South America by Subaru 19/11/07 – We dodge a bullet

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Prior post: http://blog.bucksvsbytes.com/2019/12/19/south-america-by-subaru-19-11-06-the-long-backtrack/

We wake up refreshed this morning after yesterday’s long drive. While we eat an even better breakfast than Silvia served us two days ago, she gets on the phone and finds a hydraulics shop where I can take the Subaru. I arrive there when they open and explain the problem to one of the owners.

He looks over the system, goes back into the shop, and returns with a container of steering fluid. He adds some to the reservoir and within moments the noise and the surging abate. Apparently, even though the fluid appears to be at the proper level, a substantial amount has leaked out of the system and the symptoms are caused by the pump running dry at times. The mechanic explains to me — my Spanish language limitations are definitely an obstacle here — that the loss is though the O-rings of the power steering linkage. He can replace the worn rings and I’ll be back in business. This is an enormous relief since a ruined steering pump would be a major problem. I ask him “how much and how long” and he tells me they are too busy to finish the repair before Monday,

We’ve agreed to pick up our friend Jaqui on Saturday many miles away in Córdoba, so waiting here until Monday would ruin our planned reunion. Since the symptoms occur when the fluid is low, I ask if I can postpone the repair as long as I keep topping up the level — if the leak isn’t too serious, which at this point it is not. The mechanic says I can do that so I decide to have the work done in Buenos Aires, where we’ll be staying a while anyway. He goes to his office and writes out the name of a hydraulics shop in that city. With a stern warning that I must keep the fluid level high, he sends me off, refusing to take any money despite having spent a half hour with me. Yet another example of South American generosity and integrity.

We took such an immediate liking to Silvia during our first brief stay here that I’ve offered to make tacos for the three of us tonight. Leaving the repair shop, I stop at a supermarket and pick up everything I need for dinner, along with a reserve supply of power steering fluid.

Back at the hostal, I sit in the kitchen, slicing and dicing, and talk with Silvia. She says she has found freedom running her guest house. She meets nice people, earns a living, and has time to pursue her artistic interests which include furniture reupholstering. As I prep food, she is putting the finishing touches on ornate homemade tiles with her house number on them. She sleeps in a narrow room off the kitchen and says she is perfectly content with the tiny private space.

We get into a discussion of Gauchito Gil, a sort of unofficial saint in Argentina. There are Gauchito shrines along almost every road, always marked with red flags, where people leave offerings of empty (and partially empty) liquor bottles, cigarettes, trinkets, etc. I know quite a bit about him because Susan has become fascinated with the story and we have dozens of shrine photos, not to mention a 5 pound plaster image that we lugged home after the last trip through Argentina.

Elaborate roadside Gauchito Gil shrine, Cabo Domingo, Argentina
Elaborate roadside Gauchito Gil shrine, Cabo Domingo, Argentina

Some people we’ve met say the Gauchito is revered by gauchos and peasants, others say truck drivers, and yet others say criminals visit a shrine before committing robberies. There are three basic origin stories for Gauchito Gil, variously depicting him as hero to scoundrel. The one Silvia relates is the least flattering and she thoroughly discounts the miracle which is often attributed to him. By contrast she reverently describes a church where a true miracle has occurred. I promise to send her a link to an article that presents all three Gauchito biographies and we leave it at that.

Silvia also talks about her adult children, mentioning that one daughter is a psychologist. I’ve met only a thin slice of Argentines but they are disproportionately weighted toward psychologists. It seems that half of the population are in the profession and the other half (or more) are their clients. Therapy is a major preoccupation in the country. Maybe that’s how they’ve coped with decades of murderous military rule, national debt defaults, and ongoing inflation. As the people of Chile, Bolivia, and Ecuador take to the streets in violent protest, Argentines seem tolerant of and patient with their travails.

By late afternoon, the tacos are ready and the three of us eat outdoors next to the swimming pool, complete with the obligatory table photos.

Delivering the tortillas to the table, La Providencia B&B
Delivering the tortillas to the table, La Providencia B&B
Tacos by the pool, La Providencia B&B
Tacos by the pool, La Providencia B&B
Silvia ready to construct her first taco, La Providencia B&B
Silvia ready to construct her first taco, La Providencia B&B

Because we’re back south earlier than we had planned, Susan is able to satisfy her ardent desire to see the gaucho festival that starts tomorrow, so we’re going to retrace our path from San Miguel de Tucumán all the way to Santa Rosa. With another long drive ahead, we withdraw to our spotless room and get some shut eye.

Next post: http://blog.bucksvsbytes.com/2020/01/21/south-america-by-subaru-19-11-08-back-to-santa-rosa/

South America by Subaru 19/11/06 The Long Backtrack

Prior post: http://blog.bucksvsbytes.com/2019/12/15/south-america-by-subaru-19-11-05-disappointment/

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Early this morning, I check the steering fluid level under the hood, because inadequate hydraulic fluid could cause the steering symptoms we’re seeing. The level seems to be at the marked line on the reservoir, although it’s hard to see clearly. This is worrisome, because loss of fluid would be a simple fix. Instead, I have to consider the possibility that the steering pump is failing, which could be a major problem in a nation where Subaru factory parts are virtually unavailable.

We pack the car and vacate the impressively named but very economical Cabañas El Reposo de Mandinga, cross the bridge into Humahuaca, and find some parking along a narrow side street. While I wait in a long line (in the shade) for the town’s only set of ATMs, Susan checks out some of the tourist shops and works her way up a bright, hot, long, wide set of steps from the town square to the elaborate monument at the top.

Humahuca Monumnt to the Heroes of Argentine Independence
Humahuca Monument to the Heroes of Argentine Independence
Humahuca Monumnt to the Heroes of Argentine Independence
Humahuca Monument to the Heroes of Argentine Independenc

We’re noticing that the residents of this relatively remote portion of northern Argentina often bear a physical resemblance to Bolivians. The border is 50 miles to the north and it seems visually evident that many of the people here share more of their heritage with indigenous Bolivia than the more European Argentina that extends 1,600 miles to the south.

Birthday party in blistering sun on monument steps
Birthday party in blistering sun on monument steps

Even early in the day, the sun is brutally hot so we’re soon on the move, heading south on the same road we came up yesterday. Since we’re unexpectedly passing Pumamarca a second time, we make the short detour again and Susan hits some of the hundreds of shops and stalls searching for gifts for her enormous family.

Purmamarca gift sopping
Purmamarca gift shopping. I’m safely in the shade

I play my usual role of cockroach/translator, keeping her in sight while scurrying through any unavoidable stretches of sun from one shady spot to the next until she beckons for language assistance. In one shop window, Susan is entranced by a cat with two different color eyes.

Two color eyed cat
Two color eyed cat

We grab lunch just before all the restaurants close for the afternoon and head out of town.

Purmamarca gift shop
Purmamarca gift shop

From Pumamarca it’s a long slog south. Since the steering problem isn’t very noticeable on the highway (where there are no sharp corners), we decide to avoid searching for a suitable mechanic along the way and try to make it 250 miles back to Tucumán, a small city, where there will be more resources. We text Silvia asking if it’s ok to arrive back at La Providencia at 10:30 PM and she immediately assents.

Since we just drove this route yesterday, we have no great incentive to make scenic stops, although I continue to marvel at the abandoned railroad that used to connect Bolivia to San Miguel de Tucumán, almost 400 miles to the south. This line was part of the route followed by Paul Theroux in the 1970s and described in his book, The Old Patagonian Express, but left to deteriorate since 1993 (the railroad, not the book). Theroux’s travel books, including this one, are widely renowned and he’s a compelling writer but, as a traveler myself, I find him unbearably cynical and contemptuous. Many years ago, I started underlining all the negative statements in Patagonia Express. I ran out of ink in the second chapter. He claims to love traveling yet he seems to dislike almost everyone and everything he encounters. Why bother?

The railroad right of way parallels our highway, In some places, it looks like a functioning line, but every few miles the rails suddenly disappear for a while, or you see the track plunge into a big sand dune, or there’s a missing bridge.

Oops. The old tracks need a little work.
Oops. The old tracks need a little work.

At the same time, you pass unused stations and freight cars stranded on their segment of remaining rails.

Unused railroad crossing in Tumbaya Argetina
Unused railroad crossing in Tumbaya Argetina
Renovated old station in Tumbaya Argetina
Renovated old station in Tumbaya Argetina
Railroad cars with no place to go
Railroad cars with no place to go

Yet, hope springs eternal: In the absence of action from the federal government or private railroad companies, the Jujuy provincial government has undertaken to rebuild and reactivate 230 miles of the route as a tourist attraction. They’ve borrowed a lot of money and track work has begun but progress is excruciatingly slow, We did pass one billboard proudly announcing the delivery of ballast rock for 4 miles of track, but no sign of the ballast itself.

Sign announcing on part of train line restoration.
Sign announcing one part of train line restoration.

It would be great to see the scenic route functioning again but I have my doubts that large numbers of tourists will abandon tour buses and vans in favor of riding the rails.

The last 220 miles of our day’s drive is the same flat, monotonous scenery we traversed yesterday in the opposite direction and it’s with great relief that we reach La Providencia B&B after 10 PM with the steering still functional and a warm “welcome back” from Silvia. It’s not long before we’re sound asleep in our same comfortable room.

Next post: http://blog.bucksvsbytes.com/2020/01/01/south-america-by-subaru-19-11-07-we-dodge-a-bullet/

Susan and SIlvia, La Providencia

South America by Subaru 19/11/05 Disappointment

Prior post: http://blog.bucksvsbytes.com/2019/12/10/south-america-by-subaru-19-11-04-we-begin-a-1500-mile-side-trip/

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Although our need to be back in Córdoba on Saturday means we can’t dawdle on our northward loop, we like La Providencia and Silvia so much that we decide to stay again on the return trip, since our figure-8 route will bring us back here. We promise to make her a taco dinner and, after a good breakfast with homemade bread and cake we pack and continue north.

Susan and SIlvia, La Providencia
Susan and SIlvia, La Providencia

We’re planning on a 230 mile drive today to Humahuaca, the town at the west end of the newly connected back road. The drive is somewhat tedious, since we’re not prowling for interesting side trips or stops. Subtracting even more from the excitement, the last third is a highway we drove a year ago on the way to Bolivia. We make a brief excursion a few miles off our route to check out Purmamarca, which we’ve been told is famous for its multi-colored mountain.

Multi-colored mountain behind Purmamarca, Argentina
Multi-colored mountain behind Purmamarca, Argentina

On arrival, we do find it, but after our experience on remote and massive Rainbow Mountain in Perú last January, it really doesn’t hold our attention. At the foot of the hill, we find a small but highly developed tourist town, its narrow streets filled with stores and kiosks selling a broad variety of goods.

Shopping opportunities in Purmamarca
Shopping opportunities in Purmamarca
Who still sells Kodak film? Purmamarca, Argentina
Who still sells Kodak film? Purmamarca, Argentina

The access road is filled with tour buses, so we aren’t tempted to stay there although, under other circumstances, Susan would like to cruise the hundreds of kiosks and shops.

We make it to Humahuaca, a town we had looked at briefly last November on our way to the Bolivian border, and the western terminus of what is no longer a dead end into the mountains.

Humahuaca scenes
Humahuaca scenes

It’s about 4 PM, too late to drive the full road through to the far side of the national park. Because of our tight schedule, though, we decide to start out now and hope to find lodging along the way before dark, with the risk that we’ll have to spend the night in the car.

The road starts out well, wide gravel, with lots of oncoming traffic which encourages us to think the new through road is attracting tourists. The weather is not looking friendly, but you never know what it’s going to be like in ten minutes.

Entering the Quebrada Humahuaca. Rain ahead.
Entering the Quebrada Humahuaca. Rain ahead.

Humahuaca is already at 10,000 feet elevation and the road climbs steadily eastward into the Quebrada de Humahuaca, an enormous valley, affording incredible views of the mountains behind us. After a dizzying series of switchbacks we come to a plateau at over 14,000 feet and a road junction. We bear to the right and Google Maps quickly indicates we are off our route. We try the left fork and see the same problem. Between the two branches is a narrow track that drops steeply down into the next valley. Maps is telling us this is what we want but there’s a problem.

Right where it starts is a permanent-looking road sign that translates, literally, as “road disabled” with a “do not enter” pictogram below it.

Literally, not a good sign
Literally, not a good sign

We’re really confused. This is the route that now connects through to the east? I’m willing to try it for a while, Susan is not. We hang around for a few minutes discussing it and see an ambulance working its way slowly down one of the two bigger roads heading back to Humahuaca. Figuring they must know local road conditions, we chase them down and ask if they know about the closed road. They tell us that it can only be navigated (pun intended) during the dry season, which is not now. Ironically, the missing link seems to have been completed but it’s not an all year route. We’ve come a long, long way only to be stopped cold.

Ambulance and our road cnndition reporter
Ambulance and our road condition reporter

Adding to our disappointment is some distress. For the last several hours, there’s been an unusual noise coming from under the hood when making a sharp turn in either direction and a simultaneous “surging” sensation in the steering wheel. It seems to be a power steering issue and it has now gotten noticeable enough that a U-turn seems like a good idea anyway. Finally, from our high vantage point, we can see rain showers in several directions, and rain can quickly turn a passable dirt road into a car sucking quagmire. With, believe me, the maximum possible reluctance, I backtrack down the steep road to Humahuaca.

Ready to descend back to Hunahuaca
Ready to slink back to Hunahuaca

I would never say a trip is wasted because there’s always something to learn and enjoy from any place we go but had we known the through road wasn’t driveable, we wouldn’t have come 600 miles north to try.

On the way down, we notice giant cactus in full bloom on both sides.

Cactus in bloom.
Cactus in bloom.
Cactus in bloom.
Cactus blooms.

Near Humahuaca, we eventually find our way to a suspiciously inexpensive cabaña development. At that price, we’re not expecting it to be satisfactory,. Since there’s no identifying sign, we’re not even positive we’re in the right place. Going back to the town square, where there’s public wifi, we track down the owner via WhatsApp. We return to the site and he shows us to a simple but surprisingly nice cabin with adjacent shared kitchen.

Cabañas el Reposo de Mandinga, Humahuaca, Argetina
Cabañas el Reposo de Mandinga, Humahuaca, Argetina

Pleased to find something so cheap and pleasant in a popular tourist town, we take it for the night. As we’re moving bags from the car to the room, one of the owner’s dogs sizes us up, hops onto our bed, and makes himself comfortable.

"This is my spot. What open sore on my leg?"
“This is my spot. What open sore on my leg?”

We cook and eat a good dinner in the kitchen.

Dinner in progress, with a waste monitor on duty.
Dinner in progress, with a waste monitor on duty.

We’re soon treated to a beautiful sunset over the mountains to the west.

Sunset over Humahuaca, Argentina
Sunset over Humahuaca, Argentina
12 minutes later
12 minutes later

Shooing the dog out of our room, we gratefully begin a sound sleep after a long day with a disappointing finish.

Next post: http://blog.bucksvsbytes.com/2019/12/19/south-america-by-subaru-19-11-06-the-long-backtrack/

South America by Subaru 19/11/04 – We begin a 1,500 mile side trip

Prior post: http://blog.bucksvsbytes.com/2019/12/10/south-america-by-subaru-19-11-03-more-meat/

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We pack up, say our goodbyes to Janina and Chris’s family, and head north.

Yanina, Dante, Chris
Yanina, Dante, Chris

To explain what we’re doing, I need to provide a flashback here: Last November, on our way to Bolivia, we had discovered Calilegua National Park in northern Argentina. It’s a large, remote preserve containing one of the southernmost portions of South American jungle, which extends, despite vast areas that have been cleared for farming, in one form or another at least 1200 miles below the Equator. The ecosystem here, while not full tropical jungle, is very lush and in the areas where preserves have been established there’s still potential for seeing exotic wildlife. Google Maps had shown a route through that park that connected back to our highway to Bolivia. It looked satisfyingly primitive and had an equally satisfyingly enormous number of squiggles, which generally means mountains with switchbacks and grand views. We went out of our way to traverse this route from east to west. As we entered the park, though, a very friendly indigenous ranger made it clear to me that the road we were on was a dead end, since several miles in the middle were a foot trail rather than a road. This Google data failure was quite a disappointment, but we had a wonderful day driving into and beyond the national park. Although we saw no wildlife, being in the jungle for the first time since Iguassu Falls in December 2017 was a great experience, and the road was just as challenging and dramatic as we had hoped. We were still many miles from the dead end when it started to rain. The road, in a flat valley by then, got muddy and slippery so we decided discretion was the better part of valor, turned around prematurely, and backtracked to the main highway.

Nov 2018 Calilegua National Park, Argentina. "Maybe we don't need to fight our way all the way to the dead end of this road."
Nov 2018 Calilegua National Park, Argentina. “Maybe we don’t need to fight our way all the way to the dead end of this road.”

Flash forward, briefly, to Livingston Manor in August, 2019. We host Servas Israel visitors Tamar and Giora for a few days. In the course of our conversations, it comes out they had also driven this remote road, which we all decide is a very unlikely coincidence. In a follow up, they have recently sent us a link saying the missing piece of road on the Calilegua route has been built. I do further research and find a newspaper article celebrating the grand opening of the connection just 5 weeks ago and touting how the new through route will make the area an Argentine version of the Cusco region in Perú.

Waiting a week to meet Jaqui becomes the rationalization for making a northern loop to obsessively complete our aborted crossing — and it’s no small loop. This side trip will entail over 1,500 miles of additional driving, including at least 140 miles of rough road. Yes, I know – we’re nuts, but at least Susan and I are both all in on the idea.

As we leave Santa Rosa, we pass a large banner advertising the Fiesta de Tradiciones, a celebration of gaucho (Argentine cowboy) culture. Susan loves both horses and gauchos (who have strong indigenous origins) but it’s pretty obvious that our commitment to meet Jaqui and go to Buenos Aires with her precludes coming back to Santa Rosa for the festival. We head north, pushing a little harder than normal because of our time constraints.

In the small town of Bialet Massé, we parallel a light rail train, one of the few passenger routes left of Argentina’s once extensive network. It probably serves as commuter rail, feeding workers from Cosquín south into the city of Córdoba. In Argentina, where most railroads are just derelict rights of way, seeing an operating passenger train counts as exciting.

Córdoba passenger train
Córdoba passenger train

The countryside along our route is pretty flat and uninteresting at first, but I’ve discovered a “longcut” (opposite of “shortcut”) through a mountain range that the main route skirts by going around it. As usual, this is a gravel road that winds up through remote ranch country.

mountain back road
mountain back road

At the highest point, we find an unusual amenity, a shaded overlook with long views and benches. Named Mirador de Cerro Alfa (Overlook from Alpha Peak), it becomes our lunch spot. While we’re eating, two Mexican bicyclists come struggling (at least in my eyes) up the mountain in the opposite direction and take a break. We have a short conversation about safety for car driving tourists in Mexico before they start their downhill ride to the south.

Mirador de Cerro Alto
Mirador de Cerro Alto

We pack up and begin the harrowing but well engineered descent, thoroughly satisfied with our choice of detour. Still in the middle of nowhere, we come across an incongruous, faded sign advertising the “Hippie Museum”.

Hippie Museum
Hippie Museum

Apparently, this road was somehow on the “Gringo Trail” decades ago. When we reach San Marcos Sierras back on the flats, we decide to pass on the famous museum (if it even still exists), but we notice some classic cars parked around town, an old Desoto and a Ford Falcon station wagon.

Desoto
Desoto
Ford Falcon Station Wagon
Ford Falcon Station Wagon

Driving across the pampa, we work our way back to the main highway and continue north at high speed. Alberto warned us that Córdoba province has started using radar speed control and, sure enough, in the middle of nowhere a police car is parked on the shoulder and, standing in the shade, is an officer with a clunky, tripod mounted radar dish clocking vehicles entering Córdoba from Santiago del Estero. Little by little, Argentina is adopting the U.S. model of trap, cite, and penalize.

We’re heading into an expanse of salt flats to cross what Google Maps shows as a large, inland lake. The land is quite flat, with sparse cattle grazing both sides. We start seeing crusts of salt on the ground but when we reach the depicted causeway, the “lake”, at least at this time of year, is indistinguishable from the “shore”. Salt is plentiful, however, as we pass side roads with signs announcing salt processing operations.

We start noticing that every time the air conditioner is running, there is a squealing sound from under the hood — a strong indicator that a drive belt needs tightening. As the hours pass, we realize that our day will end in San Miguel de Tucumán, the only city for many miles. We pull over to start looking online for suitable accommodations. We happen to be at a truck stop with a repair shop, so I go in to ask if they will tighten the belt for me. A couple of young men tackle the task and, once the engine cools down a bit, they access the fairly inaccessible adjusting bolt and stop the squeal. They want to charge me less than two dollars for about 30 minutes work but I press double that on them, thanking them for their fast service and for burning their hands slightly.

Tightening the a/c drive belt
Tightening the a/c drive belt

The first lodging we check out is primarily an event space and say their few rooms are all occupied. Our cell service, as is frequently the case in Argentina, is close to useless so we head into town for a gas station to get wifi and choose a second option, La Providencia. It’s completely dark when we have one. Finding lodging after dark is our worst case scenario as it makes the task much harder. We follow Google directions about 15 minutes to a quiet residential neighborhood. When we reach the apparent building, there’s no sign that it’s a hostal. I ring a bell at the driveway gate and a very cautious and suspicious woman tells me she’s never heard of La Providencia.

We have no option but to backtrack to the gas station so I can make one of my rare phone calls to talk to the hostal. I have no problem speaking Spanish (which is not to say others don’t have problems understanding me), but my aural comprehension is still pretty bad and it’s much worse on the phone. Fortunately, the woman who answers is pretty understandable and she assures us that she has room and that we were on the right block. We drive back out and, directly across the street from our earlier inquiry, she’s standing outside watching for us.

Silvia welcomes us, guides the car into her narrow driveway, and insists on helping us drag our luggage through the front door. Right over the door is a small lighted sign “La Providencia”, which we had missed on our earlier foray in the dark because we were focused on the other side of the street where Google Maps had pointed us.

Silvia’s little B&B is charming and spotless. As if the name wasn’t enough of a clue, the walls are sprinkled with several indicators of devout religious belief. She shows us to a very nice room, takes us into the kitchen and feeds us a hefty evening snack of bread, cheese, and avocado. We have a nice conversation and for Susan’s benefit, she sprinkles as much English into it as she can. Eventually, we go up to bed and lapse quickly into unconsciousness.

South America by Subaru 19/11/03 – More meat!

Prior post: http://blog.bucksvsbytes.com/2019/11/25/south-america-by-subaru-19-11-02-tacos-for-6/

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Today, we’ve been invited back to Alberto’s country house, where he’s having a large family gathering. We hang out a bit out with Chris and Yanina (and the dogs) during the morning. In the early afternoon, we pick up Josie in Santa Rosa and drive 30 minutes to Alberto’s house in Los Reartes. Referring back to Alberto’s accidental bang into my car on Thursday, I park the Subaru about 100 feet away and behind his swimming pool, i.e. as far away from where he parks his truck as possible. He’s not home when we arrive but I figure he’ll get the joke immediately when he sees the car.

Safe parking. Alberto's truck in the background.
Safe parking. Alberto’s truck in the background.

There are abut 15 family members already there when we arrive, including some children, and the hours-long, meat grilling process is well under way, in the capable hands of chef Jorge. Big slabs of goat and lamb are suspended over the low intensity coals along with various other side meats. Several of the men are hovering around the parrilla and it takes some deft maneuvering to avoid spoiling my appetite with continuous offers of appetizers. One I manage to evade, if I’m understanding the words and gestures correctly, is goat brain on crackers.

Parrilla in progress
Parrilla in progress

Inside the house, separated from the grilling area by the glass wall, are most of the family women. Susan is in there holding conversations with Josie’s translating help.

Alberto pulls up, returning from a morning golf game, and as I expected, immediately laughs when he sees where I’ve parked. One of the guests is a precocious little girl named Sharon who engages with Susan and me. One of her first acts is to demonstrate the very complex shape into which she can fold her tongue. She adds gravely, “This isn’t easy. I had to practice a lot to learn this.”

Sharon and tobgue
Sharon and tobgue

Sharon knows the way to Susan’s heart. The little girl gazes repeatedly into Susan’s face, runs her fingers through Susan’s hair, and refers to her as a princess. Sharon is learning English in school and she and Susan trade English phrases, mostly numbers.

Susan and her admirer, Sharon
Susan and her admirer, Sharon

I alternate between the group of women in the house, where I can be with Susan, and hanging out with the men outside around the grill, where we talk as men talk and consume beer.

Men grilling

The afternoon progresses quickly and pleasantly, Both the goat and the lamb are magnificently tender and juicy. There’s a lot to be said to spending all day slow grilling meat. In the U.S., most food resides on the grill for 20 minutes or less before we wolf it down – and we use gas or chemical-saturated charcoal instead of natural wood.

I have to mention tattoos here. I’ve always considered tattoos and piercings (yes, including simple earring holes) as pointless, no pun intended, self-mutilation. I’ve never been enthusiastic about the modest set of tattoos my son has acquired. After spending a lot of time in Argentina, I’m now able to see it differently.

There’s hardly an Argentine woman over 16, and many under that age, that doesn’t have at least one tattoo, so by now I’ve seen many thousands – hey, get your mind out of the gutter. I’m talking about the designs visible in public. Skin art is a major form of expression down here and I’ve finally gotten over my “Ugh, gross!” reaction. There are some beautiful designs that are true art, ranging from modest images to what I would characterize as elaborate body murals. Note the woman on the right in the photo below is not wearing a tee shirt — that’s all ink. The skill and effort to successfully execute some of these indicates true dedication and craftsmanship. I’m now able to appreciate many of them as additions to, rather than subtractions from, a person’s beauty. I’m sure my change of attitude has made your day much better.

The afternoon ends with group photos and exchange of phone numbers. We take Josie home and head back for our final night at Cabañas Kangarú.

The women
The women

Our friend, Jaqui, who lives too far to the south in Argentina for us to visit this trip, happens to be in nearby Córdoba for some sort of retreat. She’s told us she’ll be out of touch until it ends on Saturday and then taking the bus to Buenos Aires. Since our plan is to drive there via Córdoba starting today, we modify it to add a 6-day loop to the north, return to Córdoba Saturday to meet Dr. Jaqui so the three of us can visit by making the long drive to B.A. in the Subaru together.

Jaqui at our first meeting, Jan 2018
Jaqui at our first meeting, Jan 2018

We sketch out a northern itinerary and realize we’re taking on a lot of hard driving to accomplish it in time. With this in mind, we retreat to the cabin in the evening and prepare for an early departure tomorrow.

Next post: http://blog.bucksvsbytes.com/2019/12/10/south-america-by-subaru-19-11-04-we-begin-a-1500-mile-side-trip/

South America by Subaru 19/11/02 – Tacos for 6

Prior post: http://blog.bucksvsbytes.com/2019/11/24/south-america-by-subaru-19-11-01-carless-for-the-day/

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Saturday starts out lazily with breakfast, a dip in the pool, and only minimal ambition. By about 1 PM, I realize I’d better get my ass in gear if I’m going to produce a taco dinner for tonight. I carry corn tortillas from the U.S. but everything else has to be located locally. Cheese and ground beef are universal. Produce — tomatoes, onions, garlic, avocados — are easy, except in some of the more meat-exclusive areas of Argentina. Finding edible lettuce can be a little dicey. Black olives are much less ripe than what we’re accustomed to. It gets worse from there: Sour cream is unheard of in some countries and I learned to stock up on spices when I found them because the ones I want are far from ubiquitous.

The real challenge, though, is salsa. Some stores carry a local version. In others, it’s a hopeless quest. For one meal in southern Chile, I jury rigged salsa from tomatoes, onions, chimichurri, and spices — there wasn’t a chili pepper to be found. In Santa Rosa’s Becerra Supermarket, I get lucky. Off in a corner they have one display unit of international foods and there, on a shelf marked “Germany”, are jars of what we would call barely acceptable salsa. You know the kind: heavily cooked and thick enough to ooze rather than pour. I wouldn’t use this at home, but here it’s a real find and I buy 3 jars. I almost don’t care that they cost several dollars each. Shopping accomplished, I head home for some hours of food preparation.

Rare find: U.S. supermarket salsa in Argentina
Rare find: U.S. supermarket salsa in Argentina

Another challenge in a typical tourist apartment kitchen is finding enough bowls or bowl-like objects just to hold 6 or 7 “make your own” taco ingredients at the table. Fortunately, we carry some basic picnicware that supplements what we find. A couple of hours of slicing and dicing means all that remains is cooking the meat and frying tortillas.

I cook a lot of different things, but Tex-Mex tacos are usually a real novelty and always well received, so that tends to be my first choice for guests while we’re on the road. Everyone, everywhere eats plenty of pasta so I rarely do that. Slab o’ meat is not my favorite eating style so that’s eliminated, and other ethnic foods have ingredient procurement problems. I fry a load of tortillas and keep them warm in the oven so there’s a continuous supply once the spiced meat is cooked and ready.

Susan is attending a book presentation with Josie in town at 8 PM, so dinner won’t start until 9:30 which, fortunately, is normal in Argentina, even for young children. Our guests/hosts, Yanina, Chris, Dante, and Vera arrive on time bearing dessert and drinks and we dig in to the feast. They’ve brought Fernet Branca, an Italian herb liqueur. In Argentina, Fernet and Coca Cola are effectively the national cocktail. Unfortunately, I don’t like cola, so Fernet and Coke is, let’s say, an acquired taste. The sweet, bitter Fernet might be great straight or with other mixers but, for me, the cola destroys it. When it comes to national drinks, I’ll stick with Perú’s (and Chile’s) pisco sour.

Yanina and Susan at Cabañas Kangarú
Yanina and Susan at Cabañas Kangarú

While traveling with Indian-American friend Anurag in Chile, though, we gave guests the choice of tacos or Indian food and they always chose Indian, to my chagrin. With Anurag nowhere in sight, though, tacos are back in the saddle. The six of us go through a lot of tacos and have a great conversation throughout. Young Dante gives us a thumbs up and assembles more tacos so we know he really enjoys them.

Chris and Yanina tell us their origin story, they met at a bar in the happening neighborhood of San Telmo in Buenos Aires. Discovering that Yanina was learning English, they decided to get together for language practice. “Language practice”… That’s Chris’ story and he’s sticking to it. They eventually decided to move to Santa Rosa and build a living and a life there. It’s a great cross-cultural story. Chris mentioned yesterday that Yanina resists seat belting their two children for short trips feeling, as many Argentinians do, that danger only exists on the highways. He has been trying to convince her how important it is but apparently without total success.

So when the topic of driving comes up during dinner, both Susan and I, without any prior plan, start relating gory stories of all the deaths and crippling injuries that happened to our friends and classmates in the long ago pre-seat belt days, hoping that the additional input will strengthen Yanina’s resolve.

As we feel like friends rather than customers, we dare to offer some constructive criticism of the cabaña details. Things like providing an extension cord outside so we can sit in the shade with the computer, adding a soap dish in the shower stall — little amenities that make a difference to guests but are rarely commented on. As hoped, these are taken in the spirit in which they’re offered.

Yanina has made dessert, an original, unnamed concoction somewhere between a cake and a pudding and it is delicious. By 11:30 or so, the family heads back across the yard to their house (after Chris generously and unsolicitedly washes dishes), we put away the leftovers and collapse into bed.

Next post: http://blog.bucksvsbytes.com/2019/12/10/south-america-by-subaru-19-11-03-more-meat/

South America by Subaru 19/11/01 – Carless for the day

Prior post: http://blog.bucksvsbytes.com/2019/11/23/south-america-by-subaru-19-10-31-santa-rosa-de-calamuchita/

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With the car in the shop until evening, being repaired after yesterday’s unfortunate tap by Alberto’s pickup truck, we take a rest day hanging out at Cabañas Kangarú, including taking a dip in the swimming pool.

One of the outstanding cabaña amenities is two very friendly dogs, Aussie and Kiwi, who keep us company during whatever precious hours they don’t spend sleeping.

Aussie and Kiwi, Cabañas Kangarú
Aussie and Kiwi, Cabañas Kangarú

We also have several conversations throughout the day with Chris and Yanina. She has generously offered to do a load of laundry for us (“no undies!”) and by afternoon we’re feeling more like houseguests than paying customers. I invite the 4 of them to a taco dinner tomorrow night, which means I have some major shopping to do.

Yanina, Dante, Chris (Vera unavailable), Cabañas Kangarú
Yanina, Dante, Chris (Vera unavailable), Cabañas Kangarú

As evening approaches, I walk a few blocks across the Puente Hierro (Iron Bridge) to catch the bus for the neighboring town of Villa Belgrano where I have to pick up the Subaru. Despite only requesting a rough repair, the body shop has done more than the minimum and the damaged area, while clearly visible, looks pretty good.

Subaru after repair (red circle)
Subaru after repair (red circle)

I drive back to Santa Rosa, pick up Susan, and then Josie. We’re going out to eat at 9 PM, the typical Argentine dinner hour, to her favorite restaurant, a fancy, family run Italian place called Nonna Bertina. The owner knows Josie well and we’re treated as honored guests. By the end of the meal, stuffed with pasta and dessert, we can barely move. The owner is a whiskey connoisseur and offers us a complimentary taste of a rare one. It takes some effort to convince him that the experience (and the expensive booze) would be wasted on us, especially me who thinks straight distilled liquor tastes vile and fine wine is just spoiled grape juice. I’m also cognizant that Córdoba province has 0.00% blood alcohol tolerance for drivers and frequent DWI checkpoints.

Nonna Bertina restaurant, Santa Rosa de Calamuchita, Argentina
Nonna Bertina restaurant, Santa Rosa de Calamuchita, Argentina

After dropping Josie around 11 PM, we return to Kangarú to sleep off the meal.

Next post: http://blog.bucksvsbytes.com/2019/11/25/south-america-by-subaru-19-11-02-tacos-for-6/

Alberto's Biergarten

South America by Subaru 19/10/31 – Santa Rosa de Calamuchita

Prior post: http://blog.bucksvsbytes.com/2019/11/19/south-america-by-subaru-19-10-30-santa-rosa-to-see-friends/

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We get up refreshed after our first night at Cabañas Kangarú. Chris is cleaning the pool outside and we strike up a conversation. He, like me, is not suitable for a 9 to 5 job and seems to have found his niche with Yanina, who is a Buenos Aires escapee. They bought the property, which was a neighborhood trash repository (or “tip” in Chris’ Aussie terminology), brought in machinery to haul off all the garbage, and built their house several years ago. As they found the funds, they added two well thought out cabañas, the pool, and various amenities. The coming summer is their first full season and we are their first non-Argentinian guests.

Yanina brings in outside money teaching in a school, tutoring English, and who knows what else, while Chris’ main work seems to be upkeep of the property. Chris and Yanina are both so friendly we feel at home here after just a few hours.

Susan’s author friend Josie Peralta is who drew us back to Santa Rosa for a second visit. We meet up with her this morning at a coffee shop and catch up on the two years since our last visit.

Josie and Suan at coffee shop, Santa Rosa de Calamuchita, Argentina
Josie and Suan at coffee shop, Santa Rosa de Calamuchita, Argentina

Josie’s invited us to her son, Alberto’s, house in a nearby town for the afternoon. We drive out there with her and enter a gated community with large, sun baked lots and scattered homes. Clearly, there is much more construction to come. Subdivision lots for sale can be seen everywhere in Argentina. Due to the vicious inflation, pesos have no long term value (one friend refers to them as painted paper), so Argentinians are constantly looking for ways to preserve value. Real estate is one favorite approach. Buying dollars, despite legal limitations, is another.

We pull up to a nice house surrounded by open lawn. I park next to a large Toyota Hilux, what I long ago dubbed the Argentine national pickup truck. At one side of the house is a concrete swimming pool, the deep green agae color showing it’s currently unused. Alberto is there to greet us. He grew up in the U.S. while Josie lived in Woodstock NY for many years and only moved to Argentina and learned Spanish as an adult. He’s one of those maddening people who can master a second or third language completely, while I perpetually struggle to speak and, especially, understand anything beyond English. It took me a long time to accept that any language learning I accomplish is by brute force rather than aptitude.

Alberto founded a successful chain of gyms in New York and now makes his living remotely in a most unusual way. Residing in rural Argentina, he owns a popular takeout restaurant in Lahaina, Hawaii! Through a network of cameras and a reliable on site manager, he runs the operation via internet. In inflation ravaged Argentina, his US dollar income seems to keep him very comfortable. For someone like me who’s found a thousand ways not to get rich, his feat is very impressive.

Alberto feeds us parrillada, the Argentine national dish, consisting of several kinds of meats barbecued very slowly over a sparse bed of coals.

Alberto and John discussing asado, Los Reartes, Argentina
Alberto and John discussing asado, Los Reartes, Argentina

Parrilla is an obsession here and every cook has their own secret techniques and spices. In some parts of the country, produce is almost nonexistent because the diet consists almost totally of meat and starch. This led the late Anthony Bourdain to exclaim during a foodie visit to Buenos Aires, “After a week or two here, even confirmed carnivores like myself will fall to their knees praying for a vegetable.” After spending several months, over 4 trips, traveling almost every corner of the country, I know exactly what he meant.

Asado in progress on the parrilla
Asado in progress on the parrilla

Unfortunately, asado (barbecue) here is truly delicious, so the temptation to eat it returns quickly once your body clears out the globules of fat careening through your arteries after a meal. The only down side is that some of the items presented eagerly by your host are various organs and body parts that aren’t very appealing to dilettante carnivores such as myself. It takes some real diplomacy to negotiate exhortations to taste and compliment grilled calf intestine or goat brain on crackers.

Pre-asado appetizers
Pre-asado appetizers

Of course, the meat fest is all wasted on Josie, who is a vegetarian — seemingly one of the few in all Argentina. It must work for her because, at 79, she still has incredible energy and purpose. Alberto makes sure he has items that fit her diet as well.

Josie Peralta at Alberto's house
Josie Peralta at Alberto’s house

We also meet Leonardo, Alberto’s employee who does groundskeeping and other work for him. Leo is a shy man who speaks very softly and reticently, but we soon realize he has a good command of English. It turns out he did very well in school but due to poverty he was unable to advance his education. His is, sadly, a typical South American story.

Leonardo and Susan
Leonardo and Susan

Alberto and I get along famously, despite substantially different approaches to life, and we tend to talk non-stop. It turns out the house we’re in, nice as it is, is just a rental while his “palace” is under construction nearby. After lunch, we all hop in the Hilux so he can show us the new place and his horses. Alberto loves horses, he owns several and is an accomplished jumper, a sport I find excessively dangerous. As he backs off his lawn, instead of heading perpendicularly to the road, he spins the wheel a bit to angle out and — BANG! –the corner of his enormous truck whacks the Subaru parked adjacently. My instinctive reaction is a very sarcastic “Thank you!” which, fortunately, is ignored in the heat of the moment.

The truck bumper hit the front passenger quarter panel and bashed it in noticeably, and the damage is enough to prevent the passenger door from opening fully. Alberto is obviously embarrassed but we put off further discussion until we return from our little tour. First, Josie insists that we stop on a road in the subdivision named Capricornio. I have no use for astrology. In fact, it’s hard to describe how quickly my respect for someone plummets when they give any credence to the idea that the accident of birth divides all humans into 12 categories of personality. I often try to tell astrology nuts that my birthday is 6 months later than it is, so they can go through some elaborate analysis of how my traits fit whatever sign my false birthday puts me in. Unfortunately, Susan, who claims not to believe in this bunkum but brings up the subject repeatedly, never lets me get away with my ploy. She outs my attempted deception immediately. I have yet to receive satisfaction at hearing someone go off an astrological cliff.

Sun dried Capricorns
Sun dried Capricorns

Josie picked up on my distaste for the topic immediately and delights in good naturedly tormenting me with it. Alberto and I were both born in January and she insists that we take pictures under the Capricornio street sign. This humiliation accomplished, we continue on to the new house, Nearing completion, it’s been under construction for, I think, two years and it is impressive. Beautifully designed, it offers great views of the sunset over the western mountains.

Alberto's "palace"
Alberto’s “palace”

Alberto has included space for Josie to move in when she’s ready and for her schizophrenic 60-year old daughter, Alberto’s half-sister, as well. His generosity gives each of them a secure living option as they age, but it strikes me the rural location would make it difficult for either Josie or Leda to engage in external activities and social life. They currently live right in the center of Santa Rosa where they have easy access to cultural events, restaurants, and services.

The pride and joy of the house design is Alberto’s beer garden on the roof, although today it is still unshaded and brutally hot up there.

Alberto's biergarten under construction
Alberto’s biergarten under construction

He has bought an adjacent lot to ensure that no one builds nearby and he’ll be able to keep his horses right outside once he moves in. Our next stop is his temporary pasture, where we meet his three horses.

Alberto and one of his horses
Alberto and one of his horses

Alberto loves these animals and each one plants their wet lips squarely on his face when he intones “Besito” (little kiss). Having never been a horseman, I marvel at the strong bonds some people have with these enormous, intelligent animals. Alberto’s connection with his is obviously very deep.

Besito (little kiss)
Besito (little kiss)

Returning to the scene of the crime, Alberto offers to pay for repairs and I tell him all that’s needed is to yank out the worst of the damage so the door is again functional, rather than “good as new” body work. Really, the 2007 car has 140,000 miles on it and other blemishes (one when I was lightly rear ended at a speed bump by a distracted driver in Tierra del Fuego and another when I carelessly backed a tail light into a tree trunk in Perú). When we’re ready to return to Santa Rosa, we convoy to a body shop en route, drop off the car, and Alberto arranges and pays for a functional repair. The car is promised in 24 hours and Alberto takes us and Josie to our respective residences.

Stuffed to the gills with asado, we don’t even think about dinner and spend the remainder of the evening at the cabaña. Touchingly, Chris tells us Yanina was very worried at our daylong absence, concerned that something happened to us. He reassured her, “No worries. They’re experienced travelers.” I really don’t understand all the unfounded worrying people do. In Susan’s family, it’s a moral crime not to let someone know that you’ve arrived safely after leaving their home. Of course, it’s nice to have someone else do your worrying for you. Since Susan and her sister worry intensely about everything bad that might conceivably happen, I let them carry my load and, as a result, can go through life care free. In Yanina’s case, I find it rather endearing that this young woman bothered to be concerned about the two old farts who she had just met as customers the night before.

Next post: http://blog.bucksvsbytes.com/2019/11/24/south-america-by-subaru-19-11-01-carless-for-the-day/

South America by Subaru 19/10/30 – Santa Rosa to See Friends

Prior post: http://blog.bucksvsbytes.com/2019/11/15/south-america-by-subaru-19-10-29-into-the-wild/

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We pack up camp on a beautiful morning and continue eastward on quiet Argentina Route 20.

One last mara photo from Sierra de las Quijadas National Park
One last mara photo from Sierra de las Quijadas National Park
campsite Don Pilar, Argentina
Campsite Don Pilar, Argentina

We have about 300 miles to go. Our goal is Santa Rosa de Calamuchita for a return visit to Susan’s author friend, Josie Peralta. Like many crossings of central Argentina, we travel on flat, relatively empty land. As usual, we see many goats on and near the pavement. They always look unsupervised but on occasion we see a dog or goatherd off in the brush so I’m sure every herd is watched.

Goats along the highway in San Luis province, Argentina
Goats along the highway in San Luis province, Argentina

Further down the road, we encounter something distinctly more depressing, especially since we’ve seen it several times in Argentina: a long stretch of highway festooned on both sides by plastic bags hanging off rocks, trees, and fences, tens of thousands of them. In some cases this is the result of garbage illegally dumped along the highway by refuse trucks.In this case, the bags are being blown by wind out of a transfer station. It’s fundamentally ugly and indicates a complete lack of local environmental sensibility.

Windblown plastic bag mess near a transfer station, , San Luis province, Argentina
Windblown plastic bag mess near a transfer station, San Luis province, Argentina

Another highway feature is going through a dozen or more checkpoints staffed by various police forces. At some of these, the police are nowhere to be seen, sitting in their roadside trailers or fixed posts. I always imagine them relaxing with their cups of mate tea (the Argentine national drink), whiling their time away on cell phones. This may be an unjust characterization, but I’ve directly seen some examples of it. At many others though, police officers stand on the center line, scrutinizing each vehicle as they all slow to a crawl and either waving it through or stopping it for questioning. I have yet to understand what they’re looking for, except at the occasional Fitosanitario stops where they confiscate any produce seen as a threat to local agriculture. Sometimes there will be three checkpoints within 10 miles, each operated by a different force and with no coordination between them.

When we’re stopped the first question is usually “Where are you going?” followed by a request for some car document: drivers license, registration or, very occasionally, proof of insurance. We’re virtually never asked to show passports. At checkpoints, I suddenly can’t speak Spanish. My first response is generally “No hablo mucho español”, carefully enunciated using atrocious English pronunciation. In some cases, we are waved through with a smile. In others, the officer eagerly trots out whatever English proficiency they have. Occasionally, the conversation continues anyway and I have to focus on not absently switching into Spanish. We’ve never been severely hassled, but some drivers are obviously questioned more intensely. At first, I thought our Chile license plates attracted scrutiny, but we’re ignored as often as we’re halted. The “English only”approach is great for routine stops but I’ve learned that for any more complex interaction with the authorities, it’s better to speak Spanish.

Since I can’t understand what all these stops are looking for, I’m tempted to think they are job creation programs, but that’s probably completely unfair. I have to say, though, that having the police stand in the highway at clearly marked checkpoints is much better than the U.S. system where they’re sneaking around or hiding in an effort to catch motorists violating traffic laws and bringing in major revenue that financially supports whole towns. In the U.S., it should be illegal for any jurisdiction to use court imposed fines for budgetary purposes, to eliminate the incentive for ticket mills. Examples of this abuse are periodically the topic of investigative reporting.

In my first three visits to Argentina, there was zero sign of traffic law enforcement. Cars travel way over the speed limit, pass on double yellow lines, and I quickly learned that “Stop” signs and crosswalks are merely aspirational. Even more maddening, most Buenos Aires neighborhood intersections are completely uncontrolled and, even if they have yield signs, right of way is based on how fast and confidently you enter the intersection (I’ve gotten very good at this). Nonetheless, Argentine driving is relatively safe and we see very few accident scenes.

Now, though, certain provinces are introducing roadside radar traps. We’ve seen, perhaps, a half dozen of these over a few thousand miles, using large, old fashioned, tripod-based antennas with the officer standing at the readout (generally in the shade) and radioing ahead to a nearby checkpoint which cars should be ticketed. It’s a primitive approach, so far, but a sign of things to come. I’m sure the radar, lidar, and speed camera vendors are putting on a full court press to get governmental units to buy more sophisticated equipment and have it pay for itself, and more, with fines.

The most troubling aspect of driving here is the ubiquity of motos, low speed motorcycles that move much more slowly than the cars and then weave in, out, and between lanes where traffic is congested. Many drivers and passengers forego helmets and any sort of protective clothing. It’s quite common to see a tee-shirted driver with a female passenger behind wearing shorts and a tank top zipping along at the bike’s top speed of about 50 mph. We met one man who, drunk, slid under an oncoming truck, and two years later is still recovering from major surgery on 3 of his limbs.

About 200 miles into the day’s drive, mountains loom ahead of us. The highway gets more interesting as it winds through picturesque foothill tourist towns and then begins an impressive ascent between and around granite domes to a high, comparatively uninhabited plateau. The road winds north, then east, then south across the range, finally descending to lower elevations dominated by rolling, wooded hills and a large reservoir in the distance.

We arrive in Santa Rosa and look for lodging. On our last visit we stayed with Josie and her adult daughter but now they’ve moved into two tiny adjacent apartments and can no longer accommodate us. As a result, I apply my lodging strategy, which I think is interesting enough to describe here.

I’m not a big Airbnb fan for a number of reasons. First, the only information you have about a property is what they provide in their listing. You have to commit in advance, sight unseen. The lodger pays the Airbnb commission with no assurance that the posted rate is any lower because of it. If the place isn’t to your liking, the effective answer from Airbnb is most likely, “Too bad” unless there’s been some gross misrepresentation.

Almost every lodging in South America is on booking.com and we use it a lot. Approaching an area, I search for rooms there, set filters to eliminate unwanted listings (Susan’s minimum is private bathroom and, in warm weather, air conditioning. I often want a kitchen or included breakfast. We both want wifi and parking.) Once I get the filtered list, I sort from low price to high and work my way down. I want a high booking.com user rating, at least 8 and preferably close to 10. Some you can eliminate immediately by reading the details or user reviews and some don’t have our desired dates available. Susan and I go down the remainder and look at the pictures and written details. More often than not, we find something both economical and very desirable we can agree on — and believe me that’s no small trick. Even then, since booking.com shows the address and often a searchable name, we don’t have to commit ahead of time. Unless it’s late at night, we drive to each lodging in preference order and eyeball it ourselves before taking the room or moving on.

In Santa Rosa, my method came up with about 10 possibilities. We drove to one after the other, rejecting the first 4 for various reasons: room too dark, street too noisy, shabby interior, inadequate wifi in the room, etc. Our 5th possibility, Cabañas Kangarú, was a winner. 2 well appointed cabins to choose from, good kitchen, swimming pool, protected parking, and a very personable young owner couple, Chris and Yanina, an Australian and a Porteña (a Buenos Aires native) and their two young children, Dante and Vera. We immediately seal the deal for 4 nights and unpack. By 6 PM we’re settled in for the evening.

Next post: http://blog.bucksvsbytes.com/2019/11/23/south-america-by-subaru-19-10-31-santa-rosa-de-calamuchita/

Sunset from Don Pilar campground

South America by Subaru 19/10/29 – Into the Wild

Prior post: http://blog.bucksvsbytes.com/2019/11/14/south-america-by-subaru-19-10-28-rise-from-the-abyss/

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It’s with great relief that we pack up this morning and prepare to leave Mendoza after an unanticipated week here. We have the last of Ines’ breakfasts, take some departure photos, and head northeast out of town.

Ines and John
Ines and John
Ines, Casa Huésped, Godoy Cruz, Argentina
Ines, Casa Huésped, Godoy Cruz, Argentina

Our destination is a national park of which I just became aware a few days ago. We’re traversing typically flat Argentine terrain, along a paved highway with herds of goats grazing on the shoulders. The roads are quite empty and we make good time, covering the 160 miles to the park entrance by 4 PM. Susan has agreed to camp tonight in the park, which is quite isolated and with no nearby services or even, for that matter, public drinking water. I’m excited because this will be Susan’s and my first night in the tent that we purchased almost 2 years ago.

Sierra de las Quijadas is, indeed, remote. A friendly ranger at the entry station explains the layout. Two unrestricted trails, a small campground, and the chance (no guarantees) to see condors, pumas. guanacos, and maras (rodents with rabbit-like features). Unlike most Argentina national parks, there are no hefty entrance charges, although I see evidence of past fee collection. Even the camping is free. We check out the campground and find it surprisingly pleasant and shady for this hot, arid area. Since the sun is getting low, it’s a good time for hiking so we go out to the end of the park road and set out on one of the two short trails. Geologically, the area is an ancient sedimentary basin uplifted into mountains of relatively soft rock that have eroded into badlands — which we have all to ourselves this afternoon. The views out over the valley are gratifying and signs identify many of the plants along the trail.

Sierra de las Quijadas
Sierra de las Quijadas
Intricate erosion
Intricate erosion
Prickly pear cactus
Prickly pear cactus

We see vultures soaring high above, swallows diving frenetically in the ravine below us as they feed on the wing, and a few songbirds but nothing else in the way of wildlife.

Distant vulture
Distant vulture
Feeding swallow
Feeding swallow

Returning to the car we set out on the other unrestricted trail that leads through the sculpted formations to several valley overlooks. It’s not a difficult trail but heat, fatigue, and uneven footing cause us to turn back a little early. I have an extra backtrack detour to retrieve some litter I accidentally left on a bench.

Sierra de las Quijadas
Sierra de las Quijadas

There are two other trails but they require hiring guides, and those guides are based many miles away. One of the walks leads to dinosaur footprints — well, one footprint since the ranger explained that the rest were excavated and transported to a distant museum. Needless to say, the expense and time required to procure a guide don’t seem worth it to us. Now if they could assure we would spot a puma in the wild.. That would be a different story.

On the drive back to the campground, we see several maras in the brush alongside the road. They exhibit little fear of the car or us, continuing to browse as we approach to within 20 feet. They’re odd looking animals, with rabbit like ears and hind feet and an almost tailless two-tone rump.

Patagonian mara (rodent)
Patagonian mara (rodent)

Although not particularly bulky, they’re the fourth largest living rodent, exceeded only by the freakishly large capybara, the beaver, and the porcupine. Although the relaxed ones in front of us don’t show us, they are said to be capable of sprinting 18 or 30 miles per hour. You can choose which number to believe.

Maras
Maras

We’ve traveled thousands of miles in Argentina over 3 trips and can state quite authoritatively that most of the country has been so civilized that it’s virtually devoid of wildlife. Only in designated reserves and some areas of abandoned estancias (ranches) have we spotted anything other than cows, sheep, goats, horses, and the birds and rodents that coexist with them.

Will the guanacos be offended?
Will the guanacos be offended?

We choose the best of the 6 walk-in campsites and start carrying our gear from the car. To my dismay, I discover that the air mattress cap is not with the mattress and pump. I know I packed it but 20 minutes of intense searching fails to locate it. Even though it means sleeping directly on the ground, Susan gamely agrees to camp anyway.

Sierra de los Quijadas campsite
Sierra de los Quijadas campsite

As we eat a cold snack/supper, we’re treated to a magnificent desert sunset.

Sunset from Don Pilar campground
Sunset from Don Pilar campground

As darkness falls, an increasing array of stars become visible due to the clear air and absence of light pollution. In the hours after sunset, we see a crescent moon and 4 planets spaced in a narrow arc of the ecliptic: Venus, Jupiter, Saturn, and Mercury.

left to right: Mercury, Venus, Moon
(left to right) Mercury, Venus, Moon, Jupiter. Saturn was also visible out of camera range.
(left to right) Mercury, Venus, Moon, Jupiter. Saturn was also visible out of camera range.

As the moon sets and the darkness intensifies, the sky fills with stars and the Milky Way is very evident. Even lying in bed later, we see a celestial display though the gauze roof.

Most of the world’s population rarely sees such an unobscured night sky. Already in big cities, the glow of lights makes most stars invisible and it looks like it’s going to get much worse. SpaceX has started launching “constellations” of low orbit satellites to provide global internet service. It plans to have 42,000 of them. Other big companies like Amazon will compete and it’s possible that the look of the night sky, regardless of ground conditions, may be dramatically altered by hundreds of thousands of satellites speeding across it. Our grandchildren might never see what humankind has always known as the starry night.

Despite the hard ground, we drop off to a somewhat fitful sleep in the silent and remote Argentine landscape.

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