Patagonia: The Anti-Rally–Dispatch 4

We have now crossed the border beween Chile and Argentina, in one direction or the other, eleven times.  The most vivid and, shall we say, poignant of the crossings occurred the day after we left El Chalten.  But, let’s start at the beginning.

After leaving El Chalten, our drive northward on Ruta 40 was long and uneventful.  The landscape mimicked Mongolia to such a remarkable extent that we were sometimes confused about where we actually were.  The only two differences were a) bits of brown grass growing in Argentina and b) more Bactrian camels in Mongolia (also more cars, or at least more really old cars).

Our stop the first day was Bajo Caracoles, little more than a gas station with rooms surrounded by a few scruffy hostels, immortalized by Bruce Chatwin in Songlines as the crossroads to nowhere.  Well, I’m here to tell you Bruce was wrong.  To the Eastof Bajo Caracoles are the Cuevos de los Manos, cliffs on which were discovered hand silhouettes painted for some ritual observations 9,000 years ago.  We reached these isolated cliff sites late in the afternoon and were the only ones there.

However, after finishing our inspection of the hands, we were greeted by a young hitch hiker who politely asked in French-accented Spanish if we could offer him a lift rather than leaving him there to walk the 46 kilometers back to the gas station.  Along the road home he regaled us with descriptions of a marvelous area in the region of Jujuy, northern Argentine, right at the border with Bolivia, called the Quebrada de Humuhuaca.  The people in the area were more Quechua than anything else and the colors of the eroding hillsides something to marvel at.  It quite captured our imagination.  But more on that later…..

We bedded down for the night in the back room of the gas station and next morning before sunrise we headed West, to Chile, via the Paso Roballos, which is the southern most border crossing for cars.  The initially barren dirt road gave way to small lakes and oases of agriculture created by the  isolated sheep estancias in the foothills.  The early morning wind swept over sheep nibbling inordinately green grass by rippling ponds in which pink flamingos scratched for food.  What looked to be the year’s first snow powdered the hills behind as we approached the Argentine border station at Paso Roballos.  And here´s what we saw:   a small white clapboard house with a dog in front, an old stone building resembling nothing so much as a sheep herder’s hut in Sicily, and a small nondescript building behind it.

No one was in sight when we pulled up, but we did notice someone pulling back a curtain in the house to peer out at us, followed shortly by the emergence of an Argentine customs officer from the house.  I fully expected to see striped pajama bottoms peaking out from his dark olive drab, regulation issue army trousers.  But, no, he was fully pressed, buttoned, polished and tied.

I returned to my search for car papers and by the time I lifted my head from the car again, he had disappeared.  All I could see was a flock of chickens clustered outside a door in the stone hut.  OK, I figured to myself, that’s where the customs and immigration office is.  I strolled over to the hut, forced my way nonchalantly through the the happy flock and stuck my head in the door, only to find sacks of feed stacked insided, no desk, no officer.   Emerging from the chicken feed hut, I turned the corner and saw the officer waving at me from the more proper-looking building behind it.   I then made my way to the official immigration office, surrounded by a flock of bouncy clucking chickens who were quickly joined by 5 turkeys, all of whom clearly were expecting to be fed by me.  I believe they would have come right into the custom’s office with me had they not been brought up short at the door realizing they didn’t have passports.  THe sounds of clucking dismay as I disappeared inside were distressing.

Inside I found Soldier Cabrale, all set to go through the formalities.  Cabrale was manning the border entirely by himself, no compadres, no computer and usually, no cars.  All he had were 4 ledgers, one each of vehicles or people, either leaving or entering Argentina, and all with meticulous handwritten entries, noting cars and people who had passed into or out of Argentina.  It immediately became clear that Soldier Cabrale was going to make absolutely sure that there were no errors, no crossed out or smudged entries in these ledgers on his watch.

Equally clearly, though, the lack of foot or vehicle traffic through his post meant a distinct lack of familiarity with the paperwork.  Every action Soldier Cabrale took, he took three times:  once in preparation (I am now going to make an entry in this book by looking at the label and opening to the proper page), once to double-check himself (did I really pick up the correct book?  Better look at the cover again and check a few pages back to be sure) and once to actually make the entry needed (yes, this is the proper book and nothing has changed since I checked the cover label two seconds ago).  He did this utterly without self-consciousness, simply going about his business seriousness and, no doubt, some prayers.

At one point, flustered, Soldier Cabrale felt the need for written support.  He stood up and began opening drawers in the chest next to his desk.  The top 2 drawers held blank forms. Increasingly frantically he opened drawer after drawer, all empty.  By the time he got to the last of the 20 drawers in the chest, you could tell by how wearily he pulled them open that he’d given up hope of finding answers in any of them.  He sat slowly back down in his chair, flexed his arms several times and would have licked the nib of his quill pen, if he hadn’t been using a ballpoint.

Now, all this would have been par for the course at such a lonely crossing, where they welcome not more than 500 cars in a whole year (and that’s in both directions, mind you).  Except that 4 kilometers down the road we reached the Chilean border post, where a veritable swarm of soldiers welcomed us, each grabbing a form to fill in on their computers (thank you very much),  hustling us through their charmingly civilized cluster of cottages with flower gardens in record time.  AND, no chickens here.  The Chileans had a flock of sheep!!!

The drive down from the pass took us on a rollercoaster ride alongside fast-moving rivers and through large herds of guanaco, larger than any we’d passed before.  We also noticed large sections of fence being removed.  Turns out we were driving through what used to be a vast, productive estancia owned by a Belgian family, where 40,000+ sheep and 20,000+ cattle used to graze.  The land was thriving and clearly had been a model of agricultural custody, since the large guanaco herds hadn’t just arrived out of nowhere.  However, Doug Tompkins, founder of the Patagonia (sportswear) had purchased the entire tract, sold everything (putting 70 locals out of work) and was making the area into another park.  When we talked about the situation with people in Cochrane, where we stayed that night, they felt something that worked well had been destroyed, for little benefit to the area.  Of course, this is a much larger issue than I´m presenting here.  But the question of what land to conserve and how also to best serve the people in region of the Carretera Austral is a hot topic.

Thus we did reach the Carretera Austral, and daintly set out car tires on the magic road which we had driven so far to reach.  Saying we felt reverential may be making too much of it, but it did feel very significant, shall we say, to be driving on the legendary road.    We spent the night in Cochrane, not as far south as the Carretera actually goes, but given the weary state of our shock absorbers and the complete lack of a torsion bar, we thought prudence was the better part of valor and we should head north.

And now,  what can I impart about the Carretera Austral.  Simply that there is no more beautiful road in the world than this.  Every inch of the road presents views so stunning that we bored ourselves silly exclaiming “Wow, look at that!!!”  We were awestruck by the scenes, such as the deep green Lago General Carrera bordered with wild fuchsia, the huge gray-blue rivers with wild rapids, range upon range of forest-coated hills beyond which reared even higher snowy peak, and perhaps one car coming toward us every 100 kilometers. It was insanely gorgeous.

Unable to bring ourselves to stop for the day in the city of Coyhaique, we continued for another couple of hours to the tiny fishing port of Puerto Cisnes, where we found a cabin for 2 nights.  The  35 kilometer lane from the Carretera to the port was overhung with giant ferns, giant wild fuchsia and giant rhubarb-like plants.  It was so lush that the plants scraped the car sides as we slid by.  On reaching the water, the road was literally hacked out of the cliff, with water on one side and sheer walls rising on the other.  It was a marvel. Arriving at Puerto Cisnes we saw a tiny fishing village, with yellow skiffs and lauches resting on the exposed sand at low tide, backed by vertiginous cliffs cloaked in green and a few dogs playing tag on the shore.  Puerto Cisnes, the antithesis of Ushuaia…no cruiseships here, and precious few tourists either.

All is not as meets the eye, however, and there’s much about Cisnes that is not well, as we discovered next day on a long boat ride to Isla Magdalena, an hour and half off shore from the village and now a National Park that’s so dense with vegetation that no human access is possible.  What we saw and learned was that the entire area has been taken over by salmon farming companies.   Why has salmon farming made inroads in what used to be a self-sufficient fishing community?  What we were told is that the Chilean government sold fishing rights to the local waters to Spanish industrial fishing enterprises, who eventually overfished the waters and put the local fishermen out of business.  Then the salmon-farming enterprises came in and offered everyone good jobs (Norwegians set them up first, but now there are hundreds).  People were happy for the pay, but the work requires them to be away from home for 20-day shifts…quite a hardship.    Fascinating to see first-hand what salmon farming is all about, and also rather horrifying to see how it’s polluting the coastline.

As we puttered back toward the port, we stopped for a visit at the childhood home of our captain.  Just before we lowered the anchor a pod of dolphins appeared.  And then we had a deliriously wonderful time with his elderly parents, inspecting their vegetable garden, identifying their herbs (playing “how do you say this in Spanish and here’s what we call it in English”),and pulling ripe plums off their fruit trees (not just us, of course, everyone ate the plums!!).  Because there are no predators (no foxes, no wild cats) they let their chickens and geese roam free and never lose any.  Their homestead was literally hacked out of the forest, which they had cleared foot by foot over the 5 decades they had lived there, eventually having enough pasture available for a small flock of sheep and 30 cows.

After Puerto Cisnes, we drove another day, going through the German-settled port of Puyuhuapi and encountering a lot of road construction.  Evidently even the Carretera Austral is being widened and paved to permit easier access.  Here are two unexpected things we learned:  1) we became saturated by the unrelenting extraordinary beauty of the scenery and eventually couldn’t take it any more.  It was like being presented with a convention-sized chocolate mousse cake and eating the whole thing.  After awhile we actually couldn’t face the inevitable conclusion of the magic road and the brutal return to cities and civilization.  2) having spent 6-7 days in Torres del Paine and FitzRoy, we were not drawn to the Austral parks as we had anticipated. Seeing trail heads hacked out of the brush, where even the undergrowth of the undergrowth had undergrowth and no light could penetrate the density, might have had something to do with it.

And then we couldn’t get the Quebrada de Humahuaca de Jujuy out of our minds. Just saying the name was a revelation.  Laying as it does tight up against Argentina’s northwest border with Bolivia, it’s the poorest area in Argentina and one with racial and ethnic roots more closely bound to Peru and Bolivia than Argentina proper.  Tiny pueblos, high altitudes and, so we heard, eroded sandstone hillsides that sometimes reveal 7 colors at once….carnelian, umber, cream, rose, green, peach and grey.  The area is the Argentine side of the Atacama Desert, with many salt flats and few visitors.  Why not go there for our last week?  So we crossed back into Argentina via Futaleufu (anyone who loves whitewater will now be asking why we didn’t try some of those Class IV-VI rapids, but I’m not a water person…..), and got to Bariloche.  We had to say goodbye to our jalopy and from there take to the air.  A couple of flights later we landed in Salta where we were introduced to a new 4×4 (from Hertz, this time) and were on our way north.

And so I write you today from Purmamarca, an itty bitty pueblo of 50 houses or so, just 60k south of Humahuaca. We are in the heart of Jujuy.   It is the week of Easter (Semana Santa) and there are processions in each village each day as the Virgin is brought out from a church to the tooting of pipes and banging of drums, paraded around with incense burning and sometimes  taken up into the hills to camp for the night.

This will be the end of my bulletins, as by the time we leave Jujuy it will be to fly home.  To those who’ve written me back, thank you for being in touch.  I hope whoever has taken the time to read about our experiences has enjoyed it and that those who didn’t want to read felt comfortable just deleting the bulletin entirely!!  Either way, I’ve had great pleasure reminiscing about our experiences “in plain sight” and sharing some of the wonders of our trip with you.


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