Great Support CrewSporting time: 9 AM on International Children's Day - I hop on the bike, cycle out of Salta. Clouds cover the sky, but there is a blue hole in the west, where I'm heading. I pass by farms and trees and small villages on the first 30 kilometers, then enter the first stretch of unpaved road along the Rio ... near the train line. The destination is set for San Antonio de las Cobres, and perhaps Abra del Acay, with almost 5000m the highest pass in Argentina. Soon the area deserts, less trees, more colorful rocks, every once in a while a metal train bridge for what is nowadays the tourist attraction "Tren de las nubes", the train to the clouds. Kathrin follows me in a rental car. She reaches me after lunch at Ing. Maury, a little police station in the valley where I waited, almost scared without having money with me, having finished my few cookies already. Still, from time to time I pass by small settlements with yellow leaved cottonwood trees in the otherwise rather dry valley, pass by some goats or sheep or horses.

The first night we spend at Alfarcito, a little village not mentioned in any map, after 90k and 1600 elevation meters. There is a small hospedaje just opposite of the new little church that accommodates us, where we can use the rustic kitchen to cook our diner after hiking up the adventurous narrow local Via Dolorosa to the cactus on the hills. The next day is a long way up to Abra Blanca on 4100 metres. A steep climb, another village, a short break. While cycling I chew some Coca leaves to cope with the height and gain some minerals and vitamins. The bitter taste distracts the mind from brooding too much, and eases the pain. Just before lunch I reach a long softly ascending plain with a magnificent view to the white headed peaks of Mount Acay. Looking at the speedometer, I should be up at the pass already. Kathrin and the red rental car are no where to see. So I'm not on top yet and I roll on into a small valley with dry grass and a half frozen creek. The blood seems to cook in my head, I must be almost at 4000 metres. All of a sudden I'm surrounded by a bunch of mad barking dogs in the middle of no where. I stop, and one of them licks my salty gloves. The others keep barking at me, and an old woman appears and sort of talks the dogs away with her husky voice. Freaky...

IMG_0937A few more serpentines and I am at the pass. Kathrin waits for me with hot tea and snacks. What a feeling, and what a view onto the other side! The remaining 30 kilometres until San Antonio de las Cobres are unpaved washboard road. With the chilling head wind it is not much fun to cycle, not even with the soft decline. San Antonio de las Cobres is a mining town with clusters of stereotype small one storey houses. We get all sorts of information whether or not the road over the pass to Cachi is doable with our small rental car. Some say yes, others say not at all. What to do? We stay in a somewhat comfortable but cold guesthouse, talk with an American and a Swiss traveler.

The big day starts with a Yoga session despite the cold. The 13 kilometres back to the diversion to the Abra Acay roll more easy today, but after the diversion the road is sandy for the first 10 kilometres ascending a long plain. My spirits fight the fierce head winds. I have to push the bike a lot already at the easy part. But the sun is shining bright, and finally I reach that long awaited bend, the wind slows down, and Kathrin waits for me with hot tea, and bananas and bread and Nutella. Well motivated I move on after the break. More or less loose gravel and sand take their turns on the narrow road uphill, at times with the wind in my back, at times in my face. Curve by curve, kilometer by kilometer I climb up, looking down the long ascent every once in a while. Kathrin takes pictures of flocks of Vicuñas, strange rabbits with long curly tails, called Vizcachas and a stupid donkey called Sven (without luggage).

Time is running, unsure whether we could drive the road down to Cachi we wanted to be on top of the pass by 2, then by 3 PM. Not a single car passed us, no one to ask for the road conditions. And still some 15 kilometers to go, according to my speedometer. Kathrin drives ahead, I see the red car climbing up bend by bend, keep moving my feet step by step. Breath by breath...

Abra Acay, 5000m...My spirits crumble in the cold afternoon breeze, I'm ready to give up on the eager project. After what seems ages Kathrin returns, smiling - just 2.5 kilometers left to climb to the top, she says, gushing about the view from there. Wow, yes, I can do that, and I fight again! About 20 minutes later we celebrate what is my highest elevation ever reached, and reached by bicycle! We sip our tea, have some cookies, and store the bike in the boot of the car. Splendid afternoon light for the snow capped peaks above and the colorful rocks below us, and pretty loose gravel on the very narrow road down. 50 kilometers on gravel to go to La Poma. Beautiful peerless scenery. Kathrin masters a number of dangerous river crossings without bridges, and our brave little car serves us well. We've had lots of good luck on that stretch, and I'm pretty happy I'm sitting beside Kathrin in the car. The 50 more kilometers from La Poma to Cachi were full of unexpected sharp turns and arroyas, and wouldn't have been a piece of cake on the bicycle either. Bright shines the moon over the Calchaqua valley We reach Cachi late at night, find us a hostel and share a really great pizza, hot soups and dark beer. Now we know why that stretch of road is assigned for 4WD only!

We spend a resting day in Cachi, drinking some more dark beers in Olivers Wine Bar. 9 AM next morning, ready for the last part of the circuit, one more pass to climb. Long straight stretches of roads through cacti plains in the Parque de las Cordones. The climb is fierce because of the soft head wind and the cold. Finally - Piedra del Molino, at 3400 metres, which is followed by an incredible ride down the serpentines of the Cuesta de Obispo. What a joy for a cyclist! After 30 kilometres we are back in vivid green lush forests, find us a great camping spot on a river. Time to celebrate! What a ride that was, enabled due to the great support from Kathrin in the rental car! 4 days, 300km, 5500 elevation metres on the bike...

There is ice on the tent on the next morning. A cold front has arrived according to the weather forecasts. We decide to put the bicycle in the car again and drive "home", back to Salta, back to our double room in the Siete Rayos hostal with the window directly facing the road and the bus stop. And a letter with my new credit card waits for me at the main post - yeeha!