The quest for 'The Marble Caves'!

Trip Start Feb 03, 2013
Trip End Dec 13, 2013

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Where I stayed
Padilla Hostel
What I did
Ruta 40
Chile Chico
Rio Jeinimeni

Flag of Argentina  , Patagonia,
Monday, March 25, 2013

Hola Chicos!

So, Kirsty has filled you in on the start of our visit to the Argentine Patagonia with our trips to El Calafate and the wonderful El Chalten. I shall now fill you in on the next leg of our adventures with our eventful visit to the small border town of Los Antiguos. 

Back in El Calafate we met a Dutch guy called Mario who told us about these amazing marble caves that were over in Chile. They were only briefly mentioned in our 2010 version of 'Lonely Planet: Chile' and it seemed that not many people had heard about them. A quick Google image search and I was sold as they looked amazing. Gripped also by the desire to see something that would wow even our fellow travellers rather than elicit the standard "Oh yeah, we saw those too. It was great. Did you see X and Y!?" we incorporated them into our trip and booked onto a bus from El Chalten to Los Antiguos.

25th March - We arrived at the El Chalten bus terminal and before long we were joined by our Ozzie friend, Christian, whose bus left 30mins before ours, but got into Los Antiguos 2hrs after us. His bus left and we were soon joined by Mario and Luciano (a nice Brazilian guy who we also met back in El Calafate) who were booked onto our bus too. The bus set off and began its journey along the bumpy and unpaved Ruta 40. 

Before long we caught up with the earlier bus and overtook it on the dirt road. Both buses then pulled into a shack of a services and people from our bus joked about how much faster ours was. The other bus joked that at the speeds we were going on the dirt tracks we'd probably break down. We set off again and were just getting comfortable when our bus pulled over to the side of the road. One of the drivers went outside and then came back on board and low and behold we had broken down! I'd like to point out that at this point we were 5hrs into a 10hr bus journey and were in the middle of nowhere - 5hrs in either direction to civilisation! We all got off and people took photos in the middle of the empty road. 

The second bus eventually caught up and stopped to help. All of the drivers lay underneath our bus and we got the impression none of them knew what they were doing as rubber belts of all shapes and sizes came from our engine and the seemed to just hit things with spanners. The other bus load obviously laid into us about how they had predicted this eventuality! It soon became clear that the bus would not be fixed and we had a small problem as we had two bus loads of people and one working bus. We all piled in though and people sat on laps and in aisles, but Kirsty and I somehow struck lucky and got a seat each (we later heard that the driver of our new bus had asked their passengers if they minded taking us otherwise we'd have had to spend the night on our broken bus!).

After several hours and many numb bums we arrived in Los Antiguos. The bus takes passengers to a hostel to stay at that Christian had booked into, but they were fully booked so a group of us went in search of a bed for the night. It didn't take too long and we found a cabin owned by a grumpy woman, but it was cheap and only for the night so we all settled down. 

Phew... adventure no. 1 done. This is only the start. Ready for more? Good.

26th March -  So, today was the big day where we planned to cross the Argentine/Chile border 9km to the neighbour town of Chile Chico and then hopefully get a bus to Puerto Tranquilo where you can take a boat to the marble caves. We needed to get there and back over the border to Los Antiguos by tomorrow evening as the bus to Bariloche left early the following morning. It was a long shot, but we had faith. Mario, who had told us about the caves, had decided it was too much of a risk for his timeline so had abandoned the adventure and left for Bariloche at 05:30am! We had not given up though.

The bus from yesterday said they would take people back to the bus terminal so Kirsty, Christian and I got on that whilst Luciano, Scott & Chris (a Canadian and Irish guy we had met from the bus) took a taxi over the border. We got to the terminal and before long the three of us got onto a small minivan shuttle to take us over the border. We crossed the border and arrived in Chile Chico and set about finding a way to Puerto Tranquilo. A friendly lady in Tourist Information told people that there were no buses that day. Shit. We walked to a private excursions company who said they'd take a group of us for C$25,000 each, which even the Chilean guy in the group thought was extortionate. At this point we hadn't eaten that day and it was nearly 11am so Kirsty, Christian and I set off to find a cafe to get food and then think on a full stomach.

After a pizza and a coffee we looked into the daily boats that usually leave at 8am, but unfortunately for us tomorrow's boat was at 4pm instead. The three of us finally decided that we'd pay the company C$7,000 to take us part of the way and then we would hitch hike the rest. The lady in Tourist Information gave us some paper to write a 'TRANQUILO' sign and we picked up some supplies at the supermarket before sitting down to wait for the others in the company's front yard. We arrived 30mins early, but 4pm came and went and there was no sign of anyone. We thought this strange as others had agreed to go on the bus so they should be here. We managed to find the lady who we'd spoken to earlier and it seemed they'd left from another location in the town. Damn it!!! It was this point where we started to feel that fate was not on our side and to admit defeat. It made it worse that there was no sign of the group that caught the taxi this morning and we could only assume they had managed to get to Puerto Tranquilo as Chile Chico is tiny and we'd have bumped into them by now.

The three of us admitted defeat so went back to another company we'd seen earlier who transport people over the border back to Los Antiguos. We thought that if we got back we could then at least visit 'Cueva de las Manos' tomorrow, which we had ditched for the marble caves, and at least do something. Everything seemed to be against us though as the nice man told us that his only bus was at 10am so the next one would be in the morning! We decided that Los Antiguos was only 9km away so why not just walk it if we have to? We set off on the road to the border, but it seemed to go on forever so we started sticking our thumbs out to hitch hike. Nothing was stopping for us obviously and at this point Kirsty began to question whether we were doing the right thing. Her next words were "I wish we could just have a sign that this is the right thing to do" and as she said it we stuck our thumbs out and the next pickup truck pulled over. A sign!!! The man, Eduardo, questioned our nationality, but we were all good (we think they don't like Americans) so got in. He spoke no English, but we managed to get chatting and he told us he also owned a hostel in Los Antiguos. Re-SULT!

When we arrived back in Los Antiguos he pulled in to the very same hostel Christian had stayed at last night. What are the chances!? We spoke with his Wife (who also spoke no English) and told her what had happened.She was very lovely and phoned around town to see if we could get to Cueva de las Manos tomorrow. She found us someone to take us and then said that her husband was going salmon fishing in the morning. We asked if we could go along and she said it would be fine, but bet that we'd catch nothing and her husband would. The bet was on. After a day of lady luck being against us we seemed to have quite a nice day planned out for tomorrow. We treated ourselves to some vino and the three of us sat chatting in the hostel kitchen on our own as the hostel was empty.

27th March - Our alarms went off early as we were being picked up at 8am. Everywhere else in South America seemed to be very relaxed about times, but it seems that salmon wait for no-one and the man was there bang on time and keen to get a move on. We drove back towards the Chile border and passed Argentina border control without being stamped out because we're badasses. Before the Chilean border Eduardo pulled off onto a dirt road and alongside a river. During the journey he told us (in Spanish) that he own most of the surrounding land and farmland and gave us a history lesson about the pre-historic geology of the land. We got out and he lent us his spare fishing rod and left us to it before walking off up the river in his waders. We were lucky that Christian knows how to fish and we took it in turns casting into the river and reeling in weeds. It was so cold in the shade and we were freezing! 

Somehow, we managed to tangle his fishing line and spent near on an hour trying to untangle it before Christian cut the line and thread it through again. We got back to fishing and found a nice spot in the sun, but, as his wife predicted, we caught nothing. We heard a whistle and looked up river enviously as we saw the gaucho walking back down with a freshly caught salmon. We then got back in the truck and he drove us to his farm where he gave us a tour of the farm feeding the chickens and picking fresh vegetables. As he picked some carrots and beetroot he told us that we could all eat the salmon and veg that evening together! Amazing! We sat in a little farmhouse where he gave us all a coffee and some form of spirit to drink. He told us about his son who was the number one jockey in Patagonia and competed in races all over Argentina!

After our tour we set off back to the hostel as this was only half of our day and we needed to go to 'Cueva de las Manos'. Another pickup truck arrived and we got inside and our driver set off on the 2hr journey into the middle of nowhere. We got some more lessons about the surrounding land and nearby 'Lago Buenos Aires' (Lake Buenos Aires) before getting tired and sleeping the rest of the way. We arrived at 'Cueva de las Manos' and quickly set off on a guided tour. The name literally means 'Cave of the hands' and is a strange finding dating back 13,000 years whereby the sides of a cliff and small cave are covered with stencils of human hands. We were shown different epochs of time with different colours of dye used and hunting scenes painted next to the hands. Most of the hands were a negative painting whereby the hands were held against the rock whilst dyes were blown over the hand through animal bones leaving the outline of their hands. It was all pretty interesting, but I think we were dejected from the previous day and joked that the whole thing was a hoax for tourists. There was one hand that had six fingers and we were assured that it was genetic despite our suggestions of how you could fake the painting. After less than an hour our tour was done and our driver took us back to Los Antiguos.

When we got back we waited for Eduardo and our salmon dinner. As we were waiting we saw some new arrivals checking in, but they looked familiar. It was Scott, Luciano and Chris! We went out and spoke to them and they had indeed made it to the marble caves! Where our luck was out, there's had been in the whole way and been at the right place at the right time at each stop. Nevermind!

Before long Eduardo arrived with the salmon and veg and mentioned something about tomatoes, onions and cheese like he had earlier. We then realised that we were supposed to provide these items (no such thing as a free dinner!) so Christian and I ran off to the supermarket to get them. We managed to get the veg and one of the cheeses but couldn't find one cheese he called "queso parapesa". We got back and told Eduardo and he took Christian back out to find it. It turned out that there's no such thing as "parapesa" cheese and that the man was saying "queso para pez" or "cheese for fish" so any cheese that would be good on fish. D'oh!! We got what we needed though and he opened up the salmon, and topped it with rings of sliced onion. It went into the oven whilst we sat nibbling on rockefort cheese and sipping red wine. Perfecto! He took the fish out and then added sliced tomato and slices of cheese and whacked it back in the oven. He whipped up a carrot and beetroot salad with the help of his Sous Chef, Kirsty. When the salmon was ready it looked amazing and we all tucked in together whilst asking him about his son and daughters. It was a really nice evening! After dinner we invited Scott to join us for some wine and all sat drinking and chatting again in the Kitchen before retiring to bed to catch the bus to Bariloche the next day.

 Wowza! A lot of information, I know, but it was such an eventful few days that I couldn't leave much out! In the end, we thoroughly enjoyed Los Antiguos, despite not getting to the marble caves.

Next up Kirsty will be telling you about Bariloche, Argentina's capital of chocolate!

Take care all and I hope you're all having fun back home in the cold! Mwuhahaha!

G x x x x  
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