Quite often, the desert can be a difficult thing to appreciate. It can bake you to the core; there are nasty dust storms; it is full of spiders, snakes and scorpions; there are more thorny, poky plants than imaginable; water sources are scarce; the barren, desolate landscape makes you vulnerable. However, despite all these hardships, the desert country we traveled through the past week left us in awe of it's imposing mountains and raw, untamed beauty.
We were introduced to the harsh climate of the Argentine desert the day we traveled to Caviahue. After unsuccessfully hitch hiking for two hours in the middle of stinking nowhere, we ended up hitch hiking for an additional hour or so through an eye-blinding, skin-lashing dust storm. We had dust in places one should never have dust. Eventually, we arrived in Caviahue...at 3am and at the start of a 36-hour chilly rain spell. When it finally rains in the desert, it rains with force. We spent our "rest" day avoiding the rain and planning our route north to Chos Malal. The next day the clouds parted and rain cleared as we headed to the awkward, random little village of Copahue. There is an actual hiking trail as well as a road connecting the two towns, but we thought, hey, why not take the more direct route and just go up and over the mountain? Because, as we later learned, the thorn filled bushes are so dense your legs will be bleeding and it will take you just as long to hike 10kms as 20kms. Check - good to know.
Our next stop along the way was Estancia Ranquilco. It is a 100,000 acre ranch owned by an American, Ashley Carrithers. We had prearranged this stop while in Junin de los Andes through our scientist, Peter, as he and Ashley are acquaintances who met here in Argentina about 30 years ago. Everyone at Ranquilco was extremely generous and welcoming to "the walkers", as we were known as there. We ate mouth-watering meals, swam in the cliff-graced swimming hole, enjoyed the company of wonderful people, drank superb wine, and generally had a relaxing and hospitable stay. We enjoyed our time so much that on our departure day we lingered until 6:30pm when we decided we should finally get back on the trail.
From Ranquilco we trekked through the cliffed-out Rio Trocoman and onto the vast, desolate, windy desert mountains, eventually making our way to the town of El Cholar. We stopped in at the Gendarmeria (ranger/sheriff/border patrol of Argentina) to inquire about camping and to see if a seed/nut we had picked from one of the poky bushes was edible (it was). While sharing mate and watching a storm brew outside, we were invited to sleep in the extra guest dorm room for the evening. The next morning, due to timing and reappearing colds, we accepted a ride with one of the Gendarms for half the distance to Chos Malal, our destination. As the car was hugging the curvy and plunging canyon walls, we couldn't help but be incredibly thankful that we were not hiking through this seemingly forbidding and austere landscape. Once the valley opened up and leveled out we started making our way along the deep, muddy river leading to Chos Malal. We trudged through thorns and stickers, climbed up and down rocks, and snaked through five-foot-tall grasses only to realize that we were stuck on the wrong side of the looming, impassible river (deep, wide, muddy, and strong). Damn. Practicing flexibility as usual, we camped on the river bank and hiked 12 very hot and dry kilometers over, down and around to the road (and bridge) the next day.
Entering Chos Malal, we were greeted with another surge of graciousness. Upon recommendation from an employee at Ranquilco, we tracked down the local honey business. Mr. Honey Man, Mirko, gave us the full honey process tour complete with our own huge jar of honey (which we have long devoured). We also were able to stay the night in the washing machine repair shop adjacent to the honey shop (it's a side biz). Mirko and friends didn't stop there - they had a goat asado for us the day we left and sent us off with three massive jars of rich, amber honey. In continuation of the theme of Trinity's previous post, the hospitality we received throughout this leg has been of the utmost generosity and kindness. As much as this trip is about hiking, it is turning more and more into an appreciation and grateful understanding for the people and cultures we encounter along the way.
After a 13 hour bus ride (made tolerable by sporadic spoonfuls of honey throughout the trip) we have arrived in Mendoza, land of wine. Tomorrow morning, Trinity's sisters, Electra and Sonnet, will be meeting us! We are so looking forward to fresh converstaion, new gear, and good ol' American food - like peanut butter and Clif Builder Bars!!
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