This was the best adventure of all.
On my third-to-last day in La Rioja, a Thursday, two friends and I took off on a bicycle adventure for what turned out to be possibly the coolest day in La Rioja. The two friends are Ann and Raúl. Both work work in the university kitchen under the Chinese chef, where I was working. Ann is a foreigner like myself - a Colombian. Raúl is from Argentina (from the Iguazú region, actually.)
Che Guevera, an Argentine, once left his native Córdoba to trek though South America on motorcycle. My father, a Yanqui like me, once left from California to trek across the USA on bicycle. Our adventure would be in the sprit of Che Guevera or Gordon Pitt, we hoped.
We actually wanted to do an overnight camping-bicycle tour. But we didn't have it together enough to organize that. Instead, we squeezed our tour into a Thursday afternoon. But it was still great! First of all, we got free wine. For real. We finished cleaning up the university kitchen after the lunch shift, and all of the sudden Martín (the chinese professor and owner of the kitchen) says "let's take out the wine!" He never did this before. I still don't know why he did that day, but heck, I ain't complaining. The four of us: Raúl, Ann, Martín, and I, get a nice big glass of fine red wine with our spicy beef-and-vegetable stew. Cool guy, Martín.
At 3:00PM we say goodbye to Martín take off on our bicycles. Mid June is the southern hemisphere's late autumn, so even warm La Rioja is starting to feel a chilly. It's cold enough for sweatshirts.
La Rioja is not the most aesthetically pleasing location. It's pretty much a flat, dusty desert with no green. BUT, less than a half hour bikeride away is a beautiful mountain range that makes up for all of the city's ugliness. This is where the three of us are heading. Our goal is to get to the top of a mountain Raúl knows, where there's a view of the entire city.
First we have to get to La Rioja's reservoir, about 15km into the mountains. The road leading to the reservoir is marvelous. It runs right through a section of town called la quebrada -"the gorge"-, where all the rich politicians live. Biking through la quebrada makes something very apparent; In Argentina there are only three social classes: dirt poor, lower-middle class, and politician. The politicians are disgustingly more wealthy than the rest of the population. They effectively steal all the country's tax money and build themselves mansions in places like la quebrada. It's really horrible actually, when you see the poverty that many live in only 10km away. But it does makes for a gorgeous bikeride to the reservoir! Huge villas with beautiful gardens, perfectly kept expansive green lawns, marble fountains and statues, elegant patios and private vineyards, all tactfully built into the mountain backdrop. Its a sight to see, especially in rural Argentina some 800 miles from Buenos Aires.
The ride to get to the reservoir is a climb, but it's not too hard. Except for the fact that Raúl's chain keeps locking up. But Raúl never gets frustrated; he's a very chill kid; I like that about him. He keeps calm. "The chain falls off when I put too much force on the pedal. If I don't press too hard it won't happen again." Raúl is also our guide. Ann and I know enough to get to the reservoir, but Raúl knows about a path behind the La Rioja Fishing Club that takes you to the top of the mountain.
Now the bikeride get's hard. The path behind the reservoir is unpaved and steep. We have to walk our bikes at points. And the path is not short at all. Ann and I were expecting a twenty minute bike/hike after the reservoir. It turned out to be two hours. But Ann, like Raúl, is a chill kid. Never complained once.
Ann is attractive. But not romantically attractive. Does that make sense? She's the kind of attractive that makes you want to be good friends with her. She is very pretty; dark skin, thick black hair, and compelling eyes; but she's not coquettish or flirty at all. She has an Appalachian Trail hiker look to her. She's someone you want to go hiking with. Very mature and serious-- Raúl too. The two of them never act like children, never make stupid fart jokes or nudge you when a girl with big boobs walks by. Raúl is very attractive too, now that I think of it. Tall and dark skinned, with black-rimmed glasses and a well-formed face. They are cool people; and very cool to go adventuring with.
On our climb we see three or four mountainbikers bombing down the slopes, on a trail even less paved than the one we're on. They're wearing full motocross armor and standing over their bikes on a ledge. One by one, they take off from where they are standing and continue their plummet. We see the first one take off and (of course) hit a rock, fly over his handlebars, and crash to the ground several feet away. Let me explain that these mountains are not the Appalachian. They're steeper, rockier, and more menacing. Instead of soft bushes and leaves on the ground, you have jagged rocks and cacti. Not a place you want to fall off your bike. For a few moments the wipeout victim doesn't move; his friends are calling his name "¿Pucho? ¿Estás bien?" We see Pucho sort of gesture that he's alive, and his friends start walking down towards him. I try to explain to Ann and Raúl the english term "wipeout."
"That's a wipeout" seems to be a good enough definition.
Finally, after two hours, we make it to the top. I would love to say "When we finally made it to the summit, it was worth all the struggle to get there." But that wouldn't be accurate. It was the struggle I liked. The hike to the top with Ann and Raúl was way cooler that standing at the top of the mountain. It was a classic case of 'the journey is more important than the destination'. I have to admit though, the view from the summit is pretty cool. You could see the entire city of La Rioja; the university, the huge radio tower, the bus terminal, the barrios (neighborhoods) laid out in grids, the cathedrals and tall buildings, everything. But even better is the view of the mountains. This I wasn't expecting. I turn 180º away from the city and see the sun was setting behind the sierra. Breathtaking. I watched the sky fill up with reds and oranges and purples, and saw the shadows of the farther mountains bend and stretch over the nearer ones. For about thirty seconds, I really wanted to be an impressionist painter with a canvas and acrylics on hand.
The sun is setting. Wait. That's a problem, isn't it? The moon is rising and the stars are starting to come out, and we're miles from the nearest road. This would also be a good time to mention that the rear brake on my bike doesn't work, at all. And Ann has a flat. It seemed like a really good time to panicking. But maybe the chillness of Raúl and Ann was rubbing off on me because we just hopped on our bikes and went, practically without a word. Ann has a flat, Raúl can't put pressure on the pedal, and I have a defunct rear brake. When the sun really sets, it's dark! My cellphone has a flashlight feature; I light it, hoping to illuminate the path at least a bit. Turns out that when I stick it in my mouth like a cigarette, I can sort of see where I'm going.
The descent. Significantly easier than the climb. Though my left hand (front brake) is starting to ache from doing 100% the breaking. We descend for a quite a while. I start to realize just how much distance we covered climbing up. We went really damn far! By the time we reach the reservoir again it's pitch black.
From the reservoir the road is well-enough lit by streetlights that I can turn my cigarette-phone off. And we're coasting downhill anyway so we hardly have to pedal. Before I know it we reach the fork in the road where I go one way, and Ann and Raúl go another. Over like that. Five-and-a-half hours (it's almost 9:00PM now), but it passed like a flash. Suddenly I'm saying my final farewell to my fellow cooks/adventurers. What a bummer. These are some really cool cats. I'll miss them a lot.
It was a super cool last day to spend with some of the coolest people I met in Argentina.