Bob & Lynne Douglas's Great
Chapter 4 - Heading North
By Lynne Douglas
The day we left Ushuaia, Mother Nature had a bad case of PMT; she was already throwing the furniture around in a fit of the vapours. We set off in sleet which rapidly turned to horizontal snow as we gained height to cross Paso Garibaldi. It was so much colder, but as we dropped down to the northward side of the mountains the snow gave way to clearing skies and a screamer of a wind. The sun came out but it was still cold; I spent the morning as I was to carry on the rest of the day clinging on to the hood and nearside sidescreen with both hands.
We crossed the border out of Argentina and back into Chile virtually unable to stand upright at the border posts. The wind put a parting in our eyelashes and our Tilly (guaranteed never to blow off if you put them on according to our instructions) hats failed the Patagonia test several times.
Then onto a gravel road for 100kms, thankfully recently graded, to meet the shorter ferry back to the mainland from the northern part of Tierra del Fuego. We thought, being a short crossing, that we could just drive on. Instead we found a three and half hour queue. Never mind, we had the accommodation sorted out and that was just 5 kms from the ferry on the other side. As night fell we found that the hosteria had been taken over by an oil company for offices. That meant another 150kms and another border crossing out of Chile and back into Argentina until we made Rio Gallegos.
We crossed the border at 11.30pm and finally found a hotel with a room at 1.30am next day in Rio Gallegos on the Atlantic coast of Patagonia. These long days in trying conditions are tiring. We had planned on an orderly retreat from Worlds End; what we got was 648 kms, 150 kms of that on gravel, two border crossings, a snow storm, a howler of a wind, over 13 hours in the saddle and a long queue.
Routa 3 runs northwards parallel to the Atlantic coast all the way up to Buenos Aires. The plan was to follow routa 3 up to Commodorio Rivadavia for a couple of days and then strike across Patagonia WNW to Bariloche in the Argentinian Lake District.
Routa 3 must be one of the worlds most boring roads. Some of it is brand new tarmac, most of it is one great big roadworks with gravel temporary roads running alongside, too much of it is old tarmac in a poor state. Argentina is spending huge amounts of money on infrastructure in Patagonia. As well as the dry, dusty Patagonian steppe country, vast areas are producing oil via oil derricks slowing nodding like geriatric dinosaurs. Oil storage tanks and power lines dot the landscape, oil tankers ply routa 3 constantly.
Heavy goods vehicles do a lot of damage to the road surface, hence all the improvements. The bits they havent got to yet were just as damaging as ripio. Instead of constant vibration we would manage 80kph, dodging potholes, ridges, gouges and all manner of contortions but sometimes we just couldnt spot them all and that is when the suspension took sudden and severe shocks at speed.
After one day off ripio, we discussed how lucky we had been not to do any more damage to suspension and not to have any tyre damage, just normal wear and tear. The next morning we awoke to find a flat rear tyre. It was a slow puncture so we were able to get through the day by reinflating at regular intervals. In Commodorio Rivadivia we found the offending rear tyre was split inside which had pinched the tube. Hence the slow puncture. There was no sign of damage on the outside of the tyre. So, we ended up with Michelins all round with just an odd tyre left on the spare, and one spare tube. The Blue Goo worked to a point so that the tube didnt completely deflate, hence the slow puncture.
We were still in guanaco and armadillo country but the hares were less in evidence with more sightings of skunks, mostly flattened on the road. These little guys are cute in a Walt Disney sort of way, black with a white mohecan stripe from between the eyes all the way to the tip of the tail. After coming across the first squashed skunk we simultaneously started singing:
There were a lot more rheas around in big pre-school nursery groups with a couple of adult care assistants to keep them under control. They seemed to favour the road verge, possibly because the sparse vegetation was greener from the rain runoff. What a nightmare keeping tabs on so many youngsters.
There were still cyclists slogging out routa 3. OK, it was sealed, but so boring and featureless. We could not fathom out their motivation, nor that of a guy walking routa 3, or rather pushing a handcart with his rucksack and other camping clobber. He had a sort of benign grin all over his face. He must be on something. Whatever launches his boat, he needs sectioning.
The further west we traveled the greener and more mountainous things got; the drive northwards to Bariloche parallel to the Andes was fantastic. The Argentinian Lake District knocks the Chilean side into a cocked hat. The town of Bariloche perches over Lago Nuhuel Huapi, a huge lake with "fingers" that spread in all directions. Buildings are in the Swiss chalet style, sometimes to the point of pastiche.
The whole area is a popular tourist destination summer and winter, and justly so. Many people told us it was like Queenstown on South Island and to some extent it is, but not entirely. Plus there is a bonus it is famous for chocolate and preserves. We found a chocolate emporium, an old-fashioned store stacked to the gunnels with so much chocolate you put pounds on just walking past the door.
Our next target was Buenos Aires, a four day slog NE with big distances and again, very little in the line of places to stay along the way. We have sampled the full range of accommodation so far from five star hotels, fantastic campsites, great cabanas to total flea pits. The hotel in Zapala was a dump in total contrast to the hotel in Choele Choel and both cost the same. Travellers in non-tourist areas are a captive audience and theres nothing we can do about it. The upside is that they are cheap; cracked washbasins and sheets so thin you can read a newspaper through them havent killed anyone yet.
Somewhere along this trip we found we had broken a front shock absorber mounting bracket. We blame the poor state of some of the sealed roads rather than the ripio we checked the shockers all round regularly. We discussed the options and decided to proceed to Buenos Aires, just to remove the bracket and let the spring do the work.
After the green and pleasant scenery of the Lake District, the landscape gave way to the dry and dusty barren stuff again. Something strange happened to the price of petrol somewhere after Bariloche the price rose by 40%. Nothing to do with geography, transport costs etc, just a plain ordinary price rise. Hows that for inflation?
Further east green appeared again and suddenly, the traffic got a lot heavier. We were traveling through a fruit growing area apple, pear, plum, cherry and stone fruit orchards spread for a hundred kilometers along a wide river valley. All this traffic vanished along with the orchards as the scenery returned to dry and brown again.
From Bahia Blanca on the Atlantic coast, the scenery changed once more to green. Enormous, flat fields given over to beef cattle, sunflowers or maize spread all the way to Buenos Aires. This is pampas and exactly as we pictured it. It is a prosperous agricultural area, with many more roads servicing more towns and communities, with the proportionate heavier traffic. Argentina is famous for its quality beef and most of it was Aberdeen Angus judging by the colour of the cattle.
It was on one of our peestops that we spotted our first South American snake. Now, we know that Anacondas are bad news, but what were we to make of a 60cm long, green, gold and black reptile? I didnt want to be bitten on the bum, well, not by a snake anyway, so what is a girl to do? Scream? Faint clean away? Back off slowly? Did it have reinforcements? Was it poisonous? How many per square kilometer? So many unanswered questions. I chose option three.
The traffic was building fast as we got to within 50kms of Buenos Aires and we found the first bit of autopista. Judging from the map it dumps you in the centre of Buenos Aires. With fingers crossed we were swept along with the mounting traffic hurtling headlong into Buenos Aires. The city has a reputation for mad traffic but we were not overwhelmed as we expected, probably because it was Saturday. We found the drivers polite and patient; one offered to lead us to our hotel! We must look like a right pair of gringos.
We had sorted a hotel with secure parking, so secure the entrance took some finding. It was supposed to be a four star hotel. Whatever. Walking the streets looking for a meal was fun. The place was full of milling crowds of locals and tourists just promenading around the narrow streets. There is music everywhere, not blaring pop music but sophisticated tango music. There are street artists, tango demonstrations, hawkers, an all-pervading smell of leather, classier than usual souvenir shops and leather jackets for Africa. Restaurants dont really get into full swing until 9pm and stay open until very late. Buenos Aires is best described as vibrant.
Restaurant cooked meat has something of the Inquisition about it. Parrillas and Asados (grills and roasts) are several steps closer to the dead animal that the sanitized versions we get in Europe and North America. Asados in particular, where a lamb carcass is impaled, spreadeagled, on an iron frame and then hung over an open wood fire to slow roast looks more like Medieval torture than food preparation. We still see the occasional spit roast pig at village fairs in the UK but nothing on this scale. The asado is everywhere, and in Chile too.
On Sunday we morphed into tourists, so we headed for a craft market in the uptown area of Recoleta via wide boulevards and tree-lined streets. Buenos Aires has some wonderful old buildings in the grand Baroque style. There is a lot of granite, marble, ironwork and gilt. They like huge doors, huge impressive doors. Avenida 9 Julio is the widest boulevard in the world but wait for China to top that soon.
Recoleta is an old fashionable area populated it seems by well-to-do old ladies with dogs which they parade around streets and allow to foul pavements. Our mission however was the Sunday craft market in Plaza Francia. Jewellery was the most sold item, including a very interesting, if not eccentric guy selling pendants reflecting ones birth sign according to the Mayan calendar. Apparently I am a Luna sign governed by the Wind. It is Mayan for "I talk a lot", or in Yorkshire tongue, "Im a bag of wind", or even "I like the sound of my own voice". Mmmmm. He claimed to be of Mayan descent and that all Mayans are witches. He looked the part.
We accidentally stumbled across Recoleta Cemetery, a major tourist destination. Now, cemeteries are not on our hot list of things to see whether we are on holiday or not. Argentinians have a different attitude to death than us Europeans. They do not so much bury their dead, they bank them. In Recoleta cemetery you find the dead of the great and the good and the rich, all tucked away for long term investment in family mausoleums, including the mortal remains of Eva Peron. Some of these houses of the dead rich were bigger than the houses of the living poor.
Buenos Aires has a reputation for not being safe. By not safe they mean tourists are easily identified and easy picking for thieves. We wore money belts with Kevlar straps that cannot be cut, and spread our credit and debit cards around our person so no one hit costs us too much. The most you can withdraw from any ATM is £50 per day, the rationale being that you then dont get robbed of too much money.
With the number of policemen and security guards on the streets, all "tooled up", pickpockets would have a hard time making a living, except in the areas devoid of such security. We have no problem with guns so long as they are not pointed at us. As soon as we lost sight of a gun, we headed back to where they were in evidence. Is all this armed security a preventive measure, or a reaction to an existing problem? What would it be like without them? There are armed security men at all supermarkets, banks and most public places. I prefer them to be there than not. To be absolutely honest, we never felt insecure.
The older guide books tell you to keep away from the docks, but recently the whole dock area has been tarted up and is now fashionable apartments, offices and restaurants. We meant to carry on to La Boca, another tourist area, but the heat and humidity got the better of us. God bless air conditioning.
Tomorrow we head for Uruguay and Montevideo via a high speed ferry from Buenos Aires. A contact in Brazil tells us that our major problem there will be mud Mother Nature has been at it again and has decided that an extended Rainy Season is in order.
© 2008 Lynne Douglas