Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Our final days in Patagonia

By morning the rain and sleet had stopped but the wind was still quite fierce. As I took Winston for his morning walk, I could see that the snow level in the surrounding mountains and on the volcano was considerably lower and I hoped we would have no problems with leaving. We also make a stop at the capilla and while Winston remained on the steps under an overhang sheltered from the wind, I checked out the inside. It is a simple wooden building with long, low beams supporting the ceiling. The pews were wooden and hard – no padding here for kneeling. In lieu of stained glass windows depicting religious scenes there were only a few pictures nailed into the wood. A single light bulb hanging from a wire was the only light source. A small altar with a crucifix behind it dominate one end and beside it a small table covered with pictures of saints and candles which people had lit as they knelt and prayed. Beside that lay a basket of unlit candles and a box for donations. The only sound came from the wind as it whistled through gaps in the wood planks and the noise from the rain hitting the roof overhead. It was possibly one of the most simple of chapels I had ever entered yet as I knelt the underlying feeling of peace permeated me. Just a few minutes later a woman entered and moved quickly to the side table. She lit a candle and placed it beside the faded photograph of an old man. She then turned to me and with tears streaming down her face, she said something rapidly in Spanish and in a dialect I couldn’t follow as she gently touched the face of the old man. I have no idea who the man was, why she was crying or what she said but her grief was palpable. She beckoned me over to here and I moved to her side. I took her hand and together we knelt and prayed while she wept. Then still crying, she squeezed my hand and with a quick smile and a simple “Gracias, senora”, she left. It was time for me to leave also as I could hear Winston restlessly moving around when the door opened. With a last look at the photo of the old man, I left to collect a suddenly exuberant dog and the short walk back up the hill to the campground. We packed up, said goodbye to the campground manager and with one more quick drive through the town and past the steaming outdoor pools, we were on our way. As we descended into Caviahue, the huge Pampa which surrounds the lake and town was again glowing in autumn splendor and the volcano was enthusiastically puffing away. Luck was with us in that the sun was out and the wind had completely died down, leaving the lake like mirrored glass as it reflected the mountains and nearby volcano. We stopped and parked on the outskirts of town and Tom grabbed the camera. “I’ll be back in about 30 minutes “he told me and took off across the road and down the embankment to the lake. Winston and I were satisfied just clamoring around the plateau and checking out a group of sheep and some birds. When Tom returned he was pleased with his efforts. The photos of the volcano mirrored by the lake were truly spectacular showing the huge plumes of smoke drifting into the air and across the lake. Once on paved road it was an easy drive back to Las Lajas where we spent the night again. The following day, found us back on Route 40 heading north. We are now at the northern end of the province of Neuquen, the final province in Argentina that defines the Patagonia region. Route 40, true to form is paved in parts and then with little warning turns into a gravel and dirt track, and this is a major artery to much of Argentina. As the sun was starting to set, we finally arrived at the small hamlet of Bardes Blancas. The campground was barely more than a piece of dirt secured by a wire fence, attached to a restaurant but it is all we need. We are now in the province of Mendoza. Grapes and olive oil. Tomorrow we will be in the city of San Rafael. Wine country. Ah, yes!

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Copahue Geothermal Complex and Spa

We woke up next day to a full blown Andean winter storm with gale force winds and torrential rain. I brave a walk with Winston and on the way pick up a brochure detailing spa treatments and a variety of therapeutic baths available. By the time we got back, Tom was up and after a quick breakfast, we left Winston in the RV and went back to town to the Thermal Complex. The complex like the rest of the town is part of Copahue Provincial Park, owned and operated by the province of Neuquen. Copahue thermal springs, according to the literature, are world renowned for the quality and diversity of their waters, whose therapeutic properties are guaranteed by the World Health Organization and recognized as one of the best three in the world. A group of doctors, nurses, professionals and technicians supervise all treatments and before being allowed to use the facility, we first had to see a nurse who after reviewing the lengthy medical forms that we were required to fill out, took our blood pressure. Depending on those findings, you may have to see a doctor or in our case, she will sign a release at which time we are handed over to a staff member who will reserve any of the treatments we want plus show us to the variety of thermal pools that are scattered around. As the Christmas song goes “the weather outside is frightful” and there is no fire only steaming, hot bubbling pools of water around us which works well for us. The mud pool, we are told is too cold to enter - which although it was something we wanted to try having tried them in New Zealand for the first and only time and loved it – was okay with us since that particular pool is outdoors and I have already mentioned how inclement the weather is. We also knew we wanted the full body massage and time in the immersion baths and I wanted a facial, any sort of facial that would involve plenty of moisture and hydration was fine with me. Our attendant suggested having the massage first, then the immersion whirlpool and following those, a facial for me while Tom would go back to the RV, walk Winston and start preparing dinner. She took us to another part of the complex where we were told to wait and offered some mineral water from the complex’s own, private source. The rooms we were then escorted to were clean and comfortable with the usual massage bed, plenty of towels, soft music and the tantalizing smell of potpourri, candles, oils and lotions. For one full hour the very well trained and skilled masseuse rubbed, kneaded and massaged from top to toe (leaving out the personal areas, of course), with a variety of those oils and lotions which left my skin feeling oh so soft. When we met up again, Tom agreed it was a great massage. It was then on to the immersion baths. We had elected to try the green algae one, for no good reason other than we had never soaked in green algae before, I guess. I am taking the following description from the brochure. “The green algae mud is extracted from the bottom of the lagoon and used in dermatologic treatments. The mud contains minerals and microalgae that give the water its characteristic intense green color”. Hey, sounds slightly disgusting but there you have it. We were taken to a private room with part of it a dressing area and the other part for the bath. In theory, after getting into the immersion pool, the attendant turns on the jets of the intensely green water, temperature very hot and you lie back, put your head on the padded headrest and allow the algae to perform it’s therapy on your body for 20 minutes. In theory. The reality was the “immersion pool” was little more than a low quality whirlpool tub so to “immerge” would require you to curl on your side in the fetal position and crouch below the water or only immerge parts of your body at a time, the “intensely green algae water” looked actually more like water to which green food coloring had been added (I can only thank God, nothing was floating in it), temperature “very hot” will be re-defined to hot which got to be tepid as the time passed and the jets churned it around (I am guessing the pump did not have a water heater attached), the padded headrest was cracked and uncomfortable and as for as its therapeutic quality I can only guess at since after 5 minutes I was only waiting for the time to pass and the attendant to re-appear so I could get out. After 5 more minutes as I lay there, all I could observe were the peeling paint, the cracks in the ceiling and wires hanging all around me. Then I got to thinking about wires, electricity and water – with me in it! I didn’t wait for the attendant. I got my clothes, quickly toweled off (there were no showers to get rid of the green water), dressed and was gone. Tom’s experience was the same and we both agreed, definitely not worth the time. As I walked with him to the main doors we talked about the two experiences, both so vastly different until we saw the weather. It is late afternoon and the wind was still howling but the rain had turned to sleet with a little hail. Tom, God bless him, offered to bring me back a warmer jacket while he walked Winston. Since I had time before my facial, I agreed and waited inside while he walked back to the RV, got Winston and my jacket and walked back. My facial restored my faith in the facility. Again, the room was clean and comfortable with a similar bed and plenty of clean towels. The aroma from the potpourri and candles was similar to earlier with only a slight difference in the smells of creams, tonics and lotions. For more than an hour, the beautician skillfully cleansed, scrubbed, massaged and oiled not only my face but my throat, neck, shoulders, arms and hands. After a warm herbal mud masque was applied and left to do its work, she went to work liberally applying and massaging first using a scrub and then lotion into my arms. After cleansing the masque from my face with warm, moist towels and applying a layer of lotion over which she placed another warm towel, she then worked on my hands. I felt the dry layer of skin being peeled away and moisturizers being massaged into the new. It was then back to my face with several rounds of lotions and creams and massaging. Ah, the elixir for wrinkle free skin, well that a good genes, of course! After saying a fond “ciao” and a good tip for her marvelous attention, I headed outside. The wind, the rain, the sleet, the hail, they had all intensified as the sun had disappeared. As I made my way up the hill as fast as possible I could feel the hail hitting my face, my fabulously exfoliated, moisture-laden face. By the time I arrived at the motorhome, I was exhaling as much steam from my breath as the volcano was belching into the night air, or so it seemed. My arrival was further announced when I opened the door and the wind instantly ripped it out of my hand and slammed into the side of the RV. Phew, that’s quite a storm out there, I told both Tom and Winston. What a great smell awaited me. We had planned on grilled chicken for dinner but due to the weather Tom had made a pot of chicken and vegetable soup which was bubbling on the stove emitting its own steam and great smell. “I should have brought you an umbrella too” he said taking a look at me. ‘With that wind, it wouldn’t have been any use”. I said as I got out of my saturated jacket and started to towel dry my dripping hair and face. “Like my facial?” I asked him. “You look the same to me but as long as it was worth the time and made you feel good then it’s worth it” he said. Worth it, well let me recap our spa day. One hour full body massages at $15.00 each – Fabulous. Immersion algae baths 20 minutes at $8.00 each – Terrible unless you have been camping and want to soak in a tub for 20 minutes and have a spare eight bucks. One plus hour facial at $12.00 – Fabulous. Total cost for the day - $60.00. Total cost for relaxation, harmony and rejuvenation - priceless. As we ate the soup we discussed our day. We had first thought we might spend another day here but because of the weather we decided it was better to leave. Snow has not fallen even at this elevation because of the warm, moist air however we are certain snow is falling in the nearby mountains and we don’t want to get stuck. Also as Tom plaintively said “I am tired of the cold. I want warmth. I want sun”. And as poor Winston braved the outdoors to perform his nighttime bathroom duties, I am sure he was thinking the same.

Friday, April 26, 2013


If there were a town in the center in the middle of the Andes, Copahue might be it. Oh, and if you ever plan on visiting, it has to be from December through April. Yes, Copahue is only inhabited during the summer months. After that all of its residents move to either Caviahue, Locahue or even further and this tiny village ceases to exist with roadblocks installed in Caviahue to stop the curious – or lost!. Every November, people move back, build and repair the damage from the brutal winter storms, snows and wind, reopen hotels, restaurants and the complex, stock up on supplies and then settle in until April when they move and nature has its way again. Located near the Argentine – Chilean border close to the base of Copahue volcano at an elevation of about 7,000 ft (2,150 meters) its name actually means “sulphur” in the Mapuche language. This is very apt given the perpetual odor in the air. Steam just fills the air of this tiny Andean village, emitted from the thermal complex itself, stone fumaroles that have been built along the streets and steam vents dotting the landscape and which appear to have simply peeled away the earth’s layers like onion skin in order to escape from its core. With the volcano adding to the steam, I can almost feel my skin and body, thirsty from months of the dry Patagonia wind, drink in the moisture and humidity and hydrating all my cells one by one. The campground is located above the town to the west and gave us a superb view of both the village and the volcano capped in perpetual snow and ice, which at almost 10,000 ft. (3,000 meters) looms over us. As I watch the smoke blossom from it, I remark to Tom that while a “small” eruption would be interesting to watch, I hope it doesn’t have a big one and bury us in ash. We had been told that there are geophysicists and geologists in the area to observe and monitor any activity and due to the eruption at the height of tourist season had put a dampener on visitors to the town. We took a walk around with Winston, past the tiny chapel which looked as though at best it would hold 50 people, past a few small hotels with restaurants attached, past the thermal complex which we will visit tomorrow, past three open air thermal pools, one of which was a therapeutic mud bath which we also hope to try out and all the while breathing in the sulpherous, steam laden air. We walked the four main streets, passing many of the stone fumaroles built into the sidewalk and avoiding open vents from which steam belched out with bubbles and to the sound of popping, rather like lots of balloons being burst one by one. The town is small and our entire walk, with many stops for photographs covered the entire village took only about 30 minutes. Back at the RV, we cooked dinner and planned our day at the thermal complex. During the night the wind picked up and began to rock the motorhome even though we thought we would be protected by the mountains on one side and another large motorhome right next to us.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

From Las Lajas to Caviahue to Copahue (Thermal Patagonia)

After the scenic lake-district section from Bariloche to San Martin de Los Andes, we are once again on the lonely, less travelled part of Route 40 to Las Lajas which is the gateway to the area known as Thermal Patagonia. After spending the night in Las Lajas, we check on the road conditions before heading into the mountains as even at this time of year winter storms can blow through. Our destination is a thermal spa area which lies in the middle of the Andes that we had heard about from Val & Alex in Bariloche. Passing the town of Locopue, we begin our ascent high into the mountains, towards the border with Chile. As we began to climb, the first thing we noticed was a distinct change in vegetation and more importantly, color. Autumn is now with us and here in the high Andes the shades of reds, orange, greens and tans are vibrant in the surrounding hillsides. Shrubs, bushes and trees are resplendent in the new colors and at the few places along the roadside that we could stop, we were compelled to get out and not just photograph but to absorb the beauty of the surrounding countryside. It was many miles before civilization as we climbed in elevation that we began to see the plumes of smoke from Copahue Volcano. The volcano which last erupted in February is still quite active. It was an amazing sight as we came around a mountain and started the slight descent into the town of Caviahue which means “place for celebration or reunion” in the Mapuche language. The small Andean town flourishes by Lake Caviahue at the foot of the volcano at an elevation of 5,500 ft. As the lake and town came into view, the volcano mirrored on the lake was incredible. It was so extraordinary to be able to see the volcano with plumes of smoke drifting from it, reflected so perfectly in the water that Tom vowed on the way back we would stop and get some photos. The town itself is rustic and has the atmosphere typical of a pioneer town on the edge of civilization with small family ran restaurants and stores which sell everything from food to hardware to camp gear. After stopping at the one pump gas station and the tourist office, we were ready to push on to Copahue. From here on, it is a dirt road which will take us higher up to an elevation of 7,500 ft. As we do the steady climb into the Andes, Volcan Copahue is always visible. Also, because we take our time, we have a backlog of traffic behind us consisting of a couple of small tour buses and cars. Tom, being the ever conscientious driver pulls over to the shoulder to let them past. Oh, cripes, horror and heck – you can add your own script. Suddenly we are sunk up to our wheel wells in volcanic ash. Yes, the volcano that erupted in February believe it or not, has left mitres of residue in its wake and we are up to our…ashes in ash! As we get out of the RV to check on our predicament, Tom realizes immediately that we will not be able to move without help. The wheels are completely sunk. Within seconds, as God is our Angel, a maintaintence worker in some type of bulldozer lumbered into view. “Wave him down” I told Tom, “Maybe he can help”. It did not take a genius or much Spanish for him to understand and see our problem. He backed up to the tmotorhome, hooked a chain onto our bumper and with Tom at the wheel to steer the RV, pulled is slowly onto firmer ground. We were free. After saying Thank you and giving him a little monetary compensation “to help out his family”, we were on our way again. This time I told Tom that I did not care how many vehicles were behind us, we were not pulling over. He readily agreed. That was a close call and could have cost us a lot of time and money. Eventually we climbed our final peak and made the short descent into the village of Copahue. The smell of sulphur from the thermal pools fills in the air and we can see steam rising from fumaroles, cracks in the pavement or anywhere that the hot air can escape. With snow capped mountains towering so close, the humidity from the air encapsulates us and as we eventually found the campground situated above the spa facility, we are glad we made the trek to get here.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Isla Grande de Chiloe, Chile

In my previous blog I had mentioned that we had made a trip to Isla Chiloe in December but remembered I had not written about it. When we knew that we would go back to the States for Christmas, it left us with time to spare so we decided to take a side trip to the island after having read so much about its history. From Bariloche we spent the first night in Villa La Angostura before crossing into Chile at Paso Samore. This pass high in the Andes at an elevation of over 8,000 feet on a clear day would have given great views of the nearby volcanoes. As it was the two highest and closest to us, Puyehue and Casablanca were shrouded in clouds but we could still the snow covered sides and visualize how immense they are. After reaching the Chilean city of Osorno, we head south again with the Andes on our left side. This is actually volcano territory and driving toward Puerto Montt, we pass volcanoes, Puntiagudo, Osorno and Calbuco to name just a few. All are towering masses with the pointed peaks that comprise most composite volcanoes, all extremely tall and all covered in snow and unfortunately, clouds. It has not stopped raining all day and at times the downpours were torrential. At this rate, the ferry crossing across the Chacao Channel will be choppy. Just like getting onto Tierra del Fuego, catching a ferry is very simple. You just drive to the end of the road at the small town of Pargua, join a line of other cars, buses and trucks and wait for one of the boats which cross fairly frequently. At the other end, drive off and you are immediately on a road going to the southern end of the island. Although it's only a 30-minute ferry crossing away from mainland Chile across the Chacao Channel, lush and green Isla Chiloe – the largest in the Chilean archipelago – is like another world. By the way it is green and lush because it happens to be one of the wettest places on earth and today it seems to be trying to prove that claim. The rain which has been heavy all day is simply coming down in sheets driven by the wind. The ferry arrives at the tiny village port of Chacao and we look for a place to park for the night, as it is getting late. There is a village square with a church at one side, which looks quiet. Isla Chiloe is famous for its wooden churches some of which have UNESCO World Heritage status. Also clustered around the square are houses for which the island is also renowned. Tejuelas are the famous Chilote wooden shingled homes which are painted in bright colors, probably to offset the dreary, rainy weather. We walk Winston, make sure the motorhome is not leaking anyplace and it is an early night. The next morning it is still pouring with rain and we think of our options. Much as we want to explore the island, the rain just makes it harder to do and nowhere near the fun. Also, many of the places we want to go are on dirt roads that are awash with mud. Given all that, we decide after one day on Chiloe to go back to Bariloche. We may return in a few months but right now the rain has got the better of us and so we make the two day trip back to Bariloche. The rain stayed with us until we were back in Argentina and approaching Lake Nahuel Huapi.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Villa La Angostura and on to San Martin de Los Andes

Our first day was an easy drive to Villa La Angostura, located halfway between Bariloche and San Martin de los Andes. Spanish for “narrowness – ville”, the village sits on the northwest shore of Lake Nahuel Huapi inside Nahuel Huapi National Park. It is very similar to Bariloche in that the architecture follows the stylized Alpine wooden type of buildings and there is a preponderance of artisanal stores selling products like beer, chocolate and delis stocked with smoked salmon and trout and lots of cheese and pates. It was actually declared a disaster area two years ago when a volcano eruption in Chile dumped a massive amount of ash on the area. Since then there has been a huge cleanup campaign and only here and there do you see the remnants of the devastation. Our destination is a campground to the east of town at the edge of Lake Correntoso. We had stayed here before in December when we made a trip to Isla Chiloe in Chile so we knew it was a great place to spend a few days and get used to being on the road again. The campground is owned and managed by the indigenous Mapuche and is a little rundown but since we are fairly self sufficient in the motorhome, that part doesn’t matter and its location by the lake is beautiful. We spend a relaxing couple of days just hanging out, reading, playing with Winston and catching up on some chores. The weather stays sunny and fairly warm until our third day and the clouds start amassing over the lake. Time to move on. We head north and then just as the Andes begin to loom higher in front of us, we turn onto a dirt road to begin a climb up past gorgeous, glistening glacier lakes and rivers fed by the Andean snow. Keeping the Andes on our left, we stay on the dirt road that is known locally as “the route of seven lakes”. The terrain is subantarctic and is lush thanks to the huge rainfall and snow melt that it receives. The 110 km drive (about 70 miles) takes about three hours with plenty of photo stops along the way. We had planned to stay a couple of days in San Martin de los Andes but the only campground in town was just to the north but was really not that pleasant. Belonging to ACA (Automobile Club de Argentina) it was just a dirt and gravel area with a small stream running down its side where the tent camping was located. Motorhomes were parked by the fence at the main road so traffic was audible most of the time as this is one of the busy routes for trucks entering Chile. After getting parked, level and plugged in, we decide to spend just one night here and get further north. When I was here with Mariano and Marcela in February, we had eaten at El Regional, a cerveceria/restaurant serving artisanal beers and local regional cuisine. At that time I had had a “guisa”, a type of casserole topped with pastry and filled with tender chunks of venison with vegetables. I had mentioned it to Tom who since then has wanted to try it. We walked, fed and played with Winston and then asked for a taxi to take us the short distance into town and El Regional. We both ordered the guisa and Tom agreed with me that it was delicious and oh so filling. That, accompanied with a bottle of Argentinean Malbec wine was enough to send us happily back to the motorhome for the night and to an exuberant Beagle who received a little of the venison.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Tom Returns

After the overlanders left there were only a few days left before Tom arrived back. I shopped, cleaned and generally prepared the RV, not just for him getting back but also for our eventually departure and to start traveling again. I knew he was going to bring back a new radiator that we wanted to install before leaving Bariloche and also other parts that we were okay leaving to be replaced until getting into Chile. When Tom got back, I can honestly say that I think Winston could not believe his eyes. With our leaving and my returning alone, in the past two months I think Winston thought his “dad” was gone, missing, who knows where. When he saw Tom, he went into his crazy “I missed you so much” routine. He yelped, howled, screeched and bayed. Ran, chased and ran some more. I think Tom was also glad to be back, although he did not run around howling. I know Tom misses the States more than me. Outside of kids and family, I couldn’t care less about being in America, whereas Tom misses many of the comforts of home – the availability of produce, Home Depot, certain restaurants, REI, his favorite things, and so on. But traveling is a lot of fun despite all the trials and tribulations and I know he missed the fun parts like meeting up again with Mariano and Marcela both here in Bariloche and my trip to San Martin de Los Andes with them and just generally being on the road. Nahuel and Sonya dropped by, as did Val and Alexandra and Juan. There is also a family from Venezuela at the campgrounds and two families from the Mendoza area of Argentina. Have I ever mentioned how guys who RV travel, love to fix things and help other people fix things? As soon as the Venezuelans knew we had to install a radiator, they were offering to help. Raul and his wife Yadira along with a friend are from the Merida area of Venezuela. Although they own farmland, Raul knows a lot about mechanics. In fact on their monster-sized RV, they have a back rack installed to carry their three motorcycles and spare parts. That night, we chatted with them about our experiences in Venezuela – all good – and the recent death of President Chavez and what it might mean for the country. Since they are traveling they can’t worry about it and it will be a few more months before they plan on returning. They are hoping everything will be sorted out by then. They were also true to their word and the next day our radiator was installed and running well. The following day they leave to go south and bike riding on the Carretera Austral but not before exchanging contact information and entrusting to us with two motorcycle tires. We will carry them to Mendoza and drop them off for one of the Argentinean families who had been camped next to them. After 4 months our time in Bariloche is coming to an end. On our last night, we cooked a traditional assado for Nahuel, Sonya, Val, Alexandra and Juan. We are grateful for all their help especially Nahuel and Sonya who had arranged for care for Winston and the motorhome while we were in the States. We will miss them and hope that one day we will meet back up with them or they will visit us. But, we can’t deny the fact that we are more than ready to continue our journey and also to get further north to some warmer weather.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Back in Bariloche and a group of overlanders.

After Marcela, Mariano and Pelusa dropped us back at Bariloche, Winston and I settled into the same routine as before. We would take walks on the beach, to the park and store and socialize with people both camping around us and who live at Petunia. Just for a change of pace, I would go into the town of Bariloche to check out the stores and have lunch somewhere. The campground is much quieter now as we are approaching mid February. It is also my birthday and it felt strange spending it alone. I cooked a good Argentinean steak with salad and mushrooms and even picked up a small chocolate dessert. I also got our taxes completed and submitted online. For the record, I filed right before Presidents Day weekend in the States and, via direct deposit we received our California state tax refund in 5 working days and the federal in 13. I would term that as quite efficient. And so the days were passing until…there I was one day down by the office on the internet when a pickup camper with California license plates drove past me, and then another with Washington plates, and then a third with Florida plates. Huh!! As I walked back to the RV, I passed the one from Washington. A young woman beside it asked me if I had the American RV. When I said yes, she introduced herself. Lauren and her husband James have driven the west coast down from the States. She then told me that within the next two days, possibly 10 vehicles with maybe about 25 people would be arriving. Mostly Americans but with a spattering of Germans and South Africans, driving the same route as us. Sure enough, within two days the original 6 had grown to over 20 people, mostly young Americans travelling in camper-style pickups. There was a couple from South Africa with two children Jessica and Keelan, who loved hanging out in the motorhome with myself and Winston, a few Germans and one couple who was backpacking and staying in hostels and cabanas. I admit I infiltrated amongst them. Hungry for English conversation, hungry for American companionship and hungry for information about the route back up the west coast of South America. Having come down the east coast, Tom and I are in the minority. Most overlanders arrive at Cartagena, Colombia and hang a right down the Pacific not turn left along the Caribbean coast and then south through Venezuela and Brazil. There was a huge assado (barbeque) planned for that Sunday. Permission was asked for and received from Juan and a pit was dug. A whole lamb, a whole pig and a full rack of beef ribs were on the menu. One of the ladies Jessica had a sign-up sheet for appetizers, sides and desserts. I offered to bring an appetizer plate of Patagonian delights. Smoked ciervo (venison), smoked trout and smoked jabali (a type of wild boar), in addition to cheeses and pates. However the evening before after much wine was consumed, someone mentioned roasted garlic potatoes. Having imbibed and shared much of that wine, I readily offered to make them. Thankfully, I did get help peeling all the potatoes. I also offered our oven for Lauren and Jill to make cookies for dessert. I can only add that the assado was amazing, the side dishes were excellent and there was enough food left for the following day. What a treat and I don’t mean just the food!! The amount of wine consumed was also copious and come Monday morning I don’t think I was the only person lagging a little. Monday and Tuesday passed by with more sharing of experiences, emails, food and wine. By Wednesday everyone had left and I felt a little sad but having exchanged contact information with most of them, there is a possibility that I will meet some of them again on the trail. It is now only a few more days before Tom gets back from the States. The overland gang was sorry to have missed him and hopes to meet up with us sometime in the months ahead.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Quina Quila.

It is our last day in San Martin de Los Andes and although still cloudy the rain has stopped and there is now only a brisk breeze blowing. Mariano has already done a lot of driving and tomorrow we go home which for them will be about 13 hours of drive time. We have spent very little time in San Martin itself so decide we will stay close to town. Mariano suggests driving to Villa Quila Quina for lunch and then come back to town to check out the shops. Sounds like a great idea and so once again we get ourselves and the dogs together for the day. Although only 18 km (12 miles) from San Martin, Quila Quina is a world away from the bustle and tourist atmosphere of San Martin. Access to the tiny village is either by boat or road and although the boat sounds fun, since we have the dogs we will take the car. It is no sooner than we make the climb up from San Martin that we make the turn to go back down the other side of the mountain into the village. The road is steep and narrow as we twist down the winding road to the edge of Lake Lacar. There are a couple of small boats bobbing at the dock and a few people milling around but that is all. However, there is a restaurant serving amazing seafood that is quite busy. We decide to eat first and explore afterwards. The food was delicious with fresh fish and side dishes. We then collected the dogs and walked along the lake edge, away from the few houses that make up the village. As the dogs ran and played in the water, we passed families picnicking, and a corral full of horses that we presumed you could hire. There were a few stands selling Mapuche handmade items which we browsed but mainly we stayed close to the lake and let the dogs run. At lake edge there are some beautiful old cypress type trees with huge gnarled trunks and exposed roots which spread into the lake itself. They were fascinating to check out. We also passed a gorgeous, well-tended garden belonging to a local Mapuche family. The well planted array of lilies, orchids, roses and flowering cacti were vivid in color and variety. Reluctantly we left so we could get back to San Martin in time to do a little shopping. After such a fantastic few days, I wanted to buy Mariano and Marcela a Thank you gift. Mariano went to the clothes store that sells his favorite brand of clothing, Patagonia, while Marcela and I browsed the artisan shops. She found a beautiful scarf made from rabbit fur and embroidered braided material in white, which she loved but thought too expensive. As she went to look at another store, I went back and had the lady gift wrap it for me. I met back up with Marcela who was buying a few small items as gifts for her housekeeper. Mariano was easy to buy for. One of his passions is cooking and cookbooks, so I went to a bookstore I had seen and got him two local cookbooks. Mariano met back up with us, he had purchased a shirt and some pants, both Patagonia brand. Everyone seemed pleased with their respective purchases. After we had showered and dressed for dinner, we opened a bottle of wine at the cabana and toasted our trip and one another. I gave Marcela and Mariano their gifts, which they loved and Mariano surprised us with a present each. In one of the artisan stores he had seen us look at some handmade toothpicks in a decorative holder to be used when serving appetizers but we had decided not to buy them. He had went later and picked up a set for each of us. I couldn’t help but feel the warm glow that comes around good friends who appreciate and have fun in each other’s company and to think if our transmission had not broken down for a second time in Rada Tilly, we would never have met them. God truly operates in mysterious ways.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Cascada Chachin & Hua Hum

The morning of our second day in San Martin found our weather to be much of the same with gusty winds and intermittent but heavy rains. Undeterred Mariano selected another route this time though not quite as far as yesterday which will take us past the small village of Yuko, Lakes Lacar and Nonithue, up to the border area with Chile known as Hua Hum. However our main objective is to do the short hike to Cascada Chachin. The waterfall comes from the snow melt that creates the Chachin River and Lake Queni. At this point, from an elevation of about 625 meters, it cascades over a stretch of the Andes into Lake Nonthue. A total round trip of 96 km or about 60 miles but still on dirt roads made muddy and slippery due to the rain. We bundle up in warm clothing and make sure that we have a spare towel for drying the dogs who are quite excited at the prospect of another day of jumping through puddles and going on walks. On the way up, we pass many cars coming in the other direction. One waves us down and tells Mariano that the road ahead is horrendous and that we will need four-wheel drive. I suggest turning round but Mariano thinks the jeep can make it and decides to give it a try. Making our way through puddles, ruts and past the small occasional landslide we drive past the pampas or plateau and up into the mountains, stopping only to give the dogs a quick walk. After making the turn onto yet another side road even more rutted than the last, we eventually came to the trail head leading to the falls. At this point we are only about 4km from Paso Hua Hum at the Chilean border. From here we have to walk and fortunately for us, the rain has stopped and the wind abated. Also the dogs are allowed on the trail with us. Stopping along the way to check out the different types of trees like the Maniu which only grows where the rainfall exceeds 3,000mm per year, fauna, ferns and some incredible fungi, we made our way slowly up the trail. The old trees with huge masses of entangled roots that mark their place in the mountains help show the natural state of the area. Occasionally there are openings between the trees where the wonders of the lake and mountains beyond are revealed with incredible views. After only 20 minutes or so, we reached the viewing platforms for the falls. The falls are quite amazing but more than that is the silence, broken only by the sound of water. It was as though we had arrived at some secret spot known and revered only to the indigenous Mapuche. It was at that moment I was glad we had persevered. What a place. On the way back to the car, I kept turning 360 degrees to absorb the magic of the area. On the way back to San Martin, we were all glad we had kept to our plan and made it. Cascada Chachin is definitely worth the trip.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Lanin National Park, Pehuen forest, El Escorial and Termas de Lahuen

When we got up the next morning, those ominous clouds from yesterday had formed into a full blown storm. With blustery winds and some fairly heavy rain at times, we reviewed our options and decided to keep to our plan and go into Lanin National Park to the border pass into Chile at Paso Carirrine. It is 160 km (100 mile) round trip but Mariano is ok with the drive. Lanin Park, established in 1937 to preserve the north Patagonian Andean forest is the 3rd largest park in Argentina, covering an area of over one million acres. It is bordered on the west by Chile and to the south by Nahuel Huapi National Park. As we turn west halfway between San Martin de los Andes and Junín de los Andes along a dirt road, which today is quite muddy, we head deep into the temperate rainforest of the park. The topography is interesting, transitioning from pampa to smaller, rolling hills and then the majestic Andes. One of the most notable peaks to be seen is the Lanín volcano. Its impressive height of 3,776 meters (over 12,000 ft) means it towers over every other nearby mountain, making it the focal point from every angle. The magnificent peak is further accentuated by its permanent covering of snow. As we climb higher we pass Lakes Curruhue Chico and then Curruhue Grande. With no break in the rain, we decide to stop and walk the dogs by a small waterfall which drains from Laguna Verde into Lake Curruhue Grande. This is also an Araucaria forest. Araucaria trees (also known as Peheun or Monkey Puzzle trees) are an evergreen conifer pine indigenous to the temperate rainforests of Argentina along the eastern slopes of the Andes. The species is officially protected in Argentina and is a little different from the national tree of Chile, which is also a species of monkey puzzle tree found in that country's south central regions. Threatened by fire, logging and grazing, the tree grows to about 45 meters in height (140 feet) and lives up to a thousand years in the volcanic soils. They produce edible seeds which are prized for their high carbohydrate content and were an important part of the diet of the Pehuenche people who once inhabited the area. Hence their name as the Pehuen tree. I happen to think that these are one of the most fascinating trees in the world. The foliage which stick out from all kinds of crazy angles hang exactly like monkey’s tails although these are thick, bushy and green, many with pods on the tip. By the time we had finished walking to the waterfall and photographing the trees, we were all thoroughly wet and cold. We quickly toweled off the dogs as best we could and scrambled back into the jeep, where Mariano turned on the heat and we thawed out a little. Our next stop is at El Escorial, an ancient river of petrified lava rock. Along the road there is a bridge built over the rock to show where the lava flowed over the road and down the canyon. From the car we can see it beneath us and all around us and there is still evidence of where it decimated everything in its path and then solidified. It was quite formidable and is a sobering reminder of the devastation an eruption can bring to an area. From this point it is only a short drive to the Termas del Epulafquen, the thermal hot springs. Access is down a rutted road which we missed the first time and it was only when we were a kilometer or so from the Chilean border pass of Carirrine that Mariano turned around and driving even more slowly than previous, eventually spotted a dilapidated sign pointing the way down a hill. Just a few years ago, this was a spa and resort hotel that offered luxury amenities. I am guessing it didn’t work out. Today, the hotel is abandoned and of the seven thermal pools, only two small ones remain, one of which was surprisingly inhabited by a local Mapuchean family. We walked over the rickety wooden walkway to the pools and Marcela took my photograph as I tested the water with my hand. “Would you go in if we had brought swimsuits?” she asked me. I told her I would. I mean we had come all this way and the water felt marvelous considering the cold, rainy weather. Besides the local family looked like they were having fun although I think they were surprised to see us. As we got back in the jeep to head home, we pondered on ways that would make the thermals into a successful business enterprise. Given the remoteness and the difficulty of getting there, we concluded that the only way to make money was to turn it into an exclusive high dollar resort whereby guests were flown in by helicopter and treated to a sumptuous, elegant retreat that only the very rich could afford. Since we do not have the funds for such an expensive venture, we laid the economics to rest and took on the easier task of deciding where to eat dinner. The night before we had eaten at La Tasca, a favorite of Mariano and Marcela. We had checked restaurants on the internet and talked about our choices. We decided on Ku, another upscale parrilla style restaurant. We arrived back at the cabana with plenty of time for Mariano to take a quick nap and Marcela and I to check out our emails and get ready for dinner. After such a long day and with plenty of walks fortunately even the dogs are content to relax as the rain and winds continue.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

San Martin de los Andes at Carnival

After saying a fond “adios” to Luis Felipe, Cristobal and the others, Mariano loaded our luggage into the jeep along with the dogs and we took off for our 4 days in San Martin de los Andes. Along the way, to better improve my Spanish, Marcela had me read from the newspaper about things to do and restaurant reviews for San Martin de Los Andes. I had to read and then translate what I thought I was reading. Pronunciation was corrected as was my interpretation of the article. Only when Marcela was satisfied, could I move on. I think both Mariano and I heaved a sigh of relief after the ordeal but I know that this is really the only way to move ahead in my Spanish. I was also distracted because of the amazing scenery. We were traveling along the road known as the “Route of the Seven Lakes”. Shortly after leaving Villa La Angostura, the road is unpaved gravel which gets quite sinuous as it climbs into the Andes. As we get higher in elevation, the views just get more and more outstanding. We can also see some quite ominous clouds gathering over the mountains which would seem to be a pre-cursor for storms in the next few days. Two hours of driving from Bariloche gets us into the small but bustling town of San Martin de los Andes. Founded in 1898 on lands that belonged to the Mapuche Indians, this charming mountain town of 35,000 or so inhabitants is located on the tip of Lago Lácar between high mountain peaks. The town is considered the tourism capital of the Neuquen province and that is believable judging by the quantity of arts-and-crafts shops, gear-rental places, restaurants and hotels that make up much of the downtown area. San Martin has grown considerably in the past few years, but a city law that limits building height and regulates architectural style means the town has kept its quaintness and mountain, village-like atmosphere. It is also the starting point for entering Lanin National Park where we intend to do some sightseeing in the next few days. It is way past lunch time and we can’t check into our cabana until 3pm, so Mariano suggests some lunch. We walk the dogs along the lakeside for a while and then eat at La Costa. The town is busy with tourists due to Carnival and although crammed, we are shown to a table and the service was attentive. Afterwards it is time to check into our cabana. When Marcela and Mariano had made the reservation, the first comment was that no pets were allowed. Then they said that small pets were okay. Mariano registered us and as we walked to our unit, the manager checked us out. “That” she said pointing to Pelusa who is a Jack Russell terrier “is a small dog and that” as she stared at Winston “is not”. The lady was very good natured about it and just reminded us to keep the dogs on leash through the grounds. The cabana was super. Three stories, with living area, dining, kitchen and a bathroom on the ground floor, a queen bed suite with sitting area and bathroom on the second and a third floor with 4 twin beds and bath. After checking out the place Marcela and Mariano wanted me to have the queen bed suite. “That’s nonsense” I said “Winston and I will be fine on the third floor”. It took a little persuading but finally they came to my way of thinking. As I settled into the room at the top, I was elated. Here I am with great friends who have invited me on a fabulous 4 day adventure of new sights, great restaurants and some relaxation and Winston got to come too. Fantastic!

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Blessings in Disguise

I settled into a routine that worked for both Winston and me. He could not be let off leash at the campsite, so I would walk him in the morning and then after breakfast we would walk to the local tiendas for groceries. After that we would hang around the campsite with forages to the beach and local parks. The campsite is busy and we have plenty of people camping around us. The one good thing happening is that my Spanish is improving by leaps and bounds. One couple Daniel and Ana, after learning that I was alone invited me to an assado at their campsite which was really enjoyable. I spent a delightful evening with them over a wonderful meal that Daniel cooked. Nahuel and his wife Sofia, Val and Alexandra, the workers at the campsite and Juan the owner are all solicitous in checking on Winston and me and making sure I do not get too lonely. Mariano and Marcela called and let me know that there is vacation time approaching. Carnival, the five days before Lent is a huge holiday in Argentina, so they have time from work. Their intent is to go to another town in the mountains, San Martin de los Andes and Winston and I are invited. They emailed and called the campsite for me to be ready. They will arrive Saturday and after spending the night we will travel to San Martin where they will rent a cabana for all of us, dogs included. I checked in with Juan to be sure all is ready for their arrival. During that week, a group of five guys arrived at Petunia and set up their site next to mine. From their car I knew they were from Chile and they seemed good natured and introduced themselves to me. A couple of days later I needed to go into town to the post office to collect a new electricity converter that Tom had sent from the States. My new Chilean neighbors offered to drive me. Luis Felipe and Cristobal would take me while the other three stayed at camp with Winston. Driving to town we chatted about family and background. They knew about Tom and asked if I had children. I said that we have two, a son Daniel and a daughter, Nicole. Making conversation, I then commented that I presumed they were single since they were vacationing with friends. There was a distinct silence and then Luis turned – he was also driving, by the way – and said “yes, I guess you could say we are single, we are priests”. More silence while I took a few seconds to mull this over. “Um, priests, like Catholic priests? I finally asked. Luis laughed and then said “well yes, though actually not all of us. I am a deacon with a parish in Santiago, Cristobal will be a priest in a couple of months and the other three are friends from the seminary”. Now, I am trying to think back and hope to heck I haven’t cursed in their presence. “But seriously, you are priests, I never would have guessed” I think I was stuttering. In all sincerity, I have never hung out with priests before and they definitely did not look like priests. They are young and dressed in shorts, T-shirts and well, are just like regular young men. After assuring me they were indeed truly priests, I admonished them. “You guys have to give people warning, like wear a priest collar or something, just to give us lay people a heads up”. Both Luis and Cristobal were laughing really hard by the time I was finished with my warning spiel. And so was I. And so started a great friendship. Both Tom and I are Catholic and over the next few days I broached many subjects with my new friends – the role of the church with our young people, the evolving nature of the church and the controversial issues of Catholics who choose to live together but not marry (of whom we know many), gays who are committed to one another and who are Catholic but trying to find their place in our religion (being from the Bay Area we know some) and on whether priests should be allowed to marry. I can only say from the responses that these are dedicated, reasonable men whom the Catholic Church should be honored to have in their midst. They are smart, educated and tolerant and understand that changes will likely happen within our religion albeit slowly. That Saturday, Marcela and Mariano are due to arrive and I will barbeque for everyone. Now, in a country of barbeque (parrilla) cooking, Tom has always done the outside cooking, so it was only after I grandly announced my intentions to cook that I realized I was not even sure how to light the fire. Priests to the rescue. Cristobal, as it turns out is a master at the grill. Thank goodness. After the grill was lit and we had opened some wine, they asked if I knew what time Marcela and Mariano would arrive, “Not sure”, I replied. They are coming from Comodoro Rivadavia, and that is 10 hours driving time, or so. It was then Luis shyly came up and said “We have a gift for you”. They then presented me with a small statue. “It is blessed,” said Luis Felipe, “and also we would like to bless you and the motorhome”. He produced a small bottle of water. I am not going to blame the wine but before I could stop myself, I started laughing “Gosh Luis, thank you but to bless me and the motorhome maybe you should bless the lake and run a hose here and douse us both” In my defense after all the mechanical problems we have had, the lake seemed more apropos. Luis also laughed but assured me more was not better and proceeded with the blessing. And so it was that as I was standing still and with Luis Felipe doing the blessing and incantation, Mariano and Marcela arrived. “What’s going on?” asked Marcela as she checked out Luis and me. “Shh!” I admonished her “Me, Winston and the RV are getting blessed”. Nonplussed comes to mind. Maybe she thinks I’m losing my mind with Tom being gone. I then introduce her to Luis Felipe, Cristobal and the others and explained the situation and the circumstances leading up to the current events. A glass of excellent Malbec also helped her – it had been a long drive. “Well, that kind of explains it, I guess,” she begrudgingly gave me. In the meantime Mariano was helping Cristobal at the grill. Pretty soon, everyone was chatting and behaving as comfortable friends should, although Marcela could not resist one last dig. “Only you”, she said, “only you could attract such a diverse group of people and by the way…are these really priests?” I could only laugh. We enjoyed a fabulous assado accompanied by plenty of excellent Argentinean Malbec. Tomorrow, Marcela, Mariano and I, with the two dogs will go to San Martin de los Andes and so will Luis Felipe and the others but since we will be staying at different places, we may not see them again. Well not this time but soon. Luis Felipe will be ordained in April at the Cathedral in Santiago to his new parish and I have told him that we will try to attend. In the meantime on this beautiful star-filled night I can only truly Thank God for providing me with the gift of returning friends and the meeting of new ones. Friendships really are life’s blessing in disguise.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Los Arrayanes National Park, Isla Victoria and Llao Llao Hotel.

To say that Winston was thrilled to see me would be a huge understatement. The boy went crazy. It took me a couple of days to settle in and recover from jetlag, the arduous flight back and finding a routine that worked for myself and Winston. It was strange after 3 plus years of togetherness not to have Tom around. After all we had gotten used to just the two of us, in a small space and moving to another city whenever we felt like it. Marcela and Mariano knew I had returned alone so I received an email saying they would visit the following weekend. Our goal is to visit another national park and to have dinner at the Llao Llao Hotel. I am looking forward to seeing them again and immediately booked one of the cabanas for their arrival. Los Arrayanes National Park and Isla Victoria are only accessible by boat or by hiking 13 miles from the town of Villa La Angostura, located about 60 miles from Bariloche on the other side of the lake. It did not take too much thought or time to decide that we would opt for the boat ride, which leaves from Puerto Panuelo. On our way, we passed the small capilla of San Eduardo. The beautiful log and stone chapel with its gorgeous stained glass windows depicting religious scenes was built in 1938 by the architect Bustillo, who also designed the nearby and equally amazing Hotel Llao Llao. The chapel is considered to be one of the most popular places to hold a wedding in the country. We also pass the sumptuous Hotel Llao Llao where we intend to have dinner later. There are a couple of boat companies that run the tours and we chose the Cau Cau simply because it fit into our schedule. The boat is also called Cau Cau, which I think means a type of large gull. On the way to Los Arrayanes, the boat company invites people to the open top deck and to attempt to lure the seagulls which are following us, with pieces of bread and crackers. The idea is to hold your hand up and a gull will swoop down and take the offering from your hand. Naturally they have a couple of photographers ready to catch this, so they can sell you the photo. Hmm. It did not take us long to realize that statistically the odds of catching a gull in the act, so to speak was slender. Yep, you probably guessed – Photoshop!! They capture the person holding up the food and then from an assortment of gull photos, do a “cut and paste” job. Gimmicky, touristy, kitschy but from the number of people who ordered one, profitable. We can only hope the rest of the boat trip is better. First stop, Los Arrayanes National Park. This small park, located on the Quetrihue Peninsula was established to protect the Arrayanes trees, a type of cypress. The bright, cinnamon colored bark and the extraordinary shape of the trunk and branches are what make these trees so unique. The park, itself has easily accessible walkways and the self guided tour was enjoyable. This is also the same forest that is rumored to be the area where Disney perceived the idea for Bambi. This is story is perpetuated throughout the area and many Argentineans believe it to be true, including Marcela. She was quite disappointed when the tour guide announced that this is just a myth, a tale that somehow came about and just won’t go away. Despite that, we all enjoyed our walk through the forest, admiring the centuries old trees. From there, it was back on board to Puerto Anchorena on Isla Victoria. We were treated to a walk with an English speaking guide through a part of the island. The guide was fairly knowledgeable as long as you don’t ask too many questions! That threw him off his learned speech and outside of that, he could not answer some of my questions regarding the history of the island, native birds, trees and the like. I finally stopped asking and let him just conduct the tour. I can always look things up online later. From some of the higher elevations though, we did get fabulous panoramic views of the lakes and mountains. There was also a coffee shop to get drinks and snacks. The 40 minute ride back to the mainland concluded the five hour tour. All I can add is that for the cost, the tour was just like the seagull photos. Very touristy and expensive and with so many other things to see and do in the area, not really worth the time and money. Pelusa and Winston have been alone for much of the day and were very glad to see us return to Camping Petunia. That excitement diminished substantially when they realized we were leaving them again to go to dinner at the Hotel Llao Llao. The hotel is located to the west of Bariloche, in the foothills of the Andes on a hill between Nahuel Huapi and Moreno lakes and has quite a history. The original hotel was destroyed by fire soon after its completion in 1939. A year later Bustillo rebuilt it out of reinforced concrete and stone. The hotel was closed down in 1976 due to lack of funds to maintain it but in 1993 was bought, renovated and reopened. In 1999 the hotel became a member of “The Leading Hotels of the World” and has won many awards since its re-opening, including "Best Hotel and Resort in Argentina" in 1999. When you see this hotel the term “location, location, location” comes to mind. The setting, the grounds and the views from the large windows throughout the lobby and ground floor are truly spectacular. The entrance is massive and made from stone and wood. Adjectives like lavish, opulent, grand and sumptuous come to mind to aptly describe the interior décor. Huge wood beams and columns dominate with gorgeous couches and chairs strategically placed to better enjoy the views. We had made reservations to eat in the restaurant “Assador”. As the name suggests, this is their parrilla and the food and service were outstanding. Mariano ordered the wine and we toasted our good fortune at being in such a beautiful place. The whole experience was so delightful that we decided to eat at one of the other restaurants in the hotel “Café Patagonia” the following night. If you go, you must order the ciervo (venison) empanadas. Without a doubt, hands down, the best empanadas – ever! The three days with Mariano and Marcela went by much too quickly and Monday morning found Winston and me by ourselves again but with more good memories of time spent with our friends from Rada Tilly.