Argentina 4: Gaucho Festival, Parque Lanin and Villa General Belgrano

  If we could, we would have stayed longer in the seven lakes area. As luck had it, we visited a typical Argentinian Gaucho gathering. Argentinien und Uruguay sind bekannt für ihre Gaucho Kultur. Pferde und Rinder sind hier die Essenz des Lebens. Caro had no difficulty in persuading us to accompany her to the annual Gaucho festival – what an experience to see how real gauchos were handling their horses. The town Junin de los Andes was abuzz, streets were lined with shops selling everything a gaucho needs. Our stay in San Martin d.l.A. was finally coming to an end – but not before we paid another visit to the famous ice cream shop Mamusia – not to be missed when in the area. After we said our goodbyes we proceeded to Lago Huechulafquen at the foot of Lanin volcano into PN Lanin. Here we found a superb free camping spot among trees (camping libre) far into the park and at the foot of the volcano ( S39°45.1194 W071°30.5982). During the night we had some rain, but the morning turned out perfect and we later passed Corral de Piedras, proceeded along Rio Limay to Embalse Ezequil Ramos Mexia, a huge dam and found a camping spot near the dinosaur footprints at Camping las Huellas, basic but ok. Since we had brought with us a post card from Post Office Bay on Galapagos, we drove to Neuquén, where we delivered the post card to Teres Perleaz, to whom it was addressed, then proceeded on the R151 to Santa Isabel, the road littered with potholes. The road was straight for miles on end and Karin did most of the driving, relaxed as there were no more curves. For the night we reached the town Telen, where we camped in the recreational park – a police woman promised to keep an eye and she patrolled a few times during the night. We tried to cover a good distance through the pampa – not the most diverse landscape. Passed through Victoria toward the North, then through Villa Mercedes, an ugly and poor town. While en-route to Merlo we got hit by one of the notorious hailstorms and had to seek shelter to prevent the vehicle getting damaged. Many other vehicles stopped and draped their windscreens with blankets. The soft light and the clouds were beautiful and impressive. In Merlo we overnighted at El Rincon Camping Municipal; the town is worth visiting, close to the mountains, full of restaurants, art shops and action companies offering paragliding, fuffy sliding (Tirolesa), quadbiking etc. We had a terrible rain storm during the night- not the best night for all the campers at El Rincon. Following a breakfast and stroll through the picturesque town, we hit the road through the mountains towards Villa General Belgrano – the road had been closed due to the storm, but as we proceeded the first paragliders jumped and enjoyed the view from high up and were soaring with Condors. The mountain road became almost a track and quad bike groups and enduros raced along. We were rather surprised when an oncoming camper vehicle suddenly stopped and the two occupants jumped out and greeted us – Eric and Nancy Hesemans are the owners of the balloon safaris along the route towards Sossusvlei in Namibia. What a surprise in the middle of the Andes. They were on their way to Vallecitos Parque Natural and hopeful to see some Condors. (Note: the red Mercedes bus shown below is not theirs -it is typical for some locally converted camper buses) We reached Embalse Ministro Juan Pistarini, the camp site at La Cruz was very busy and partially flooded, then we passed a Nuclear powerstation after Embalse and ended on Camping Club de Pesca, which was pleasant and not overly full. After a stroll along the lago and a small breakfast, we proceeded to Villa General Belgrano, a village with the largest annual beerfest (Oktoberfest) in Argentina. I-Overlander indicated that Camping la Florida is a popular stop over, run by owners Ralf Lage and Bettina Wittkop, originally from Hamburg’s pub scene. While we were setting up camp, travel friends Willy and Gaby Cordes arrived in their bright red Toyota Hilux (we called them bombeiros due to the red vehicle – an unusual colour for overlanding vehicles). Willy kindly offered us his gas bottle, which fitted our bracket perfectly (we had lost our Cadac gas bottle in Ecuador ). Ralf persuaded us to partake in his Super Asado – a braai of enormous volume: sausage like Chorizo, Blood sausages, chicken, the fatty gland that regulates the growth hormones in cattle, beef ribs cut across, all with the typical Chimichuri sauce. We spent the evening until late, eating and talking as it is typical for an asado. Our first full day at the camp was occupied by washing, cleaning, mailing, blogging. Then we walked into the town – mind boggling to hear old german folk and country songs, every shop offering various Oktoberfest paraphernalia including the widest variety of beer mugs. Below a liter capacity nothing seems to go. We spent a restful evening at the camp, assisting Bettina to book some flights as they do not have any credit card facilities at the camp. We had ordered fresh, home baked bread and met the Bavarians Sepp and Annemarie Still. They promptly convinced us to stay on their small holding next afternoon, where they had Gaucho friends coming across and it gave us a chance to meet some of the locals –both gaucho and Germans, some being descendants of the Graf Spee mariners, a ship that sunk in Montevideo in WWII. The next afternoon and evening we spent outside Villa Los Reartes at their small holding, the visitors singing while Annemarie played an accordion, first having coffee and cake and then eating a pork, masterly prepared by Sepp. This post covers 12th to 22nd February 2017

Argentina 3: San Martin de los Andes and Camino del Siete Lagos

We were keen to see Argentina and the beautiful lakes district and we were fortunate to be able to base ourselves with our friend Caro Mantella in San Martin to explore from there. Caro was our guide on a previous Antarctica trip and she runs the travel company Icetracks Expeditions. Das Seengebiet diesseits der Anden ist bekannt für seine unberührte Schönheit und Natur. Wir campten bei unserer Bekannten Caro Mantella und bekamen jede Menge gute Tipps für dieses Gebiet. This was now our first Chile – Argentina border crossing. We knew that the Chileans are very thorough on entering their country –how would they be when exiting and how would the Argentinia border post be? Once we passed through Coñaripe we continued on a dirt road towards the Chilean border – the crossing was quick and little interest was shown in the contents of the vehicle. Continuing along the beautiful mountain pass Carirriñe we passed through a lush forest area and drove along Lago Huechulafquén, barely visible behind the dense trees. However Volcan Lanin (3768m) omnipresent and clearly visible, while the road was getting smaller until we finally reached the Argentinian border. Although some other vehicles were searched, our customs official, who spoke some English, was more interested in talking about South Africa – a country he would love to visit. Then we proceeded to Laguna Verde to find a spot to camp inside the  National Parque Lanin (Peso 300 for the night). We enjoyed a walk around this clear lake, watched some anglers catching trout and had a very quiet night with a little drizzle. We laid in for a while waiting for the rain to stop and Caro and her friend Jurek with her big fluffy dog Naook (“polar bear”) arrived. On our way back we stopped at a grove of old Araucaria trees, apparently a remnant of the Mapuche Indians who used the seeds of the trees as food. As we got closer to San Martin de los Andes, we were greeted by fields of Golden Amancay, Slipper Flowers, Fuchsia and many others. We managed to manoevre our vehicle up the steep path into the back garden at Caro’s house, which would be our next “wild” camping spot within the forest area – thanks, Caro, for allowing us to stay and we enjoyed the time tremendously – including the welcoming braai – "Asado"- with her friends. It did not take long and neighbours visited to view our somewhat unusual vehicle. The next few days were like a holiday – visiting the town, driving to Caro’s brother Marco and his family to barbeque and to motorboat on Lago Meliquina – with stunningly clear waters. Late afternoon we proceeded and found a nice camping spot along the Rio Traful, close to a ridge where we might have a chance to see Condors in the morning. Next morning Karin discovered a Condor sitting high up and we decided to stay put to observe it. I climbed up along the ridge to get closer and by about 11:30 we are lucky to see it taking off after preening itself, then spreading its massive wings a number of times to see whether the thermals were getting strong enough to take off. Our drive from here passed through very scenic rock formations, the area also being a popular free-climbing area. We passed Lago Traful, through Villa Traful, a beautiful village with a number of camping sites in the area. Continued along Ruta 65 until we reached Ruta 40, passed Lago Correntoso, Laguna Bailey Willis, Laguna Bullines, Laguna Espejo on the Camino del Siete Lagos (seven lakes route) until we reached Villa Angustura on Lago Nahuel Huapi (another quaint village but very touristic and expensive). For the night we drove to Lago Espejo Chico and stayed for Peso 150 pP on the lake. We could not take a shower ( which costs extra) as we missed the shower time – how odd to regulate shower times, something we are not used to from South African camping sites and parks. We continued around the lakes area, took a swim in the cold Lago Traful and reached the  free camping area Lago Villarino situated between Lago Villarino and Lago Faulkner where we met with Caro and her dog Nanook again. Next day we took the Ruta 40 to the south, stopped and trailed to the waterfall Cascada Ñivinco and finally turned north on R237 through an area reminiscent of the Drakenberg in SA. While we set up a wild camp along the Rio Limay, we noticed another camper with two horses – here we met Felipe Masetti Leite, a young Brazilian who had previously travelled from Canada to Brazil on horse (his book “The Long Way Home” will be published in a few weeks) and who is currently heading to Ushuaia by horse, having started in Brazil. At this stage he had been on horseback for 4 ½ years. We shared some stories as well as our concern as he was heading into winter time in southern Patagonia. Early morning the local TV arrived to interview him before he proceeded. His next planned adventure is to ride from Marokko to Cape Town – so maybe we shall meet again.   The Rio Limay seemed to be a popular trout fishing area –a number of smaller boats passed us with anglers. We drove along the Limay towards Embalse Alicurá, passed the Mirador del Condor, a large cliff where Condors tend to nest, then on to Junin de los Andes, photographed volcano de Lanin on the way and were certain that it was emitting a large plume of smoke – somewhat unusual and were later convinced by Caro that it merely were clouds. Back in San Martin de los Andes we had a chance to catch up with homework and paid a visit to the private museum of the family Nicolaevici. The well-know photographer Isaias Miciu Nicolaevici showed us around the private collection of family artworks started by his grandfather Konstantino, who arrived from Rumania after the world war. His son Georg continued as an artist and so did all the children of the current generation. The gallery is called Museo Coleccion Georg and not only houses the paintings, but also the incredible photos of son Eliseo, a renown photographer of Patagonia. Following this inspiring visit, we departed with Caro to the annual Gaucho festival in Junin de los Andes – another new experience.   This post covers the period 2nd to 11th February 2017

Chile 5: Araucaria trees, Valdivia and the Lakes around Puerto Varas

For our first trip to South America, we were reaching the final stage in Chile. Our aim was to travel down into the lakes region before crossing the Andes into Argentina. Exploring the southern tip had to wait until we return later in 2017. Die Jahreszeiten fingen an, unsere Route zu bestimmen. Es wurde langsam aber sicher zu spät im Jahr, noch an den südlichen Zipfel Südamerikas zu denken. So wollten wir in dieser Runde noch bis an die Seen Region in Chile vorstossen, um dann die Anden nochmals zu überqueren und durch Argentinien dann in Uruguay zu enden, wo der Wagen für ein paar Monate abgestellt werden könnte. After returning to Molina we travelled down Ruta 5 again, passed Talca and turned off eastwards at Chillán to stay at Camp Extremo 19km away from the town. Caution: Do not jump head first into their pool –it is only  1m deep everywhere. Nevertheless it was pleasant to cool down on this 34°C day. We found a quiet camping spot under large trees and had a pleasant night,albeit windy. Next day we continued further down the Pan Americana, turned to Nacimiento, close to Los Angeles along the Rio Bio Bio, then up to Coronel and past Curanilahue, Tres Pinos, on to Cañete, where we turned off towards P.N. Nahuelbua 47km away. As we came closer, the planted Eukalyptus forests gave way to the old Araucaria forests and other indigenous trees like the Coigües, Robles and Lengas. The park had various hiking trails and we hiked up to the Mirador Piedra del Aguila, a round trip of approx. 9km. On this trail we saw the ancient Araucaria Milenia, a 2000 year old specimen – wow! From the mirador we could look across the entire country –from the Argentinian border to the coast. We also saw two elusive Magellanic Woodpeckers with their bright red hood and black bodies. After the walk we took a cold shower in the rather dilapidated ablutions. It again reminded us how good the parks in Southern Africa actually are. During the afternoon the light changed due to the forest fires and the next morning we realized everybody had left –including the rangers. As ash was trickling down we decided to rather move on, although this park begged to stay for longer. From the park we continued down the P70, passed Tirúa and Puerto Saavedra and stopped on lago Budi at a private and friendly site called Camping Boca Budi. From here we drove along lago Budi then along the coast with black beaches, lots of seabirds, passed Nueva Tolten and stopped at Bahia Queule, a small fishing village with its Black Crowned Night Herons sporting their white feather on the head. For the night we reached the city of Valdivia and camped on Complejo Turistico on Isla Teja amidst a plantation of fruit trees. What a luxury getting a private ducha with hot water allocated for each camp site. Valdivia experienced an earthquake in 2010 but has been rebuilt and we spend hours wandering around, enjoying Kunstmann beer that is brewed locally and admired some of the buildings with old German architecture. A day trip along the coast was worthwhile, driving via Curñanco to Pilolcura, scenic coastal landscape ending where we could observe many breeding red-legged cormorants. We proceeded south to Osorno, we turned off inland and reached Lago Puyehue (after a supper at Cerveceria Armin Schmidt, an artisanal beer brewer next to the road and worth a visit)  to camp at Cabañas y Camping Los Copihues with views of the vulcanoes Osorno and Casablanca with their peaks covered in snow. The lake was clear and inviting, the camping site quiet and pleasant despite the many holiday makers. Next day we continued via Entre Lagos, past Lago Rupanco, via Puerto Klocker, passed the Osorno volcano and then stumbled across a very good restaurant close to Rincon Alemana run by a German couple – a place worth having a good meal at. We continued along Lago Llanquihue to Puerto Varas – at the entry of which is a German school and next to it a Jumbo Supermercado with a fine selection of delicatessen that we by now were craving for. Puerto Varas is a quaint and clean town that could be in the Black forest area of Germany. We found a good camping spot a few km outside the town at Camping Hermosa, on the lake, we swam and enjoyed the view of Volcano Osorno. Here we should have met our friends Caro and Vincente from Argentina, but they ended having vehicle problems. In order to meet them we continue back north to Osorno, Lago Ranco, Futruno and camped just before Los Lago at Camping Los Suizo where at last we then met up with our friends. We all departed to Temuco – our friends to buy spares (currently much cheaper than Argentina) and we used the opportunity to get an oil change done, brakes checked and looked for an airfilter at the garage of Edgar Schneider who was very helpful. The airfilter we had to order from Toyota ex Santiago which would take 2 days. 35km East of Temuco we camped at Estero Cobulto with owners Elly and Werner – all clean and a quiet setting among trees, good ablutions. Then we returned to Temuco to get the filter, but were unlucky with regard to wheel alignment we wanted to get done, as no company could lift the heavy Landcruiser (4tons) – so we left it for now and carried on towards Villarica where the Volcano Villarica is still active ( 2840m). On the route to the border along Lago Calafquen we again camped on a farm-like site run by an elderly indigenous couple – a pleasant and clean camping site among some fruit trees, named Camping La Ruca de la Teo. From here we drove past a few Termas towards the border – a small road through Coñaripe, through forests and on to the Chilean border post –nobody was interested to check the vehicle this time as we were leaving Chile to Argentina and not visa versa. This post covers 21st Jan - 2nd Feb 2017