We left San Martin and its grey skies on Sunday morning, on a leap year 29th February, to ride north towards Mendoza. From Mario, we learned that next weekend there is a huge Wine festival – the ‘Vendimia’, celebrating the annual grape harvest and sounding like a wine flavoured Oktoberfest! Within 25 miles at San Junin, the cloud broke up and we were once more in sunshine. The road wound on into the afternoon and we stopped to look at a Condor roost. It sat along a huge basalt cliff that towered over the road and an observation gallery had been sited at its base with some useful information panels in Spanish & English giving information on the birds and the geology of the area. There weren’t any Condors at home when we called but we did get to see their poo – the cliff-face was covered in it and the white staining is a giveaway to the position of their resting places (they don’t build nests – just roosting in the rocks where they lay their eggs). There then followed an amazing ride to Zapala and on along the mountains to a place called Chos Malal. The landscape was a real Rolf Harris’ palette of coloured rocks in rusty reds, mustard yellows and verdigris copper greens smeared and layered all over the place on a gigantic scale. The cobalt blue skies completed the awesome colour spectrum for this delightful ride. Chos Malal sounds like it could be French for ‘bad choice’ and it was! On our arrival we stopped at the routine police checkpoint outside town, where we completed some questionnaires for the local tourist board. Here we saw a good day turn bad as we learned that the good roads shown on our map up ahead were in fact 80km of horrendous Ripio (gravel roads). We had just ridden 130 miles up a blind draw and with Mags arm still a little tender, we simply couldn’t risk continuing over the bad roads, which we were told were now worsened by recent heavy rain. We were gutted but on confirming the poor condition with other locals, including a motorcyclist on an XL 600 Honda we decided to turn back and take a longer route around this section that would take an extra day out onto the flat Pampas. Still, the day was salvaged by a little Fiesta in the town plaza with local bands playing on a stage and whole families out for the evening, eating ice cream, enjoying the music whilst in amongst it all a melee of small children and dogs ran riot everywhere. The kids all go back to school tomorrow and it was lovely to watch them all out playing carefree in the park, celebrating their last night of freedom before the school term begins again.
On Monday morning we turned back, not particularly looking forward to the repeat run back over yesterday’s roads. However the gods of travel were determined that one way or another we would have an eventful day. If we had denied the Ripio the chance of another bite at us, it was now the turn of the Patagonian wind to have a go. The bright colours of yesterdays landscapes were muted by leaden grey skies and as we rode out we were buffeted by a continually rising side wind rushing down off the mountains. The next few hours had us sailing rather than riding the bikes as we tacked along the road and into the storm. After a while we stopped to put on wetsuits as it was threatening rain and had to take care where we left gloves etc as they could easily be whipped away by the ferocious gale blowing. It was a good challenge and one that we rose to with big grins as we battled the elements. From Zapala things improved as we were now leaving the mountains and the road direction changed to put the wind behind us so that we could clip along nicely to our destination for the day – Neuquen, our last stop in Patagonia. Here we found the excellent Hotel Royal and some well-deserved beer, steak & chips.
On Tuesday 2nd March, we rode north across the flat rolling grasslands of the Pampas and on to San Rafael. Loading the bikes up outside the hotel provided early morning entertainment for all the Neuquenos going to their work and we had a small crowd of curious onlookers keen to see how on earth all of the piles of black binbags on the pavement (our camping kit) would ever fit onto the 2 bikes. It was a friendly curiosity with one or 2 stepping forward to ask where we were from and then wishing us a safe journey. The Pampas proved to be a series of step down plateaus with stunning vistas of the limitless horizon at each step and a road ever vanishing to infinity. We were grateful to be merely clipping a small corner of it as after a few hundred miles of riding the straight line it is a little monotonous. Still we had pleasant blue skies and passed the time chasing cloud shadows across the rolling prairie. The plants are all very tough specimens – adorned with thorns and spines to inform you that this is still a hostile place for life. Later in the afternoon we entered a better-watered region and softer bright green grasses sprang up along the road. It was a beautiful and simple sight as the grasses appeared to be illuminated from below. There were also stands of the tall feathery Pampas Grasses, such as adorn posh gardens at home! As we approached San Rafael, trees began to appear – lines of Poplars along the roads providing shelter to the vineyards and olive orchards, which abound in the area. In the late evening sun the shadows from the Poplars bar-coded the roads and we zipped along for a glorious end to the day. San Rafael & Mendoza were heavily populated by Italian immigrants and their influence is obvious both on the landscape (this could easily be Tuscany) and in the cities with their broad tree lined cool avenidas and boulevards. We found another excellent stop over in the ‘Apart-Hotel San Martin’, where the staff insisted on carrying all of our baggage to a beautifully appointed apartment. It got even better as we were recommended to go eat at the nearby Jockey Club. This was a strange place – from the outside it bore little resemblance to a restaurant, looking more like a big house set back off the street and we followed some other people in. Inside it was like a huge ranch house and again we were a little disconcerted to be handed the menu on a scrap of printed-paper announcing the 5 odd dishes available for the evening. It was too late to go looking elsewhere so we ordered 2 chicken dishes as they came with sliced Zucchini (courgette) and we fancied the vegetables for a change. First we were invited to sample the cold table – a selection of 40 or 50 salad platters all laid out on some table tops. It was stunning food! We tried not to pile our plates too high but there were so many curious dishes demanding to be sampled that we left the tables like two greedy guts, with our plates filled to the gunnels with some of the finest salad dishes we’ve ever tasted. And that was just the starter! The chicken dish duly arrived – a fine cut of moist breast meat rolled and stuffed with an indescribably delicious vegetable stuffing. The Zucchini was great as were the lightly fried Basil leaves and caramelised shredded carrot that completed the repast. We’ve already had the best steaks in the world here in Argentina – tonight we had the best-ever chicken dish! All of the food was served by a thoroughly professional waiter who took his time to explain the menu and the wines to us. We staggered home pleasantly replete to slumber in our King-Sized bed. You’ve heard the expression ‘spread-eagled’ – well this bed was so big you could spread an Ostrich on it! This the morning we dialled reception for breakfast, which is served here in the room. A maid duly arrived with a tray laden with freshly squeezed orange juice, fresh melon cubed into bite sized pieces, some fine breads and a pot of hot coffee with milk. Ahhh! Food Heaven!!!