Thursday, November 29, 2012

And our journey resumes.

The motorhome is ready. We have driven it around town, checked it for any leaks and it is time to drive. It took us several days to transfer all our belongings from the rental house back into the RV but after, what seemed like a hundred trips back and forth we were at last packed and ready to go. On our last night we went to dinner at Tunet, a fabulous restaurant located in the Hotel Austral with Mariano and Marcela. This is touted as being the best restaurant in Comodoro and it certainly lived up to its reputation. During our time in Rada Tilly we have become very close to both Mariano and Marcela and we will truly miss them. But not right now as they plan to meet up with us in Bariloche. Bariloche is our next main destination and whilst only a 10 hour drive from Rada Tilly, it will take us about 5 days as we want to visit and stay in Los Alerces National Park which is on the way. On our first day we drove about 400 kilometers (240 miles) and spent the night in Gobernador Costa. There were no campgrounds so we simply drove down a few side streets off the main road and found a quiet area to park and some grass areas to walk Winston. I was exhausted and I am sure driving Tom crazy. I just could not relax during the drive. Every slight engine alteration, every noise, every well, anything kept me asking “What’s that?” or “Is that normal?” or “Is everything ok?” and other phrases to that affect. I admitted that I don’t know how long it will take for me to relax and trust the RV again without constantly monitoring its performance but that’s what breaking down several times will do, I guess. The next day was an easy 110 mile (180 kilometer) drive to Esquel. I worried but the RV did fine. Esquel is a larger town and we knew of a campsite there called La Chakra. Besides being a popular ski resort in the winter, the town is also the gateway to Parque Nacional Los Alerces. Being springtime it is the offseason and the town and campground were quiet. We stopped off at the tourist office and pick up a collection of maps to the park and places to camp once we get there. It was then back to the campground for another quiet evening just getting used to the whole camping experience again and enjoying our time together with Winston.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Petrified Forest, Sarmiento (Monumento Bosque Petrificado)

Another side trip we made while waiting for the motorhome was to the Petrified Forest. Located just 30 Km (20 miles) south of Sarmiento along a gravel road this provincial natural monument is a petrified forest from about 65 – 70 million years ago during the Cenozoic era. At the entrance to the forest was a small ranger station with an even smaller visitor’s center. The ranger spoke a little English and explained to us how to follow the self-guided trails so we would see the best the area had to offer. There is only one simple rule to follow – you cannot take even a sliver of the fossilized wood. We can touch, climb, sit and stand on the trees, pose beside them or on top them but do not take a piece. To confirm this fact we were told we would be expected to turn our pockets inside out and have our daypacks searched before leaving. Thus admonished we set off to find the trail. Even from the center we could see the trees that had been fossilized exactly where they had fallen. As we climbed the hills we were afforded superb views of the valley, which was once a wide coastal plain where 70 million years ago the Atlantic Ocean had formed lagoons and thick, prehistoric forests. Today, the valley floor with its soft slopes are made up of volcanic ashes and in the surrounding hills, the grey, red and purple sandstone with their rounded points formed by the eroding winds gives the valley its’ apt name of Moon Valley. Scattered along these vast and colorfully striated badlands are trunks of conifer and palm trees, some of considerable size and others that you can pick up and inspect, while walking on pieces that have splintered off from the constant erosion. The petrified tree trunks in the middle of this lunar landscape and in the hills around us make the experience surreal which is only exemplified by the absolute quiet and stillness that surrounds us. We found ourselves speaking quietly as if not to disturb the tranquility and the workings of nature while a story of change and evolution unfolded around us and we reflected on what the area must have looked like all those millions of years ago. It was humbling to acknowledge that we really are just a speck in the eons of time and history. Back at the ranger station, the ranger did indeed make us turn out our pockets and checked our packs whilst we explained that to remove anything would be akin to desecrating the area. If our earths’ evolution, history and geology interest you, then this moonlike landscape, sandstone hills showing the different strata with varied colors and the extraordinary outcropping of petrified trees, make this a “must-see”. As we drove back to Rada Tilly, we both commented that the visit had given us some perspective that made us feel that our transmission problem and delay was truly insignificant in the grand scheme of things.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Ferry to Puerto Ibanez and the Carretera Austral to Coyhaique

From Chile Chico it is possible to drive to Coyhaique but much of the road is unpaved and rugged so we have elected to take the ferry to Puerto Ibanez and then the carretera, which at that point is paved to Coyhaique. We had been told that the ferry leaves promptly at nine in the morning and that we should get to the port no later than 8am to buy our tickets. Going from the south shore around a point and then to the northern shore takes about 2 and a half hour, which gives an indication of the vast size of the lake. The crossing provided us with more of the stunning views of the south end of the Andes where many of the mountains have perpetual snow on them and the erosion caused by the glaciers is clearly visible. With a population of around 1000 inhabitants, Puerto Ibanez is a town even smaller than Chile Chico but our destination is Coyhaique which is considered to be the midpoint on the Carretera Austral in this remote region of Chile. For those who come to Chile seeking adventure, traveling the rugged road known as the Carretera Austral (or Camino Austral), the name given to Chile’s Route 7 which winds its way for a thousand kilometers (600 miles) through the remote and thinly-populated archipelago of Chilean Patagonia is almost guaranteed to be an unforgettable experience. It is a region that is largely covered by a lush, dense rainforest. Deep fjords cut into the coastline from the Pacific and the rocky Andean peaks rise up from the shore. In this far southern area there is no dry season, and for eons the storms rolling in from the sea have left layer after layer of snow on the mountains, which over time has compacted to create and sustain the glaciers. These in turn feed a plethora of waterfalls that constantly cascade their way down the mountainsides into rushing rivers and then through the forests back into the fjords. The unique contrasting mix of lush forests, waterfalls emerging from high cliffs, glaciers and valleys that are tucked into the flanks of the Andes icy slopes, is breath-taking. As we drive through rocky mountain passes that drop into deep river valleys and see the dense jungle areas bordered by glaciers, I am at a loss for adjectives that adequately describe the beauty that surrounds us. The two-hour drive went quickly and soon we descended into the town of Coyhaique. Founded in 1929, the city is settled at the confluence of two rivers, the Rio Simpson and Rio Coyhaique and surrounded by snow capped mountains. After a couple of false starts, we find Don Joaquin Cabanas where we have reserved two cabins for the night. The cabanas are nestled in a forested area to the south of town and although simple and rustic with a large studio style bedroom/living area, bathroom and kitchen, they are perfect since we are traveling with pets. We walk, feed and get the dogs settled in before going into town in search of lunch. Leading from the central plaza is a pedestrian only street which has souvenir shops and a few restaurants. We chose one which had window tables so we could watch the tourists, eat some sandwiches and drink traditional schop (draft beer). Afterwards we browsed the souvenir shops and the Handicrafts Market held in the main plaza where local artists and craftsmen show their works made of wool, leather, pottery, stone and wood. After a stop in at the tourist center, we left the town center to collect the dogs and do a little sightseeing. Our first stop was the mirador on the Rio Simpson. We were treated to great views of the meandering river valley and the town. We then went to find a local statue “Piedra Del Indio”. Located on the eastern bank of the Simpson River, the statue is actually a rock formation reminiscent of an Indian figure. We were told that the best place to observe this phenomenon is on the bridge crossing the river. Well, after much observing and pointing by Tom and Mariano, Marcela and I finally could make out the “features” of the Indian. Let’s just say, you need some imagination but with time it does seem like the facial contours of a person. Where “Indian” comes into it, I am not sure. I don’t think the dogs understood it either because all this standing around has them bored. We tried to find a place to let them run off lead but there were just too many distractions wherever we went so they had to settle for lengthy leash walks. Dinner that night was at the upscale restaurant in the Diego Del Alamargo (DA) Hotel. Both Tom and I had the Beef Lomo (Fillet) which came out as a huge chunk, cooked rare exactly as we like it and Marcela and Mariano both had the more sensible Grilled Salmon which they said was also excellent. We are also all quite tired from our travels. On Sunday, the drive home via Rio Mayo took about 8 hours. After crossing the border we stopped at a small hamlet for coffee. The tiny tienda/restaurant was occupied by a family group dressed in traditional garb complete with gauchos who were tending to a lamb spread on a rack and being barbequed for lunch. The gaucho cheerfully allowed us to photograph them and the lamb over the fire. It was very tempting to stay around for lunch as the lamb looked sensational but we still have a lot of driving. We stopped again in Rio Mayo for a quick empanada lunch and then it was home. A whirlwind three days of driving, sightseeing and being with friends. We are grateful that Mariano and Marcela invited us along. What a great addition to our memories.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

First stop: Chile Chico

With the motorhome and transmission under the tender care of our mechanic Adrian Biasussi, there was little to do but wait – again. So, when Marcela and Mariano suggested a short weekend trip into Chile, we jumped at the chance. Our route was going to be a circuitous one. We had missed an earlier opportunity to go to Chile Chico when we renewed our visa and this would be our first chance to take a ferry through some of the Chilean fjords, drive a part of the Carretera Austral and visit Coyhaique, the capital of the Aisen region of Chile before returning to Argentina via Rio Mayo. All in three days! Pelusa, their Jack Russell terrier will come with us on his first adventure to keep Winston company. We left at noon and the five hours to the border was uneventful and quick, stopping only for gas and to walk the dogs. Here the Argentinean pampas stretch for miles and it is so arid that we wondered where the sheep and cattle obtain water. After asking Marcela she told us to look out for steel tanks with a windmill attached. The windmills pump water into the tanks from underground and that is where the animals drink. She said they will walk for miles to get to one. At the border, there was one small issue with SAG, the agency that monitors any food products and animals entering Chile. The official who searched our vehicle found Winston’s dry food and immediately said that it was not allowed. This is our fourth time entering Chile and we have never had a problem so we immediately began to argue our case. She stood firm and so did we. In the end, we won but with a strange and somewhat perplexing admonition. “Tell the man that the food is only for the dog”, she said to Marcela. Once we were told we all laughed and I replied that Tom prefers crab to kibble. We could only surmise that what she actually meant was not to feed it to the wild animals but that is a simply a guess and we had fun joking about it. The small town of Chile Chico is only 6 kilometer (4miles) from the border and this is where we will spend our first night. The town is located on the south shore of Lake General Carrera. On the Argentinean side at Los Antiguos this same lake is called Lake Buenos Aires. It is actually the second largest lake in South America – the largest being Lake Titicaca and encroaches into both countries. We had rented a cabin for the night from the Hotel Austral which turned out to be perfect for the four of us and the two dogs. It had 3 bedrooms and 2 bathrooms with a small sitting/dining area and even smaller kitchen. No worries there, as pizza is on the menu for dinner. It was the view from the balcony that was worthy of the cabin cost alone. Overlooking the lake, we had clear views of the vast Argentinean pampas to the east and the craggy snow-capped mountains in the west. As we sat on the balcony sipping red wine, we watched the sun setting giving the mountains an ethereal glow.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Punta Arenas – Continued.

Tuesday found us back at the port with almost the same news. Yes the wind has abated and yes, the cranes are back to work, workers are moving slowly. We are assured that on Wednesday our transmission will be unloaded and available. So now we have another day to explore the town. We walk Winston on the rocky beach and decide we will explore to the south of town along the shores of the Magellan Straits. This most southern end of Chile’s mainland is some of the bleakest and unforgiving we have ever seen. The landscape is ravaged by the almost constant winds with most of the vegetation consisting of close to the ground thistle and thorn bushes that are designed to withstand all that nature can throw at them. The only animals we see are the hardy Patagonian sheep that dot the small hills and the only homes are poorly maintained lean-tos with brick walls and metal roofs, some with small fishing boats tied alongside the water’s edge. The only splash of color is the sea and even that is a dark almost inky blue. After about 30 minutes with no change in scenery, we turn back towards town. Our next stop is the main square located in the center of town. Plaza Munoz Gamero or also referred to as Plaza de Armas is landscaped with huge araucaria trees (slow-growing native pine trees) and surrounded by opulent mansions which have long since been converted into banks, museums, restaurants, the Club de la Union and government buildings. However the amazing architecture with turrets, gorgeous tiled roofs, glassed-in sunrooms and well kept gardens, remain. These buildings are solid stone structures built to withstand the test of time in this almst-end-of-the-world location. In the center of the plaza is the Monumento a Fernando de Magellanes (Monument to Ferdinand Magellan) built to commemorate the 400 year anniversary of Magellan’s voyage. Standing close you can see the toes of one of the bronze Indians is polished and shiny. Local legend states that everyone who touches the toes will return to Punta Arenas someday, making the statue a favorite with tourists. There are small covered wagons dotted around the grounds with artisans selling all types of local crafts. We could not resist purchasing two alpaca scarves from one of the artisans, paying only a fraction of what they would cost in the States. We also noted a restaurant on the second floor of one of the converted mansions and decided that is where we would have dinner. Winston enjoyed himself in the plaza very much, surrounded by grass and plenty of new smells to absorb. Restaurant La Tasca, located in the mansion “Casa Espana” was very good and again we ate the ever present fresh and readily available seafood. Tom had salmon stuffed with crab and other shellfish and I tried their Crab Chupa which, had I not tasted the one from Puerto Viejo the night before would have been very good. Unfortunately the Puerto Viejo recipe was much better and had more crab, of course we should factor in that theirs was also double the cost. We drank another excellent Chilean wine that the waiter recommended. The walk back to our B&B through the plaza lit by small tree lights and antique looking lamps was simply beautiful with a brilliant starry night and surprising only a little wind. Punta Arenas had never looked better. That is until Wednesday when we finally, after six long months of waiting through the rebuild in the States, the long ocean voyage, a three week strike in Valparaiso, another boat to Punta Arenas, strong winds which prevented cranes from operating and factoring in the slower work pace of the South American lifestyle – we finally (can I say finally one more time), finally got our transmission. I could have wept with relief. Now, Punta Arenas had never looked better. True it did take the better part of the day to wrest it out of the hands of Chilean customs and port authority, but with the steady and competent help of Vivian who works with the Port Agency and with assurances from us that yes, we were taking it out of Chile into Argentina and yes, we had permission from the Argentinean customs that we could import it into the country, it was loaded into our rented vehicle for the last leg, the 12 hour return trip to Rada Tilly. I can only say it again – Finally.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Punta Arenas, Chile – Here we come

Our friends, Mariano and Marcela are coming with us. They told us they have not been to the area in over 10 years and for us their company is much appreciated. Sunday, our phone rings early. It is 5:30 in the morning and this is our wake-up call from Marcela. It is a 12 hour drive to Punta Arenas, depending on traffic and border crossing so the early start is a must. The long drive was uneventful and broken only with stopping for gas and walking Winston, collecting the rental car in Rio Gallegos to bring the transmission back into the country, a picnic stop to eat our sandwich lunch and the border crossing. It seems as though with each stop the wind is growing in intensity. This Patagonian wind just never ceases to amaze us and driving past the wind-tossed waters of the Magellan Straits, it whips around the car and Tom drives with two hands firmly holding the wheel. We had booked a hotel online but on arrival we were told they had no knowledge of our booking and the hotel is full. The receptionist started calling some other hotels and was able to find a bed and breakfast that was pet-friendly. I braved the wind and walked Winston while Tom got us settled into our room. We took the suggestion of the owner of the B&B and went to a restaurant called La Luna for dinner. Seafood with heavy emphasis on shellfish is the specialty of the area and with that in mind, we dined on fresh scallops and cracked crab. Monday morning we headed for the port. Punta Arenas lies along the north western side of the Strait of Magellan between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans on what is known as the Brunswick Peninsula. It is the gateway for boat transport through the Magellan Straits and for cruise ships and research vessels on their way to or from Antarctica. Founded in 1849 by Colonel José de los Santos Mardones, the city flourished as a port of call until the Panama Canal opened in 1941. Now it is the service center of a large sheep-raising area, responsible for processing and exporting hides, wool, and frozen lamb worldwide. The nearby Tierra del Fuego oil fields, the attractions of the free port, and the maintenance of military compounds have all contributed to the city’s modern growth. Mardones Pier, where our agent was located is in the northern end of the port and let me tell you, by now the wind had reached a zenith as it whipped around us and tossed the sea with large waves. So, it was with some disappointment but no surprise when we were told that the ship had not been unloaded and would not, until the winds subsided and the cranes could operate. We were told to return the next day when, they thought, the storm would have abated and maybe they could unload the boat. With the rest of the day free, we decided to explore the city. Our first stop was Zona Franca “the Free Zone” where you can buy all the duty free goods your heart could desire. After much browsing and price comparing of electronics, we settled in the large grocery store and bought hard to find macadamia nuts, maple syrup, Swiss chocolate, wine and for Mariano a couple of bottles of Scotch. After a quick hamburger lunch, Marcela and Mariano went to the mall and Tom and I walked Winston along the costanera and relaxed in our room. Dinner that night was at Restaurant Puerto Viejo. If you are ever in Punta Arenas, this is the restaurant to eat at. The restaurant is beautiful, the service impeccable and the food, well it was to die for. After sharing an appetizer of Salmon Carpaccio, I had Crab Chupa. Chupa is served in a bowl and is reminiscent of bisque but even richer with cream, huge pieces of crab and garnished with even more cracked crab legs and claws! Mariano ordered the same dish and neither of us could finish the serving. Tom just had simple cold cracked crab that looked fantastic and must have weighted a kilo and Marcela ordered a combination plate of a whole heirloom tomato stuffed with calamari and a piece of grilled salmon garnished with calamari rings. Everything about this restaurant was excellent, a true not to be missed. Also, our friends had bought us gifts at the mall. This area of Chile is famous for the stone Lapis Lazuli and of course the Magellan Penguin colonies. So, they had got me a beautiful penguin pendant and necklace made from lapis and Tom a penguin key ring made from the same vibrant blue stone. Returning to the B&B, we said goodnight and goodbye to Marcela and Mariano. Tomorrow they leave to return to Rada Tilly and work. We will miss not just their fantastic company but also the help they provide us. The good news is the wind has finally died down to a more manageable level so hopefully the cranes can get back to work. After giving Winston his night walk, we talk about our good fortune in having Marino and Marcela’s friendship and hope we can get the transmission come morning.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Cueva de las Manos

After consulting our map, instead of driving back to the coast from Los Antiguos we decided to visit an historical site known as Cueva de las Manos. Spanish for Cave of the Hands, the cave is located 100 miles (163 kms) south of the town of Perito Moreno in the valley of the Pinturas River. Here, the Río Pinturas has cut a deep, scenic canyon and in the process, erosion has left countless aleros, stony overhangs often mistakenly called cuevas (caves). One of these is the Cueva de las Manos. This well preserved rock art site, where stencils of hundreds of human hands, animals and abstract forms cover the walls became a World Heritage Site in 1999. The Cave, which is really a series of caves, lies in an isolated spot in the Patagonian landscape, about 60 miles (100 km) off the main National Route 40. The stretch of road up the canyon is eerily desolate, devoid of people and houses with only occasional sightings of guanaco and birds. 60 miles of unmitigated dirt road, with a loose skidding surface. It is a dead end road which means the only option is to drive there and back. So you really have to want to see the Cueva. However we had been told they are a superb example of ancient cave drawings. After arriving at the site there is a conducted ranger tour which takes about 2 hours. Besides us, there was a couple with their two children and a group of three backpackers. Walking on the narrow trail of the canyon is not for the timid and was fairly strenuous but the trek was well worth it. The main cave has an entrance 50 feet (15 m) wide, 33 feet (10m) high and is 80 feet (24 m) deep. The countless images of hands on the walls and ceiling are a mix of sprayed and stenciled, giving both positive and negative impressions. The negative hand impressions are calculated to be dated around 550 BC and the positive impressions from 180 BC. The inks used are mineral, so the age of the paintings was calculated from the remains of bone-made pipes used for spraying the paint on the wall. Most of the artistry is left hands, suggesting that the painters held the spraying pipe with their dexterous hand. Smaller numbers of these paintings are also seen in neighboring caves. The colors of the paintings are a variety of reds (made from hematite) orange, white, black or yellow. There are also drawings of human beings plus animals such as guanacos (a camelid similar to the llama) and rheas (the South American flightless bird similar to an ostrich), as well as geometric shapes and hunting scenes. These are the most recent drawings at between 9,000 to 13,000 years old. The people responsible for the paintings may have been the ancestors of the historic hunter-gatherer communities of Patagonia although history is unsure. One thing is sure, the Cueva de las Manos are well worth visiting if by chance you are in this extremely out-of-the-way area of Patagonia.