Planning a big trip is fun. Where
will we go? Do we speak the language? How much will it cost? My wife Jo and I
decide it's time to visit South America. We have never been together to the
continent. I had been to Brazil thirty years earlier to attend a wildlife
conference. But that’s another story.
It took us no time at all to
decide that Brazil was not an option. The visa requirements are ridiculous. They
wanted three months of recent bank accounts. They even wanted Visa records.
They almost wanted my great-grandmother’s maiden name. Forget it. Next on the
list, Argentina. We had heard about the Iguazu falls as a must-see destination
and would visit at the end of our trip. Jo starts to work on her Spanish. CDs’,
dictionaries, even a Harry Potter book.
As we chatted about this and that
with dear friends Trudy and Leo about the trip she said, “You must go the
Coronel Suarez. We have been there twice. It’s great. Maria Luz, mother of our
friend who studied here and stayed with us would welcome you.”
Coronel Suarez? Not in any travel
book. No reference in Lonely Planet. Check Google. There it is.
Contact Maria. She writes: Any friend of
Trudy is a friend of mine. Come and stay with me. You will be welcome.
In Puerto Madryn, where I left
you, we board a late night bus. After breakfast and a five-hour wait we board
another bus in Bahia Blanca, destination Coronel Suarez. Our first daylight trip
through the famed pampas is a surprise. We see vast acres (hectares) of crops. Sunflowers
in bloom, huge fields of wheat, equally large green fields of soya beans. None
ready to harvest. After all it is early February, six weeks or so before that
A couple of small ponds where
flamingos swing their heads back and forth as they sift for food. Two majestic
black-necked swans glide across the surface of another pond. Raptors glide and wheel
across the sky, too far away for me to identify. Every now and again are tall
stands of pampas grass, their bushy heads waving in the breeze.
|Jo and Maria in the garden|
Five hours later Maria is at the
depot hugging Jo. Her home is on a tree-line boulevard in the middle of the
little town of thirty-thousand folks. We meet her youngest son, Federico, when
he gets home from work.
The next days were so full of new
things and wonder that it is still sinking in. Trudy and Leo had mentioned
Tito. A larger than life character related to Maria through the marriage of her
son Gaston to his daughter Marta. Tito is soon at Maria’s home and takes us on a tour
of the town. He knows all the details of its history. He tells that next day he
will take us to Sierra de las Ventanas where we will see The Window in the
|The Window in the Mountain|
Next morning we head out, Jo and
Maria in the back. My Spanish is worse than his English, but not by much. As we
drive along he asks me, through Maria, about Kenya, specifically if I know
about Baden-Powell, the founder of the Boy Scout movement. BP, as he is known
among scouts world-wide, lived the last years of his life in the Outspan Hotel
where my parents honeymooned over Christmas 1939. I played many a game of cricket within sight
of the hotel. Tito had retired from his duties as a scout leader after thirty
years, but was still passionate about every aspect. My involvement was more
modest. I was a cub and scout at prep school. In Saskatoon I led a small troop
for a few years. I tell Tito about our most memorable day. It was the winter of
1980. We went camping when the temperatures plummeted. It was minus 29 when we
set up the tents. By morning it had
dropped another four degrees. I tried to light the camp stove – failed. We
bundled the boys in the van and headed out for pancakes at Smitty’s.
|Burrowing owl during a Candian winter.|
It's much warmer in South America.
At lunch-time the four of us stop
in the picturesque village of Ventanas. As we leave I spot a bird on the wall
of a part-built new home. It is a burrowing owl. Is his northern summer home in
Next stop, now two hours from
home, we spend time admiring the range of jagged hills and the window in the
mountain far above us.
|Part of he Sierra de las Ventanas range|
In the morning, after a leisurely
breakfast, we visit three silversmiths to look at exquisite jewellery. Trudy
has told us about these treasures, and shown us some of the pieces she
purchased on her trips. She is absolutely right. We dither and gawp. No
purchases today, just comparing and planning for a return.
|Maria, JCH, Jo, Tito after the picnic|
Tito picks us up as we return
from the jewellers. Maria has told us that we are going to a popular health spa
and camp site known as Camping Levalle. The spa has a saline pool. Some
of us take a dip. Tito’s youngest daughter, Ana, known to one and all as Anita,
who teaches English, does the fluent translation. After a picnic lunch we head
out again. There has been no mention of our next destination.
An hour later we enter a chocolate-box
pretty town of Carhué. The streets, laid out in a well–designed grid, are lined
with flowering trees. As Tito tops a small rise a desolate scene confronts us.
|Dead trees on the shore of Lago Epecuén|
Dead trees are the only things we can see above ground level. Rows of wooden
corpses, branches sticking up as if in supplication, line what must have been
more avenues like those in the town behind us.
We drive between two rows of the ghosts. A cemetery, its headstones much
corroded, is the only sign of former human occupation. Someone still cares for
a lost loved one. A bunch of flowers sits atop a grave.
|The graveyard |
We learn that Lago Epecuén, the
lake we can see beyond the trees is saline. So much so that the mineral
concentration is slightly less than the Dead Sea, ten times the level of any
ocean. It is the last in a chain of seven lakes above it. It was inundated in
1985 when heavy rains led to the upstream overflows. The water level rose
steadily over a few months. We skirt the shore passing many more tree
skeletons. A scene of utter wreckage appears to our left. We have arrived at
what remains of the town of Villa Epecuén that used to have a population of
three thousand. Like Carhué the desolate streets had been laid out in a tidy
|Curled bark stripped from a dead tree beside the lake|
Before this trip I had not
realized the destructive power of salt water. Not as a surging force like a
tsunami or the terrifying wall of water rushing down a flooded river, but as a corrosive substance. It is not just the
rusting of metal, as one would expect. It is the concrete of the roads and
buildings. Other than a tall tower marked with a line at the eight-metre level,
not a single structure remains intact. The lake reached those eight metres.
Because of the slow rise of the water nobody died. All but one older man
remained. Everyone lost a home or a business. Imagine!
|The tower in background. Marked with its 8 metre line. |
I at once think of some post-apocalyptic
scene. It turns out that the site has indeed been used in movies. My photos do
not do it justice. This link
shows the scene five years before our visit. The water has receded even further
since then. This YouTube video gives a more current view as a trick cyclist does his thing
over and around the ruins.
The impact is all the more
stunning because none of our hosts have warned us what is coming.
Next day, after lunch, we head to
the polo grounds where there are seven pitches. I have known for many years
that the best polo players in the world are Argentinians. I had mentioned to
Maria in our early correspondence that I used volunteer as vet for games in
|Polo ponies and riders at Coronel Suarez|
Now here is the real thing. Dozens of ponies stand patiently in the shade of
a line of trees. They are élite athletes tuned down to exact fitness for the
explosive game, one minute quietly standing, the next at full gallop. We meet
years older than us. He is here to watch his son and grandson playing on the
same team. He remembers playing in a tournament with Rowena, one of our
oldest Kenya friends. I send her a picture of the three of us standing
together. She at once replies that she remembers him well. She adds that we
have been lucky to visit Coronel Suarez, telling us that it is the Mecca of
|Tito's wine cellar.|
We are invited to Tito’s home for
the evening meal. Maria warns us, not once but at least three times, to make
sure we are hungry when we arrive. She even tells us to go easy on the pre-dinner
snacks. Tito takes us into his wine cellar. Not just wines, there are
preserves, home-cured hams and other goodies. He offers a choice of wines. A
merlot, minus one glass for a ‘tasting’ is soon on the table.
We emerge to join the family for
a pre-dinner drink. I am in for a surprise. Silvano, one of Tito and Mabel’s sons
joins the group. He has a blue and purple scarf, with a toggle holding it at
his neck. Before I know it Anita has translated Tito’s little speech. I am
honoured with the gift of the local scout’s neckerchief and toggle. Wow!
|One small part of the dinner party|
We sit around a long table and
are treated to a feast. Maria’s advice on hunger was not given lightly. Mabel
has shared in the preparation of the spread.
From the left, clockwise: Julian, Jo, Maria, Marta, Mabel,Tito, Gaston and Ana.
On our last day we return to the
silversmiths and make our choices. After that Tito takes us to the town’s
scouting headquarters. Silvano and all the other troop leaders are making plans
for an upcoming event.
Dinner that evening is another feast.
This time at the home Maria Luz’s son Gaston and his wife Marta. The family are there
and Anita tells us that she and Julian are engaged and will marry in December. Congratulations
all round. Pizza extraordinaire. Many flavours. Great gathering.
Late at night, we board for
Buenos Aries. Maria is with us, heading off on her first leg to Uruguay for a
holiday. Tito’s entire family wave farewell on the sidewalk of the bus depot.
What a welcome it has been. What a memorable time. What a send-off.