Sunday, December 28, 2008

To the Moon -- Argentinean Style December 14, 2008

It’s not easy getting to the Moon. But six hours north of Mendoza in a remote area is an incredible world, part Grand Canyon part spectacular lunar landscape. Giant red sandstone cliffs contrast dramatically with stark white and grey dunes, which give the park its name, “Valle de la Luna” or Moon Valley.

You can get there by bus, but the schedules are complicated and the route indirect, requiring a 3 a.m. departure to get back from this isolated pueblo in the desert. So we chose to drive. But it was a rough ride from Mendoza, across narrow windswept highways surrounded by salt flats and dusty gorse. Winds from the Pacific cut across the Andes and then slam into the Cordillera mountains sandblasting them and carrying the resulting sand onto the plains. Does anyone remember Death Valley Days?

The blistering hot, dry winds called Zondas can reach high speeds and create desert-like conditions. And much like France’s Mistral they tax people’s nerves.

As we drove along, mini sand tornadoes created tall spirals along the highway, whipping up sand and buffeting the car. Locals call them “Devils”.

Just to make things even more interesting, every few kilometres at the side of the road we spotted shrines to “Difunta Correa”, the unofficial saint of travellers. Travellers hoping for a safe journey leave bottles of mineral water as offerings at makeshift shrines, creating a kind of plastic bottle sculpture.

The legend is that a widow had tried to walk through the desert with her infant son, but died of thirst. Her son, however, was found still alive sucking from her breast. Thereafter, drivers reported miraculous survivals in car crashes. Fortunately, we made sure we had lots of water in the car before we left.

Road signs all over of Argentina warn not of deer or moose, but cows. This northwest part of Argentina, however, is even more dangerous, with wild dogs, goats, horses, mules and the occasional Guanaco, a camel-like animal, wandering along the highway. We decided not to risk driving at night.

Further along, we started to see signs warning of “Sueltos” and “Badenes”. Our dictionary didn’t list the last one, but we soon discovered they were referring to very nasty dips in the road where water rushes down from the mountains causing flash floods several meters deep. In fact, poles with a measurement in meters on the side of the road indicated how high the water was so you knew whether to risk crossing or not.

If you’ve ever driven too fast over the bumps in a drive-in, you’ll have a tiny sense of what it’s like to hit one of these “Badenes” at 100 kph. And braking as you’re going into one is even worse. Not good for the front end at all.

Eventually we became good at spotting them and slowing down, but occasionally they would appear without warning and sometimes there would be five or six in a row. Carolann started to treat them like a roller-coaster ride and pasted on a nervous smile. I kept worrying about getting rear ended whenever I braked suddenly. Fortunately, there was very little traffic on the road for the whole trip.

(Note the pale patch of sand in the middle of the photo above. This is sand that has been blasted off the Cordilleras and dumped on the side of this mountain range.)

The road skirted alongside the mountains for most of the way in a boring straight line. It was only for the last part that it turned to gravel and things became more exciting as the road started to wind through the cacti covered hills.

And then suddenly we were in the tiny pueblo of San Agustin de Valle Fertil, our launching point for the two parks with the moon and Martian landscapes, Parque Ischiqualasto and Parque Talampaya, 100 and 200 km further north, nestled between two mountain ranges the Sierra Los Rastros and the Cerros Colorados.

We checked out several of the recommended “hotels” before finally moving on to the “best place to stay” the Hosteria Valle Fertil. Perched on top of the only hill in town, it overlooked a blue reservoir, the only water for miles around. The rooms were cramped and dark and we quickly realized that we would be paying a premium (about 200 pesos or $80) for a view of the reservoir that we wouldn’t even see at night. And the place was empty in low season.

From the top of the hill, however, we spotted a tiny patch of bright blue, a swimming pool, and we asked the hotel maid what it was. It turned out that the hotel had “cabanas” at the foot of the hill and I was able to negotiate the same price for a large two-bedroom cabin with a kitchen, living room, carport to shade the car, and our own parilla or Argentinean BBQ. And it was right beside the best swimming pool in the desert.

The only downside was that we didn’t know how to make a parilla even though we had seen several on our trip already. So I invited the two maintenance guys from the cabins to join us for our first cookout. We offered to buy the wood, the meat and the wine, if they would start the fire and cook the beef.

That afternoon we bought some firewood, ribs, chorizos and beef and a couple of bottles of wine. We also invited two French backpackers we had met earlier in the day and they brought wine and salad fixings.

Everything worked out great and the six of us chatted until midnight when the night watchman joined us and started telling us local tales. The three workers told us that they rarely got to eat meat because of the cost. It was a very special evening for all of us.

Next it’s off to tour the Valley of the Moon.

Dan Cooper

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