Perito Moreno, Argentina

In the 6am dark I walked from my hotel to the departure point of my bus, only a few blocks away.  A light rain had fallen and the pavement glittered under the streetlights.  I had the city to myself.  In the absence of other sounds the wheels of my rolling carry-on bag clacked loudly on the rough sidewalk.

A lone man, still half asleep, leaned against the side of the bus.  “Perito Moreno?” I asked.  He nodded and took my ticket.  The bus had room for 60 people, but only eight seats were taken when we pulled out of Bariloche.  I chose a spot several rows behind everyone else and stared out the window as we began driving through the mountains.  Every turn of the tires took me further south on the globe than I’d ever been before.

Faint signs of light appeared in the east.  The silhouettes of the jagged mountains looked like two sheets of construction paper, roughly-torn black overlapping a deep, dark blue.  The cold air inside the bus sharpened the pleasant sense of loneliness that had been with me since I left the hotel.  By increments the severe, barren countryside became visible, and I had a strong feeling that I was exactly where I was supposed to be.

Nicholas Shakespeare wrote, “In Patagonia, the isolation makes it easy to exaggerate the person you are:  the drinker drinks; the devout prays; the lonely grows lonelier…”  He should have added:  the introvert becomes more introverted.

A hint of yellow appeared in the cloudy sky.  As sunrise drew closer the warm colors intensified into a stunning mosaic of yellow, orange and red that stretched from one end of the horizon to the other.  The view around each curve seemed better than the one before.  I don’t know that I’d ever seen a more beautiful sunrise.  Photos taken from moving vehicles rarely turn out well, and it wasn’t until the show had faded that I thought to attempt a few shots.

 

Route 40 Sunrise

 

Sunrise near Bariloche

 

By mid-day the mountains gave way to the flat, brush-covered Patagonian desert.  Nothingness as far as the eye could see in every direction.  I found that if I stared out the window too long I began to feel light-headed and had to shift my focus back inside the bus.  For the first time I noticed a single sign, written in English, posted behind our driver:  PLEASE DO NOT TAKE OFF YOUR SHOES THANK YOU.

 

Patagonian Desert

 

Most of us on the bus were making a two-day trip from Bariloche to El Chaltén with a stop for the night in Perito Moreno.  We would be driving along Route 40, advertised as Argentina’s version of Route 66 in the United States.  The scenery, however, more closely resembled California’s Highway 395, which drops down the eastern side of the Sierras into the Mojave Desert.

When we stopped for lunch I sat with one of the other passengers, Puisan, a Londoner of Chinese descent.  Her British accent was so strong I frequently had to ask her to repeat herself.  Puisan said she’d just started a three-month trip around South America.  She was taking a gap year from university, where she studied fashion and marketing with the goal of becoming a buyer.

“How about the sunrise this morning?” I asked.

“I didn’t notice,” Puisan said without sarcasm.  “Was it nice?”  A good reminder that a near-religious experience for one person can be a non-event for another.  Pusian changed the topic.  “Do you think we’ll see whales?”

“Where?  In El Chaltén?”

“Yes.”

I thought I must have misheard.  El Chaltén wasn’t anywhere near the ocean.  Earlier Puisan had mentioned that a friend told her there were a lot of people from Wales in Patagonia, so I decided she must be asking about the Welsh.  “Do you mean people from Wales?”

“No, I mean whales.  The big animals that swim in the water.”

That didn’t leave much room for misunderstanding.  “No, the ocean will be a long way away.”

Puisan, unfazed, switched topics again.  “In Buenos Aires I met someone who knew someone who slept with Andy Warhol,” she said.

 

Bus to El Chaltén

 

Back on the bus I was relieved to be alone with the landscape.  Outside the tiny town of Rio Mayo we saw our first gaucho, one of the renowned South American cowboys.  The image stuck in my mind:  a solitary figure riding his palomino horse through a pale yellow plain at the foot of a mountain.

For long stretches the only sign of civilization was a waist-high barbed wire fence that ran parallel to the road and was supported by wooden sticks bleached white by sun and wind.  Eventually we reached an area where even the fence faded away.  An hour later, far from any town, we saw a mysterious black helicopter flying low until it vanished into the distance.  Somehow that seemed appropriate.

 

Nothing in Every Direction

 

Patagonia was already getting under my skin.  In a letter to his wife, British author Bruce Chatwin wrote, “Patagonia is as I expected but more so, inspiring violent outbursts of love and hate.”  Chatwin believed that Patagonia radiates a unique and powerful attraction, a magnet for wanderers and exiles.  “Patagonia is the farthest place to which man walked from his place of origins.  It is therefore a symbol of his restlessness.  From its discovery it had the effect on the imagination something like the Moon, but in my opinion more powerful.”

We stopped for the night at Perito Moreno, a town so small my guidebook didn’t even mention it.  At dinner Puisan and I ate with the other travelers heading to El Chaltén – Ben from London, Daniel from Switzerland, and Laura and Lars from Holland, all in their 20s.  It was a good, friendly group.

I was happy to hear that even Ben, a fellow Londoner, occasionally struggled to understand Puisan.  “Your accent is a bit cockney, no?” he asked.

Puisan’s face darkened.  “No, not in the least,” she snapped.

Early the next morning Puisan, Daniel and I made a side trip to the Cueva de las Manos (Cave of the Hands) before meeting back up with the bus.  About 100 miles south of Perito Moreno, Cueva de las Manos is series of ancient paintings on the rock walls of the Pintura River Canyon.  According to UNESCO some of the images are more than 13,000 years old.  Most show the imprint of a hand, which gives the site its name, but there are also zigzag patterns, hunting scenes, animals, and human figures.

 

Cueva de las Manos

 

Cueva de las Manos Path

 

Six-fingered Hand

 

Guanaco Paintings

 

Cueva de las Manos Square

 

Cueva de las Manos is essentially just very old graffiti, a way that prehistoric Banksys left their mark on an all-too-transitory world.  For paint they mixed colored minerals with something viscous, like blood.  Making a hand print was then as simple as laying your palm against a rock and splattering paint around it.

 

Cueva de las Manos Closeup

 

Pinturas River Canyon

 

Prehistoric Graffiti

 

Cueva de las Manos Overhang

 

Driving away from the cave we passed herds of guanaco, wild llama-like animals that served as the primary food source for the primitive hunters and gatherers who made the paintings we’d just viewed.  An hour later we rendezvoused with our bus and continued south.

 

Guanaco Herd

 

Rainbow near Cueva de las Manos

 

Darwin’s Rhea

 

Guanacos in Patagonia