Monday, March 06, 2006

9   USHUAIA TO EL CALAFATE

                                                                     El Calafate, Argentina

February 23.    Ushuaia to Rio Grande, Argentina.   190 miles, mostly ripio
(gravel, dirt etc. road) I rate ripio by maximum tolerable speeds: 2
mph to 50.   This was 30 to 50.    Again we saw the "massive
environmental destruction" caused by the 1947 importation of beavers
for the fur industry on the island of Tierra del Fuego.   They have no
enemies except man down there, but fortunately have not escaped to
the mainland.   Many areas of the island and Patagonia produce oil and
gas, so service stations dispense both gasoline and gaseous gas.

February 24.   Rio Grande to Punta Arenas, Chile.    Until just after we
recrossed the Straits of Magellan northbound we were retracing our route
to Ushuaia.    I was given a private tour of the ferry's modern engine room.

February 25.   We stayed in town.   Marge's leg was recovering too slowly,
but was helped by elevated bed rest, and buying sort of an elastic
stocking.   We saw an elegant mansion, with furnishings imported from
Europe by still respected owners who got rich by paying hunters one
English pound per Indian corpse, to make room for sheep.   We ate in
the "best" restaurant, where in addition to the usual cow and sheep
meat, beaver and guanaco were offered.   We met 2 women from
Portsmouth, NH.   They looked like wrestlers.

February 26.     Punta Arenas to Puerto Natales.    Our last all-pavement day
for quite a distance to come.   It was dark and raining, and we had been
unable to reserve a room ahead at any price, so we knew Natales would
be interesting.    Twenty miles before that port I capriciously investigated a
side road signed "Llanuras (Plains) de Diana".    I turned from that to a
drive marked only by crushed stone and careful grooming.   What a gem
we had stumbled on!   We parked amid lawns and gardens where hybrid
lupines had gone to seed in the approaching autumn, but roses still
bloomed.   We entered a lodge designed only 3 years ago by a Santiago
architect who must have been Scandinavian.   We were shown room # 3
(keep it a secret), where heavy drapes opened to disclose a window wall,
framing low conifers, in the center of which a yard-square waterfall
entered an intersecting stream.   The plumbing was better than in the
USA, and the whole place exuded unobtrusive elegance and quiet charm.
At that place and time, the room-and-breakfast price of $60 was a
bargain without the above adjectives, apparently because the lodge is
one of a group of cooperative retreats for Santiago executives.   We
grabbed it. At supper the patrician elderly waiter smiled and bowed slightly
when we entered.   Seldom has "this sure beats working" been more appropriate.    There were only 2 other couples as guests.    Puerto Natales information offices had never heard of it.    The hostelry had satellite TV, but accepted no credit cards.
PS February 2010: We regret that a huge hotel has been built to replace this exquisite little inn.


In town we shopped, used the Internet, and lost my diary.   We met the two women from New Hampshire again.

February 27.     Puerto Natales to Torres del Paine National Park, a World
Heritage Site.   We drove 100 miles, mostly on ripio, for the first time on
roads not shown on our GPS.   At the park entrance, where a 4.5 mile
side road to our Hotel Torres began, we met the NH women once more..
unfortunately.   The volume of them and their massive backpacks in our
crowded little car was bad enough, but the extra 450 pounds changed
what had become an interesting tour to an Adventure, defined by
Chesterton as "an inconvenience, rightly considered".   That was our
worst ripio before or since.   Even at 2 mph in the worst spots, the
undercarriage crashed and banged.    I thought of the nearest mechanic
being 100 ripio miles distant, and later checked for leaking oil or
gasoline...   Our hotel was an inescapable $197 per night, but Chile
partially offsets the entrance penalty, $100 for Americans and less for
others, by exempting foreigners paying in dollars from the 19% food
and room tax.    The $24.30 buffet supper was the most sumptuous
we have ever enjoyed, however.

February 28.   When the generator stopped for the night Marge and I went
outside. The clouds had gone, leaving a field of stars more brilliant than
we had seen in decades.   The dome and zenith were split by the edge of
the galaxy, the Milky Way, a belt of diffuse brilliance.

We drove 48 miles of sinuous ripio, by spectacular Torres (Towers),
glaciers, lakes, which threatened to distract the driver, to Lago (Lake)
Grey.   We'd been misinformed by the tourist bureau about
reservations and timing, but were lucky that we had 8 minutes to spare
to buy 2 of the last 3 spaces on the boat and join the guided group.
We walked 200 rough yards (not easy for Marge on her wounded legs),
boarded Zodiac inflatables, and were taken to a bigger boat with glass
panoramic windows.   What we saw was spectacular and well described in
our guidebooks.   The boat motored along the face of the
glacier, and nuzzled up to a grounded iceberg about 50 feet high and
150 feet wide.    Its colors ranged from a cobalt blue of the oldest most
compressed ice, to pastel blue, fading to the brilliant white of filigrees
and Rorschach shapes.   We were served Pisco Sours with glacier ice
in real glasses.

February 29  <-- b="">  A rare day !  Torres del Paine, Chile, to El Calafate, Argentina.
Heavy rain all day, which was unusual in the semi-desert we traversed.   The
hotel access road included an ancient suspension bridge, where we
stopped and measured less than a 6 inch clearance on each side.  Beside it,
grey waters of the flooding stream lapped.   Any higher and we would
have been trapped.  An hour of ripio later, at the
tiny border town where we were told cheaper Argentine gas was
available 27 miles later, we cautiously had the gas tank filled from the side
of what looked like an outhouse.


The border crossing took 40
minutes from Chile because of a busload of Italian tourists, and just 5
minutes into Argentina, where the only building on many miles of
treeless pampa housed a few bored officials.   Here we began the
infamous ripio Route 40.   That rough furrowed washboard required
20 mph for 20 miles, then we were delighted by the appearance of an
unmapped new paved road, apparently coming from the direction of
Puerto Natales.   In 10 miles that led to the reported gas station, which
seemed to have been abandoned for the day.   Had we not gassed up, it
would have been 280 miles between refills.   Rain was making ripio
difficult with mud and puddles, so we ignored the advice of 3
sodden Swiss cyclists at the station, and took the alternative fork which
promised pavement, though 60 miles longer.   However, the map didn't
show the miles of ripio construction we encountered later.

We stopped to offer aid to the driver of a car that had just careened off
the road, but he seemed uninjured, calm, and grateful that he didn't have
to drive more in those difficult conditions.   By USA standards his car was
totalled, but maybe was worth restoring here, considering that mechanics
get about 50 cents an hour.   At that point we
had driven about 1000 miles of ripio, with 500 of it to go.    Besides the
loose gravel and the embedded fangs, their worst feature is corrugations.
Measurement and simple calculation show they administer about 10
hammer blows per second to the car and us.   If we and the car can survive
until we get to pavement, we should be healthier, with no remaining
kidney stones or cylinder carbon.   About 20 years ago Scientific
American, in an article on the harmonic distribution of particles under
stress, explained the dimensions of ocean waves and the corrugations on
poorly maintained dirt roads.    I must read that again sometime.

March 1.   We took a tour, bus then boat, to Glaciares National Park. Some
books describe this as the most spectacular natural sight in South
America.   More on that later.

Marge's leg is improving, slowly.

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