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.

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