Just a few short hours south of Bariloce sits the small town of El Bolson. Once a mecca for Argentinean hippies it has the notoriety of being the first to stake a claim as a “nuclear free” zone and ecological municipality. Intrigued I figured a later start and short ride for a night in this burgeoning backpacker oasis. The winds were tamer than the days before and the skies blue yet holding a handful of clouds. As I rolled through the southern forest and lakes of Parque Nacional Nahuel Haupi I spotted 4×4’s toting river rafts, kayaks and seemingly healthy hikers.
Coming into El Bolson I drop into a basin with mountains flanking me on both sides. The fertile valley supposedly supplies the country with the bulk of the barley used to brew beer. As such the town is known for crafted artisan beers. The heart of the town, only a few blocks is punctuated by a small pond or reflecting pool and a small park with a symbolic sculpture from a large tree that I assume to have been created by a creative artist wielding a chain saw. Packs of travelers crowded a small artisan ice cream shop while others smoked and tasted locally crafted micro-brews. The only hippy-types I saw were those participating in the Feria Artesanal, where artists laid out the usual mélange of hand-crafted jewelry, leather goods, wood products and more on the perimeter of the park. Nearby a gleeful traveler leaning against a tree plucks a guitar while wrenching out heartfelt lyrics in the local tongue. Later a jazzy blues band borrows electricity over a long extension cord from the tourist information office plays to a growing crowd seated on the grass while maintenance men water the flora and keep the park clean from litter.
I stopped at 5 hostals/hospedajes before I found a place to sleep with secure parking. And like the rest of the Argentina I’ve come to know and adore, restaurants don’t open until 8 or 9pm in El Bolson. And each day hours of daylight increases with my southbound miles. Considering meat (beef, lamb, goat, deer – depending where in Argentina you’re dining) seems to be the national food and parilla (barbecue) restaurants are abundant in virtually any town, regardless of size, it amazes me that the local people can power through a huge chunk of meat at midnight and then go to bed. Similarly, huge meals are served during lunch. And I’m told that it’s hard to get much done after lunch because most people are in siesta – that is, napping after eating such a huge meal, which is customarily served with wine.
But this is Argentina again. And I like it here.
Though there are beautiful lakes and great surrounding mountains for trekking and hiking, my hours are numbered in El Bolson. If I can’t get to Antarctica, I’m going to use any extra time to spend in Patagonia. So once again, I’m on the move.
As I cruise my way south on Ruta 40 I’m treated to another beautiful yet windy day. Since leaving the mountains and forest of the Rio Negro province I started to experience the infamous Patagonian winds. Harsh, fast, strong and unpredictable. Doc is running good and the low 84 octane gas of Bolivia and the choking high altitudes of the Andean Altiplano, Doc purrs and on this pavement gets more 54 miles per gallon. In this part of Argentina I’m paying an average of about $1.79 per gallon. Stopping for fuel at Esquel and then onward to Gobernador Costa – a tiny, dusty and windy settlement sitting on the pampas in Chubut province. Here I filled my two 1.5 liter SIGG spare fuel bottles in preparation for the notoriously desolate section of Ruta 40 which starts just south of Rio Mayo (still a few hundred miles south). The plan was to make camp in Rio Mayo and then with an early start tackle as much of this section of Ruta 40 as possible and setting up camp before dark and somewhere out of the wind.
Just as I was pulling my Held gloves over my hands a weary Brazilian rider and his girlfriend mounted their steed. We exchanged pleasantries and then I enquired about Ruta 40. I learn the rain not only hammered the western side of the Andes, but it’s been taking it’s toll in Patagonia, too. Trying to extract as much information as possible while remembering Tim’s horrible Ruta 40 experience just about a year ago, I reconsidered my plan. The mud caused Tim to drop his bike perhaps ten times or more. He lost count. At one point the bike landed on his leg:
“[…] I lost track of how many times I fell, but I clearly set a new record today. The fourth or fifth fall had me worried: the right pannier landed on my lower leg, twisting my knee. If it remained, it would be bad. But when the bike came to rest, it lifted up slightly, allowing me to free my leg. I was “fed up” at this point. “This is hopeless!” […]”
I bid farewell to the Brazilian couple and made my way toward Rio Mayo. At the turn-off toward Rio Mayo I stopped and looked at the map. Stared at the sky. Seemed clear. I was still on pavement. But I wondered. Would I be in hell this time tomorrow? Trying to lift 600 pounds of motorcycle and cosas, boots caked in mud and praying for someone to come along and help me. Let alone another injury. I can handle the dirt. I’ll wallow in the loose gravel. Swear as I squirrel through the sand. But when it comes to slippery maddening muddy clay, I’m out. Put me on the sidelines. Call it prudent. Or call it pussying out. If the mud caused Tim and Sacha to lose traction and drop their bikes, chances were good it’d happen to me.
But I still stood at the crossroads. The occasional car or truck would pass by with a wave — an unwritten code out here on the pampas signaling all is okay. I was transfixed on the map. Finally I pulled the clutch, dropped Doc into gear and cruised while I watched the turnoff to Rio Mayo fade in my rear view and the wild blowing pampas on the horizon. I could pick up Ruta 40 again later south. There’d be plenty of dirt, sand, gravel and adventure south. Once again, I measured the risk, assessed the potential pain and suffering and moved on. There’d be plenty to discover ahead.