LUGARES MAGAZINE Nro. 39
Pags. 68 - 75
By: Soledad Gil
Photos: Federico Quintana
THE LAND OF THE WIND
Forests, rocks and unexpected oases. Our next stop, a true classic, was the Esquel and Los Alerces National Park.
We looked at the map. Nothing here; nothing there. We were intrigued by two blue dots in the middle of the Province, and found that they were Lakes Musters and Colhué Huapi, with petrified forests in between. The road leading is paved. We made up our minds to head in that direction.
The yellow Patagonian "coirones" grass was everywhere and was a constant companion a11 the way. A few kilometres from Gobernador Costa, which we chose as our base, is the outpost situated in Nueva Lubecka. It used to be an important estancia and the old post office, made of stone, still stands with its original red pillarbox, forgotten over the years, but at least spared the fate of others which have been painted blue. The charm of the place lies in the fact that it is maintained as it always was in this remote spot, which was connected to the outside world long before the era of e-mail and Internet.
Before reaching Sarmiento we spotted Lake Musters, in the centre of the plateau. It is enormous and its deep blue water is the main source of supply for fresh water for Comodoro Rivadavia. The other Iake, the Colhué Huapi, is Iess accessible and seems to be in the process of drying up, no longer comparing to the description made by Perito Moreno in his book "Viaje a 1a Patagonia Austral".
Sarmiento, founded in 1897, is an immaculate town with a population of 8,000. It is one of the most southerly arcas of irrigated land in the world. The climate limits the variety of crops, but the soil is fertile, which explains why it has the second highest agricultural output in the Province of Chubut.
We visited Granja San José belonging to Carmen and José Rioja, who originally carne from Comodoro and who are very pleased with their tomatoes, peppers and juicy raspberries, which we had the privilege of picking and tasting.
We also enjoyed the local Gouda cheese from the Chacra Abuela Mercedes.
The surroundings of Sarmiento have more than forests to offer. Some 45 kms west of the city and 1 km south of Route 26 you will find the Painted Hands and the Sarasola Caves of volcanic origin, which can be visited with the permission of the owners of the Los Manantiales Estancia..
A further 38 kms. south of Sarmiento ate the 65 million year old José Ormachea petrified forests. As we were told by Juan José Valera, the ranger, "95 million years ago during the Cretaceous Period Patagonia was inhabited by dinosaurs and covered with vegetation, the Cordillera had not yet been formed and the Pacific winds affected the whole region. Some 30 million years later, during the Tertiary Period, a depression of the land in this region allowed the ocean in, bringing with it many marine species.
When the sea withdrew the trees were buried beneath swamplands and lagoons. Later, great clouds of
volcanic ash covered the region, eteating a favourable environment for the petrification process, which substitutes microscopic particles of silica for the original vegetal matter. Some trees had reached a height of over 100 metres.
One thing is to see the forest from a distance and quite another is to walk through it. To our astonishment, as we walked, the cracking wood sounded more like shattering rock. With each step amongst the petrified trees we composed our own individual stony symphonies, until we reached a particular hollow tree.
Juan José's son, Omar, tried to persuade me to crawl through the tree - a simple ceremony called by some "the Second Birth". I gave it a try but did not want to push it too far. Not that I was afraid of breaking with my hips what 65 million years had failed to destroy, but I was actually terrified of being stuck there and being turned into yet another fossil in the woods.
We returned to Gobernador Costa before setting out the next day, taking Route 19, to Rio Pico. This is a creaking, wooden town with whirling winds and friendly folk.
Rio Pico is south of Lake Vintter and near to the group of lakes that bear no names bvt are simply numbered from 1 to 5. This is a wonderful place for fishing; at the mouth of the Vintter River, Pacific salmon up to 16 kilograms have been caught. The lakes are also full of both Rainbow and Brown trout, but there is a strict "Catch and Release" rule. The Arco Iris (Rainbow) campsite on Lake 3 and the La Bahia cabins on Lake 1 are suitable places to spend the night whilst visiting the arca.
We continued to Rio Mayo, the national sheep shearing capital, where there is an annual festival held in the second week of January. Rio Mayo is strategically located between the crossing to Chile from Coyhaique through Aldea Baleiro and Balmaceda. In Rio Mayo one has to bid farewell to paved roads and surrender oneself to Route 40, the western backbone of the country. The road, which comes in from the north and is already over 2000 kilometres long at this point, could wither and die at any lake - but no! In Santa Cruz it is the marrow, brain and heart of the country. In the infiniry of the landscape it is sometimes the only visible sign of civilisation.
Dozens of roads begin or end at route 40. For the few who use it Route 40 is much more than a dotted line on a map that refused to be paved. In the face of progress elsewhere the locals staunchly defend the use of gravel for their roads. Route 40 would not be what it is if it were paved. One has to love it as it is, wide and dusty.