A waiter shouted from a restaurant doorway in the heart of the plaza of Cafayate promising a delicious meal. Easily persuaded, we followed him, carefully stepping over the sleeping stray dog at the top of the steps. Our table was next to a lone entertainer who had the entire restaurant singing along with him. Wine was rushed to our table and that dog sauntered in to say hello. Suddenly two people are dancing the Zamba, eyes locked, twirling scarves above their heads while circling sensually around each other. It was going to be another lovely night in Argentina. But wait. Did I mention this was day six of a two-week cycle tour of northwest Argentina?
Friends had recommended a boutique cycling company called OnaVelo. So, here we were, my husband and I along with a group of sisters, aunts and nieces from Longview, Alberta, heading for what turned out to be 500 eyes-wide-open kilometres.
REGISTER FOR THE APRIL 2024 TRIP BY DEC. 15 TO RECEIVE 10% OFF AND A BOTTLE OF ARGENTINE WINE:
“It’s not a rush to the finish line,” says Rick McFerrin, the owner and guide from OnaVelo. “It’s about connecting with the people while enjoying the food, the wine and the beautiful landscapes.”
He’s been offering this tour for 20 years, cultivating a network of friends, accommodations, restaurants, and side tours showcasing the best of Argentina.
We started in the city of Salta and spent the first hour snaking through busy streets. Beyond that, it was wide-open uncrowded pavement. As motorists passed, they waved, cheered, and honked their horns.
OnaVelo supplied the bikes, the panniers and two guides; we carried our own gear and repair kits. A “sag wagon” would not be doing the work or picking up strays, reducing the cost of the trip substantially. While lunch was a roadside picnic, the evening meals were rich with a variety of meats smothered in chimichurri sauce, slow-roasted on the asado, and lots of spectacular Argentinian red wine.
Riding Highway 68 through the Quebrada de las Conchas was a highlight for me. An admitted rock geek, I was awestruck by the stratigraphy, the outcrops, and the faults thrusting mineral-rich layers skyward. Of course, tourism creates clever names to attract tour buses. Photos are snapped at the Garganta del Diablo (Devils Throat), El Sapo (the frog), and the Obelisco (a big single hoodoo). The unadulterated natural beauty of the massive valley caused by a shifting of continental plates millions of years ago was breathtaking.
The Quebrada was a tough ride so resting in Cafayate to watch the folk dancing was welcomed. In a few days, we would be riding up. And up, and more up to the Infiernillo Pass. Thankfully, McFerrin designed the route with rest days to see Indigenous ruins, visit friends and learn about the culture. Along the way, we would see wild burros, flocks of noisy green parrots, turkey vultures, foxes, and more happy dogs.
When the day planner listed 30 km with roughly a 600-metre elevation gain on the last half, we needed to pace ourselves. Without mincing words, McFerrin prepped us for the day, reminding us to enjoy the surroundings. Nobody would be left behind. A break at the Museo Pachamama in Amaicha del Valle to admire the Indigenous history and the geology was appreciated. The last five kilometres on gravel with hidden tire-popping thorns was rough. But the day-ending wine washed it all away.
Another morning spent climbing had us cheering and taking selfies with llamas at Infiernillo Pass. At over 3,000 metres (10,000 feet) above sea level, we were happy to start coasting into Tafi de Valle in the province of Tucuman.
The last day was the longest with 116 kilometres to Yerba Buena. In the first 50 kilometres, we dropped 1,600 metres.
Leaving the high-altitude farming community, the road sped through alpine deserts, dense rain forests, lush forests and finally to the valley where trucks spilling lemons from their load passed us. Hairpin corners, countless switchbacks and long stretches of freshly paved gentle curves made the hard climbs worth every curse.
The service provided by a knowledgeable guide was paramount in making this cycling adventure a success. We took the roads less travelled, stayed in unique lodgings, embraced the culture, and feasted like kings and queens. My biggest takeaway was travelling by bike allowed me to really appreciate the here and now. The squawking parrots, darting foxes, and music seeping from the mud-like walls of roadside homes were my “kodak moments.” Most importantly – the feeling of accomplishment for the entire group as we posed for photos at the pass would not have been nearly as impactful through a pane of car glass.
OnaVelo runs tours in Argentina for up to 20 people at least once per year.
An earlier version of this story by Joanne Elves appeared in The Calgary Herald.