Day 6 (Thursday February 2, 2012). In January of 2011 my brother Adrián asked me if I was interested on riding Ruta 40 on two motorcycles with him. He generously offered to help me buy a bike in Argentina so we could do the trip together. He even suggested that I looked into a Kawasaki KLR 650, a known adventure motorcycle. I had a sabbatical coming up the following year so I figured I could take one month for the trip. In order to prepare for it I bought a 2009 KLR 650 (blue, California model). I began to read about the many options to equip the bike for a long trip and to buy the farkles (a word I had never heard before) I wanted. A few months later I had a bike ready for a long trip but in the wrong hemisphere. I toyed with the idea of shipping the bike to Argentina but the estimates I got were too much for my pocket. On top of that, legally importing a motorcycle to Argentina is quite expensive and a pain in the neck. So, Adrián and I agreed that the best option was to buy a used KLR in Argentina. But used motorcycles cost almost as much as new ones in my country so we were tempted to buy a new one. The final push on that direction came when I met Chaz, a Kawasaki engineer who lives near my house in Southern California. When I told him about my plans, he suggested that I should seriously consider buying a 2012. Chaz even picked the color for me; “the black one is the best”, he said. So I bought a brand new black 2012 KLR 650 in Argentina.
At one end of Ruta 40 is the city of La Quiaca on the border with Bolivia. At the other end is Punta Loyola, near the southern tip of South America. The distance between La Quiaca and Punta Loyola is approximately 5,000 kilometers. Ruta 40 is a difficult road with long stretches of gravel at high altitude in the north and many kilometers of gravel and raging winds in the south. We have finaly reached La Quiaca so we were now ready for Ruta 40. Today (day 6) we wanted to cover the first 314 kilometers of the route between La Quiaca and Susques. I have been thinking about this part of the trip for a while. Different maps show different courses for this section of Ruta 40. On some, the route goes through Santa Catalina; on others the route passes south of the town. We had decided to go through Santa Catalina because this is one of the most northern towns of Argentina. The recent rains have turned many roads impassable. Even though we inquired in La Quiaca, we could not find any reliable info about the condition of Ruta 40. All we knew was that there were no gas stations and no towns, except for Santa Catalina, between La Quiaca and Susques. If the road were cut, we would have to turn around and come back to La Quiaca. The problem is that the tanks of our bikes, which are quite big for a motocycle, do not have the capacity to allow for such an eventuality. Also, we had no idea about how long it would take to cover 314 kilometers on a very twisty gravel road that has been potentially affected by the heavy rains. So last night I had a very hard time falling asleep as my mind kept considering several potential scenarios that would test our survival abilities.
In the morning we got extra gas in three containers (a total of 25 liters) and also extra water. While waiting in line at the gas station we met Hans from Munich, riding a Suzuki DR 650 that he had rented in Chile. He told me that in the way back from Santa Catalina the previous day, he had a very hard time staying on his bike because it had begun to rain and the road had become very muddy and slippery. That did not sound like the gravel road I was expecting. And it was not. As soon as we enter Ruta 40 that morning, we encountered mud, a lot of sticky, slippery, red mud. The bikes were sliding all over the place. The extra weight of the gas loaded at the tails of the bikes did not help. We had not gone more than one painful kilometer when a blue and white Land Rover coming in the opposite direction waved us to stop. The driver rolled down his window to tell me that the road was impassable and that we should turn around. So we did. I looks like Ruta 40 is avoiding us. We will catch her in Susques for sure!
The only alternative to get to Susques was to go back to Purmamarca and take route 52—a paved road that connects Argentina and Chile through the Jama Pass. The first part of the road through the Quebrada of Purmamarca is relatively flat and offers marvelous views of the river valley and the surrounding mountains. Without a doubt this is one of the most beautiful places we have seen so far. The colors of the rock formations along the road are truly astonishing. We drove very slowly stopping to take pictures every few hundred meters. Ruta 52 leaves the valley to climb the Cuesta de Lipán—gaining approximately 2,000 meters in a few kilometers to reach an altitude of 4,170 meters above sea level (our record altitude so far). The road twists back and forth climbing the steep slope—another must-do road for an Argentine motorcyclist. As we moved up enjoying the twisties, we got into the clouds. But as soon as we reached the top, the clouds disappeared and we had an unobstructed view of the mountains beyond and of the Salinas Grandes down at the valley. The Salinas Grande is a large depression that becomes a shallow salt lake during the rainy season and a dry expanse of salt in the dry season. Route 52 runs across the Salinas —which were mostly wet when we crossed them. The reflection of the mountains and clouds on the water was quite beautiful. Approximately 50 kilometers beyond the Salinas we reached to town of Susques and check into hotel El Kactus. We had milanesas for dinner but nothing compared to the ones that my sister Mariel makes—or should I say, the ones that my nephew Juampi makes!