need of tlc after the last 5000 miles since Lima) and I head off early. We’ll maybe meet Trevor in Santiago. Out of Mendosa its a gradual climb at first past a long narrow lake
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Then it dries out and although this pic doesn’t show it, we keep climbing consistently
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Way up, on an excellent road. Although what we really need at this point is an excellent dirt road, it’s beautiful
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To our right is Aconcagua, 22,800 feet. You’d never guess from the road and the shape of the mountains we ride through we’re at alpine
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I stop because there’s an extraordinary tiny Convolvulus by the road. The flower diameter is no more than an inch
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Good sized clumps
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Sometimes growing with a yellow-flowered plant I haven’t identified yet
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We keep climbing past small creeks
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Then we peak out
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Hard to believe but the border crossing is up here. Even harder to believe is the border traffic. I think I’m seriously missing Central America, Ecuador, Peru and even tough old Bolivia as I gloomily survey the depressingly new cars. To think I was excited when I crossed into the comfort of Argentina – that novelty didn’t last long. But there are personal contradictions here that haven’t been sorted out.
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Looking at the line-up, the good news is I spot three bikes ahead, pretend I’m one of them and skip half of it. Excellent guys from Brazil
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Good views up in the Andes, it’s all gigantic. This series of slabs and scree is maybe 5000 feet in screen here
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The border, due to the traffic, is a bitch. I have to wait for an hour just to get to the building I need for aduana, which takes another hour. Plus the rest of the drill you’ve read about here often enough, it’s three hours before we’re through.

Once through we pass a Chilean ski resort and a lake, off-season
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Down the hill a bit things get a bit weird. Innocently enough to start
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Then we go through a few switch back curves that are more like airport runway construction technology than road works. It’s all very serious stuff
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Then we get a peek over the edge and the road plunges off a cliff in a series of truck sized switchbacks. Impressive engineering, but I wonder again if this is what I want.
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Still under construction but they put us through in groups
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Very cool riding, paved or not

It wasn’t supposed to be a long day, but was. Another couple of hours into Santiago and we were done
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Dakar at San Rafael

We had an invitation from a couple, Mark and Carlie from Australia. They were staying on a farm in San Rafael and the Dakar was passing close by.

The days track
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The Argentinian pampa is a dull ride and I didn’t manage any photos worth posting

We arrived the day before on Mark’s advice to get any early start off to the stage. It was about 40 miles away, the last half being dirt into the desert
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We parked just a couple of hundred yards from the spectator area. Mark and Carlie on the left
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There were four main areas that had good views. We picked one where the riders would have to take a 90 degree corner off a fast straight
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Everyone got set up a different way, but these guys seemed to have it right
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Some had spent the night
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But most looked like this
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The above pictures were taken a few hours before the first rider showed up. The blank spaces between trucks and people filled in.

Security
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Some locals had dug a pit out and had a typical Argentinian slab of beef going for lunch beside us
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Bff’s within minutes. Great steak.
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Here’s how it started. There was a long dirt road heading towards us and we could see the riders coming by the dust cloud in the distance. Then they roared through a gap about 300 yards from were we where at high speed, flat out. It was fantastic to see them come through the gap, and the crowds went wild at the first glimpse
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And scrubbed some speed, but not much, as they approached the corner. The problem was the corner was blind and nearly every rider was surprised by it. Apologies for my not being up to the photo task of this.

So here’s how the overshoot worked. I was able to get off a few shots of this example.

First the rider overshoots and brakes hard as he sees what he’s missed to his right
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He spins the bike around trying not to panic at having missed it, not realizing most other riders will blow it too. They were all heroic here
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And heads back over the scrub to where he thinks the track was
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And back into it
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And gasses it up the narrow, deep sand track
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I changed where I watched from to see them in the sand for a while
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I obviously took many pics but you’ve seen better so I’ll leave it at that.

There were no surprises. The atmosphere was Dakar, the greatest dirt race in the world. The riders, specially the first few, as Mark said, came through ‘angry’. You couldn’t ask for more.

We watched the ATV’s start to come through but didn’t wait for the cars, scheduled for hours later. The main reason being the heat was incredible, way over 100 and we’d been out in it without shelter for 5 or 6 hours.

We head back to town through people waiting for riders headed to the bivouac, and Carlie, who’s on the back of my bike shoots this video to the left (click, enlarge, click HD)

So we all went back, stripped, and floated down an irrigation canal (with a surprising strong current) for about 500 yards, twice
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Saludos
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two days to Mendosa

The previous day we’d been blown off track by storms to the west so today was catch-up day. Day one track
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Day two track
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The first day to San Juan was hard. I have never ridden through a headwind, or any wind, that had me beyond guessing what the strength was.

One of the many non-standard things about Lucinda is that she doesn’t have a windshield. Not having a windshield means when you look ahead you see you instruments then the road and the whole world without obstruction. If I lean forward just a bit I can see my front fender. Also, it feels like I’m riding a motorcycle, not a distance bike. On a regular bike you look through plastic at the ride, but you get protection from most of the wind and rain. I have a windscreen for Lucinda to ship from home in case this didn’t work out, but it’s been worth not having it. But on days like today on Lucinda you get beaten up without it.

The wind was taking off all the soil and sand. It was beyond words. When I stopped to take this photograph keeping the bike on the stand meant leaning against it with full body weight as she shuddered in the headwind.
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Moments later we lost visibility almost entirely and I was worried about what the sand was doing to Lucinda. She had a new pre-filter installed which I was thankful for. Punishment looks like this
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At some point we came to a town. The buildings made a great wind break in various locations although sand still swirled through the streets. This guy on a bike was the only brave soul I saw.P1010270

Four hours of this and it backed off completely. Ahead there were small drifts, so I guess the wind had been here the day before
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We briefly went through some hills heading due west before heading south again. These white blocks double as a guard rail I guess as the road is elevated in places with a nice drop off the shoulder
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At the first intersection of the day there was a police station with a dog looking for company so we stopped. Very hot
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There were some good plants in bloom around, so we went to explore. I’ve seen this shrub several times in Argentina. I’ve looked it up and it’s Caesalpinia gilliesii. Native to here and Uruguay and hardy down to 5F.
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A close-up of the flower
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A tiny thistle
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The dog wants me to check out this small woody plant. Didn’t get a good enough picture to ID it from
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Then he wants a pat for finding it
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Further down the road a perfect gas/lunch stop
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We crossed a river where locals were parked in the shade
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Yellow butterflies on the banks
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I’d heard about the next section of road. About 50 miles of serious deep dips, like riding a steep ocean swell. They were serious enough to get air off anything above 50 mph, so it slowed us down. Here’s what it looks like, benign enough
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But each dip was deep enough to hide Lucinda
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We arrived late due to the sand storm and the paved whoops so crashed early. Up the next day early for the short ride into Mendosa. Virtually every street looks like this. Wide streets, big trees
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In fact the happiest Liriodendrons I’ve ever seen
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They look nice by the palms in the Plaza de Armas
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Saludos
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to La Rioja

At last, onto Ruta 40, at least mostly.

The day’s track
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It’s raining heavily for a few hours daily, mostly late afternoon. We set off and sections of the road have been flooded out
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This is wine country, about which I know nothing. Riders often go on wine tours here but I’m not hugely interested, unfortunately. The vineyards fill the valley for miles
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Further on the road turns to dirt and we head through small villages
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We try to avoid riding through San Jose and get stopped at a mud channel. I walk it to see if it’s rideable but the mud nearly takes my boots off. About 15 feet of mud on each side and a channel. The way to take this would at speed but it would remain a % shot, hence backing off. One downside of being solo is having to scrape together some wisdom at times like this
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So we have to reverse course, loosing 40 minutes. A nice ride though
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For riders who want to avoid this
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An extremely strange building in San Jose
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With interesting nouveau or deco doors
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The next section of road, maybe 50 miles, was frequently washed out. We maybe had 10 or more of these nice small stream crossings
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One or two deeper than others. Always good juvenile fun
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For one section there were snowy peaks maybe 25 miles away
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Across plains
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And onto fast easy ripio
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Into some hills again. Great riding
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To a small village and a fantastic lunch spot in the shade. Heaven really
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Followed by more pretty escarpments
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I don’t post pictures of roadsides shrines (by families to people who’ve died on the road here) but in Argentina they’re very different. Bottles of wine and red flags are the tradition
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Through another river canyon
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And then problems. To the west rain clouds are building fast
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At this point I have a choice. My original route goes to Chilecito. But there’s a big town, La Rioja to the east about 75 miles, which is about the same distance so I head for it.

Outside of town it greens up.
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Through small hills
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Another very different landscape
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To a lake outside of town before the sun dropped behind the mountains
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I rode around town for a long time looking for a place for Lucinda and eventually found an evil hole. Not again, no toilet seat, no hot water, a bed that you kept clothed to sleep in.

It had been a very long day. 100 miles of washout, some ripio, another 200 miles of over 100 degree heat and I was wasted. But the streets were full of people and I wanted to see what was going on. Wandering around, the Plaza de Armas was filling up with people

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By 10 it was packed
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Then a procession of thousands walked through the town and around the Plaza to the cathedral carrying an icon
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Then it was in front of me
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This was the holy night of St. Nicholas, the protector and patron saint of travellers.