LUGARES MAGAZINE Nro. 51
Pags. 60 - 69
By: Soledad Gil
SAN MARTIN DE LOS ANDES
The mornings in San Martin de los Andes are still calm, and people are making the most of the last days of peace and quiet before the bustling summer season. In January and February the calendar has no "red" dates marked on it ...not a single day of rest once the season has started. In the meantime, the first warm spring days are a reminder that it is time to prepare for the influx of tourists.
A good sign is that the rivers are flowing busily, which is a relief after last year's very hot and dry summer.
This year the Chapelco ski slopes closed on ll October. The ski instructors have come down from the mountains, either to move on to the European and American winter resorts, or to prepare for their summer activities here. Those who remain become mountain guides, or riverrafting instructors, some organise mountain bike outings, 4x4 excursions and fishing trips in this versatile resort.
Julie and I arrived, after an absence of many years, on one of those extraordinary days that make you feel so glad you're alive. We found that the town had grown quite a bit, but the green mountains overlooking Chapelco were just as beautiful as ever, and the wide streets, the lovely tidy squares and the wooden sign posts, all give the kind of mountain village atmosphere we all love.
Good News: There are many changes this year, both in the town and the surroundings-. The main house celebrated its centenary last year. One of the pioneers, Aldo Peletieri, nephew of Enrique Gingins, has now recovered from a road accident, despite it being more than a stumble. Aldo is back there as usual, ready to take out half-day, full day or even longer ponytreks. "Whilst he was in hospital I received calls from people in Buenos Aires who had been pony-trekking with him, to ask how he was", his wife, Corina, told us emotionally.
On the same road to Lake Lolog, but to the left is Yolo, who also organises pony-treks, sailing on the lake or trips combining both. We took a two-hour trip with him, climbing a mountain ridge, which divides the blue point of Lolog, beneath us a small forest of mayten trees and colihue canes. We travelled with another friend, Osvaldo Chapitel, alias Chapi, who returned to San Martin after three years of touring the world for Land Rover. As well as giving driving lessons, he plans the circuits for 4x4 expeditions in this, the perfect territory for these activities.
On our mini pony-trek, Chapi dismounted to pick up an empty bottle. He wasn't just interested in cleaning, he showed us that the glass became so hot in the sun that it could easily become a serious fire risk. One must always take a bag for the rubbish one generates on trips like this.
Green Hand. Speaking of the environment, on the banks of Lake Hermoso we met Eduardo Castro Cisneros, better known as Gogo, President of the Peninsula Raulí Foundation. The Foundation has the only private collection of indigenous seeds of the region and runs an impressive experimental nursery, growing plant species native to Patagonia. They grow small cypresses, tiny araucarias, evergreen coihues, lengas, beech, radales, notros and a wide variety of flowers and shrubs: Peruvian daffodils, mutisias, broom, and michai.
For seven years their main concern has been soil restoration in an area where, although rich and fertile, the equilibrium of the soil is quite fragile. "Forest species like the carob and the quebracho are doing much better in this region than they are in other parts of the country" they explained, "but a forest fire can be disastrous. Not because fire is necessarily bad, but because it is a question of the areas inhabited by people and animals.
When the forest grows again the cows, goats and sheep return and eat it". Access to the Raulí Peninsula is not easy, but Gogo will take botanists and enthusiasts provided they are genuinely interested in the subject.
The Meals: On this trip, we certainly were able to update our information on venison, wild boar, pastas and other less typical, but equally tasty dishes. All for the benefit of our readers! One of the most worthwhile research trips was to the Arrayán teahouse.
The house can be found on the eponymous route, the former main road to Bariloche, which is today preserved as a scenic route. The history behind this cosy wooden cabin - currently declared an historical national landmark of San Martin - is a mixture of tragedy and romance. It is situated in the place that won the heart of Renee Dickinson, a young Englishwoman, who arrived there by chance in 1936, on her way to a visit to her brother Barney, who was working on a nearby estancia at the time. The outcrop on which the teahouse was built in 1939 - was and still is the last place in the evening to see the sun set over the mountains.
The breathtaking view deeply moved Renee, as it does all those who have the opportunity of being there at sundown. This is what drove her to return to Buenos Aires and move heaven and earth in obtaining permission from the National Parks Administration to build her home there. Her efforts finally prospered, leaving her in a position to offer tourist services to the public.
Arrayan complements its glorious afternoon teas (with fabulous cakes and smoked or pickled local products) with two cabins, one of them - Notro - in an unbeatable location. Both kept going while the road had heavy traffic until the 1960s.
But Renee saw virtually nothing of this. According to the legend a local Indian chief, offended by what he considered the usurpation of his land, asked her to marry him as the only form of redress. Renee kindly but firmly rejected the proposal and it is said that the chieftain cast a terrible curse on the place. What is certain is that Renee died of cancer in 1943, six months after she had finally fallen in love, after a previous failed marriage. Her niece Janet, who also lived in the area but recently sold the property, inherited Arrayán.
It is now run by Gloria Ocampo and her daughter Agustina Buzzo -who also run El Radal, the noble heir of El Raulí in the town and this traditional San Martin restaurant, after several seasons, has now recovered its old brilliance.
Also in the town, the extension of L a Tasca in 1996 has brought many benefits. It has maintained the atmosphere that only Alejandro Solizi and Jorgelina Mir could give it. They continue to offer the sumptuous snacks, that were their speciality in the days before they had gas, back in 1989, but now also offer extraordinary dishes like "Venison La Tasca". The wine list is also excellent and unusual. It is written on several small brown paper sheets, with two of the 15 bodegas on offer on each page. As you can see there is quite a variety. Just to read it may well make you dizzy, but you are bound to find something you fancy after the effort!
Two new places are Pionieri and Avataras. The former takes the prize for Italian cooking; the latter tries to break away from the usual venison and trout, and offers dishes inspired by Thai, Mexican and Chinese cookery. Although very different, both are welcome additions.
If you don't want to leave the place with a weight problem, like we did, especially if you are planning to stay for a while, the fad is to live in the cabins where you are able to choose your own diet. However you can't leave the place without trying out the regional delicacies.
Rafting. Rafting is a much more suitable activity for most people. It is a pure adrenaline rush. It is done along the 14 km of the Hua Hum River, which flows from Lake Nonthue in Argentina to Lake Pirehueico in Chile, an ideal stretch of water on which to try your hand. I had never crossed the border in a rubber raft. And never at the speed of these rapids! Water splashing all around and rushing torrents that have been wearing at the rocks forever. Julie stayed on the shore because the spring in all its splendour had filled the river and none of her cameras would have survived the experience.
Me? I couldn't resist the challenge to see what it was all about. Yet another mission in the line of duty for LUGARES. First we had to paddle hard to get to the rapids. The maximum number allowed in a raft is ten and on this occasion we were only eight.
The River Hua Hum varies between a Class II and III (the difficulty grading ranges from I to IV) according to the speed of the current: ideal for beginners and novices. Jose Luis and Guillermo Carnaghi, the two who run "Ici", and with whom we were sharing the adventure, know the river and its every rock by heart, after two trips a day during the summer. We took the opportunity of inaugurating the preseason and being the first to know the new trends for this year's programme, instead of everyone holding on to a rope, there will be paddles for all the passengers to row with. Right, left, forward, back. These were basically the captain's instructions. We paddled and paddled until we finally reached the first rapids.
I could see them coming and had no idea of what to expect. I was already exhausted before even starting! The constant noise, the succession of rapids and the instructions of what to do with your feet in case you fell in the water all added to the rush of adrenaline. It was great fun. On the first rapids I didn't really grasp what was going on. All I knew was that Guillermo was up in front and was drenched by something which is not technically known as a wave although that's exactly what it looked like to me. Shouting and huge amounts of water in the boat.
Laughter and yet another "wave". Those in the bow were completely soaked but thoroughly enjoying it. In the stern I was laughing at them, until all at once we were hit sideways by the falls, and it was their turn to laugh at us. I was drenched, but we all drip - dried in the sun, next to a thermal spring, which did not really feel like one because of the cold water brought in by the river in October.
In contrast, during the summer, when the temperature rises, bathing in the river is glorious and the guides take every opportunity to capsize those who boast that "nothing ever happens on this river". The more placid pools provide an opportunity to recover one's breath, to bail the water out of the boat, and to find a bend in the river where one can take a rest and remark on the last rapids. "To the beach, to the beach", shouted the captain and we all paddled to avoid the current dragging us back out into the green torrents.
We arrived at the Chilean border post at Pirehueico where the van was awaiting us. We dried off, changed our clothes, had a few "pisco sours" and empanadas, and headed back in the "Mirenchu" the 18-seater super-launch belonging to "Id" in Lake Lácar. This time we had the sun in our faces and wind in our favour. On our return we then had a much-deserved "siesta" after an afternoon of great fun.
A Perfect Day: Another pleasure of nature, less materialistic but just as gratifying, is to sail the Lolog on a calm day. So we went to the Cabanas Andina on the Quilquihué River at the end of the lake. There are 17 very comfortable cabins, only 12 km from San Martin. They are ideal for fishermen, just ask Eduardo Furlong who has been the professional fishing guide there for more than ten years. We went out with him in a semi-rigid inflatable boat that we nick-named "El Acorazado".
The water was calm, a perfect scene, with the mountains as a backdrop. Warm sun and a soft breeze. Perfect! After an hour we arrived to Iván's place. Iván is actually Karl Moritz, the painter. In fact it is Moritz Karl, because Ivan Moritz is the name and Karl the surname. He is of Hungarian origin, but only lived for four years in Hungary, followed by five in Germany, before settling for good in Argentina with his parents.
His whole existence is dedicated to birds, which he paints with indescribable precision and passion. He has always painted birds, but only realised they would be his way of life when he returned from Mexico, where he had gone to study engineering. He completed three years of the career, and then returned to Argentina to find Axel Amuschastegui, his mentor. In those days, he also enjoyed going hunting to the south with his friends. He never actually shot anything, but would observe the details and memorise them, then reflecting them on canvas when he returned home.
Some years later he felt he could no longer continue to paint animals, plants or birds he had not actually seen for himself. And what better way to do this than to live in the heart of the woods, as he has done since 1977. He arrived to the conclusion, while reading a harmless book, that all emotions flowed from there, from the pages, and that he was missing out on life, by sitting there reading about things and not experiencing them for himself. That was it.
He rented a thousand hectares of land, which was all he could afford, to get as far away from civilisation as possible, and only used the 50 square metres on which his house stands. The rest are a haven for a variety of birds. He moved to Lolog in 1986 and everyone agrees that if it were not for him, nothing would have been left of that reserve. It took him several years to clean up the rubbish left behind by careless tourists. He keeps a vegetable and herb garden in spring and summer, is occasionally distracted by visitors, but above all, he paints, which is what he does the best.
Huechulafquen A little farther out is another of the special outings, which we have left for the end and which filled us with anxiety: The Huechulafquen and the Lanín volcano. The perfect cone which gives its name to the National Park. This year it is the 100th anniversary of the first ascent, and to reach the top is quite symbolic. Nevertheless, this is not a climb for everyone. The local mountain guides have a zillion stories of people who look like they never climbed a step in their entire lives, and expect to climb the Lanin volcano. It entails entire days of steep climbing, there are many crevasses and it can get very cold.
Each climber has to carry ten kilos of equipment, and although previous experience is not really essential, being very fit is. The other alternative is to admire it from the lake with a good picnic and a bottle of bubbly. Satisfaction guaranteed and no effort at all! To get there, we contracted Jose Luis (after our experience with him on the rapids made him completely trustworthy in our opinion).
This year, Ici, Tiempo Patagónico and Pucará, have joined efforts to produce a combined tour. One group departs in a van, which passes through the Curruhué (both big and small) , the Toro, Verde and Escorial lakes - a step away from the thrilling grounds where the dark solidified lava remains of the Huanquihue gather - and arrives to Puerto Pesquero, at the banks of the Epulafquen. There the group that arrived by water continues its journey by land, and we headed towards the Huechulafquen. We stopped for lunch at Vera Yeiro's, in Puerto Canoa, and had a nap on the warm sandy beach. Before returning via Route 61, we stopped at the Huechulafquen Hostal, on the banks of the lake. It is run by Sergio Bergadá, a second cousin of Julie's, who met him for the first time. It is only open during the fishing season, which is apparently fabulous- although not even the most spectacular trout on the planet can compete with the panoramic view of the Lanín.
A bit further on, we tried the highly recommended "tortas fritas" prepared by Doña Argentina, an authentic Mapuche indian. We returned while the sun was setting, casting its yellow light over the lake. It was almost dark when we passed by the mouth of the Chimehuim River and Junín de los Andes, and returned to our comfortable temporary home at the Rincón de los Andes in San Martin.
The following day, we went to see how the summer preparations were coming along in Chapelco, which transforms from a winter resort to an amazing Adventure Park in the summer season. It is an ideal option to take the kids, and with a "passport ticket", you can have access to all sorts of entertainment, none of which is electronic, thankfully. There are horses, water toboggans, bicycles ...and it is also the third season that Los Techos is open.
This, the best hostel during the winter season, has also proved to be ideal in the summer season. Before taking the road of the Seven Lakes, we stopped to visit Meliquina. There, 36 km from San Martin, where the lake ends and the woods begin to thin out, there are new cabins being built for summer visitors. The one stop you can't miss is the Patagonia Saloon, a surprising combination of tea-house, snack bar and grocery store, with a Wild West atmosphere, despite the fact it is situated in the not-so-wild south instead.