23 January 2007


We arrived in Malargüe on Tuesday, at noon. We'd been instructed to call the number of the tourist agency from the bus station, so they could pick us up. Soon enough, a truck sent by the agency came by and took us outside town, into the countryside, to our hostel.

In truth I knew this hostel was in the middle of nowhere, and had tried to book a room in the other one (which is near the city center), but they didn't return my mails, so we left Rosario without a place to stay in Malargüe. The recepcionist in San Rafael could not reach the hostel either, so she turned to the other one. We thought it would be a huge problem. If God existed I would thank Her for that "problem".

The Hostel Internacional Malargüe is located about 6 km from the city center, in a patch of farmland with a few horses, a few dogs, lots of alfalfa, and the usual irrigation ditches. When we got there it was made up of two cabins made of cane, mud and wood, which is always cool even under the harsh sun of southern Mendoza, and stays warm in the night. A third cabin was the home of the owners, Johnny and Gaby, who were often in the city. Their younger offspring, a 2-year-old blond imp called Lucas, runs around the place (often with no clothes on) and, surprisingly, doesn't bother anyone, politely thanks you when appropriate, and is obviously not spoiled (this is easily achieved by letting the child watch little TV, giving him lots of natural space to play, and feeding him good homemade meals; or at least that's a start). There are a few solid tables and chairs, a TV and a DVD player (we used it only occasionally to listen to music and to watch an episode of The Simpsons). Roxy and Mabel work in the kitchen. I watched Roxy prepare kilos of bread for the mud oven, and couldn't get Mabel to give me her vegetable-and-chicken soup recipe.

At the head of the hostel, receiving the passengers and arranging everything, are our three informal goddesses, an Austrian named Kim and two Swedish named Lisa and Frida. The picture doesn't do them justice at all. You don't need to be a heterosexual male to appreciate these girls; they're much more than pretty blondes, to be sure, starting by the fact that they came from Europe to a backward and desertic part of a Third World country to work. They speak excellent Spanish, they sit down after dinner and drink beer along with you, they know who to ask when you have a question, and in general they're not your typical ho(s)tel staff.

There was also this sturdy Dutch guy called Jup (Joop?), who was working at the expansion of the hostel (they're making a platform for a kind of outdoors bar, among other things); Santiago, a friend of the hostel, frequent guest, problem-solver, and self-appointed legal representative of Kim, standing between her and her numerous fleeting suitors (a half-drunk porteño actually proposed to her one night — Santiago said "You must arrange that with me first"); and Ramón, who could be seen working all day at his own slow but steady pace along Jup.

On our first day we had no food with us, no time to cook anything (we'd hastily booked a trip to Llancanelo Lagoon at 2 PM), and so we had to rely on the hostel's meals. It seemed a bit expensive to pay 15 pesos for chicken, but anyway it wasn't ready yet; however, Mabel's marvelous vegetable soup was our salvation. Off we went to the lagoon. We climbed a small hill so we could see the 60-km-long shallow salty lake, and then we went down to watch the flamingos fly before sunset.

The following day we found ourselves with nothing to eat again, so we hired a taxi to go to town and buy some food (and water). The taxi was a shabby pickup truck driven by a middle-aged woman with a nice smile, and it charged us only 8 pesos to take us to the city center. We walked around the important places (not many — Malargüe City is small), rested a bit in the shade at the main square, beside a fountain, and purchased noodles, rice, tomato sauce, cooking oil, salt, paprika, an onion, oranges, carrots, and a 5-liter bottle of water.

Malargüe is the seat of the southern section of the Pierre Auger Observatory project, which is being jointly conducted by 19 countries to study high-energy cosmic rays. I don't know why Malargüe was chosen; maybe it's because it's high in the atmosphere, in an area with little human technological interference. Anyway, a guided visit was scheduled for 5 PM, so we waited as the town dozed off (the siesta is sacred) and, when we went back to the observatory, it turned out that the guided visit was in fact a lecture, and that the seats were all taken, mainly because a group of 20 or 30 nuns were touring Malargüe all together. We cursed those nuns so bad we should've been hit by lightning. We were very tired to wait, so we left.

We'd forgotten to book anything for the next day, so we had it free, and the prospect was extremely boring. I mean, the countryside is beautiful, but you can't admire the mountains and the bushes and the wilderness passively all day. So we inquired about the renowned dam on the Malargüe River, with its trout farm. It was expensive and not fun to hire a taxi to go there. We thought it over and said, what the heck, we have lots of water, good sunscreen, and legs, so off we went, after some quality breakfast, at 9:30 PM. We walked 3 or 4 km down the dirt road and along National Route 40, got to the river, refreshed our sore feet in it, and then turned away from the road and followed a dirt path for 4 km until the Blas Brisoli Dam.

This dam, unlike those we'd seen in San Rafael, doesn't have a large reservoir; it's mainly a derivation dam. The waters are distributed to the whole Malargüe Department through irrigation canals. Part of it goes to a camping site a few hundred meters away, with a number of pools where trouts are raised. The camping site in itself is a trap — nobody sells anything to eat except trout, and it's 28 pesos per serving; you can buy 3 kg of beef or have three super-sized milanesas for that figure. We were not that hungry, and we had oranges. After that refreshment, we went back. We stopped by the river again, and with the laziest pace we finally got back to the hostel at around 3 PM.

The fourth day was our last. We went to visit the Witches' Cave (Caverna de las Brujas) and the Manqui-Malal Cascade. I can't begin to explain what the cave is like. Its entrance is in an isolated spot, custodied by provincial nature reserve rangers, at 1,800 m a.m.s.l. Our experience inside it was short both in time (2 hours) and in length (200 m?), mainly because most of the cave is now closed to tourists. The part we saw, according to our guide, is the part that is already damaged; stupid visitors have taken "souvenirs" from it, breaking the precious stalactites, only to find that the shiny and brightly-colored calcium carbonate becomes opaque and crumbles to dust when exposed to sunlight. The rest of the cave, which is not completely explored, holds marvels we'll never see (unless we become certified speleologists).

At the entrance, the guide told us to turn off our helmet lights and started telling us about the legends of the cave, its geological origin, etc. This was so we could wait for our eyes to get accustomed to darkness. Before that, the lights were useless; I could only see my hand, nothing else. After those minutes, I could discern the silhouettes of all my companions and see part of the cave, lit by the faintest sunlight entering through small natural openings. When we reached the last part of our tour, the guide told us to turn off the lights and stay silent for one minute. I heard a loud buzz (my blood rushing through my veins!), the calm breath of my companions, the gurgling sound of running water hundreds of meters away, in the depths of the cave. It was magical.

We left Malargüe for Mendoza City in a minibus at 1:30 PM on Friday; we waited at Mendoza's bus station for an hour or so, got on our bus to Rosario, and after a delay we were back by 9 AM on Saturday. That was the end of the journey, but only physically. I'll tell you my conclusions tomorrow...

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