LUGARES MAGAZINE Nro. 39
Pags. 76 - 85
By: Soledad Gil
Photos: Federico Quintana
A ZIGZAG ON ROUTE 40
From the enclosed sea to the cave of the Guanacos. Santa Cruz is like the beginning of the end, the north of the south. In these lands the wind never stops; with increasing speed it is uninterrupted until it is finally deflected by the deep blue ice walls. The grass obsequiously bends to make way for it. The wind is eloquent, it speaks of distance, of the hundreds of kilometres that separate the border towns, those little dots where the flags unfurl, blown by the selfsame wind.
The first sign of civilisation on route 40, after crossing the Provincial border, is Perito Moreno. We passed it by as we headed to Los Antiguos on Route 43, a distance of 74 kilometres, and were dying to see Lake Buenos Aires, which on the Chilean side is called Lake General Carrera. This is the second largest lake in South America after Lake Titicaca in Bolivia and is big enough for the water to be whipped up into impressive foam-flecked waves. The casual observer could be forgiven for believing that, with the waves breaking on the stony, grey and dark beaches, they were looking at the sea rather than a giant lake.
We stopped for tea at Los Antiguos at the Complejo Turístico Lago Buenos Aires, which includes cabins, a restaurant and an adorable teahouse. The town is amazingly clean. All is made of wood right to the border with Chile at the end of the main street.
We returned to Route 40 heading towards Telken, the estancia belonging to Petty and Coco Nauta. This estancia, together with La Serena, is one of the most northerly in the Province, where they are a11 united within the Union de Estancias Turisticas (UTE). The Nautas welcomed us with a delicious meal and regaled us with stories of pumas, sheep, the hair\raising story of the eruption of the Hudson volcano and of a plane that crashed back in 1946. This last story merits retelling; it is the story of two newlyweds, passengers on the plane who survived four days in the icy wilderness by eating their wedding cake and meat boiled in the sink they tore from the aircraft wreckage.
In the Telken arca one can visit the "petroglifos de manos", La Casa de Piedra and the place where, in the 50s, Eufemio Berra stabbed a puma to death when the animal pounced on him. In the spring and summer there are some good outings - to the Calderas stream and the Page falls, ending with a 5 hour horse ride to the basalt plateau or to the famous Cueva de las Manos.
There are two optional routes; either the 50 kms. short-cut from Los Toldos or the more conventional trip of 150 kilometres by Route 97 from Bajo Caracoles. Petty is a descendent of New Zealanders who settled in the region in 1917, she is an expert guide and a wonderful hostess. Coco is of Dutch origin. Their house and their table are equally welcoming. In every corner of the house the black and white pictures of their forefathers look down approvingly on the guests.
We were surprised by the number of daguerreotypes and old photographs we found in every estancia, which are a well-deserved tribute to the first settlers in these lands. Coco still recalls when the first Ford arrived in Patagonia and had to be reversed uphill to ensure that the carburetor remained full of petrol.
He also remembers their own hardships after the volcanic eruption when the ash killed thousands of sheep, the drop in wool-price and the prohibition of the use of strychnine - the only way to control the puma population, which in some arcas is almost a plague. Pumas have been known to kill up to 30 sheep a night; not because of their voracious appetites, but simply as hunting lessons for their cubs.
For this reason puma hunters are well rewarded for killing these animals. The skins can fetch up to $300 depending on the damage caused by the animal.
At Telken we bade our farewells to Mario who had
to return to Puelo and met Marina, of the UTE, and Carlos, our guide in Santa Cruz, with his white Trafic van, our home for more than a week. Petty, helpful as usual, made us some sandwiches to take with us.
We headed down Route 40, driving 200 kilometres until we reached a crossing with Route 37, turned right and after 90 kilometres more we arrived at La Oriental. It has the privilege of being the only estancia within the National Park.
The Perito Moreno is the pearl of Argentine National Parks, perhaps because it is only visited by some 700 people each season and is almost virgin, half-frozen territory for the greater part of the year. The colour of Lakes Burmeister and Belgrano is awesome, enough to knock one off one's feet. The constant wind and freezing temperatures are also quite breathtaking.
The rugged, cold bnttality of the Park is its very attraction. It does not have the all-emhracing charm of the Los Alerces or Nahuel Huapi parks. In Perito Moreno the spectacle of a twisted and wind-bent lenga tree alone is a stunning sight. Its attraction is its size, 115,000 hectares enclosing 8 lakes; Burmeister, Belgrano, Nanses, Escondido, Volcán, Mogotes, Península and Las Margaritas, none of which have ever heen seeded with trout and retain their native species of fish. There are crude winters with temperatures that can plummet to 25°C below zero. There is the remarkable perseverance of the foresters who live there throughout the year and dedicate themselves to the survival of the "guemal".
The Park was created in 1937. Despite the inclement weather it is home to condors, swans, flamingos, eagles, pumas, tame guanacos, "choiques" and foxes. It is also precious archaeologically, as there are many caves with well-preserved Rupestrian paintings.
A one-day tour must include the natural trail of the Belgrano Peninsula, which will reveal to the traveller the turquoise-green of the waters, the painted caves and the climb to Leon Mountain. We did it half on fout and half on horseback from La Oriental. We spotted several condors and admired the Belgrano and Volcán Lakes, which offer superb and spectacular vistas.
In 1969 José and Manuel Lada, two brothers, bought the 16,000 hectares of La Oriental. For many years they dedicated themselves to breeding sheep.
Problems with the National Parks administration made them change their approach andthey exchanged sheep rearing for providing a service to the eager traveller, keen to appreciate the beauty of the lakes and peaks.
They refurbished their home and another building to house visitors - they are doing marvellously well. Their estancia is only a short distance from Lake Belgrano and the views of the snowy peaks, lakes and Patagonian grass from their windows is worth the dusty trip. Montiel, a local expert scout, who took over the Ladas sheep rearing, also offers guided trips to Cerro San Lorenzo, a treasure for mountaineers.
With a full stomach and a happy heart we returned to Route 40 and headed towards La Angostura.
On the way we met Gerard and Christine, a couple of French cyclists. They were well-tanned and sported white sun block on their lips. They told Lis that the 10,000 kilometres that they had already covered on their bicycles included Peru, Bolivia, Argentina
and Chile. They thought everything had been wonderful with the exception of some bumpy Bolivian roads that had made their lives difficult. They also spoke of their fascination with the smells they encountered each day as they pedalled through "our" south. The gauchos they encountered were not afraid of their cameras and smiled as they passed by on their bicycles.
La Angostura is an oasis in the stony desert, which is what Route 40 becomes at that altitude. Mario and Graciela Kusanovic have been isolated by snow more than once during the winter months. However, despite the fact that she is from Santa Fé, a place unfamiliar with such cold temperatures, they both thrive in their new home, in perfect harmony with their tranquil surroundings. Mario, who has only the most basic command of English, smiled ruefully as he told us of a visiting American's dream to build a shopping mall, a hotel and even a casino in this remote spot. Thankfully it never happened!
The dogs working the sheep, shearing, bonfires and asados, visits to Lake Tonchi and the rope bridge over Rio Chico are only some of the possibilities offered by La Angostura.
Mario told us of the wiliness of the local foxes that, when the sheep were fitted with strychnine collars, learned to attack the rear of the animal. He also explained that using traps was useless, as the foxes were able to take the bait without getting caught in the trap's jaws.
For those who enjoy fishing, Lake Cardiel is nearby. They say that, in the 60s, a plane camping fingerlings crashed in the lake, which explains the current over-population of fish and allows even the most inexperienced the chance to make a catch. We did not have a fishing rod but visited the lake nonetheless and made sandwiches in the humble refuge on the lakeshore.
We said goodbye to the Kusanovics as they left with their dog, who jumped and barked so as not to be forgotten in the emotional farewell.