Malargüe, the two-clock good luck town

Caramor - sailing around the world
Franco Ferrero / Kath Mcnulty
Thu 11 May 2017 02:57
35:28.02S 69:34.54W

"Payunia ... a remote land of rosy lava, ebony gorges, deep karstic caves and flamingo-flecked lagoons,” to quote the Rough Guide to Chile. "Fabulously wild" and "staggering beauty” were other words used to describe this desert, reputed to have over 800 volcanic cones and large herds of guanacos. It sounded great.

I sold Payunia to Franco on the strength of Lonely Planet's recommended three days horse trek. 

To get to Payunia, we first needed to make our way to Malargüe, the nearest town of any size. Despite the negativity of our Argentinian friends, I had high hopes. In Mendoza's Main Street, there is a very smart 'Malargüe Tourism' office where we were given various useful glossy leaflets.

On our way down from Los Arenales, I'd confidently told Franco that the bus to Malargüe would take no longer than a couple of hours. This was based on my knowledge of the time the bus in Chile takes to cover an equal distance. It was early afternoon when I bought the bus tickets in Tunuyán.

"Is there a bus to Malargüe today?" I asked. 

"Yes, at 7:40pm." 

("Even if we got there at 10pm, we would still find accommodation," I thought.)

The price was higher than I had expected. As an afterthought I asked:

"And at what time do we arrive?"

"At 1am tomorrow." Replied the helpful ticket salesman.

Arriving in an unknown town in the middle of the night is the worst of all worlds so we changed the tickets for the next day and stayed the night in comfortable Hotel Tunuyán.

The road to Malargüe is the iconic Ruta 40 which runs parallel to the Andes from the far south to the far north of Argentina. Not all the sections have been metalled yet. The landscape between Tunuyán and Malargüe is quite extraordinary. 

A desert range

A vast desert

A junction: the road disappears into infinity

A herders’ camp

The pampas (flat land, in this case with pampas-like grass)

Other than the odd cow, occasional herd of goats and lonely 'guanaco', Franco spotted a tinamu, which was probably the 'elegant crested' version (Eudromia elegans), and later, I watched a Patagonian mara (Dolichotis patagonu) bounce along the hard shoulder when we stopped at the second police checkpoint.

Elegant crested tinamú 
Photo credit: Wikipedia Stavenn • CC BY 2.5

To me, the mara looked like a small bouncy deer. Known as a hare in Argentina, it is actually a rodent.
Photo credit: Wikipedia

In Argentina, to buy a long distance coach ticket, you have to show a form of identification. In addition, the bus was stopped three times at police blocks. This surprised us, and we wondered if the practice dated back to the dictatorship. Each time, the officers boarded, walked up and down, half-heartedly searched the luggage section, and randomly asked to see I.D. We weren't asked. Given the low population density and that the road is in effect to nowhere, it seemed overkill.

Oil pump, known as a ’Nodding donkey’ or a ‘Guanaco’ in Argentina

We got off the bus in Malargüe just after 1pm and headed for the small tourist info booth which was still open. The lady handed us a slip of paper; it was the erratum for the leaflet we had been given in Mendoza. Two of the corrections affected us; no horse riding in Payunia and no access to the Malacara Volcano, the other place I was curious to visit. The errors were fairly substantial, making the beautiful glossy pamphlets look more like a wish list for what Malargüe should be, rather than what was really available. 

We walked down Main Street and got to the end of town without realising we had arrived. We did pass the two clocks prominently featured in the promotion leaflet and Franco concluded that one should be wary of places that pride themselves about clocks, it probably means there is little else.

Malargüe's tourism slogan 'para descubrir más allí' (to discover further afield) was making sense as there didn't seem to be much in town.

It was 'siesta' time until 5pm but we thought the tour agents might be open. 

We paused outside the fourth closed tour shop. The guy running the drinks store next door was sweeping the pavement.

"Are you looking for a tour?" he greeted us. "Please take a seat. (He had a table and chairs.) I know the lady who runs the agency, she's at home, I'll give her a ring."

"... You want me to tell them to come back at 5?" He said into his phone, incredulous.

His name was Jonny and we unanimously awarded him the Caramor trophy for entrepreneurship.

We told him we would trundle off and find somewhere to stay and come back later. He pointed us in the direction of the cheap Malacara Hostel.

The price was good, the guy running it friendly and the room clean enough. What surprised us was that each time we used the kitchen there was a huge pile of dirty dishes and pans. We were going to suggest to the manager that he have a word with whoever was responsible, until we realised it was him and the other two people who seemed to be the owners. It got to the point where we wondered whether they were squatting! especially as the back door was hanging loose on its hinges. It was when we walked into the kitchen to find a chewed plastic dog bone on the table that Franco really went off the place.

At Karen Travel we asked about horse riding.

"You can ride to the site of the Uruguayan football team plane crash." We were offered.

No thank you. We had no desire to visit a cannibal memorial even if we have a huge respect for the survivors. In October 1972 an Uruguayan plane, carrying the national rugby team, hit a high Andean peak and crashed at over 3,600m altitude. In those days there was no GPS and the pilot mistakenly thought he was already in Chile. Against the odds, there were survivors. Piers Paul Read told their story in 'Alive: The Story of the Andes Survivors' (1974). After two months surviving by eating the dead, Nando Parrado and Roberto Canessa set off to get help. Based on what the pilot had told them, they headed for Chile and walked for ten days across the Andes, until at last they met another human being. Tragically, if they had gone the other way, they would have reached Malargüe by evening!

Instead, we booked a tour to Payunia for the following day.

Although Malargüe isn't the most attractive small town, the people are friendly and helpful. The usual farewell in Chile and Andean Argentina is "que le vaya bien" (literally 'that it goes well'). Not so in Malargüe where every conversation ended with a cheerful "Good Luck!" We wondered why.

A mural commemorating ‘Che’ Guevara passing through on his epic motorbike journey