What a week it’s been! New plans made at the start of the week are already broken, we have had some more fun with Di Funta Correa, we have had a successful return to riding on the Ripio in some awesome scenery (desert this time), and are now in Cordoba with one dead bike. All in all, our trip has taken us in new and unintended directions, but more of that later. When we were in Mendoza we took some time to plan out the next stage of the trip. We are so taken by the beauty of Argentina that we decided to change everything and spend longer here. So our plans were revised accordingly to head North towards the mountain city of Salta, where we will spend next weekend before riding east to Iguacu Falls at the border with Brazil. From there, we planned to head west again to visit Cordoba, completing a northern circuit of Argentina after which we would head back into Chile to pick up our original route north towards Bolivia. Well that was the plan! We left Mendoza on Monday 8th March riding north towards San Juan on fairly easy roads through a vast desert flood plain at the foot of the mountains and on into mile after mile of vineyards that surround San Juan, where we got slightly lost trying to avoid the city. By early afternoon we were back on he right road and were approaching the little town of Vallecito, believed to be the place where Deolinda Correa died, giving rise to the cult of Di Funta Correa and its numerous roadside shrines at which travellers make offerings of water & food for a safe passage (see earlier entries on this in January & February). We hadn’t intended on riding this way and decided not to stop, checking on the map to see that there was a decent sized town called up ahead at Marayes where we could get fuel. The area is all scrub desert and it was baking hot. We saw numerous little twisters – columns of dust spinning crazily across the barren reddy coloured landscape – as we rode along. This was a hostile place and we reflected on the story of Di Funta Correa and how she died with her baby suckling at her breast, to be found by a passing mule train and to develop into national folklore. We both admitted later that we felt bad as we rode past and should have stopped at the shrine and fully deserved what came next! Some 50 miles further on, my fuel light came on telling me I was on reserve & to find fuel within around 40 miles before the tank ran out. A few miles later, Mags fuel light was also on. We reached the turn off for Marayes, where an information sign told us we would find fuel, food & accommodation. Imagine our horror when we found a one-horse town (the horse had fled some time ago) with no sign of a petrol station. We stopped at the local bar – it resembled one of those ‘middle of nowhere’ bars you find in spaghetti westerns – a long low brick building with no windows. You know the sort, where Clint Eastwood rides up & the bad guys are inside giving the fat greasy barman a hard time, drinking whisky & cussing & spitting and you know it will end badly. Well luckily there were no bad guys around but the lady inside smilingly told us that, no, there was no fuel to be had here. The petrol pumps had closed along time ago (around about the same time the one horse had left by the look of it). Nearest fuel? Well, that would be back at Vallecito at Di Funta Correa’s Shrine 50 miles back down the road. We bought some cold water & sat on the little veranda outside contemplating what to do next. We could not go on as the road ahead took us further into the desert and the next fuel was over 70 miles away. It would be better to go back to the main highway, back to Vallecito – that way, if we ran out (which seemed likely, having used up 8 miles of our reserve already) we would be more likely to meet someone on the road to cadge some petrol or a lift. We couldn’t transfer fuel into one bike as the tanks are under the seat and almost impossible to siphon or drain fuel from. Serves us right for not stopping at the shrine!
So we mounted up & rode out of town, back the way we’d come. We rode at 50mph for optimum fuel economy, even switching the engine off to glide 2 miles down a big hill. It was a nerve-wracking experience. It was round 4pm; that quiet time of the day when afternoon spills into evening. Overhead, huge vultures circled the road looking for carrion. We had food and water for when we ran out and gingerly monitored every mile back along the cactus lined road towards the fuel pumps. At 35 miles into our reserves we found a Police checkpoint where we killed the engines & enquired for fuel. Nada – nothing! We informed the policeman of our plight and rode on watching 40 miles, then 45 miles come up on the trip meter. From this point on our nerves where on end as we waited for the first chug of an engine splutter to indicate the end was nigh! There were several false alarms, such as when we rode over some rippled road surface that made the bike falter a little. Eventually 50 miles was logged and a faint glimmer of hope sparkled – if we could only get a little further, we may be able to walk for fuel. At 55 miles, I spotted a radio mast that signalled our approach to the little town and finally with 57 miles on reserve, we pulled onto the lovely forecourt of the most welcome petrol station on Earth! We were both staggered at the fuel economy of our bikes. We refuelled and promptly made our way to the Shrine of Di Funta to pay our regards!
The shrine itself was an incredible and very moving experience. Whilst it outwardly appears to be what some would call Catholic idolatry, the whole phenomenon of Di Funta Correa is steeped in the culture of mass belief and is quite a separate thing from any church. There was a small shrine on top of a hill with covered steps leading up to it. The roof supports at the each side of the path were covered with car number plates and the walls in the little chapel at the shrine were covered in engraved plaques giving thanks to Di Funta for safe journeys from all over the world. Down at the bottom of the hill were more chapels – one dedicated to truckers, another dedicated to racehorses! There was a little museum with an old car and an even older motorcycle inside. The hillside was littered with thousands of little homemade houses – offering safety & shelter to the Di Funta. We watched one elderly lady progress in prayer up to the shrine, making her way on her knees, reciting her rosary at each step of the path. Although neither of us are particularly religious, when we got to the shrine we offered our thanks to Di Funta for getting us safely out of the desert and asked for a safe onward journey for the rest of our trip. It was a very moving experience. Leaving the shrine, we rode back over our 50 miles and on into the desert in the early evening, watching the brilliant blue sky turn to violet as the sun sank behind the mountains. We stopped at another little one-horse town called Astica (the horse was still in residence this time!) arriving just as it got dark. Here we found a small room in a Hospedaje for $10 pesos for the night (₤2!) our cheapest accommodation of the trip to date. We washed off the sticky sweat from our desert ride in freezing cold showers and afterwards, the lady cooked us some Pizzas which we woofed down with a well deserved ice-cold beer! Our cheap accommodation with its welcome clean linen was spoiled somewhat by the fact that it turned out to be like sleeping on Old MacDonald’s Farm! Just as we were about to drift of, the local dogs started barking, first in ones and twos & then the whole pack joined in. Just when you thought that it was quietening down, another dog would bark and get the whole lot going. Added to this there were horses neighing (well OK, the one horse was giving his all), donkeys braying and the dawn was greeted by that lovely cock-a-doodle-doo of the roosters. They must have had dodgy alarm clocks, as it was pitch black outside at 4:30am when they all started their racket!
We rode on 25 miles to Valle Fertil de Saint Augustin, gateway to Ischigualasto National Park, where the Valle de la Luna (valley of the moon) exists. We stopped to find out more information on the park, intending to visit it on passing on our way north and the tourist information people told us that the road ahead & around the park was in fact our old friend the Ripio once again. Our mishaps of yesterday had fortunately prevented us from inadvertently wandering into this section late in our travels yesterday (our maps all showed good paved roads up ahead – so thanks again to Di Funta!). The park itself contained a lot more to see & do than we’d anticipated so we abandoned our progress for today and decided to give the park and those lovely Ripio roads a full day tomorrow on unladen bikes. Besides, there were some interesting walks around Valle Fertil and we had a very relaxing afternoon wandering around examining some ancient Indian rock carvings near town.
Next day we set off for a tassle with the Ripio (our first since Mags accident at Rio Mayo) and a trip around the park. We approached the challenge with more caution, taking our time and to be honest the roads where much better than the Ruta 40 where Mags had crashed. Still they were challenging enough with some sections of sand and mud to tackle. We reached the park around midday and were rewarded with one of the most fantastic motorcycling, touring experiences to date! The 40 km circuit around the park winds through some fabulous lunar like rock formations which give the area it’s name. It was all off road taking us through stunning painted deserts, over tumbling rocky pathways and on into red Martian tracks that led us along red sandstone cliffs reminiscent of some monster sized crazy Hindu temple. The rock & stone formations were awesome with names like El Hongo (the mushroom – a dumptruck sized rock balanced on an impossibly thin sandstone column) and El Submarine (looked like the Russian Sub from the Hunt for Red October). There were other unnamed features resembling giant birds and huge heads and everywhere you set your eye there was a view to die for. The area dates back to the Triassic period and is one of the richest fossil / dinosaur bone fields in the world. It is impossible to describe the park – just look at the photos elsewhere on this Website. We rode back having successfully turned over around 120 miles on the Ripio today, elated at our grand day out in the park. The mountains had been busy today too, gathering cloud and as we arrived back at the little Cabana we were staying in, it began to rain – the first serious rain we’ve encountered on the whole trip.
Next morning, 11th March, we awoke to a grey dawn with a fine soaking mizzle clogging the air. We now had to ride back over some 40-odd miles of Ripio in the wet – another first – another challenge. When we set out it was actually better than yesterday in the dry! The rain overnight had dampened down all the loose dirt on the road making it just that little bit firmer and easier to ride on. After about 12 miles, KP (My bike, called after the first 2 letters of the number plate) began to splutter having just passed through a big puddle on a short paved stretch over a riverbed. The engine then died and refused to re-start. Mags caught up on KG all smiles at the easier than expected going to meet our latest challenge for this week! Several connectors underneath the bike looked to be soaking wet s we disassembled the belly pan & crash bars to take the switches apart and try & dry them. No change – the bike still refused to start. Next up we examined fuses and other connectors but still with no result. Finally, I took KG and rode back into town to arrange for a pick up truck to recover us to somewhere drier, where we could work better on the bike out of the rain. I met a guy called Fernando who ran a local Gomeria (tire repair place) and he quickly arranged for another Gomeria, Juan, to come & get KP with his battered old pick up truck. 2 young fellows climbed on the back & we went out to recover the bike. In the truck Juan told us that today there had been some sort of explosion on a train in Madrid with a lot of people killed. Initially we thought it was gas or some dangerous materials that had exploded, but we later learned the horrible truth, that it was in fact the work of terrorists. All of a sudden our immediate problems were trivialised by the news of this terrible event. The bike was duly recovered and we returned to town to begin the painful task of trying to find the fault. We had a spark at the plug, but it seemed that no fuel was getting through leading to a suspect injector or fuel pump. The locals in Valle Fertil were just amazing & word soon travelled of our plight (as it had at Rio Mayo). An acknowledged local mechanic called Pablo arrived and we set to switching various components from KP with KG to eliminate various possibilities. The injectors were swapped and worked fine on the other bike, so it was looking like a defective fuel pump. At this point more help arrived – Adriana Garcia, the lovely local schoolteacher arrived. She’d heard of our problem and arrived to offer her services as a translator. With Adriana’s help, we called BMW in Mendoza, to see if they could shed some light on the problem, but they needed the bike there to diagnose the fault. Then a guy called Jorge arrived with news that he was going to Cordoba in the morning with his parents in a pick-up truck and could take the bike to the BMW dealer there. It was 8pm and we’d spent all day working at the bike, at the end of which we now knew that the fault lay in the fuel delivery system. There was no internet connection in Valle Fertil to search for further help and the wet connectors were looking like a red herring so we decided to head to Cordoba for professional help and arranged a 6am start with Jorge in the morning. Throughout today we were once again impressed with the help that was forthcoming and the interest people took in our situation. When we finished I tried to pay but no one would accept any money. Juan wanted only 20 pesos for recovering the bike (₤4) and Ferndando, who organised it all and whose shop we worked in would not take any payment for his services. In the end we insisted on a small amount to buy everyone a round of beers and it was reluctantly accepted.
The journey to Cordoba was another fantastic experience. We set off in the dark early morning in pouring rain on a different Ripio road, with Mags in the cab with Jorge & his elderly parents and me following on KG. That ride broke several of the taboos of travelling on bikes – riding in the dark, in the rain on an unknown road in bad condition after a sleepless night. We stopped a few miles out of town for Jorge’s parents to leave an offering of food & water at a small roadside shrine for a safe journey. After around 40 miles of dirt road we were back on paved stuff for 300 miles to Cordoba. We were fed en-route by Jorge’s Mum on homemade Milanese (steak in breadcrumbs) sandwiches and we had several Maté stops along the way – where we dosed up on this caffeine rich herbal tea. It certainly took care of any potentially sleepiness problems! We stopped to drop off Jorge’s folks with some friends at La Falda, a small town 40 miles before Cordoba. We were invited into their house for a lunchtime feast of the tastiest empanadas (mince meat pasties) yet – homemade of course! When I said how good they were, I was rewarded with more food – a scrumptious slice of vegetable pate rolled in meat – totally mouth-wateringly delicious food that would not have looked out of place in any fine restaurant. On finishing this, another dish appeared this time a cold potato salad beautifully presented and garnished on a tray of shredded lettuce. It would have fed all 7 of us and I had to turn it down, otherwise I would never have gotten back on the bike! We had a tour of their beautiful house and then took some photos (Jorge’s mum was dying to try on a crash helmet!) before we left for the final leg of our day’s journey. We reached BIG motorcycles, the BMW dealer in Cordoba around 3pm and unloaded the bike & our stuff from the pickup truck. We said our farewells to Jorge and waited patiently for the BMW mechanic, Ricardo, to turn up. By the end of the day, the bike had been tested on the BMW ModiTec system – a computerised fault tree analysis tool that first of all got it wrong by saying that the engine management unit was defect (it wasn’t – we’d swapped these yesterday & both worked fine). Eventually the fault was traced to the fuel pump and we swapped this for the one on KG and hey-presto problem located! Unfortunately the fuel pump assembly (it resembles & is about the size of a toilet flushing mechanism – so carrying a spare is out of the question) is a single point failure and cannot be repaired. We are now waiting for a new unit (which will hopefully be covered under warranty) to arrive by Tuesday and so are looking forward to spending a restful weekend off the bikes in Cordoba – the first big South American Metropolis that we will have visited.
This week and all that happened in it highlights the joys of this adventure travelling lark, where plans run off the rails and new challenges continually present themselves. We have been presented with a number of unexpected encounters demanding quick thinking solutions and the experience is just fantastic. Plans for now? – We hope to get KP repaired & then head in the latter part of next week to Iguazú and finally Salta, our last stop in Argentina – or is it?