Patagonia- to the end of the world and back… (part 2)

Part 2 – About garden gnomes and gauchoes

Police control and drunken gauchos

Our Land Rover and expedition trailer arrived in Buenos Aires during the night October the 13th. We showed up very optimistic the 14th in the morning at the shipping agency and started filling out the necessary paperwork. We expected the car to be cleared by custom either the 15th or the 16th. Unfortunately there had been an accident on the harbor, so everything was closed down and under police investigation. At least that was what we were told. I believe it’s more the rule than the exception, that something goes wrong and things are delayed – so if you want to travel with your own car in foreign countries, you have to be very patient and try to adopt the local way to work things out.

October the 16th we all went to the customs hoping to be able to drive away. But after we had spent half a day just waiting we left again- by foot. On October the 17th I just went on my own, it was a Saturday, and there were no need everyone should spend a whole day waiting again. But then the car and trailer actually was released and I could drive through the heavy Argentine traffic for the first time. I was met by a very happy and a pretty surprised family when I drove up in front of the hotel.

All custom formalities were taken care of without any problems, but during the ship voyage, our equipment had been to Western Africa, where somebody had helped us lighten the cargo a little..!
Our car radio had been torn out, our Leatherman knife and big Maglite torch was taken, the same had happened to all our recovery gear and most of our tools and spare parts.
Only things left was 2 roles of duct tape and a screwdriver, so from there on everything on the car and trailer had to be fixed with that.
The radio was never really missed. Actually we kind of enjoyed the opportunity to do the singing ourselves – even though we only had Christmas carols printed.

We cleared out the mess in the car and not least in the trailer, and packed the luggage we had with us on the hotel and left Buenos Aires. We almost drove an hour before we pulled over by a police car that had followed us for nearly 20 minutes. They where absolutely friendly and apparently just wanted to have a look at our gear. After checking our papers and wishing us the best of luck on our journey, we were ready to continue our first South American drive.

First stop was in San Antonio de Arreco after 130 km. We stayed there for a few nights. Because it was in the early season we had the entire campsite of our own, even the owner left the place and at night so we were left all alone with his dogs. San Antonio de Arreco was a perfect place to start our tour. Very cozy and with an authentic gaucho feeling.

The following Sunday we did like a lot of the locals. We went to an estancia (farm) to spend the day together with real gauchos doing real gaucho things, riding real gaucho horses, tasting the local gaucho food and “enjoy” some local gaucho music.
We had an excellent day and Tito, the owner of the establishment, got more and more drunk because he had to salute all his guests. At last he nearly wouldn’t let us go, and invited us to come again the day after, while he was spilling red wine over both him and me. Brilliant way to spend a Sunday, and as Tito said; “the musicians sucks, but they are local!”

Unfortunately we couldn’t go back to Tito’s estancia the following day since we had planned to continue to Canada de Gomez, but first we had a minor technical issue to fix. There were a loose connection to the stoplight on the trailer. A problem we couldn’t solve with duct tape, so we had to find a garage. People showed to be unbelievably helpful when we asked for directions. Instead of telling us where to go, we were guided all the way, and the mechanics didn’t charge us for fixing the problem.

With all stoplights in working condition, we drove to Canada de Gomez. This time we were stopped twice by the police, and both times just the usual control of documents, and the obligatory “have a nice journey!”

Canada de Gomez didn’t have a campsite, but we were allowed to pitch camp in the little local park in the town center. The park was used by the locals for jogging, walking and children playing, so it was very lively and great fun in the evening.
Early in the morning we woke up to an infernal noise. We didn’t even bother to look outside the tent – unfortunately! It showed to be a legendary rally for classic cars driving from Buenos Aires through 9 countries before it should reach the finish line in Venezuela. Dammit – we shouldn’t had been so lazy that morning, it must have been some sight!

We went shopping, refilled our supplies and drove to Cordoba, the second largest city in Argentina.
Cordoba is more or less the geographical center of Argentina and was founded around 1576 by the Spanish. It has the oldest university in Argentina, and is therefore nicknamed “La Docta” (the learned one). We couldn’t find a campsite in Cordoba, even though we made a huge effort, so we continued 30 km to neighboring Villa Carlos Paz, where we found a really nice campsite. Again we had it almost on our own, we only had to share it with some local tennis players during the day. At night it was all empty. We set camp, fired up the barbecue and made ourselves a absolute decent candlelight dinner with giant Argentine steaks and a nice local merlot. Having dinner under the stars at 10 pm in 25 degrees is the true essence of camping life.

Garden Gnomes  & German gemütlichkeit

In Villa Carlos Paz we got propane for the stove, and suddenly we had that very rare moment where everything works at the same time – no technical issues whatsoever.

This was celebrated by baking pancakes with Dulce de Leche. While celebrating our success we suddenly saw the sky getting darker, almost dark red, and with almost no warning we had a severe storm. We closed down the camp and spent the rest of that evening inside the tent, while the strong winds was hurling outside. Next morning everything was covered in a thick layer of red dust. So that morning we started with a quick housekeeping before we packed up and traveled on to the tiny village of Belgrano located in the central mountains south of Cordoba. But since the trees don’t grow into the skies, we had to have a puncture on the way out of the campsite.

Belgrano was a super nice place – and a good place to get things done or bought whatever you needed. We had a local blacksmith making us a rail so Rose wouldn’t fall down from the first floor bed on the trailer. She had already fallen from the trunk ending hanging head down with her trousers twisted in to the trailer hook. So she wasn’t a pretty sight.

Getting to Belgrano was like getting into a village in Tirol. There were garden gnomes, October festival and a sense of German gemütlichkeit. And the buildings – they were as taken directly from the Alps.

We pitched camp in the garden belonging to a immigrant from the Netherlands. We shared the garden with a 7th grade school class from Cordoba, 5 horses, 3 dogs, a few cats and a lot of hens and ducks- all in free range!

And then there was a couple from Belgium, who had lived in South America for the last 5 years. Really nice people with a huge knowledge about the continent and good to share stories and red wine with in the warm and cozy evenings.

Belgrano was such a nice experience that we found ourselves having big difficulties getting away again – good thing we were the ones in charge of our speed of progress.

1 step forwards and 2 steps back

We stayed for a week in Belgrano before we pulled ourselves together and moved on. But we only drove an hours time before we ran into obstacles. In the burning heat the road was blocked by forest fires and we couldn’t proceed. We then decided to turn around and drive by the small gravel roads through the mountainous landscape – always heading against the wind, so we didn’t got caught by fire.

After a little detour we got trough to the tarmac road heading to our destination in Mina Clavero, but only 5 km from the city the road was blocked again by fires. Interesting, because now we were low on fuel. Luckily we had topped up both the main tank, the jerrycan and the spare tank in the trailer. All in all 170 liters of diesel – so we just had to stop and fill the main tank. Time was running though and we weren’t sure if the mountain pass was still drivable. It was open, but only just, and once again we ended in Villa Carlos Paz, so it was literally one step forward and two steps back.

We arrived late in the evening, after a full day of very interesting driving, and by then the headlights on the car had decided it didn’t want to work any longer.

Villa Carlos Paz was well known for us, so we easily found the mechanics who could fix the problem with the headlights.
Long story short; we fixed the light by connecting the wires to the aircon switch and at the same time we had the spare tire repaired. Total cost: 5 $. Nothing to say about that, I guess.

About living on the Moon

It’s a little funny that its obligatory to have the lights turned on during the day in Argentina. A large part of the vehicles don’t even have the lamps mounted. But it is, and we really don’t want to break any laws when driving in foreign countries, so every time we turned on the lights we turned on the aircon – very convenient!
With lights and aircon on, we crossed Sierras de Cordoba via los Gigantes to Chamical. Because of our bad habits and because we love dust, we choose the smallest gravel roads through the mountains. A really beautiful drive where we waved hello to all the other cars on the road – 3 in all!

Our goal wasn’t necessary the town of Chamical, we just wanted to come as far as possible to the national parks; Talampaya and Ishigualasto (valley of the moon). I think Chamical can’t possibly be a goal for anything. The town has absolutely very little to offer. Because of the heat and the lack of a decent place to pitch camp, we checked in to the only hotel in town, and went for a walk to see where we were. To do that we crossed the main street to the petrol station and that was about that – please move on, nothing more to see here!

Like in Denmark the weather was the main subject when the local people talked. In 3 days we have had more that 40 degrees in the shadow, and since we mainly drove through desertlike areas, we didn’t see the shadow that much. It was really baking hot. We had a good nights sleep to the sounds of the air conditioner working on severe over duty, and after breakfast and a little cleaning of the fridge, were the milk and Dulce de Leche had tilted and made a pretty sticky mixture while we drove the bumpy roads the day before, we arrived in perfect and sweaty style to national parks late in the afternoon.

Talampaya is located in the east/centre of La Rioja Province and was designated a provincial reserve in 1975, a national park in 1997, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000.

The park protects an area of the Argentine Monte ecoregion and covers an area of 2,150 square kilometers. Its purpose is to protect the important archaeological and palaeontological sites found in the area. The landscape is the result of erosion by water and wind in a desert climate, with large ranges in temperature – high heat by day and low temperature at night, with torrential rain in summer and strong wind in spring, and it is of incredible beauty.

We stayed there a couple of days before we went to Ishigualasto, that is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The Ischigualasto Formation contains Late Triassic (Carnian) deposits from 231.4 -225.9 million years before the present, with some of the oldest known dinosaur remains, which are the world’s first with regards to quality, number and importance. It is the only place in the world where nearly all of the Triassic is represented in an undisturbed sequence of rock deposits. This allows for the study of the transition between dinosaurs and ancient mammals; and the research is ongoing!

We were there by full moon, and drove around the park in the night, only lighted up by the moon. No lights on the car. An absolutely amazing experience, but also quite hot, since we then couldn’t turn the aircon on either.
It was an indescribable feeling just sitting in the complete silence in the middle of this prehistoric landscape. No sound at all, and only the light of the full moon. A dramatic – but well appreciated – contrast to the daily life in a Land Rover on dirt roads with 3 kids in the backseat.

In such environment you really feel small and insignificant, but it’s a brilliant exercise to just relax, meditate and think about how it would be living on the moon…

Spaghetti in Raphaels garden

We headed on to Mendoza. The wine capital of Argentina. A place I personally had dreamed about staying in for a long time, and were I thought we just could leave, when or if, we got sober ever again.

Mendoza was a lovely and charming city, but for some reason they had ran out of red wine. At least that was what Lene tried to convince me, after she had forgotten the wine while shopping. Some might say it sounds a little chauvinistic, and that I could have done the shopping myself. True, but I had the job taking care of Rose, who had fallen a sleep on the backseat. Mendoza ended up like a pure AAA excursion- but still; nice city!

Since we were absolutely sober, we had no issues driving to Uspalata, that is located high in the Andes. Like always on the smallest roads with wild grades and a lot of hairpins. After 4 hours we had met no humans, but a lot of wild horses and lamas.

Uspallata is mostly a road cross and, by the way, the last town before the Chilean border. I guess it’s most famous for being the place where Brad Pitt shot the film “7 years in Tibet” – so Uspallata is absolutely not without star quality.

In order not to get completely malnutritioned by all the great Argentine steaks and no salad, we had decided to go to the Pacific to have some fish. That meant a full day in the car crossing the Andes.
We reached the top of the Andes at 3800 meters in a heavy blizzard. And for Lene it was a major step even climbing these heights after her altitude sickness in Peru.
We were pleased being 4wheel driven and having the rough tires. Most of the other cars and trucks were struggling, while we just drove nice and steadily through the beautiful but tough scenery. A scenery which included the spectacular sight of Aconcagua- the highest mountain in South America.

On the top of the world we arrived to Chile for the first time of many. Not that we just passed the border like we are used to in Europe. This was a true borderline. With 5 different offices and a lot of stamps and looking through the car and trailer and taking gear in and out – and then, at last, there was a check up on the very efficient controls. And that part we didn’t pass for some reason. That meant we had to do it all over again, starting with the 5 offices…

It was by all means the Chileans who were the strict part. The Argentines were just laughing at the whole circus. We didn’t laugh at all. We just did as we were told, and after 3 hours we were let through.

Finally getting into Chile, we did the long run to the coast in one stretch. We stayed in Viña del Mar and Valpraiso. We enjoyed the sun setting over the giant dunes north of Concon. We ate fresh fish in the tiny fishing village of Quintay. And we went to cafe in bustling and noisy Santiago.

In this part of Chile, for some reason it wasn’t especially easy to find good campsites. In Viña del Mar we were allowed to pitch camp on a field in front of some cabañas you could rent on hourly basis. Must have been for the truck drivers who just needed a quick power nap..?
In Casablanca we were allowed to stay in a privat garden at a really nice guy named Raphael. And that is why we can now brag of having eaten spaghetti in Raphael’s garden.

The noble art of making a choice

Raphael was truly a very nice man. He wanted all the best for us, and therefore we got back on the road very late. We wanted to head on to Los Andes to make a night stop before going back into Argentina.
But Raphael was so busy helping us with all sorts of things, he could ever imagine, and it ended up taking the entire morning. It was a strange feeling, because on one side it provoked our Scandinavian impatience, but in the competition against his South American helpfulness we didn’t have a chance. We just had to throw in the towel and surrender- never ever have we met so many people who wanted to help us, drive a detour to show us the right way or just taking the time trying to understand our “Spanish”. Lesson learned for the cool, clearheaded and pretty often quite distanced Danes, and for sure a part of South America we want to bring back home!

Finally we succeeded going to Los Andes. Or actually we drove right through and proceeded 40 km further on to find a campsite we had been recommended. San Estaban was the name, and it turned out San Estaban was the nicest little retreat. Lovely cabañas, spa, pool, horses, trekking, massage, restaurant and so on. It was so tempting for our filthy camping souls, but we got hold on ourselves and went off again. I mean we are meant to be overlanders, not luxurious tourists!
But Christ it was a beautiful location! Right there on the edge of the snow covered Andes. It wasn’t even expensive…
But we made a decision and we do not regret… Well actually we do regret. That was really the dumbest decision. We ended back in Los Andes in a lousy hotel paying twice the amount because there were no alternatives.

I thought there was an alternative though. It was a nice little motel named Sexy Woman, the reception was just a telephone, again you paid per hour, and the parking lot had small fences to cover the license plates. For some reason part of the family didn’t fancy that place, and I guess I couldn’t have fitted both car and trailer behind the fence anyway…

The grass is always greener on the other side. And that is a fact when passing the Andes. The Chilean side is lush green while the Argentine side is dried out – simply because the rain falls on the wind side of the mountains. We went back to to dry side. Same way out as we took into Chile. Only this time the sky was high and the sun shone, and that turned out to be a stunning sight. We had a surreal sight of skies flying over Aconcagua, made a stopover at Punte del Inca and saw all the other things we missed on the way up, due to the bad weather.

Our trip continued to Valle Grande, just south of San Rafael. A beautiful spot, right next to Rio Atuel, where we went river rafting and relaxed by the pool.
San Rafael was a perfect city to get things done – like doing laundry and filling up the supplies, before we continued along the Rio Atuel to Malargüe.
We were getting closer to the Lake District and the temperature was falling significant. It was about time to find the long sleeves again.

Any technical issues? Not really everything worked out perfectly. Except the rear light I smashed against a tree on the campsite. Who the world could even think of putting a tree right behind my car…?

Hello Patagonia and long woolens

It had for sure become cold and windy now. We had entered Patagonia. Suddenly we had to sleep in our long woolens, extra fleece backs and the tent was secured with extra guy lines. Patagonia lived up to its reputation.

Long parts of the tour from Malargüe to Chos Malal was driven on roads that didn’t even exist on the maps. In Malargüe we met Eugen, a German who had spent the last 6 years traveling the region by himself. He gave us the spectacular route, that wasn’t to be found on the official maps. Can’t compete with local knowledge.
The kids weren’t to happy though, since we were driving 3 hours in tough terrain instead of 1 hour on tarmac. But after we saw flamencos and went right by the foot of the Tromen volcano on a snow covered patch everyone seemed happy in the end.

In Chos Malal we stayed for a little less than a week, even though it was just a small village. But it was cozy and hard to leave.
The drive from Chos Malal to San Martin offered us a magnificent drive – don’t need to mention it was on small gravel roads, along the Rio Aluminé. Lene said it was very similar to Canada and Alaska, so there they went to our bucket list.