Posts Tagged ‘festival’

Chasing waterfalls and such

It’s only falling water…

“Don’t go chasing waterfalls. Please stick to the rivers and the lakes that you’re used to.”

It was poor judgement – opening with a TLC song lyric, and you’re probably wondering whether to keep reading or if your time would be better spent on Facebook, or indeed counting your eyelashes. But stick with me – some waterfalls are more than just falling water, and chasing them is the fun part. Someone should have told TLC.

In a world so explored, mapped, mastered, manipulated, plundered and bent out of shape, a brand spanking new discovery is an ever rarer gift, and in a world so exploited, it’s a comfort, too. It shouts that maybe we, the spoilers and the wasters, don’t know everything, and perhaps there are more hidden secrets out there waiting to be unearthed. It’s even better of course when that discovery is a whopper. At three times the height of the Eiffel tower, Yumbilla Falls in the Amazonas region of Peru is exactly that, yet for decades Yumbilla had been shrouded in foliage and disregard. Only in 2007 when it was officially measured did it claim it’s long overdue limelight – Yumbilla turned out to be 895 metres high and the 5th highest waterfall in the world, and last year it earned itself a trail. There are no official tours from Chachapoyas but I contacted the American who built the trail having decided I wanted a sneak preview.

For Yumbilla though perhaps ‘discovery’ is a bit over zealous and should be prefaced by ‘international’. The locals always knew about Yumbilla. And that a new discovery was made here didn’t really surprise them anyway and why would it? Because in terms of new discoveries, the Amazonas region of Peru has them in spades. Ancient burial sites, fortresses, long isolated tribes, rare bird species, pre-Inca walled cities – the land around Chachapoyas is the secret garden of South America, and it just keeps on kicking up surprises.

Before I took the time to explore the new trail to Yumbilla I booked a tour to Gocta, another lofty cascade at 771 metres and the 15th highest in the world. It wasn’t just the waterfall though I had come to admire, the region also boasts a bizarre bird species that the guides would have you believe is lurking in every cranny. The Andean Cock of the Rock – a species whose vaguely comical name is a good fit for it’s bizarre appearance. Bright, unapologetic orange with a head that looks out of shape, like a deformed parrot, maybe one that had flown hard and headlong into a tree in the night. They sold knitted take-home versions in the shops in Chachapoyas, but I suspected spotting one was not really that likely – it was all more of a selling point for tours, a tourist lure.

On the tour, under a sky which threatened rain, I was joined by a trio of Tazmanian backpackers. With the usual Peruvian welcome party – a scrawny dog nipping at our heels – we all took strides towards the waterfall, aside from a ten year old and a fat lady who were given ponies. As the latter eagerly mounted the animal I feared the result would be four splayed legs – like when big people jump onto horses in cartoons – and a rotund lady rolling around like a tipped insect, crying out for help and unable to get up, thankfully though the animal managed to teeter along, ruefully. Next to the reluctant beast was an elderly man, who I found out later was 89 years old, and who was bounding along as fast as the horse, perhaps making his point. Already the animal looked closer to death than he did.

As we made ground the world around us slowly morphed into a more prehistoric one, moss and cobwebs smothered the rock faces, fern replaced banana, menacing cliffs faces were projected from the undergrowth and then after an hour or so the vista we were bent on seeped in through the green curtain around the path and then surged magnificently towards us. We stopped in our tracks and watched the water in free fall, our eyes staying with it until it was a fine spray, a mist, then nothing at all. Cameras were raised and then lowered with a measure of despondency and admiration – from here Gocta wouldn’t fit into even the widest angled lens, and this was only the bottom section, there was a 230 metre drop which was above the reach of our gaze. In the shadow of the behemoth I ate and I snapped photos and I thought about how measly the stream was at the bottom, embarrassing even, considering the dramatic statement nature had made just above it. And I watched the old man laugh, and heard the pony groan, like a teenager who’s been evicted from bed by his mum before school. And everyone apart from the pony and TLC agreed – it was only falling water, but it was worth the effort.

Gocta Falls
The Andean Cock of the Rock in it’s natural habitat (a souvenir shop)

Due to a corrupted camera memory card I am saving the story of Yumbilla on this blog until I have sorted it out.

Bordering on insanity

The road to Ecuador was another Peruvian Special – an unrelenting slalom which was either a companion to the roiling waters of a mountain river or was incautiously winding up a mountainside and unapologetically destroying my mettle. Now though I am a stronger (possible typo – should read ‘stranger’ ?) cyclist than ever before. I may have been riding for almost three years but you can forget the fitness plateau, Peru doesn’t do flat lines.

As I dropped from the mountains to the jungle Blue Morph butterflies and The Peruvian Giant Centipede made fleeting appearances as the government posters warning of nasty diseases such as Leishmaniasis changed to warnings for different but just as nasty diseases like Dengue Fever. Rice paddies disappeared and the jungle reclaimed my eye line but thicker now, disordered. Wilder.

Drip, drip, drip. I kicked off my sodden sleeping bag roaring expletives, aiming them at the clouds above, and my judgement. Cloud forest it may be, but last night I had been tricked by the soothing, unprepossessing sapphire of the evening sky into believing that it wouldn’t rain, that maybe I’d be OK in just my inner tent. My POROUS inner tent. My POROUS inner tent come paddling pool. Long after I’d pegged in the outer tent the rain continued to beat out a maniacal rhythm on the fabric. Morning came and my vision, bleared by sleep, appraised the quagmire on my doorstep, my campground now reminiscent of a bad year at Glastonbury. The road too had been churned up by the downpour and hacked up by the javelins of water. Mostly I pushed my bike through the viscid gunk as buses skidded and climbed muddy inclines sideways whilst gangs of men pushed from behind. Mud, Lycra and skin had become one, maybe though my suit of filth would come in useful – I had overstayed my Peruvian VISA, I had a sob story ready and all I needed now was a sympathetic border guard. Things though got worse and I went from looking like a soldier fresh from the Somme to some kind of unearthly swamp beast.

This border point was the backdoor into Ecuador and my guess – that it would be more relaxed than the primary routes across – was looking on the mark as I peered into the customs building to find the two customs officials blind drunk and belting out Peruvian classics with the aid of a karaoke machine. The immigration official was absent and ambiguously ‘back later’. When she showed up an hour later I knew immediately I hadn’t got the push-over I was hoping for, I got Bitch From Hell, the kind of ruthlessly efficient and by-the-book obsessive I could have done without. It took me half a day to get my exit stamp and involved paying fines, taxis to town, depositing money into bank accounts, signing 15 forms and getting photocopies. Intermittently she would disappear when I needed her, probably to return to her hobbies of submerging kittens in wet cement or hurling orphans into a threshing machine. Eventually, task completed, she reached for the stamp and grumbled, I think it was something about me disrupting her plans for a mass genocide, and I hotfooted it to the door, the bridge and Ecuador. But I don’t begrudge Peru or her purveyors of red tape for a tedious farewell – the last three and a half months had been a terrific ride, in every sense.

The jungle, I decided, doesn’t hold the romance it promises. The views can be limited, it’s hot and sticky, insects rule – filling your tent, bouncing off your head torch and into simmering pasta. Yes that crunch and explosion of bitter goo was an invertebrate, swallow hard and get used to it. But new countries introduce themselves through the small differences, the minutiae which help mould the taste and texture of the new place and which for me made up for the jungle blues. The tangle of undergrowth in Ecuador looked unmeddled with, a pristine slice of nature. The roads though were much steeper. There were kids with blue eyes (perhaps the missionaries had been doing more than just spreading the word of God). There were concrete volleyball pitches in every village. Troublingly though was the fierce and grave epidemic that had Ecuador firmly in it’s clutches – The Moustache. A gaggle of bristling Soup Strainers were there to greet me as I cycled into my first Ecuadorian village – they were attached to the faces of a troop of men, one of which would certainly have done well with a decent singing voice, undoubtedly opening the door to a career as the world’s best Freddie Mercury impersonator. The men and their quivering lip plumage let me shower and granted me permission to sleep outside the church, as I settled down for the night two motorbikes parked up.

Oli and Mat – A German and an American, adventurers, between the three of us we had been on the road for almost a decade, but then any onlooker could have guessed that. Perhaps from the fist sized rips in each of our clothes. Perhaps from the painted alpaca skull on the front of Mat’s bike or the Skull and Crossbones and words ‘Carpe Diem’ on the body. Perhaps from the repeated use of the phrase “New Day, Same Pants” the next morning. But perhaps not from Oli’s motorbike – a fully loaded 70 cc model he’d, somehow, been riding since Pakistan. Food pooled, we cooked together and talked in lists – the best places we’d slept, the stickiest substance that has leaked inside a pannier, our craziest adventures (Mat’s tale of paddling the Darien Gap by canoe topping that one). And as I stared out over the cloud-filled valley I thought about how a day can back flip and cartwheel and embrace you – this morning I was dirty, late, tired, lonely and pissed off. It’s a tired cliche that nobody wants to hear when they’re down – but things really do always get better. I know I won’t remember that next time.

The Crackpot Magnet

My birthday rolled around as I rolled into Vilcabamba, my third on the road and my thoughts strayed to my previous celebrations – thirty was spent festooned in traditional Arabic dress in Syria when a family invited me in from the desert and threw me an impromptu party. Thirty one was probably as fun but less memorable – Cape Town, Jagerbombs and ‘the caterpillar’ dance are about the only details I can be sure of. Vilcabamba though offered a nice twist, being as it is – one of the downright weirdest towns on earth.

Vilcabamba’s story is a little hazy and uncertain, a bit like it’s latest residents. The valley it lies in gained notoriety, and became known as the Valley of Longevity, once locals were observed to live unusually long lives. By 1973 these oldies made it onto the cover of National Geographic and soon after the scientists arrived, as did the mystics and the hippies, all keen to learn the secret – and you could pick and choose the culprit: mineral rich water, extra strong anti-oxidants, a magic tree, and a host of more exotic theories.

And ever since life in Vilcabamba has been tinged with a likable absurdity. Researchers dug around and found that the old folks tended to exaggerate their ages and that these exaggerations became grander the older the person got – eighty year olds were routinely claiming that it was time to celebrate their 130th birthday, so eager they were for prestige in the community. Now Vilcabamba is a mecca for ageing American hippies who need their pension to stretch a bit further and who believe there really is something special about the environment here. There are a host of other characters as well though – political refugees (in the loosest possible sense), spiritualists, conspiracy theorists, rosy cheeked alcoholics and various crackpots. “Oh Yeah… We get a lot of freaks here” a hostel owner confided to me. Noticeboards around town advertise psychic crystal readings, dowsing seminars, fire guardians as well as the odd house to rent with ‘a healing space’. Around the town square sit artisans, many from Europe, plying their wares and a few stoners selling poems with titles like ‘the unfortunate gooseberry’, no doubt the brain child of a magic mushroom bender in the 70s. And of course there’s the self styled shaman who sells hallucinogens to tourists. Recently the leader of a group arrived here from Britain, and with followers. Their focus is on time travel, alien abductions and mind control and their website reassures those who perhaps judge them a little insane – “We have no intention of ending our own lives”. Meander around the town for an afternoon or evening and its easy to find yourself engaged in an impassioned conversation about a range of fantastical conspiracy theories and doomsday scenarios. Rumour had it some residents had even built a bunker near the town in the hills – the end of the world is on it’s way, apparently.

The town’s eccentrics made it a nice place to chill out for a few days, but better still… I met a girl. According to another cyclist I know, this is akin to getting a really slow puncture. And after some days together I cycled off, she was still in Vilcabamba, but travelling south. I cycled out of town feeling great, feeling invincible even and then very quickly – like I was making a big mistake. She was still there and I was cycling in the wrong direction. I emailed her. She emailed me. There was a festival north of Vilcabamba in Latacunga called Mama Negra. Let’s meet up. I felt invincible again.


Mamacita and Mama Negra 

“What’s going on?!” I yelled over. “No idea!” my mamacita shouted back.

She had been pulled into the multi-hued vein of the procession and was surrounded by men dressed in white robes with striped masks who were tapping her legs with coloured bones and spitting sugar cane spirit into her face. It was a cleansing ritual, I found out later. Just then a tubby man sat astride a horse and thrashing the air with a fist cruised past. His face was painted black, he had fake breasts and he was holding a doll of a black infant in his other hand, savagely beating the air with the child, the crowd were yelling in delight despite the lack of parental concern of the mock parent for the mock child. This was Mama Negra Festival and that was Mama Negra her/him-self.

The origins of Mama Negra festival  have been blurred by the passage of time, in reality its probably an amalgamation of cultural and religious celebrations. From an outsiders perspective it doesn’t immediately sit well. Blacked up faces? Pointy white hoods? Men dressed as black women? But this is a celebration of the cultural diversity that came with Africans arriving on Ecuadorian shores, and of religion too and perhaps transvestism, which also seems to be a common theme.

The Wickerman on LSD is what comes to mind as I watch the procession roll on, everyone in the crowd now inexorably pissed, including the ten year olds, and there’s a vaguely menacing air to the drooling drunks dressed as some kind of clown. The carcasses of large pigs are carried by men, decorated with bottles of booze and dead chickens, and seem to sway to the music which comes courtesy of brass bands comprised of men in dark aviator sunglasses and suits, like Colombian drugs barons. Behind them dancers in more traditional South American dress, firing out dance moves tirelessly as the parade moves on and the town gets drunker.

By nightfall the city of Latacunga has undergone a sinister transformation and the residents are comatose in puddles on the street side or fighting or stumbling and moaning. The less inebriated have taken to setting fire to things. As I left the square to find a toilet two teenagers grabbed my hand, one threw a clumsy punch which I blocked with my left hand. Only a few minutes later, with blood streaming down my arm and a deep laceration to my index finger, did I realise that the kid must have struck out with a knife, and I didn’t even see the weapon. But despite the grim hangover that was the night time antics, the celebration itself was a blinder.

The day after the riot, I mean festival, I said goodbye to my mamacita. I returned to Cuenca and my bike. I pedalled off, and that was that. Onward, but with a slightly heavy heart, to Quito and then Colombia.

I think he’s just trying to read that logo on her top. Yep, that must be it.

The Snail-way to Serendipity

One more day on the road

My alarm clock makes no sound, she breaches distant hills and warm filaments of rubicund light filter into my tent, gently spurring me to wake. I rise and prepare for one more day on the road.

I munch and I guzzle, carbs and caffeine my first call. Over the next half hour my tent is slowly purged of its contents and my bike becomes bulky, panniers and dry bags tethered to the rack and frame. Packing up is an automatic ritual now, whilst my hands complete the task my mind replays the events of yesterday, or any other day behind me. There’s no radio or TV news in the background, the world is a mystery. I could guess the time but I don’t know it, there’s no deadline to rejoin the road and nobody will get upset if I’m late, but I never wait long, I look forward to the moment too much.

I roll my bike back onto the road I left in the dusky dregs of yesterday and the moment begins. Time slows for peaceful speculation, some seconds of intrigue and of calm. I zero my speedo. My eyes stray to a point somewhere up ahead or I muse over my map, imagining what the dots and lines have in store. Yesterday feels a long time ago.

Maybe today I’ll breeze across perfect tarmac through a desert on a raging tailwind clocking up two hundred kilometres before sunset. Maybe I’ll battle, curse and sweat up rough tracks high in the mountains covering little ground.

Maybe today I’ll be bullied into roadside dust by the hasty drivers of city and suburbia, maybe I’ll freewheel in solitude around deserted lake shores and through sprawling forests, redolent of pine.

Maybe today I’ll spot exotic wildlife and snatch for my camera, maybe I’ll face the stench of anonymous roadkill, maybe I’ll hear strange sounds but never glimpse their owners.

Maybe today I’ll join some locals for food or tea, maybe I’ll swap tales with another cyclist, maybe I’ll yearn for company, maybe at the end of the day I won’t notice or care that I haven’t spoken with anyone.

And when that end comes perhaps I’ll wish the sun could hover above the horizon for a few more hours and I could ride on, or perhaps I’ll retreat from the road, defeated and depressed, wishing that today never was, whatever the case I know that tomorrow morning there will be a moment of time waiting for me when I will ponder again an unknown future that comes hand in hand with the drift of the road. If I ever lose that moment I will know it’s time to come home, but tomorrow there will be other roads to ride and I’m hungry for them. Tomorrow is full of maybes and tomorrow will be different, in small and subtle or brilliant and explosive ways. The surprise of tomorrow is just one more reason for aiming my sights at the horizon and pedalling on into one more day on the road.

The journey continues…

The Andes lined up like children in a school photo, distinct rows of rock increasing in stature, rising up from the east. In there somewhere was Aconcagua, the lankiest pupil in Class Andes, it’s peak resides at almost 7000 metres above sea level. In there too was Paso Libertadores, my route back into Argentina, the busiest of the forty or so connections between the two countries. For me it was just another jaunt through the mountains but for the Chilean biker I met en route to the pass it was more like a pilgrimage. He told me that his father had died six years ago, his ashes had been scattered at the top next to the four tonne statue of Christ the Redeemer on the old road that marks the frontier. On this day every year he cycles the pass, every year he talks to his dead father as he pedals.

The road to the pass followed the twists and turns of the river and a claustrophobia built as I became more hemmed in by the surrounding rock. The peripheral sky shrank away, traded for the craggy shoulders of mountains, which framed an ever diminishing blue streak above. For half a day of riding the road clung to the river, but when the bond was broken it was a dramatic parting, the river idled away around some corner of the valley and the road took a desperate leap up the side of a mountain in a series of sharp, intimidating chicanes. Locals refer to this section as Paso Caracoles – Snail’s Pass. Everything that climbs up does so at a snail’s pace, trucks, cars and me. The Andes in summer are unlike any mountains I have seen before, the spectrum of colours from oxidised minerals, all shades of brown, yellow, amber and deep scarlet, fashions an unearthly feel. The popularity of this pass with motorists took out some the adventure the other Andean passes had offered but there is a certain kudos that comes with tackling Libertadores. At the top of the main section of switchbacks it was possible to see at once just how far I had come up, the drivers could see it too and for hours they honked, waved, cheered and applauded. At 3200 metres there’s a tunnel, my bike could have been loaded onto a truck but the old road up to the statue of Cristo Redentor (Christ the Redeemer) looked too tempting to pass up, a rough road leaves the tarmac and wiggles up to 3832 metres above sea level. Not only would this be the highest I have managed to cycle so far but the gain in altitude would be fairly quick, enough for the effects of low levels of oxygen in unacclimatised lungs to add to the challenge. I had camped at 1300 metres the night before so I faced a continuous climb of a meaty 2600 metres over one day, dwarfing my previous biggies, riding from the Dead Sea to the Kings Highway in Jordan and The Blue Nile Gorge of Ethiopia.

Translation – Mountain road. Take precautions. Steep gradient for 55 km.

The suplhur stained rocks of Puente de Inca
At the top of the pass stands Christ The Redeemer of The Andes, a statue donated by the Bishop of Cuyo to help ease tensions between the two countries. In fact Chile and Argentina were on the verge of war when various religious figures stepped in like school teachers forcing two feuding pupils to shake hands and make up. The statue was carried up in pieces by mules in 1904 and the two armies, who were days before ready to do battle with one another, fired gun salutes together. A plaque on the statue reads 
“Sooner shall these mountain crags crumble to dust than Chile and Argentina shall break this peace which at the feet of Christ the Redeemer they have sworn to maintain.”

The last three hundred vertical metres were tired, hypoxic ones but I gleefully freewheeled down the other side, weaving my way through loose stones with just the afterglow of dusk and a full moon to guide me. It was cold at the top so I decided against camping with Jesus.
In Santiago there is a rebellious group of bikers who call themselves Los Furiosos Ciclistas – The Furious Cyclists. On the other side of the pass I wished I had joined their ranks. Trucks careered past, too close for comfort, emitting the long hard horn blasts that say “Get Off My Road!”. Last month two Dutch cyclists on a tandem were hit and killed by a truck in Argentina and it’s easy to see how it could happen. I have nothing against truckers in general, they helped me out when I hitched across Europe, they have stopped to give me fruit, they often give me a wide birth and I have even grabbed the back of them to get up mountains in Ethiopia, but I fantasised about what I would do if I ever caught up with one of the careless idiots on this road. I memorised number plates. I imagined myself strolling into a roadside cafe and walking out minutes later, in the background a trucker is face down in his fried breakfast.

Just as was I losing my rag with another speeding juggernaut a character arrived on the scene to cheer me up. Winold, The Potty Mouthed Polish Cyclist.

Winold was on a six week loop from Buenos Aires, I asked him a few questions about his journey.

“So why did you choose to ride Argentina?”
“One day I was, you know, picking the shit out of my nose and I just thought “Argentina!” he announced with a thick Slavic accent
“Oh I see. Is that a GPS you’ve got there?”
“Yeah. My girlfriend gave it to me”
“Good present”
“Yeah. Then she dump me”
“Oh right”
“Yeah. She say me or Argentina. I say Argentina. She say fuck off”
“I see”

Winold The Potty Mouthed Polish Cyclist then shoved his hands into his lycra shorts and rummaged vigorously
“Ahh my ass and balls man. They are really suffering! I tell you!”

Winold was a good companion. His propensity to erupt into profanities in both Polish and English never failed to amuse me. We rode together for a few days, explored Mendoza’s wine routes and sampled some of the produce as we went but entering the city was a minor fiasco. We were stopped on the road by a young earnest looking Police Officer who began a detailed search of our panniers. He made a point of smelling the contents of our wallets and head bags, hunting for narcotics. I had a sinking feeling when he removed the tube of electrolyte tablets, the feeling was akin to the one you get when you lose your balance on a downhill and know you’re about to hit the ground but haven’t yet made impact, this feeling was because I knew that the tablets had long since crumbled into a fine white powder. He eyed the container with suspicion and pried open the lid sending a puff of white into the air and when his eyes met mine they were wide and dangerous. I laughed, I think I had to, and did my best to explain. To our relief he gave us an irritable wave and permission to continue.

After I split from Winold The Potty Mouthed Polish Cyclist I made good ground with the help of a couple of days of tailwinds and flat terrain. To the West the arresting form of the Andes exploded from the plains, there were no rolling foothills, just the sudden silhouettes of giants. It was harvest season for the wineries, trucks full to the brim with grapes passed by. The air felt dry and torrid in the morning but it became muggy in the afternoons and violent summer storms gathered by the early evening, the rain was usually slight but the lightning spectacular and intimidating if amongst it. My plan was to tackle a remote pass back into Chile but it was only open for four days of the week leaving me two days to kill in Villa Union. Whilst I was wondering about what to do with my two days off in a small village, Belinda, my bicycle, decided for me. The gear cables leading to my Rohloff Hub became detached. It had happened two weeks earlier on the approach to Santiago. I rode in on one gear and went to find the head mechanic of a renowned, clean, shiny bike store, the largest in Chile’s capital. He charged me a whopping sum and now two weeks down the road the problem was back. In Villa Union I found the town’s only mechanic. I suspected his work would hold up because everyone knows that a mechanic’s ability is proportional to the blackness of his jeans, the level of chaos in the workshop and the volume of the ambient music. He was swathed in oil and grime and shouted questions to me over the blare of Argentine pop whilst he sifted seemingly without focus through vast containers of metal parts amongst the total disarray of his grubby garage. He had never encountered a Rohloff Hub before but half an hour later the job was done, he had given me a couple of tools and a tutorial in case the problem recurred and then refused all payment.

I decided to leave my bike in Villa Union and hitch hike to Chilecito and back to use the Internet and ATM, a simple plan that fell apart in the best way. A Chilean family on holiday took me there, the journey was interspersed with gasps and sighs of delight, behind the glass of the car windows the views were sublime. Layered sheets of rust coloured rock, ancient layers of sea, lake and river sediment, jutted out at angles, teetering ships sinking into a red sea of sandstone. The cliche here was unavoidable – the enormity of nature, the insignificance of me amongst it. The bulbous tops of columnar cacti the height of small houses poked up from the precipitous drop next to the road and the vista was a tricolour, the deep blue of summer sky, the blaze of dry red earth and the deep green of cacti, succulents and other foliage. It was a combination of contrast, one that felt desiccated and tropical at once although the latter is a fallacy, rain is sparse and fleeting here.

I tried to hitch hike back in the afternoon but ended up sitting roadside, bored and fed up, the traffic had completely dried up as the town prepared for Carnival. After four hours I had no choice but to return to Chilecito to spend the night, but when down and frustrated, serendipity struck. I found the cheapest hostel in town, from the garden I could hear music. Outside two girls were dancing, waving handkerchiefs in the style of zamba dance, two were singing in perfect harmony and a guy strummed a guitar. The music was the traditional sound of folklore, gentle and breezy. They were practising for a performance that night in the town and invited me along. We danced and partied until the earlier hours. The next day they left Chilecito to continue their tour of the regions Carnivals, aiming for the most popular shindig, La Rioja, on Saturday.

The next day I tried again to hitch back to Villa Union. After two hours without joy three Chilean hitch hikers turned up. No cars came by but at least I had company, we played drums, danced and joked about for hours in the sunshine. Somehow they had blagged two roast chickens from a previous lift, these were used to entice truckers but eventually it dawned on me that we had no chance of catching a ride. I had to return once again to Chilecito to find a hostel, the next day I heard there was a bus to Villa Union. I had with me just the clothes I was wearing, a bottle of water, my wallet and my journal and the next day when I was told that the only bus was full I had no idea what to try next, but as I digested the grim news and pondered my options a bus for La Rioja turned up. Without hesitation I jumped aboard. I knew I had to make the most of a bad situation and it was this philosophy that put me on a four hour bus ride in the opposite direction to my bicycle and almost all of my belongings, wearing the same clothes for the last three days, in search of some dancing musicians and a flour fight.

The Carnival in La Rioja is known as La Chaya and most of the fun occurs in the stadium outside town and is set to the musical stylings of folklore artists and musicians. The origins of the festival lie in a tragic love story told by the native South American Indians. Chaya was a very beautiful girl who fell in love with a young prince of a tribe. The families and elders of the tribe forbade the relationship and Chaya became so sad she disappeared in the mountains, becoming cloud. The Prince searched for her in mountains without success and then drank himself to death. During La Chaya it looked to me like young Argentinians were doing their best to imitate the prince, but for a less noble cause. The entire city was sloshed.

I tagged along with a group from my hostel after failing to reach my dancing musician friends. Once inside the stadium one of my new friends asked me whether I was ready to be part of the party. When I nodded he tipped half a bag of flour over my head. Within half an hour an immense flour fight had begun, nobody escaped the action. Every one of the 15,000 inside the stadium was caked in flour, people threw bags of it and sprayed their friends and strangers with flour guns.

Eventually I made it back to Villa Union, sat on the bus, still wearing the same clothes but now also wearing a thick coat of flour. It’s in moments like these that people so often muse that everything happens for a reason. I don’t honestly believe that some higher power had directed me to be amongst 15,000 revellers covered head to toe in flour, and serendipity may be an overused and corrupted term, but I think it fits.

I apologise for the paucity of photos this month, I didn’t have my camera with me when most of the fun was happening. On the next stage I will be rubbing shoulders with some of the highest volcanoes on earth. I plan to take a remote pass back into Chile, hauling 12 days of food and climbing to over 4000 metres via a pass that is only open for thirty odd days of the year. Then I loop back through another pass that climbs to almost 5000 metres, the second highest between Chile and Argentina. I will report back next month.