Friday, March 10, 2006

7   MENDOZA TO USHUAIA

From notes I wrote at Comodoro Rivadavia, Patagonia, Argentina

February 9:  At our hotel in Mendoza we met 6 Boston youths who were
enroute to climb Aconcagua without oxygen.   Collecting the week's
laundry delayed our departure to 11 AM.   We drove 240 miles, much of
it on 75 mph divided toll roads, as well designed (shoulders) and
maintained (no holes) as those in the US.    Tolls averaged a cent per mile.
For lunch we ate excellent big steak sandwiches and a liter of Coke, for
$2.50 total, at a truck stop with clean facilities of equivalent quality to
those in the USA.    The amenities, road, and vineyards gave the appearance of California.

We stopped for the night at Villa Mercedes, a small agricultural center not
in our guidebooks.   Finding a hotel and restaurant was difficult partly
because of the local dialect, which sounded like Italian, reflectingArgentina's
Italian heritage.   We heard "Ciao"
countless times.   At supper, our steak-ham-cheese sandwiches cost $1.50
each, and a liter of Budweiser (I had ordered a "bottle") cost $1.20 .
I shared it with the next table.  Our
hotel room, with AC and TV and a 1930s ambiance (no credit cards) cost
$14.30.  Cheap for us, but gasoline is $2.10 a gallon, which explains the
small size of cars in Argentina and Chile.

February 10:  The next sure beds were 460 miles ahead, so we started
driving early for us, 8:30 AM.   We soon left the Santiago-Buenos Aires
turnpike and headed straight south.   Speed limits were reduced to 70 mph,
lower through hamlets with gas stations about 50 miles apart.   Cultivation
was replaced by cattle ranching, the basis for Argentina's main export.
This was nearly flat semi-desert, with trees rare, and the far horizon
constantly in sight. We had crossed
the narrowing continent to the Atlantic port of Bahia Blanca (White Bay).
Our hotel was quite modern, a great improvement over the previous night.

February 11:  Another 450 miles. We crossed the Rio Colorado and entered
Patagonia.   As the land became more arid, covered with sparse shrubs
about 5 feet high, sheep gradually replaced cattle.   We saw our first rhea,
a small relative of the ostrich and emu, with which it had a common
ancestor before the continents split apart.   At our destination, Puerto
Madryn, our chosen hotels were full, because this is summer and the
adjacent Peninsula Valdes, a World Heritage Site, has "one of the most
incredible arrays of wildlife on the planet".   So we stayed this and the next
night at friendly quirky mediocre Hotel Muelle Viejo (Old Wharf). Our
excellent supper was at the most expensive restaurant in town: $20 total with too much wine.

February 12:    The approach to Peninsula Valdes was 60 miles of
pavement. Then we drove a loop of 160 miles of gravel road, called ripio,
allegedly for what it does to tires.   Driving required full attention, for
the car easily slewed as if it were on a few inches of wet snow.
Sometimes the tracks were so deep that the driver has to keep the
tires on the narrow ridges to avoid scraping the undercarriage.   We
saw herds of guanacos, the smaller wild relative of the domesticated
llama and alpaca, with which and the camel it shares a common ancestor.
Rheas were ubiquitous, usually mingling with sheep.    On the coast we
saw colonies of sea lions and elephant seals.   We missed seeing right
whales, which congregate in a bay from June to December, and killer
whales snatching sea lion pups that nap too close to the sea.
Incredible as it was to us, an orca (killer whale) can lunge its front
half onto a ledge, and retreat on a following wave with a giant
mouthful.   At the museum we saw photographs of this, and learned that
here was the approximate southern limit of a deadly snake, and the
northern limit of Magellan penguins.   Our biggest thrill was coming upon
a flock of thousands of these birds, apparently fearless, standing erect in
their tuxedos.   Somehow the creatures had waddled up the steep 200
foot seaside hill, some to the top, to reach their nesting burrows.

February 13:    We made a late start to Trelow, founded by Welsh pioneers
in 1851.    More Welsh had followed, fleeing the industrial poverty of
their homeland, so well portrayed in the 1941 classic, How Green Was My
Valley.   This heritage is most ardently preserved in nearby Gaiman, a
verdant river bottom oasis in the desert.   The town has many Casas de Te,
which serve tea and crumpets starting at 2 PM.   At the tea house which
trumpeted its patronage once by Princess Diana we enjoyed the
sumptuous grounds of palms and roses at 1 PM, then found a more modest
tea house which opened before 2 PM.   250 miles of our loneliest road yet
followed.   We were buffeted by the famous Patagonian gales, air which
sweeps around the globe, the only obstacles at this latitude being South
Africa, Australia, New Zealand and the diminishing Andes.   When meeting
a big truck on the narrow road, with a relative closing speed of 140 mph
and a separation of 6 feet and a background of gales, the driver must
clutch the wheel firmly as if his life depended on it.     It does.

We arrived at our hotel, the Lucania Palazzo, and found it and the city so
delightful that we extended our reservation from 1 night to 2.   Our room
is on the 10th floor, looking over a monument to Argentines killed in the
1982 Falkland (Islas Malvenas) war, to the high white waves of the sea.
We have never stayed in a more luxurious accommodation, though
perhaps that was not really gold on the plumbing fixtures and dinner
plates.    $170 for the room and $65 for supper, but divide by 3 because
they use the dollar sign for pesos.   No AC, but it is not needed because
temperatures seldom rise above the seventies  . It's sweaters
from here to Ushuaia, which we expect to reach in 4 or 5 days.
We walked around town and enjoyed watching couples dance the tango,
which they do on a closed off street on Friday nights like this one.
ADD PHOTO

From our Footprints guide: "Winds here average 25 mph, sometimes
reaching 150 mph.. .Every day is a bad hair day.   Picnics?    Nobody
remembers the last one... Scientists agree that Patagonia is the
natural candidate to become the Kuwait of wind energy... Plans are
for wind to supply a fifth of Argentina's power needs by 2012".
Huge wind turbines spin on the hill above our hotel.

Oil was discovered here in 1907, but the supply is waning.     Argentina was
the richest country in the world in 1900, but synthetics largely replaced
wool and the governments accumulated huge deficits, until the economy
collapsed just 2 years ago.     It couldn't happen to the USA .... could it?

What a contrast is Argentina to Central America. Every official we have
met in this country has been efficient and courteous. People go out of
their way to help us, even when they just see us studying a map.
There is tremendous tourism potential here.

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