Disappointed about Bariloche, we decided to drive north, along the route of the Seven Lakes – an area we had not visited before. First we skirted around Lago Nahuel Huapi, crossed some more dry Patagonian pampas, and reached Villa la Angostura – a bustling tourist town that looked more like what we remembered Bariloche to be way back when… Yet, we did not stop to look around: we would be coming back within a week to get our truck serviced by a well recommended mechanic in Bariloche, who just happened to start his vacation when we arrived at his place. “Come back next week Wednesday, and I can help you then” he told us, and so we will.
Ruta de Siete Lagos, (which also happens to overlap the well known #40 – that Argentinian north to south artery we traveled on before) meandered through thick forested mountains – part of the enormous Parque Nacional Nahuel Huapi. Along the roadside, one could see an abundance of lupine plants, now bursting with seed pods. Behind the lupines, the taller greens of scotch broom (gorse) closed the gap between the road and the forest: what a colorful sight that must have been in the springtime, all that purple and yellow along the road!
Not far outside of Villa la Angostura, the road splits off to one that leads west to the Chilean border, and Ruta #40 going north. On all sides, clear blue lakes drew our eyes down the steep wooded mountain sides. Despite the heavy vacation traffic, we enjoyed the drive north in perfect weather. When, by mid afternoon, we found a sign advertising a free National Park campground, we drove down to check it out – and decided to stay. We were not the only ones there. Many campers were tucked away in the bushes, while we picked a spot with a full view over the shallow river. From here, we could see fish jumping after a hovering insect, and a kingfisher on a tree branch, eyeing that fish small enough to spear. We took a hike following a narrow path along the river, until a few fallen trees blocked our way. Heavy winds and forest fires take a heavy toll on the trees here. There will be enough firewood for all the campers, and then some!
The nice thing about Argentinian campers is that they are peacefully quiet: they make a campfire, maybe try to catch a fish, prepare their barbeque, cook, eat, and drink. We heard no loud voices or music, except for a few campfire songs …not bothersome at all. However: a few environmental lessons would not be out of place, like, if nature calls you to go in nature, do it at least a good distance away from a natural water source, and please bury your stuff, and/or wrap up your dirty toilet paper and dispose of it properly, because it looks gross to come across those dumping grounds during an otherwise enjoyable walk. Someone else’s toilet paper is the one thing I refuse to pick up. And please don’t rinse your porta-potty holding tank in the river, close to where your neighbor is filling his water kettle or doing the dishes a minute later. We would not even take soap to these essentially pristine waters.
Anyway, we continued the next morning and soon entered San Martin de los Andes, another popular mountain town with characteristic wooden buildings and multilayered roofs, and an abundance of flowers. Especially roses! Roses do so well in this part of Argentina; they seem to grow effortlessly without any signs of diseases, and bloom abundantly. It is the most popular plant here – both in the gardens and along the sidewalks. Maybe roses are so healthy because they also grow wild here. This time of the year the wild rosebushes were starting to color their leaves yellow, their fruit red. I wish the rosehips would be easier for us to consume – not having to go through the process of removing all the seed, to be left with just a thin skin that cooks into a delicious syrup or jelly. So, most of that fruit will be left for the sheep and other animals to devour.
Even with all the people crowding the streets, and even though the town discouraged camping vehicles to hang around, we stayed for a couple of days. The terraces were inviting, as were the shady parks, so we had lunch at one place, drinks at another. We found a spot to sleep at the edge of town between an Argentinian family in an old patched-up bus, and a Brazilian couple in a sleek Sprinter campervan. Both being Sprinter owners, we connected with the Brazilians. It was the weekend of Carnaval: they, hailing from Rio de Janeiro, missed the annual celebration, just like Thijs does, who is from the south of the Netherlands, where Carnaval is also celebrated. They heard that there would be a carnaval kick-off in San Martin, starting at 5PM at Plaza San Martin, so we all went there. 5PM, no action yet, but a gathering of beer trucks encircled a stage…after about an hour, a young woman started singing ballads…nice voice, but it did not feel like carnaval. People, drinks in hand, stood around and talked, sat and observed…kids climbed the statue of San Martin…after another hour we went back to our camper.
Before turning around at what we considered the end of our route along the seven lakes, we had to satisfy our curiosity about Junin de los Andes, a small town north of San Martin which, in comparison to the latter, would be more laid back and simple; not as expensive as San Martin, and automatically a town that attracts a more alternative crowd…but we made the mistake of going there on a Sunday. It definitely was laid back: everything was closed and hardly a soul was out on the streets. We hung around for a couple of hours, trying to decide what to do, and in the end we just gave up and drove away. We backtracked on the road to San Martin, and continued on until we reached the big open lakeside campground that we’d spotted before on the way up.
Again, this was a free National Park campsite without any amenities. Everyone just drives in and find themselves a satisfactory spot, for one night or a whole vacation. I was amazed at how easy the system worked, how clean the place looked without a garbage disposal system, and how peacefully everyone co-inhabited the space. So, even though we were camping here with a hundred-something other campers, I found it a very positive experience that we had not encountered in many other places so far. Before we left the next day we walked the trail along the lake’s edge across from the campsite, to discover wild cows that fled for us like deer spotting humans, and horses crossing the water to get to greener pastures. We passed calafate bushes rich with berries, and multitudes of long dead fallen trees. We walked along pebbled beaches and reed filled lakeshores, through grassy fields in the middle of the woods, and admired the wide vistas across the clear waters. And then it was time to continue our drive back towards Bariloche.
We made one last stop in Villa la Angostura, the town that looked interesting and popular, enough to make us halt. We enjoyed a tasty lunch at Tinto, the bistro that is said to be owned by the brother of our (Argentinian born) Dutch Queen Maxima. I had a grave lax dish, and Thijs had a well cooked trout with an orange sauce. It was pricey but delicious. With the robbery reputation of Bariloche (“don’t leave your camper unattended at the parking lot, you will get it broken into…”) we decided to do our necessary grocery shopping in Villa la Angostura before our last leg back, heading for the mechanic, for a service job.
However, when we arrived at the mechanic, he was not available yet; too tired from his vacation. We should come back tomorrow… The next day, at the moment we were at his door, we received a message that he was held up by other commitments, we should come back next day. Tired of the busy, expensive, and this time noisy nearby campgrounds, this time we drove out of town to a beachfront to spend another night. It was a beautiful location that coincided with clear skies and quiet winds: perfect weather, perfect place! Here we made up our minds, if we should go back to the mechanic one more time, or cross the border to Chile and find someone there: the trip back to the mechanic would take an hour one way, and even if we would be helped that day, the service would need longer than one day…would he continue his work on the weekend? When Thijs asked through WhatsApp message, he didn’t receive an answer. So we decided to go to Chile instead. But that is another story.
We left the Carretera Austral at Villa Santa Lucia, (remember from the previous post, the town that had been covered by mud) and headed up the dirt road towards the Argentinian border, following the Futaleufu river after passing Lago Yelcho. At the start it looked like we were going to climb high up through the mountains, but in reality the pass over the Andes ridge was an easy one. The blue Futaleufu river was a popular destination for those who like whitewater rafting and canoeing: everywhere along the way we passed launching spots. At the few peek-a-boo spots through the trees, we could see rafts speeding downstream. In the town of Futaleufu – filled with adventure seeking backpackers – it was easy to find a restaurant to have lunch before we’d cross the border. Despite being surrounded by snow peaks, it was getting hot: a short siesta time in our camper parked along the central plaza felt more like sauna time: we soon continued towards the border.
Once back in Argentina, we looked for an overnight spot and ended up at “The southernmost vineyard” which also offered camping. It was truly a beautiful, well built and maintained place that promised designated RV spots with electric and water hookups and Wifi throughout the premises. The camping fees were the highest we’d encountered so far in Argentina so we were a bit disappointed when, after we were informed of the price and some shady RV spaces were unoccupied, we were directed to a tent camping spot where all the amenities were out of reach and shade trees too low to keep us somewhat cool during the 30⁰ C heat. Using the Wifi from outside the bathroom block was not what I expected either – for that price and promise. We decided to look for a better, cooler spot further down the road.
We found our place in the shade after Kristopher and Verena, a German couple we’d met before, on the pretty beach in Chile and again on the road, adviced us to go up to Laguna la Zeta, the lake nearby the town of Esquel – they had enjoyed quite some time there when the COVID-19 quarantine started and they were not allowed to enter the town. They knew the area well and showed us a few beautiful spots along the shores… we elected to stay in the shade of a pine forest overlooking the lake and its beach guests enjoying the cool clear waters below us.
Here we stayed for the hottest days, waiting for the weather to cool. During the cool early mornings we walked around the lake: about half of its perimeter was accessible for camping with many lovely spots on soft green grass or between low hanging trees; the other half was pasture for horses and cattle, the lake’s edges were bordered by reeds. The far and shallow end of the lake was a bird sanctuary: the soft, marshy ground along this side kept us, intruders, at a safe distance for them not to feel threatened. By late afternoon our shady pine forest filled up with day guests, who parked their cars around us and emptied their trunks of beach chairs and blankets, and walked down to the waterside loaded with food, their thermos bottles and mate cups. By evening all would be quiet again when everyone, except for a few campers, left. We made friends with our Brazilian neighbors Mattias and Clarissa,who arrived one day in a tiny overloaded Suzuki Jimmy, heavy with a roof tent with side extension, complete camping gear, bicycles and their dog. Befitting the norm of many Brazilians, they automatically included us in their dinner plans, so sweet! We contributed wine, appetisers and salad, and enjoyed some rich meals together at -for us- odd dinner times.
When the weather cooled down some, we hit the road again. Unfortunately the Parque Nacional de los Alerces, which came highly recommended, was on fire. We heard from our German friends, who went ahead, that they were forced to leave the park when the fire encroached around them. We took the main road instead and approached El Bolsón when the next heatwave hit. Just in time we reached a pebble beach along the Rio Azul, where immediately we found a friend in Mario and Maria, who practically lived there already for a few weeks in their camper and trailer. He went out of his way to show us the best spots. Here, again (it is mid-summer here) the beach filled with day guests by late afternoon, leaving us by ourselves for the rest of the time to enjoy the sun in the shade, the clear, cool water of the river, and nature beyond…Until all of a sudden the location seemed to have been discovered: on our last evening we got inundated with campers who settled all around us! Good thing we already were planning to leave the next morning, with the next cool spell.
El Bolsón is a small town on Ruta #40. (With a surprising amount of traffic!) The main square and several buildings around the center are charming, while along the main through fare, an abundance of bakeries, deli and cheese stores tempt one to buy too much. We should not stay too long here! Already a while ago, our South American insurance agent had invited us to visit their farm/campground not far north of El Bolson, so we made that our next stop. We reached it over an extremely bumpy road, when – fate has it- I forgot to lock one upper cabinet door and a heavy glass bowl fell out, shattered on, and broke our sink cover: during our seven- some years of travel this was only the second time this happened. !Always check the locks of your cabinets before driving!
The farm, embraced by mountains on both sides, stretched along a stream lined with green trees and bushes. Most of the land was naturalized, somewhat controlled by the grazing of a small flock of sheep and a family of rabbits. From an elevated viewpoint you could see a multitude of green circles in their dry grassland, created by a sprinkling system. Three years ago a forest fire nearly destroyed all the work done to the land, the life stock, and the buildings. Since that time they try to keep the worst of the drought out by diverting a water source into the sprinklers. We enjoyed a couple of quiet days by ourselves, and evenings in good company of our hosts Klaus and Claudia.
It was time to revisit Bariloche; the town that used to be the pearl of Argentina back in 1978. Back then, every Argentinian we met asked us what we thought of their country, and asked if we’d been to Bariloche yet – we should defenitly visit – which we did, just before crossing into Chile. From that time, I remember the beautiful mountain scenery with poplars in their golden autumn glory, with bushes full of rosehip and clearwater creeks. Of Bariloche I remembered the German/Swiss Alpine building style, with lots of natural wood and balconies, and their chocolate – you could not leave without buying some. How it had changed: the chocolate was still popular, but Bariloche had become a rather ugly city with hectic traffic and a terrible reputation of petty crime. We heard so many warnings, never to leave your vehicle unattended. We heard from fellow travellers that had their window shattered and camera equipment stolen when shopping for groceries, or of some, even when in the car, that had their door locks broken… We decided this time for an expensive campground, and not to stay longer than necessary. By then the temperature had dipped to 13⁰C (30⁰ Fahrenheit dip from the week before) with freezing winds throwing up white caps on the otherwise beautiful blue lake bordering Bariloche. We were ready for the last leg of our Argentinian trip, along the 7 lakes (actually 13) in the Andean mountain range north of Bariloche. And hopefully some more summer weather.
From our departure point of el Chaltén, we drove to, and then over the legendary route #40 (stretching north to south across Argentina, from its southern tip all the way to the Bolivian border) Just like in eastern Patagonia along route #3, settlements along route #40 are spread thin: with a 400km stretch between the turn-off near Tres Lagos and the one to route #41 past Bajo Caracoles, it takes a good detour to reach the gas station about halfway along, at the town of Gobernador Gregores. In the hamlet of Bajo Caracoles, we found a large gathering of motorcyclists and a couple of cars waiting to be serviced at the sticker-plastered fuel pump. The guy first in line turned around, throwing up his hands in despair: they’d run out of fuel, and it would be a day or two before a new supply was expected. The next fuel station would be at least 200km either way… Caracoles had just a few buildings and one hotel with, from the looks of it, maybe five rooms … The (only) store/restaurant- half of the building had an overload of sodas and alcoholic beverages, as well as sweet and savory snacks, but little choice in nutritious food. We still had a comfortable amount diesel to get us to the next town, but I wonder about all these people waiting to fill up…
Ruta 40 had gradually deteriorated from perfectly smooth for the first half, to a few potholes and sinking pavement, and finally unpredictable stretches of dusty corrugated gravel. And we decided we wanted to have more of this! Route 41, which connects the #40 in Argentina with the just as (in)famous # 7- Carretera Austral in Chile is a generally rough gravel road. But what a beautiful road it was! With that I mean the scenery. The land around us turned from desert grey-green, to a sparse spring-green in the wide riverbed of the Rio Blanco and, once we crossed the Paso Roballos and the border to Chile, a jubilant range of yellows, whites and greens welcomed us. Argentina’s version of Patagonia National Park is divided in several parts: we drove the part along old sheep farms (where we spotted more guanacos and rheas than sheep) between foothills of the Andes mountains, and up along the river valley of the Rio Blanco. Here, we thought it peculiar that green and wet land sits right beside desert ground. Maybe because the road cuts through it, the park had no entry fee and, since no wild camping is allowed within the boundaries of the park, we had to spend the night at the park’s (also free) camping area -with basic but clean facilities. It was nice to have trees for wind protection, to see a puma warning sign but no puma, fruiting bushes along the trail to the river, and grass to sit among the free roaming horses.
The next morning we continued our rattling drive towards the Paso Roballos, where a tiny border post let us out of Argentina. Soon, even before the Chilean border post, we passed a signpost announcing the Patagonia National Park of Chile. Only there and then we learned that this is one of the parks that Kristina Tompkins (former CEO of Patagonia brand outdoor wear) and her husband Doug Tompkins ( founder of The North Face) purchased as a Tompkins Conservation project, restored and developed it as a nature park, and donated it to the Chilean National Parks system to be enjoyed by the world. The initiative started years ago, when this couple hiked and camped there and saw the potential of this beautiful land, though at the time most of the Chacabuco valley still consisted of overgrazed sheep farms. Now most of it is rewilded, with undulating grass lands, wildflowers, fruit bearing shrubs, and stands of indigenous trees; an environment that encouraged the proliferation and comeback of guanacos, rheas, chinchillas, hares, foxes, armadillos and pumas. Although the connecting Argentina-Chile road runs straight through there, driving by car when visiting is discouraged – hiking encouraged. Only one of the pristine campgrounds is accessible to camper cars, the others are walk-in, tent camping only. Most trails are for foot-traffic, but from our camper-site there was a rare track that one can drive or walk: it leads up to the Doug Tompkins lookout. Of that 6km track, one can drive up, and walk the last 500m (a ridiculously short hike) or hike the whole way, and as a third option, drive halfway, park your car and walk up 3km. Nearing the top, there are other, longer walking trails veering off in a several directions. The bottom half cuts through flowering shrub lands, with vistas over the valley, while along the top half of the trail, trees shade the path. Once we reached the lookout, we found a well-built shelter with sturdy benches and tables inviting us to take a lunch break, while gazing at the distant snow peaks and the blue Lake Cochrane below us.
As opposed to the well-known parks we recently visited, there was no-one else on the trail. We had the whole place to ourselves. The low park attendance may be due to its difficult accessibility, which is by rough corrugated gravel and dirt roads with steep inclines and descents: beside the Paso Roballos road from where we entered, there’s also the north-south artery, the Carretera Austral, which is a mostly unpaved dirt road. Plus, this park, especially in comparison to the Argentinian parks, costs a small fortune to visit and camp. But nature is so beautiful and peaceful, and the area so well managed, that it is worth the money.
At the headquarters we stopped to pay our dues, and visited the excellent museum. There are three permanent exhibits: the world’s environmental history and state, the history of the park and its inhabitants past and present; and the Tompkins Conservation initiative.
A few things however were disappointing in this park: when crossing the Chilean border, no fresh and raw food can be kept, so with the little food we had left, we wanted to splurge on lunch at the park’s restaurant – reported to be expensive but excellent. We couldn’t. Twenty-four hour advance reservations were required, and nothing could budge them, even when the grounds looked sparsely populated (mostly staff there). We were directed to the coffee shop – which we found in the administration building (the buildings were re-assigned after the handover, but the name plaques weren’t) where we could choose a prepackaged sandwich or salad. We opted for the salad and, while the weather outside was gorgeous and inside was dark and gloomy, we looked for a table or at least a seat outside…nothing there, so we ended up eating from our laps on the steps. Sometimes stupid little things like that can sour an otherwise great experience.
Before turning north on the Carretera Austral, we detoured south to get fresh groceries and Wifi updates – except for a few slow 3G moments, we had not been linked to the world for a while. We needed to update our phones and download photos to the cloud. The town of Cochrane – adjacent to the park – was laidback and just big enough to get your necessities. The camping we chose was the size of someone’s backyard, but with clean bathrooms, excellent Wifi, and near the shops, so we stayed for an extra day to wash the dust off our bodies, and catch up with the world. On the map we spotted our next destination, north along the bone-rattling Carretera Austral: some years ago I saw pictures of grey/white marble caves, elegantly shaped by blue water. They’d be about 114 km up the road. It took us half a day to get there, driving over the dusty road along the bright blue Baker river canyon and past pine forests, so neatly planted, they looked like an army of parading soldiers.
The huge lake of General Carrera looked invitingly blue, even under overcast skies. Puerto Rio Tranquillo was bustling with visitors: it was a Friday afternoon during summer vacation, so of course… The weather forecast gave us just one windless sunny day on Sunday. We had time, and decided to wait, no problem. At the town’s beach, overlooking the lake, we were good.
I will tell you everything about the marble caves in the next blog, coming soon.
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.
We finally received our necessary car part. After Thijs installed it and we finally left Cusco. First, the road through the traffic jammed downtown streets of Juliaca, on to Puno with a laboratory to get the (necessary to cross the border) Covid CPR test. Upon arrival at noon, they just closed for the weekend. “Come back on Monday, then you may get the test results on Tuesday” said the man who was locking up. We were all fired up to start driving again and did not want to wait that long – so, after calling around to find another lab that would be open, a helpful woman directed us back to Juliaca, to a lab that would be open until 7pm and give results within a few hours. We called to make an appointment and then drove 45 minutes back to Juliaca. The lab was on a quiet street in a quiet neighborhood. It was no problem for us to wait for the results, parked in front of the building . We could even spend the night there, to depart early the following morning for the Bolivian border. Crossing the border took us an hour and a half, which included waiting our turn and watching a little preview of Bolivian Carnaval. Satisfied that we made some progress, we stayed in Copacabana for the rest of the day and night. It was a top tourist day this Sunday before Carnaval, so the waterfront and the town was packed. Good thing about a tourist place is: a good choice of food and (happy hour) drinks.
Since this was our fourth visit to Bolivia, we planned to drive straight through to Argentina; a large country yet to explore. We’d only stop for the night (and maybe a little longer), wherever that would happen to be.
We thought we hit the jackpot by (coincidentally) arriving in Oruro on the eve of Fat Tuesday. Oruro is well known for their Carnaval, with elaborate parades…Everywhere in Bolivia we saw signs of Carnaval preparations, with festival attributes, food and costumes offered on the busy markets, but we did not see much action yet – so we thought that maybe they only have the big event on Tuesday…NOT! The big parades happened on Saturday and Sunday – and we arrived in Oruro on Monday! Too bad for us. It was, however, strange to see that after Sunday, the markets were still brimming with Carnaval accessories. A week later we learned that the origins of Carnaval here did not originate from the gluttonous, crazy celebration before lent’s forty days of fasting, but as indigenous celebrations from before the Spanish arrived. So the Spanish changed this festival into a more christian Carnaval (like it was done with most pagan festivals in Europe) but some indigenous elements remained – like the duration of the festival, celebrated even after Ash Wednesday. Anyway, with everything closed for the holidays in Oruro, and having already visited that town some ten years ago, we continued our journey south.
One cannot pass Uyuni without a stop at the salt lake. The Salar de Uyuni was wet this time. Although it makes for pretty and surreal pictures, we did not take our camper out in the salt water. Already when I stepped out on the moist salt I almost lost my shoe as it sank in the salt. (I could dig it out) We heard of campers that got stuck here for five days and had to pay $1000 US to get pulled out. And then you should see the saltcake deposited on the bottom of the vehicles! So, not us. (The other time we could drive for hours across the dry saltflats) These pictures will have to do this time.
For Fat Tuesday we were in dusty Uyuni. All stores and most restaurants were closed (except one or two tiny tiendas, that served through a hole in the gate) People here celebrate this day in small groups, with family and friends. While looking for a place to spend the night, we came across a neighborhood celebration. As more people were getting drunk, we had to find a more quiet spot, so curbside parking in front of the cemetery felt the best. By the way, campings (especially with wifi) are rare in this neck of the woods.
As on Ash Wednesday the town of Uyuni was asleep, it was a good day to continue towards the border. Our next stop would be in Tupiza, where we should find another necessary PCR covid test (this time to enter Argentina) and a popular camping with wifi. Things did not work out well: still within sight of Uyuni, and coincidentally on a slow dirt road detour, our front wheel dropped sideways. Thank god Thijs knew that the shock breaker had detached (but how???) and he could re-attach it. After an hour we were back on the road. The countryside changed constantly, with breathtaking views over altiplano brushlands, with thunderclouds over distant mountains.
After a descent of about a thousand meters we reached the green river valley of Tupiza, where the temps were much more gentle. The town, however, did not meet our expectations. All the recommended restaurants were closed (some permanently because of covid), and we had to search hard and long to get the covid test (after five hours directed all over town, we finally had it done, but then we had to wait for 30 hours to get the results)
The campground in Tupiza was deserted and cluttered with trash; the wifi and electricity went on and off. The owner however was very friendly: he told us how the town used to be a wealthy mining town, and the mansion and the (camp)ground belonged to a rich tin baron when he was robbed by Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid, who roamed this area after they fled the law in the USA. Tomorrow we’ll drive to the border and hope to get the test results in time, as promised, by email.🤞🏻
We arrived at the border town of Villazon in late afternoon, around the time the email with the Covid test results should come in. There was no email…. When the good news finally arrived, the border was closed, so we spent the night in town, almost within view of the border. During the night, a long line of cars had accumulated, so by early morning, still hours before the border would open at 8 AM, our car must have been #50 in line to cross the border. In front of the immigration – to check out of Bolivia – the line of people already waiting was scary as well, so Thijs, as usual, started asking around and was told to skip the checkout line and join the Covid Health Check line. There we waited three hours for our turn. Then you’re supposed to get in line for the Argentinian immigration; followed by the aduana…it took us seven hours to cross, and from what we later learned, we went fast: other travellers who crossed a week later needed two full days! I don’t know why…
After we stocked up on food items at the Argentinian supermarket, we started driving, with no idea where to stop for the night. The road was good, and beside the beautiful scenery, there was no reason to take a break. Without effort we reached Humahuaca, which happened to be a Unesco World Heritage site, and truly charming, with a network of narrow, cobblestoned streets, peaceful plazas, a special church, and ancient looking buildings. Here we stumbled upon the most popular and authentic Carnaval spot in Argentina. Apparently in this neck of the woods Carnaval continues for another weekend after Ash Wednesday. We parked our car and enjoyed a parade of color and costumes. Everyone proudly showed off their best to admirers and judges. What a nice surprise, even though getting a bite to eat remained difficult, as the restaurants closed for the whole afternoon and only opened again when we were ready to go to bed. Good we’d found that supermarket right after we crossed the border, so we didn’t go hungry.
On Saturday the air was filled with sounds of pitiful howling by all the Diablos. They collected food on a metal hoop by crying out loud. The ones who howled the most theatrically, collected the most…
On Sunday, a procession of wailing Diablos went to the top of the hill, where all the collected items, like fruits, vegetables, meats and cheese, but also flowers and paper serpentine, were deposited against a cornstack as an offering to Pachamama – Mother Earth. Afterwards, a hole was dug at the foot of the stack, in which the people, two by two, were assisted in pouring their bottle of alcoholic drinks. With a container of smoldering coals, as well as lit cigarettes added to the stack, we expected the mound to ignite, but maybe that was up to Pachamama to start. Anyway, it did not burn…yet. But what a magical ceremony this turned out to be.
After this impressive devotion to Pachamama, we drove up to see another “rainbow” mountain, about an hour or so away from Humahuaca . The weather did not cooperate much, but we caught a glimpse of it before it disappeared behind clouds that turned into a dramatic thunderstorm. It still is rainy season, even in the desert!
Between Salvador de Jujuy- the first major town for us in Argentina (a well organized city where our main interest was currency exchange) and the next city of Salta, the road led us through a moist, tropical rainforest mountain range – how strange to experience this, when the day before, desert was all we saw…
Although we planned to give Salta a closer look, a long and heavy overnight thunderstorm flooded the city, so we skipped it – we’re not much of city lovers anyway. Even driving south, there was no escape from the rain. Several streets had turned into rivers, and the rain kept on beating down. In the middle of such a rainstorm, without warning, the driver’s side windshield wiper just fell off. Thijs drove the car to the side of the road, and didn’t see how soft the berm was. We got hopelessly stuck in the mud! Although a few people stopped and offered to get us some help, we waited for hours, until Thijs walked to the next farm, where he asked for a tractor to pull us out. In the meantime we saw that the metal part of the windshield wiper had just broken in half….no idea how that could happen! But anyway, the passenger’s side wiper is large enough to cover both sides when placed on the driver’s side, albeit with some un-wiped corners. We continued our adventure over a scenic road through a drier valley of Quebrada de Concha, impressed by the many awesome shapes, colors and textures of the mountains…until a raging river across the road stopped all traffic … many cars were anxiously waiting for the waters to subside, as the day was coming to an end. We found this wild water blockade a good reason to stop for the night.
We’ve entered Argentinian wine country! Looking at the restaurant terraces around the central plaza of Cafayate, people enjoy a good life here, with an abundance of food, wine, friends and time. Cafayate, like Mendoza, is a high altitude (up to 1800m!) wine region of Argentina. We visited the most commercial Piattelli winery with beautiful grounds and an assado restaurant; we also made a tour and tasted the wines of El Porvenir wineries, and last we went to the historic winery of Vasija Secreta. We ended up buying some dry Torontès from El Porvenir.
From route 40 south, we veered east into the mountains to visit the Pachamama art museum, the observatory en route (which was closed that day) and a garden of menhirs near the beautiful but very touristy Tafi del Valle. From there, we originally planned to drive to San Miguel de Tucumán, and continue from there to Uruguay, but when we reached the crossroad, we decided to head south instead. We still have enough time for a visit to Mendoza, one of our favored destinations.
What we didn’t know however, was that route 38 south went through hot, tropical lowlands, with scourging midday sun and steamy nights, so we picked the 150 to get back to the cooler, higher altitude RN40 again. It turned out we made another excellent choice, with a road in perfect condition, leading us, just in time for the night, to Parque Provincial Ischigualasto. With perfect night temperatures and a surprisingly nice campsite, this park is a Unesco World Heritage site because of its unique landscape which has exposed numerous dinosaur skeletons, dated from around 230.000.000 years old. We had no idea what we stumbled upon, but the next day we decided to participate in a tour around the park and didn’t mind staying there one more comfortable night before driving down to the lower elevation of Mendoza.
And, just like that, we arrived in Mendoza- a city that seems to survive on good wines and beef (lots of it!) We planned to stay here more than a few days, to take in the relaxed atmosphere, the food and the wines. Because I think this post is already long enough, that episode will come in the next post. Cheers!