Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Patagonia: Stumbling In

The land stretched out interminably in all directions, three hundred sixty degrees of horizon.  Looking carefully, the slight roundness of the ear was just visible, but nothing else.  No mountains, no trees, no buildings--just scrub brush, dirt, and the straightest road I had ever traveled.

The flat and vast estepa.
Routa Nacional 40 extended south from San Carlos de Bariloche in northern Patagonia, cutting directly across the estepa.  The land was flat and isolated, in many stretches occupied only by the road, an occasional line of barbed wire fence, and perhaps a guanaco or two.  The sky was huge, clear and deeply blue with all the variety of clouds arrayed at some point across the vista.  The seemingly barren landscape did much to highlight the inconsequentiality of three gringos, their compact SUV, and their true place in the universe.

We barreled onward at 100mph, driving always toward the heat shimmer on the horizon.  We had left Bariloche that morning.  There we experienced Argentine hospitality.  We were greeted by Kevin’s friends with gourds of mate in the morning and an asado that afternoon.  The choripan, a simple sausage and bread sandwich, was indescribably tasty, somewhere between a bratwurst and a spicy chorizo on excellent whole wheat rolls.  The steak was incredibly satisfying as well, carefully prepared by our asadors Diego and Craig.

Our stay was somewhat short-lived, though, as we purchased supplies, packed, and set out on the road once again.  We now approached Bajo Caracoles, stopping the car for photos as Cerro San Lorenzo crept into view on the horizon for the first time.  Overwhelmed with excitement, we snapped photos before continuing south to the tiny hamlet of Caracoles.

We parked near the only gas pump in the small community of not more than a dozen buildings.  I entered the hotel/convenience store/restaurant/gas station and queried the owner behind the bar:

¿Tiene nafta aquí?”

“No, no tenemos nafta,” he replied.

“¿En serio?  ¿No hay nafta?” I asked, somewhat surprised.

“No.  Ayer tuvimos, pero hoy no hay mas.”

Our exchange was rather unfortunate.  The town had run out of gas the preceding day.  Without gas here we would not have enough fuel to reach the trailhead and also get back out of the park.  We needed to find gas to make it to the mountain.

I relayed the news to Karsten as Kevin conversed a bit more, getting information on three other possible places for gas, one of which was inside the park boundary.  We decided to commit to entering the park and looking for gas there.

As we approached La Estancia Sierra Andia, our spirits plummeted.  While it was possible the one faded white-washed building in the middle of miles of estepa had gas, we were skeptical.  We approached the outpost slowly and were greeted by an exceptionally amicable Argentine man.

Tito had a full black beard and dark hair beneath his gray wool cap.  His dark blue pants and off-white t-shirt were dirtied from use, extending around his slight potbelly on an otherwise stocky but powerful frame.  He invited us in and introduced us to his companions, a thirty-something Brazilian woman and a wizened, weathered gaucho with clear blue eyes.

These three were the caretakers for the estancia, owned by a lawyer in Buenos Aires.  They confirmed that they did, in fact, have gas.  As Tito went to fetch it, we were treated to mate and tortas fritas, small fried cakes the size of a diner roll and similar to fluffy, slightly-less-sweet homemade donuts.

I accompanied Tito with the gas.  He placed a large jug on the roof of our car and siphoned the fuel by mouth into the tank.  I helped him tidy up and we then escaped the wind back into the building and the warmth of its wood burning stove.  Our transaction complete, we stayed for mate, conversing a while about their time in the park, and telling them of our plans for climbing Cerro San Lorenzo.  The general consensus was that we were crazy, but they were friendly nonetheless.  We watched a few minutes of “The Fast and the Furious” together and finally departed an hour after our arrival.

We drove into the park and the waning daylight.  The full moon clearly detailed the landscape.  Plains lay behind, mountains ahead, and rabbits, guanacos, cows, horses, and birds in between.  I admired the beauty with growing excitement as we drew ever-closer to the mountains.  I marveled at the amazing people we had met thus far.  Their generosity was overwhelming; I was humbled.

Sunset entering Parque Nacional Perito Moreno.

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