The first village of any significant size that you reach when entering Argentina from Santiago is Uspallata. It sits on a green and fertile plain, flanked by the Andes to the west and a rugged mountain range to the east, known by the locals as the seven-coloured mountains due to their ever-changing hue. At 1800 metres, the day time sun is hot, but the evenings cool. It is a beautiful location.
The village is a pit stop for those transiting between Santiago and Mendoza – the last place to re-fuel before crossing the mountains. On the out-skirts of the village is the customs check-point for lorries heading for Chile. Rather incongruously it has a casino – presumably to help waiting truck drivers pass the time. And there is a small garrison of mountain artillery. With only a single street of shops, restaurants and a few places to stay, that’s pretty much all there is to Uspallata.
As well as the itinerant truck drivers, many tourists pass through: on the way to Chile; or to visit the America’s highest mountain Aconcagua close to the border; or en route as they travel along the back roads paralleling the mountains. Cyclists, motor bikers, 4×4 tourers, Argentinian families camping…. they all stop for fuel, a coffee or lunch, and some for the night. Yesterday a German couple pulled up at the fuel station in a four-wheel-drive truck converted into a giant camper van (I’ve met lots of German’s travelling in such off-road monsters). And as I was driving north along a dirt road, an old Fiat 500 painted in a psychedelic colour scheme and adorned with flags passed me heading south. I bet they are having an adventure, driving a venerable Cinquecento through the mountains of South America.
I left Santiago on Christmas Eve, arriving here in the evening and narrowly missing a huge thunderstorm. I wasn’t so lucky on Christmas Day. After enjoying a lazy, sunny day at a local campsite, another torrential storm passed overhead in the evening. With too much water for the ground to absorb, the run-off formed a stream which passed directly under my tent. I rapidly deployed on trench-digging duty to divert the flood, and spent the following morning cleaning up the muddy mess.
I had intended to leave the village two days ago and head north. However, a sloppy bit of navigation saw me backtrack to the edge of the village; and furthermore, the moto was not behaving on the gravel, I assume as a result of some earlier adjustments to the suspension. So I decided to stay a little longer. Looking for a more tranquil place to stay than my previous choice (the road to the truckers’ customs check-point ran close by), I investigated a ‘camping’ sign directing me into the woods on the outskirts of the village. The place looked deserted, but as I was turning my bike around to leave an old guy in a cowboy hat emerged from a hut and flagged me down. He turned out to be Victor, a South African ex-miner who had been on the road since 1976 and was now making a living as a carpenter and reflexologist. As we sat and talked, we were joined by the only other resident – a Moroccan called Aziz who arrived two months ago and hasn’t left. It’s a ramshackle place with a cold shower and and a barely functioning toilet, but it is picturesque and peaceful, is home to a family of nine cheerful and friendly dogs, and it possesses a certain ‘traveller’s charm.’ So I have decided to stay – and that feeling of settling in is already starting to take root.
This morning I drove down the village to buy water and found myself in a conversation with the storekeeper about my travels. He asked me what I did before I started travelling. In Argentina, I normally avoid the subject of my previous military career for obvious reasons (I was reminded of the Argentinian government’s sentiments towards the Falklands within about five minutes of crossing the border), but on this occasion I couldn’t come up with a story fast enough and thus told the truth. It turned out the store keeper had been in the Argentinian artillery for 30 years – which put him in the Falklands generation. Yet I saw no hint of animosity towards me whatsoever. On the contrary, I felt a sense of ‘kindred spiritness’ – a meeting of two fellow ex-soldiers, which usually draws the same reaction anywhere in the world.
I have been passing my time working on the bike and my kit. An irritating buzz from vibrating plastic around the front faring has finally been located and silenced with a piece of inner tube. And a rattle in the same area which has been there since I bought the bike has been similarly dealt with. A loose grip on the throttle (it took me a while to work out why I couldn’t open the throttle fully) has been re-glued. And I’ve just finished making a small pouch for my allen keys.
In ten days, Uspallata is going to turn into an international sporting arena, albeit briefly. The Dakar Rally is passing through on its way north. And herein lies my conundrum: I want to wait for the race and then follow it for a few days, but I don’t want to be in Uspallata for two weeks. That said, I’ve already been here four days longer than I planned – and with my propensity for getting stuck in places, it may not turn out to be an issue.