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November 24, 2004

Adventures on La Cuarenta

I'm in Puerto Natales, Chile, deep in the heart of Patagonia. It's summer here, but it sure feels like winter to me! As promised, the weather in Patagonia is completely unpredictable--one minute sunny, the next pouring rain, lots of wind almost all the time, and sometimes it's windy, sunny, and rainy all at once! Last night, it was blowing so hard I thought the house would blow away (which maybe isn't saying much, I'm in kind of an addition to the house and it doesn't seem very well-constructed!). I'm not sure what the temperature is here--maybe around 45? So it's not bitter cold, but it's so blustery and crazy. I'm here for a few days of much-needed relaxation and preparation before I start a five-day trek in Parque Nacional Torres del Paine on Friday. They have refugios, or lodges, where you can stay in the park, but I'd heard they book up really quickly, and I just didn't know when I would be getting here, so couldn't book ahead. I was hoping I wouldn't have to camp, but all the equipment is available here for rent if need be. But I got really lucky, and found out if I leave on Friday, instead of on Thursday as I had planned, I can get space in the refugios every night! It's expensive--US$20 to $27 a night--but considering the weather, worth every penny, I think. I'm just not a hard-core enough hiker or camper--I was willing to do it, but honestly I know I'd be miserable camping in the rain every night! So I'm relieved to have a roof over my head, and not have to lug a tent with me.

But I want to tell you what I've been up to...some days filled with lots of nothingness, others full of very big things! During my one day in Bariloche, I wandered the Centro Civico and walked down to the lake and took a few pictures, then hiked to the top of Cerro Otto, a big hill outside of town. The "trail" was really a gravel road, which didn't make for a very interesting hike, but the stunning views on the way up and from the top made it worthwhile. I started to lose steam about half an hour before I got to the top (it took about 2 hours altogether) and I decided I was definitely not walking back down but taking the teleferico (gondola). I realize it's backwards to walk up and ride down, but it was easier to walk than to figure out how to get to the teleferico place from town (turns out there's a free bus!). Anyway, when I got to the top I decided to splurge on a refreshment in the revolving cafe, and found my new Austrian friends (from the lakes crossing), Petra and Monika, already there! We enjoyed the view, then took the teleferico back down together. Later, we went to one of the fancy chocolate places and had fun trying samples and choosing a few tasty treats. Then we went to a tenedor libre--literally, "free fork"--restaurant for dinner. The all-you-can-eat buffet was US$5, and we got our first taste of Argentina beef, as well as tons of other things, from salami to empanadas, freshly made sweet-potato chips to tomato and egg salad. Needless to say, we ate way too much.

I found out that night that my connection to the author of Moon Handbooks Argentina (I was his editor), garnered me free accommodations for the two nights I was there! Finally, a perk. If I had known, I would've asked for my own room instead of staying in the dorm!

The next morning, I began the long trip down Ruta 40 in a mini-bus with 8 other travelers, 1 driver, and 1 dog! This stretch of "La Cuarenta," especially the part from the town of Perito Moreno south to El Calafate, is known for being desolate and dusty, but it was amazing. Absorbing the bleak landscape of the Patagonian steppe for 1,650 kilometers over about 21 hours gave me plenty of time to experience the "free scope given to the imagination" which Darwin said is the appeal of the plains. I imagined what kind of music Patagonia might inspire a musician to create, or what I, or others, might write, alone, engulfed in this lonely place. It's amazing to me how much of the world remains untouched, unpopulated, undeveloped. Even in the U.S., it's possible to experience similar feelings of vastness, and here, on these roads, I marveled at how freeing it is to wander over such wide expanses. I was blessed with sunny days for the trip, but I can imagine that the same land might feel oppressive and unwelcoming in the dark, cold, dreary months of winter.

I took this long, two-day trip with a great group of people--3 from England, 3 from Paris, one other American (with his dog), and an Argentine. We kept each other entertained between naps, reading, and staring out the window, and a few of us found common interests in reading and writing, so spent time talking about publishing and the future of books, and exchanging the names of our favorite books and authors.

We saw a lot of amazing wildlife along the way, including flamingos, black-necked swans, and ducks; guanacos (related to llamas); a ņandu (like an ostrich); a fox; armadillos; and of course lots of cows, horses, and sheep, many with babies. Unfortunately I didn't get any pictures, since this was all seen from the van.

Most of the landscape is Patagonian steppe--fairly flat, dry, and rocky, with little scrubby bushes and grasses. But there are also some rolling hills, and plateaus (mesetas) with incredibly flat tops and names like Meseta de la Muerte (death) and Meseta del Viento (wind). There's even a place called La Siberia! And the Andes rise to the west, snowcapped and jutting high above the plains. Much of the way, the road is lined by fences--the one indication, besides the road, of any human presence. I wonder who owns this property, and what they're fencing in, exactly.

We passed several lakes, including, as we got closer to Calafate, the glacial Lago Viedma and Lago Argentina (the largest lake in Argentina), both with that beautiful greenish-blue caused by the glacial sediment suspended in the water.

I'm really glad I took the trip--I saw parts of Patagonia that I wouldn't have seen any other way--but there were some disappointments and glitches as well. I won't go into all of them here, but one was that many of us had been told we'd get to see Cueva de las Manos, an area full of rock paintings from 7000 B.C. But, the driver told us it wasn't possible, as it's a 5-hour detour off Rte. 40. He was really just a driver, not a guide, contracted by the agency to get us from one place to the other, and the caves weren't part of the deal as far as he was concerned. We agreed it just wasn't possible to add another 5 hours to a 13-hour day of driving, but were pissed at the agency for telling us otherwise, and we felt we had little recourse at that point. It really turned out to be just an expensive bus ride, and not a tour in any sense. False advertising, that's for sure. But it really was worth the hassle, frustration, and cost in the end.

Posted by Amy on November 24, 2004 10:49 AM
Category: Patagonia
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