The panic set in on our second night in Los Antiguos. We’d just come back from a needlessly long expedition to the Cave of Hands. The following day was the start of the thirtieth annual Cherry Festival (the only thing that ever happens in Los Antiguos) and since all the rooms were booked we would be moving to the neighboring town of Perito Moreno. There we had a reservation for two nights in an apartment and a day trip to the Marble Caves.
Anyhow, with our next major transit three days away, I crawled through our hotel’s painfully narrow Internet connection to check on buses from Perito Moreno to Esquel. The last time I’d looked, just days before, there were plenty of seats remaining.
A few searches online confirmed that the bus was now sold out.
I’m not ashamed to admit it – I freaked.
Perito Moreno is on Route 40, the north-south backpackers’ road along the Argentinian side of the Andes. For the most part, the Taqsa/Marga bus company has a monopoly on this route, and they only run one bus per day. Fun fact: the towns of Los Antiguos and Perito Moreno are the most remote places in all of Argentina. They are the furthest human settlements from any others in the entire country.
Getting into Los Antiguos and Perito Moreno had been tricky due to the timing of the Cherry Festival, but we hadn’t anticipated that leaving before the festival would be a problem. What we hadn’t factored in was all the pass-through traffic – travelers coming up from El Calafate and heading toward Bariloche without stopping in between.
The plan had been to take a bus on January 11 to Esquel, where we would be met by Lisa’s friend Paula. We would stay with Paula for a night, let Lisa stay with her friend for two more days, and head on our own to El Bolsón. From El Bolsón we would be out of the Taqsa/Marga bottleneck and have many options to get us to our next destination.
That plan being shot to hell, we quickly came up with Option B – spend an extra night in Perito Moreno if possible, cancel our reservation in El Bolsón, and travel up to meet Paula on the 12th. The trouble with this was that we had no idea if there were any rooms left in Perito Moreno – we knew for a fact that Los Antiguos was full. Before worrying about lodging, though, it was vital to grab three of the last remaining bus tickets on the 12th.
I selected our seats online and was all set to buy them, when… Dum Dum DUMMM …the Internet went out. Fine, I could still use the data on my phone, right? Nope, the data connection was gone. Oh well, we’d head to the bus station first thing in the morning. We did that, but the bus station’s Internet was out. The guy at the Taqsa counter called ahead to the Perito Moreno office and had them jot down our names, but it felt as if we were on thin ice. We went back to the one restaurant in town with WiFi in the hopes of getting online while the Cherry Festival slowly took shape around us. I got on the WiFi but… no Internet.
The Internet had gone out in the entire town. Lea asked and was told this was a common occurrence, and that it could be out for a day or more at a time.
We’d hoped to look around the Cherry Festival (which seemed no different from any other weekend street market) but instead went back to the bus terminal for the first afternoon ride to Perito Moreno, where hopefully we’d have connectivity and be able to book something. Unable to cancel our reservations in El Bolsón online, we called the place and did so over the phone. Meanwhile Lisa had the idea of talking to the folks at the Andesmar desk about alternate routes and discovered that there was another way to Esquel.
We reached Perito Moreno and found that the Taqsa office – with our supposed call-in reservation – was closed. Not wanting to wait for them to reopen, we spoke to the nice young lady at the La Union counter about Lisa’s alternate route. Oh my stars and garters, that woman was so helpful – she got us booked through to Esquel on our original date, the 11th, so we wouldn’t have to scrounge for rooms in Perito Moreno. The only downside was the route we would have to take.
As I’d said, every seat on Route 40 was taken. Bus routes to the coast, however, were still available. To bypass the eight-hour direct drive to Esquel, we would have to get on the 2:00 a.m. La Union bus to Comodoro Rivadavia, lay over there for the morning, then take the afternoon Etap bus inland to Esquel, arriving at 10:00 p.m. I’m sure we looked like zombies when Paula picked us up. Here’s our final route:
It finally occurred to us, after spending twenty hours to detour around a single sold-out bus line that this whole affair would have been easier if we’d just rented a damn car. I even searched for car rental agencies in Los Antiguos and Perito Moreno, but those towns have no tourist infrastructure to speak of. We’d have had to pick up a one-way rental back in El Calafate and dropped it off in Bariloche, or even Mendoza. We didn’t know then, but I’m telling you now – don’t rely on bus service for anything along Route 40. Rent a car.
I started thinking about the benefits of car rental the afternoon before this all started on our trip to Cueva de los Manos (the Cave of Hands). The Cave of Hands (more of an overhang than a cave) is the site of some fantastic, brightly-colored art dating back as far as 9,000 years. We really wanted to go, but the tour company sites and reviews on TripAdvisor talked about a 5km trek down into the canyon to see them, without being clear as to whether it was 5km one-way or round-trip. We did not feel up for that, but we found a company that offered the trip without the hike.
Our guide that day wasn’t very clear about the itinerary, where we were, or what we were doing, and at one point had everyone get off the bus for a “short trek” down a salt flat without explaining where the trek would end – was this the death march to the canyon that we’d opted out of? Apparently not – it was just a salt flat they added to the tour to pad the time.
It turns out that you can just drive right up to the park entrance and take a guided tour along the canyon wall to see the paintings – total walking distance less than a kilometer. All the hyperbole about long treks and other stops and lunch being included and yadda yadda yadda… It just shows the problem with these tour company day trips. They take what should be a quick, half-day excursion and pad it out so that they can charge more for the time and make it worth the company’s while.
This particular tour was one that, if we’d had a car, we could have done ourselves in four or five hours. Instead we spent the whole day on an uncomfortable, bouncy tour bus. The tour would have added even one more stop on the way back to town, had it not started snowing.
That’s right, folks. It snowed on us in the middle of summer.
The next trip we probably couldn’t have done on our own. We were picked up from our Air B&B early in the morning, driven back to Los Antiguos where we joined more fellow travelers, and rode across the border into Chile – a long way into Chile – to visit Las Capillas de Mármol, the Marble Chapels (or Marble Caves) on Lake General Carrera. The caves are erosion features into a marble formation that date back to the end of the last glaciation and the formation of the lake, about 6,200 years ago (making them younger than the cave paintings). They can only be viewed from the water, and only if the lake is low enough and the winds aren’t too high.
As soon as we crossed back into Chile, Lea and I felt a million times better. Just across the border is the village of Chile Chico which, while smaller than Los Antiguos, is obviously geared up for the tourist trade in ways that its Argentinian counterpart is not. We didn’t stop there, but we did in Puerto Guadal when our 4×4 had engine trouble. While our driver made a brief stop at an auto repair, the rest of us got to raid a Chilean grocery store. This was an unexpected bonus that let us buy more bottles of our favorite Carménère and several packages of Tuareg coconut cookies.
The boats for the caves leave from Puerto Río Tranquilo, a solid four hour drive on dirt roads from the Chilean border to the far end of the lake. Our boat in particular felt like it was barely large enough to be seaworthy. Lea asked our guide how strong the winds have to be before they cancel the tours and he said fifteen knots. The wind that afternoon was thirteen knots. The ride was wet and bumpy.
And worth it:
Our fellow excursionistos had a bus to catch in Los Antiguos, so our driver hauled ass to get them to the station in time. From there we had another driver take us back to our Air B&B, waited around a little while, then left at 1:00 a.m. to hike to the bus terminal for our 2:00 a.m. departure.
We were ready for a break. We were so very, very glad for Lisa’s friend Paula, and Paula’s friends Mariana and Nicolás for providing one.
Paula picked us up, bone-weary from buses and excursions, at the station in Esquel and drove us to her home in Trevelin, forty minutes or so back towards the Andes. We camped in her living room, we slept late, we washed clothes and hung them to dry in her backyard, we played with all her beautiful stray cats. For three days we didn’t make a single decision or arrangement. We just went where Paula took us and ate what she cooked us. Homemade pasta, bread, pizza – it was all fantastic.
We went to Nicolás and Mariana’s house for a good old-fashioned Argentinian cook-out with sausage, pork, chicken, steak, and lots and lots of Malbec. I got somewhat drunk. (Side note: In situations with freely flowing non-beer alcohol, I tend to get drunk first and sober up first. I’m an early adopter.) While still fuzzy, I may have assembled their daughter’s telescope, complained about its lack of a viewfinder, and showed everyone the craters on the moon. Because I’m a particularly nerdy drunk.
The following day we were promised a boat trip and picnic on the lake. (They didn’t say which lake, but I’m guessing that’s because the name of it is Futalaufquen and not even Argentinians can pronounce that.) Lea and I thought it would be some kind of public boat ride, but no… Nicolás and Mariana own an actual sailboat. They and friends of theirs (with another sailboat) sailed us about an hour from the public boat launch to a beach that’s only accessible by water, where we spent the whole afternoon snacking on leftovers from the previous night’s cook-out and drinking five or six more bottles of wine. There was barely any light out when we pulled back in to the dock.
The next day we slept late, borrowed Mariana’s car, and Paula drove us (and Mariana) to El Bolsón, the hippie capital of Argentina. (We also picked up a puppy and took it to Paula’s sister, but this post is running long already.) We got ice cream and beer in El Bolsón, then caught the last bus out to Bariloche. (Full name: San Carlos de Bariloche, but who wants to say all that?)
This was all last Monday, and lacking time, physical stamina, emotional fortitude, and an Internet connection, I chose to take a week off from the blog. We spent the next few days in Bariloche not doing much but walking and riding around town. These were our last days with Lisa – she had a flight to Buenos Aires on Thursday – and our last days among the Andes, Patagonia, and the Lake District. It was another tourist trap town, but a good place to end this phase of our journey.
Lago Nahuel Huapi has to be one of the most beautiful lakes in Andes. We took the teleférico to the top of Cerro Otto for the full view (including rotating restaurant and hot chocolates with cognac) then rode the city bus west for an hour to the entrance to the National Park, where we ate sandwiches and drank wine on the lakeshore while soaking in the Andean air.
By now we’ve moved north and away from the mountains into the part of Argentina that actually experiences Summer. More on that next week. First, I’ll just recap a few life-lessons:
- Book everything along Route 40 well in advance. Do not make assumptions about lodging or transportation, nor about having access to the Internet. Assume the worst and plan accordingly.
- Cross the border and stay in Chile Chico, not Los Antiguos or Perito Moreno. I’m sorry, but the towns on the Argentinian side simply do not have the infrastructure to handle any level of tourism, much less the flood they seem to get around the Cherry Festival. Just from a glance, it’s obvious that Chile Chico is much more well equipped. It’s only drawback is that it’s hard to get to from Chile; you almost have to come in from Argentina.
- Rent a damn car. Seriously. It’ll make so many things easier along Route 40 if you have your own transportation and don’t rely on Taqsa/Marga to get where you need to go. With a car you can also take your sightseeing into your own hands and cut out some of the annoyances associated with day-trip tour companies.
That’s all for now, true believers. Next week we trade the majestic Andes for really big holes in the ground.