For those in the know: Jujuy ~ Purmamarca ~ Susques, (Argentina) ~ San Pedro de Atacama. (Chile). Paso Jama (9th ~ 15th. December.)
A thickness measured not in millimetres, but in a rich, heavy humid air, a thinness not in millimicrons, but in lactated thigh muscles and a hammering heart beat. Or by my latest standard, a choice between a Susques milanesa, or a celebratory Chilean steak.. "Could shoot peas through it", is the phraseology, or as they measure the mortar layer in an Incan temple, "can't insert a credit card". Well I think I might have a chance with today's 'comedor' lunch. A piece of breaded beef that's been pummelled, battered and rendered into a laminate for my dinner plate. I can hear the Navigator's choice, under going a similar treatment through in the back kitchen. Sounds like 'chef' is exorcising a grudge. A meal that has a further local peculiarity. The soup comes as the second course. Possibly another example of Jujuy provincial cuisine. Jujuy could be Argentina's poorest province, it's certainly it most Andean, both for its geography, for its ethnicity and for its cuisine. We cross the political boundary and immediately the prevelance of the empanada, that meat pasty with the potentially tooth breaking lucky olive stone, has given way to humitas and bunelos. Maize mash wraps and deep fried dough. The latter slathered in corn honey. The empanada hasn't totally disappeared, it's there but now coated in a casing of glazed sugar. Still, it makes for great cycling tucker.
We're heading through the top left hand corner of Argentina, heading back over the hill once again, back into northern Chile. Back up into another type of thinness. A paucity of oxygen, vegetation and habitation.
Each of the three passes that we've crossed this year have had a very different character. The Libertadores with its vacant ski resorts and views of Aconcagua; Agua Negra with its tourist traffic and soft ripio gravel; and now Paso Jama with its sporadic convoys of imported Asian and Germanic built cars. Hondas to Argentina, Beamers to Chile.
All maps that cover this area will show and name a pass. The height being numbered for the border, invariably the continental watershed. The automatic assumption being that this will be the highest point of the whole route. At 4300m, Paso Jama looked a less heart thumping undertaking than our previous hill passage. Or so I erroneously thought. What is not indicated are the two major 'abras', that require negotiations, an undertaking, that takes the high point up to over 4800metres. At least they weren't a surprise. For once we've done a bit of research. We knew that there were a few refuges, a possible resupply of water, a gas station at the frontier. Small, but utterly invaluable information. However, I had gleaned small pockets of information over years from other sources, from guide books, from on-line sites and from other travelers. This route was uninteresting, was the conclusion. "I'd take the bus next time", "it's boring, nothing to see". Sometimes I question what was anticipated, sometimes I despair, sometimes I wonder if it's just me. We're storm bound behind one of those refuge walls, sheltering out the afternoon westerly wind. We're watching a family group of vicunas who are trying to reach the sweet water spring. Small lagoons with vocal ducks and fishing flamingos, with sand hills and eroded rock tors for a backdrop. The herd are cautious, something is spooking them, and from their body language, it's not us. Eventually the patriarch starts a rush, flushes out a fox and chases it back up the hill. An Andean gull joins in, mobbing the retreating animal. It's an insignificant, minor vignette, but only possible if you take the time to stop, to watch. Uninteresting stuff. As the afternoon progresses, the wind turns from fickle to forceful, lenticulars start to form, stationary clouds that shape-shift and give rise to that tedious game: "can you see the....up there?" Meanwhile far to the east, roiling thunderheads are boiling up; we'll have another silent light show to augment the shooting stars, tonight. "Should have taken the bus". Then there are the great imponderables of life that you muse upon as you ever so slowly climb up the next slope, " why have the Mennonite Paraguayans cornered the auto transport market, and why over the Paso de Jama?". Maybe it's the thinness of air, or, "it could just be me."
Tonight we'll set up the bivvi bags, as the wind just wants to play havoc with the tent, we'll overdress for sleep and the anticipated sub zero temperatures, overheat and need to climb from our cocoons, out into the unpolluted silence of a southern night sky.
But what you can never tell when heading up into that thinness of air, is how your body will behave. Physical fitness has little to indicate performance. I know the Navigator performs better than I do, or that has been the experience up until now. On paso Agua Negra she was always In front. And from our experiences on that crossing we know that we'll need to consider the food element with care. Suffice to say, with six days from Jujuy to San Pedro de Atacama, the body behaved, even if the appetite deserted, went absent without leave, yet again. Pasta and porridge just don't 'do it'. By journey's end we're both fantasising on steaks inches thick, a mountain of thick greasy chips, with a side of mixed salad to augment the healthy option.
We push our bikes down the pedestrian calles of town, into the shade of the central plaza, into the cultural shock of 'People'. Find an outside table in one of the restaurants and order the fixed menu, the dish of the day. Mixed Salad. Roast Beef. Fried Potatoes. Rice Pudding. Nothing thin. Nothing thinning. How did they know we were coming?