What do you do when you and two of your best friends turn 30 in the same week? For such a big occasion we decided to create a once in a lifetime experience, and for that a group trip was in order! It was just about that time we came across a video of professional mountain bikers Hans Rey and Tibor Simai riding in the North of Argentina in the mountainous, rural province of Jujuy.
That is how we found out about Francisco, a local jujeño who started Jujuy en Bici, an adventure mountain bike tour company who showed the pair of pro riders around his stomping grounds for a week on some amazing single track. After the trip Hans Rey was quoted as saying that the trip in Jujuy was in “the top three rides…ever”. So we decided to get in touch with Francisco and see what could be arranged for a multi-day trip.
From the first contact with Francisco he was very responsive and offered help with all of our logistical travel plans. We all agreed on a three-day excursion called Huella Gaucha through the mountains, valleys and small indigenous villages outside of San Salvador de Jujuy. In late September, 2014 we embarked on an adventure that was everything we had hoped for and then some.
Day 1 – San Salvador de Jujuy – Ocloyas
The night before we departed we met with Francisco for a briefing at our hostel. He told us the next day we would leave on bike from our hostel at daybreak pedaling into the surrounding mountains. As promised, Francisco met us the next day at dawn with all of the gear, a support vehicle, and Agustín, the driver. The bikes were great, Giant hardtail bikes equipped with Shimano hydraulic brakes and components. All the gear- helmets, gloves, water bottles were also in top shape. After prepping our bikes and gear, we loaded our bags in the support vehicle and Francisco gave us a quick orientation about the bikes. We then rode through the city for a few kilometers before arriving at the outskirts, along a small dusty road with the potent smell of onions and garlic wafting through the air. We stopped to buy fruit and have a traditional breakfast of empanadas jujeñas, tasty baked pasties, some of best are found in the North of Argentina where they are made spicier than other parts of the country.
After a quick carb and protein binge it was time to do what we came for, so we pedaled uphill along a rural provincial route. September brought the first days of warm weather of the year and the sun beat down on us as we continued weaving over the gravel road amidst the semi-arid terrain. The 37 degree temperatures were a good hint that the next three days were going to be intense. The first portion of the day was a strenuous climb for several kilometers zigzagging back and forth along switchbacks, with the lungs and the legs burning. The first climb was a gut check, but after nearly two hours of climbing the pitch began to flatten and we were rewarded for our effort with some exceptional views of distant mountains divided by lush agricultural valleys. After another hour we stopped to eat, the best part of having a support vehicle is all the food they could bring! We stopped on a rural property where a picnic blanket was unfolded and the food was unloaded. Dried meats, cured ham, cheeses, tartas, tuna, avocados, fruits, juices, beer, and even chocolate helped us gain back our energy after the first climb. This was the first of several great lunches we shared beneath blue skies.
After a bit of digestion it was back in the saddle and much to our delight, the first portion of downhill sent us sliding around dusty corners with impressive views of the valley and the faint sound of water trickling ahead. We continued for several kilometers with manageable uphills and descents. After splashing around a bit and stopping for quick dip in the Corral de Piedras River we were treated yerba mate, Argentina’s finest tradition. Not just mate, but one of the biggest meriendas (afternoon snack) I have ever seen – granola, fresh fruit, dried nuts, dried fruits, cakes, pastafrola, dulce de leche, and more! At this rate, there was a good chance we were actually going to gain weight.
After a very fulfilling merienda, we sluggishly return to the bikes for more uphill. At this point I was definitely feeling muscle pain and fatigue in my legs, I had to fight through some tough cramps on that hill. However after conquering both the cramps and the uphill, a sense of accomplishment was accompanied by the final reward, the last downhill of the day, which would take us to our base camp for the night in the rural village of Ocloyas. The final stretch was gently sloping grassy path, which allowed the five of us lots of fun as we went along overtaking one another. Finally we arrived in the rustic village of Ocloyas just in time for sunset over the valley as cold beer began to flow. The small town of Ocloyas was quite charming and very rural, a population of just 82 people was set amidst a lush valley, surrounded by rolling hills, lush vegetation and a babbling brook. The sky was a series of fading pastel colors that slowly dulled as nightfall made its eventual arrival.
Francisco arranged for us to spend the night in a casa de campo owned by a local woman called Yolanda. It was no life of luxury, but it was more than ample including clean sheets and warm showers. Yolanda prepared us hefty dinner of spaghetti bolognese and typical dessert – dulce de cayote made from cayote, a local fruit, cooked with sugar, cloves and toasted walnuts, very simple but also comforting and delicious. After a few liters of beer it was off to bed for all of us. After the first great day and more than 47 KM’s down, we all slept quickly and soundly.
Day 2: Ocloyas – Lozano
The roosters crow signified the start to another day up at dawn, and another day full of mountain biking adventures. Awakening in beautiful natural surroundings is always a wonderful way to start your day. Yolanda had prepared a simple breakfast of fresh made bread with dulce de leche, coffee and mate. After some pre-ride stretching we began our first ascent, back tracking a few kilometers to arrive to a green pasture land where horses and cows roamed freely. We cycled through very rural communities with populations in the single digits, the path was more grown over the second day and the terrain slightly more technical. We had climbing section that preceded the most bitchin’ downhill we would find- la bajada de pura alegria, or the downhill of pure joy!
This was definitely the highlight of the entire ride for me as we went the twisting, turning, zigging and zagging down the gravel road at a steady descent. The gravel path was loose and led to a good bit of sliding as we put the hydraulic brakes to the test in the dusty corners of the switchbacks. Francisco showed us several short cuts in this section, as he hopped over the berm crossing through a steeply inclined grassy meadow directly perpendicular to the mountain’s fault line we all followed. The speed continued to increase as did my sense of giddiness, I slid out in each corner, but somehow managed to dig in enough to push through and continue with the descent. After plenty of dusty, windy turns the pitch started to level out and the terrain started to become covered with smooth river stones. Just at the end of the downhill we came along a series of river crossings. The river was low enough that we could easily pedal across, splashing in the cool waters. After screaming down the mountain side we then had a chance to refresh ourselves in the river.
After an energizing downhill and an exhilarating bath, it was time for nourishment. Lunch was, once again, an impressive spread and eating beside the bank of the river while listening to the soothing sounds of running water was the perfect bit of tranquility. After eating, everyone seemed to be in accordance that it was time for a quick siesta in the sun. Well almost everyone, Francisco went along maintaining the bikes draining water from the suspension and ensuring that they were still in great shape. After 20 winks, we geared back up and continued on facing a series of ups and downs over rolling hills. After another couple of hours we arrived back to the same river, just before sunset. We were now just a short ride down an old provincial route from where we would stay the night, the pueblo of Lozano just beside the Ruta 9.
Francisco had arranged for us to overnight at Hostal Cerro Azul, a very comfortable accommodation. The hostel far exceeded our expectations, a modern building with great facilities that was perfect for us: comfortable beds, hot water, comfortable lounge, on-site restaurant and a bar that had plenty of ice-cold Salta Negra cerveza on hand. During the post-ride hours everyone cleaned up, stretched out, and relaxed our weary bones. It was a very long, but rewarding day and some chill time was in order before dinner. This was not just any night- at midnight I would turn 30 years old, and as tradition dictates in Argentina, you always have to celebrate as the clock strikes midnight.
Dinner that evening was amazing, llama meat slow-cooked in stout- we were treated to an array of gamey, sweet, and earthy flavors. After dinner Francisco and Agustín took the time to teach us the intricacies of a classic Argentine card game, truco. As the hours continued on, we wearily tried to keep our eyes awake until midnight, not an easy task as our bodies had already shut down. Finally midnight arrived and everyone sang feliz cumpleaños and I was delivered a cake of dulce de leche and coconut. After blowing out the candles, everyone already in the state of a zombie, quickly ate their slice of cake before filing off to bed. It was a great night, and one that I will never forget, but it was past time to lay my 30-year-old bones to rest.
Day 3: Lozano – San Salvador de Jujuy
After a quick breakfast we geared up once again. Francisco had good news, this was going to be our “relax day”, we would eventually make it to the nearby thermal pools, but first we had our share of work to do. The first stretch would start out on the Ruta 9, an important route that connects Salta city with Jujuy, so Francisco gave each of us neon color vests for all of us to wear, every detail was looked after for us. We pedaled down the shoulder of the highway in the cool morning hours until we reached the town of Yala, a bedroom community some 20 KM’s from San Salvador de Jujuy. After passing by many luxurious estates in Yala, we arrived at another uphill. This was no ordinary uphill, it was the very same section that the Jujuy Mountain Bike Championships are held each year.
The pain of climbing is always rewarded by views like this one.
The climb was tough and the sun was penetrating even in the late morning hours, the switchbacks seemed to be never ending. Finally after two hours of climbing we reached the Lagunas de Yala, a small reservoir surrounded by low-lying mountains and pasture land. This was the location of our final lunch together, that was accompanied by frosty chilled beer. After lunch we rode around the lagoon until we reached a small section of single track that tested our technical ability, if only for a short while. Now we had one final uphill, which we continued on for about an hour before we reached the mirador, an enchanted look out point with a commanding view the imposing mountains and the valley that was cut out by the Rio Reyes below. The panorama was framed by blue skies with passing clouds. We relished the fleeting moment as if everything was right within the world.
After plenty of pictures were taken we had one fast descent down a red earth road led us to the chill out portion of the tour, the thermal pools of Termas de Reyes. We changed into our swimmys and made our way to the popular Jujeño hangout where families and couples frolicked in the warm mineral waters and soaked up sun rays. The warm mineral spring water was the perfect cure following three days of tough climbs and heart throbbing descents, our muscles relaxed and our minds cleared as our skin absorbed the Andean sun.
The sun slowly started to sink beyond the horizon so we decided to get a move on. We still had some 18 KM’s until we winded our way back to town of San Salvador de Jujuy, luckily it was all down hill and on a paved provincial highway, so it would definitely be the fastest leg of the journey. Although it was the easiest portion it wouldn’t be without its share of adrenaline, we flew along the highway easily passing 60 KM’s/hour. The rural hills started to slowly be replaced by small towns and urbanizations. The realization of a return to civilization was accompanied by the bittersweet understanding of an amazing trip reaching its end. Once reaching civilization we had one last surprise, the city was celebrating the Festival of Students, one of its biggest festivities, so we rode beside a street blocked from car traffic alongside parade floats as the Jujeños prepared for a their annual shindig.
After crossing through the city and arriving to the bus terminal it was time to part ways with Francisco and Agustín. I couldn’t help but think, the end of one adventure is just the beginning of another, so we hugged and said farewell, but I knew that this would not be the last time we would cross paths. The rest of us, tired and dirty, loaded up on a bus that was bound for Salta. With happy hearts and spent legs, all of us slept soundly knowing that the next adventure was just around the corner.
Tour Type: Circuit
Distance: 147 KM (91 miles)
Maximum Altitude: 2,200 meters/6,600 feet above sea level
Contact: Jujuyenbici.com or firstname.lastname@example.org
Inclusions: Guide, driver, support vehicle, mountain bike, gloves, helmet, 2 nights accommodation, water, 3 meals per day, snacks and mate, and free truco lessons.