In the Shadow of the Andes

Trip Start Jan 20, 2004
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Argentina  ,
Thursday, May 26, 2005

Checking the internet weather forecast after a solid two weeks of rain left us feeling somewhat discouraged - at least another ten rainy days were in store! However, as we all know - and fortunately for us - weather predictions are not always completely accurate. As we left the tourist centre of Esquel behind and headed north up into the Chubut foothills the sunshine was radiant and the skies brilliant blue - quite a welcome bonus! It felt good to be on the road again, and it was a beautiful afternoon's drive as we wound our way through the highland pampa dominated by towering snow-capped hills and mountain peaks on either side.

By early evening we had dropped down into the fertile valley sheltering the infamous "hippie" town of El Bolsón. Early the next morning we set out to investigate the intriguing claim of the laid-back residents - that Cerro Piltiquitrón, the jagged mountain ridge east of town, is one of the earth's primary "cosmic energy centres". After an hours stroll through the centre of town, did we feel especially calm, relaxed, and just generally better than usual? Yes we did, but maybe it was because we enjoyed chatting to some of the scores of vendors who were busy setting out their wares at the local Feria Artesanal or craft market. Memories came flooding back from our days at the Carp Farmers' Market - particularly of the first hour or two on the cooler days in the early spring or late fall - and of the camaraderie between vendors before many customers arrived. With streets still wet from last night's melting snow, and temperatures not far above the freezing point, the back-to-nature homesteaders and artisans of El Bolsón braved the cold to display everything from jewellery and carved wooden spoons, to herbal mate gourds and home-made preserves. We were pleased to now be on the "purchasing side", and could only hope that the vendors' sensitivities to the cold were obliterated by the surrounding special energy forces!

The first pony-tailed hippies descended on this small town in the 1970s, and they were most likely the moving force behind the initiative to have it declared an "ecological township" and the first "non-nuclear zone" in Argentina. Could it be that their presence also led to the area becoming a major producer of hops - almost 75% of the country's production? We were rather sorry not to have visited during the summer months when the fertile valley is apparently brimming with strawberries, raspberries, cherries, plums and other luscious fruits. Winter and summer alike however, El Bolsón is the northernmost spot to take advantage of the subsidized gas prices available in Patagonia. Although we could no longer find gas at the equivalent of fifty Canadian cents per litre as we did in Ushuaia, it was still relatively inexpensive.

Always aware of the imminent winter weather, we decided not to stick around to check out the theory of visiting UFOs - another of the town's legendary claims. The intermittent sunny periods were enough to convince us to continue north on our way to warmer climes, and we were pleased to have the weather on our side as we left town. Our first hint of anything amiss was the transport truck coming in the opposite direction with several inches of snow on its rooftop. Less than an hour later as we steadily climbed up out of the valley we were reduced to a crawl, experiencing real winter driving conditions for the first time in sixteen months.

The mountain passes were particularly slippery and difficult to traverse, and although we did see one snow plow, it was apparently much too early in the season for them to be out in full force. Thus we had no option but to wait when confronted with three large articulated trucks that had failed to make the grade and had completely blocked the road. Never mind, while they whipped out their chains, snow shovels and other winter paraphernalia, we whipped out our trusty kettle, made ourselves a cup of coffee, and had a game of Scrabble. Ah, the beauty and comfort of travelling in a fully equipped van!!
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