Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Road Trippin' with the Rents

The infamous, desolate, beautiful, and super fun Ruta 40 de Argentina
The Baldwin fam has been strewn across every time zone in the United States for a few years now, so getting just a few of us together at any time is fairly rare, usually difficult to arrange, and always an adventure. I was lucky enough to have my parents visit me for a whole week during my vacation from classes for Semana Santa (Easter), and man, it was certainly an adventure even with Mom’s rule against sleeping in a tent for this trip. Dad happens to have an international driver’s license that rarely gets much use, so he decided to take on the crazy Argentine drivers and we rented a car for a week of road trippin’ from Mendoza to Northern Patagonia and back. After watching these crazies from my pedestrian point of view for the last few weeks, I was shocked. Nevertheless, we narrowly missed any accidents for the entire trip and the transmission never did fall out of the car despite having one of the crappiest rentals I’ve ever seen … it had character, I suppose?

Sunset on the first driving night, north of Malargüe

The Shining hotel in the middle-of-nowhere Los Molles
Our first night we arrived late to our reserved hotel up in the middle-of-nowhere mountains of Los Molles, Argentina, a ski “town” on the end of the summer season. We were one of a whopping three groups in the entire rather gigantic hotel-lodge and lemme tell you, The Shining jokes were rampant (“How long til Dad goes crazy? We should hide the hatchet.”) Dad never did go insane, but Mom laughed til she cried at dinner remembering his entrance to the hotel: it was dark, and we couldn’t find the entrance road to the parking lot. What did Dad do? Off-road’d it in our pathetic little Chevy across the front “lawn,” unknowingly right in front of the windows with all the other dinner patrons. At least the lawn was dirt…

Car-eating puddle in middle-of-nowhere Ruta 40
After escaping the Las Molles hotel without recreating The Shining, we finished our 1,200 km drive to San Carlos de Bariloche in a day that ended up taking far longer than planned. It turns out Argentina’s Ruta 40 is indeed infamous for being unpredictable and we ended up on dirt roads for a few solid hours. The worst was when we encountered a surprisingly deep, opaque, and car-eating puddle lake that took over the entire road, right in the middle of the desert. After 10 minutes of sitting there to observe and consider, the sedan in front of us had their co-pilot get out and wade barefoot across to test the depth. We decided to go for it and miraculously didn’t drown! Congrats to the little Chevy for not flooding. The major plus of going this way was that we were essentially alone on the road the entire time and were able to take in the scenery—it was a geologist’s paradise, complete with some of the most colorful mountains I’ve ever seen, volcanoes dotting the horizon, and millions of years of history layered into all of the surrounding rocks.

Geologist paradise all over the place
Super cool sunglasses means he drives really really fast
Hours later and well into the night, while just an hour away from Bariloche, we had the worst near-death car experience yet (for me, at least). On a straight stretch going at 120 km/hr, Dad and I in the front seat noticed there were four lights across rather than just two coming around the next curve, much closer than usual, with neither moving to the side. With nothing else to do and on extremely short notice, Dad veered off the road and barreled onto the rough shoulder, still at very high speed, to barely miss the parallel semi-trucks by a few seconds (still not changing back to their proper lanes). We narrowly avoided going over the embankment, but the tiny little Chevy still ended up fishtailing for awhile before we got back onto the road, all very shaken. Do the physics: two objects hurtling towards each other well above 100 km/hr each, with us in a tiny sedan without airbags. We absolutely all would have been dead on impact had Dad not done such a phenomenal job of keeping the car in control.

This is what happens when engineers need to dry their socks. Long story.
 In happier news and brighter, life-loving spirits for the rest of the vacation, our arrival in Bariloche was a pretty hilarious hubbub. In the frenzy of checking into our hotel, there was some sort of confusion regarding parking. With me as the Designated Parent Spanish Translator of the week working out the situation between Dad and the hotel attendants, a fellow guest who wanted to help suddenly asked my Dad “sprechen sie Deutsch?” After the complete look of shock left his face, he replied “Ja!” with sheer joy. My dad has lived in both Germany and Austria for three years with the rest of my family when I was a young’un. In the middle of Bariloche, Argentina, a woman asks my non-German father if he speaks German out of the blue and, of course, he does. It basically made my dad’s week. Turns out this German woman and her husband moved to Argentina after the war and are completely fluent in both languages, and very friendly. After the wife and my dad broke out into some ridiculous German conversation, the bell boy of the hotel turned to me and, in plain English, asked me “Where are you from?”—baffled. Yup, Baldwins are crazy.

Fall colors above San Carlos de Bariloche
Mom and Dad on Cerro Otto
The rest of the trip went smoothly and is better explained in photos, which still fail to do the landscape of Northern Patagonia any justice. With Bariloche absolutely jam-packed by Argentines in search of the best chocolate in the country for Easter, we escaped the city by hiking to the nearby city-overlook of Cerro Otto to take the tram down. I was talking to a tram worker and when he learned I live in Mendoza, he said “Ahh, qué lástima”—“what a bummer.” Well… yeah… I’d rather be living in Northern Patagonia, too, but Bariloche certainly isn’t shy. We also spent our last day in the area driving a 400 km round trip from Bariloche, along the partially-dirt road of la Ruta de Siete Lagos to San Martín de los Andes through the National Parks of Nahuel Huapi and Lanin. I loved our brief time in San Martín as it reminded me so much of Puerto Natales and my beloved other area of Patagonia, still a whopping 1,600 km south. I cannot put into words how amazing the landscape was and how great it was to be back in the mountains. This area was what I would imagine the Canadian Rockies to be like, and it was probably the highlight of my entire trip.

Lago Nahuel Huapi next to San Carlos de Bariloche

Outside of San Martín de los Andes

Alpenglow along the Ruta de Siete Lagos

Low morning fog after leaving Bariloche

My most-frequented Mendoza spot: Parque San Martín
After a wearisome 16-hour drive back straight from Bariloche that all of the Argentines at my parent’s Mendocino hotel thought was absolutely crazy, we arrived back to my home. We spent a day walking around Mendoza to all of my favorite areas and packing my parents full of helado, plus eating the tastiest lunch I’ve had in months. For my parents’ last day, we were back in the car and did yet another dirt-road loop in the Chevy from the springs in Villavicencio, home to mineral water for all over the country, to the high Andes above Uspallata to the lake by Potrerillos to the wineries of Lujan and Maípu. The highlight of this day was absolutely seeing Aconcagua, the monster of the high Andes at 6,950.8 meters. From our perspective, it took much map and compass sleuthing to differentiate Aconcagua from the much closer, but whopping MILE shorter peak of Cerro del Tambillo. We were looking at Aconcagua from about 50km away as the crow flies and already at about 9,300 ft altitude, so it was absolutely insane to imagine how GIGANTIC that peak is. My brother just had a couple of friends attempt to summit right as I was arriving in Mendoza at the end of the climbing season. I was hoping to at least do a trek to one of the many altitude camps, but alas, now is far too late for that to be safe. I’m still convinced it’s summer, but the mountains are already covered in snow after being bare when I saw them my second day in Mendoza. Let’s face it, I have no clue what season it is anywhere.

The best bife de lomo of all time.
Now my parents are safely back in the United States and I’ve got another three months to rock on this continent. Seeing them was fantastic but unfortunately has got me into a bit of a homesick funk for my first time since the first few days when I had my bags lost in Chile. Still, seeing my friends returning from their Semana Santa travels has been great, there are exciting plans for the next few weeks in the works, and I might actually be having my first FULL week of classes! Plus, Mom brought me green chile, so life has to be pretty swell.

Much love from the land of the best* ice cream of my entire life,

*If you ever go to El Bolsón, Argentina, go to Jauja Heladaría and get Chocolate Profundo. There was another location in Bariloche that we went to. I got it. I died of helado happiness.

Sunset along the Ruta de Siete Lagos


  1. Great pictures and I love reading about your adventures! Aunt Terese

    1. I'm so glad you've been enjoying it, it's great to hear from you!!

  2. Awesome post. You've given me sooo much ammunition to use on George when he gets back to work. ;-)

    Re: Big mountains. I can heartily recommend them. My highest was 18000' on Pico de Orizaba. Got all three of the big volcanoes down there. Of course, you should read (or see the movie) Touching the Void beforehand, just to keep it in perspective.

    Great photos, as in all your posts. Must send snail mail soon, so that it arrives before you leave Mendoza.

    1. I expect the socks contraption to be mentioned, I'm certainly never letting him live that down.

      Ah! That's so exciting that you climbed all the volcanoes! Tom and I are in the works of traversing Orizaba in the next few years (thoughts on next January, but I'm guessing later) after he's taught me his mountaineering guru ways. He's got the gear, I've got the Spanish. You may be interested in what these folks did (plus some kayaks and bikes): http://thingstolucat.com/orizaba-traverse/
      Also, I've definitely been meaning to see/read Touching the Void but have somehow missed every chance I've had.

      I LOVE snail mail! Seems to take about two weeks to get here from the states.