February 18, 2004

Argentina flagThis morning we got up at 7:30 am and made our own breakfast from the bread-like pastries and strawberry jam we had bought yesterday. No tea or coffee, but we don’t really need those things at breakfast anyway.

La Trochita was leaving at 9 am, so soon after 8 we started out on our walk across town. Our hostel was at the south end of town and the train station was at the north end, so there is a walk of about 20 minutes between the two. The weather looked promising as there were only high thin clouds in the sky, and we arrived at the station with plenty of time to spare. Inside the station there was a small museum about the steam train, so we looked at that for a while. About 8:50 am the train started chugging along the narrow-gauge tracks in order to reposition the engine at the front of the train; 9 am came along with the all-aboard whistle and we were off.

The scenery along the route to Nahuel Pan is very similar to British Columbia’s interior, with lots of pines and scrubby bushes. All along the route we had a commentary from a young woman interpreter. It was all in Spanish, of course, so we could only catch a few details about the area’s history, geography, economy, fauna, flora, and so on. For example the tree farms in the area are mostly imported Ponderosa pines. Part way along the route the train came to a halt behind the Esquel army garrison and we were given a performance by the army band. They were quite good considering there were only about 20 of them, better than the band at El Calafate. They played three numbers for us and then we were on our way again.

The train itself was quite well maintained, but definitely Spartan, with hard narrow wooden seats. If Paul Theroux rode this across Patagonia, it’s no wonder he came across in his book as being grouchy. But then he had no military band concerts to cheer him up.

The trip took a bit over an hour, with its final stop at Nahuel Pan, which is a tiny Mapuche settlement of about six buildings. We bought two excellent freshly made doughnuts, which only cost 30 centavos apiece. One of the buildings housed a cooperative that sold weavings and other handicrafts made by Mapuche artisans. We bought a small table runner for 35 pesos; a little pricey for Argentina, perhaps, but hopefully the money goes to the weaver.

On the way back the train stopped so that we could walk across a loop of track and get a lesson on the local shrubs and bushes, while the train steamed around the loop to met us. And there was a husband-and-wife duo who serenaded us with Argentinian country music and the Mapuche variation on that. Both of them were quite good, but we didn’t buy their CD either.

When the train arrived back at Esquel it was 12:15 pm, and the bus for the park left at 2 pm. This meant we had to walk across town to the hostel, pick up the packs we had left there, and walk back across town to the bus terminal. So we didn’t have much time to spare. The weather, which had been cloudy first thing in the morning, had now turned sunny, so it was hot work hauling the packs back, uphill, to the bus terminal. But we did get there in plenty of time. We checked at the Shell gas station for white gas (“nafta blanca”) for our stove but they didn’t have it, so we headed into the park with no fuel.

Before leaving on the bus we ate our lunch at the bus station. Last night we had purchased some peaches, so they were a tasty treat. Paul bought our tickets and confirmed that we could make unlimited stopovers in the park.

Our Transportes Esquel bus left at 2 pm and for once we were able to sit at the front of the bus. It was made by Mercedes Benz, but quite a long time ago. However it hadn’t yet reached the stage where you could see the road through rust holes in the floor. And it wasn’t very crowded, unlike the morning bus which we had seen going out of town with backpacks tied to the roof.

The road to the park climbed quickly up from the rolling scrubby countryside of Esquel into forested grasslands, where we entered the park and were charged double for being foreigners. But we were the only foreigners on the bus, just as we had been the only ones on the train.

The bus dropped us at Villa Futalaufquen (Mapuche for “Big Lake”), close to the park information building. There was a large car-camping site nearby, so we first hiked over there. We checked in at the office and the attendant showed us a few sites to stay in. All of them were level and grassy so it really didn’t matter which one we chose. We set up the tent then walked back to the park information office and museum to look at the displays.

The little gas station in Villa Futalaufquen didn’t have any white gas—no real surprise there—so we went looking for the “supermercado” to get something for dinner. At the campground we could get “hot water for thermos” for 50 centavos, and at the small grocery store that went under the name “supermercado” we managed to get some Knorr’s instant soup and some buns, so we were set for dinner. We also had our own hot chocolate mix that required hot water.

After dinner we did some more planning, to figure out what to do for the next few days. We need to reconfirm our flights before February 26, so we either have to find a LanChile office or try to do that over the telephone. But in the short term, tomorrow we’ll go for a hike here in Los Alerces. We decided not to go on the boat cruise to see the giant old alerce tree; 50 pesos each seems too much considering that it includes a guided walk an hour and half long that is sure to be in Spanish only. So the next day we’ll take the bus out to Lago Puelo, and from there travel onward to Bariloche, where if the weather is not too bad we will do some mountain hiking. Then onward to San Martin de los Andes or Pucon or something, but that’s for the next planning session.

The campground is quite quiet, so hopefully we will get a good night’s sleep. The large tent close to us has nobody there and it’s already 9:30 pm, so we are hoping that they will be quiet when they do arrive.

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