Ruta de Siete Lagos

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.

Bariloche lost its charm, but its surroundings are still pretty.
Lago Nahuel Huapi, with Bariloche in the distance.

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!

Lago Lacar

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!

Even though the campsite was pretty full, it felt like we were by ourselves along the river.
Fuchsia wants to grow everywhere, even on a tree trunk in the water
The end of the trail.

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.

Restaurant Tio Paco in San Martin de los Andes typifies an example of the regional building style.

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.

VW Combi (food or) beer trucks are very popular!
Saturday night Carnaval kick off was very muted and a bit disappointing.

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.

Along the road to Junin de los Andes
Lago Machónico

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.

The amazingly busy but peaceful campground along Lago Villorino
Look at that tiniest of campers! For short persons, I’m sure.
Camping libre: free campsite at Lago Villorino
Lakeview during our walk

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.

Downtown Villa la Angostura along Ruta #40.
Lunchtime at Tinto Bistro in Villa la Angostura

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.

At around 5pm, when the winds pick up, the kite surfers come out.
A peaceful end of the day at the beach of Lago Nahuel Huapi, several kilometers outside of Bariloche
Clear waters and mountains with snow peaks
The end of a glorious day along the lake.
Goodbye Argentina, we really enjoyed our visit.

Finally it starts to feel like summer! Or not…

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.

Lago Yelcho
Rio Futaleufu
The restaurant along the Plaza in Futaleufu where we had Italian pasta

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.

Elderberry (Sauco) bushes are very common in the Andes mountains. This was the tree we had to find shade under. (Didn’t work) But we love the jams an jellies made of this superfruit! 
It was really a lovely campground, and since we left we’ve seen prices much higher.
View from our window

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.

Laguna la Zeta is both the public pool and beach of Esquel: under the watchful eyes of lifeguards, kids play and the swim club practices alongside rentable kayaks.

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.

Early morning view from the other side of the lake
Full moon rising. This was going to be the night to see the green comet…no chance with that moon!
Thijs had the BBQ, Mattias had the meat. Food collaboration!
Buen provecho!

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.

We found another great spot. Along the Rio Azul.
Along the Rio Azul
Chicory flowers!

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.

Every now and then, little fish, or even a trout would jump up out of the water, chasing a flies. But so far we have not been bothered by many insects along this route going north.

Even when the days were warm, the night were chilli. You had to have your breakfast in the sun.

Along the Brazilian Coast: Rest In Peace, Kakao

After a good twelve years together, we had to say goodbye to Kakao. We did not expect him to die so quickly. When we left Belém, he still acted normal. Yes, he got tired a bit earlier and liked to sleep longer, but at thirteen years – in this tropical heat, that would be expected, right?

When we arrived in pretty Alcântara, a quiet small town across the river from Sâo Luis, Kakao had no trouble hopping out of the camper and charming the local dogs with his friendliest stance. He went along with us on an evening stroll to explore the decorative cobblestone streets and admire the historic buildings.

The following day we braved the wild ferry ride across the river, with strong currents, and waves crashing loudly and high over the guard rail, shaking our truck like on a very bumpy road. That evening we explored the waterfront on the outskirts of Sâo Luis.

The next morning, Kakao chose not to join us for a walk through the streets of old Sâo Luis. So we left him to relax inside, while we admired the city’s stuccoed, painted or tiled fascades, its faded beauties, and stepped streets.

Before the morning was over, we left town, in search of a truck wash place – something that was now really necessary with all the dirt, soaked in salt water after this last ferry ride.

When we arrived in Barreirinhas, we could take a tour into the famous white dunes of the Parque Nacional dos Lençóis Maranhenses. We decided against it because we doubted that any of the crystal clear lakes would still be as clear and present at the end of the dry season, and a six hour excursion seemed like a long time to leave Kakao behind. Instead we found a spot along a beautiful tropical river. We enjoyed lunch there at a perfect restaurant and stayed along the riverside for a quiet night. That evening Kakao, while on a long leash, lost his balance while reaching down to taste the river. He fell in the water and panicked when he could not crawl out. He did not want our help, so we had to lead him to a place that was easier for him to climb ashore. We still did not think anything was off when afterwards he could not jump into the truck without our help. He screamed and snapped when we helped to lift him up. We thought he was a bit traumatized…he never liked swimming…

Continuing south, we did see some white dunes, indeed with putrid green pools in the dips. Thijs got his climb in, while Kakao and I stayed in the car. After that, we drove a good stretch and reached the popular beach town of Jericoacoara at the end of the day.

Although we did not quite stay in the real coastal town of Jericoacoara – which is off limit for vehicles – we found a campground on adjacent Lagoa de Jijoca; the first real campground in Brazil! Kakao could roam free, chasing lizards within the confines of the terrain. He enjoyed a stroll along the lake beach, but getting into our camper was becoming a struggle, and this time even jumping out went wrong…

We could have stayed at this comfortable campsite, filled with friendly and helpful Brazilians, but we had a wedding date to make in Recife, and no idea what could await us, that could slow down our progress. The north-east landscape varied between savannah land with a thorn bushes, palm groves, cattle land and the occasional patch of forest. We enjoyed the small homesteads along the way; buildings and sites that brought back memories of rural Africa. We skipped the next few cities and spent a night at a firestation in Fortaleza. It was only after Fortaleza, when we stopped for the night at a serene lake (where a distant fisherman sung at the top of his lungs while rowing over the mirror still water) that we noticed something was seriously wrong with Kakao. We’d already improvised a ramp from our folding table, covered with a yoga mat, so he could safely get in and out of the camper. That evening he started walking in circles, with his head sharply tilted in the direction he was turning. I googled the symptoms and found that it could be “old dog vestibular syndrome”, a scary ailment that should spontaneously disappear in maybe two weeks. We decided to see a veterinary in Natal.

The vet did not want to give us a diagnosis before keeping Kakao under observation for at least a week. We could better do this in Recife, where we planned to stay for the wedding anyway. So with the assurance that it was not an emergency, and a painkiller prescription (he cried each time we tried to help him) we headed to the referred vet in Recife, just one more stop away…

Just like in Natal, the vet in Recife gave us a vague answer with many possible ailments. She suggested CTscans, bloodtests, steroids and antibiotics (all with the help of Google translate, as no-one speaks any other language but Portuguese here!) We opted for bloodtests and medication. We chose to camp in a quiet water park not far from the vet’s office, awaiting the results of the bloodtests.

In the meantime we had to show up at the parents of the bride, who insisted we’d stay with them. They are the nicest people but did not really understand that we could not drag Kakao up to their apartment, and that we wanted to be near him as long as he needed us. When my sister-in-law Marina arrived, we moved to a location close to the hotel she stayed at. Here we could come and go as we wanted and still take part in the social activities. And we could take Kakao for walks on the beach.

We arrived in Recife well in time before the wedding. We even could celebrate Christmas with our new Brazilian family! But on Christmas day we decided to visit Fort Orange, an old bastion originally built by the Dutch, and later destroyed and rebuilt by the Portuguese. Over forty years ago, we spent quite some time there, adjusting our then brand new VW kombi for more storage space. I remembered the place as a quiet, clear water beach, where we camped in the bend, protected by the walls of the fort. When we came back here – this time during the holidays – it was crowded. Upon arrival, parking guards scrambled to point you towards one of the beachside bars or restaurants where they’d receive a tip. Parasols and large families crowded the strip of sand between water and shade trees. Loud music filled the air. We entered the fort; something I don’t remember we did back then, but then again, we heard the place had just re-opened after extensive renovations. Inside, the courtyard was quiet. The buildings looked sober. All rooms, except the chapel, were locked. We climbed to the top of the fortress walls and looked down… there is where we’d camped!…still recognizable.

Together with Suna and Chris, Chris’ mom Marina, and Suna’s parents, we explored a couple of beaches around Recife; places that we could reach with our camper so Kakao could also take part. He clearly still enjoyed the beach: he joined us on walks, lazed around in the sand and made some efforts to hunt for crabs.

Kakao stayed behind in the comfort of our air-conditioned camper when we went on an outing to the historic center of Olinda- named so since the location is just beautiful : O! Linda! While driving between Boa Viagem, where we stayed, and the home of Suna’s parents on the north side of Olinda, we passed the colorful houses several times and happily joined our family group on a walking tour through the quaint old town.

The prednisone made Kakao eat like a bear and gain weight (which after a while worried me because his legs are so weak) but he managed to reject one dose, then he deteriorated fast – not eating, stumbling and falling. To keep him hydrated, I used a syringe to squirt water into his mouth. The bloodtest result showed it was not an infection. So we still hoped for this vestibular syndrome to disappear. However after a second checkup, the vet concluded that the ailment was in the central brain: maybe a tumor, or a parasite… She upped the medication with antibiotics for a treatment that she said had been successful in some cases…

The day of the wedding, after two days of fasting, Kakao got up, drank a bowl full of water and ate a good portion of the rice and tuna I prepared for him. He looked more alert and stable. Was it the electrolytes I’d added that day? We took him on a short walk before we left for the ceremony. Coming back home after a few hours of wedding celebrations, he acknowledged us, but did not bother getting up. Several times that night he got himself stuck in a corner when trying to turn, and needed my help to get back on the bed. In the morning he would not eat, could not get up by himself, and stopped swallowing the fluids I squirted in his mouth. It was time to let him go… With the help of Chris and Suna we found a nearby vet who was willing to help Kakao pass, on a Sunday, on his own bed. He went peacefully.

Together with Chris, Suna and Marina, we buried Kakao under a coconut tree, with a view over the water. A circle had rounded: Kakao’s name used to be Coco. He is now surrounded by coco trees. Our first dog Linda came from the beach in Brazil and was buried in Virginia. Kakao, from Virginia, is now on the beach in Brazil. Afterwards we had a meal with coco for lunch, overlooking the view that Kakao will have from now on. All is good.

The view from Kakao’s resting place. Life’s end could not be more beautiful.