Monday, January 27, 2020

Gallivanting Around Patagonia!

Norbert and I just returned from a jaunt around the Seven Lakes region of Patagonia in southern Argentina. We were considering visiting Peninsula Valdez, on the east coast, an area known for its wildlife, but we were just outside of whale-watching season, so we chose mountains and volcanoes over penguins. As a wanderer of this world, I try not to base my travels around strict expectations, like seeing the northern lights or catching sight of a whale giving birth. Instead, I just want to be in interesting, beautiful places and see what wonders nature has in store for me. Also, the idea of tourists crowding around a penguin colony kinda freaks me out.

Anyway, last Friday we flew from Buenos Aires to Neuquen, a dusty town seemingly in the middle of nowhere. By the time we landed at 9 in the morning, the temperatures were nearing 100 and the sun was blazing with a vengeance. Unfortunately, we couldn’t cut out of town as fast as we would have liked. Norbert noticed one of the tires of the rental car had a small chunk missing, so we opted to have the tired changed instead of taking the risk. We were going on a not insignificant journey across many rugged terrains (how rugged, I didn’t have any idea just yet) and it was best to be on the safe side.

After the tire was replaced and we’d stocked up on a dozen fresh-out-of-the-oven empanadas, we hit the road: straight southwest through dry steppe for many, many hours. (We skipped the dinosaur bones site but vow to make it there next time!) I can’t recount much about this part of the journey since I was passed out most of the time. Norbert, as always, was our capable and trusty driver throughout every mile of our journey. (Have I mentioned that I’m spoiled?)

Here's a map of our journey! 

I woke up just as the scenery was getting interesting: crossing the Rio Collon Cura, which looks more like a small ocean than a river at this juncture. On the way back to Neuquen a few days later, we would have the pleasure of driving alongside this river for several hours and watching it transform from a normal sized thing to a mammoth sea of water.

The dry steppe was becoming hillier and lusher with every mile. We drove alongside a reservoir, Embalse de Alicura, before turning off the main road and onto our first (but not our last!) gravel road.

As you might have already noticed, there’s a lot of water around these parts. This is the seven lakes region, an alpine area full of lakes, waterfalls, river, and other entrapments of water. Our views got grander and grander as we drove deeper into the wilderness; we were in the Andes! 

And after many (many) hours of seeing virtually no human settlements, it was quite jarring to find a bustling town along this gravel road. Villa Traful is a quaint tourist town situated alongside the enormous lake that shares its name: Lago Traful. Cabins for rent, horses sharing the road as they gave tourists a ride, restaurants, bakeries – everything you could want was there. But what we wanted was stillness, wilderness, quiet. So, we headed back out of town and picked a scenic camping area to set ourselves up for the night. Down here at latitude 41 south, the sun stays around for a really long time into the evening, so we had plenty of time to set up our tent and wander down to the lake for an exploratory walk. What can I say: mountains plus enormous bod of water equals breathtaking beauty.

Norbert’s best friend’s father, Roberto, was excited to lend us his old tent from back in his youth. The tent had accompanied him and his late wife on many adventures, and he was excited to get the tent back into the wild. They don’t make tents like this anymore. It’s probably over 4 decades old and it’s intact. He’s done some alterations over the years but it’s essentially perfect. When we’d originally set it up, Norbert and I crawled into the tight space to see if we’d fit. It was cozy in there, but Roberto assured us that we’d be grateful for the warmth up in the cold mountains.

What we hadn’t considered was…our air mattress. I’m ashamed to say that Norbert and I are not hardcore outdoorspeople that sleep on bare ground. Norbert had barely ever camped before we got together, and while he caught onto it very quickly, he initiated a mandatory rule: an air mattress was a bare necessity. So, we’d bought the necessary air mattress in Buenos Aires, but we hadn’t had time to measure it exactly and well… it didn’t quite fit. Blown up, the air mattress was much wider than the tent walls, meaning that the already small tent was squat as a toad. From the moment I slithered inside the dark, tight space, I knew this wasn’t going to work for me. In the end, I slept in the car with everything I could find draped over me like a blanket (towels, clothes, hammock) while Norbert slept inside what I would call the casket or the tomb. Here’s a hilarious video of Norbert emerging from the womb in the morning.

The next morning, I had a glorious wander around the lake and a delicious lakeside meditation. After a breakfast of fruit, cheese and fresh bread, we went back down the rocky gravel road the way we’d came the night before. Then we joined the main road and headed south to Bariloche, probably the most famous town in the Seven Lakes region. It’s known for artisanal chocolate, skiing, and being the fabled adopted town of Adolf Hitler after he possibly escaped Europe in a submarine. Some say there is a house in the hills near Bariloche that is an exact replica of his home in Germany.

Whether or not Hitler came here to live his final days is a mystery, but the European influence around these parts is unmistakable. Hence the artisanal chocolate? There are Swiss colonies in the surrounding lakes and quaint buildings that look like they could be straight out of Bavaria.

In Bariloche, I went on the hunt for more maps while Norbert did some work stuff. On our way out of town, there were several hitch-hikers along the way and we ended up picking up Luz, a woman from Buenos Aires who recently finished medical school and is coming to San Martin de los Andes to do a two-month surgery internship. She was a delight to have along for the ride; not only did we have great conversations about machismo in Latin America (and how it’s changing) but she also showed us the proper way to enjoy mate, an important ritual in Argentina and the surrounding countries.

We couldn’t take her all the way to San Martin because we were planning on continuing westward instead of north, but we stopped at the info center in Villa La Angostura so that she could find a bus and we could find a campsite for the night. Unfortunately, neither of us had much luck. The buses were all full and the nearby campsites at some of the most beautiful lakes in the region were closed because of a recent scare with a disease spread by rats. The three of us continued northward to Pichi Traful, where the campsite was much too full, and then a bit farther to Lago Falkner where we made camp at a sweet site right on the banks of yet another beautiful lake. I think this was possibly our coldest night, but we kept warm with a roaring fire. Then Luz took advantage of Roberto’s vintage tent and Norbert and I snuggled into a new, bigger tent that we’d bought in Bariloche that day—which fit the air mattress perfectly!

In the morning, we said goodbye to Luz and headed southward, backtracking a bit to reach the road that goes into Chile. This high mountain region reminded us a bit of Iceland but with trees. We picked up two young guys who are spending 2 weeks camping in the area and learned about their studies in the capital. After dropping them off at the junction, we were on our way into Chile—a new country for both of us! It being a Sunday and this border crossing being so close to Bariloche made for long lines and quite a complicated border crossing experience. As it turns out, Chile has very strict rules at customs about not bringing in fresh fruit, veggies, plants, meat, etc. (I think they’re so strict about agricultural contamination because, even though they’re not an island, they’re somewhat isolated by the high Andes mountains that form a natural border.) Norbert and I had no choice but to stuff ourselves with oranges, cheese and salami before hitting customs, where they made us empty our car and confiscated firewood, our remaining fruit, and an unopened package of salami. Sad! But finally, we were in Chile!

This pass, Paso Cardenal Samore, is a beautiful mountain pass through the Andes. We spotted a volcano in the distance and fought about which volcano it might be; there are many in this region. At this point, we were in a bit of a rush to make it to our desired destination: The Pacific Ocean. It was already early afternoon and we still had 266 km to cover before nightfall. We zoomed through Osorno and continued northward until we reached a road that went west to the sea. Eventually, we found ourselves on the most rugged road on our journey: 45 km of skinny, windy, mountainous gravel road that eventually deposited us in the town of Corral. We had thought about maybe spending the night here, but we found an uninspiring, industrial town. It’s a port town on the important Valdivia River and we saw a big ship from China.

Here, the road vastly improved and we continued on a paved highway that hugged the coast. To our right was the Pacific Ocean shimmering in the sunset. Eventually, we came to Caleta Chaihuil, a tiny fishing village where we rented a small cabin with a wood burning stove and direct access to the ocean. Can you say… bliss? We learned from our host that the villagers have been fishing and diving for shellfish for a long time; back before the road, they brought their haul to Corral by boat or on horseback, and then sold it across the river at the markets in Valdivia. They still fish and dive, but tourism has become an important part of their economy ever since the road started bringing tourists to this remote region.

Out here in the middle of nowhere, Argentinian pesos and American dollars didn’t get us very far and there was no connection for credit cards, so it took some finagling to find a way to pay, but we made it happen. In our sweet cabin, we concocted our dinner from the food that hadn’t been confiscated at the border and enjoyed sleeping in a warm bed.

What a joy to be greeted by the ocean first thing in the morning: like being on a boat! After enjoying our tea and coffee on the terrace, we took off to explore more of this rugged coastline. We’d wanted to hike in the Alerce Coastal National Park to visit the ancient alerce trees, but you need to contract a guide several days in advance, so we opted for some oceanside hiking and wildlife viewing.

Check out this island of noisy, smelly, hilarious sea lions. We were quite entertained watching these funny guys live their lives—splashing into the water, trying oh-so-gracefully to get back on the rock again, climbing over each other, swimming towards us to check us out. A super fun bunch of mammals.

Back in Corral, we drove onto a ferry and crossed the mouth of the Valdivia River. Most of the locals were horrified that we’d come by land; apparently the ferry is the way to go. Back on the road, we were once again in a rush, knowing that the border closed at 8pm and hoping to make it back to Argentina to camp. Once we found some wi-fi in Valdivia and realized how far we still were from the border, we scrapped the idea and decided to spend another night in Chile. It wouldn’t hurt, right?

Walking around Valdivia, we noticed that storefronts had what seemed like storm shutters placed on all their windows. Supermarkets looked like they were completely closed until you found an opening in which to enter. Wondering what was with the bunker state of the city, we asked a local shopkeeper who informed us that the country had been going through some rough times; in October, there had been riots in the street, hence prompting stores to guard their storefronts with heavy duty protective shields. It was a strange feeling, walking down the street in a town that looked something like a war zone. But everyone was going about their day peaceable, so we did the same.

Norbert located his favorite Chilean wine at a supermarket that also sold a bizarre selection of very specific German products (pickles, beer). Strangely enough, the labels were all in German but the products were produced in Chile. Also, we noticed some signage around town was in both Spanish and German. We began to wonder what this was about. Heading east towards the Andes, we started seeing signs sprouting up everywhere for KUCHEN, the German word for cake. Norbert was beside himself with curiosity. At a small cafĂ©, we had ourselves a piece of traditional German cake (very delicious) and learned a bit about the German aristocrat who convinced many fellow Germans to immigrate to this region back in the late 1800’s. We even passed a fairground that looked like it could have been hosting Oktoberfest!

Finally, we made it to our final resting place for the night: Lago Caburgua. I won’t tell you how much we paid to pitch a tent (but I will say that the cabin cost the same amount the night before). Nonetheless, we shared another peaceful night of bonfire, dinner, feeding kitties, and listening to the waves lap the shore. This water wasn’t as glacial as the other lakes, and while we planned on jumping in, somehow we never made it happen. Blame it on the fact that we woke up late the next morning. Our host here told us about his German ancestors and how there are still some areas where they speak German. Otherwise, most of the immigrants have mixed and retain little of their German heritage—besides kuchen and beer! The essentials of German culture, in my opinion.

On the way to the border, we stopped to hike along the base of Volcan Villarica and visited a few alpine Andean lakes. (Still no swimming. We’re tropical babies, what can I say.) 

This pass, Paso Mahuil Malal, is another beautifully scenic road through the mountains, but much more rugged than the road we took to cross the border at Paso Cardenal Samore. Being a mostly gravel road makes it a less preferred place to cross the border. In fact, the border was so deserted we thought it was closed! Open access! But no, there were some border officials hiding from the high winds and cold mountain air inside their government buildings. The Argentinians could have cared less about cheese or salami and simply waved us through after stamping our passports. We were back in the Seven Lakes region.

Originally, we’d wanted to check out a few more lakes in the area, but once again, time had escaped us. We had a flight from Neuquen early the next morning and 455 km to travel. From Junin de los Andes, we hit the road heading southeast, which turned out to be one of the most beautiful stretches of road from our entire trip. The road followed Rio Collon Cura, the same one we’d crossed on our first day, and I have few words to describe the prehistoric scenery of our journey. Something about the immensity of the landscape made it easy to imagine dinosaurs roaming these plains, sustaining themselves from the waters of these wide, meandering rivers and the greenery growing in the rich soil. Later, Norbert’s friend Martin explained to me how millions of years ago, before the Andes existed, this whole area had been a forest fed from the moisture coming off the Pacific Ocean—a perfect place for dinosaurs to exist and sustain themselves. Ever since the Andes rose from the depths of the Earth, most of that moisture gets trapped on the west side of the mountains, making Chile verdant and lush, while Argentina on the other side is more of a dry steppe. But with the many lakes fed by mountain snow and glaciers, this area at the foot of the Andes is still pretty green.

Eventually, we left this beautiful river valley and found ourselves back on the road we’d taken our first day. As we neared Neuquen, we stopped to check out a canyon that shone beautifully red in the sunset. And so, our Patagonian adventure wound down to a close. We were back in Neuquen, a dusty town that radiated heat even with the sun down. Waiting for our flight the next day, we made friends with a Greek guy and a tango dancer from Buenos Aires and shared stories about our different adventures in the region. And a short plane ride later, we were back in the capital – summertime in full swing.

Our collection of handy dandy maps!