Salta's High Desert Highways

Salta's High Desert Highways

Angie is dwarfed by a towering Candelabra cactus, one of many that contributed to her 10 flat tires in a single day. It's best to come to this region well-equipped with tire patch kits, or plan to ride tubeless with sealant in your tires. Los Cardones National Park is festooned with these magnificent plants, which become homes for small owls that burrow into the soft cactus flesh.

We used the 4x4 tracks of Los Cardones National Park as a conduit to get from one side to the other, detouring onto dry riverbeds whenever we came across them. Though the 4x4 tracks weren't incredible from a technical standpoint, they provided a great way to see the park’s beauty and, at 9,000-plus feet of elevation, still provided us a decent workout.

Canyons and dry riverbeds weave through a rugged pink landscape, making for solid out-and-back riding. The real fun came near the top of each riverbed, where the canyons narrowed and became highly technical. Once we reached the impassable, we turned around and enjoyed the descent, usually littered with drop-offs and dozens of line choices.

At over 9,000 feet of elevation and with temperatures easily reaching 80 degrees Fahrenheit as early as November, you have to be up early to ride in Los Cardones. A bonus of riding in northern Argentina is the mate tea that’s popular here. Drink a good one with breakfast and you’ll be buzz your way across the high desert without a thought for altitude acclimatization.

It's rare to find a decent bike shop in the towns and villages, and most of what shops are here double up as washing machine service centers (hey, when you're handy, you're handy). On trips like these, we pack all the essential spares—a spare rear derailleur, brake hydraulic fluid and a bleed kit and spare disc rotors. Cables and patches are fairly easy to come by, though.

None of the dry riverbeds we rode were too steep, which meant we had easy pedaling on the way up and fast, flowy fun—punctuated by jumps and other surprises—on the way down. These arroyas are dry through the Southern winter. Their surface sand, which at first sight looks soft and unrideable, is baked as hard as concrete. Formations are frozen in time, left behind by the last summer storm to wash through.

Riding far off the beaten track, we felt certain we were seeing majestic landscapes that escape the average rental car tourist.

Incredible rock formations punctuate every ride here, but you’re not likely to find any shade. This beautiful area was a half-hour dry riverbed climb from the roadside. Not every riverbed offered such great riding though, as some petered out after only 10 minutes or so.

We spent a couple of days in the remote village of Iruya (accessible by rental car or public bus), which is cut off from civilization by a 13,000-foot pass. The town is supplied—miraculously, it seems—by aging trucks that labor over the pass, or by mules via rutted tracks that zigzag up the steep mountain walls. We explored those same mule trails by mountain bike before moving on.

When we bought a one-way ticket out of Iruya for a one-hour bus ride up the towering pass, the driver raised his eyebrows in concern. But we stashed our bikes on the roof rack and went for it anyway, buying a joyful afternoon of descending for just a couple of bucks.