OK, IN MY HEAD I'm trying to recap. It's been a busy week or so. I left Puerto Madryn with the bus company Mar Y Valle. Not Mary Valle, as I thought it was written (very confusing asking Argentines were Mary Valle was). Anyway after another cool trip, marred only by watching a generic American thriller in Spanish, I arrived in El Bolson, which lies in a lovely picturesque valley (albeit with no phone signal).
This place has an alternative feel to it and is a bit of a hippie town. It was Argentina's first non-nuclear town and is allegedly near one of the world's 'energy centres'. I don't know what that means but the place is cool. Quite a few dreadlocks in evidence. El Bolson is also known for knomes. Very bizarre. Many of the carfts here are strange depictions of goblin-like creatures. Not sure where this originated but I liked it, especially the amazing chess set with the pieces as, yep, knomes. I also have to say that El Bolson is the first place I’ve seen so far that has loads of stereotypical Argentines with mullets, flat caps, bandanas around their necks, leather coats and boots. Some of them even had oxen pulling those carts behind them. Excellent.
While getting off the bus I met a travelling couple that told me the cheapo place I had booked that night was waaay out of town and that the taxi would be expensive. Hmmm. So I had to look for a new place. This couple told me about a guy who was letting them stay in his out house for 6 pessos a night. That's about 1 pound, practically nothing, so I asked to be taken to this place. It was 5 minutes out of town. The guy was called Enrique. Lovely chap. Although I was impressed by this makeshift dorm/shed he had constructed I decided to go a bit more upmarket, mostly at the thought of the freezing wind which may well have been extremely unpleasant and possibly deadly at night.
So I hit the tourist information. I remembered an Australian in Puerto Madryn had told me of a small place called la Casa del Viajero, so I enquired. Fifteen minutes later I was in the car with Agustin and his family on route to their hostel. I think this place has been my favourite place I've stayed in the trip so far. I'm really going off Hosteling International places. They’re big, a bit impersonal and the staff generally don't take too much of an interest. At la Casa del Viajero you felt like you were staying with the family. The Porro's (the family) have two cabins in their garden which can sleep about 8 people in each. Maximum. Fantastically rustic, charming and full of character, it was a lovely place to just do nothing and lay about reading in a hammock or chatting to fellow arrivals over some recently brewed Maté. Nice gardens too. And they had a chicken coup.
On the Saturday I arrived it rained most of the day so that was a stay-at-home day. On Monday, I asked Agustin about walks to do around El Bolson. Now, let me tell you a little bit about Agustin. He's a bit of an old hippie who now runs a hostel and makes craft stuff for El Bolson's famous craft market. He makes belts, hats and other nick-knacks, and has hand drawn maps of places you can go in El Bolson. I love these maps because they look kind of like something you would draw as a child with your friends to locate treasure, which would probably turn out to be your He-Man toys. It had things like, 'go around the big stone' and 'go over the hanging bridge'. Brilliant.
So I followed this map, which apparently lead the way to the 'Caza del Indio', a stone that's been eroded away to form the shape of an old Indian head. It was supposed to be a simple 3 hour trek. But halfway around, near the ‘little river’ but before the ‘waterfall’ the trail ran dead. Confused I took off my shoes and socks and went around the big rock and into the water. I caught sight of what I thought was a trail leading upwards and on the map it said 'up' so I climbed. And climbed, and climbed. It was exhausting. The trail ran dead again. I was lost.
I did what I had to do. I walked and walked and eventually found a new trail. It wasn't the one I was supposed to be on but I did find a cool look-out balcony and got some good pictures. I got back to la Casa del Viajero about 4 hours after I set off. Agustin found this experience amusing. He said, "You must go again tomorrow." No way, Jose. I didn't and I never saw the Indian head, but no big deal. The same thing happened to two American girls. They got lost the same way. Although they took ages and managed to find the Indian eventually. I think the thing about getting lost is sometimes it's more of an adventure than going the right way. It's a good way of thinking about things, you know? Like, what's more fun, getting somewhere on time or the bus breaking down and something weird happening? Exactly.
Around this time two Scandanavian couples arrived at the cabin. Between them they had Sweden, Denmark and Norway represented. Impressive. Very nice people, we had a couple of good Maté sessions and shared quite a bit of wine, and also watched some of Coffee and Cigarettes which I forgot has some great episodes. Marcus found those few days a Maté breakthrough, as did I. We now both own our own Maté holders and straws (made from cane!). I have run into the Swedish couple (Marcus and Anna) at Bariloche, and I think I might see them at Mendoza as well.
The next day I went with the Scandanavians to Lake Puelo and the day after that I attempted to climb Mount Piltriquitron, which stands at 2,600 metres, approximately. A strange trek. It's a 14km climb to the Bosque Tallado, or carved forrest, which features strange sculptures. From there it's another few kms to the top. I began with the greatest enthusiasm. But after 4km or so going very steeply uphill I felt like giving up. It was hard going.
Then a light came out from the clouds up over the mountain, basking sun upon the whole valley. I’ve never seen so much basking. And it was if God was telling me to keep going. So I did. For 10 minutes, then I realised I was actually going to have a heart attack, so I walked back 4km and got a taxi to the Bosque Tallado.
From the taxi drop-off it's still a hard 45 minute climb up to the forrest, which was actually pretty cool, although I had to stop for ages to get my breath back. It's magical. There's 31 sculptures and I got about half of them on camera. Some of them were very interesting, disturbing even. Fascinating and chilling, one could say. They were all in a kind of woody-brown colour apart from one, which was light green. This was chilling as it reminded me of that bit in Return To Oz where Dorothy is in the Knome King's mountain and she has to identify the emerald in his jewel collection or everyone is turned into a statue FOREVER. This film terrified me as both child and adult, and alone on the mountain it gave me the willies once again. If you haven't seen the film, DON'T. It's the scariest thing ever.
I touched the green statue, subconsciously afraid I would become one myself. Actually…what if the sculptures where all originally people? Some of them look reeeaaally weird. Where’s Tick-Tock when you need him?
Climbing further up I reached the refugio on the mountain where I stayed the night, but not before I did some trekking on the mountain. Getting to the summit proved impossible, what with the wind and hail and all, but it was still a good experience, if a little frightening worrying about falling through ice. Luckily I had my trusty walking stick to test the depth of the snow. Very useful. Oh, and it was COLD.
At the refugio a guy called Santiago was working on his own. Bizarre. He's up there on the mountain day after day. I'm suprised he doesn't go mad. But he's a nice guy and makes a mean café con leche. At the refugio I slept on a mattress on the floor upstairs. There was also an Argentinian family there and they offered me the best Maté I've ever had. Which was nice.
The next day I headed down the mountain, a 3 hour trip back to the hostel. By the end my legs felt like big bags of corned beef that some had had a violent disagreement with. Rest was needed.
The Scandanavians had since departed but I befriended some American girls in the other cabin who made us all some kind of lentil based soup, which was really very lovely. Deep conversations that night if I remember rightly. I think we broke up for the night round about artificial intelligence. ‘Stop messing around with things!’ That was my message on that topic. I mean right now we control the machines. I’ve seen Terminator and I, Robot. I know what can happen. What are scientists stupid or something? If I had to trust a ‘scientist’ or James Cameron over artificial intelligence I think I know who I’d pick. And I think you do too.
And so it passed that on Thursday I made the beautiful 2 hour trip north to Bariloche, also in the Lake District - the Nahuel Huapi National Park to be exact. Here at Bariloche I’ve been at Hostel 1004. It’s cool, you go up a lift in a normal apartment building in town and go to the end of the corridor on the 10th floor. It’s merely marked ‘1004’, not hostel type signs or anything. You ring the bell and step through into an amazing hostel like it’s some kind of tardis. I really like it here. Amazing view (right). There’s something about the living room here that encourages people to be social. I’ve met some nice people and I think I’ll see some of them again in Mendoza, where I’m going tomorrow.
It was a nice surprise to bump into David and Gretchen from Puerto Madryn. Although Thursday descended into madness as David, myself and a Colombian guy called Rodrigo went in search of a bar after the hostel kind of closes down at 2am. We were in a quasi-Irish pub for a while then that closed and we tried to get into a casino but were denied on charges of inebriation! Confusing times getting back to the hostel only to find the next day a complete write off with killer hangover, although not like the old days. But still bad, you know? The mixture of cheap boxed red wine and fizzy beer was, in retrospect, not the best plan ever.
Recovery. Yesterday I did the ‘7 lakes’ tour of this beautiful lake district I find myself in with two Spanish guys, Javier and Jorge (left). We rented a car. I, as I have made evident, am deficient in Espanyol, and Javier and Jorge don’t have brilliant English, but somehow we got by okay. The Lake District here is really quite beautiful, although I'm sure you could say the same of New Zealand, Austria or even in the north of England in Cumbria. But I'm not used to all this amazing scenery so I've really enjoyed it.
Lots of lovely pictures of lakes and forests and mountains were captured and we went out for a meal with some guys in the hostel in the evening before going back to the Irish pub! Arrgghh! Bad memories. Actually, scrub that, I have no memories apart from swaying to the toilets like an inexperienced sailor at sea. Nasty. Not been like that in a while. All shall be quiet on the alcohol front until Mendoza. Then – wine tours! Yes, I must taste some of the best Malbecs and Sauvignon Blancs in South America. Maybe I’ll get drunk and phone up Direct Wines viscerally praising the plumy flavours and soft tannins of a good Merlot I’m ‘sampling’, and demanding they buy a boatload of it. I can see it happening.
Yes, it’s been a strange week. Meeting interesting people like Rodrigo (right), who says I can stay with him in Bogota anytime I go to Colombia! And the guys at La Casa del Viajero before that were great to meet.
There's something weird going on with my chin in this picture, though I'm not sure exactly what.
I’ve not been on the old email for a while and find my inbox fuller than a bottle bank in January. I must write. Reply. And book a hostel for Mendoza. I’m heading out there tomorrow. 12.30pm departure. Semi-cama. A nineteen hour trip, bus fans! I’m hoping for a good film this time, but not holding my breath. It’ll probably be Miss Congeniality 2: Full Throttle, or whatever it’s called. In Spanish.
I intend to be fully stocked with music and literature. Which reminds me, I’m just finishing Will Self’s debut The Quantity Theory of Insanity. It’s good. Not a novel but 5 or 6 short stories. He’s not too great on plots, but it’s really well written, and very amusing. Also it looks almost like a science book, which makes me feel clever as I try and make the cover clear to any passers-by. After that I have a short book to read that I forget the title of but is billed as a ‘Gothic Western’. Fantastic.
That’s possibly the best genre ever, I don’t know. No, it is…surely?