Mendoza to Bariloche and beyond
3/5/06 2 °C
My last few days in Mendoza were spent wandering around with no particular purpose, as a way to recover from my adventure travel fad. Back at our cute little hostel, the old timers, aka those of us who had been staying there for more than three days, had formed a little exclusive gang made up of 4 Scots, 2 Brits, 2 Irishmen, 1 Canadian, and me. We gambled bottles of wine on Connect-4 and UNO championship tournaments, compared travel horror stories, and shot dirty looks at the wave of Australian athletes that had just come in, whispering amongst ourselves "What are they doing at OUR hostel....".
Being that I renewed my room reservation late, I was banished to the basement, a dark room with no windows, where my roommate was Franco, a chatterbox Chilean/Canadian who tells lively stories where he is, suspiciously enough, always the hero. The main example of this was when Franco went whitewater rafting on Tuesday and some "Americano!" fell out of the boat and freaked out, forgetting to assume the safety position of pointing your toes toward the current. Quick on his feet, Franco grabbed the poor sucker by the shirt and yelled "Look at me, man! Look at me! There is a rock coming our way...you need to CALM down." This speech somehow had a great calming effect on the victim and Franco eventually pulled him to safety. I didn´t believe this story so Franco made us go to the travel agency and buy a CD of pictures of that day that show the heroic moment, shot by shot. On Wednesday, Franco and Claudia (Holland) convinced me to go to the zoo, where me and Claudia got depressed by the small cages and Franco kept getting lost looking for the tigers. We hit an incredible monsoon ONCE AGAIN (these things are following me), where we hid under a vendor´s umbrella as 1 inch pieces of HAIL slammed down onto the pavement. The storm lasted for 30 thundering minutes so we had to entertain ourselves by listening to a fellow zoo patron sing "I´m sigggneee in da rain!" and by staring at the elephant that was picking up falling branches and hitting himself over the head with them (not a good sign) so then it was time to leave. Leave Mendoza that is, I caught the 8 pm bus that night for Bariloche. It was the end of the week and I already owed a total of 9 bottles of wine (that´s 18 games of UNO, mind you), so I had to quickly skip town before someone came (to the basement) to break my knees.
I got on my Andesmar bus (because it goes from the Andes to the mar or ocean) and sat down next to Luis, a really sweet 70 year old porteno, and for the next 5 hours, he practiced his English and I practiced my Spanish. I learned that I have been mixing up the words for religious and hairy. We also played Andesmar Bingo, where the steward hands out Andesmar Bingo cards and when you have two vertical or horizontal lines, you have to yell out ANDESMAR BINGO! while everyone stares at you in contempt. The prize is a bottle of wine that you have to share with the rest of the bus. Neither Luis nor I won, so we went to sleep and woke up the next morning in Nuqueyen, my layover en route to Bariloche. Luis and I exchanged emails and parted ways. While waiting for the bus, I met Paula, a pastry chef from Rio Gallegos. We exchanged emails. I continued onwards south, where on my second bus, we played yet another exciting game of Andesmar Bingo. Well, lo and behold, I got two vertical lines so I mustered up all my courage and said quietly..."Andesmar...Bingo??". The steward didn´t hear me and continued calling the numbers in excitement. My fellow passengers (who had looked suicidal up to that point) suddenly found a cause, MY cause, and rallied to my defense, repeatedly yelling Andesmar Bingo! until the steward stopped the game and collected my card. Everyone held their breath. He shook his head sadly. If I had listened to the instructions, he said, I would have understood that I need to fill up the entire grid to win. All the passengers shook their head at me....poor turista...and the game continued! Onward to Andesmar Bingo!!
I arrived in Bariloche in late afternoon, to a stunning view of dozens of bright blue lakes snaking around green patches of forest, all against the backdrop of the snowcapped Andes. The weather was noticeably cooler, probably 60 degrees or so. While waiting for the bus, I met two Chilean hippies. They emphatically decided they would be my hosts in Santiago and we exchanged emails. This whole email exchange...it´s kind of silly...everyone does it but noone ever follows up. Maybe that´s a good thing? I arrived in Hostel 41 Below (that´s a reference to latitude), an awesome hostel run by a laid back New Zealander named Paul. Imagine a modern ski lodge with red leather couches, fully equipped kitchen, and Coldplay playing in the background. Snowboarder-Skater dude Miguel was working the front desk and, with zero pity for my 24 hour journey, he immediately sent me off on a trek up Cerro Otto, an amazing panoramic view of the area. But not before we sat down to drink some mate, the official tea of Argentina, the official hobby of Argentina. Everyone has their own nicely decorated mate cup with a metal straw, and you´re usually not allowed to drink from someone else´s mate unless you have permission. There are a lot of rules concerning mate. Miguel limited our lesson to yelling at me to not touch the straw..."You foreigners...you´re always touching the straw...just leave the damn straw alone." Okay, okay!
The next few days were pretty fun. I went white water rafting in Rio Mansu, a relaxing current with some pretty exciting rapids, all against the backdrop of the mountains. We all dutifully rowed and ducked when leader Alan told us to. Half of the boat spoke English and the other Spanish so Alan kept getting confused, and getting us confused, with the captain´s commands. Alto! No, stop. No, the left. derecha, derecha!! No, no, no!! DUCK!!! We ended the day with some hot chocolate and torta frita with dulce de leche in some random wood cabin in the woods. Very nice. The nights were spent hanging out with the hostel people, going out to jazz bars, and gorging myself on Bariloche´s famous chocolateries, most notably Mamuschka´s. On the third day in Bariloche, I received a dramatically mysterious note from Miguel telling me to go to El Boliche de Alberto, a famed Barilochean parilla, at 9 pm. When I arrived, Paul and his friend Daniel were there, fresh from the Chilean beaches, and we sat down to a steak dinner, eating 1800 grams of sizzling steak which Paul swore was served by white haired Alberto himself. We ate so much that I swore off steak for the rest of my life, which I´m pretty sure I can now do. I guess it was just a fad, sorry mom and dad. We went night clubbing to bad eighties music (think ABBA but none of their famous songs) and the next day, we visited the casino where I found a magic poker machine and the Villa Sofia spa, where we got one hour massages (I fell asleep so I guess it was good) and ran from the hot tub to the pool to the hot tub to the pool approximately 35 times. Paul left for good this time (I swear!) so it was sad to see him go but he´s excited about starting his own bar so we high fived and promised to keep in touch.
Tuesday was so bad that I have describe it in an organized way. I had signed up for a boat excursion out to Isla Victoria, an island that has the very famous Arreyanes forest with very old tree and plant forms. I was supposed to be there at 2 pm. The journey to Puerto Panuelo, the port where the ship is harbored, is a 30 minute bus ride. I left the hostel at 10. This is what happened:
10:00- I leave my hostel.
10:15- I catch bus #21 to Puerto Panuelo
10:30- I realize that I have 14 pesos on me. The park entry is 12 pesos. The bus ride back is 2 pesos. Too close.
10:45- I get off at Merito, a port with a huge kindergarten smack in the middle of it. I look for a bank. No banks.
11:00- I catch bus #21 back to the center of town. The winds are insane today, 45 mph. This cuts out all the electricity in every bank in town. The ATMS are out. I wait 45 minutes for them to come back on.
11:45- I catch bus #21 back towards Puerto Panuelo. It does not go to Puerto Panuelo, instead heading south through every dusty town in Argentina. At the end of the route, it is just me and the driver in an empty field. I say "Puerto Panuelo?" and he just laughs.
12:00- The driver has finished his lunch and we head on back.
12:10- 75 kindergarteners get on the bus. The bus capacity is 52.
12:45- I get dropped off at, you guessed, Merito, along with all the kindergarteners. The crossing guard helps us across the street.
1:30- I catch bus #20 toward Puerto Panuelo.
1:50- I arrive. Fernando will not let me on the boat, saying I am not on the list. I say my name to him repeatedly. He shakes his head. As I watch my boat leave the harbor, Fernando says "Oh...found it." . I stomp off, wishing the worst for Fernando, that the milk in his fridge will go bad, or that he will get bitten by a monkey.
2:10- In my rage, I decide to hike up Mount Liao Liao, a muddy, jungly island which happens to be right there.
3:00- Still mad, I am stomping up the muddy mountain.
3:10- I hear a bear approx 3 meters from me. I run down Mount Liao Liao. I take back all the bad things I thought about Fernando.
4:00- The continous rain that has been falling for the last four hours turns into a shower. It is cold and I am wet. I find a church on top of a hill and hide out there in the warmth. I make a promise to find Jesus in exchange for a cup of hot chocolate. They are sweet, but there is no hot chocolate, so I decide to stay a Jew. They seem okay with that.
4:30- Home sweet home.
4:33- I learn that there are no bears on Mount Liao Liao.
After this day, the only thing left to do was to go to my magic poker machine at the casino, which did not let me down. 8 US dollars, baby!
The remaining days in Bariloche were unfortunately rainy so trekking was out of the question. One day, I explored the "unknown Bariloche" with Susie (USA) and Pablo (BsAs). We wandered around dusty streets which Pablo insisted were not safe. I tried in vain to explain to him my 3 rules of safety.
1. Look pissed off. I´ve perfected this look and I use it most of the time when I´m walking alone. This works for minor dangers, like when someone is looking at you.
2. Pretend you have a cell phone earpiece in your ear and start talking loudly. This works if someone is following you...they´ll usually walk away, either because they think you´re talking on your cell phone or because they think you´re a weirdo.
3. Find an old lady. This is for really unsafe situations. Just find an old lady and start walking with her, because noone, anywhere in the world, will ever mess with someone´s grandma.
I thought these rules were pretty damn good but Pablo did not seem convinced, especially after we passed a carful of boys sniffing glue, so he ushered us back to the main plaza. Sigh...
On Thursday, I said goodbye to the awesome hostel staff and boarded a 7 am bus to El Chalten, a 2 day, 32 hour bus ride through Ruta 40, a desolate, unpaved road that goes from Bariloche to El Calafate, the home of Perrito Moreno, one of the most famous glaciers on the continent. As I move south, the landscape is getting more and more barren, but also more spectacular. It is bitterly cold and the winds easily reach 60 mph...quite the difference from the tropical climate of Iguazu, huh. I´ve almost reached The End of the World...very exciting. Stay tuned!