Saturday 28 January 2023

Memories of bike rides in Argentina - Part 1

New bike lane in central Buenos Aires

As the professional cyclists compete on the roads of Argentina during the Tour of San Juan stage race this takes me back to this time five years ago when I took a trip to to South America. 

It was my second trip to the continent and a second time to Argentina. I also managed to get across to neighbouring Chile, which was a maiden visit for me. It was a pity I couldn't spend much time there, though I hope to return to the spine of South America and see a bit more than ViƱa del Mar, Valparaiso and Santiago.

Conversely Argentina is a country from where I've had a good helping both on and off the bike. Here are a few of my on-bike memories.

Buenos Aires (known as BA)

The first time I rode a bicycle in the Argentine capital was in 2006. I had this dream of getting around the city by bike as my time there was limited, so it would also be a way of seeing more of the city. After spending time in a phone box in the town centre, ringing almost every bike shop in central Buenos Aires listed in the yellow pages (paginas amarillas) I found a shop that had an old sit-up-and-beg bike that I could use. 

The shop owner, seeing me as a fresh-off-the-boat gringa was keen to make sure I would be safe riding around the city. He spent time showing me the controls on the bike like it was a new-fangled contraption that I was seeing for the first time. He offered me a cycle helmet that he had taken out of a draw and was dusting down. It was clearly not the custom for folks to wear helmets, but on this occasion he wanted to make my BA experience a positive, and at least, safe one. 

Then he gave me a map of the central area and pointed out various roads that I must absolutely not cycle along. Es muy muy peligroso, he kept saying. Then as I cycled out of the shop he stood and watched me, a bit like a parent anxiously watching their child riding a bicycle without stabilisers, unassisted for the first time.

It was really sweet of him to show that sort of concern. I guess I was a novelty, turning up on my own to rent a bicycle that I'd be riding around the city. At that time, cycling infrastructure in Buenos Aires was nothing to write home about. Well actually it was non-existent!

Emerging cycle culture in Palermo, Buenos Aires

I was staying in the Recoleta district and the ride from the city centre to my hotel involved going along the Avenida del Libertador, a wide road with four-lanes in each direction that was also a popular bus route. Vehicles would tear down the road like they were in some sort of a time trial and there were many bus stops along the way. 

So you had to be mindful of buses pulling in and out, as well as the rest of the traffic. Thinking back about it, it probably was a little scary. It was probably a similar road to the one in Colombia where former Tour de France winner Egan Bernal had his serious collision with a bus last year. I must say, I was riding around BA as someone who was used to cycling in Central London (pre-cycle Superhighways) so I felt quite at home!

Those few days I had on the bike were really fun, seeing different neighbourhoods including contrasting places like La Boca and Palermo. I did have to make an unscheduled stop in La Boca at a mini cycle workshop to repair the bike as a screw on the saddle was coming loose. Again, the guy there was very helpful and was keen to give a good impression. He was also curious when I said I was from London. "Which is better? Buenos Aires or London?" he asked. "Well Buenos Aires is lovely and the weather is much better than in London" I replied. Given that this was the month of February, and the height of summer in Argentina it was the best answer I could give, as someone whose favourite city is London! As well as getting to know different parts of Central BA I also did a ride out to Tigre, a popular arty, touristic town north of the city, on the Parana Delta.

On my return to the bike shop the owner was very pleased to see me and was just glad I had made it around the city in one piece! 

Cycling was not such a widespread activity at that time, but fast-forward to 2018, and I found that things had changed significantly. BA, like many cities around the world had developed its own cycling infrastructure, and there even seemed to be a nascent cycling culture. 

Bike lane in Buenos Aires

Avenida del Libertador now had a long cycle superhighway along it, as did many roads around the city. There were special areas to park bicycles and a bikesharing scheme. It was even possible to park my bike in a public multi-storey car park which is manned. You give the parking attendant a few Pesos and he shows you to an allocated place to lock up and leave your bike while he watches it. Now that's what I call that VIP service!

Palermo, the area where I was staying, had quite a few bike shops that hired out cycles, and some of the hotels were doing so too. So finding a bicycle was really easy, and cycling around BA had become as commonplace as it was convenient. It was so useful to be able to pick up a bike and use it to get to a running race I'd signed up for in Central BA (San Silvestre 10km). I also did other mini tours exploring the area around Belgrano, River Plate, the coastal roads near the University, and going south to the modern Puerto Madero district, where I met up with my friend, Mariana. 

Mariana seems to be a well-known christian name in Argentina, for I met another woman by that name, a hipster who ran a bike shop around the corner from where I was staying. She managed to get me a touring bike for my excursion to Tigre, and was really helpful in giving tips on places to go. 

She seemed quite excited to meet a real-life person from London, with whom she could even practice her English. I was only in BA for a week, as I had to push on to other parts of the country. The cycling I did in Argentina during my 2006 trip was limited to the BA area. For the 2018 trip I arranged to cycling in other regions of the country. So after my time in BA, on a very hot afternoon, I hotfooted it onto a southbound flight for San Carlos de Bariloche (commonly known as Bariloche), in the lake district of Argentina - a complete change of scenery and weather. 

With Mariana at her local bike hire shop in Palermo

Cycle rides on Strava

City tour to San Telmo

Ride around Palermo

Ride out to Tigre

Tour of Tigre


My first impression of Bariloche wasn't especially positive. Sure the folks I shared with the collectivo with from the airport to downtown Bariloche were friendly. But the view from the shared taxi was a bit morose. Granted, it was around 9pm and it was getting dark, after having touched down from a massively delayed flight from Buenos Aires. But the setting looked pretty grim as it had been raining all day, and the temperature was very low. 

Riding around the Bariloche area near Colonia Suiza

This was a stark contrast to the 35degree Celsius and blazing sunshine in BA that afternoon. Bariloche being in the province of Rio Negro, set in the Nahuel Huapi National Park, some 1000miles (1600km) South of the Argentine capital and on the fringes of the Andes has naturally a cooler climate than many parts of South America. In fact, I wore all my winter London layers and was still not warm enough! On my arrival at the hostel where I had booked to stay, my spirits weren't particularly lifted when the receptionist said, "You haven't picked the best day to come here. It's just been rain rain rain!"

The following morning was not much better, with persistent rain firmly on the agenda. Thankfully, things picked up in the afternoon, so I went out. It was then that I began to appreciate the town. Bariloche is not necessarily anything to write home about in terms of architecture. What is most remarkable is the mountain vibe in this gateway to Patagonia. You are stuck in this town right in the middle of mountains (known as Cerros) and lakes where everyone there seems to be hiking, rock climbing, mountain biking or some other pretty energetic activity. A popular ski resort, Cerro Catedral is nearby, but peak time for that activity would be in June, July, August. At this time of year folks had come over for the rock-climbing, hiking and via ferrata. It was like a South American version of  the English Lake District, but with much higher peaks; or maybe like Chamonix, France - but with loads more lakes.

Circuito Chico at Llao Llao, along Nahuel Huapi lake

I had reserved a mountain bike (via email) to do a tour of the Seven Lakes, so I caught a bus to the shop in El Trebol, just outside Bariloche, to introduce myself to the guys working there. While I was at it, I hired a bicycle to do a mini ride around the local area, the Circuito Chico. The route was well sign-posted for cyclists, and easy to navigate, and the roads were smooth and wide. Traffic was quite light, even though it was the height of summer and there were many holiday makers and coach parties. They seemed to have all gathered either at the Colonia Suiza or at a hugely opulent villa and restaurant at Llao Llao (pronounced shao shao). It was a very relaxing way to spend the Friday afternoon, even if there were a couple of small hills to get over. 

By the time I started my ride the bad weather had disappeared and the sun was out in full force. The area looked spectacular with the Perito Moreno Lake being a constant along the 32km (20mile) ride. I couldn't help but stop every few hundred metres to take photos. The views were amazing. 

In the woods, set in the Colonia Suiza was an independent brewery and beer garden called Berlina. It would have been rude not to stop there, so I joined the throng of the hip folks of southern Argentina and enjoyed a couple of beers. I would highly recommend the beers there; they tasted almost as good as Black Sheep beer. It was a pleasant way to end the afternoon before preparing for my upcoming mini-adventure by bike the following day.

Well-earned beer stop at Berlina Artesanal Brewery - Patagonian answer to Black Sheep!

Circuito Chico cycle ride on Strava

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Memories of bike rides in Argentina - Part 2

Cycling poetry for Burns Night - Ode to Bicycles

Argentines and Cycling

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