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.
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?”
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.
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.
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.