31 January 2008

Vacations: Malargüe revisited: Last day

On our last day in Malargüe we repeated last year's trek to the dam on the nearby Malargüe River, 8 km from the hostel, only we set off in the morning, as early as we could manage to get up, after a delicious breakfast of home-made bread and jam. We took a more direct route, so we arrived earlier, but then we spent a lot of time leisurely lying on the grass and sipping mate.

Paz junto al dique

On our way back to the hostel (in fact, right before the entrance gate), we found an overflowing irrigation ditch and had to walk on the little wall that formed the edge of the bridge crossing the ditch. By lack of attention or sheer bad luck, I stepped on the wrong spot and found my right leg sinking into the cold water of the ditch along with half of my body. The other leg must have slipped somehow, though not before my left knee hit the concrete edge. I cried out for help, and my two friends promptly lifted me up. Though I was soaked from the waist down, the water was clear and my backpack got only slightly wet in the bottom. My wallet was miraculously spared, as was the bag with my camera in it. But my knee hurt so much I couldn't stand or walk.

After the initial pain subsided, I managed to stand on my feet, supported on both sides by my pals, and step by step get into the hostel. Once in my room, I changed my clothes and surveyed the damage. I got a few bleeding scrapes and bruises, nothing serious. But the knee was hurting badly, and I was devastated — I thought I'd broken something and this was the end of my vacations.

In the end, I took a Diclofenac pill from one my friends, and plopped into bed for a nap. I felt much relieved (and less desperate) when I woke up.

In the late afternoon we took a cab to the city in order to visit the seat of the Pierre Auger Observatory, which is the largest cosmic ray observatory in the world (about 1,500 high-energy particle detectors spread over 3,000 km² in the southern Mendoza desert). We heard a lecture explaining their work and their latest findings.

Malargüe - Observatorio Pierre Auger

(We tried to get into that lecture when we went to Malargüe in 2007, but the facilities had been overwhelmed by a troop of about 20 nuns.) After the observatory, we walked around town looking for places to restock our cooking supplies. We got noodles, rice, oil, some non-perishable vegetables, and a few other things we needed. My knee bothered me all this time, but I could follow, if only at a slow pace.

We had bus tickets for San Rafael, and from there to Neuquén, booked in advance. The next day we left Malargüe.

30 January 2008

Vacations: Malargüe revisited: Valle Hermoso

On our second day in Malargüe, we went to Valle Hermoso. This is really a package tour of several locations, with superb-looking landscapes and plenty of opportunities for photography, but not much else. First the van starts climbing and climbing up a dangerously winding dirt road, and (a couple of hours later) you get to see colourful mountains...

Malargüe - Bajando a Laguna Escondida

... and you get to the top of the tour, at about 3,100 m above sea level. You get off to stretch your legs and take pictures, and then you go down for a while and you're taken to the posh ski resort of Las Leñas, where celebrities are said to walk among normal folk without causing so much as a sideways glance.

Las Leñas, though superficially just a bunch of ugly expensive hotels and gift shops parasiting on one of the best places for skiing on Earth, actually owns half of the beautiful landscape around you, including places that no country but a true banana republic like Argentina would ever privatize. Las Leñas is in turn owned by a multinational group rumoured to be led by the president of Malaysia, whoever that is. I wouldn't be surprised to know it's the property of the Reverend Moon or of some other shady religious figure, like G. W. Bush.

After succesfully making use of Las Leñas for what it was worth (toilets), we took off, climbed again out of the valley, and after a while we started going down again, this time toward our main destination, Laguna Escondida (Hidden Lagoon), a small lake surrounded by a truly dreamy sight (owned by Las Leñas). There were horses being herded, cows grazing on the bottom of the valley, and birds quietly gliding in the wind. It was a bit cold, in fact my first encounter with real cold during the trip, for which I wasn't prepared.

Malargüe - Arreo de caballos

We spent a while beside the lake, watching the campers on the other side (owned by Las Leñas), and then we took off again, now towards Laguna de la Niña Encantada (Haunted Girl's Lagoon), which is more like a big pond of emerald waters. It's protected, so you have to pay a small fee to see it, and you can't even touch the water, but the trip is worth it.

Malargüe - Laguna de la Niña Encantada - Panorama

After a lot of clouds and wind coming and going all day, the weather got really wrong, and it started raining soft, heavy cold drops. It was the end of the tour anyway, so we packed our stuff and left for the hostel.

29 January 2008

Vacations: Malargüe revisited: La Payunia

Since I visited Malargüe last year, I won't describe it all over again. I can't help recommending the place, again, to anybody who wants to sit back and rest and enjoy a very fair climate in the summer, or simply likes the dry Patagonian landscape and doesn't mind long walks. That's your basic Malargüe package if you don't want to spend lots of money.

Dirt road in Malargüe

As I explained in my previous post, we lost most of the first day we'd planned to spend in Malargüe because of a delay. We arrived in time to check in to the Hostel Internacional (the same as last year, in the countryside a mile from town), unpack our bags into a room, and cook some rice with vegetables we'd bought in San Rafael for dinner.

For the following day (Tuesday, January 8) we booked a trip to La Payunia, a nature reserve that consists of a huge volcanic plain in the middle of the desert, dotted with volcanoes of all the types known on Earth, placed together for our enjoyment by the mysterious forces of geology.

Malargüe - La Payunia - Colores

Malargüe - La Payunia - Vista general

Malargüe - La Payunia - Volcán Payún Liso

Fossil ammoniteThis area was formerly under the sea. The waters covered all of what today is northern Patagonia, which is why you can found ammonite fossils and others in abundance just by looking around your feet in certain places beside the road. When the Andes rose they lifted up the whole area. At present this is over 1,200 meters above sea level (I think La Payunia is even higher). The volcanoes came later. The Payún Liso (the one with the prototypical conical shape in the pictures) is about 3,600 m high.

Volcanic bombThe soil, as you can see, has several different colours. They correspond to different compositions of lava and ejecta from the volcanoes. None of them is truly inactive, but I gathered the last eruptions took place millennia ago. Today the visitor walks on a mixture of small porous stones and lava ground to dust, plus volcanic bombs (the one in the picture is about the size of a human head).

Payunia is a nature reserve, so visitors cannot alter it in any way. You can't leave or take anything from there (I did take a couple of small rocks). The only way to get there is by a suitable vehicle on a very, very bumpy dirt road, which takes three to four hours, and once within the reserve's limits the vehicle must follow the paths already marked by previous visitors; there are no actual roads of any kind. I don't think it rains often. GuanacoThe wind blows all the time with great force — the typical strong Patagonian wind at ground level, and a extremely potent wind when you climb the volcanic hills (our guide took us to a fairly low hill and told us to crawl, not stand up, once we reached the top, since a gust of wind over 100 km/h might easily send a person flying and falling down the volcanic cone). Almost nothing lives here besides a few hardy species of plants, and guanacos, which are protected and, as expected of wild animals, generally don't like people around.

Now my advice for photographers is — take good care of your camera. Mine came back full of dust and is still behaving a bit funny; I'd say a reflex with interchangeable lenses is absolutely out of the question, unless you have some magic way to deflect dust, or restrict yourself to one lens for all shots and have it ready in place before you step out the vehicle.

The Payunia package was one of the two things I couldn't do when I went to Malargüe in 2007 (the other was the Valle Hermoso trip, which I'll come to next). It isn't cheap, and it will take you no less than 10 to 12 hours, which is basically your whole day, but if you go to Malargüe, you absolutely must go. You won't get this for less, and you won't get it anywhere else like this. The place is immense, awe-inspiring, and otherwordly — change the colours of the sky, forget the spiny bushes here and there, and you could very well be in Mars. And yet this is truly Earth — in fact it's among the purest manifestations of the forces that made Earth.

Malargüe - La Payunia - Peregrinos

28 January 2008

Vacations: Getting there is half the fun

On the Chevallier bus, near San RafaelThe title is ironic, of course. The weather was oppressive the day when we departed from Rosario. We took the Chevallier bus to San Rafael, Mendoza, at 8 PM (in full afternoon glory, thanks to our crazy DST scheme). There's no direct bus from Rosario to tiny Malargüe so we had to make a combination.

Off we went, west and south. Some time afterwards it began raining lightly, and then a T-storm broke out. Nothing serious. Around 1 AM, near Venado Tuerto (I'm guessing), the bus stopped. A tree or a branch or something had fallen over the road, so all traffic was stuck.

At first nobody told the passengers what had happened, so we speculated it was a car crash. Then we learned about the tree and started waiting for whoever was in charge of removing it.

We stayed there for over an hour, possibly an hour and a half. I slept in short stretches, while the rain continued. Finally we resumed the trip, but instead of arriving at 9:15 as scheduled, we got to San Rafael around 11 AM. We missed the bus we could've boarded at 10:15, and the rest were all full. The next available bus departed at 6 PM. We were faced with the choice of taking that bus (spending 7 hours in San Rafael) or looking for emergency cheap accomodation in San Rafael for the night.

Now San Rafael is a nice city, but not particularly attractive, and we were after all carrying our huge travel bags, so we couldn't possibly just take a walk around and do sightseeing. And San Rafael's bus terminus is truly creepy, a cramped half-block with dirty platforms and unpleasant-looking little shops, with some people looking as if they either want to rob you or sell you a fake Rolex, to the point it reminded me of Paraguay.

The alternative, however, wasn't really for us. We didn't want to spend a night in San Rafael, but anyway finding accomodation was hopeless, and it entailed losing the day completely, as well as a night's expenditure. So we dragged our bags from the terminus to a nearby public square, and I set off looking for two things: a phone to call the hostel's folks in Malargüe to ask them not to cancel our booking, and something to eat for lunch. I got an OK from Malargüe, and got us the ingredients for sandwiches. After those, we sat there sipping mate, getting suntanned, and generally looking like out-of-luck bums.

The bus finally came in time, and after almost three hours of travelling south with several stops seemingly in the middle of nowhere, we reached our destination at about 9 PM (under a Patagonian sun at full blast). I was back in Malargüe at last, after a year of waiting for the peace and quiet of that little corner of Argentina, and 25 hours in the road.

27 January 2008

Back from the south

Here I am! After a three-week break I'm ready to blog again... sort of. I have so many things to recount and so many pictures to display, I don't know how I'm going to handle it. "Begin by the beginning" just doesn't work.

So this is how I'm doing it. First, a general review, and then a few individual posts, and then (if possible) a wrapup. I'll be off the local news/comment topics for a while, but this is worth it. I intend to write a post facto travel diary in Spanish for my own use in parallel, so be patient. I'm still partly over there.

The general review goes as follows: vacation trip to northwestern Patagonia, starting on the late afternoon of Sunday, January 6, ending on the early afternoon of Thursday, January 24. Places where I spent nights (except buses): Malargüe, Neuquén, Junín de los Andes, San Martín de los Andes. Other places where time was spent: the road (of course), San Rafael, Villa El Chocón and the stony beach of its reservoir, the Lanín National Park (lakes Huechulafquen and Paimún), and Hua Hum near the Lácar Lake. Companions: two, male, for most of the duration of the trip, until their desertion three days before my return. Experience gained: lots, very useful for future trips already planned. Money spent: quite a lot for my standards, but well spent and with no regrets. Pictures taken: about 2,400 (including a lot of useless shots and others merely testimonial, obviously).

This doesn't do justice to the trip, but it will do for starters. In the meantime, please check out my Flickr photoset "Vacaciones 2008". I'm uploading the pictures in small batches to avoid clogging the Internets.

04 January 2008

Goodbye for a while

My online life has been pretty much inactive lately because of the holidays, and especially the terrible heat; it's difficult to do anything during the daytime, and for the most part I've been shifting to a routine of sleeping four of five hours at night, going to work, returning home under the scorching sun, having a light lunch and then dragging myself back to my room to get three more hours of sleep and/or reading light fiction while the afternoon rages at temperatures over 35 °C (that's 95 °F in FFU), then sometimes using the small pool in my garden to cool the fire, and finally having dinner as the sun comes down at an artificially late hour. During all that time I don't use the computer much; the room it's in has no air conditioning, so I keep the PC on only as needed, for short periods.

And now, I'm going on vacation next Sunday, so you'll have to learn to live without this blog for about three weeks. I'll begin by revisiting Malargüe in southern Mendoza, and then proceed to Neuquén, Junín de los Andes, and possibly the small town of Piedra del Águila by the Limay River. It's doubtful that I'll have Internet access or the time to use it during that time, except in Neuquén City, so you'll have to wait to read my report and see pictures and stuff. Don't miss me!