Thursday, 6 October 2011

Northwest Patagonia

Skiing in El Bolsón, Argentina.
The bus left El Calafate in the afternoon and, though its destination was north, it shot east across the country to Rio Gallegos (that weird town of not very much) and then northwest towards the top of Argentine Patagonia. The famous Ruta 40 that runs up the west of Argentina, dissecting Patagonia in two, is closed to buses at this time of year, so there’s no choice but to zigzag across as we did. The scenery, as described previously, was bleak and grey, with only the occasional scrub sprouting life out of the infertile soil. On the horizon appeared the Andes once again, and after a comfortable night we arrived in the small town of El Bolsón.

El Bolsón is known as a hippy town, though the hippies have now mostly grown up. Still, it retains a certain charm, where people seem happy. This might have something to do with the fact that it has a micro climate some 7C warmer on average than the surrounding area, meaning that it felt like summer had just begun when we arrived. It might also be due to the town being a centre of beer and jam production. Beer and jam has never failed to make anyone happy.

In a jam factory I tried every jam going. I’m not sure why. I think I saw it as a challenge. The annoying thing is, I’m not even sure which was my favourite. I washed it down with a big jug of dark beer, one of the many locally produced ales, before wandering around the shady tees and the small crafts market.

The best thing about El Bolsón, however, is neither the food nor the drink; it’s the free skiing on Tuesdays and Thursdays! It’s not a massive area, but there are a few good runs. Or at least there would be had the bottom half not melted. Seeing cows on the piste as you race towards them is somewhat off-putting.

I and a few fellow skiers took a taxi back from the slopes. On the way, the driver insisted on racing along the narrow mountain lanes, talking excitedly about rally driving. He seemed a little, shall we say, out of it, and my diagnosis was confirmed when he insisted on stopping at his amigo’s house. A man came stumbling up to the window and invited us into his home. Given the several people strewn about the lawn, we didn’t think this was a good idea. He proceeded to offer us all manner of local mind-altering delicacies, and all the time the taxi driver just sat there smiling. We were glad when he finally waved goodbye (with a promise to be back later.)

San Carlos de Bariloche (and his dog).
Just a couple of hours up the road is the city of San Carlos de Bariloche, famous for a much bigger ski resort, and chocolate. I didn’t sample every chocolate going this time. The town itself is set on the gentle slopes of the mountains alongside the Rio Negro. It’s covered in ash from that infamously erupting Chilean volcano range, Puyehue-Cordon-Caulle. Everywhere you look there’s a thick coating of the stuff, covering the roads, the cars, the roofs. The strangest site is that of the river where upon floats an incredible amount of pumice. The waves in the grey substance makes it look as though the land has melted into liquid.

A few of us tried to go for a hike up one of the mountains but failed at the first hurdle: we couldn’t get the bus out of town because they don’t accept cash, just the local swipe card. We changed our minds and went to a barbecue restaurant instead, a far more tasty use of our time. It’s kind of compulsory in Patagonia: order a full parrilla, a massive platter of sizzling, fresh meat from a variety of animals. It’s what the gouchos eat, so it must be good.

Pumice waves on the Rio Negro, Bariloche, Argentina.
It was time to leave Argentina for the last time and head over the Andes back into Chile. As the bus climbed high up to the border, grey piles of snow and ash could be seen lining the road. At the border itself, a tired-looking guard was singlehandedly shovelling ash from the road. He had his work cut out. We twisted through the Chilean Lakes District, through thick forests on misty peaks. As we descended, one thing became very clear: it’s much greener on the Chilean side! The Andes evidently protect Argentine Patagonia from the wet weather, resulting in its much drier climate.

Shovelling ash at the Argentine/Chilean border. A tough job.
We changed buses in Osorno and went straight on to Valdivia, a town at the junction of the rivers Calle-Calle, Valdivia and Cau-Cau. There was grass! I can’t remember the last time I’d seen such a thing, especially not whole banks of it where people sit eating picnics and sunbathing. People weren’t the only things basking in the sunshine: the rivers are home to massive sea lions and they were all out on the banks napping, waddling around and occasionally barking angrily at each other. They really are quite ugly creatures on the land, but there is something mesmerising about them, about their human-like emotions and actions. They are especially intriguing when they enter the water and transform into wonderfully graceful animals.

Bored sea lions in Valdivia, Chile.
Valdivia has a significant German heritage from the time when Chile encouraged huge immigration to kick-start the economy. Very few people speak any German now but what has continued is a tradition of German beer brewing. It made for a good night out with some locals, topped off by a completo, a large hotdog laden with avocado.

Before leaving I finally bought myself a mate, the drinking receptacle of choice in most of Argentina and Chile. Everywhere you go, you see people with an egg-shaped gourd about the size of a fist, inside which are stuffed herbs called yerba. It’s traditionally made out of the porongo or cabaça fruit, hollowed out to form a handily sized vessel. Hot water is poured in and the strongly flavoured result is sucked through a special spoon-straw that prevents any herbs getting into the mouth. The funniest thing is how everyone also carries a thermos flask of hot water with which to top up the mate. It really is one of the more impractical drinks to leave the house with. But it is damned tasty and possibly highly addictive.

Foucault pendulum in Valdivia, Chile.
My transformation into a true South American complete, I left Patagonia behind. Two months has flown by, and although this wasn’t what I had first thought of when imagining South America, the scenery of untouched mountains, bright blue lakes, icy rivers and waist-deep snow has been simply astounding. Coupled with the beautiful wildlife (especially the whales and sea lions!) it has made for an unforgettable experience. But more are ahead: now it’s time to head north to the bright lights of the capital, Santiago.

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