PHOTOS: Riding Argentina's High Desert Highways

A mountain bike ride up a dry riverbed unlocks Salta's secrets

Northern Argentina is high, dry and rugged—a desert landscape where every adventure is served with a side of dust. While it’s quickly becoming popular as a freeride paradise—aided by location segments in recent mountain bike porn like Where the Trail Ends—there is some damn fine trail riding to be had there, too. And, with a little sideways thinking, you can score some fairly epic rides in unexpected places, but it takes patience and a sharp eye. [slideshow:570]

Squeezing our two bikes into the back of a compact rental car, we set out to explore some of the roadside riding possibilities that lurk unexpectedly among the steep hills and canyons of the Salta region. Gravel roads delivered us to neat, kilometers-long dry riverbeds, which we soon realized would make for some of the best rides we'd find in this parched landscape.

Leapfrogging locations, we used villages as bases from which to explore (actual) mule tracks in the hills and high altitude of Los Cardones National Park, which balanced our riverbed runs with real trail riding. We dodged searing heat by starting our rides in the early morning, and descending to shady village eateries by lunchtime. It was a crazy adventure of discovery, offering the challenges and rewards of finding good terrain in a harsh landscape without proper maps. In some ways, Salta never gave up its secrets to us. We never found the great technical singletrack we'd hoped for, but we were compensated with days of glorious riding in rich, red- and copper-tinged landscapes guarded by sentinel candelabra cacti.