Patagonia 2010 part 2

After two weeks in Esquel, working the details of the coming expedition, I was ready to head back to Buenos Aires. The plan was to drive through the Los Alerces National Park by the Ruta 71. Then get on the Ruta 258 until Bariloche and spend two nights at Estancia Arroyo Verde. From there head north to Copahue then east through the Wine Road of Neuquen, the Rio Negro Valley and La Pampa. I needed to be back in B.A. no later than Monday, as I was meeting the director of Fundacion Vida Silvestre and the director of Parques Nacionales on Tuesday. With the kayak strapped tight on the roof, provisions in the cooler and a full tank of gas, the buildings of Esquel gradually shrank in my rear-view mirror while the mountains in front of me, caped with fresh snow, became a bit more giant every minute.

The park was beautiful with a lush green forest of Alerces. Those trees, often called the Redwoods of the South, are one of the longest living trees in the world. From the Cupressaceae family, some trees are even 3,000 years old. A network of green emerald crystal clear rivers bordered by Arrayan trees connects several lakes. The sight was pure beauty, and passing by all this water, I couldn’t stop wishing I had more time to kayak it all. But with a deadline hanging over my shoulder, I watched the rivers come and go.

By lunchtime I was in El Bolson, just outside of Chubut Province, now in the province of Rio Negro. It is known for its fruits, as the place is a pure contrast to the industrialized fruit farms of the valley of Rio Negro. The inhabitants, mostly from a series of European immigrations, still practice a simple and sustainable lifestyle. Aside from finding exquisite jam, the town is a jewel of craftsmanship and food delicacy. Smoked trout, home-brewed beer, chocolate and ice cream are only a sample of the local specialties.

The day was coming to an end as I drove through the Enchanted Valley past Bariloche. Volcanic rock carved by millions of years of Patagonian rain and wind have transformed the slopes into architectural marvels. Unfortunately, with the sun going down, I watched them disappear rapidly–first becoming silhouettes and then totally vanishing in their surrounding shadows. Engulfed between giant black walls, I watched the sky above illuminated with a carousel of blues and oranges. The dark blanket from the valley soon extended its reach and before I could finish absorbing the beauty of it all, the night was now reigning. Shortly after, I was arriving at Estancia Arroyo Verde.

Nestled between the Andes and the famous Traful river in  Nahuel Huapi National Park,Estancia Arroyo Verde is pure wild fly-fishing and horseback riding country. I am here because the world is really small (in Argentina) and once you know a person or two, you start to be invited everywhere. The land has been owned by the Lariviere family for more than 70 years. Although the place was originally a summer retreat (which over the years saw the likes of President Eisenhower, King Leopold of Belgium, the Infanta Cristina of Spain), in 1987, Meme Lariviere opened it to the public, making it the first official destination Estancia in Patagonia, and only the third in all of Argentina. Today, the lodge is known worldwide for its top-notch fly fishing.  With over 10 miles of fresh water river, rainbow and brown trouts coexist with the legendary wild Land-Locked salmon. The place is such prime real estate that the owner across the river is no other than CNN tycoon and fly-fishing fanatic, Ted Turner.

The morning after my arrival, with the sun still hiding behind the mountains, I took a stroll to the pond. While the water was perfectly still, mirroring every tiny detail to such a degree that it was easy to forget which way was up, a kingfisher perched on a branch, looked with a fierce eye for any slight movement, a minuscule ripple or a small moving shadow. Winter was showing signs of arrival, the golden grass in the field was covered in crystallized dew. The minutes passed. And passed.

The sun was now warming up the entire valley when I suddenly heard a giant rumble. It didn’t take me long to know what it was. I sprang up and started to run toward the source and there they were, coming in full force… horses. The gauchos had gone to get them in the morning from roaming the land so they would be ready for tomorrow’s big event–rounding up all the cattle for winter. Since I was leaving on that day, the best I could do was ride them in the afternoon. That evening, I sat in the living room and wandered through family photos, fishing trophies and shelves filled with history. I had been blessed by Meme’s hospitality and it was such a privilege to be welcomed in her house. The next morning, sitting at the breakfast table, enjoying the Larivieres for one last time before I departed, they handed me the big day log and told me to write my name in it. I was only a guest of a friend, yet they were asking me to be part of a long legacy that featured some of the most influential people on the planet. I profoundly thanked them, took the pen and on the fifth page after Ted Turner’s visit on April Fourth, I wrote my goodbyes. On the way out, Meme took my arm and told me that on May fourth, she was having her birthday in Buenos Aires. If I could come, she would introduce me to the Senator of the province of Corrientes–where the Ibera Esteros are located, and she knew it would be beneficial for me. I told her it would be an honor.

The Nahuel Huapi National Park is another amazing park with a mixture of razor-edged mountains, evergreen rain forest and vast land of deciduous trees, which at this time of the year turned the park into an endless sea of red, yellow and orange patches. It was with no hesitation that I decided to take the road less frequented, the one that would take me through the prettiest part of the park. Little did I know what I was getting myself into. Sinuously wending through the park on the dirt road, leaving behind a cloud of red dust, abrupt walls leading to a series of high peaks on my left and daggered rock formations to my right. Taking sharp turns, driving up the hill over another, then down again, huge pebbles spat out from underneath the tires, I have to admit I didn’t really feel confident in my small Ford EcoSport, with an 18-foot loaded kayak on my head. My mind sat on the edge of anxiousness, torn between the magical scenery and the potential hazards of back country driving with a rental car. I crossed all my fingers that I would make it without a scratch, a flat tire, a broken strap or a cracked windshield. Being able to count all the cars seen in one day on one hand, this was not the place for emergency stops. It was such a relief when the wheels hit the paved road at San Martin de los Andes!

The next stop was Caviahue, near the Copahue volcano. Another friend of a friend was waiting for my visit, the last one before my return to the big city. The landscape around the Andes is so drastic that by going just 10 miles east, you’ll go from rainforest to steppes. This was direction in which I was driving. Miles and miles of flat land, cut with stratified hills and deep canyons. Over the horizon, to my left, the Lanin volcano, with its 12,300 feet, stood tall and alone, its peak poking at the blue sky. The schedule for the next two days was to have a look at the natural hot springs, photograph the Salto del Agrio and scout for locations for a potential winter photoshoot, when everything would be covered in snow except for the Monkey Puzzle trees. The area has been visited by the natives as a therapeutic destination for centuries. The name Copahue means sulfur in Mapuche. In 1865, an argentinean doctor reached an agreement with the local chief and started bringing his patients. He brought international recognition to the springs and himself after curing a patient with tuberculosis. According to local information, the springs are one of just three hydrothermal centers in the world.

The Agrio river finds its origin in the volcano and flows across the Province of Neuquen before it merges into the Rio Negro. With its milky water, due to high concentration of sulfuric acid, the river cuts through a steamy snowy plateau before cascading down through a series of seven falls (Cascada del Rio Agrio) and into the lake. From there, it journeys down onto an intense red bedrock and between the prehistoric Araucarias–living fossil trees with scale-like leaves. Falling 200 feet down at the Salto del Agrio, the river continues to flow in an impressive valley 1,000 feet wide and at a least 3,000 feet high. But after a mud bath in the wild, and an algae wrap at the village, it was time to hit the road once again.

With not much time left, I decided to drive straight to Buenos Aires. In all honesty, there were two things I wanted to avoid; driving through the Pampa during the day, and arriving in the city during traffic hours (the place is mad!). Driving non-stop would take me to B.A. around 4 a.m. The perfect time! The only problem was that I was empty on gas and learned that there were no gas stations in the village. The closest one was Loncopue, 40 miles away. I barely had enough. Thank God the road was going down all the way! Arriving at Loncopue, I pulled in the station, relieved. A young man standing by the pump started to wave his finger in the air as if to insinuate that I had no right to be there. Beside another man who was standing next to him and a school bus in the other lane, I didn’t know what he meant. I pulled my window down and asked him what the problem was. “No gas,” he answered!!

WHAT??? How could this be? I mean, this was a fairly big village, with a modern gas station, how could there be no gas? The main tank was empty and the next re-fueling truck would not show up before Tuesday! Great! And apparently this happens every single week! I started to explain my situation but nothing I would do would change this seemingly unrealistic fact. After explaining over and over again that I needed to find gas (modern world dependency!), the gentlemen who was standing by, and who happened to be the village school bus driver, offered to sell me 10 liters, which he told me would be enough to get Las Lajas, where gas would be available. I followed him to his house. There, he opened his parked car trunk and pulled out a long hose. With one end in the car tank, he drained two big jars, which he poured back in my car. After thanking and paying him, I drove away hoping that the next village would finally have gas. Another 40 miles later, I wiped the sweat off my forehead as I stepped out of the car, took the pump handle and filled the tank with super!

I drove the next 1300 kilometers non-stop and was happy to arrive in Buenos Aires at precisely 4:30 a.m. The city was quiet, with no one in the streets. I could have not asked for more. Unloading everything and managing to put the kayak in the hall, nose down, I headed straight to bed. After a quick nap, I stepped out to do some errands. The car was parked right in front of the building and I had enough coins in the meters to last the afternoon… so I thought. When I came back, the car was gone. No way! Asking around, I found out that it had been towed because the meter ran out during the last 30 minutes. Beautiful! Here, since no one pays their tickets, there is no warning, no ticket at all. The minute the meter expires and you are not there, towing trucks are waiting, counting the seconds, and as soon the red marker appears, your wheels are gone. I will spare you the details of the adventure, only to say that the week was one I wish could be erased. Aside from the car being towed, I eventually returned it with not a single scratch. Except that while driving on the dirt roads, a rock shot through the rear bumper (if we can call that a bumper… Nowadays, they are just big pieces of plastic that break from anything) and made a hole. The rental company had no choice but to change the entire thing:damage $700US!