Salto de las Rosas, San Rafael, Mendoza, Argentina
We haven’t seen another soul all day. The mountains reflect as if the lake were a shimmering sheet of tinted glass. The gentle swish as we ride through the shallows of the clear lake waters is the only sound. This is nature, on a grand scale and at its raw and unspoiled best.
It would have been hard to make the trip – the visit of my sister Karen and 19-year-old nephew Callum – more perfect at that moment – but it hadn’t started so well.
Keen readers will recall that when Paula’s parents came to visit last year they got delayed in the US due to freak storms. Then when they finally got to Buenos Aires they couldn’t reach us in San Martin de Los Andes because of unseasonal snow. Two days later they finally landed, having been diverted to Bariloche and then had to endure a 5-hour drive through a blizzard back to our cabaña.
That’s why we left nothing to chance when Karen and Callum came to visit. Everything’s organised – now I can sit down and read the paper. What’s that? A national general strike? On the day they are due to land in Buenos Aires?
Bugger. We stand right behind those fighting for better wages in the face of high inflation – we just wish the struggle had taken place on a different day! Nothing to be done but put in place Plan B.
Frantic phone calls to our good friends Karen (yes, another Karen – this could get confusing) and Gustavo in BA to beg for their spare room and their services as tour guides for a couple of days, and accommodation and friendly faces are sorted.
Now to rebook the flight. No problem. Aerolineas Argentinas book it for the day after the strike ends and they will arrive with us only about 30 hours later than anticipated.
What’s that? Aerolineas Argentinas have cancelled the reservation? Why? What do you mean you don’t know? Who asked you to? You don’t know that either. I don’t know the words in Spanish for incompetent bunch of shits but another 24-hour delay is now inevitable.
At least they can enjoy a nice time in BA. So it’s off to Boca to visit the famous football stadium and dockers’ houses. Does that man have a knife? Yes, he does and he seems to want all their money and jewellery. Quick thinking by our friend Karen persuades them my sister has nothing on her and they make do with yanking off her gold chain and stealing Karen’s phone and some useless bank cards.
So by the time they finally arrive with us it’s fair to say we are feeling more pressure than ever to deliver the holiday of a lifetime. My sister isn’t demanding – she just insists we see a smoking volcano, a snow-capped volcano, a glacier, spend a night in the Andes, go horse riding, see some waterfalls…oh, and photograph lots of birds including a condor and a woodpecker.
Day one in the Lakes District we are lucky to see anything at all, but at least when the clouds obscure the views in Argentina you can rely on great wine and sumptuous steak to make you feel better. We order three big steaks between the four of us – they bring us five. Why? Because this is Argentina and they didn’t think we had enough meat.
And from then on things just start getting better and better. By the next day we have blue skies, incredible views over the lakes, we climb to a mirador and snack on chorizo and blue cheese, we drink great wines, catch up and plan the next few days.
One thing you can be sure of with my sister is there will be no sitting around relaxing – she hasn’t come all this way not to spend every minute seeing something.
So we hit the road early next morning for the spectacular Ruta de los Siete Lagos, a wonderful scenic drive bathed in blue skies and sunshine, a fantastic wine bar en route, a few delicious alfajores, a comfortable – if slightly strange – cabaña in San Martin de Los Andes and a slap-up binge on boar, venison and craft ales at El Regional.
Suitably fortified we break for the Chilean border and the first – but not the last – f&@king hell – moment of the trip. After a bird-filled drive, a lakeside picnic and the customary border sign photo opportunities, there’s still disappointment about the volcanoes hiding in the clouds.
We wind our way down the cordillera towards the house in Curarrehue owned by the very generous parents of Santiago – one of the pupils in my sister’s class back in the UK (no, she’s not educationally challenged, she’s the teacher) – which has been offered to us for as long as we need it. As we approach the village I take a glance in the wing mirror to be greeted by the sight of the massive snow-capped peak of Volcan Lanin graciously emerging. Bing! First target down.
Curarrehue is a small village. The house is 7km further out in the wilds, along a gravel road. It’s a spectacular setting and a beautiful wooden house. On the way, in the distance we can make out the smoking cone of Volcan Villarrica. It just about counts as target number 2 but we’ll have a much closer encounter in the coming days.
We arrive at the house to be welcomed by Santiago’s granny , Isilda. And what a welcome! A delicious cazuela has been lovingly prepared and we quickly become aware this is no one-off. Isilda wants to look after us – and I really mean look after us, so well. She won’t hear of us going to buy bread, she’s up first thing in the morning getting the fire going and baking delicious bread. We offer to cook dinner – she looks at us witheringly and serves up another scrummy treat. Callum gets his first – and definitely not last – taste of the super-sweet caramelly dulce de leche. He’s in heaven.
In return for all the kindness, we accidentally leave the door open and let a mad goat in to the house to run amok. Whoops.
Over the next few days we never stop. We all brave the challenge of some tough white-water rafting – fantastic fun if a little nerve-wracking at times. We drive as close as you can to the smoking mass of Volcan Villarrica – the exclusion zone is still in force after it erupted just two weeks before we visited. We take a madcap night-time drive up in to the mountains to bathe in an ‘unofficial’ thermal springs with no electricity, but a few candles and plenty of wine and laughs.
Next day we take to the horses – this is no conventional tourist horse ride. Lot, Santiago’s uncle who lives next door, takes us out to round up his wild horses, then we saddle them up and prepare them before setting off over the mountains. We ride across the plateau, through a monkey puzzle tree forest to a hidden lake, accessible only on horseback, where Lot had grown up. We ride through the lake. It is incredible. The reflections are perfect. The stillness eerie. It is one of those days when you can’t stop smiling, except when finally you grimace after 8 hours in the saddle. Or if you are Paula and you ride smack in to a tree and almost end up in the enchanted but freezing lake. Honestly, we didn’t laugh.
Craving a night out we head for the village. The first restaurant is open but apparently has little or no food. Nor does the second. Like many a time on this trip we end up somewhere unexpected – at the restaurant attached to the gas station. It’s surprisingly tasty and serves a good bottle of wine too.
With our departure fast approaching we get ready for the big family send-off. A lamb asado is prepared, relatives gather, we chat, laugh and frankly wish we had more time to spend with such a welcoming and fun family.
But there’s no rest for the wicked – some targets haven’t been met yet. We have the most stunning day’s drive back to Argentina. Volcan Lanin is majestic. And it’s like we’ve organised a bird display – they swoop, they sing, they dart and then the condors glide high overhead. Bing!
Our final adventure is to get high up in to the Andes, sleep in a refuge and do an ice hike across a glacier the following day. The route up to Pampa Linda is incredible but as we arrive at base camp the wind and sleet begins – we have no choice but to try and make the 4-5 hour hike up to the mountain refuge. Within half an hour the skies begin to clear and the vistas become amazing – back down in to the valley, up to the snow capped peaks, across to the burning red of the autumn forests.
As we near the trickiest part of the hike the massive glacier and its accompanying 1,000ft waterfall makes itself heard and then seen, crashing down in to the valley. It is stunning. But it’s also not good for a vertigo sufferer like me – sheer cliffs and a precarious route along the edge to the refugio. To make matters worse the snow is starting and it’s getting late.
I decide I cannot go on, I urge the others to go ahead and I will retreat to the van. They, understandably, don’t want me to have to go down alone, especially as it will be dark in two hours. An impasse. I win. I head back down, at a trot to start with, then a full-on run – I make it back down the five-hour route in well under two hours, persuade the cafe owner to open the door, sell me a beer and fall shattered in to bed with views of where I hope they have arrived.
They have arrived, and while I’m worrying about them they have no such worries. The park ranger has let them know I’ve made it back down and they are happily tucking in to a gourmet feast, courtesy of the owners of the mountain refuge. Their climb up wasn’t easy, as the snow had got heavier, but the warmth of the welcome more than made up for any hardship.
In the morning they were greeted with new snowfall and views they will never forget.
It’s fair to say everyone finds the ice hike a bit scary as they lowered themselves in to crevasses on the end of a rope but, hey, it’s another incredible and unforgettable experience and surely the final target is met.
Er, no. What about that woodpecker? While they are hanging off the end of a rope I’m trekking in the picturesque valley below. What’s that? A woodpecker? Sure is. I take a picture with Karen’s camera to prove it. Bing? They insist it is photoshopped. It’s so unfair!
The worst thing about having family and friends to visit is having to say goodbye – but that isn’t the case this time. Hold on. Before you think me cruel and heartless it’s because we knew we were heading back to the UK for a visit just 12 days later – knowing the luck they had getting here, we wonder if we might arrive before they do.
Things we now know to be true: There’s no point in arguing with a Chilean granny.
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