Day 11 (Tuesday, February 7, 2012) Today we were supposed to have a relatively easy ride of the 254 kilometers that separate Cafayate (Salta) and Belén (Catamarca). Most of the road is paved with only a few sections of gravel. What could go wrong?
After breakfast we loaded the bikes and went to get gasoline. But there was no gas at all (only diesel) in the first of the two gas stations in Cafayate. This is something relatively common in Argentina, especially in remote places. You get to a service station with the last drop in your tank to discover that there is no gas. We were not expecting gas problems in Cafayate so the three extra gas containers that we carry with us were empty. At the second gas station the only gas available was of a low octane number (85)— known as “común” in Argentina and rarely sold anymore. Both Kawasaki and BMW recommend a minimum rating of 87 so we did not know what to do. The idea of waiting one or two days until gas was delivered to the town was not very appealing. The nearest gas station south of Cafayate is in Amaicha del Valle, approximately 70 kilometers away, but we did not have enough gas to get there. We called Jorge “Pata” Castelli, a friend and mechanic in our town, who described for us the potential problems for the bikes. We decided to add a few liters of gas and move on.
A few kilometers south of Cafayate we visited the Ruins of Quilmes (Tucumán Province), the largest pre-Columbian settlement in the country. Approximately 5,000 people lived there. Houses were partially buried to protect the inhabitants from the hot summers and the cold winters. Several communal mortars carved on the granitic rock were used for processing maize. Cylindrical silos were built for the storage of the grains (mainly maize and quinoa). The settlement was strategically built on the slope of the mountain offering a view of the Calchaqui valley for many miles. No attacking enemy could get close to Quilmes without being seen. The house of the cacique (chief) was at the highest point of the hill. The Quilmes fiercely resisted the Inca invasions but were ultimately conquered by the Spanish, who apparently force a large part of the population to walk more than one thousand miles from Quilmes to a reducción (reservation) located 20 kilometers outside of Buenos Aires. The very few survivors to such gruesome punishment settled at that location in what is today the City of Quilmes. One of the first beers in Argentina, Cerveza Quilmes, was established in 1888 and named after that city.
The Belén river carries very little water for most of the year. Only during the summer rains the volume of water increases but not much. Route 40 crosses the river immediately south of the village of Hualfín (Catamarca). Given the Belén’s normal volume of water, no bridge has been built at that spot; instead the road goes through the river—the water runs over a cement slab. A new paved route and a bridge are being built a few hundred meters west of the current river crossing. When we arrived at the crossing yesterday we found more than ten cars waiting—their occupants attentively looking at the brown, tumbling water. Three channels had formed. The closest to us was clearly passable; the middle channel looked deeper and the water ran through it with some turbulence. The channel near the other shore—the one that supposedly has a cement bottom—was the deepest. The turbulence of the water suggested that sizeable rocks had been pushed over the cement slab. Nobody dare to cross. Only sporadically a truck or a large pickup truck would enter the stream. The water hit the side of the vehicles hard and seemed to even shake the pickup trucks in the last channel. We, the spectators, would looked at each other, shake our heads, and keep silent, worrying about what to do. Adrián and I stared at the river for more than for 45 minutes talking about our alternatives. If we turned around, we would lose an entire day and would have to take a route different from 40. At a given point a group of four motorcycles gathered at the other shore approximately 100 meters downstream from the road. The bikers were making preparations to cross the river right there. They took their pants off and placed their backpacks and luggage high on their backs. One by one they crossed the deepest channel in an angle in the direction of the current. They easily traversed the other two channels and, understandably proud, rode by us without even waving. They were riding light, offroad bikes —not the heavy motorcycles we are on—so we figured that their experience did not easily apply to us. We were particularly worried about Adrián’s bike sinking in the mud or falling on its side. It would be impossible to bring the BMW back up straight if it fell on its side in the current. Unloading the bikes would not have helped much. Tired of the status quo, I decided to ride my bike to the spot where the other motorcycles had crossed. I would have to cross both the first and second channels to get there. I just wanted to take a look. I figured that if I could not go across the first two channels, there was not point in attempting to cross the third, deepest one. As soon as I left, Adrián followed me. The mud was slippery but not too bad. I reached the first channel and got through it without much problem. I stopped to breathe and studied the second channel—it looked much deeper than the first. It took me a few minutes to gather the courage to cross it. I noticed Adrian waiting behind me ready to cross the first channel so I took a deep breath I went for it. The water was only knee high and I could feel the river stones moving under my bike. I drove straight and in a few seconds I was out of the water in a small sand island next to big channel. Adrían had crossed the first channel and was waiting for me. A man who was crossing the river on foot from the other shore was giving me his opinion of my best option. A few people had gathered on the other shore to witness my crossing (one guy was taking pictures that he later offered to share with us). Adrián got his camera out and was ready to document my first river crossing. My bike had sunk in the sand and I could not move it much, I could only ride straight ahead. I chose a line to follow and rode into the river. The channel felt much deeper than the previous one but I never lost control; the only scary moment was when I had to climb the sandy bank. I parked my bike and got my camera ready to capture Adrián’s crossing. I noticed I was shaking when I was taking the first picture.
We arrived at Belén in the late afternoon. We were so proud! He had once again overcome Ruta 40. Bife de chorizo con ensalada mixta for dinner.