Saturday, April 16, 2016

Five days in Coronel Suarez, Argentina

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 busy time.

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 Mountain.

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 Saskatchewan? Maybe.

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 grid pattern.

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 Kenya. 

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 Horatio,  a few 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 polo.

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.


Trudy Janssens said...

Fantastic, Jerry and Jo! We knew Coronel Suarez would be an amazing part of your trip and we're delighted that you are able to blog about the adventures. Epecuen was incredible! Your polo and scout connections are a bonus. As for fun people to meet and spend time with you can't beat Maria's family. Trudy and Leo

Unknown said...

Always good fun, your blogs, Jerry. Love the mix of culture, history, nature, wildlife...and your photos. The only thing I missed this time were photos of the silver jewellery! I'm rather partial to silver myself... Thanks for sharing!


Jerry Haigh said...

Thanks Jess, I left the photo out on purpose as some of the jewelry has not yet been deliverd to family fenales and I want it to be a surprise.