The mystery of the roadside soda bottles

We first noticed them in Tierra del Fuego after we had crossed the Chile to Argentina border: discarded plastic (and sometimes glass) bottles, half filled with a liquid of a color ranging from diluted Mountain Dew yellow to apple juice brown – nicely sealed with its bottle cap. Why would people throw away half finished drinks? Maybe these were offerings to some travel saint, like the water bottles we see at the shrines of la Difunta Correa (= a lactating mother, sanctified by Argentinians after (legend says) she was found dead along a road, while her live baby was still drinking the mother’s milk…)? We could not make sense of it and decided to ask about it at the Ushuaia tourist office. She could give us no answer, so it remained a mystery, until just now our guess work was over: after we crossed the border once more from Chile to Argentina, we noticed the road side bottles again, but this time, a stopped car along the road gave us the clue: a guy alongside the car was peeing in a soda bottle! Now we can imagine the embarrassment of the tourist office lady when we asked about the bottles! It still leaves us wondering why. Why put the top back on, and why even pee in a bottle and leave it along the road, while just peeing alongside the road would have been so much cleaner…and how do they think that trash will disappear?

Ushuaia to Puerto Natales

Early in the morning, after leaving the Antarctic vessel, we retrieved our camper at the airport. It was time to explore this legendary Tierra del Fuego…but that was not meant to be, yet. On the way to Ushuaia, the (automatic) transmission started slipping until, right at the entrance of town and in the middle of the highway, it refused to go any further. The gas station across the road could not help us, and all businesses were still closed. After Thijs came back from the gas station, and after discussing what to do – not believing what happened- he gave it another try… The truck moved again, although just for two kilometers. We limped to the Mercedes garage on the other side of town, pausing and going. At the garage, the people were friendly but not very helpful: with the World Cup Soccer finals coming up, they were not planning to take on any work, but suggested we’d search ourselves for transmission oil and filter, and maybe a new transmission, all of which, they assured us, would not be available in Ushuaia, but maybe in Commodoro Rivadavia (1350km), or Buenos Aires (3100km) or the USA (?!). It did not sound very promising. We limped back – stopping and going- to the waterfront parking lot, where at least we could camp out for a while in the company of other campers – many of them also in MB Sprinters, albeit the Argentinian (manual) version.

Here we are, at the end of the ever-growing row of campers along the Ushuaia waterfront. We were counting on being there for a while until we’d figure out what to do with our camper’s transmission.

From our location overlooking the Beagle Channel, we watched the Argentinian soccer league win the World Cup, followed by two days of partying. And what a party it was! Everything, except of course for the bars, was closed. Our friendly South American Sprinter neighbors however did their best to contact their Sprinter dealers to find our necessities, but all of them were far away, with expensive and time-consuming shipping involved…

Argentina won the World Cup! Viva Argentina!
It’s Christmas time at the Mercedes garage, this in addition to Argentinia winning the soccer World Cup (party!), so no work could be done for a while

Downtown Ushuaia; we had enough time to explore

However Thijs did not sit still: he contacted our US Sprinter angel Dr. Andy, who has helped us brilliantly several times before, and then heeded his advice: our battery was old and did not give enough voltage anymore, so replace that first. (Thijs did that) Then find MB certified 236.15 (top grade) transmission oil, and a new filter. That was a challenge to find, but after a few days of searching, Thijs walked into the local Jeep/Chrysler/Dodge dealer and found the right filter and a local address for the oil. But of course: MB Sprinter in the US used to be sold by and as Dodge! (Why didn’t the MB dealer know this, while one of the people there drives a Jeep!?) We got our appointment at Mercedes for the Friday before Christmas. They serviced the transmission with our locally found oil and filter, and all was good again. In hindsight, maybe the battery was all we needed to exchange, but it felt great to see that the filter was showing no signs of transmission damage.

At El Marinero Viejo, a restaurant across the street from where we camped, we saw every night a long row of clients waiting for a turn to eat. We went for lunch there: king crab pasta, and delicious mariscos!

We left town, and drove to a non-functioning and therefore free campsite adjacent to a pretty creek called Rio Pipo and the touristy railroad station that runs into Tierra del Fuego National Park. Here we met several of the waterfront camper neighbors again and celebrated a bit of Christmas together.

Camping (non serviced) at Rio Pipo was good enough for us, even without any toilets or showers

Rio Pipo

The little train that can bring tourists to the end of the world (kinda), with it’s station adjacent to the rio Pipo camping site. They had Wifi and toilets

On Christmas day we visited Tierra del Fuego National Park, where the mountains meet the sea. We drove through forested mountains, along bogs, and lakes where black-necked swans and pairs of patagonian geese drew our attention. Then we reached the end of the road, route #3. We walked the trail that continued through flowering bushes. Moss-like ferns and yellow buttercups carpeted the forest bottom of multi trunked trees, adorned with lichen. We passed beaver-chopped trunks along an overgrown riverbed but saw no sign of a dam or fort. We continued along a pebble beach and passed outcrops that marked the next beach, until we could go no further. Clear water with kelp fields filled the bays. Snow peaks rose above the horizon. On a quiet sunny day like we had, it looked truly idyllic. Unfortunately, those days are rare in these southern lands…

Flowers in Tierra del Fuego National park

Beautiful lakes

We drove to the end of the #3 Patagonian road. The end of the world?….not really . From here, we hiked to the end of the trail.

Old sign of beaver presence

Where the mountains meet the sea

Christmas cheers with some fellow overlanders.
In Tolhuin there is the fantastic Union bakery, where we had to stop for some bread and coffee with media lunas (croissants)and hoping for some Wifi – since my Argentinian phone data ran out… but no luck: ” no Wifi, just talk to each other” is the slogan here

When we wanted to explore more of the island, a violent storm with heavy rain and gale-force winds came over us. Nights were restless, with howling winds shaking our truck, even when we sheltered behind buildings to protect us. In driving rain we crossed the Chilean border, where at least the rain stopped, but the winds continued. On the other side of the island we took the last (wild) ferry ride from Porvenir to Punta Arenas. We arrived there late at night, just before the winds picked up to a true storm and the ferries canceled next day’s rides.

In comparison to Ushuaia, Punta Arenas looks like a real city with stately stone buildings, and a cemetery that tells history. Here we needed to find a bank to get some Chilean pesos, and a phone company to get a local chip. In town, we fought the wind at intersections, and doors that blew open and refused to close. We did not stay long, but fought our way north to Puerto Natales, through  gusts of western side winds that almost blew us off the road every time a passing truck created a temporary vacuum.

In the Chilean side of Tierra del Fuego, this farm looks downright romantic
The road to Porvenir, where we will take a ferry across the Magellan strait to Punta Arenas

These kind of shelters are everywhere in the Chilean part of Tierra del Fuego, and offer hikers and bikers protection against the brutal weather, although these building also get a beating: most of the windows and doors have blown out

The wild ferry ride across the Magellan strait to Punta Arenas

In Punta Arenas, we visited the cemetery (“a must-see”, though we’ve seen better)

Here the poor – and maybe the indigenous have been buried/rememberedit is not really clear to see, although it is clear that most indigenous people have been exterminated, but now revered

The family grave of the Menendez family. This family, together with the Braun family owned the biggest sheepfarms in Tierra del Fuego. Together, these families started the Anonima company, which is one of the biggest supermarket chains in southern Patagonia
A small piece of info about the original inhabitants of the southern islands

A small piece of info about the original inhabitants of the southern islands

And since they are no more, images of the original people can be bought as souvenirs

Puerto Natales is the jumping-off point to the world-famous Torres del Paine park, which should be one of the highlights of our Patagonian experience. The weather forecast did not spell much good; only a full week later would the skies clear up, and the winds die down to moderate. We have time, we can wait it out: we have laundry to do, groceries to buy, and a blog or two to write and publish. We wild camped most of the time around a city park, where its trees and surrounding buildings gave us some protection against the eternal wind. Publishing a blog without Wifi is a bit primitive; the local phone plans programs eat gigabites like it’s nothing and that unnerves me. But we still have a few days to make it work.

In Puerto Natales, while waiting for improved weather in Torres del Paine, we went to the small museum of history, to hear about the indigenous people’s sad history.

Today we’re at a campground, where the common room has good Wifi connection. This coming weekend should be top days for the park. We will leave Thursday – today is Wednesday. What will happen… you will hear later.

Why is Tierra del Fuego called Fireland?

When the first Europeans came sailing around these islands, they noticed fires everywhere. We saw one forest fire, and evidence of former fires, but that did not seem enough for a land to be called Fireland. There are no volcanos, there are not even hotsprings….So what is going on?

The first tribes of people of Tierra del Fuego and the adjacent archipelago lived by hunting and fishing. Especially around the coast, people fished and gathered shellfish. Being constantly exposed to the water, they protected themselves against the elements (think almost constantly strong winds, close to freezing waters, rain and snow) by covering themselves with animal fat instead of clothing-which would constantly be wet. For warmth, they always carried fire around, wherever they want, even on their canoes. And just like the North American indians, they used smoke signals to communicate. So it makes sense that, when one or more of them saw these strange looking vessels along their coast, they spread the word all along that coast with lots of smoke signals….and where there is smoke, there is fire – on Fireland, or Tierra del Fuego. So the word goes.

Would you like to learn more about Tierra del Fuego and it’s original people, who have been eliminated, but by now revered? I am reading an interesting book called Uttermost Part of the Earth by Lucas Bridges, who was the son of the first Brit who set foot on and settled at the place they now call Ushuaia, and later started a farm called Harberton. Though seen through the eyes of a missionary’s son, the book has interesting insight about the life, customs and beliefs of the people he grew up with.

Tierra del Fuego and Antarctica

From Rio Gallegos – the town where we dropped off the sailors Daria and Jean-Michel, it was only a hop to get to the border. A World Cup soccer match playing, so the Argentinian officials paid no attention to us. With their eyes glued to the TV, they stamped our passports and car papers, and we were through. On the other side, the Chilean borders have the reputation of being the most restrictive of Latin America: no fresh food, no untreated wood and iteven no honey or raisins are allowed through. Everyone gets searched and given a hefty fine when they find something of the list of forbidden items, sooo… we’d taken one more day before crossing the border to eat and cook everything we had: veggies, fruit, potatoes, onions and garlic, eggs and yoghurt… a big bag of raisins I preserved with pisco- the grape spirit we still had from Peru. Still, we overlooked half a lime in the bottom of the fridge! Fortunately, we had not been able to find and fill out the declaration form online, so the inspector searched our camper beforehand. She warned us to declare this little bit of fruit she confiscated, otherwise we could still be fined. Thankfully, our big chunk of cheese was allowed. In Chile the towns were so small, we didn’t bother to look for fresh supplies, plus we still had two days’ worth of cooked food in the fridge. By then we were at another border – from Chile back to Argentina, who didn’t give us any trouble.

Ferry to bring us to the island of Tierra del Fuego

We made it to Tierra del Fuego! Although it was just a question of persistent driving on the #3 – a pretty good and smooth road, it felt like an accomplishment. The island looked different from what we’d seen so far of Patagonia: it was greener and grassier, with occasional wetlands and streams. Everything looked friendlier; less rugged. Cows made a comeback. And then, trees appeared! Short, crooked, halfdead, and covered with mosses, they looked mysterious and pitiful. When the landscape became more mountainous, they started to look so much better, that when we saw a sign of a nature park, we wanted to stop there, but the park was closed because of a forest fire. We saw the ominous clouds, and later also the glow of a large fire from a distance away. So finally we saw trees, and now they’re on fire… Tierra del Fuego – the Land of Fire is burning; what tragic irony.

Tierra del Fuego landscape

Pitiful trees, but as the mountains appeared, the trees started looking taller and healthier

The forest fire was visible from the town of Tolhuin, where we stayed for the night

The approach to Ushuaia was marked by increasingly higher mountains and dense, black forest. Ushuaia faces the Beagle Channel and is surrounded by mountains on the other three sides, which may be why the Patagonian winds are gentle here. We may have hit a sunny and warm spell but did not stay to enjoy it. We wanted to find room on one of the cruise ships to Antarctica before the start of the busy season.

Tierra del Fuego’s mountains at the southern end of the island.

View over Lago Fagnano, on the way to Ushuaia from the town of Tolhuin, at the far end of the lake.

Welcome to Ushuaia

The camper’s hangout along the waterfront in Ushuaia. This town is lacking a descent campground

Downtown Ushuaia

Downtown Ushuaia

View from our window: There is the ship we will be sailing to Antarctica with

Two days later we sailed south on the 168 passenger expedition cruiser Ocean Victory, across an unusually quiet Drake passage.

Even on level four the waves sprayed against our windows during an “unusually quiet Drake passage”

After two days to develop our sea-legs and two nights of seasickness medication (even a calm Drake passage has six-foot swells) the dark outcrops of the volcanic South Shetland Islands appeared through the morning fog. Not everything was covered by snow here– a fact the penguins seem to like, since their eggs would freeze when laid on snow. We slowly sailed to Halfmoon Island to go ashore and check out how the chinstrap penguins live and love (and poop). They are cute, as expected. In the water, when they chase krill for food, they are fast and limber, and seem to fly in groups under and on water. Once on land they clumsily climb the rocks (or snow) to their nest, where they make a big scene of greeting their mate, sometimes with the gift of a pebble to add to the elevation of their rocky nest. The ones that found their place still covered with snow were out to search their mate and make love. At this first landing we also familiarized ourselves with Antarctic penguin’s krill-red poop. Penguins poop every ten to twenty minutes and it was everywhere on and between the rocks. In the snow, a penguin’s rookery as well as the paths they create to and from the water is colored red – it may make a good anti-slip track on the snow, but for us, the rocks were slippery. Upon our return to the boat, we had to seriously scrub our boots and pants – not only to get rid of the filth and smell, but especially to prevent contagion of avian flu. As half of the participants explored the terrain, the other half looked around the waters in zodiacs. The water was clean and clear. Close to us, two humpback whales decided to come up for air. It was a good introduction to the southern continent.

Volcanic rock on Half Moon island

Old volcanic cores show dark against the snow

The “chinstrap” stripe makes the penguins appear to have a broad smile

A whaler’s boat-wreck on Half Moon island

Mother and child humpback whale

When we woke up, we saw icebergs floating by our window. Our ship quietly moved through a dreamscape of dark water, white mountains and blue skies. Icebergs of pristine white, based on a turquoise underwater float silently greeted us when we passed them. A spread of glistening ice jewels in between them vied for attention. A school (or is it a flight?) of penguins rapidly dove and surfaced alongside the boat. A seal looked up from a slice of sea ice. All looked peaceful…clean… serene…otherworldly.

The first morning felt like being in a dream…so quiet, so serene

This breakfast setup was created by some on-board influencers. They were not planning to actually eat outside (!)
How beautiful can ice be…

In the afternoon we set foot of continental Antarctica  – where a walking trail was beaten through the snow, with orange perimeter flags to ensure a distance from the penguins (though the penguins didn’t respect that distance keeping much) and to protect the fragile nature we came to enjoy. Again, to keep our presence on land low, we were divided between landing- and boating groups – and switched halfway through. From the zodiac we saw leopard-,  crabeater-, and weddell-seals…it takes a few days of observation to know the difference between them. The floating ice was amazingly varied; from glasslike with crazy shapes, to glossy faceted white, or soft snow-topped blocks with bright blue sides, or flat ice-sheets.  The water was so clear, one could see an entire sunken whaler ship, or penguins flit through the rocky-bottomed water.

Ready on the Zodiac

Penguins always have the right of way here. You have to wait, and keep a distance

When the highway is too narrow, you simply turn around and go with the flow, right?

Hiking on Antarctica

Two sailboats were anchored beside the whaler’s shipwreck

Leopard seals can be recognized by their lizard-like face. They are the only seals that eat – besides fish, squid and krill – warm blooded animals, like penguins.

Weddell seals are large, fat and easy going. They like to live in groups. They eat fish, squid and krill.

Crab-eating seals actually don’t eat crabs, but crustaceans, like krill. You can see this one ate krill by the red poop. They can be distinguished from leopard seals by their snout, which bends up

On Gouldier Island, we landed at Port Lockroy, the British research station/ turned museum and Antarctic post office, where we could get an impression of how researchers lived – a couple of decades ago. Newer quarters for the crew now manning the station were off limits, but two of our ship’s expedition crew worked there for four months, fell in love and got married later on. They gave us more details about the work they still do there, like counting the island’s penguin nests and their eggs, and see how many return next year; clean the penguin poop off the rocks, man the museum and post office, and clear the snow around the buildings, and probably much more that I forgot… Every day there were lectures about everything concerning Antarctica, like about it’s wildlife, explorer’s expeditions, photography tips, and recaps of the places visited.

Port Lockroy

The museum and (British) post office had to be dug out of the snow this winter. Now the penguins can move under the building to make a real mess!

These are Gentoo penguins, by the way.

This big Weddell seal almost blocked one of the penguin highways.

Port Lockroy kitchen

Port Lockroy sleeping quarters

I believe this is a skua cleaning up a dead penguin.
The zodiacs are coming to pick us up for the exploration of the bay
Can you believe this little tern flies from the arctic to the antarctic, every year?

We saw around four sailboats, two super yachts, and two other cruisers while we were in Antarctica. With the upcoming Holiday season and southern summer, it will be a lot busier.

The canoe team is going out for a separate tour.

For four days we meandered through the chain of islands that hug the coast of Antarctica, with stops around two times a day. One of the last days we landed in snow so deep, that despite the snowshoe team having beaten a path, we’d sink in thigh-deep at times, mostly, but not always, when passing or overtaking someone and just stepping one foot to the side. At one point I had both legs to above my knees in the soft snow and had to crawl out- I guess it was the hardest for us since we were the first group after the snowshoers and the snow had not settled completely yet. (The way back already was easier) Anyway, that night my knees hurt, I had trouble taking the stairs up or down, so the next morning I skipped the last outing and stayed on the ship. But even from aboard there is enough to see: one night while sailing through the Gerlach Straight, we were called out of bed by the bridge, when they’d spotted a pod of orcas. We ran outside in our pajamas, as not to miss these majestic animals in their natural environment.

Slushing through the snow
Single trail through the snow
Swimming penguins

This shows a good view of a penguin rookery and the highways to and from the water
Ceremonial greeting

In the left front there are a few penguins that built their elevated rocky nests right on the beach.

Ready to go for a swim?

Imperial cormorants taking off. Sometimes they get mistaken for flying penguins. But penguins only fly in the water.
Beautiful imperial cormorant (also called imperial shag)
Imperial Cormorants build their nests on top of the snow, using seaweed. As the snow melts around them, the nests sit on a snow tower – until it collapses…
It was such a warm and sunny day, that a BBQ was organized on the top deck.
Orcas spotted in the late evening sun.
Almost midnight…

Antarctica has the world’s most glaciers

Along towering mountains and glaciers, through the Lemaire’s channel

The sheathbill is Antarctica’s only non-seabird. It likes to take rides to the South American continent.

Before turning back to Ushuaia, we were surrounded by glaciers and floated through packed icefields, then Lemaire Channel, a narrow passage (could not believe at first that the ship could fit through, and it felt like moving into a giant sluice/lock) where on both sides tall mountains loomed over the ship. As soon as we hit open water, the Drake Passage made itself known with wild, high swells, and wind that broke the balcony partition between us and our neighbors. The floor of our cabin flooded, and we asked for sea sickness pills, which gave us a good night sleep despite the shaking and bouncing. The following days at sea were better: the swaying lessened somewhat; Mark, our cabin’s steward offered free laundry service and a bottle of wine to compensate for our remaining wet floor; last day’s lobster dinner was the best food we had on the voyage, and the recaps and entertainment made everyone feel like we had the best Antarctica trip ever. Too soon we disembarked and returned to our camper, waiting for us at the Ushuaia Airport parking lot.

Home again!

Patagonia

While looking to exchange money in downtown Bahia Blanca, we met a small group of campers, guided by an organizing entity. When we planned to go to the mountains, they were heading to Balneario El Condor, further south along the coast. We figured that an organization like theirs may know some of the better places, so we looked it up and found that this location is especially attractive because of the largest colony of cliff burrowing parrots, right along the beach – easy to reach and see, plus the beach itself is also nice. So, about a week later, after the Sierra detour, we found an overnight spot on top of these cliffs. The howling winds don’t seem to bother these parrots, who ride the wind to shoot up the cliffs to the grasslands for seeds, or they fall straight down to reach their nest among the 35,000 others in the 18 km of cliffs along the Atlantic coast.

All these little holes in the cliffs are parrot nests. When they fly out in the morning, their screeches are deafening.

A little more south, Las Grutas as a coastal town is closer off the main road, and larger and more popular than El Condor. Here, the cliff dwelling parrots nest just a meter or so over the heads of sunbathers. The promenade stretches luxuriously on top of these low cliffs, and a wide choice of hotels, bars and restaurants along the seaside offer a degree of fun for everyone. It was a long weekend, so the place was packed, even on a Monday. We found a great seafood restaurant, another campground with WIFI (to stay in touch with our homebase) and a place to have our laundry done. Rested and satisfied, we drove to the peninsula de Valdes, which was the southernmost South American point we’d reached in 1978. This time we plan to drive all the way to the end of the road, but first we want to revisit Valdes, since it gave us such good memories…

In 1978 we saw our first major South American wildlife in Valdes. As soon as we took the peninsula road back then, a nandu (the South American ostrich) ran zig-zagging in front of us, wings fluttering… (For our then-dog Linda, that was the first time the ride became exciting. Adopted in Brasil until then, she used to just sleep during the drive. No more: now every animal, be it a bird, rabbit, dog, horse, or wildlife would pique her interest.)

In 1978: Guanacos, those large wild llama- relatives, kept an eye on us from a distance and the weird looking mara’s almost froze into place when we drove by them… I don’t remember how far we drove on the peninsula, but at one point we encountered a French couple in a Landrover, who told us they were there to study the sea elephants. They asked us if we wanted to join them on a boat ride, for a closer look. Of course, we said yes. It was dusk when they led us cross-country to their landing site, and doing so, thorns punctured two of their tires. The next morning, we were able to get so close to these impressive animals, it drowned out all other memories of the peninsula. When we returned this time, everything felt regulated, organized and disappointing. The distances between one viewpoint to the other were so much longer than I remembered, land animals -except for sheep, were scarce, and the land was contained by fencing. Overnight camping was only allowed at the campground in the town of Pyramides. We could only see sea lions from a clifftop, looking down. A scattering of guanacos and one group of faraway nandus stayed contained behind the eternal fencing. We loved the Magellan penguins, who nested in small burrows close to the viewpoint. We had not seen them previously. We probably were too late in the season back then. One penguin approached me, so close, you could touch them. I held the back of my hand close and let him touch me. He hammered at my ring with his strong black bill.

The town of Pyramides looked pretty from above.
Pyramides was a quiet and comfortable little town, but far removed from the places you come here for.
This is as close as we could get this time… Not very exciting…
The penguins were cute and accessible.

When, this time, we drove back to the highway, we remarked that in our memory the vegetation was also different; more like what we saw on the narrow strip of land between the main land and  the reservation. Realizing that back then we had no GPS, and the paper map may have shown only one way on and off the island…. It could explain why the road did not seem as long, and the terrain was the way it was…and we never noticed a settlement called Pyramides back then …maybe in 1978 we had not even reached the actual peninsula!

Back on the #3 south, we were now definitely in Patagonia, with an endless expanse of windswept shrubland, and towns or gas stations were at least 300 km apart. Our eye fell on Playa Isla Escondida when we looked for a place to spend the night. To get there, we needed a stretch of dry weather, so the dirt road would not turn slippery on the steep inclines we’d have to take when returning to the main road. We did not regret our decision: Down at the beach, we had multiple choices of flat, grassy campsites. We chose one with a view over the sea lion colony. About 30 animals played in tidal pools, or relaxed between the dunes and on the road that continued over the beach. They didn’t seem to be intimidated by us, though we still kept a respectable distance from them. On land, moving around seemed to be such an effort for them: after they caterpillar their fat round body for about five to ten strenuous hobbles, they plop down, exhausted, to catch their breath…no wonder they refuse to get out of the way when the occasional car or ATV wants to pass – those will just have to wait or find another way around them. Once in the water, however, they moved quickly and invited the others for a playfight or a race through the surf. That day on the beach turned out to be sunny and beautiful, without much wind, and still peaceful without many other campers. We decided to stay a couple of days. We took a walk along the beaches (+picked up a bag full of plastic bottles and beer cans), stopped to watch green lizards do their quick runs, and tried to get a good look at some black guinea pigs when they ran from one bush hideout to the other. We tried to decide what birds we’d seen lately, along the road south, and now here: with their curly feather crest, were they quails, or were they partridges, or something else? We had no internet connection, so the research would have to wait a bit.

After a few days, our supplies started to run out, and the weather looked a bit threatening, so we decided to move on. We took the dirt road back up and soon reached the #3 again, with its endless dry brush land, which was slowly turning dryer. We stopped for lunch at a roadside shrine location, where multiple saints were kept supplied with offerings, like Difunta Correa with (many, many!) water-filled bottles; Gauchito Gil with (many) red flags and beer or wine offerings, and several new saints with miscellaneous gifts. Thijs was tempted to leave our bag full of bottles collected from the beach, but we decided they needed to be full and left with the right intentions, so we took that bag along to the next town to be deposited in their recycling bin.

The shrines of Gauchito Gil are prominent in red. They are everywhere along the Argentinian roads!
Gauchito Gil – times four
This picture of the shrine of Difunta Correa shows only a fraction of the bottles surrounding the shrine.

Puerto Deseado was our next destination. From here, we wanted to go out to Isla Pinguino, where the coolest of penguins hang out. However, when we signed up for a boat ride to the island, we were the only ones so far that week. The boat would not go out with less than six passengers – so we needed to either hope and wait, or look for other passengers ourselves. We left a note on an Argentinian camper that we’d spotted before in Valdes, but to no avail. We’d overheard some English-speaking tourist in a restaurant the previous day, so we went on a search for them…why else would they be in this town, but for the Rockhopper penguins? Puerto Deseado is not a large town; we soon stopped them along the road. It turned out they’d arrived by sailboat and were waiting out a storm that blew across that day. As soon as the weather would improve, they’d be heading south, no time for a penguin tour. (We would meet up with them again later down the road.) While waiting for the one good day to go out, we visited the town’s railroad station museum. This elaborate station was built over a hundred years ago as the start of a railroad that should go all the way across the Patagonian desert and the Andes mountains to Chile, for freight to avoid the wild seas of the southern cape. The railroad never got finished and only reached a couple of hundred kilometers inland where it fizzled into nothing. A movie was produced around this railroad, and that was it. Now there is a beautifully preserved station left as a local attraction.  

..Quite a nice station for a railroad to nowhere…

In the station’s waiting room, we had to pose with a bottle of dutch gin: De Kuyper Oude Jenever. Cheers!

We still had one more day before our window of good weather would come and go. The expedition company would let us know when other people signed up. We spent the afternoon on the bank of the beautiful Rio Deseado, a clear, blue water sea arm – home to a multitude of sea birds. In the evening we made one last stop at the agency, hoping for good news…They did not get any more passengers, but told us that their competitor did. If we would rush over before closing time, we could still come along on their tour. We had our ride! Departure time would be 7:30 AM. Since we spent the night next to their office, we were ready to take the 1 ½ hour ride as soon as they were.

Our overnight camp along the beautiful Rio Deseado.

It was a beautiful morning, with sunshine and low winds. On the way to the island, a pod of cute black and white Commerson’s dolphins accompanied us, circling and racing along the boat in the clear blue waters. Upon landing, we had to pass a large colony of male sea lions, who made it clear we were not really welcome there: one step too close in their direction, and alarm was raised among these impressive beasts. Different from those we’d seen in Playa Escondida, these sealions used their (fused) hind legs to lift their bodies off the ground, so they could gallop! But with our great guide we followed the path up the hill toward the lighthouse, along a colony of Magellan Penguins who had their eggs hatching. Big, brown skuas sat perched in the middle of the colony, waiting for an opportunity to rob one of their nests from either an egg or chick. Over the hill we went past the old lighthouse to the bare rock side, were we reached the stars of the island: the Rockhopper penguins. Smaller than the Magellans, they rock black mohawk head feathers, yellow old-men’s eyebrows, and fierce red eyes and beak. They nest on the bare rock, building their nests with pebbles that the partners gift each other. Pebbles are such a precious commodity, that stealing -and squabbles over- pebbles from a neighboring nest is not uncommon. Usually the female lays two eggs, the first one much smaller than the second (priority) egg, which is expected to be a survivor. The first egg -or chick- should be seen as a sacrifice to the skua nest robbers. Skuas themselves lay their eggs loosely in the grass, and with their camouflage color it is easy to come too close or even step on them. The skua parents will nosedive attack to make you flee – hands over head. On our way down, back to the boat, we passed a relic of the past: the old blubber boilers, where seal-fat was turned into the oil that would keep the lighthouse fire burning. Now a solar panel and LED light do the same thing, without pain or labor, and little maintenance. We made some progress, although the sealions there still don’t like us.

Commerson’s dolphins made the ride to the island fun!

Big old male sea lions observed our arrival on the island with suspicion.
The Magellan penguins just ignored us.
They were too busy with their chicks
It may not look like it, but this old lighthouse still works.
The colony of Rockhopper penguins on the bare rocks.
Don’t they look cool?
The big egg on top of the pebble nest
This one looked so relaxed
The Skua is waiting for an inattentive moment by the penguin parents. Just leave the nest for a moment, and the baby is gone!
Skua eggs…they just lay there, but watch out!
Skua attack
One more pass around the sea lions

From Puerto Deseado we took a dirt road shortcut back to the #3. Most of the road was smooth and fast gravel, but about one third was terribly uneven – in anticipation of the new road constructed alongside it. Still, we had no regrets: we drove through what looked like a game park. First, hundreds of hares scooted from everywhere to anywhere, then clusters of nandus and enormous herds of guanacos wandered around the fenceless lands. At times the little crested birds (quails, they turned out to be) fled into the bushes. Maras topped off the list; we had not seen them since our first trip in 1978. Happy to see them again, they made it even better by standing still for a picture.

Rheas, or nandus…two names for the same bird
Guanacos
Guanacos, with young ones
Strange looking maras: is it a rabbit, a guinea pig, a deer, or all of the above?

A little delayed we arrived in the town of Puerto San Julian, where we’d arranged to meet our sailing couple from Rio Deseado (who turned out to be French and Russian) and take them to Rio Gallegos in our camper, where they were supposed to take a flight back to Paris at a date that the sailboat could not make because of the weather. They’d just arrived an hour before us and introduced us to their capitan Christopher and mate Carolina. We had a nice dinner together, and after we spent the night at the waterfront, we were able to drop off Daria and Jean-Michel in Rio Gallegos the next evening. With that we reached the gateway to Tierra del Fuego. The beginning of a new chapter!

In Puerto San Julian we spent the night near the Marina’s restaurant. The sailboat’s in the distance.
Left to right: Capitan Christopher, Daria, me, Jean- Michel, and Thijs. Before leaving the capitan and his sailboat behind.
Just a reminder, which is posted everywhere along the Argentinian highways. (The Falkland Islands are called Malvinas in Argentina, and they still claim them as theirs)

Argentina: The Pampas

The title page on top shows how we remember the Pampas, the picture below shows the contemporary Pampa.

Decades ago we crossed the pampas from Buenos Aires to Mar del Plata via the center of beef country, Azul; a town’s name that also stuck in our memory because Thijs’ younger brother later lived and worked there for a while. From what we remembered driving towards and away from Azul in 1978, the pampas were wild, bushy fields with cattle – impressively managed by the South American cowboys and their herding dogs. It is no more. Just like last year coming from Cordoba, we now drove through endless, perfectly even fields of wheat, corn, alfalfa and beef pasture. Beef country has been industrialized. I’m sure it is good for the economy. The road offered no reason or opportunity to stop, except for in the occasional towns. We stopped for lunch in quiet, provincial Azul, and made it to the town of Tandil before nightfall. Tandil is inhabited by many Dutch immigrants, which may explain the extensive dairy industry. Here we visited the historic Epoca de Quesos establishment, where we were so overwhelmed by the choice of cheeses, that we picked some most interesting varieties: one with orange infusion, one pine needle cheese, and a hard, parmesan type cheese. Then we looked around the old premises, which was displayed like a museum and used as a restaurant. From what we heard, they serve a good home style dinner, but as I cannot get used to Argentinian dinner times: eating at such a late hour makes my stomach feel as if I just swallowed a rock -keeping me (regretfully) awake all night- we stick to nice lunches instead. The next morning, we explored the town a bit: we admired the pretty European looking houses and the shopping streets. We enjoyed a good cup of coffee with the best media-luna (which is the almost obligatory breakfast coffee-accompanying croissant around here) in the most elaborate ice cream store/pastry shop in town. Then we headed out towards the coast, but not before one more stop at Quesos El Holandes, a truly Dutch cheese store, where the Gouda cheese indeed tasted like Dutch cheese at home. We bought a quarter round.

Central Plaza in Azul
This historic old building in Tandil houses the Epoca de Quesos, a famous cheese store, and restaurant.
The store feels like a cheese museum
The restaurant feels like a museum as well
It feels like stepping into a lost age
This Tandil patisserie/ icecream parlor however is up to date!

Along the coast I picked a beach side campground that promised clean bathrooms and WIFI (just about the only two things we require of a campground) for a week’s stay to update our blog and take a few walks along the ocean. We arrived in Balneario Orense looking for a reprieve from the 28 degree heat. We got it the next days, when the temperature would not rise above 18; we’ll have to get used to crazy temperature swing like this. We looked for a quiet beach, and got that, too. Balneario Orense was so quiet, that we were the only campers poor lonely Martha, the camp manager, could talk to, outside of her two dogs, two cats and two kittens. The little town was basically shut down: just one little general store was open, the emergency station was manned by one person, and the one-student school looked closed…the hotel hosted a noisy ATV group, but was otherwise closed for business: come back in the summer! After a few days, we were ready for more action in Bahia Blanca.

All is quiet and sleepy in the campground Medano 40 in Balneario Orense
We were the only camping guests…
The beach was also deserted…
….Until these guys came…..then tranquility was gone.

Bahia Blanca: such promising name…. somehow Google directed us through the port side: The road was worn out and shattered. Thousands of pigeons descended upon the terrain around us, attracted by the spilled grains off the many tractor-trailers ready to unload their cargo for shipment to the rest of the world. Recent rains made everything look filthy and messy. We only stopped to get some money and food supplies. Then we headed for Sierra de la Ventana in the nearby mountains, with fresh air, fragrant spring blooms and rustling trees. A charming resort town, this place had enough people to feel lively, but still without the summer crowds. We walked over the railroad bridge to town and admired the old railroad station. Although there still are a few trains coming through, no passengers will be able to use this train stop anymore. Nowadays everyone comes by bus or car. The road through the Sierra brings one to a few more vacation towns, plus to the park where the Ventana – the window- can be seen and reached by an hours long hike through fragrant blooms of yellows, purples, pinks, oranges and reds. Down at the visitor’s center, gray foxes come out begging for food. People happily accommodated for a photo-op:  something not-done anywhere else, but here it seemed to be tolerated…

In the mountain resort of Sierra de la Ventana, we took the railroad bridge over the river to reach the village from the campground
And so we reached the center starting from the railroad station. The prominent building on the right is one of the oldest building in town, now turned into a Casino
Once or twice a day, in the evening, a train comes by. To play it safer, one can use the walkway on the right, but not all the boards look solid there
Along the way we saw this brave little owl who stood his ground and didn’t fly away.
On the campground, they knew how to improvise. The mighty 2CV does dual duty.
Such beautiful, fragrant spring blooms along the roads
Sierra de la Ventana landscape
Entry to the Sierra de la Ventana park
A little fox was on his way to beg for food

For our last night in the mountains we found the best place Overland campers like us could imagine: Outside the tiny town of Saavedra – maybe an hour west of Bahia Blanca- there is a municipal park that offers just about everything: Wifi, toilets (reasonably clean) running water, electricity, flat grassy fields with picnic tables and BBQs, and a friendly, curious police coming by every now and then. This was just unbelievable but true. There should be more of this in the world – but then again, I know abuse by some would spoil everything….We made sure every piece of stray garbage got deposited in the trash cans.

The best free campsite…ever!
The green contraption on the left looks like it takes care of hot water, but it actually provides solar electricity, and has USB hookup to charge your phone

Back in Argentina, and Buenos Aires

The first thing we needed to do was find a place to change money. Argentina is in a strange situation where the country looks relatively well to do, but their money has such a high inflation rate that the Euro or US dollar are worth much more than the official bank rate and with that, a “blue” exchange market has developed – which can be best described as a widely tolerated black market. Openly advertised exchange businesses -like Western Union- will give you almost twice the amount of pesos for a dollar than the banks would. But cash is king. Just a few weeks ago, there was an announcement that foreign credit cards would also enjoy a better exchange rate on purchases in Argentina, but that doesn’t seem to be working yet…. With a bundle of pesos in hand, we proceeded to find an Argentinian SIM card for our phones. This is a first for us after having enjoyed the Google FI International plan for the last few years. Apparently you need to be staying in the US for the majority of the time in order to stay in this plan. We were kicked out, so now we have to do what most overlanders need to do: buy a local SIM card and find your way through the jungle of prepaid conditions offered. Which also means a new telephone number each time you switch countries and/or cards. (This was also partly the reason why we didn’t even try to get one in Uruguay where, after leaving WIFI paradise of Chacra Holandesa, we did not plan to stay long and took advantage of WIFI locations along the road…. Charging the SIM card remains a bit of a mystery for us: before the initial GBs would be depleted, we found out you could buy more data in many small kiosks. However, they could not tell us how much data we got for our money, or how much was left. In addition, very few campgrounds offer WIFI (or if they do, it is very slow, weak, or on-off) so we are more dependent on data. Only recently we found someone at the official provider’s office who could explain how things work. He downloaded the app for us, so now we can see where we stand…

With the money and phone taken care of, we headed for Buenos Aires, by way of two towns that sounded interesting: historic San Antonio de Areco is known as the center of Gaucho culture: In November a big festival with a gathering of flashy looking Gauchos has national fame. We were too early for that and until that time, the only signs of Gaucho presence were old fashioned, beautiful samples of their utilities, like silver studded daggers, belts, spurs, mate cups and bombillas, as well as hats, ponchos, saddles, whips, and the likes. The gaucho museum and a pair of interesting stores remained closed even after siesta time, so after walking the historic part a few times over, we settled in for the night and moved on to Lujan the next morning.

Some colonial style buildings in San Antonio de Areco
The old bridge in San Antonio de Areco

I did not read up enough about Lujan, and I was totally surprised to find that instead another folkloristic magnet, this was a religious pilgrimage center. We entered the town over a wide avenue, which didn’t stop until we faced an immense, empty plaza. We parked our camper in a side street and walked through the arcade, past multiple booths selling souvenirs with depictions of the Virgin or of the grand cathedral- located across the square. The arcades on either side of the approach to the plaza, the immensity of the square, and the impressive church gave me the impression of St. Peter’s Square, albeit a bit more modest. But only when we entered the church, we realized it was a place of pilgrimage. Not only did we see many devout people praying, but also a group of wheelchaired persons, which made me think of the European place of pilgrimage, Lourdes, where I know that many handicapped people come to pray for a miracle of healing.

Lujan cathedral across the square

We entered Buenos Aires during the quiet afternoon siesta. It was almost a straight line through miles of gray apartment buildings to get to the waterfront, where we had memories of staying during a Sunday afternoon back in 1978. The waterfront promenade back then was filled with families slow roasting their meats, and our (then) dog Linda drooling from the smell the cooking gave off. At the end of day, we were approached by several people, asking if we would accept their leftover meat for our dog. We received kilos of the best, tenderest smoked meat – too much for our dog alone, we told ourselves, so we enjoyed some for us during the following days as well.

We did not find or recognized that same location anymore, but close to the waterfront we joined a few other camping trucks on a park-side road, where apparently it was ok for us to stay for several days. Passersby would stop and ask us about our travels and where we would go next, often expressing a wish for doing the same, though unfortunately, because of their weak Argentinian Peso, that adventure would be unaffordable for most of them.

Our camp site in Puerto Madero, Buenos Aires
Puerto Madero. We had the to cross the bridge over this water to visit the city
The high rises of Puerto Madero as seen from the Costanera Sur nature reserve. One could take a nice walk in nature here, a hop away from where we stayed.

Within walking distance from where we were parked, the neighborhood of San Telmo used to be the place to live in Buenos Aires – before Recoletta, on the other side of the business center and seat of government, became the hotspot. We ventured out to the area with the imposing government buildings around Plaza de Mayo, but found no attraction, and no cozy restaurants here. For us, San Telmo, with Plaza Dorrego and its funky stores and restaurants was the place to be. We gazed through the shop windows that offered high quality wares from recent times and all the way back to a century ago. We discovered modern designer furniture from the fifties and sixties that people in our country would drool over, just piled up or hanging on the walls; oriental jade carvings, and china, and art glass, and silver serviceware – we assume all valuable collections that were expected to hold their value longer than the national valuta – to be sold when money was needed to survive…

Around Plaza de Mayo

Barrio de San Telmo

Vintage design store

Designer shoe store

From the outside looking in, Pulperia Quilapan looked like another hoarding antique store. Vintage curios, like film reels, Thonet chairs, old dusty wine bottles (still full!) and much more joined an old piano hanging on the wall. When we ventured further in, every room was a discovery with its own funky style. We decided to eat here and were directed to the courtyard, where archeologists recently found layers of older habitat evidence in the old well. Nice restaurant, good service, but the food was a little bland… maybe because I picked a vegetarian dish.

Restaurant Pulperia Quilapan in San Telmo

The day we decided to walk to La Boca, it happened to be a Saturday. Maybe La Boca is always crowded – we observed tourists were brought in by busloads – and if it’s not, we still picked a day that was sunny and cool. Walking there from San Telmo is not far, but when Thijs does the navigation, we tend to go the long way. Upon arrival, we were overwhelmed by the omnipresence of blue and yellow colors of La Bombonera, home to la Boca Juniors soccer team. Not only the soccer stadium and the surrounding buildings, but also people and cars colored the streets in blue and yellow. Walk a little further, and a true attack on your eyes comes in play: multitudes of colors, so loud, you’ll have to wear sunglasses. It is a happy scene though, like walking through a fairytale wonderland. Buenos Aires’ most colorful neighborhood was started by poor working class immigrants from Italy and Spain, who eked out a living by working at the waterfront warehouses and meatpacking plants. Most of la Boca is still drab and dilapidated, but the houses around and along the Caminito near the former railway station celebrate life with color, music, dance and their favorite soccer team with Maradona as their controversial hero. Artists that later moved in have bumped up the color, and tourists followed. La Boca is now one of the must-see parts of Buenos Aires, filled with outdoor restaurants with live music and tango performances, life sized puppets with the likeness of Evita or Maradona wave from balconies or draw you into an overloaded souvenir store…its’s a madhouse, really…but one must see. Walking back, the streets in San Telmo felt dignified and mature. We stopped for a drink at the Plaza Dorrego and watched a muted version of a hot tango on the square.

Blue and Yellow colors of Club Atletico Boca Juniors soccer team

The colorful Barrio la Boca, Buenos Aires

Back to San Telmo from la Boca. Good to see this giant ficus tree surrounded by busy roads.

Back on the Plaza Dorrego, a minute of rest with a drink and a bit of tango

On Sunday morning we decided to move on: the number of campers along the street where we’d stayed had slowly increased from five to ten, which I thought could be pushing the good city’s generous tolerance, and Sunday would be a good day to leave the city while traffic is at a minimum. Just as we were ready to leave, a foods market had built up across the street from us, so we could even leave town well stocked, ready for the trip going south into the pampas.

Camper Row in Puerto Madero
We left Buenos Aires over this bridge: an impressive goodbye.

And we’re back in the country side.

Uruguay to Argentina

Endless fields of beef pasture, as well as corn-, wheat-, soy-, and alfalfa fields remind me of the North American Mid West – of what used to be the prairies. There used to be the pampas here; we still have vague memories from our first South American trip in 1978, memories of rough and wild low-bush terrain, where gaucho horsemen herded cattle, aided by dogs. I remember our then dog Linda eyeing those active and capable dogs with envy: they looked so free and independent. Now, gauchos are only existing as a romantic icon to be impersonated in dress but not in lifestyle. Giant machines working the monoculture fields make the South American cowboys obsolete. The romance of the landscape is gone. A reason, or even an opportunity to stop and linger is minimalized. After driving for hours on end through the Argentinian landscape, the pampas in Uruguay compare as more preserved: cows and horses often roam fields covered with wildflowers and blooming bushes and at times the pampas grasses; the many (cursed) dusty Uruguayan roads are frequently used by horsemen – many of them keep up the gaucho image by wearing typical berets. Horses are popular in Uruguay, and throughout the region, rodeos are a regular Sunday event and gaucho dress-up is celebrated.

Pampas in Argentina
Uruguay

At the end of a great summer in the Netherlands, we arrived back in Uruguay by the second week of October. Our camper had survived our absence well, so we could immediately drive from the storage to Chacra Holandesa – our favorite campsite in Atlantida – to stock up on supplies and find a fresh set of tires that could carry us over expected rough Patagonian roads.  Finding the right tires was a bit of a challenge and financial shock, but it feels good to start the last leg of our South American trip in top condition. In the meantime, with the help of Jan, we found out where, that Sunday, we had an opportunity to visit one of the local rodeo events.

This time around, landcruiser type campers were in the majority
On cold evenings it was night to meet by the fire with fellow campers
Thijs and Jan, in conversation over a glass of wine

Migues is a small town, not too far a drive away from Chacra Holandesa. Jan, the campsite owner extraordinaire, advised us to take the scenic road, which of course, had to be a dusty dirt road – one of the many in Uruguay. Once in town, it was easy to see where the action was. We paid a fee to enter and park on the rodeo grounds. As we made our way to the center field, we heard the announcer introduce and praise a parade of beautiful horses and showy riders. From their perch, two musicians beside the announcer filled the pauses with song and guitar. From the field perimeter, I saw three posts planted not far from center stage. Horses got tied to these posts, blindfolded, and mounted under loud and rapid (for me incomprehensible Uruguayan-Spanish dialect) commentary, probably about the horse, its owner and background, and the rider who is going to attempt to stay one minute on that unbroken bucking animal. The process looked brutal. The horses looked nervous. To reduce a panic, they got blindfolded, while getting short-tied to the post, then saddled, pushed and shoved into the right direction – often with the aid of other horses – and mounted by a guy wearing huge spurs on his boots. When everything was in place, the horse was untied, blindfold removed, and whipped, to start a one -minute challenge for the horse to get rid of the rider. These riders were good: most managed to stay on, wide-legged while waving a kerchief, rocking back and forth on the horse for the full minute. Then they were lifted off the horse by one of two horsemen safeguarding the ride, the other leading the horse back to the pen. One of the horses close to my point of view resisted from the get-go. Several times the rider was thrown off, even before the horse was untied. More assistants had to come and help get the horse under control. When the horse was finally let go, it threw the rider off within seconds. This horse was a wild one, with a beautiful muscle tone and will power. On the field there were two men with clip boards, holding scores. I don’t know what the criteria were to win something, but for me, this last horse was a winner.

She must have been the queen of the show

During a break, we followed the crowd around us to check out the food and retail section. The public flaunted Gaucho regalia: (silver-studded) leather belts with finely decorated daggers caught most of my attention. Gaucho berets, riding pants and leather boots completed the look for most of the audience, even little kids. Decorative riding equipment and gaucho regalia could be purchased in some of the booths. Traditional mate cups and their metal straws, the bombillas, are a popular product as well – you never have too many of those… and the food: can’t be anything other than meat… or ice cream…or churros, filled with dulce de leche.

The day after we found and purchased our new tires, we left for Argentina by way of Uruguay’s lush wine country along the Rio de la Plata. Historic Colonia del Sacramento is a must see in Uruguay, and our first stop enroute to the border. As a former Portuguese outpost and strategically located opposite Buenos Aires across the river, the small colonial town has narrow cobblestone streets and intimate shady plazas which, in a land that does not have many charming towns to speak of, makes the place special enough to draw tourists and an Unesco World Heritage recognition. Parking was easy along the waterfront. We explored most of the old town during the quiet siesta time and picked a restaurant along the river for an early dinner. Then an evening sunset walk before bed. It was quiet in town.

When we visited Uruguay in 1978, these types of cars dominated the traffic scene.

With limited data access, we are now dependent on Wifi generosity. Here Thijs used Wifi from the restaurant where we ate before.

Not far from Colonia, we stopped at the public beaches of Carmelo. After an early lunch, we were casually accompanied by a sweet dog on our stroll along the beach. For a moment I thought we had another pet to join us on our adventures, but as we reached our camper, the dog was in front of a parked car ahead of us, so we climbed inside unseen. I looked out to see if he missed us and was relieved to see he already befriended someone else. Maybe he just likes to walk with someone.

Our truck was not allowed in the old town part of Carmelo, so we followed the detour, and emerged on the other side of town. Just a little further down the road was supposed to be an old historic store, Almacen de la Capilla, that tickled our interest, so we took the short drive over a dirt road to reach first the Capilla(=chapel), followed by the old corner store, surrounded by the Cordano Vineyards. Inside the store it was clear that the two businesses belonged together, and on a lovely terrace in the back there was an opportunity for winetasting.  I made some surprising discoveries here: I didn’t know a Muscatel wine could be rose, dry and delicious, and I didn’t know I could enjoy a sweet Muscatel – this one was sparkling with a hint of citrus. Their Chardonnay was a nice mineral-dry, and their Tannat, the popular Uruguayan red wine, was full bodied. Finally, the licor de Tannat tasted like Port wine, like an after-dinner candy. The owners of the place invited us to stay at the winery for the night, which we accepted: it was a beautiful, quiet place, and when we went for a sunset walk around the vineyard, their dog casually accompanied us.

Our last destination in Uruguay was the border town of Fray Bentos, also known for having produced mountains of canned corned beef.  We arrived too late for a tour of the old beef processing plant – turned museum. After reading more about it, I had no desire to see this old slaughterhouse, where in its hay days, until the 1960s, 5000 people worked to transform 400 cows per hour into cans of corned beef, which was then shipped to Europe and around the world. Thijs however wanted to know more about it and came back with some pictures. I’m glad it did not show a blood bath, just old machines and offices. In the meantime I cooked and processed my veggies, so we could cross the border the next morning without getting into trouble for importing raw food. We were ready for Argentina.

Uruguay – Part One

“Tourism Week” started on the day we crossed the border from Argentina to Uruguay, where kilometers long lines of cars waited to cross from Uruguay to Argentina. We considered ourselves lucky to head in the other direction. In Uruguay, politics and religion are completely separated, to the point that the week of Easter – a holy week in most of Latin America – has been renamed “Tourism Week”. At that same moment we were confronted with the economic difference between these two neighboring countries: Argentina’s currency is weak with an incredible inflation rate, their money is not very desirable in its neighboring country, unless they pay a steep exchange rate. Uruguayans, on the other hand, can live like kings across their border, which explained the one way traffic. So when we arrived in Uruguay, we expected a richer, more developed country than Argentina – where we’d enjoyed excellent roads and modern looking towns… We were surprised how much less prosperous Uruguay looked: generally the houses were smaller and simpler, their landscaping less cultivated and, beside the toll roads, we found ourselves rattling over dusty dirt roads. This, while Uruguay is named as one of the two wealthiest and most expensive South American nations….we were puzzled. Just like Argentina, most of the countryside consists of cattle pastures and fields that grow animal feed like corn and soy, albeit at times a bit less homogeneous and more natural looking. However in Uruguay, the gentle hills also held patches of eucalyptus forest, its wood becoming another source of income beside the beef industry. Could that make all the difference? In addition we saw herds of horses, grazing on pampas plants and tufts of grass, or galloping along in the distance, throwing up dust, living their lives as they should. Uruguayans love their horses; I’d think everyone here owns a horse like people in the Netherlands own a bike. We passed so many riders along the road, that we concluded that this must be the reason why they have so many unpaved roads: horses and hard pavement don’t go well together.

As we got closer to the coast, quaint thatch- roofed farm houses caught our attention. Most of them were small and unassuming, but so charming. The roads were on and off good to bad, the towns were simple.

Already in Peru we’d heard about a lovely campsite near the coast, owned and run by a Dutch couple. In need of some wifi connection, a load of laundry done, and hopefully some information about what to do and where to go, we decided to go there first.

At the gate of la Chacra Holandesa we were greeted by Jan, Marieke, and their two dogs. We joined several overland campers on the grass near a sparkling pool, beside a field occupied by a handful of horses and a giant pig that thinks she’s a horse. The chacra’s population was completed by a harem of roaming chickens, guarded by a few too many roosters and some cats.

Chacra Holandesa

Every day around five o’clock, after the chores of the day are done, Jan settles himself with a cigar and a glass of wine in a chair under the poolhouse roof: a silent invitation for a get-together. Tales of destinations and experiences went around… We found out that we missed an interesting part along a northern route, and what else we should visit. The coast should definitely be on the list. So after a few days of rest we decided to drive north along the coast, which in many places was still the way we remembered it from our first trip in 1978: with sand dunes, pine forests and strips of summer houses (some of them the cute, cottagey, thatched roofed kind) along white sandy beaches. Except for Punta del Este, which is reminiscent of a downsized Miami Beach, most coastal towns were laid-back and simple with low-rise apartment buildings and old fashioned villas.

Punta del Este

Our northbound endpoint would be the Parque Nacional de Santa Teresa, at thirty-some kilometers south of the Brazilian border. There, the beaches are grand and wild, the coastal forests untouched, while a historic fort and leftovers of the town of Santa Elena add to the attraction. The park can also accommodate an incredible amount of campers. Maybe this would be the place where in 1978 we experienced Easter weekend (?) when we were joined by campers in old fashioned trucks, loaded up with the family’s brass bed and other home furnishings, and old T-Ford type cars (in that time in Uruguay, every car was antique) got decked out with tarps as makeshift tents, and where we saw the first motorcycle-tent construction, and a legion of gauchos servicing the grounds… So far, we had not found or recognized the exact spot. On the other hand, we passed so many pine forests along the coast, that it could have been anywhere …. My appreciation for the geo-location option, nowadays embedded in my photos, was asserted once more: we didn’t have that in 1978. I need to dig up my photos from back then, before we return in September.

Google maps is great in directing us to impossible roads: in the past, google brought us to a stepped street; on a non existent shortcut through dense jungle; and up a street so steep that our truck just stopped, so we had to back up with our front wheels barely touching the road which made steering impossible… This time google directed us through the backstreets of Punta del Diablo to reach Playa Grande in the National Park. We had to turn around when the road became a deep river gully which, even while walking was a climb along narrow ridges. After we returned to the main road, we found the official main entry, where, as expected, we paid an entry- and camping fee and received a map of the park, as well as a desinfecting dip to drive through. On this map, the road connection between Punta del Diablo and the park was non- existent.

Past the grand entryway we drove a rickety potholed road to the long stretch of Playa Grande beach, where we found ourselves alone on top of a cliff overlooking the ocean. Except for the terrible road condition I wonder why no-one else picked this beautiful spot. The beach below was almost deserted. We passed a few dog walkers, a decaying whale carcass, and further down near the cape that separates the park from Punta del Diablo, some more people. We climbed the dunes and walked the path that brought us to the touristy fisher town, where at that moment a crowd was fixated on a surf competition, sipping maté tea through a bombilla (metal sifoning straw) out of their cuias (maté cups) while holding a thermos of spare hot water tucked under one arm.

Punta del Diablo

How to describe the town of Punta del Diablo? Along the Playa de Pescadores- the most popular part- the streets run helter skelter with the dunes. The dusty roads are scattered with quaint, loosely built open front restaurants, interspersed with small stores, and the occasional cottage. Maybe the buildings were constructed with whatever was found on the beach. Old Volkswagen buses, and young people selling jewelry on the streets or making music made me think of the hippie times. Away from the bustling center, cottages of various sizes and styles varied in curb appeal: some could have been built in the middle ages, some were airy and contemporary. Over time I grew to appreciate the place.

Punta del Diablo

Beside a large restored Spanish fort and some Santa Teresa settlement houses the National park also boasts botanical gardens with an impressive conservatory. Impressive because it looks grand, old and overgrown. Upon entry into the octagonal center, one cannot help but look up and notice the windmill shaped structure that supports four glass roofs. Natural stone pillars and arches leak mosses, ferns and vines. Through an archway we entered a lower side wing, where raised beds displayed a wild array of potted plants rooted in green undergrowth. Another wing displayed taller plants in straight borders, centered by a water canal edged by potted plants. One room looked like an indoor pool, where tropical plants shaded the water for the fish below.

Fortaleza Santa Teresa

Behind the conservatory we took a narrow path into a patch of old growth forest, which led us over a narrow bridge to a small hill, where a statue of an indigenous warrior was displayed: an ode to the Arachanes people that  inhabited these lands until the colonial immigrant people basically extinguished them and all other Uruguayan indigenous inhabitants. Contemporary Uruguay is a very white country.

On a drive around the park we discovered we were not the only ones camping here. Although our spot on the southern side was deserted, we found the most popular spot -with an access road ten times better- on the northern side, where at least a hundred campers hung out under the trees, in close proximity to bath houses and a camping store. We however, happily remained at our lonely spot overlooking the ocean…    

Upon return towards Montevideo (from where we plan to fly back to the Netherlands for a summer with family) we chose an inland road that would pass by some vineyards. The dusty road brought us over rolling hills to a lovely vineyard where no-one was home. With our recent experience in Mendoza, where one could visit most vineyard bodegas without making appointments, we never thought to need one here in Uruguay, so this is what you could get. But no big deal, there was another one not too far from there. We arrived at the grand entry of the Garçon wineries, where a guard asked us for our reservations. Which we didn’t have. Thijs later told me he’d tried to make reservations for wine tasting/lunch the night before, but when a prepayment of $80 pp was demanded, he decided to go our usual way. It didn’t work this time. Is that why Mendoza wineries are more popular? For us they are. We don’t need to taste the wines. So we moved on through cattle country, over rolling hills and dusty roads. We spent a night at a rare of-the-road flat spot near a riverbed and soon found ourselves back in Atlantida, where Chacra Holandesa was crowded and welcoming.

Road to the wineries

The old city center of Montevideo is not overwhelmingly large: one can see most of it in one day. We took the bus, together with our host Marieke, who needed to go into town for her own reasons. We criss-crossed the town and walked down the Avenida 25 de Mayo. At one point you can see the water from three sides, the fishing pier straight ahead of us, and on both sides waterfront  peeping through at the end of the streets. Traffic was relaxed for a nation’s capital, and the shady parks felt comfortable. Pompeous Renaissance and  Neoclassical buildings, plus a scattering of Art Deco facades bring back memories of good old times when money must have been plentiful for the chosen ones. The economy is pretty good now, and slick modern architecture stands proudly beside the historic monuments of yesteryear,  but neglect seeps through the walls of some smaller buildings. At the Plaza Independencia we descended under the statue of José Artigas, and found his impressive black granite underground mausoleum: the remains of this national hero solemnly accompanied by two honor guards.

Statue of José Artigas
Mausoleum of José Artigas
View towards the Plaza de Independencia

Museum of money and gaucho….no idea how that combines!
A peek through an open door
School children in uniform

Thijs went on a quest to find himself a typical gaucho beret, so he could keep his head protected against sun and wind, although we already have this as a gift for our youngest son in mind, who we think might appreciate this fine woolen cap. There are gaucho stores in Montevideo that sell a generous range of these berets: ridiculously wide cotton and woolen berets, as well as more moderate sizes, in a variety of colors and materials. Thijs proudly stepped out of the store with a black woolen one and was immediately photographed by a passing tourist. He generously posed for the picture!

Besides berets, maté cups and bombillas were also sold at the gaucho stores

All too soon our departure date arrived. We drove to the storage facility, where our camper joined over a hundred other overland vehicles, waiting for their owner’s return to continue their journey. We plan to be back by the end of September, when the drive south to Ushuaia and Tierra del Fuego, followed by a trip north along the Chilean border should finalize our South American exploration. But for now, we look forward to some family time in the northern hemisphere.

Sunrise at Chacra Holandesa

Along the way, there were some down to earth fishing spots

Across the Argentinian plains: Mendoza to Uruguay.

Leaving Mendoza, we decided to take the longer, no-toll road to Cordoba. The first part of this route we’d already seen, since we had previously come to Mendoza this way: a country road that led us through small villages, vineyards and later olive groves. Slowly even the olive trees became more scarce and dry shrubs replaced the struggling trees. As the land naturalized, the settlements became fewer and lonelier. One more time, we stopped at Reserva Bosques Telteca, where a few weeks ago, on our way to Mendoza, we stopped for the night and walked a good trail through the desert terrain on the following day. These trails among the dunes were sparsely marked and obscured by wandering sand over hectares of land. Occasionally we climbed up the sandy dunes – one step up, half a step sliding back down, to find the landmark radio tower, where our camper was parked nearby. When, even on the trail, we sank ankle deep into the sand, we decided to turn around and find our way back.

This time around, we stopped to scale the ridge of the tall sand dunes across the street. (If only we had snowshoes…!) After lunch, we continued on the perfectly paved, straight road across an endless scrubby desert plain. This road is so smooth, with so little traffic or opportunities to stop, that it is hard not to fall asleep, and indeed, along the way we passed two serious accidents of what looked like single cars that just ran off the road and overturned. By late afternoon we reached a mountain range, where lush green grasses and rows of yellowing poplars indicated human settlements. We looked around for an overnight spot, but found only a gas station, so we crawled up the mountain, along hotels and summer homes, green lawns and colorful flowers that lined the street. A little further up, at the Embalse Allende reservoir, we found a quiet campground with a view over the water. The night silence was intense, the sky  dark with clear bright stars: we decided to soak it in for at least a day or two.

As in many places with this crazy weather nowadays, the water in this reservoir was ten meters below normal level. The last time the lake was full was in 2014. The already extended concrete boat ramp barely touched the water’s surface. Some small boats below us, along the water’s retaining wall were hard to reach, but on the other side, around the bend, a beach had surfaced, accessible for cars of fishermen to enjoy. During the day their voices echoed across the water.

We found the kitchen of the family’s restaurant, where we ordered a meal with local fish. The seafood they recommended however turned out to be calamari  – I don’t think that can be found in this mountain reservoir…  As the only guests, we chose a spot under the shade roof, overlooking the lake. Soon a flock of chickens joined the friendly cats and dogs under our table and flaunted their best hungry attitude, to the embarrassment of the restaurant manager, who shooed them away, without avail: within minutes they were back. I rewarded their insistence with the crumbs of my food.

On Saturday, when a small crowd of fun seeking visitors arrived, the serenity of the place disappeared. Diners attended the restaurant, and smoke from the grills filled the air. We had witnessed a day of peace and a day of action, and decided to continue on our way on Sunday morning.

To reach the city of Cordoba, we first climbed over what seemed to be rounded masses of granite mixed with glistening chips of mica, dressed up with bushy trees and dry shrubs, like the pyracantha loaded with yellow, orange and red berries. Just before turning around the top  for the descent, an idyllic picture caught my eye: shouldered along a creek with tall green grasses was a small cottage farm accentuated by yellow poplar trees, and protected by an embrace of surrounding elevations. Only after we passed it, I realized we should have stopped for a photo. I reminded myself we already have a similar picture from our first South American travels through Argentina, and how many pictures does one need?…. I still regret not having stopped, though.

On a Sunday morning, it was easy to find a place to park in the historic center of Cordoba, where opulent buildings echoed times of privileged wealth. Not much was open – we passed through empty, tree shaded promenades and peaceful squares, where outdoor cafes were protected from the elements with bright parasols, and from the wind with flowering bushes. At the foot of the Catedral de Nuestra Señora de Asunción, we stumbled upon an alley with an installation that took our breath away: a memorial of the desaparecidos: the thousands of mostly young Argentinians who disappeared during the brutal dictatorship between 1976 and 1983. Above our heads, hundreds of photos of the lost, printed on cloth flags, fluttered in the wind – like laundry on lines criss-cross over the length of the alley. Two creamy yellow walls contained four displays of continuous lines, each like an enlarged fingerprint. At a closer look, the lines consisted of  names of all those that disappeared, clustered in the year they vanished. We remembered hearing about it when we traveled through Argentina during that time – a time when so many people of the South American countries were silenced by their dictatorial governments, to the point that we as outsiders only picked up snippets of the atrocious tales.

The land east of Córdoba is cattle country. Endless fields with corn and soy, interrupted by cattle pastures reminded me of the North American midwest. The expansive, efficient looking farmland could explain the neat looking towns, where butcher shops and icecream stores stood out as the most popular retail venues. The buildings looked modern and well maintained, and the roads remained good. We stopped for the night at an american style gas station, with a small, popular restaurant and convenience store, as well as clean bathrooms with showers. Fortunately here, trucks stop somewhere else for the night, so we enjoyed a quiet night without running engines as neighbors. Instead, our neighbor was rusty brown or black cattle in a spacious holding pen. They looked young – I hope they’d only be there for transfer to some farm’s pastures. That morning we watched them throwing up dust – running to the feed bins as they got filled, followed by a flock of green parakeets that landed underfoot for the spilled corn.

The name Santa Fé evokes visions of a legendary country town, so we parked our camper on the Plaza de San Martín, which in most Argentinian cities is the central square. A parking guard helped us navigate into a narrow slot, and offered a much needed carwash service while we  explored this city. To our surprise it looked like the buildings that used to be grand needed major restoration. We had not seen this in a while. Apparently the province of Santa Fé is not as prosperous as that of Córdoba or Mendoza, and it shows, though the countryside had not changed much from what we could see. The port of Santa Fé has a direct access to the Paraná river. Looking for the waterfront, we found the port terminal, where the inlet had high walls which could indicate large differences in water levels. Across the inlet, a large modern casino and mall obstructed a further view towards the river estuaries. In the water, floating plants replaced absent ships. An old crane/vacant tourist information booth – beside the old port administration building overlooking the terminal added to the omnipresent sense of lost grandeur.

After we crossed the bridge over the rio Santa Fé, we found ourselves looking down from the elevated highway over a network of wetlands, rivers and creeks, to finally descent into an ultra modern tunnel under the main river, which brought us to Paraná city on the other side of the estuary. Here we veered north, through a fancy looking neighborhood towards the shores of the Paraná river to enjoy the sense of steamy tropics in autumn. 

The expansive campground we entered was empty – let’s presume because of covid. With many building under construction, we could find no one in charge for admission. In the end, a person who looked like he was in charge allowed us to spend the night, for free. He pointed out the newly renovated bathroom building, but we could pick any spot on the premises. An old pump station and dense forest prevented us from finding a spot along the river, so we parked near the new bathroom and went for a hike, in search of the riverfront. A comfortable concrete path and steps led us down along the steep cliff. Halfway down, the steps had collapsed sideways and disappeared into dense undergrowth. We climbed across the crevice to find the continued path, but it became clear that most steps and paths had collapsed as if affected by an earthquake or, as was the case here, earth slides after recent heavy rains. Finding our way down this way, like Indiana Jones exploring ancient ruins in the jungle, we discovered an extensive ruined network of paths leading to crooked platforms and skeletons of shacks near the water. It must have been a lively destination at the time! Finally, washed up tree trunks and branches left little of a beach to be enjoyed, but the expedition down and back up was worthwhile and memorable. The last leg of our drive to the border of Uruguay was another smooth ride through agricultural country, interrupted by pretty villages with an orderly tree lined main street. Hot springs were the tourist attractions around here. We got so used to this impression of comfort, that the turnoff into the border town of Colon surprised us with a dirt road, while they named this road after one of the most prestigious car brands: Ferrari! We found our way to the riverfront – with an accessible beach – where we planned to stay a few days to spend our last Argentinian pesos before crossing into Uruguay.

Colón turned out to be a pleasant small town with a malecón (waterside promenade) and nice restaurants along plaza San Martín. It was clear this town accommodates tourists. The riverside recreation area was extensive, with groups of Argentinian campers spreading out along the beach. Paddleboards and canoes made their way across the river, while fishing was the favorite pastime at the water’s edge. When we splurged on a nice lunch at a restaurant overlooking the plaza, our neighboring table guests broke out in a dance when a troubadour stopped by for a song or two. The following day, at another restaurant, we sampled the finest wine we found so far in Argentina – though the excellent food may have helped with the experience.

When we crossed the border to Uruguay, we left Argentina with fond memories, sure to return for the trek to Tierra del Fuego, as soon as the South American spring warms the weather in September.