The Tilcara – Calilegua traverse
It’s 3am when the rain wakes me up. It’s thundering outside. Not the best conditions to start a multi-day-trip. We’re in northern Argentina and about to start a three-day-trip from Tilcara to Calilegua Nationalpark: over 60km, 3500m elevation gain and 5500m downhill. All this occurs on 96% of a single trail out in the scarcely populated Andes. Will it be a mud battle, or will we have the perfect grip and traction? I fall back asleep to the sound of the rain tapping on the roof of our van.
Four hours later we’re sitting in in Fancisco Josés comfy pick-up truck as he shuttles us up to the trailhead near Tilcara. The sun has fought its way through the clouds and we’re happy that the weather has turned around. As the mashed out dirtroad jerks us around, Francisco recounts the story of how he met Dan Milner and Hans Rey five years ago. He tells that Dans email almost got lost in his spam-filter. But in the end, both of them showed up in Tilcara and Hans Rey discovered one of his top-five trails in the Andes. Without their inspiration Liza and I wouldn’t be here in this Argentinian no-man’s land. Such chance encounters between bike enthusiasts reveal trails you would probably never discover yourself.
At the trailhead we grab our bikes from the back of his pick-up and say goodbye to Francisco. Ahead of us lies an exhausting climb up to 4200m asl. From there we descend to the village of Huaira Huasi, consisting of five clay houses. The people who live here are nomadic shepherds who move with their animals from one valley to another. It’s possible that nobody will be around, there are no guarantees. Thus, we opt to carry a tent to shelter from any rough weather conditions we could encounter. Francisco has provided us with a handwritten note; requesting permission to sleep in the village, should we bump into somebody. The uncertainty of the situation is exciting.
Within the first few meters of the uphill, our bikes become five kilograms heavier, our tires weighted down by muddy sand. We resign ourselves to pushing the overweighted bikes up the hill, our shoes sinking into the boggy loam. Sunlight refracts through the previous night’s raindrops, hanging from the several meter high cactuses. The path quickly narrows and within minutes we find ourselves on the awaited single trail. It feels like we’re walking through a stratified rock-prism: turquoise, grass-green, russet and yellow layers surround us. The colours running throughout the entire mountain.
Further up we finally begin pedalling! After a small river-crossing we reach the wide Altiplano. Only a few minutes remain until we reach the highest point of this trip. An old wooden cross marks the summit at 4142m. Here lies a source, however our water resources should last until the next village.
We rest for a moment, before we start the descent toward Huaira Huasi. The trail winds twelve kilometres down into the valley. With a proper speed we drop in – pure trail fun! We enjoy the deep cornering. We slow down on the well-formed trail due to some switchbacks around moss that’s bigger than us. Beside some bushes along the creek it’s the only vegetation far and wide.
During a lunch break Liza discovers a skeleton from a donkey by the wayside. Perhaps we should have refilled out water at the last source after all?
It’s November and the beginning of the rainy season. The sun is gracious with us and the increase of rocks on the trail demands higher skills. We enjoy the superb grip of our tires on the rough rocks and dive into an ocean of fluffy clouds. Foresight? Zero percent! The sudden appearance of a mule amidst the fog equally frightens both the mule and myself. I manage to stop centimetres away from it; it stares me down momentarily before disappearing up the slope into the clouds. The humidity is so high, that every blink sprinkles our cheeks with vapour. We don’t breathe, we inhale. “According to the GPS, we should be nearly there” Liza says. I shrug my shoulders and reply: “No idea”. I can see as much as her: the next 10 meters. The trail contours the ridges and we can release our brakes as the visibility is getting better. We encounter landslides that force us to get off and pass the bikes to each other.
We take a look around to see if anybody is here besides the cattle. We’re knocking at a wooden gate and an elderly local man opens it to greet us. Grinning he asks: “Where the hell have you come from and where are you heading?” “Towards Calilegua” we reply, followed quickly by “But not today”. He laughs and allows us to refill our water. At least that worked out fine! It’s early afternoon and we decide not to ask to stay for the night. Since we’ve hauled the tent, we figure we should proceed and set up camp a little further, somewhere in the nowhere. “Hurry up, guys. Otherwise it’ll get too late.” mumbles the old farmer, grinning, his cheek full of coca leaves. We take his advice and continue onto several river crossings.
After reaching the other side of this colourful valley, we start to climb again. We gain a couple of hundred altitude meters and discover some gloomy stone walls, which will serve to protect us from the wind. This will be our camp for tonight. The fluffy clouds catch us again and we shelter in the tent. The last thing we hear is somebody passing by on horseback through the dense fog. We fall asleep, lulled by the sound of the falling rain on our tent before the sun sets.
On the second day we’re awoken by a neigh, followed by stomping hoofs. The first glance out of the soppy tent reveals a huge herd of horses. The clouds are gone and we now recognize where we are. A handful of gauchos round up the horses that are having breakfast in the Itchu-grass landscape. While watching the herd descend into another valley we also eat breakfast. Two little girls with satchels walk by and wave. We greet them back and wonder where they’ve come from, as they continue through the fresh dew. The sun is still behind the mountain lighting the neighbouring valley. It casts a golden light on the hillside while in the opposing valley an inversion raises.
Ahead of us lies a short climb to the double peak El Portal. From there the downhill begins. The name El Portal is justifiable: we have a depth of view down a few thousand meters. Through the shredded clouds we can see a dense green forest. This must be the cloud forest. What an exciting preview of the upcoming change of scenery – let’s get there!
Passing through the tiny village of Mollulo the trail leads to San Lucas – today’s destination. The descent is a technical delight! Pretty fast we approach very close to the cloud layer below us. With some short but steep ascents we reach Mollulo as planed around midday. The regions one and only school is located here, for all the children from the surrounding villages. Coming from Huaira Huasi it has been approximately ten kilometres of single trail. We now realize that the girl’s we’d seen earlier in the day were on their way to school – what a route! One of the two teachers informs us that during the week the pupils stay overnight in the school. He allows us to fill up our water and without losing any time we’re back on the trail. We ride up and down along a very exposed ridge. We dive into the chilly clouds on one side and pop up on the other side with the sun warming us. The view of the valley rapidly comes and goes.
As the forest increases, lamas, sheep, goats, cattle and a bunch of horses graze along the trail. There’s not a soul far and wide. Does the cattle skull we encounter intend to be a town sign? Or is it a warning? We won’t find out. Maybe it’s better that way. We’re still in the diverse descent!
The ground is getting less and less rocky as we leave the last of the long slickrocks behind us, it starts to get rooty. “This here reminds me of Tessin!” I remark. A few meters later we’re back on the pure-red soil, surfing it down into a saddle where the last uphill for the day starts. It’s way too steep to ride or to push, so we shoulder our bikes straight away. Despite this, we still have big grins on our faces thanks to the last section. We’re looking forward to arriving in San Lucas. From behind me Liza declares “A cup of hot chocolate, with empanadas would be nice” to which I counter “No, coffee!”. Those longings motivate us for the last 300m elevation gain. And before long we’re looking at the few corrugated roofs of San Lucas shimmer in the evening sun below us.
The last descent of the day leads us through a luscious green forest, where lianas tumble from the massive trees. After arriving in the village, we have about 30 kilometres of an Andean trail in our limp legs and arms – what a fulfilling day! We look for Doña Teresa and find her. The night will be spent in her rustic house. It’s one of the seven clay buildings with a corrugated iron roof. She welcomes us into her huge garden, as she rests on her well-used machete. She pours us hot coffee which she serves with still-hot, freshly baked bread from the clay oven. “Normally I’d offer you a hot shower, but we’ve got problems with the water” she says. However, the ice-cold bucket-mug shower is refreshing, and we wash the salt from our skin. Sometime later three Gauchos arrive through the same gate as us; their horses fully loaded with food supplies for the village. It seems like they also brought a storm with them: Lightning and loud thunder come from the valley. They tie up the horses next to our bikes, somehow this sight fits. For dinner we’re given Tamales, typical of the region, filled with minced corn and meat. The rain has started. Exhausted by the day, we fall asleep very fast to the pattern of the rain on the iron roof.
“How was the sleep?” Doña Teresa asks as she pours hot water into our mugs from a heavily sooted teapot. Wood fires are still their primary method of cooking here. We start the day with a pretty small breakfast. The Gauchos are also at the gate and ready to go. They take a bit longer to get the horses ready than us with the bikes.
Leaving after our goodbyes, we let the wheels spin and dive back into the red-green-flow-coaster! The wide grin is back on our faces. Today is only 10km. The trail is freshly maintained: new switchbacks and clean drain trenches. Some European trail builders could learn by example from here. Our host explained to us that this maintenance work takes place before every rainy period.
Like on a pumptrack we cruise over the flatter but wavy parts of the trail while the forest becomes denser. Again, we share the trail with free-range animals. Everything and everyone has peace and tranquillity. Well, of course: we’re still in South America after all. While waiting for the horses to clear the trail, we crane our necks, spotting an impressive huge red wall crisscrossed with waterfalls above us.
The fog forest still grows denser and the red valley narrower. Similar to a natural marble run the trail leads us above the treetops towards Rio San Lucas. The turns are wide and high, and we can use them as berms and wallrides. The brakes become less essential and it feels like a huge rollercoaster. Blooming bushes are nestled in the trunks of several trees.
When we stop to rest a 20cm long centipede crawls along next to my front tire. I wonder what else hides in the thicket?
Meter-high cactuses protrude into the trail and we weave our way through them. A tiny waterfall sloshes in the wind left and right, signalling we’re now in the deep jungle. The river is drawing closer as well as the end of this unforgettable Tilcara – Calilegua trail. Our finish line is the old rusty concrete bridge over the Rio San Lucas.
At the end of this spectacular traverse between the two villages we’re loaded with endorphins.
At the main road on the other side of the valley we hitch a ride to the next town, where we get on a bus (actually several busses) that take us back to our van in Tilcara.
What a fantastic three days! A small Andean crossing in only three days, through five vegetation zones; all spread over 60 kilometres of one single trail: It’s one of the best trails I’ve ridden so far. Would we do it again? For sure! But maybe during another season.