Tag Archives: San Rafael

Wood-stock

24 Aug
River mornings

We walk to the river with the dogs every morning.

Salto de las Rosas, San Rafael, Argentina
[by Paula]

If I had to select one word to sum up our time so far in San Rafael, it would be ‘wood’.

Cutting, felling, chain-sawing, gathering, dragging, rolling, splitting, throwing, snapping, sweeping, sorting, piling and burning the stuff has become a daily preoccupation during our work-exchange placement here in Argentina’s Mendoza province. We arrived here in early June and our stint is, unbelievably, already drawing to a close.

Of course, there has been more to the last 12 weeks than just the wood thing. In fact, we’ve been rather busy and productive with all kinds of work and domesticity, plus a little bit of travel. We’ve been less diligent with the blog though, so to pick up where we left off we have to briefly skip back to May, when we took a month-long trip back to the UK to see family and friends.

Let’s just say it involved a constantly revolving merry-go-round of hellos, goodbyes, trains, planes, pubs, lunches, dinners, large gatherings, small gatherings, far too many drinks, obscene amounts of food and plenty of laughs. We met new babies, clung pathetically to our ageing cat (now 21!), gawped at our rapidly-changing nieces and nephews, and enjoyed spending time with ‘old’ faces.

There is something a little bittersweet about these visits home. While the very purpose of being there is to see everyone, we just wish it didn’t have to be quite so intense and knackering. Poor us! We can hardly complain when it’s the path we’ve chosen and we’re lucky enough to be able to travel back to see people once in a while, but we do miss the everyday-ness of those relationships. This photo gallery sums up some of what went on, with apologies to those who have been airbrushed from history by my total failure to take any photos at several of our meet-ups, especially in London.

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On our return to Argentina we came directly to the village of Salto de las Rosas, in the lovely San Rafael area, which was to be our home for three months. We’d already set up the placement – organised through Workaway – and had met our very welcoming hosts Susan and Dave before departing for the UK.

It’s a straightforward exchange – Susan and Dave, who are UK/US expats, hire ‘Workawayers’ to put in four hours of work per day, five days a week, in exchange for free accommodation. One of the many reasons we’d applied was that the digs on offer was an entire two-bedroomed house on the land Susan owns. It was exactly what we wanted, so we could live independently and get stuck in to our own journalism work in our free time.

Our house 'La Casita'

Our house – ‘La Casita’ – for the duration of our stay is just a holler from Susan and Dave’s.

We’re amazed that we’ve managed to keep travelling for four years but needless to say the funds are getting a bit thin. We needed to stop moving for a while to focus on finding some more freelance work. Also, it wouldn’t hurt to spend the coldest part of winter in a nice warm house. We also like the combination of doing some outdoor grafting for half the day, and freelancing for the other half, whilst having people around for a bit of socialising. (Regular readers might recall we did something similar in Bolivia.)

We soon settled into a routine of rapidly throwing on loads of clothes in the freezing early morning and heading out to walk Susan and Dave’s dogs – loveable clingy mutt Catorce, and bouncy young Rottweiler Cali. They’ve got used to our habits and are usually hurling themselves at the door in a fit of hysteria by the time we are putting our shoes on (the dogs, not Susan and Dave).

Sometimes Catorce sleeps on our bed, just to be sure we don’t try anything sneaky like a lie-in.

Winters here get very cold at the start and end of the day, but are mostly dry, clear and sunny. Most mornings we can see the snowy Andes in the distance as we head down the path to a river that looks beautiful in the morning light.

Until lunchtime we’re doing tasks around the garden, usually involving raking and burning mountains of fallen leaves, weeding, tidying, and doing that wood thing. Both our houses only have one source of heating – a wood fire in the living room. Additionally, Susan and Dave can only heat their water via a wood fire. That’s a hell of a demand for wood in winter. There are piles and piles of it outside their house – all different sizes and stages of seasoning.

Aside from the need for stuff to burn, there are trees on the land that are dead, falling down or in dangerous positions and need to be felled. We’ve been learning a thing or two from Dave about avoiding a massive head injury while chopping down trees, and trying not to cut our hands off with power tools.

Working together with a chain-saw has certainly brought a whole new element of trust to our marriage. All I’m saying is, just don’t make me angry.

We also ripped down a crumbling car port and helped build a new one. Dave and Jeremy have started constructing a wood shed too. All from wood, obviously. Ta-da!

Once or twice a week we gather with Susan, Dave and Susan’s daughter Tiv, to have dinner, drink wine, and display unnecessary levels of competitiveness while playing cards. Dave’s a musician and sometimes he gets the guitar out.

San Rafael is a wine-producing area and two of Susan and Dave’s close friends Sue and Malcolm – from the UK – own a small local vineyard and produce a gorgeous Malbec. Double bonus! We’re all keen on cooking, wine and talking, so it’s been great to enjoy several meals together. I’m already calculating how much of their wine I’ll be able to fit in the van when we leave. I mean, it’s not like I need all those clothes, is it?

Meanwhile our endeavours to get some paid work have been encouragingly fruitful so far. Our earlier research work in Welsh Patagonia resulted in four pieces for the BBC, including this audio slideshow and a feature on my impressions of the area, plus an article on the story of Welsh afternoon teas in Patagonia, in new online magazine Cultures & Cuisines.

Jeremy is currently writing an eight-part series for a geeky VW magazine in the UK, and continues to get some work for union magazines. He’s also becoming a shipping bore, writing articles for the journal of shipping union Nautilus, including large features on Argentine naval policy and the new Nicaragua canal. We’re also working together on a project to write web content for a campaign group in the UK.

Living in a rural area can make internet-reliant work frustrating though. We have a limited daily internet allowance, and even when it’s working it’s often refusing to co-operate. We are occasionally found to be smacking our foreheads against the laptop, and sometimes drive 28km into San Rafael city to get things done more quickly.

As with our previous stints at living in a house, it’s good to catch up with things that get neglected when we’re always on the road. Boring stuff like getting new glasses, washing things that are continually dirty but have to be ignored, and working through the never-ending list of van maintenance. If you’re wondering why there seem to be fewer van dramas these days, it’s partly because our earlier issues have helped us be a little bit more zen about these things, and partly because Argentina has been kinder to us. Of course things still break sometimes, but on every occasion so far we’ve either been carrying the part or been able to source it here, which saves a huge amount of time, money and stress.

So life has been relatively sedate , but it’s not been all work and no play. Whenever possible we’ve been spending weekends exploring the province and enjoying some brief returns to the camping life.

There are some fabulous landscapes right on our doorstep, like the colourful rock formations around Valle Grande, the shimmering El Diamante salt flats and the road to the snowy mountains of the nearby ski resort of Las Leñas.

Atuel canyon

Driving through the Atuel canyon from Valle Grande was a constantly changing colourscape.

Salinas del Diamante

Salt mine, Salinas del Diamante, near San Rafael, Mendoza province, Argentina.

Some places are amazingly low key. There’s a tiny, rusty old sign for Laguna Blanca at a gate by the side of the road to Malargüe. We drove up it to find an entirely deserted, phenomenal mountain lake.

I wouldn’t say we’re bored of the red meat culture in Argentina (is that even possible?) but we were beside ourselves with excitement to visit a trout farm near Malargüe that has a restaurant and campsite attached.  Fresh fish! So fresh that we watched it being selected from the pond and gutted on the spot less than half an hour before it arrived on the plate. Not only did we eat baked trout for lunch that day, but the set menu was a trout-fest of pate, mousse, empanadas, smoked trout and more.

Gaucho, near Malargue

Gaucho, seen while we were walking near the trout farm, Malargue.

This area is full of dams for hydro-electricity and the resulting reservoirs are invariably stunning. The nearby Los Reyunos area has been lovely for some walks and picnics.

Of course we couldn’t be here and neglect to pay attention to some vineyards. On a grey weekend in the nearby Valle de Uco we toured a couple of vineyards and indulged in some tastings, punctuated with a beautiful lunch in the town of Tupunganto. We’ve had a few chilly nights camping in recent months, but this one took the prize when we woke up to sleet. We realized we’re turning into wimps when we headed straight home for some warmth.

Well, we thought that had taken the prize until we decided to visit the Parque Provicial Payunia, a reserve near Malargüe which has the world’s highest concentration of volcanic cones – around 800 in a 4,500-sq km area! It’s a low key place with not a lot of information, inadequate mapping and a lack of infrastructure. Okay, so it’s mid-winter but we can never resist a volcano, nor a challenge, so off we went.

We were surprised but excited to see some snow at road level as we drove the back dirt-road from El Nihuil to the boundary of the reserve. As dusk fell the snow levels increased and we started to wonder what was ahead, but found it hard to care because the horizon was just full of snowy volcanic cones and the views incredible.

Snowy road

As we drove south from El Nihuil, the amount of snow gradually increased.

We’d planned to just get as far as possible that night and pull off somewhere on the road to sleep. But the snow was increasingly banked up over the roadside ditches and we couldn’t find anywhere to stop.

After a few hours, at dusk, we came across some guys in a truck who advised us to drive 10km onwards to a house that had space we could probably use. After about 20 miles we were still driving, the road was getting increasingly slippy and we’d given up on the house.

Snowy night

Driving on snow, in the dark, hadn’t really been in the plan. Road from El Nihuil Mendoza province, Argentina.

Just then we saw the lights and pulled in. The bemused owner and his son came out to investigate – what they made of the gringos turning up in the dark in such a remote area, we’ll never know. They, of course, agreed to let us stop and sleep next to their place, where there was some flat gravel to park on.

Next morning we work to a lovely crisp snowy scene, and moved on to the eastern side of Laguna Llancanelo, a phenomenal lake at the edge of the reserve. From our camping spot Jeremy counted 39 visible volcanoes. We walked out on to the dry lake bed, seeing water in the distance but never reaching it. A local gaucho cycled over from his house to see if we’d broken down, and told us that part of the lake had been dry for years.

Lake bed

We camped next to a dry section of the lake bed at Laguna Llancanelo, Mendoza province, Argentina.

Next day we drove to the lake’s ‘official’ entrance and were directed by the park guards to one of the most incredible viewpoints we’ve encountered on this trip – an easily-accessible volcano top with 360-degree views of the snowy Andes, countless volcanoes and the flamingo-rich Laguna Llancancelo. We spent an hour there on a gloriously sunny Sunday, and not another soul came.

Laguna Llancanelo

We looked over Laguna Llancanelo from the top of Volcano Trapal.

It was an amazing weekend, but for the first time we did have to resort to sleeping with the full complement of thermals, sleeping bags and all our blankets.

It’ll be back to full-time camping when we leave here in September, so it’s time to toughen up again.

What’s the plan post-San Rafael? That’s a very good question and kind of depends on what day you’re asking. We’ll most likely head to parts of central Argentina that we haven’t yet visited, and return to some places in the far north that we loved when we first arrived in the country a year ago.

Whatever happens, let’s hope the nights start to get warmer when we hit the road again, because we’ve become just a bit too accustomed to that roaring wood fire.

Days: 1,422
Miles: 38,647
Things we now know to be true: There’s no way of knowing how much wood a woodchuck could chuck.

IT’S A BUMPER CROP… MORE PHOTOS BELOW! 

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On a mission

18 Aug
Bolivia missions: Concepcion

The Jesuit mission churches – like this one in Concepcion – have been beautifully restored.

Salta, Argentina
[by Paula]

Given how unbelievably sweaty, dusty and thirsty we were, it was hard to imagine how it must have been for the 17th-century Jesuit priests who had to trek here from Paraguay. I mean, I don’t think they even had ice cream shops then.

The majority of our associations with Bolivia are of the fresh air and mountain backdrops of the altiplano, so travelling through these baking hot tropical plains felt like we’d been transported to another country. Each time we had to search for a shady spot, or drive round a zillion little shops looking for ice, we said: “This just doesn’t feel like Bolivia.”

The eastern lowlands of the country may be less known by tourists, but they cover a vast area, accounting for about two-thirds of Bolivia’s land mass. We had headed south-west from Cochabamba with a plan to visit a series of former Jesuit missions, established in the late 1600s and early 1700s as settlements that were – of course – each centred around an elaborate church. The towns – in which numerous groups of indigenous people were converted to Christianity by the Jesuits before they were expelled by the Spanish king in 1767 – are still living, working communities. The central squares and churches have been lovingly restored and are a sight to behold that way exceeded our expectations.

The thing about the ‘missions circuit’ though, is that it’s not just all about wandering around looking at lovely churches and plazas. There’s a bit of an awkward 1,000km journey through the countryside to get round the major ones, and clearly that was something we couldn’t resist.

Bolivia missions: Dusty roads

Dusty and bumpy roads, but beautiful scenery.

We picked a clockwise route that bypassed the city of Santa Cruz and first headed north towards the oldest of the mission towns, San Xavier. We’d got hold of a pretty detailed guide to the different missions and how to get there. On day two of driving we were finally getting close! We just had to cross a little river and we’d be a few kilometres from our first destination. There was just one thing missing from the maps and info – the lack of a bridge over the river.

After a confusing search through a dusty town for the ‘road’ to San Xavier, we were very baffled to find a rickety wooden platform jutting out and then ending suddenly on a muddy riverbed. Where’s the bridge? we pondered, squinting into the sun in search of hope.

Nope, definitely no bridge. We were expected to descend from the platform and then drive about 300m over the damp clay-ish mud and through a few streams to get to the road on the other side. Our instincts screamed ‘this will end badly!’.
A bunch of slightly drunk guys were, hilariously, charging drivers 100 Bolivianos ($14) to make the crossing. As we pondered and watched other drivers successfully making it over, they kept saying “you’ll be fine, you’ll do it!”. The thing is they, were probably right, there was a reasonably high chance we would have made it without getting trapped in the gluey mud, or without sinking into one of the streams. I just wasn’t in the mood to take the chance with our heavy van, on which we’d just spent a lot of time and money doing maintenance work, knowing how much we would kick ourselves if it went wrong.

In these situations, when lots of people are yelling in our ears with ‘helpful advice’, we have learned to stop and think carefully and ask ourselves questions such as these: Do they know what they are talking about? What will they gain/lose if we decide to go or not go? Do they give a shit about what happens to our car? If one car a day needs to get pulled out of this riverbed, how likely is it that it will be us?!

It was agony, but in the end we went with our instincts. There was a long way round to get to a different section of the route, with a bridge, that would involve several hours of extra driving. With heavy hearts we turned around, hooted and waved to the drunks and, with that, ended their afternoon of entertainment.

Over the next few hours of rutted roads that never seemed to end, we grumbled but deep down knew we’d done the right thing. Interestingly, the detour took is through three villages named Okinawa I, II and III – a corner of Bolivia that’s home to people who arrived from Okinawa as sponsored migrants in the 1950s. Tiny elderly women of Japanese descent scurried around the streets. One was so small she walked under our wing mirror without ducking. “This really doesn’t feel like Bolivia!” we repeated.

The change of route meant the day ended with us pulling into a gas station in the dark, to spend the night. The fact that they sold ice-cold beer lightened the mood considerably.

In the morning we started again with renewed vigour. We arrived in San Xavier by lunchtime, and thought ‘well, if this is what we’re getting, we can live with a little discomfort’.

Bolivia missions: San Xavier

San Xavier’s plaza and Jesuit church.

Founded in 1691, it was the first of the mission settlements in the Chiquitania region. It set the scene for a series of gorgeous, pristine, plazas and church complexes we were to visit on our circuit.

But damn it was hot. It seemed like a long time since we had experienced the 50-metre-dash-to-the-shade-via-the-first-ice-cream-we-can-find race. We escaped to a hotel garden to camp for the night. A weird and, as it turned out, virtually abandoned, place – where the caretaker lied about it being open to justify charging us an exorbitant camping rate – but a haven nonetheless.

Next was Concepción, one of the best restored and conventionally beautiful of the mission towns. In a recurring theme of the week, we arrived just as everything was closing for a massive siesta. While waiting for the church and museum to reopen we killed the time by enjoying our first taste of the region’s food – a succulent roast beef, with a bizarre but strangely comforting cheesy ‘rice pudding’, yucca and plantains. More carbs anyone?

Roast beef and cheesy rice

Cowboy food: Roast beef, cheesy rice, yucca and plantains.

The next section to San Ignacio was quite long, but we’d read the road had recently been paved so set off to see how far we could get. That thing we read about the road being paved? That was a work of fiction. Not far out of Concepción we hit the start of a 400km stretch of hard-packed mud and gravel roads that would last all the way to our 6th and final destination. We’d expected plenty of it, but just not this much.

It slowed things down a bit, and we and the van turned a nice orange dust colour in the process, but all was well and the route was very pretty. With no prospect of arriving at any town before dark, we pulled into a tiny village and asked if we could park up for the night – of course, they said, pointing us towards the church. Two young boys were sent over later to deliver about 25 bananas to us. ‘We grow them here,’ they said, before sitting down for a chat and a glass of lemonade.

It was certainly one of the quietest and darkest nights we’d ever had. Our van shone like a beacon as none of the four houses in the village, nor the church or school, had electricity.

On the way to San Ignacio the following day we encountered a rare section of road that was being worked on. A bus coming towards us slipped and slid through the churned up mud and came to a halt at a jaunty angle. As all the passengers got off to walk through the rest of the roadworks, we thought ‘hmm, don’t really fancy driving through that’. Luckily the workmen had the same thought and sent a tractor ahead of us to pave our way.

We were glad to arrive in San Ignacio, a bigger town where we planned to base ourselves for a couple of nights. With the heat and dust we were, by this time, pretty stinky and hot and were keen on finding a shower. We had a very sweaty, fruitless search for somewhere to camp before eventually being directed to some ‘cabanas’ on the edge of town. We bumped along a farm track before arriving at a sumptuous hacienda with its own private lake, and thought ‘jackpot!’. Problem was, it was now the private home of a rich guy who seemed a little surprised at our asking to camp. Jeremy made his best disappointed face and he agreed that we could park up in the garden but could offer zero facilities. Another night of being smelly and hot then, but a partial jackpot as the location was amazing.

Next day we got a cheap hotel room to hang out and rest for a bit – we wanted to stay around for the evening because the rodeo was in town! Brilliant. It was part of a big agricultural expo event, so we ambled along and spent the evening wandering the stalls, drinking beers and cocktails, eating chunks of barbequed meat and generally wishing we were cowboys. But cowboys don’t drink cocktails, we hear you cry. Well they did at this event, which was crammed with Brazilians from over the nearby border. Every other stall was selling the Brazilian signature cocktail ‘caipirinhas’ and people seemed to be talking a hybrid S-Portuguese. “This doesn’t feel like Bolivia,” we said.

Just before the rodeo got going – three hours later than billed, you’ve got to love Latin America-time – the contestants lined up to pray and cross themselves. It was a great few hours of entertainment and people-watching, though what motivates people to get themselves violently tossed around then thrown off a bull or horse and slammed into the dust is beyond me. There must be a lot of work for osteopaths in these places.

We moved on to the two smaller missions of San Miguel and San Rafael. These places are becoming more popular with visitors but they are not exactly crawling with groups of tourists. At the first we had to search the town for the guy who had the key to the church. Several people told us ‘Carmelo’s the guy you need, he’s a few blocks that way..’ We wandered in the afternoon heat, asking for Carmelo. ‘That door up there,’ ‘No, the next house…’.

Eventually Carmelo appeared at his window, stretching, having just awoken from his siesta. He pulled on a shirt and walked back to the plaza with us, chatting away enthusiastically about how he’s been showing people round the place since he was a child, and is now in his 70s. After a fascinating little tour, we headed off to the next place on our circuit.

Again, in San Rafael there was nowhere obvious to camp. We asked at the tiny police station on the plaza where they thought might be best to park up. ‘Right here, outside the station!’ they insisted.

We wandered off to watch the Sunday night mass in the Jesuit church, and sat in the busy square cooling off before heading to bed. It’s a quaint little village, but we had one of the noisiest night’s sleep ever, with cars passing, donkeys braying, cockerels going at it, horse clopping by and a huge crowd of people flooding out of a late night meeting.

It’s not an easy trip to do by public transport. As we left early next morning we picked up two Swiss tourists who’d been left high and dry due to a fictional bus timetable. We all bumped along on the final four hours of dirt road, to the spectacular town of San Jose de Chiquitos, with its atypical baroque-style church.

Bolivia missions: San Jose de Chiquitos

San Jose de Chiquitos has a stunning, and unique for the area, Baroque-style church.

Joy of joys, the town had a luxurious camping place, in the garden of a posh hotel. Just the prize we had hoped for after getting to the end of the circuit. We got things cleaned up a bit and recharged a little before the next stage of the journey.

Question was, what was the next stage going to be? There were other things we wanted to see in Bolivia, but we only had two days left on our vehicle permit before we’d either have to apply for an extension or get out of the country. It was a painful dilemma, but having had 6 wonderful months in Bolivia we decided to end it on a high and not go through the hassle of battling with the customs people in Santa Cruz.

Besides, we had an incredible itch to turn south and cross the border into Argentina. This trip is full of little and big milestones, but after all the drama we’ve had with the van, actually making it to Argentina is up there with the biggies.

We’d still have a long way to go but crossing that line would feel, to a small extent, like mission accomplished.

Days: 1,050
Miles: 22,906
Things we now know to be true: If you don’t have the ability to see into the future, go with your gut.

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