San Martin de los Andes was where the Ruta de los Siete Lagos (Seven Lakes Road) ended. As beautiful as this resort in the rain was, a joint visit with Jason to a friendly barber’s shop departing as two satisfied customers from the experience, coupled with our hostel room’s pre-installed ‘bum gun’ were the concluding highlights. Our en suite toilet came with a device, which when I kindly operated for Jason, his derriere got slightly more than it bargained for. A spurt of overly refreshing water gushed out at forty-five degrees reaching parts that a Heineken wouldn’t have a hope.
After being treated to the Ruta de los Siete Lagos, we were treated yet again to an unpaved dirt road, Ruta 46. To my mind, it was in direct competition to the Carretera Austral. Church bells were chiming inside my head, rejoicing alongside the ring of a quieter alarm bell as to why this road was so unknown and underrated. It took us from one national park to another via a scenically steep mountain pass. We were riding 1,200 metres above sea level through big sky country where the striking volcanic deserts led us all the way to Laguna Blanca. The laguna was a drainage lake that formed when lava flows dammed two small streams; now host to coots, grebes, upland geese and the odd flamingo, primarily under protection for the black-necked swans.
By dusk we were forced to stop in Zapala, a town that took its name as an adaptation of the Mapuche word chapadla, meaning ‘dead swamp’. Image wise, it was spot on – I didn’t get a single special vibe about this industrial, bland town. Although it didn’t go unnoticed when the local kids eagerly came over to shake our hands, did their utmost to relay directions towards fuel and gasped in awe when we briefly outlined our two-wheeled journey. One young teenage boy with bright, intelligent eyes volubly asked me questions, which I loved. I don’t think I’ve ever encountered such gregarious warmth from an adolescent stranger on the street in the UK.
Quite a few other Zapalan locals took the same interest in us the following day, in fact a glimpse of me astride by bike took one couple by such surprise, they gave me simultaneous thumbs up and no option but to smile sweetly into their mobile phone cameras for the agonising minutes it took for the traffic light to change. Oh go on then…! – I mused, as I obliged this excited, wide-eyed couple.
The silver lining in Zapala was South America’s third largest collection of spectacular fossil specimens cast in rocks of all sizes. In a department store sized room, I marvelled through the glass displays of precious stones packed with layers upon layers of colour from thousands of years’ worth of mineral forming. Two identical elongated pieces of precious stones boasting swirls of shiny colour would have made a cracking pair of ‘Bett Lynch’ earrings. I poured over the manganese dendrites, ridged trilobites and petrified dinosaur remains from around the globe for a full hour. Jason even espied a near-perfect ammonite all the way from Witby on the east coast of England.
Angling west to east, we detoured across to El Chocón whose dinosaur remains were not quite the Natural History Museum standard we’d desired. Still, after further humouring a coach-load of sight-seers with our travel story so far, the thrum of excitement was palpable through the crowd. Mmmn, a recurring theme was starting to emerge… We expressed gratitude in response to their warm reception for us – especially Pearl who I was informed was “the best bike in the world!” Seldom does my plodding Pearl trump the F800GS!
Full after tucking into a mouthwatering beef asado, we found ourselves sprawled around a sparkling cobalt blue lake. It was luxurious to laze the afternoon away digesting our meal slowly in the warm autumnal sun. Both contented to wild camp, we ditched the tent and fancied ourselves a night in a hotel instead. A million star hotel! Stargazing into the wee hours, our eyes traced shooting stars flashing across the night sky from the comfort of our sleeping bags. It was magical to glimpse so many of these rapid meteors. What I found less magical and more marring was when the Patagonian wind put in an unexpected appearance. Catching me unawares the fury of the wild did everything to keep me slipping into sleep. Beastly tired, I slept not a wink through the night’s misadventures and resigned myself to an open-air experience bombarding the senses. Hey ho, think we’ll bide our time and seek warmer temperatures before repeating that again.
One of Argentina’s most enduring icons is the gaucho, whose tradition began centuries ago when loosing their cattle on the grassy pampas. We’d seen scores of these lone cowboy-like figures through Argentina and Chile, pitted against the elements with only his horse for a friend. The nomadic cowboys once lived by breaking in horses, hunting cows and drinking the caffeine-rich herbal drink known as mate (pronounced mah-tah – the only cultural practice that truly transcends the barriers of ethnicity, class and occupation – a dried tea leaf from a relative of holly).
I’d heard about a folklore tale of a revered gaucho who many moons ago had robbed from the rich to feed and clothe the poor, congruent with our Robin Hood tales. En route to Caviahue, we spotted a modern-day ancestral gaucho, a gaucho-for-export. He rode over the plains on his horse amongst his cattle donning a dusty boinas (a beret) and bombachas (riding pants) on his estancia (sheep farm). He greeted me warmly as he stopped on top of a hill, perfectly poised for a photograph. This guy was as glorious as he was perceptive. I thanked him deeply for allowing us such an intimate encounter with him, impinging on his working day no doubt.
Particularly from the ride over from Zapala to Caviahue, we got whipped through strong wind in a wanderlust cocktail of Freddy Flintstone boulder-lined desert, mountain lakes and pehuén forests but best of all, monkey puzzle trees amid big snowy mountains dominating the landscape. In the nineteenth century these evergreen coniferous trees, native to Chile, were named in response to a remark that an attempt to climb one would puzzle even a monkey, uh uoh!
The roads left the senses tingling as we were riding into the onset of the ski season. Admittedly, the omnipresent threat could spell disaster if we pushed our luck at high altitude, so close to winter. The warning signs of impassable snow and imminent ice were already there on the day we reached Caviahue venturing the ten mile ride over on thick ripio to Copahue. We’d heard the mud baths and hot natural springs were still open to invitation for the slightly crazed. I got four miles in when the dirt road dwindled to a pebbly thread, finally to a mere suggestion. I was goose pimpled, close to being blown over by the wind if not suffering an ‘offy’ on the bike so conceded that turning back was sensible for Pearl and me. The increasingly treacherous stones, slushy mud and injurious ice were too much for me although the return ride felt like a piece of cake with my back to the unwanted wind.
We awoke on the first morning in Caviahue to a picture-postcard winter wonderland. It mattered not a jot that the snow had come about a month early – oh my, we were officially snowed-in! The bikes were going nowhere – stuck in a stunning snowscape. What to do now? Getting traction from the bikes would be as fruitful as trying to squeeze silver from a silverfish. Pondering, we learned that Caviahue is a flyspeck mountain village, sitting inside a giant extinct volcano, around 4.5 million years old. Lets just wind down as we wend our way through the white stuff on foot for a few days, or a few weeks – perhaps until spring!
We awoke to a crisp cold morning, when I stepped a toe outside my breath was puffing pale from my mouth. Looking out, it was a semi-opaque scene from Argentinian’s equivalent of Lapland, trees barely visible ten feet away with big blobs of snow atop every roof, streetlight and surface about the village. The meringue smooth snow had turned heavy, its fall hadn’t stopped for 24 hours – big soft flakes cascading lazily from the sky left six foot drifts and rising. We were slowly losing sight of our bikes beneath the engulfing white. It’d be sometime before the colour would steal itself back into this world. Wading knee-deep we padded our way through the afternoon, the dry powder squeaking beneath our footsteps – it was as soft and loose as icing sugar. And a complete novelty, Christmas had come early. The festive scene soon turned into a stinging snow blizzard in which I couldn’t discern whether snow or hail pinged against my face. For five days straight the cold hit me in the teeth like a fist, which set me to shivering at once. Nothing burns like the cold. Trudging through 65 mile per hour winds just for a beer and change of scenery from our hostel ‘Hebe’s Hostel’, I wondered if this was what an Antarctic expedition would be like.
The last two days in Caviahue were wonderful when the snow had finally settled; the weather had calmed, warmed and set the scene for a blazing promotional video. Jason had offered to shoot some footage for ‘Caviahue Tours’, the activities and excursions focused business our new friend Fernando, family friend of Hebe who owned our hostel. Some may say it was more like five minutes showing ‘A day in the life of Lisa’ as I willingly opted to play the tourist in front of the camera. Off we went dog sledging with a beautiful pack of high energy dogs, snow-shoeing in the forest up to two impressive volcanic waterfalls and flying over the snow if not through the air on a high powered skidoo. As an unexpected gesture of goodwill, Fernando knocked fifty per cent off our accommodation cost, he was so delighted with the end result. The quadcopter was beginning to pay for itself beautifully. Nice job Jase!
Digging our bikes out of one and a half metres of snow was a back-breaking, draining ordeal. But it worked up a healthy appetite to wave farewell to this winter wonderland. Time to replace never-ending snow for the deliciously dry asphalt, with not a whisper of white in sight. We’d successfully sourced a guy and his father, his four by four and trailer to cart the bikes and us 20 kilometres back onto ridable roads. My heart was in my mouth for the painstakingly lumpy journey out of the snow-blanketed village, bikes skewed over and strained in their straps.
Our driver swerved for a dog that jumped out onto the road; my first thought went to the bikes although I was relieved no harm had befallen the animal. It was a crying shame the same fate wasn’t bestowed on a hapless goat. Our driver made no effort to swerve – the goat was left dying in agonising pain on the road. We were aghast – the driver laughed off the incident that could have so easily been avoided – it left a vile taste in our mouths. Sometimes I suppose we just live in the absence of reason. No sense lay behind why this had happened, it just had.