Riding high in northern Argentina

A steak-and-Malbec fuelled adventure in the Andes
A member of the tour in the Quebrada de las Conchas © Carole Cadwalladr

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I’m a teetotal vegetarian when I arrive in Argentina. A week later — well, let’s just say I’m less so. In fact, I take one look at the juicy, bloody steak I’m offered on my first night, and the equally juicy, blood-red glass of Malbec that accompanies it, and crack instantly.

But surely I deserved it. Earlier that day we had biked through Los Cardones National Park, a vast, empty desert tucked up in the north-west corner of Argentina, through forests of 10ft-high cacti and past flocks of wild guanacos, an undomesticated version of a llama. And one of the great joys of any activity holiday, something the flop-and-beach crowd don’t realise, is that exercising hard by day is only one part of the equation. There’s also the bit where you get to stuff your face by night.

I had high hopes for this aspect of it, because the trip was organised by Butterfield & Robinson, a Canadian company that specialises in the highest of high-end biking and hiking holidays. (I hear that on one trip, by chance, Goldie Hawn and Dan Quayle ended up riding alongside each other.) The rest of the group are in a slightly more elevated tax bracket than me — it turns out that I’m the only one who doesn’t own a ski lodge in Colorado — and that’s not the only point of difference. Most group holidays attract solo travellers, but here there are seven couples, from New York, Texas and Minnesota. And me.

But it’s a convivial crowd, and we all sit together for dinner at the first night’s hotel, La Merced del Alto in Cachi. It’s a beautiful spot that feels a million miles from anywhere: 2,100 metres above sea level, it is epically remote. At sunset, the sky turns damson and there’s nothing but the sound of the trees rustling in the wind. Condors circle overhead as Agustin Calvetti, one of our two guides, briefs us on the road ahead.

La Merced del Alto hotel in Cachi © Robert Harding/Alamy

This is not like cycling in Europe, he explains. Even by Argentine standards, the place we’re in is a long way from anywhere: a three-hour flight from Buenos Aires, huddled up against the Andes near the Chilean border. Getting us to this point has involved the kind of logistics normally reserved for taking an army into war: there are two minibuses, a separate vehicle for the bikes, a bike technician, the two guides and another van for the luggage. The scarcity of decent tarmacked roads means there will be a fair few minibus transfers.

We haven’t even got on our bikes when we experience another unique aspect of cycling in Argentina. “Cocaine?” asks Doug, a New York financier, handing me a bag of coca leaves (from which the drug is made). Legal in this part of Argentina and supposedly good for the altitude, it tastes like a privet hedge and feels not unlike dental surgery: my gums go numb.

The next day’s riding takes us along a smooth road through the Calchaquí Valleys, the second-biggest wine production area in the country. It’s a bright blue day with fluffy white clouds scudding over the mountains, and we cycle along an undulating, easy road through mile after mile of vineyards. There’s a choice to bail out at 45km, 67km or do the full 90km. I think of dinner and pedal on.

This is Malbec country, home to the dark, blackberryish grape characteristic of Argentina. “I do like Malbec,” I mention offhandedly to Peggy, one half of the Texan couple. “The bartenders back home call it ‘cougar juice’,” she tells me. “It’s popular with women of a certain age.” It’s almost enough to put me off. Later, though, when we do a tasting at Bodega El Esteco, the vineyard attached to our hotel — the Patios de Cafayate, a lovely Spanish-style property with flower-filled courtyards — I decide I can cope.

The bottles are back out for our evening asado, a traditional Argentine barbecue featuring meat in all its forms — sausage, pork, chicken, about four different cuts of beef — and a full complement of cougar juice. There’s a bonfire and a tango lesson and, with the kids from the local school band playing and then haring around the garden, it feels a bit like a rather jolly wedding.

“Very Butterfield,” says Suzanne approvingly. Like most of the group, she’s a veteran of various trips, including bespoke family tours to Japan and Bhutan. And there is a phenomenally impressive attention to detail. Amanda Gary, the other guide, a Californian, tells me that for a week before the trip, she and Agustin travelled along every road and stayed at every hotel — “Just to check.” But then expectations are correspondingly high. There’s a bit of grumbling at breakfast that gets louder as the week goes on. It turns out that the New Yorkers’ idea of a power breakfast does not quite correspond to the Argentine one, whose mainstays include cake, buttery croissants and the heavenly caramel dulce de leche. Ziplock bags containing chia seeds start to appear.

Every day’s riding is different: high desert, cloud forest, wine country, and the best of the lot, Route 68, though the Quebrada de las Conchas, a sinuous road flanked by world-class scenery: high rocky bluffs and incredibly red rock canyons and pink buttes. The tarmac is smooth and there’s only a tiny amount of traffic. It might just be the best biking road in the world.

The twisting road through the Calchaquí Valleys © Getty

We end up — after the inevitable minibus transfer — in Salta, the regional capital, at a townhouse hotel with shady courtyards and hardwood floors. It’s a Wednesday evening but the town is hopping. People throng the streets, and in the cathedral there’s a queue to get near the Virgin Mary. Ana Inés Figueroa, our guide, takes us to the museum to see its startling mummified children: sacrificial victims from Inca times. Afterwards we walk through Plaza General Belgrano to the private dining room of an elegant Italian-influenced restaurant.

The Falklands still loom large, Ana tells us. She shows us her Union Jack phone case — “I get it out in meetings just to piss people off,” she says. Ana is half-British: her father met her mother in London but they came to Argentina to manage his family’s vineyard. Her mother still hosts tea parties and plays bridge — there is, she says, an Anglo-Argentine upper class who make Downton look progressive.

Ana is also Butterfield & Robinson’s ground-handler, a crucial role given that simply getting the bikes into the country was a challenge. Under the former president Cristina Kirchner, imports were restricted. “So I got my friends to dress up in cycling shorts and catch the ferry to Uruguay,” says Ana, “and we smuggled the bikes back.” Inflation still rages at 40 per cent, and everyone has a story of financial doom.

The next day, after a cool and shady ride down through rainforest, we stop for lunch on the sugarcane farm of Richard and Caroline Leach, whom Ana has known since childhood. We eat off the family china and there’s a sideboard groaning with half a dozen puddings made by Caroline, including passion-fruit mousse and the national speciality of flan, a kind of crème caramel, served with dulce de leche. Very Butterfield.

The last day sees us climbing hairpin bends in the minibus, up to 4,170 metres in the Andes. It’s windy and cold and we’re all doing “double cocaine” — chewing coca leaves and sucking coca candy. It’s an amazing view and after driving up and up, we cycle down, down and down. Coming the other way is Steve Owen, a 25-year-old from Bristol. How far have you come, I ask. “From Anchorage,” he says.

It makes our effort seem pretty lightweight: downhill with a support minibus never far away. But maybe it’s the coca, or the blinding light from the Salinas Grandes below us, an otherworldly landscape of salt flats, or possibly the prospect of more delicious cougar juice later, but it still feels pretty good.

Details

Carole Cadwalladr was a guest of Butterfield & Robinson which offers a weeklong trip from £4,195 per person, including hotels, food and wine, bikes, maps and guides

For more from our series on cycling adventures, see ft.com/greatrides

Photographs: Getty Images; Carole Cadwalladr; Robert Harding/Alamy

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