The day the President came to visit
Karen Travel's Land Rover collected us from our hostel. Within minutes we were cracking jokes with our four travel companions and Santiago our guide and driver. The Falklands were mentioned but we seamlessly steered the conversation away from such a potentially emotive subject.
The Ruta 40 passed through a canyon of limestone crags which looked like a climbers' paradise, if only someone would discover it and put up some bolts. Franco and I joked about buying a shack, a couple of horses and spending the next ten years bolting sport routes and running a climbing hostel. We wouldn't get rich but it could be fun.
The cloud cover was low but it looked like it might burn off. The rugged landscape was beautiful in a desert sort of way and we realised the colours would be even more amazing with a bit of sunshine.
Traffic was scarce on this road to nowhere. Then, suddenly ahead, a dozen vehicles were parked. We had arrived at the bridge over the Rio Grande and on the opposite bank we could see the first houses of the small dispersed settlement of the same name, the largest in the area.
A grumpy looking man in scruffy jeans stopped us.
"Who are you? What is your business?" He barked.
It seemed fairly obvious to me. Our vehicle was covered in stickers; 'Karen Travel', 'tourism', 'trips to Payunia'. Santiago explained that he was guiding us, a group of tourists, to Payunia.
"You can't come through. Nobody is allowed through." Replied the miserable man.
"But I have to go through, this is my work! Tourism is important in this region." Argued Santiago.
The man took Santiago's I.D.card and made a phone call. He turned towards us and made a gesture that meant there was no way we would be allowed through.
There were quite a few men milling around, including several youths wearing hoodies and smoking. Santiago beckoned towards an older guy. He was dressed casually but looked smart.
"Luciano, can you help us out? I'm working, you know WORK." Pleaded Santiago.
Five seconds later, the grumpy bloke waved us through. Luciano clearly had some clout and knew who to have a word with.
"What was all that about?" We asked, intrigued. More to the point, we wanted to learn how to make things happen in Argentina where so much is down to who you know.
Santiago explained that Mauricio Macri, the President of Argentina was visiting Rio Grande to promote a project to damn the river upstream. All the men, including the smoking youths in hoodies were police, but luckily for us, Luciano was a local officer known to Santiago.
Macri's visit was probably the reason for the police checkpoints on the way from Tunuyán.
I said: "If we hadn't been allowed through, I would never ever vote for Macri."
Santiago was amused, he chuckled "I should have told them that!"
At Pasarela we stopped for a cup of tea and biccies which Santiago served out of the back of the Land Rover. I had seen Pasarela on the map and was expecting a village. It was just a bridge over a ravine, a shrine and the turn off the Ruta 40 towards Payunia.
Patagonian sierra finch (Phrygilus patagonicus)
Ruta 40 junction
The view away from Payunia
The track climbed, meandering up the hillside. A dense patch of fog over on the right hid the mountain but otherwise the weather was improving. Despite the closeness of the nature reserve there were still quite a few gas and petrol pump jacks around.
We entered Payunia Nature Reserve. The gate hut was empty, there were no park wardens this time of year. We were driving on a very faint track of volcanic ash. A few metres further on, somebody had erected a sign "YPF is polluting this land". We guessed YPF must be the oil exploration company. Although most of Malargüe's revenue is from oil, not everyone thinks it is a good way to make a living.
Suddenly we were in the fog. Payunia is a high altiplano and the cloud was just sitting there, turning the day into night. Visibility was only a few metres in front of our vehicle and the temperature was freezing. Santiago stopped the car and insisted we all get out to take photos, just to prove that he had brought us to where we had wanted to go.
Kath, Alejandro, Mariela, Santiago, Franco, Lucas and Sergio
Mariela was disappointed that she wouldn't see the top of the volcanoes and I abandoned hope of seeing a herd of guanacos.
The only guanaco we were likely to see
Santiago pointed out a prickly plant.
"It's in the cactus family and I only know the scientific name." He told us, straight faced.
"Go on, tell us the scientific name." We groaned.
"It's ... Mother-in-Law's Cushion".
Since neither Mariela nor I have children, the 'cushion' would remain unoccupied.
We drove for a few minutes on the 'pampa negra' a huge flat plain of black volcanic ash until Santiago suggested we head back down, he would take a different route and maybe we would see something.
The Pampa Negra
Once out of the fog, we stopped for lunch. Vizcachas (Lagidium viscacia) were chasing each other around the rocks. These animals look like rabbits with long tails. Santiago invited me to take 'a very comfortable seat especially for the ladies'. I have mellowed with age and no longer take offence at being singled out for being a woman, instead I accept such invitations gracefully. Santiago, the swine, had one of his prickly cactuses in mind for me.
Photo credit: Wikipedia Alexandre Buisse (Nattfodd) • CC BY-SA 3.0
The track back was particularly rough, it had become corrugated and made for very difficult driving and it felt like our skeletons would disintegrate. The prize was a couple of groups of guanacos.
The land around Payunia
The twenty families that live within the nature reserve boundary scrape a difficult existence out of goat herding. Every year a guanaco researcher used to stay with the community to study the Payunia herd. He suggested that the community get together as a cooperative and use the guanacos to generate some income. His proposal was to round up the wild guanacos, sheer them and sell the wool to the USA for a good profit. The project got off the ground and a huge trap was constructed using old fishing nets. The guanaco are driven into the trap by men on horseback and the women get the job of extracting the guard hairs and spinning the fibre. The guanacos aren't harmed and because the residents benefit from them, they protect them from illegal poachers.
Lucas was becoming desperate. His flask had leaked and he had no hot water to brew his 'mate'. He begged Santiago to stop somewhere where we would be able to get hot water. Santiago enjoyed the irony of the goat herders coming to the rescue of the wealthy 'Porteno' (person who lives in Buenos Aires).
The house where we got hot water
View from the house towards Malargüe
On the way home we passed Malacara Vocano.
Malacara Volcano - the side is the crater
'Malacara' is the name given to a horse that has a mark on its face. Unusually, the crater is on the side of the mountain rather than on top of the cone. This is because it is 'hydromagmatic'; magma enters into contact with water and causes a particularly violent eruption, in this case half the mountain blew off.
The volcano is privately owned. Unfortunately the owner died and the family is squabbling over the inheritance. Until this is resolved, visits are not allowed.
We got back to Malargüe early and said goodbye to our new friends.
The only thing left to do in Malargüe was to work out how to get out of there. Maybe this is when we needed the 'good luck'.