Saturday, March 04, 2006

10   EL CALAFATE TO JOURNEY'S END

Pucon, Chile

March 2, 2003:   We were in El Calafate, an oasis of small town urbanity
in the midst of near wilderness.   We drove 50 miles to the side, half on
muddy ripio, to Perito Moreno Glacier.   Its 200 feet high 2 mile front
is immersed in the west end of Lake Argentino.    One corner of that
front is perpendicular to a valley through which a lake drains.   Until
1988 Perito Moreno was one of the few advancing glaciers in the world,
so every 4 years it would block the valley, the impounded lake
drainage would build up, water would erode the crevasses, and about a
year later the whole thing would collapse in a four hour titanic drainage
of millions of tons of water and icebergs.   The timing was
unpredictable, so only a lucky few would see it.   Guidebooks say
global warming ended that, but we were thrilled to discover that the
glacier recently had advanced to block the valley again.     The water had
risen 30 feet behind the blockage so far.   Since the rest of the glacier
was contorting as it advanced about a foot a day, it sounded like
amplified Rice Krispies, and irregular chunks spalled off into Lake
Argentina every few minutes, all observable from a boardwalk about
100 feet from the ice.

The collapse occurred a week later, after we left, much sooner than expected.

From Chapter 6 of Time Out, Patagonia: ¨Route 40 enjoys semi-mythic
status in Argentina... It passes through many places which are wild,
beautiful and damned... The lonely 390 mile stretch running from
Calafate to (the village of) Perito Merino is a lifeline for a few hundred
otherwise self-reliant farmers.   The government persistently fails to
deliver on promises to pave the road.   Instead they routinely send road
crews to groom the gravel surface, leaving it in a state of disrepair
("ripio"), earning Ruta 40 a reputation as a tire-thrashing obstacle
course... Bring a spare tire and an extra tank of gas... and your own
provisions¨.
More, updated to 2015:  click here.

March 4:   We had no choice but to drive the 390 miles north (the
first 20 were paved) in one day, or find an estancia (ranch) enroute that
would accept travellers, or sleep in the car.   We were not Columbuses,
but for us this was a trip into the somewhat unknown.   What we had
learned from books, the Internet, other travelers, and locals was
inconsistent.   However, unlike our drive through Central America, the
only danger we faced was one of considerable inconvenience.   After 85 miles
of good ripio in 2 hours through treeless rolling pampas we replenished
our gasoline at the outpost of Tres Lagos.   The next gas station was 220
ripio miles ahead.    Until this point the bridges all had been nearly new and
two lanes wide, a sign that Argentina really intends to have the 390 miles
paved by 2009.   Marge, the navigator, recorded that for 80 minutes we
saw no other human or car, nor horse, sheep, cow, house, only rheas and
guanacos.   As Yogi Berra might have said, it looked like the hand of man
had never set foot there (except for the ripio).   Occasionally the ripio
deteriorated to 15 mph quality, with gravel windrows between ruts so
high that the car could not straddle them.   This required me to drive with
the left or right wheels, or all 4, atop the windrows, constantly twitching
the steering wheel to stay balanced on top and not snag a front wheel.
Hard enough for 100 yards, but 30 miles?    The frequent trauma of
rocks hitting the underside at, say, 25 mph made me realize that
chewing gum or epoxy might be more useful than tires if an oil or gas
reservoir were breached.   A gale blew steadily, explaining why all outside
doors in Patagonian buildings opened inwards.  
Car doors don´t, so sometimes they get broken off.

We averaged 30 mph.  Ten miles before reaching a guest
estancia 16 miles south of Perito Merino village we came upon 3 bloodied
young Japanese tossing gear from their newly inverted van into a ditch.
We offered help, but a southbound pickup truck could help more than we.
So five miles later we flagged down a van, to ask if an estancia could
radio for police help.   Yes.   Then another van stopped, a relative traffic jam.
The 2 young men in it pointed out that our left rear tire was nearly flat.   They
helped extricate the ¨toy¨ spare from under all our luggage, and mount it
in the dwindling daylight.   They were joyful, they said, because they
were prospectors and had just discovered gold in this mineral-rich area.
We limped 5 more ¨road¨ miles, then 2 miles on a narrow estancia access
drive, barely missing many hares and owls.

Supper had just been set for four at Estancia Telken, and there were 2
seats left for us.   The 4: Coco, estancia co-owner, 72, a tall shy man who
spoke with decreasing fluency Spanish, English, Dutch.   Petty, his wife,
estancia owner, 72, small bright, garrulous, hyperactive, who spoke
Spanish and English.   She has New Zealand and Argentine passports.
The only other guests, Susan and Ernest, a Swiss couple.   We all spoke
English, and enjoyed the Welsh food and pisco sours and wine.   Coco
and Petty said they wintered in Buenos Aires, but could never leave
Argentina again, because of successive setbacks.   The long slump in the
wool industry, because of synthetics.   The 1991 eruption of an upwind
Chilean volcano, the ash of which killed 13 thousand of their 20 thousand
sheep, and all their lambs.   The January 2002 devaluation of the peso,
making foreign travel and imported goods 3 times as expensive.
Proliferating "protected" mountain lions, which are killing their sheep.


The next morning Coco kindly offered to fix our flat tire.   That was one
of his many skills, because "at the estancia we have to fix
everything ourselves¨.   Supervised by me and their semi-human border
collie and many chickens, he immersed the tire in a pond to locate the
leak, and found it was a failure of a previous patch.
So the tire had been defective when we started.  We drove to town on the repaired tire, and
confidently headed north on 20 mph (semi-bad) ripio, until the tire blew
again.   The rim was bent, and the hubcap gone.    Once more into the
breach went the overworked toy tire.   We crawled the 14 miles back to
town, and found the hubcap on the way.   The only tire shop for hundreds
of miles had 2 of our size, and they were able to straighten the bent rim.
It was too late to head north.    We 6 enjoyed supper at the estancia again.
For 2011 update on Telken:   click here

March 6:   We reluctantly left our new friends, and uneventfully drove 65
miles of 20 mph ripio and 255 miles of 65 mph pavement to Esquel,
where we lodged in the superb modern inexpensive Cumbres Blanca hotel.

March 7:   We sidetracked to Trevelin, a pretty Welsh village founded by
pioneers who had migrated from their foothold at Trelew near the
Atlantic.   On Petty´s advice we drove about 50 miles of ripio through a
beautiful winding valley in the Andes, passing the place where Butch
Cassidy and the Sundance Kid had lived between the USA and death.
Then it was 100 spectacular paved miles to Bariloche, the renowned
center of the Argentine Lake District, which we think has been spoiled by
success.   No zoning laws, 150 thousand inhabitants, tawdry in places.
We stayed in a hotel with a bright lobby and faded $30 rooms, and found a mediocre restaurant.

March 8:  We truncated our planned 3 days there, and drove on via the
locally famous Seven Lakes Road, 60 miles of pavement and 40 of narrow
ripio, through gorgeous scenery: the Andes, tall pine-type trees, lakes, tumbling
streams.  We sidetracked to query a national park ranger about some trees,
and discovered a huge sequoia planted with a seed from California in 1936.

We stayed this and the next 2 nights in San Martin de los Andes, which we
liked the best of all the towns we have visited in South America.    It has only
30 thousand people, and zoning laws which mandate that no building is
over 4 stories high, and all of wood and stone.    Art - paintings and
sculptured lenga hardwood - and flowers are everywhere.   The only
industry is tourism, but the town seems unspoiled by it.   We speculated
on returning for a month sometime.   Our $63 (US equivalent) room in
the town´s best (4 star) hotel is priced at $95 until the end of summer:
February 29.    Today, March 9, is like September 9 in Maine.   We were
told that a small ranch is one under 400 square miles, and Ted Turner has 3 big ranches nearby.

March 10:    In 1972 we met Marty, the son of the lighthouse keeper at
Cape Spear, Newfoundland.   Even at 14 it was evident he was challenged.
He proudly showed us his collection of license plates, and
asked that we send him one.   We did.   Most every October thereafter he
sent us a 2-page scrawl of his triumphs and troubles.   Collecting plates
for Marty led to several memorable encounters, like those with
bureaucrats, foreign junkyards, and the event this day.... Investigating
the town on the Internet, I found at InterPatagonia.com that a local
architect had a superb collection of license plates, which might be seen
on application.   We made an appointment, and visited with this affable
man for 2 hours.     His wife served us tea.    Their affluence
was evident from their beautiful home, and his annual trips abroad to
meetings of license plate collectors.  The next one will be in Providence
RI.    He gave us a special 1976 Argentine plate, and took our photo while
we held a 1915 Maine plate.   For a while it was on his interesting
website, www.patentesargentinas.com.ar  .
Here it is, with another Maine plate (6-60, maybe I6-60I)) above my head:
 

He buys many of his plates, the earliest 1904, via Internet´s
eBay.   When we asked about the creator of beautifully carved lintels in
our hotel, he led us 2 blocks to a renowned wood sculptor, who was
working on an exquisitely detailed rendition of birds, commissioned by the president of Pizza Hut.

March 11:   Our last ripio, our last border crossing before the USA, past the
foot of snow clad Volcano Lanin.   The border pass elevation was only
4000´, per our little GPS, and was in a forest of araucaria trees, also
known as monkey trees, sort of conifers from Mars.   The descent into
Chile resembled Norway.   Outside Pucon we lodged at Hotel Antumalal,
about whose 1950 Bahaus architecture and 12 acres of beautiful grounds
sloping to the lake our guidebooks raved.

March 12:  We left the hotel, which we thought unduly expensive (to
support its grounds), pretentious (Queen Elizabeth had slept there),
inconvenient (way out of town), and curiously insecure (no locks on
doors to any of the mere 16 rooms).   We moved in town to Hotel
Munich (from which city my father´s parents came).   It cost $54 with
breakfast, and is friendly, convenient.   That evening we paused at the
office and ¨makeshift gallery¨ as Frommer´s guidebook
condescendingly puts it.   The owner, who looks like Freud, was there,
and we soon learned he is a baritone opera singer.    We were enchanted
to listen with him to excerpts of CDs of his Schubert, Rigoletto, and
Magic Flute performances in Santiago and Berlin, with him occasionally
bursting into an accompaniment of his recorded voice.   We bought two
of his CDs, and he will mail us a CD of his Magic Flute when it is
transcribed from tape ("a gift¨).

I hired a young man and woman to clean our car in and out.   They did an
excellent job.   Then I spent 2 more hours painting the traumatized hubcap,
reinstalling the hubcaps which had all been defensively removed after we
nearly lost one, touching up stone dings, etc.   I did this because I like
to return things better than I received them, and to make more likely that
the rental company will pay for the tire (PS: they refused) and not charge for undercarriage
rockblasting (PS: they didn't notice it).

Marge´s shin is shrinking but still swollen 3 weeks after her fall aboard
the Ushuaia boat.   She has an appointment with our doctor for soon after
we return to Maine.   She is plucky, and I am lucky.

This is our last segment of this trip log.   Ahead are 480 miles of luxurious
paved road through the verdant central valley to Santiago, where we will
turn in the Toyota Yaris.   Our Maine friends Sira and Brian will guide us
to some site sights around the city.   We have a reservation for March 15-22
at a fine Santiago hotel, where we´ll spend a lot of time catching up on
doing nothing.   We'll return to Maine via Delta March 22-23.

4 comments:

El York said...

I am amazed by and admire all of your adventures. Marge deserves a medal for accomodating you and / or accompanying you

frank said...

An amazing journey!
Frank Ober

Anonymous said...

I felt like a mouse in your pocket,and I was happy to be there. Bill colby Tracy Johnsons husband.

Tom Garcia said...

Read it again. Great writing job. Tom Garcia in Brunswick.