Puerto Madryn and Puerto Piramides

Pretty Puerto Piramides

My second trip to this region was 11 months after my first, and my additional time on the bodacious Valdez peninsula greatly enhanced my grasp of the place. I spent just one night at the very cool Gualicho hostel in Madryn, after landing at Trelew airport and then getting a ride from a mighty friendly local who had just picked up a friend on the same flight. She told me that her kids also ‘hacen dedo’ (hitchhike), and it was a great way to land and roll into the sweet port town, that is, city now, of over 100,000.

Wandering around town and primarily the beachside sidewalk, the only oddity was not being able to walk out onto the municipal pier due to a cruise ship being anchored there, and the authority telling me that no one could enter ho wasn’t a passenger on the big boat, ‘due to security issues’. This coincided with the corona virus hysteria sweeping the globe, so I wasn’t really disappointed in the denial to enter.

This is a real ‘Seal Beach’

I did treat myself to a fine fish dinner at Chona’s , right in the middle of town on the seafront, as it was recommended by everybody I asked. Excellent food and service at very decent prices make for a solid formula, and we also hit it for a premium lunch the day I flew out.

Loberia at Punta Lomas

Something new this time around was driving south out to the splendid sea lion loberia a few kilometers past Punta Loma. A ranger station overlooks two separate clusters of the aquatic lions, hundreds in number but just a drop in the bucket to the estimated 100,000 in all of Argentina. The seabirds are numerous here as well and the two viewpoints provide a smashing vista of the massive colony here. Well worth the drive, short walk and nasty smell.

The terrain around these parts is extraordinary

I noticed at least two big changes at Puerto Piramides from last year, the first being that the Hostel Bahia Ballena, where I stayed on my first trip, was no longer the unofficial info center for the Orca comings and goings out at Playa Norte. The one day we took the hour drive out there, the Orcas didn’t show, although they had visited the day prior. The sea lion colony there now stretches out a half kilometer on the beach, so the chances of observing a serious Orca encounter would seem to be greatly enhanced.

The ‘line up’ at Playa Norte aka Orca Beach

Unfortunately, the big black and whites had other things to do that day, so I’m now just batting .500 in my two visits. It’s still a grand place to spend 5 hours, as the ocean is mesmerizing and the birds and sea lions are visually hypnotic in their own way. There were less people than last April, and most were more than willing to spend as much time as necessary in order to get the look of a lifetime at one of the planet’s animal wonders. All, that is, except a big tourist bus full of elderly passengers, perhaps from that same cruise ship, who stayed all of 15 minutes before driving off.

But no Orca visit today

The other big change, for me at least, was finding out the mass influx of beach lovers who invade Piramides on a sunny, warm weekend. The sheer quantity of humanity was staggering, and I had a difficult time understanding where they all came from. Puerto Madryn is an hour away, with a nice beach of it’s own, and Trelew another 45 minutes beyond. There are few folks living on the vast peninsula, so the crowds had to be comprised of the other townies, and it was night and day compared to the usual weekday scene. The clog of vehicles and full eateries were probably way welcomed by the local businesses, but also grateful it doesn’t load up like that every day.

The low tide walk to the caves on the way to Punta Pardelas

Besides a fine beach walk across the bay to snorkel at the jumbo sea caves, where the crabs outnumbered all else, and we came across five hot pink flamingoes wading in the shallows we drove across the skinny isthmus to snorkel at Playa Villarino. This was my first close look at Golfo San Jose, the northern, less gigantic counterpart to Golfo Nuevo, where Puerto Piramides is located. This was a smooth 20k on a graded gravel road, and I was surprised to see a cluster of RV’s spread across the beach above Playa Arralde. We drove a bit south, where there was just one car parked, and found a spot to park and access the clear, cool water. The sand bars here, like around Piramides, are called ‘restingas’, and are submerged and then dried out again twice daily, as the tides are substantial.

Beaut water and trippy sandbars at Playa Villamino

I estimated five meters, and the motion of the rising tide is dramatic and rapid. Here we floated in the shallows, not seeing many fish, but at least one colony of spider crabs, and another of colorful sea snails. We spent an hour and a half that could have been stretched to 3 or 4 quite easily, as the place was relaxing to the point of catatonia. There were penguins all over the place, chasing fish underwater or sitting like a duck on top of it. We also spotted a pod of dolphins through the binoculars from the viewpoint at the end of the road that goes right at the top of the hill that drops into town. I hiked to this last year, and it’s worth an hour at the end of the day gazing across the monumental bay and cliffs, with the raw sound of lobos bellowing loco below.

Penguins are ll over the place

Conclusions: A vehicle is a big plus, as far as getting around to the remote sections of the peninsula. There were several main roads closed during this time around, including the coast road that connects Punta Norte, Orca Central, with Punta Cantor, 47 km due south. Cantor can still be reached from the turnoff Hwy 3, just past the Salitral, one of three large salt flats here. It’s 33km from the turnoff to Cantor, and then another 42 km further south to Punta Delgada, where the site was closed. Orcas are known to frequent Cantor, and that’s reason enough to show up, but they are much more regular at Punta Norte.

Guanacos number in the thousands here

In addition, the road from Piramides to Punta Pardelas was closed due to sand dunes covering the surface. I didn’t verify this and wish I had, as Pardelas is the location of choice among the snorkeling crowd, of which I am one. Mountain Bikes can be rented, as well as kayaks, which are gold on a calm day and can easily reach Pardelas in less than an hour. The bikes can too, as long as the sometimes big heat factor is not a problem. An ideal way to explore this area is flying in to Trelew, spending a night each coming and going through Madryn, and then 3 or 4 in Piramides covering as much ground and water as necessary, or possible. It’s worth the effort, big time.

The lobos love the restingas….sandbars

The El Bolson Mountain Refugio System – 2020 Update

My third trip to Patagonia was tremendous, great weather for all but one day and my best survey of the acclaimed mountain hostels that now number 15 in all. Once sleepy El Bolson, fabled hippie haven flanked by monumental mountain ranges, is growing at a stunning rate, and I counted a dozen new craft beer cervezerias that were not there two seasons ago. This is not all bad, as more options is usually a benefit to locals and visitors alike. The town is still clean and filled with flowers and trees, and it’s well equipped to handle the big increase in travelers that seems inevitable. It’s one of Argentinas many gems and seems destined for mass tourism soon, but it’s a unique venue and worthy of all the attention. 

Sunset towards Chile from the cush Casa de Campo

The cheapest way to access the main trailhead at Wharton is still the Golondrina bus, which has three round trips most days. As the number of visitors has increased, all are now required to register online prior to arrival at http://anprale.com/registro/    Each member of the party is issued a number which must be available for the rangers trailer at Wharton on the road to the main trailhead up the Blue River. They are obviously monitoring the number of hikers more closely than ever, which is a good thing for everybody, as they can advise on which refugios will have room, and which could be fully booked. The day we walked up, there were two separate groups of school kids on supervised overnight outings.resulting in full houses and absolutely no room at LaPlayita and La Tronconada.

The Rio Azul is truly fifty shades of blue

If your timing is wrong on the return leg and the wait for the bus back to town is excessive, cabs can be hailed for  a reasonable price from El Polaco across the street from the forest station. They also sell useful items and food and drink and are very friendly and helpful.

View from the ‘Pass of the Winds’ above El Retamal

The trail up this canyon is the same as before, superb, with plenty of signs at every trail junction. There are now 15 different mountain hostels, up from a dozen as of two years ago. The Cajon Azul hut is in full operation, and La Horqueta was closed which was likely temporary. We made the first day a long one, marching 14 km to my personal fave, El Retamal, almost empty, very unusual, and it filled up the next night. Mariano and Bardala are now running the lodge, and it is in immaculate condition, comf inside and out. The 45 minute hike up the draw to Paso de los Ventos is worth every minute and step, and a supreme vista of the adjacent canyon brings into binocular view all three of the refugios in that zone, El Conde, La Horqueta, and the very cush Casa de Campo.

Barbeque, gaucho style

The party crowd filled every bunk and floorspace that night, or more accurately early morning, and the next morning a cordero  was propped up and cooking. Casa de Campo has a privileged location beneath a viewpoint hill, although the river is a few minutes walk away. It’s  a significant addition to the lodging options available, as the capacity is plenty and the amenities the equal.

Horses are the bikes up here

Plush indoor showers, and 700 pesos a night per person, same as El Retamal and 300 more than neighboring El Conde, which is about as down home and simple as it gets up here. Some folks will still prefer that cheaper choice when money is a consideration, and the setting is still select, but from now on, for me it’s Retamal and Casa del Campo. I also received nothing but rave reviews for distant Los Laguitos refugio, another 10 km and 450 vertical meters up from these next ones down the Blue Rio.

The bizarre, edible, and tasty mushroom Llao Llao

That leaves half a dozen refugios that I still haven’t visited; Perito Moreno, Encanto Blanco, and Dedo Gordo, all north of the Rio Azul, and Cerro Lindo, Natacion, and Hielo Azul to the south. I plan to get to them all down the line, which will no doubt see more big growth and changes in El Bolson. In the meantime, which is prime time, this stretch of the southern Andes will continue to be backpackers paradise and compulsory for any traveler looking for the best of South America. Go, Do, and Be.

El Bolson Vitals:

Lodging options are very numerous now, and I had the good fortune to discover Casas Chaura, 5 different plush apartments a few blocks from the center and loaded with every possible convenience.

As nice inside as out, Casas Chaura

For couples or groups this is a no brainer, as the location is perfect, the cabanas loaded with extras, and the price is quite economical for the quality of the place. Nils is the perfect host, very generous with his time and advice, and he was the guy who let us know about the Casa de Campo anniversary blow out. It’s an excellent base for visitors who want to stay comfortable.

www.casaschaura.com.ar        (54 9 24) 464 9624        (0294) 4483 832      O’ Higgins 517, El Bolson

Nils also directed us to the new, spacious, and very nice A Gusto restaurant, with a giant patio, right in the middle of town at Dorrego 539. First rate food and service and priced right. There are dozens of other choices now, although the once venerated La Gorda is long gone. But the craft beer bars have proliferated, they are everywhere, and most serve quality grub as well.

And up in the corderilla:

Retamal Mountain Shelter     https://bolsonweb.com.ar/aventura/retamal.html

Casa de Campo  has a FB page, so I won’t list it, but it’s easy to find.                  

Villa La Angostura and Parque Arrayanes

The beaut boardwalk in the grove at Parque Arrayanes

This seductive village sits between mountain and lake, Tahoe style, an hour north of Bariloche but a world apart. It lies on the famed Seven Lakes route, which is actually more like seventeen, And this arm of mammoth lake #1, Nahuel huapi is among the prettiest rendezvous of land and water on the continent. Cerro Bajo is the peak which looms two miles away, featuring a compact but legitimate 16 lift ski mountain with an excellent reputation. The gigantic expanse of crystal blue water on three sides of the hamlet seems infinite, and for kayakers, bikers, hikers, skiers and such, the Villa is exceptional.

The harbor at bodacious Puerto Manzano

One of the places that draws people is the isolated Parque Nacional Arrayanes, situated on the far end of Victoria peninsula, a long stretch of verdant woods twelve kilometers long. This isthmus is so narrow that realistically Victoria peninsula is much more so than actual islands Phuket, and Skye, to name a famous couple. Thus, absolutely undeveloped besides the  12 km trail, open to hike or bike, period. 

The ‘neck of the isthmus, with Bahias Mansa and Brav in the distance

It’s a superb walk in the woods out to the massive stand of orange Arrayanes trees, by far the largest and oldest left anywhere. Most people visit the park via boats from the town docks, or across the big lake from Bariloche. The 45 minute long slow ride from the Villa is dazzling, with postcard views in every direction, and it can be done round trip, or one way, with a sporty hike there or back, take your pick. We took the catamaran Futaleufu which departs from the mansa(calm) side of the isthmus. The tariff was ARS$2600, a bargain at about US$40 for two, plus another seven dollars for the actual park admission.

The Futalefu docked at Parque Arrayanes

That’s for non Argentians, who get in for less than half of that. Regardless, it’s worth twice the money, and we were fortunate to have Carlos as a guide and fountain of vital information. He led us around the super sturdy wooden boardwalk through the Arrayanes grove, which boasts loads of massive, gnarled  trees, some over 450 years old. There are likely more of the distinctive orange trunks here than the rest of the planet combined, and since they’ve been spared any frivolous development or culling there are plenty that have collapsed from centuries of living. It’s a guided walk that could take a lot longer than the scheduled half hour, before arriving at the century old tea house back near the dock. There’s no camping on the peninsula, so it’s made for a first rate day hike, but the boat ride alone is something I highly recommend. A couple of eye popping viewpoints can be reached in a half hour from the port as well, and these are likewise worth every step and minute. Two round trips every day, take your time and your camera.

Clean, cool water

www.bosquelosarrayanes.com.ar

We didn’t make it four kilometers up to the ski area, but did take the hourly bus to the drop dead gorgeous Bahia Manzano. This has to be heaven for anybody fortunate enough to own an aquatic vessel. Million dollar pads line the forested shore and harbor here and if this ain’t good enough, it ain’t. A huge bay front hotel takes up most of the middle, but wanderers can enjoy plenty of eye candy from the fringes. Worth  a stop, at least, and maybe a tour of the shore from a sailboat with food and drinks. Stand up paddle boards, kayaks and assorted other craft are available for hire, and I can envision a superlative day, or many, spent here, gliding on the blue ribbon water, no question.

With a pad on the lake here, spending lots of time at home is the idea

The Villa has a handful of neighborhoods all reachable via the public bus, and the main departure point is the same parking lot the long distance busses arrive at.  Rental bikes are abundant and cheap, so some human energy here can eliminate any ‘need’ for a motorized vehicle. The main street is packed with shops and cafes, and the town, like many, fills up in January when the summer break starts. Still, the Villa is worth a few days any other time of the year, and a wide range of ecosystems are within minutes of each other. It’s a stunning location that I will return to repeatedly for further study and recreation.

The superb trail to the miradors above the Villa

Vital Information:

There are literally hundreds of accommodation options in town, bunk beds to  four star fat city, but I made a wise choice by staying at Tierra de los Mestizos. We were toting full backpacks, so distance from the bus station was a big factor, having a limited time here. Tito is the owner, a very affable and helpful hombre, and his funky rustic pad has perhaps 3 rooms. But the breakfast is fine, the ambiance plenty good, and the 2 minute walk to the station and main street is ace. The double room with shared bathroom was a bargain at US$15 a night, breakfast included. Tell Tito I sent you, and stay longer than our two nights if you’ve got it to spare.

https://tierra-de-mestizos-villa-la-angostura.hotelmix.es

Tito recommended two restaurants on Main street, named Avenida Arrayanes, and he was spot on. La Nevada and El Esquiador are on the same block, owned by the same dude, and this is where the locals and lucky tourists dine. Good hearty local fare, as in cordero and trout, reasonably priced, busy as hell but tremendous service and value. Worth the wait, but the avenue has perhaps 20 possible plan B’s. Maybe even one better than Nevada.

Hall of Fame Hostels

I seek to stay in hostels everywhere I go, not just to save money and maintain on the cheap, but to meet other travelers in a more social setting than a hotel. The communal habitat promotes more interaction and communication, and the exchange of vital information, pointers and tips can be priceless. I’ve met some terrific folks on the road, and many of us prefer places such as these. Keep in mind, however, people move, places change and sell, get worse or improve, so nothing lasts forever. So this compilation will be dynamic, and always changing, and definitely not static. An example is a hostel I would include on this list, if only it hadn’t gone out of business. RIP 41 Below in Bariloche, may you rise again like a Phoenix. So dig, if you will, and may the hall expand and extend……

The Buddha, Laureles, Medellin, Colombia

I was lucky enough to find and book this place before landing there, and even after I later moved to Medellin and got an apartment nearby, continued to frequent the place for a beer and meeting other wanderers. Spacious interior and stellar garden with a lot of places to relax, and a location that provides easy access to the dining and entertainment stretch of Carrera 70 towards the stadium. Super cool staff with lots of ideas and a collective feel to the big casa.

http://buddha-hostel.hotels-in-medellin.com/es/

La Terraza del Centro, Cordoba, Argentina

There are very few cities that have as vibrant a zone of restaurants and assorted entertainment as bodacious as Cordoba, and so proximity to that Guemes neighborhood is always a factor for me. The Terraza is located in a favorable part of the center, with everything close, and the vibe is friendly as all hell. Once again, it’s the people who make the difference, and the staff here are about as good as it gets, in all categories. The digs are snug and clean. and the rooftop patio and parilla is a congenial spot to watch the sunset and toast your new friends. Everything worth seeing is within walking distance, and one of South America’s best bar scenes is an easy15 minute stroll away. The only real negative is tied to its’ ‘close to everything good’ location, so traffic noise outside makes earplugs almost compulsory. Never the less, I won’t stay anywhere else in Cordoba, one of my favorite cities in Argentina. https://www.booking.com/hotel/ar/hostel-la-terraza-del-centro.es-ar.html

La Humahuacasa, Humahuasca, Argentina

I stayed two nights here exploring the vast quebrada and it is cozy, convenient, everything works, and the hosts, Paola and Juan, are ultra helpful and generous with their time and suggestions. Breakfast is tasty, the wifi solid, and the fully equipped kitchen and outdoor grill are ready to go. The casa feels like it grew out of the ground here, rustico, autentico, and truly relaxing. Two blocks from the plaza, and three from the bus station, it’s a fine base for exploring the supernatural far north of the country.  http://www.humahuacasa.com.ar/

La Casa del Viajero      El Bolson, Argentina

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is IMG_1310.jpg
The main commmunal cabin at El Viajero

Agustin Aporro built the first hostel in El Bolson, a couple of kilometers from the town center but much closer to great hiking trails, such as the stellar Catarata Escondida. His funky compound of private and communal cabins is on a big lot with a trout pond, organic garden, and greenhouse, a little slice of heaven on the other side of the river. He is likewise a wealth of vital info regarding the entire region not to mention El Bolson itself. It’s a cheap taxi or a leisurely walk to town, and it’s my base whenever I get to Patagonia, which isn’t often enough. http://www.lacasadelviajero.com.ar/

Hostel del Gualicho    Puerto Madryn, Argentina

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is IMG-20190412-WA0012-1-1024x768.jpg
Big lockers, comf beds, individual reading lights and all the intangibles

Four blocks from the beach, and five from the bus terminal, a prime location isn’t the only thing Gualicho has going for it. Sparkling clean, organized and spacious common areas inside and out, along with an excellent breakfast buffet. But again it’s the people that make the difference, and the staff here is a great example. Always friendly and ready to share the ‘inside’ information, the Gualicho gang puts guest service into the A+ category. Individual reading lights in each bunk bed is indicative of doing the little things that add up big. http://www.elgualicho.com.ar/

Secret Garden, Cotopaxi, Ecuador

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is secret-garden-1024x768.jpg

The Secret Garden is one of those places that I found out about through the grapevine and it lived up to the hype 100%. A couple of hours outside of Quito, it’s actually closest to the small town of Machachi, but the imposing legendary volcano is front and center, offering a sensational view. The Garden offers a bunch of different lodging options, from trippy Hobbit Homes, to birdhouses in the trees, to small cabins with wood stoves. The prices include 3 meals a day, free coffee and tea, a wood heated hot tub, free maps and picnic lunches, and a complimentary two hour hike to a beautiful waterfall right out the backdoor. There are lots of tours offered at very reasonable prices, including a hike to the snow line on Cotopaxi at 5000+ meters altitude, which is $ very well spent. The food on offer is healthful, nutritious, and delicious, and the international staff is super cool, always accommodating, and fun loving. The Secret Garden makes for a tremendous stop for travelers looking for the absolute best of Ecuador.  http://secretgardencotopaxi.com/blog3/

Punto Verde Eco Hostel, Montanitas, Ecuador

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is 2015-01-06-10.48.21-1024x768.jpg
One of the locals that hang around the Ponto Verde

This was another surprise that exceeded expectations after arriving on the Ecuador coast during the mayhem of New Years. This hilltop hacienda is the creation of Joos, a dynamo from Holland who traded her houseboat for this property sight unseen, an amazing leap of faith. She built several new additions to the original cabin, and completely created an astonishing oasis just a 15 minute walk into the heart of party central. She really learned by doing, using local materials and indeed constructed an outstanding lodge at the end of a dirt road just a short walk up off the highway. The beach is closer, and the distance from the nocturnal commotion is a blessing in terms of peace and quiet. Solid bunk beds, lockers and hammocks, a couple of sensational sunset patios and a setting that just puts you at ease. With a place this unique, the visitors likewise are uncommonly cool.

Good local breakfast, solid wifi, and Joos and the staff do everything to make you feel at home. I stayed almost a week here, more than I had planned, just because it was so chill. Tell Joos I sent you-  https://www.booking.com/hotel/ec/punto-verde-casona.es.html

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is 2015-01-03-11.51.01-1024x1024.jpg
That’s Joos’ place up on the hill to the right

48 premium hours in Montevideo

Selfie seekers repent

The capitol and only major city of Uruguay doesn’t get the acclaim of some neighbors, notably Buenos Aires and Punta del Este, but it’s a vibrant and fascinating place, and if time is short, it’s good to have a plan. Since most international flights arrive early in the morning, let’s map out the best use of that two days and nights.

The Sarandi pedestrian walkway in the old city

After that early arrival, getting down to the city center and the old ciudad vieja is on the docket. The old barrio has some rough edges, but three splendid plazas, all totally different, and close enough to walk. Plaza Independencia is more open and less shady than the others, and affords a grand view of the classic Salvo Tower, looking like an Atlas rocket ready for launch. When it was  built it was the tallest skyscraper in South America. The plaza is at the portal into the old city, and the pedestrian walkway Sarandi is loaded with  street vendors, shops, and food options galore. 

Ready for takeoff

Two blocks away is lovely Plaza Matriz, with big leafy trees and  the majestic Metropolitan Cathedral, built here in 1790 and the site of many big weddings and such. An easy three blocks west of matriz, also know as constitucion, lies my favorite, Plaza Zabala. Inaugurated in 1890, this square was designed by Parisian Eduardo Andre, and it definitely has a French flair. Covered with a collection of trees including Magnolias, Zabala is an easy place to spend lots of relaxing time. Directly across the street is the stately Taranco Palace, a national historical site and art gallery also worth some precious time.

Leafy Plaza Matriz

Turning north onto Perez Castellano, this pedestrian street leads to the quirky and bustling Puerto Mercado, where a dozen or so restaurants offer meat on the grill with all the trimmings. After wandering a bit, get on the Montevideo  hop on, hop off double decker tourist bus which hits 10 notable sites, including Estadio Centenario, where Uruguay won the inaugural World Cup.

Montevideo is a city loaded with fine trees

An hour and a half after boarding, hop off at Punta Carretas to check out one of the  finest hoods and a hot bed of food, drink, and retail shops with the latest and coolest. And I know that real travelers never want to get on an actual tourist bus, but this is a pretty efficient use of 2 hours.

A Candombe troupe getting ready to march and wail

Perhaps a break is in order after this campaign, and for the evening shift, we head to Palermo for dinner and drinks, and if we’re lucky, live Candombe on the streets. This particular variation of music was born here centuries ago, and features an avalanche of drums and accompanying dancers and followers. The troupe, sometimes numbering triple digits, shuffle through the streets at a very casual pace and are easy to catch up with anytime. They can be heard a kilometer away, at least, and if your timing is right, these energetic musical displays can be downright invigorating.

Live music at the Mingus

Whether Candombe is happening or not, a worthy stop on the road to utopia is El Mingus, a restobar at the corner of San Salvador and Jackson. Food, drinks, music and clientele are all first rate, and this leisurely stop will fill the tank for the rest. Which is live music in the classic basement of Emigrantes, another luminary in the local music scene. The bands play late, the crowds congregate and everybody goes home, or hotel, happy.

The street scene is always lively at night

Day two begins with renting a bike and covering some beauteous ground, as the plan is to ride as much of the sublime Montevideo rambla as possible. The rambla is a wide sidewalk that parallels the mighty Rio de la Plata for over ten miles, starting in the old city and ending in the swank suburb of Carrasco. The vast majority of coastline in Uruguay is open to the public, a huge difference from many other developed countries. So there’s a ton to see and it’s not very demanding as the path stays flat with just two small hills. There are dozens of places to stop for some sustenance, especially in the neighborhood surrounding the elegant Carrasco Hotel and Casino.

Chillin’on the rambla at Pocitos beach

Passing through the fetching beach communities of Malvin and Punta Gorda, the quantity of architectural marvels is stunning, and there’s a lot to see besides beach and buildings. The rambla offers a birds eye view of a range of development from decades past to yesterday and is the best method to learning the lay of the city.

Malvin is kite surfing central

Upon arriving in Carrasco, wander the streets immediately surrounding the casino and behold some very unique dwellings. Arocena Avenue is the main business artery here and home to dozens of refreshment selections. The most celebrated is the venerable Bar Arocena, open 24/7 and boasting one of the finest chivitos in the land. This is the national icon, a variation of the gringo steak sandwich, and if the stomach needs fuel, fill it up here. Afterwards, an easy return back into the city center or home base will be the perfect lead in to a siesta.

Everybody is up for a live concert anytime

Tonight we experience the prized culinary tradition of the barbeque, known as asado in these parts. The venue is La Pulperia, a hallowed spot worshipped by carnivores for its’ merit and nothing fancy setting and service. The go to dish on the menu is the Ojo de Bife, a Rib eye steak, but they whip up all the cuts of meat and several side dishes, along with the finest local red wines. It’s a neon meat dream that will be relished for moons and recalled eternally.

Montevideo is an architectural hotbed

Once again tonight we seek a sotano, a basement with live music, so the next stop is just a five minute walk away. Bar Tabare has it’s own highly regarded kitchen, but we’re here for drinks and music, and both are delivered with gusto. Much like the culture of cooking on a fire here, many establishments sport a basement bar where live music is the draw, and Tabare, like Emigrantes, has a beauty. Sit and savor the sounds of a culture in full bloom, and raise a glass to your good fortune in getting to such a metro gem.

Keep your eyes on the hotizon and your nose to the wind

The Orcas at Valdez

Few creatures have been as celebrated, mythologized and ultimately  enslaved as the misnamed Killer Whale, actually the largest, and most intriguing of the entire dolphin family. I was raised, like many, on a TV diet of Flipper and Sea Hunt, and later entertained by the aquatic circus at Sea World. The reality of what I was watching never hit me until much later, after the documentary Blackfish revealed the ghastly truth behind the scenes. Orcas and other wild animals are best served and appreciated wild, and just seeing them where they belong is astounding.


Just rollin’ through

There is an isolated beach on the Atlantic coast of Argentina where the southern Orcas gather, and it’s the only place in the world where they actually beach themselves to hunt sea lions. This has been made famous in videos, but just like a virtuoso concert, nothing beats live.

The venue is a peninsula called the Valdez, one of Argentina’s outstanding national parks, situated about a thousand miles south of Buenos Aires. The portal entry is Puerto Madryn, an attractive city that is the wintertime retreat of avid watchers of the Southern Right Whale, which converge here by the score from June until December. Excursion boats full of enthusiasts leave here to get a close look at the mighty earthlings, and when that season fades, the Orcas begin to show.

It seems the gulls are safe

Their happy place is out on the far northeast point of this remarkable cape, at an isolated beach called Punta Norte. Halfway there lies the only real town on the peninsula, Puerto Piramides, where a couple of hundred folks live here year round, swelling to several times that in peak season from January through March. The setting is a marvelous bay surrounded by sandy bluffs where the wildlife far outnumbers the humans, my kind of place. The dive and kayak shops fill up with customers in the make hay days, and there are dozens of lodging options available, including camping, right behind the town beach.

Punta Norte is 75 wide open, uninhabited kilometers away, a virtually treeless stretch with head high bushes and dozens of long necked Guanacos munching on them. The ranger station at Punta Norte is a well equipped outpost with facilities to handle a large amount of people, including bathrooms and a cafe. A long boardwalk overlooking the beach provides the viewing platform, and this is as close to the action as visitors are allowed.  An 8 iron down the beach is a large group of sea lions that occupy a stretch of beach, and this is where your attention is drawn. A number of them are always in the water adjacent to the group, and this is where the action is. 

Seal side seats

The killers tend to show up in a six hour window surrounding high tide, when the water level provides closest proximity to the beach. Spectators arrive early in this cycle and begin setting up their vantage points for the expected arrival of the big black and whites. A majority of the visitors sport serious cameras, many with two foot lens, and the waiting begins. I was wandering around the station for less than an hour when the word came out that a pod had been spotted approaching from the south. The rangers here, and there are many, keep a constant watch out for the Orcas with binoculars, and they communicate that to the station. So everybody takes their place along the wooden rail, and soon enough clouds of vapor appear are visible a quarter mile down the coast.

This is young Ajuela, with the giant geometric fin

In a couple of minutes the big black dorsal fins are visible, including one jumbo triangle, straight as an isosceles, two meters in height. This is a male known as Ajuela, and I had the sensation of viewing a cruising u boat. All the Orcas are positively identified by their dorsal fins and individual white markings, and all have been named. The Punta Norte Orca Research organization has catalogued 15 of the most frequent visitors, including Lea, Jasmine, and Mel, another big male who was thought to be 49 years old a few years ago. He hasn’t been seen in a few years now, and likely is deceased as the average life expectancy for males is 50 years, 30 less than the females, a giant gap between the sexes.

To see an Orca self beached is……uh, forget it, beyond my ability

Most of the Orcas are consistent visitors, so many have been observed for years, although they are never touched or contacted with in any manner. So, 14 year old Pao is known the son of Ishtar, and another teenager, Mela, is the offspring of Jasmine.  As of now, no more than ten of these animals are known to practice the rare technique of hunting by intentional beaching, and this is the only place in the world where it’s been witnessed by humans. And the orcas do practice the move, in preparation for the real thing, and sometimes the lions elude the end.

It’s a team game

I didn’t get to see an attack, but had a close look at the pod of 11 as it swam by northbound, and returning about half an hour later. The principal impression was how relaxed and unhurried the killers are, casually passing by the mass of lobos, like they were just out for a relaxed family swim. Some of the veterans demonstrate the move for the greenhorns, and they always help the youngsters get back into the water if needed with a bump or a shove. Dry runs like these are common and seem to help the hunters get some reps even if they don’t result in a full seal meal.

Little help?

Straight up it’s an invigorating display of nature at its’ wildest, and induces lots of visitors to come back over and over to see it again. I got lucky, going one for one, but guarantee my return next season for, so far, the best show ever.

Vital Information:

http://www.puertopiramides.gov.ar/index.html

www.orca-puntanorte.com

The Valdez Peninsula

You don’t see this too many places

I first became aware of this enormous peninsula years ago when I heard about the burgeoning whale watching attraction there. 1000 miles south of Buenos Aires on the south Atlantic coast, this region lies at about the same latitude as the north of Patagonia, 400 miles due west across the Argentine pampas. The terrain at either end of this stretch couldn’t be more different, with the west an emerald alpine wonderland and the coast a flat, dry, scrub desert.

This is usually a good sign

It took me 8 years to finally make it, arriving in Trelew by plane and taking a 45 minute bus to Puerto Madryn. This appealing town is where a boat from Wales landed in 1865 after a two month voyage that resulted in five deaths, two births, and one marriage. The settlers fanned out across the area, establishing themselves in villages named Trevelin, Gaiman, and Trelew.

Madryn sits on the massive Golfo Nuevo, a circular bay 60 kilometers across, with a somewhat smaller gulf, San Jose, just north of the isthmus where begins the fabled peninsula. This cape is among the largest on the continent, with the farthest points being over 170 km from the big port. These dimensions add to the isolation and splendid outback of the country, and villages and commercial developments are few and scattered. It’s Baja California with a Galapagos slant.

Downtown Puerto Madryn

Puerto Madryn was larger and prettier than I had expected, with a seaside promenade stretching for miles that was the hub of outdoor activities. The locals are out in decent weather, running, biking, kayaking and simply hanging on the seawall with family and friends.


This is the diving capitol of Argentina as the water visibility is as good as it gets here, ranging from 20 to 50 feet, and heaps of different sites to visit. The whale watching season starts in June and runs through the end of the year and this is when PM hits peak season. Excursions and other boat viewings draw the droves, and there is a location half an hour north of town, El Doradillo, where the Southern right whales swim within scant meters from the shore. Similar to San Ignacio lagoon on the Pacific Baja side, this spot is best viewed at high tide, and the tides here are titanic, reaching 20 feet in a six hour cycle. The extremes can display a striking difference at any geographical feature here, and they should have much to do with your recreational schedule.

This is where the Welsh vessel Mimosa landed way back when

Madryn is clean and well organized with a bunch of one way streets making the vehicle traffic somewhat easier to deal with. There are dozens of restaurants and cafes, hotels and hostels, and I spent two cheap nights at one of the best run hostels I’ve yet found, El Gualicho. Four blocks from the water, super friendly, clean and efficient, a recent inductee into my Hostel Hall of Fame.
A fine 5K stroll along the beach towards the south passes the site of the Welsh landing and historic monument above a worthy snorkeling venue. A bit farther lies the Eco Centro, a prominent building which was closed both times that I passed by but likely worth a visit.

The municipal wharf extends half a mile out into the blue bay, and this is where the big ships, tourist, fishing, or other commercial types tie up. Shore fishermen drag nets around in waist deep water catching boatloads of small silver anchovies, and sizable light colored crabs are easily visible scurrying along the sandy bottom. There are plenty of sea lions here too, dozing and resting on the landings, and at least one energetic penguin chasing fish.

The locals netting the silver ‘Alitas’ beneath the wharf

It’s an easy place to spend a couple of days, but I was here to get to the peninsula, an hour bus ride away. The park entrance is situated in the neck of the isthmus, and the $650 tariff(US 15) is beyond a bargain. The desert vegetation around Madryn resembles Arizona, with sage and creosote bush, but once out on the peninsula the creosote disappears, replaced by other varieties and grass but no cactus, no big boulders, and absolutely no trees.

The ‘trail’ to Pardelas Point

Guanacos, the odd cousins of llamas and Alpacas, are the primary land residents here, hanging in groups of a handful to a dozen, and they are a larger version of Pronghorn Antelopes, but with a longer neck lending a giraffe sensation. A local guide told me that they learn to jump before they learn to run, and the meter high fences don’t inhibit their movement at all. The Guanaco is wise enough to not trust humans much, they stay attentive, and keep the buffer zone big.

Can you tell the difference?

There is some isolated grazing from operations that were apparently grandfathered in decades ago, both cattle and sheep. These domestics are much harder on the land that their wild brethren, flattening the soil and consuming everything green at ground level. The Guanacos feed off the tops of the bushes and are much more low impact in terms of earth wear and tear, and far as I could tell, outnumber the introduced aliens 100 to 1. The beasts resemble their cousins of the high Andes, the elegant and streamlined Vicunas, just without the requisite wooly coat.

The road drops into Puerto Piramides about 10 minutes past the gate, and this little village is about the only commercial neighborhood 50 kilometers in any direction. Dive shops, kayak and bike rentals, cafes and hotels make up most of it, along with a few ma and pa markets and a gas station. The lodging options number close to 40 in high season but less than half that the rest of the year. There is also a municipal campground that charges $250 (US$6) per person which includes a shower. The adjacent beach is lined by steep dunes and Tamarisk type trees and makes for a very chill setting. There is limited camping allowed elsewhere in the park on a free roaming basis, as the rangers want to keep the terrain as clean and pristine as possible. This village is the ideal base for exploring the many spectacles of this area, and three to five days is enough time to do it.

Seductive Puerto Piramides

For myself and lots of others, the prime attraction is the arrival of pods of Orcas, Killer Whales, who use certain stretches of beach here as hunting grounds for their meat and potatoes, the innumerable sea lions. 75k north east of Piramides lies Punta Norte, one of two locations in the world where the Orcas will beach themselves in order to snag their prey. The rangers keenly observe, identify, and keep a close watch on these proceedings, and all observers are compelled to maintain their distance from a railed boardwalk fifty meters above the beach. The Orcas don’t show up on schedule, or even daily, and witnessed attacks are infrequent. But witnesses show up every day hoping for a close look at the king of dolphins in the wild, and not captive in a pool like Seaworld.

Orcas out for a snorkel at Punta Norte


It’s difficult to put into words the exhilaration of seeing these creatures up close, and I won’t try, but in my case it made the hair stand up on my arms, like an electrical charge. The season runs from late in the year through April, and I plan to return next March.

A youngster practicing the beach technique

The peninsula is an unspoiled location to get on or in the water, or stay dry and walk or wheel, and the outdoor enthusiast will have plenty of choices. The locals say that only when the north wind blows is it inadvisable to be on the water, and outside of the winter months the odds of good weather are favorable. I took a couple of dandy hikes, one on a big wind day, and both were well worth the time and energy.
The first was a 5 k scamper up a trail to a dirt road that leads to a massive loberia, a sea lion enclave below the actual pyramid shaped bluff that gave the village its name. There were two groups of Guanacos en route, and a pair of Ospreys riding the wind, and the road ends at a ranger station with bathroom overlooking the shelf where the lobos del mar congregate. I watched through my binoculars as they tried and eventually succeeded in launching out of the water and gaining the slippery bank, after getting tossed around plenty.

Sunsets are major events on the peninsula


I was stuck by the multitude of pups, a few months old, and was sure that none of them could make it out of the water if they inadvertently fell in. None did while I watched, but I can’t help but think that infant mortality rates are high in this wild place, and not just because of the orcas’ appetite for youngsters. Much of this coastline is beneath high sandstone cliffs and ledges, and access for humans can be tricky. At this particular place, access is barred below the viewpoint, similar to Punta Norte.

Dunes on the way to Pardelas

My second ramble was in the opposite direction south towards the next major point, Pardelas, some 15 k distant. This is regarded as one of the finest diving and snorkeling venues in the park, with a sheltered location, crystal water and loads of fish. It can be reached entirely by beach if the low tide is timed right, but this entails good planning and a strident pace. Otherwise, a high route across the bluffs is in order for some of the trip, and this is ultra scenic and enjoyable. A rough trail up the hill at the south end of the town beach reaches the top of the sandy plateau after a steep, short incline. Here an old ATV track leads across the scrubby desert, before coming to a flat, volcanic clearing with no vegetation but millions of small rocks of various colors. Beyond this stretch lies a patch of pure sand dunes, some very sheer and a complete change from the rest of the route. Farther on, the path returns to bush country, disappears completely, and a wide amphitheater provides a gentler descent to the shore. A series of alcoves at sea level give an idea of the tidal phase, and when the entire openings are visible, the bank can be crossed dryly. When only the top of the caves are visible, forget about it until the tide drops. I didn’t make it all the way to Pardelas, but the long beach on the way is empty and pristine.
This cherry point can also be reached by car or bike via a dirt road, but this makes for a stout 25k leg each way. Either way, it’s worth the effort.

On the road to find out

When the water is flat, the Valdez is premium kayaking and stand up paddle boarding, it’s the diving capitol of Argentina, and the snorkeling, fishing, and wildlife watching are all at least 8 on a scale to 10. Southern Right Whale season lasts almost the entire Orca off season, and the sheer sea lion population is jaw dropping. This is among the seemingly healthiest eco systems is South America, and that’s saying a lot. Distances are vast, traffic is scant, and a decent mountain bike and adequate energy offers a special wilderness opportunity unobtainable anywhere else. As long as that fierce north wind isn’t blowing, peak outdoor experiences abound, and the Valdez merits a slot way up on The List.

Tidal pools by the millions

Particulars:

Bondi Air is a low cost airline operating out of Palomar airport in Buenos Aires, and they fly all over Argentina. My Tuesday- Tuesday flight was dirt cheap, on time, and well worth the bread. From the Trelew airport, skip that town and go directly to Puerto Madryn. The most economic route is to walk out to the highway 10 minutes away, and simply flag down one of the frequent busses running that stretch and save yourself 300 + pesos, minimum. The shuttle price at the airport in Trelew is $500 per person to Puerto Madryn, not cheap. https://flybondi.com/

El Gualicho hostel is a winner whether springing for a private room or bunking in one of the dorms. Buy your own fruit and enjoy a solid breakfast while comparing notes with other nomads. Helpful people, clean, efficient facilities and a good location at a fair price is always a strong business formula. Four blocks from the beach, and six from the bus station.
Marcos A. Zar 480, U8120 Puerto Madryn, Chubut, Argentina
http://www.elgualicho.com.ar/

Clean, cool, efficient and friendly, what else is there? Oh yeah, cheap too.

I stayed at the very basic but entirely adequate Bahia Ballena Hostel, the very first one on the left coming into town, and it is a good base to meet other Orca enthusiasts and find transportation up to Punta Norte if required. We were fortunate to get Carlos, a long time local, who knew everything about the area, especially the animals, and he was a great connection.
www.bahiaballenas.com/

My only two meals out both took place at the ultra friendly and accommodating Covancha, in the center a block from the beach, and both meals were delicious and bountiful. There are a number of choices in the village, even in low season, so finding a quality meal is no problem. Local seafood, meat and pasta, empanadas, and the ever present pizza are offered everywhere.

Cafayate

This beguiling valley is only 190 kilometers southeast of Salta, capitol of the province, and that drive is surely one of the panoramic expanses of landscape in all of Argentina. The route on Highway 68 passes through the  fertile pastures of the Lema Valley before crossing into the remarkably rugged mountains surrounding the Calchique valleys. Once past the last real settlement at La Vina, the highway twists through steep, amole, aka, ‘shin dagger’cactus covered ridges before entering the eroded spectacle of the jaw dropping Quebrada de las Conchas, the Gorge of the Shells. This gave me a profound Utah flashback, with every shade of red earth carved into extraordinary forms, evoking the usual impulse of ‘let’s get in there’. 

The portal to the sublime

Passing through this region at sunset really puts the proper shade on these hills, and the reflection on the small yet stunning Rio de las Conchas is mesmerizing. There are several signed rock formations, including the Devil’s Throat, the Obelisk, and the Toad, and thousands more further away from the highway. It reminded me of the Canyonlands in Utah, with fluted walls of petrified mud, and hollowed out grottos and slot canyons like the Pariah Plateau. It’s the kind of place where your hiking boots are waiting like a dog at the door. 

Canyonesque, but way south of Utah

So the method is to get into Cafayate, get a place to base out of, and then get back up to this quebrada. I was able to get some excellent tips from Juan, the owner of Muna bikes, about how to get up to a sublime 8k loop. From the terminal, take any Salta bound bus to km 24, El Paso, just past the Obelisk at km 22. There is no sign other than a barrier blocking entry into this wash, and this is the entrance. Follow the abundant horse and footprints to the east, as this wash begins to tighten up and close in. Plenty of side ravines drop into this one, providing heaps of opportunities to explore more, but continuing on in the main one is the idea. The sandy bottom eventually runs out and an easy slick rock climb emerges onto a Martian red mesa which overlooks another vast high desert delta, beyond which lie cloud topped peaks, a dazzling sight.

Pretty as a postcard

It’s all downhill from here, treading the well worn path across the vermillion scape past some curious rock figures and down into the jumbo wash. This marks a solid left turn, and this drainage is followed all the way back to the highway just a flat half hour away. The end intersects the highway at a site known as ”La Yesera’, where fossilized fish are the remnants of the last ocean to cover the Americas 15 million years ago. The stone layers surrounding the area are visual  evidence of the array of minerals found here, with gypsum, borax, cobalt, copper and sulfur all lending their tint to the terracotta scape.

A couple of the local wooly boolies

The river on the other side of the highway is easy to get down to and offers a fine place to cool off and splash. I startled a flock of parrots that were ensconced in a bushy tree and other than that the only sound for hours was the wind. There’s a roadside store called El Zorrito that is visible a quarter mile away and that’s where I hung in the shade until the Cafa bound bus rolled by again. 50 pesos going out, and 58 from 4k further away on the return. This theme can be repeated at any number of attractions farther into the quebrada, such as the Garganta del Diablo and Anfiteatro 20 k up the road, both of which attract plenty of visitors. There is no lack of shade in the recesses of the canyon I walked up, but none the rest of the way, so adequate water and a hat are essential, and some grub is a fine idea.

Way more hoodoos than humans

This entire panorama is utterly astounding, with loads of other named formations such as the Friars, and the Castles, and several good long days could be spent investigating the area. Depending on the amount of sun and the time of day, the earth changes colors here much like sections of the Grandest Canyon, in Arizona. Visually, it’s a treat, and easy to access, as the busses from Salta are running at regular intervals. The chalky white hills called the Medanos are found at km 6 on the way back towards town, another inviting place to walk through the sand dunes.

The shady plaza is the hub of the town

The town of Cafayate is a unique locale, sitting in the middle of these spectacular canyons to the east and the hulking cordillera to the west and much closer. Surrounded by 30 something bodegas, many quite celebrated, in some respects it’s like a much smaller Mendoza. It’s certainly on the tourist circuit, judging from the quantity of long distance motorcyclist groups which roll through here, and obviously a favorite stay over location. The central plaza is one of the best in Argentina, loaded with trees and birds, grassy and shady, and the locals hang out here for hours. This unsullied square is fronted by businesses on all sides, primarily sidewalk cafes, shops, and wine stores. The foremost church here is resplendent yellow on the north and is next door to an exceptionally helpful tourist office, providing details on accomodations and all things vital to travelers.

The big church is in the epicenter of Cafayate

I rented a bike from Juan at Muna twice and tooled around town, first heading west out through the vineyards, towards the mountain range which was usually capped with clouds. Passing by the Quara vineyards, I pulled in for a free tour but the place was closed during siesta time in the early afternoon. This is the rule around these parts, similar to the hot parts of Mexico, but that’s when I tend to be most active. I’ve taken plenty of tours in Mendoza, California, and New Zealand, so although I enjoy them, it’s not a priority. One km further on is Etchart Vineyards, and much of this stretch features a paved bike path which parallels the road and provides a safe buffer zone from the motorized parade. When I crossed over 3 meters of brushy dirt to get on it, my tires picked up a few dozen ‘goathead’ sticker thorns, which took me a few minutes to remove but fortunately none punctured the tubes, which can happen easily. 

Riding through the expansive vineyards around town

Directly across the highway from Quara is the renowned Estancia de Cafayate, a well financed development that includes a posh hotel and villas, golf course, homesites, and its’ own 70 year old vineyards. I was curious to see what the spread looked like, but the gate guard informed me that I could neither ride nor walk in, but I was welcome to return in an automobile. I wasn’t that curious, and never made it back. I did wheel around for long enough to get hot and tired, and a significant portion of the residents use bikes for transportation. It’s a fine community to ride in, as traffic isn’t too excessive or manic, and most of that is in the center. 

The next day I biked towards the east, crossing the bone dry Rio Chusche and rolled north on Route 2 beneath rows of Poplar trees and through miles of grapevines similar to the westward ruta del vino. The Piatelli Vineyards are 3 km up the road on the right, and this path can be followed for many more across high desert to Domingo Molina. I explored the northern limits of Cafayate on my return, and there’s much more to the northern residential section than the southern part.

Some of Argentina’s finest is abundant here

All the blocks are laid out on a grid, but not all the roads go through and almost all are dirt. I managed to get a little lost and turned around as I was searching for a different way to get back to the town centro. There is also another excellent route to roll on, by taking 25 de Mayo north off Hwy 40 on the west edge of town and heading towards the Rio Colorado. This will lead to Cueva del Sur, an archeological site with caves and petroglyphs, and just up the road a small bodega named Finca las Nubes, the Farm of Clouds. The small town of Divisadero is a kilometer away, with ruins of an ancient setlement and more intriguing geography, at the edge of the mountains where the Colorado and Lorohuasi rivers converge. There are more choice hiking and biking options here, winding through boulders, and across creeks to scattered small waterfalls, reminiscent of the lush Catalina mountains in my old homeland.

On the high road towards Tafi del Valle

I spent my downtime roaming the streets of Cafa, looking for new places to check out, relax, and refuel. There is a range of choices for food and drink, especially on the plaza, but I returned to the reliable as often as not. These were El Hornito, with its’ trademark empanada oven out front, and El Chelo, where the locals converge for hearty, cheap sandwiches. Both are on the same street, Rivadavia, a quick walk from the plaza. The former serves excellent grilled meals and empanadas and a sidewalk table is a terrific vantage point to watch the locals on the move.  I met several travelers here from Europe and North America and we traded information and ideas over fine wine and cold beers. El Chelo was where I started each morning with first class coffee accompanied by a sandwich to go, to munch on later. 

El Hornito is the absolute bomb

Cafayate lived up to its reputation and I plan to return to the area soon, along with some time in the very different Tafi del Valle on the way towards Tucuman. Passing through here on the bus back south gave me a glimpse of countryside that evoked Switzerland, pastoral and beyond pretty, and the wet cloud forest dropping off this high plateau is a drive not to be missed in any weather conditions. The more of northern Argentina I visit, the more motivated I am to get back.

Details:

Juan at Muna Bikes

Muna Bikes, where I rented my metal steed, is also a casual cafe and tavern, serving homemade meals, snacks, and ice cold beers. Juan is a wealth of information about biking and hiking options in the area, and his place is located on the street directly behind the cathedral on the plaza.  This is a good place to start any outdoor adventure in the area, and the bikes come with helmet, pump, repair kit, lock and map. Very handy, and very economical.    Calchaqui 70        +54  291 418 2122   

My digs in town at El Portal

Hostal ‘El Portal de las Vinas’, is located on the same street as the cathedral, Nuestra Senora del Rosario 165. All private rooms, very cool and quiet due to thick adobe walls, with a nice courtyard and good wifi. Air conditioning, cable TV, and budget friendly. +54 3868 42 1098

Humahuaca and Iruya

I traveled to this region earlier in the year, spending my time in Tilcara, 45 kilometers to the south in this massive quebrada. I was focused on learning a new area, so I came to Humahuaca, a much larger village, and that much closer to my real objective of the otherworldly settlement of Iruya. 

Iruya is something else altogether

Humahuaca is situated at 1100 feet altitude, much like Tilacara and Purmamarca, its closest neighbors. Tourism seems to be the economic driver here, and there are a few features that visitors can access, such as the giant salt flats to the west, Valle Grande and Calilegua National Park to the southeast, and the celebrated multicolored hills throughout this immense gorge. The town itself has a historic center with narrow cobblestone streets, a clean traditional plaza with lots of shade trees, and all sorts of monuments. Chief among these is the very prominent memorial to the ‘Heroes of the Independence’ two blocks west of the plaza, with a promenade of steps leading up to a towering statue of the heroes, sitting atop the municipal museum of archeology. The views from the top are splendid, and it’s obvious a lot of work was devoted to this site. Colonial style street lamps lend a lovely light, and this is a worthy place to witness the dusk settle over the big valley. 

The top of the monument offers an excellent view

As in many of these isolated towns, there are a number of renowned old cathedrals and cultural centers, along with open air markets, a clock tower, and souvenir shops galore.

Of course there’s a central plaza

Several outfitters can transport travelers to other points of interest outside of town, and there are ample opportunities for biking, hiking, and long distance trekking. I stayed two nights en route to a planned circuit of southern Bolivia, but my main purpose here was to get to Iruya, a place I had been inspired to visit by many who already had.

The road to Iruya

The turnoff to Iruya is 19 km north of Humahuaca on Hwy. 9, and from then on it’s 54 km of dusty, bumpy, serpentine and steep pitches into the valley where the village sits perched on a mountain shelf at 2800 meters. Even a mountain dweller is likely to feel the altitude here which is deceiving, as this is the bottom of a valley, but there are 5000 meter mountains both north and south of here. 150 Argentine pesos was the fare, and while the destination is quite the payoff, scenic splendor wise, the actual road there is an engineering marvel. The first part climbs steadily through a number of tiny settlements and grazing animals until it reaches the crest of a high ridge. The abundant cactus is in full bloom in early December, and several familiar Arizona cousins are blended with odd altiplano plants. 

A window seat is cumpulsory

The landscape becomes more dramatic and steep with the distance until it falls off that pronounced ridge into a series of switchbacks where large white rocks mark the edges. Which is a good thing, as fog or rain could render visibility near zero here, and competent drivers in a solid 4wd could feel spooked and compelled to crawl along at 5 mph white knuckling this entire stretch. Our driver, piloting a creaky old 40 passenger bus, handled it all like a maestro, no doubt due to his prolific mileage on this king’s camino.

From this shrine on top of the pass it’s all downhill

There is a religious shrine tucked into the big rocks at the top of this pass, and a crowd of locals were congregated here to mark some holy moment. Here it was downhill all the way into the bottom of a broad valley bordered by vertical cliffs and sheer bluffs. Finally the fabled pueblo comes into view, a postcard perched on the bottom of a precipitous mountain. I’ve never seen a place quite like it, and although some of the desert on the way in is stark and daunting, the living beauty is something else altogether. As John Muir or Ed Abbey might say, life affirming, at the very least.

This is as far as the bus goes in Iruya, a bit below el centro

I complimented the driver on his road skill getting off, and he told me would be departing at 2:30, about 3 hours away. My foot ramble commenced with a search for something to eat, wandering narrow stone streets up through the mostly adobe buildings. It was Sunday, and there was a crowd of folks in and around the striking yellow church, with the sermon broadcast via loudspeakers outside. Built in 1690, this structure is the most prominent of all here and has held up quite well. Stopping into a store with a sign advertising empanadas and such, a crusty old guy answered my query with, ‘No quedan nada, hippie’, ‘there’s nothing left’, which cracked me up, not so easy to do. I was sporting a daypack and no doubt looked like a vagrant of sorts, but this response surprised me. I do imagine that some of the locals get weary of the tourist day trippers, if only because this place is so isolated that everybody is an ‘us or them’ to some degree, and as many resist the changes as embrace them. And change used to be much slower here, for sure.

Not many skaters on these streets

Continuing my climb up to the limits of the center, I arrived at a locked up cemetery with million dollar views. Looping back down a lane which could be skied with enough snow brought me back down to the people’s church, where I knocked out 3 small empanadas, carne and goat cheese at 15 pesos a piece.

A fine spot for some serious rest

This was enough fuel to do the trick and get me across the much newer, and solid as a rock pedestrian bridge which spans the broad and usually dry Iruya river, which must be a wild sight when it actually flows. I wandered through this other half of the village, mostly residential, with a jumbo dirt soccer field where first a boy’s team, and then the girl’s, each played a game.

The neighborhood on the other side of the river

It doesn’t take much time to see most of what’s here, and one more leisurely stroll delivered me to the most commercial block with a few hostels, cafes, and small stores surrounded a tiny covered plaza. The pace of life is slow in Iruya, sporadically interrupted by the  tourist bus arrivals, and I killed the rest of my allotted time before returning to the idling bus at 2:15. Which was fortuitous, as after I paid my 150 for the return fare we took off at 2:19, with just a handful of riders and nobody I could recall from the ride in. So maybe all those visitors were staying the night, but if not they missed the ‘boats’ early launch.

Read them, know them, live them

The ride out was as pretty as the ride in, with a new appreciation for the pitch, curviness and route of the mighty road, and the worshippers were all still up around the shrine when we passed over the top. A couple of pick ups and drop offs later, and a quick pull in at the only real village on the way, San Isidro. The 73 kms between Humahuaca and Iruya takes almost 3 hours in good conditions, so a day trip definitely uses up a day. It is an amazing destination and worth the time, but plenty of peeps would enjoy an overnight stay to further absorb the glacial pace of the place. There are trails heading out in all directions, most going straight up, and mountain biking is likewise an option for fun. Don’t miss it if the opportunity presents itself.

The road to Iruya is a serious piece of work

Vital Information

I stayed at the excellent La Humahuacasa hostel, 2 blocks from the central plaza at Buenos Aires 740. Paola and Juan are exceptional hosts, providing a tasty basic breakfast and super useful local knowledge on the area’s delights. Shared and private rooms are very economical, the wifi is good, and a fully equipped kitchen and outdoor grill is ready to go. It makes for a fine base while exploring the area.

www.humahuacasa.com.ar     info@humahuacasa.com.ar   0338 154 120868

There is no shortage of places to eat, ranging from swank tourist cafes to ultra local eateries offering everything from humitas to llama burgers. Just on the other side of Belgrano avenida is a sizable outdoor market where the locals buy everything from clothes and appliances to produce. This is the right place to stretch a peso to the limit.

There are a bunch of outfitters catering to vacationers looking to explore the countryside, trekking or biking, and excursions of all time frames and costs. The Bolivian border at La Quiaca is 160 km north, the appealing Tilcara 42 k to the south, with San Salvador de Jujuy, capitol city of the province and a major hub, another 84 k down Highway 9.

Four leg drive

Cabo Polonio, Bona Fide Best of Uruguay

There may well be other places like this, a scruffy village of dwellings on a cape which seems like it’s from another time, but I haven’t seen any. Most locations remind you of some other place that has some similarities, but I have yet to ever meet anybody who’s been able to name one for here. It has a vibe all its own in a site that provokes photo frenzies and futile attempts at worthy descriptions. Hard to get to, harder to leave, and always generating plans for the next return trip. This is the effect this cape produces, and not many are immune to the spell.

Beasties basking beneath the beacon

It started off long ago, like many on Uruguay’s Atlantic coast, as a fishing village. There were, and still are, multitudes of Sea Lions here, which resulted in thousands being slaughtered for their pelts. The shipwrecks off this treacherous point are many and legendary, so the history of the place is bountiful. The blonde bombshell and animal rights activist Bridget Bardot was instrumental in ending the sea lion slaughter, and now there are, once again, loads of the beasties, often barking up a storm.

A view from the classic lighthouse

Now it’s an actual national park, protected  territory, and all visitors are encouraged to do their best to keep it clean and semi pristine. There’s a modern visitors center, with excellent historical information and a colossal map on the floor to illustrate where you’re bound. After paying to board a whopper of an all terrain vehicle to roll 7 kilometers through sand dunes and coastal forest to reach the village. The option to walk is available, but very few do, as most can’t wait to get there.

These big shuttles are how most visitors get to Polonio nowadays

And there is something else: an ultra rustic village with no electricity that’s not generated from solar panels, wind turbines, or gas generators. Besides the well worn track that the giant shuttles roll in on, there are really no streets, just sandy paths and passageways. Quite a few multicolored cabins, houses, and other structures, and many absolutely ramshackle, as if put together out of a scrap bin. The funkiest community of houses and cabins in one place ever seen, with dogs, chickens, horses and hippies running wild.

Horses run free here, along with everything else

And what a lighthouse, one of a network on this coast that are situated every 20 miles or so.

Vintage, great looking and still kicks ass

This beauty offers a stupefying  360 vista of the cape and everything this side of the horizon, including the expansive lair of the sea lions. To the north lie the lofty dunes that border the woods and stretch for kilometers to the closest settlement of Valizas. Southward, miles of immaculate empty beach for many miles. Cabo Polonio has become the preferred getaway for urban dwellers in 3 countries, and fills up with them every January. Vacancies are meager and lodging rates as high as they get. Nevertheless, it’s the best place you could possibly be at that time of year.

South Beach in low season is a gem even if empty

The rest of the year it usually only gets bustling on warm weekends, and during the cold winter months, it’s a virtual ghost town. The hamlet has 3 named neighborhoods, though I visited for years without hearing any mention of them.

The serene Playa de los Huevos just up the coast

I prefer to order them by geography: Calaveras Beach, extending towards the dunes to the north; South Beach, on the other side of the peninsula reaching in the direction of the next town, La Pedrera; and the grassy peninsula between these two which is filled with granite boulders. The actual ‘town’, more of a hamlet than anything, is situated in this middle area. This is where most of the commercial businesses are, the hostels, cafes, shops, and now, 3 small grocery stores.

This is the main commercial drag

Calaveras Beach, facing east, has the strongest surf while South Beach facing almost due south is much more gentle. Most of the dwellings above South Beach are painted white and appear to be more solid and upscale than the rest, with a few exceptions. Many of these pads are available for rent and are among the most expensive and swank in the area.

These white cabins are some of the choicest on the cape

The village center sports the most accommodations and without doubt the cheapest. There are also a few hostels and B&B’s facing Calaveras Beach. Many of the places to stay close up in the low season, which lasts from May through November, and for the ones that stay open, this is the economical season. Hostel World lists just 3 places that are operating in the off season, but this number probably triples during the summer. Rates that are $10 per bunk can easily triple in January, when Cabo is full blast.

On the rocks, with hammock of course

There are some extra funky digs back away from the beach situated close to the dunes, and some of these can be rented as well, although the methods of contact are usually word of mouth. Those dunes are great fun to wander around, offering sensational views of the entire cape, and I’ve found sizable pools of fresh water here after rainy days, a special, ephemeral treat. One of the popular diversions is to hike the trail from Cabo to the neighboring town of Valizas, first starting on the beach and then winding inland through the dunes. This can take 2 to 3 hours depending on energy and time demands, and a 2 mile longer route follows the coast line the entire way, past a superb beach called Playa de Los Huevos (egg beach), directly below the prominent rocky overlook known as Buena Vista. This ramble as a round trip day hike will probably be too much of a physical challenge for most people to enjoy, but there are plenty who do it.

Buena Vista hill between Cabo and Valizas

I’ve gone to Cabo for just a day, and I’ve made the trip to stay just a night, and neither of these are what I would recommend. Two nights even seems a bit rushed, and I have friends who won’t even consider staying less than two weeks. Generally speaking, the longer the better, as the state of absolute relaxation and disregard for time is enhanced by the day. Four nights is quite de-stressing, and this provides enough time to do everything desired. It used to be the rule to bring as many supplies, food and drink with you as possible, but besides a few essential items, Cabo this is no longer the case. With 3 grocery stores that sell most items at a reasonable cost, including wine and liquor, specialty products now make the most sense. Because of the absence of electricity, locals rely on candlelight for lost illumination, so long burning candles serve a practical need. When there is rain, there are mosquitoes, so repellent is exceedingly valuable at times as well, although most places have nets. Another essential commodity is suntan lotion, as the big light in the sky is powerful and relentless. One of the features of  Cabo Polonio is the lack of trees, so getting out of the sun is not so easy in hot weather. Therefore a hat is an important thing to have, and sometimes the only shade around. I would advise anybody to bring what they can comfortably carry, and I have made the trip toting several bottles of wine and specialty snacks. If you’re a fan of marijuana, now legal in Uruguay, definitely bring your own, as it is scarce and expensive.

This stretch of the Uruguay coast is pristine and primo

Driving to the entrance station is no problem, but cars are not allowed on the road through the dunes to the village. This absence of traffic is another of the positive attributes of the park, both for the lack of noise and relaxed surroundings. Parking is available and there is a daily charge. Since there are few vehicles allowed, and almost all either ‘grandfathered in’ or work trucks, it makes sense to take a bus and just get dropped off, saving the parking fee. Rutas del Sol makes three arrivals and pick ups each day, more in high season, and they can be booked and boarded at the main bus terminal at Tres Cruces in Montevideo. The cost is around US$40 for the 270 kilometer, 4 1/2 hour ride.

No matter  how you arrive, just make sure you do. Cabo Polonio has been my favorite place in Uruguay since I first visited, and years later, it still is. I make it every year regardless, and it’s a must see for every foreign visitor who comes here. I can’t recommend it when the weather is wet and stormy, but any other time it will be worth the effort. It’s a word that’s frequently overused, and almost a cliche, but Cabo Polonio is one of the rare places that is, no question, MAGIC.

One of the best places in the world to do absolutely nothing