Day 13 (Thursday February 9, 2012) Argentina received a large wave of immigrants that begun approximately in the 1880s and declined after World War II. The majority of immigrants came from Europe but there was also an important immigration from the Middle East. Most of these Arab immigrants came from what is today Lebanon and Syria. At that time these countries were territories under the control of the Turkish Ottoman Empire so the Syrian and Lebanese entered Argentina with Turkish passports. As a consequence, these immigrants and their descendents are known here as “turcos”. A significant proportion of these Middle Easterners settled in the provinces that we are visiting right now, Catamarca and La Rioja. Former Argentinean President Carlos Menem was born to Syrian immigrants in a little village of Anillaco (La Rioja). There was also an important immigration of Armenians who were escaping the terrible Armenian Genocide—approximately 130,000 people of Armenian descent live in Argentina today.
A few kilometers south of Chilecito, Ruta 40 goes through one of the gems of Argentina, the canyon of the river Miranda known as the Cuesta the Miranda. The winding road climbs up through crimson red mountains, rich in iron oxide. The contrast between the red rock and the sparkling green of the trees—exuberant after so much rain—was quite beautiful even under the flat light of the cloudy morning. For the first few kilometers the road is wide and paved. Later the route 40 narrows, running between the red mountain walls and a steep cliff beyond a short stone barrier. At almost every turn the road offers gorgeous views of the ravine with the reddish brown Miranda river running at the bottom. Big saguaro-like cardones and other cacti hang from the nearly vertical walls at several points. The road across the Cuesta was built under the direction of the Italian engineer Francesco Bolloli. The work started in 1918 and took more than 10 years and several workers’ lives to complete. The narrow gravel section with the low granitic wall is part of the original road.
After crossing the Cuesta de Miranda we rode in the direction of Talampaya National Park. A few kilometers beyond the town of Pagancillo there was a police traffic control where we were informed that the road to Talampaya was not drivable due to rain damage and that the National Park was closed. We were planning to camp at the park and were looking forward to going back to our Ramen noodle diet—instead of the meat-dominated regime that we have been following since we left La Quiaca more than a week ago. We were bummed; neither of us had been to Talampaya before. At that point we decided to try to get to the city of San Juan (San Juan Province) located nearly 330 kilometers from Pagancillo.The distant mountains along the road appeared to be even farther away in the hazy air of the afternoon. The road was relatively straight so we moved fast until we got to the section between the cities of Guandacol and San José de Jáchal. In this segment Ruta 40 crosses hundreds of washes—we counted more than 300—many of which were affected by flash flooding during to the recent heavy rains. Big road plows were removing rocks and mud from the road dips. We had to ride very carefully because in most cases we could not see what was on a dip (badén in Spanish) until we were just about to cross it. Right before arriving to San José de Jáchal we took the road that follows the beautiful canyon of the Río Huaco and passes through the village of La Ciénaga. This area has been protected because of its geological and archeological value. The narrow tunnel where I stopped to take a picture of Adrián seemed to be carved by hand.
From Jáchal to San Juan the road did not have many badenes so the ride was much more relaxing except when we decided to stop to rest and Adrían’s bike got stuck in the sand. He could not ride the bike out of the sand so we have to drag it out by hand.
We spent the night at Hotel San Francisco in the city of San Juan and had lomito (tenderloin) sandwiches and Stella Artois for dinner.