A harrowing thing happened as we were leaving Mendoza.
We went to get an oil change first. As usual, Simon watched over the work and I tried to keep the kids sane and safe in a mechanic shop parking lot while they tried to jump every ledge and collect rusty metal. It took a couple very long hours, so long that even Luna went to find shade inside the shop for a siesta. Finally, the work was done. We were ecstatic. We paid the bill, piled the kids in the car and headed south. Yup, you guessed it, we forgot Luna!
Luna is such a good low maintenance dog. She goes with the flow, never whines, always close to us. With the three of them, Simon and I are outnumbered and we always worried that one day this would happen. And now it did. We drove for a good half hour on the highway before Simon realized – where is Luna? The worry was sickening mixed with regret and fear. To make the story short, we found her after about a half hour heart-wrenching search. Simon said Luna looked so happy when she heard his call from across the street, popped her head up and pranced on her hind legs. I was searching on foot and when I came back to the van and saw her, I cried. Only with us for less than three months and now we couldn’t bear the thought of continuing the trip without her. Even the kids. Asked how he felt about it, Ty said, he would not go to sleep again without Luna and he would just stay up and draw. Kids say the darndest things.
A two day drive took us to Malargue then to Chos Malal. Chos Malal is technically in Patagonia proper, but only on the map and no one comes here for that. Once a year though, people do come for la fiesta de chivo, the goat festival, which runs from Thursday to Sunday. We were lucky enough to arrive on Wednesday to grab a spot in the municipal campground. It started to fill up as more and more locals drove from hours away mainly for the purpose of eating goat! Supposedly goat from this area is the tastiest of Argentina.
Despite our affinity for goat we had plans to leave the next day. Patagonia was calling! But things never work out quite as planned. As we were packing up the next morning, a boy rode his bicycle over and asked if we wanted to buy a chivito. We thought, perfect, some barbecued goat for the road! Then he said, no, it’s not cooked, it’s for your parilla. Hm. To back up a bit I should mention that we have been grilling a lot since we came to Argentina. We are literally eating pounds of beef and drinking liters of red wine every day and getting the hang of doing a barbecue the Argentinian way – slow and low. So we were very curious about the boy’s offer. And it was serendipitous, that it was Thanksgiving day! So why not? We walked across the street to the boy’s house and chose a chivito from the pen. Last year Thanksgiving 2014 was spent in Joshua tree with a big campfire and climbing folks at the start of our trip. A year later we were in Argentina ready to grill our first goat for Thanksgiving 2015.
It was delicious. Mauricio came over and helped us get the perfect fire. Others from the campground did as well. You really don’t need much. By American standards which seem to prefer incinerating the outside of the meat, this heat almost looks non existent. But low and indirect is the way to go for tender meat. For seasoning it was just salt and pepper, basted with an oil, water, garlic, oregano mixture. Separate Argentinians have told us the best part of the goat is the shoulder and ribs. We agree that’s the case with roasting but we saved the leftovers for a stew and it was all good.
The next day we hit the road. The drive just got better and better the further south we went. Blue skies, rolling hills, wild flowers and always a body of water nearby. We were just itching to find a home and experience this environment.
Then came our first wild camp spot in Patagonia. Simon stopped to check out a potential camp along a river and a friendly Swiss fisherman stopped to say hi. Come, stay, it’s a good spot! So we stayed for two days on the banks of Rio Litrán. Just pull up, find a flat spot, build a fire, fish and camp. It really is just like what we have been hearing about Patagonia!
Simon was happy to hook his first Patagonia trout. It was small but he caught it quickly once we arrived. It was a good thing he did because for the next two days there wasn’t much more action. The Swiss said it was unusual as they had been coming every year.
Before arriving in Patagonia I had no idea how big it is. It is not one place or one park. It is an area as big as 1000 miles long and 500 miles wide spanning two countries. It is mountains and lakes, rivers and fjords, beach and desert, Pacific and Atlantic. It is an idea, a feeling, a dream.
If there weren’t a Patagonia in South America I am not sure if we would have chosen this route for our adventure. Maybe we would have gone to Southeast Asia, or Australia and New Zealand? That’s not to say everything we saw further north were not special but gosh there is something about this place that infatuated us. Patagonia IS a feeling.
A common question we get from non-overlanders is do we plan out where we go? Well, anticipation is part of the fun, but the plans rarely get executed. For example when we started we thought we would last two and a half years. That’s going to be one year less. There were “must sees” that we missed, like the Cordillera Blanca in Peru, all of Bolivia, Corcovado Park in Costa Rica, Machu Picchu. On a micro level we frequently roll into a place, not quite feel it and move on, or the opposite and stay far longer than we thought. So when we actually made it to Patagonia at end of November, like we wanted to, like we planned, we were more than delighted!
After Rio Litrán we arrived at Lago Aluminé and Rio Aluminé. Now this area is definitely considered the north end of Patagonia’s Lake District on the Argentinian side. We drove up and down the portion of the river near the quintessentially charming town of Villa Pehueña, and found a magical camp spot. Fording a shallow split of the river landed us on an island surrounded by the rushing Rio Aluminé on two sides. We even had a shallow creek that ran through the middle of the island perfect for the kids to play in and wash. We were just by ourselves and we couldn’t stop smiling having found our Patagonia private island. We built a big fire. Simon went fishing right in front of camp and caught a nice rainbow trout.
The next day we knew our Swiss friends from Rio Litran were nearby so we went to get them to come join us. Franck and Carole are retirees and northern Patagonia regulars. They store their camper in Argentina or Uruguay when they go back for the Swiss summer and come to South America during the Swiss winter. In other words they are “snowbirds” but the very cool kind because they live in a small Land Cruiser camper and they can rough it. Storing the camper down south cost less than $500 for a year, and since they wild camp almost exclusively their expenses are primarily food and gas. $30 a day can go very far. Another $2000 for plane tickets…so there you go, less than $9000 for six months one can live in paradise every Patagonia summer. That definitely planted a seed in our heads about our eventual retirement. Part of road fun is meeting people on the road who very often live in a box but think outside one.
The next day Simon went fishing early in the morning and caught another big rainbow. This one we kept. Franck and Carole helped us smoke it. That’s right. These two also make a mean smoked trout, with salt, brown sugar and their own shaved wood chips.
One day the famous Patagonia wind really picked up. The kids could barely go outside without sand in their eyes. We had been carrying this huge tent that we used a lot on the Mexican beaches but lugging around like deadweight since. So here towards the end of earth we took it out again as a playhouse for bad weather. (The wind actually snapped a pole while we were setting up before attaching guylines. Franck the MacGyver fixed it on the spot.) Story time, blocks, drawing, movies, even yoga. These great things are only possible when we live at one place for a stretch. I got into a habit of waking up at dawn after Jamie’s feeding, making coffee and sitting down with a book for a couple hours before the rest of them rose. We even baked bread in the Dutch oven over campfire. This was the kids’ activity one morning and our first homemade bread ever.
It was good we found all this stuff to do because Simon didn’t catch any more fish for the next seven days. Franck and Carole were perplexed, it’s not supposed to be this quiet! For them it was all the more frustrating because they relied on the fish for food. They live very simply. They said they often stayed at one fishing spot for an entire month without resupply. They baked bread, ate cabbage, eggs, and the occasional fish. They don’t keep many fish either. One smoked trout could last them for days. Ours lasted for about fifteen minutes. Simon and I are guilty of excess sometimes and we really admire their simplicity.
All in all we stayed ten days on the island. Fifteen bottles of wine. Twenty pounds of beef. Two fish.
Before leaving this area we did a loop around Lago Alumine and stopped at the Rio Pulmarí. Our camp spot was within two feet of the water. As far as the eye could see just trees, sky and water. It was another beautiful free wild spot. Mayflies and these other white winged bugs were hatching all the time. Fish were jumping all around us. But no fish for Simon. We decided to move after one night. Patagonia is so vast. This area is literally filled with lakes and rivers to explore.