San Rafael, Argentina / Kent, UK
Occasionally, I may be prone to over-stating things – just a little.
So when we woke up in what should have been a peaceful mountain refuge, to the sounds of 30 hysterical children rampaging around in the dorm we were sharing with them, I looked at Jeremy and said: “This is like waking up in hell”.
But for once he didn’t accuse me of being melodramatic. His face told me that he knew I was spot on.
We were hiking for a few days in the spectacular mountains around El Bolson, back in the Argentinian Lake District. We’d come full circle after having left the area in November to head to the deep south. Although the journey since then hasn’t been so much of a neat circle, more a zig-zaggy, not entirely logical, route.
Basically, our route map looks like it has been crayoned by an unsupervised toddler.
On the way back north we spent the best part of two weeks gathering interviews and photos in Welsh Patagonia, for a series of articles we are writing – starting in the towns of Gaiman, Trelew and Rawson on the Atlantic side of the country, before crossing through the magnificent Chubut Valley to the Andes side of the province and the settlements of Esquel and Trevelin.
Our time in the area – settled by Welsh colonists in 1865 – was intriguing and occasionally a little surreal. The Welsh are from our own country of the UK and so, in theory, should be more familiar to us than the people of Latin America. Problem was, we couldn’t understand a bloody word anyone was saying – we had to wait for someone to repeat things in Spanish or English.
It was a productive time, and also a great excuse to stuff down more tea and cakes, in the name of research. Once we’ve written the articles, we’ll return to the subject with more of our thoughts on a fascinating social experiment that has endured to a surprising extent.
After taxing our brains for a whole two weeks, it was great to get the hiking shoes on again, hit the trails and chew a few things over in our minds.
We were busy forming plans for an upcoming visit from Jeremy’s sister Karen and our nephew Callum, as well as a trip home to the UK to visit family and friends. From June we’d arranged to do a work-exchange placement back in Argentina, at which point we also needed to start finding more freelance work.
In many ways, things felt they were coming to some kind of conclusion, if not necessarily an end.
We were thinking about all this as we tucked the van away safely and set off for a refuge in the mountains, about a five-hour hike from El Bolson. Although it made some of the uphill hiking a bit more difficult, we were glad of the late summer heatwave and willed it to last as long as possible.
When we arrived at the refuge, it wasn’t busy but soon filled up by evening. The refuge system works on the basis that no one is turned away – when hikers arrive they claim a mattress on the floor in a dorm and everyone bunks in together. We thought we were being smart by choosing two mattresses on a raised platform in the eaves, with barely any space at either side. “No one can squeeze in next to us here!”, we said.
On the contrary, by 11pm, a hairy hippie was indeed wedging himself in between Jeremy and the wall, using a lighter flame to see his way through a sea of highly flammable sleeping bags in the dark.
After a fitful night, we set off in glorious weather to make the steep climb up to Hielo Azul, a gorgeous lake and glacier nearby.
Back at the bottom we took a brief pit-stop before moving on to the next refuge, at Lago Natacion. It was only an hour away but it was an hour of yet more calf-killing climbing. When we arrived we were perspiring somewhat, but that was nothing compared to the sweat lashing off the brow of the refuge manager.
“You are welcome to stay”, he said, “but it’s going to be really busy. We’ve already got a group of 30 children and 7 adults from the barrio. You’ll have to sleep up there with them and people will be sharing mattresses.”
He also explained that the refuge was being used as a stopping station for hundreds of ultra-marathon runners who were charging up and down the mountains for two days without stopping. That all sounds relaxing, we said. But we didn’t want to go back or move on, so decided to grab a mattress space and hope for the best.
It was a lovely rustic refuge on a beautiful lake, but we didn’t really get to enjoy it fully. As we tried to compete for kitchen space with people cooking for 30 children, an endless procession of pizzas were going in and out of the oven for the marathon runners. Every five minutes some of them would barrel through the door, grab a slice and a drink and run off again.
The children, aged 9 and 10, were good kids but the sheer volume of them meant it was utter chaos. Most of them seemed to spend the majority of time yelling about, and looking for, their lost shoes or rucksacks, which were jumbled in an mountainous heap at the bottom of the ladder to the dorm.
In the relative peace of the outdoors, it was a beautiful night – one of the starriest we have seen for a long time, with shooting stars dropping like stones all over the place. Meanwhile, lights from some of the last marathon runners could be seen coming down the mountain in a line, towards the refuge.
We decided to head off early to bed, to try to claim a space before there was none left. When we got up there our sleeping bags were lost among the 37 others piled up there, there were children heaped everywhere and a sick runner was getting medical treatment on the floor. We laid down at the edge of the line and tried to rest, but I spent the night trying not to roll off the end and down the hatch onto the storey below, while Jeremy was doing his best not to roll over and inadvertently cuddle the mother than was sharing his mattress. Not surprisingly, the kids were excitable and noisy and in no mood for sleep.
Our alarm call in the morning was a chatter that quickly rose to a crescendo of giggling, singing and shouting. A very sweet little boy came over and asked – with a concerned look – if they had woken us, which was quite cute and amusing given the decibel levels. But that cuteness feeling didn’t last – we got up, got ready and were out of the door like a shot.
It was a hot, dusty, knee-busting descent but we very much enjoyed the silence. Back at the van we camped at a gorgeous spot, put some beers in the cold river and washed the dust away.
After a couple of days of eating crackers and soup, we got back to El Bolson and made up for it with a good old Argentinian beef barbeque, or parrilla.
Here is Jeremy with (almost) all of his favourite things.
We were meeting Karen and Callum in Bariloche, so headed that way to get some chores done before they arrived. They only had a short trip and we had loads of activities in mind, in the lakes district areas of both Argentina and Chile. But autumn was fast approaching and the weather forecasts began to look more and more dreadful. We started to despair a little – the area is really all about the outdoors, and the unpredictable weather can be a bit of a challenge.
Some people might remember that the first few days of my mum and dad’s trip to the area were thrown into chaos by some unexpected snow in the spring. Flights couldn’t land and they were stranded in Buenos Aires for a couple of days, while Jeremy and I spent a lot of time in the offices of the domestic airline Aerolineas Argentinas, trying to help sort things out.
So when Jeremy was in town one day and picked up a newspaper, he was surprised to read that a 36-hour general strike, including airport workers, had been called for the very day that his sister was due to arrive in Argentina. He emailed me to say “..erm, it looks like the weather is going to be the least of our worries. All domestic flights are cancelled from Buenos Aires”.
We trudged over to Aerolineas Argentinas to see what could be done, only to find that even after the stoppage was over, all the flights were full for another day.
It looked like the curse of Bariloche had struck again.
Things we now know to be true: We’re too old for pyjama parties.
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