Through my eyes

living my life without regrets

Sunday, March 11, 2012

El Calafate - 4x4 Trip

For weeks now we have ridden buses through the landscape and yes, Patagonia is very desolate. Only two people per square km. live here. Naturally, most live in towns or cities and that brings the count way up. Once off the road, paved or gravel, hardly a soul can be found. To walk any distance is not very effective, one cannot see much. So, we booked a tour for a day with driver.
This guy Lucas, picked us up at 9:45 AM at our hostal driving a late model Range Rover Land Cruiser.
It did not take long to get out of El Calafate and our first stop was to be a bird’s eye view of the town after climbing a steep hill, on dirt roads.

El Calafate lies at 140 meters on the shores of Lago Argentina and we now are at 800 meters, so the climb was not that high but the effect was wonderful. We had a view from here over the entire City.
Even the condors liked this spot.
I caught pictures of one of them at take off and in flight.

La Calafate is a sleepy town and has been officially on the map only since 1927. It started out as a wool trading spot on the Lake. Land was cheap at that time. I was told that a parcel of land in the 1920s with dimensions of 62 km. by 45 km. sold for 600 pesos (US 150.-). It truly was dirt cheap then.
The rancher’s family who bought this land years ago still owns it today. Plus they own hotels, banks and stores in El Calafate. Today this same family is well known here and still uses the land that was bought as a ranch for cattle and sheep.
We were joined at this spot by other vehicles since the look-out over El Calafate was spectacular. Yet when we took off, we lost the other cars immediately in the vast real estate all around us. Our driver, Lucas, was very capable. His boss teaches off road driving for Range Rover and he taught this fellow well. His English was very good. I would recommend his company, MIL Outdoor Adventure, to anyone. Just make sure you tell them you want Lucas to drive you.
After leaving the lookout we drove past some fences that the Rancher put up to keep his cattle confined.
We had to open the gates with a key, drive through, and then re-lock the gate. To use the land, to drive over it on a more or less daily basis, the company MIL pays the Rancher a monthly user fee. Nothing is free in Argentina. We could never have driven this stretch of off-road ourselves. The car, with very low gearing, performed flawlessly. We crept forward, very slowly sometimes, but we kept on moving.
The ground is full of ruts, rock strewn with deep inclines
and even steeper declines.

We had a dry day with no rain so the road conditions were ideal for our outing.
I was told by Lucas that it only rains 300 mm. a year here. So water is in very short supply. Yes, the lake has water from the glaciers run-off but the area surrounding Calafate is bone dry. It is truly a desert. Locals have tried to drill for water but found none. In order to get the best use of the land and the few grasses that grow in sheltered areas, the ranchers use 11 hectares (about 28 acres) for one cow. So you must have a very large area to grow beef.
I am so glad we took this road trip in this off-road 4x4 vehicle. It gave me a totally different perspective of Patagonia. Lucas was born in El Calafate and travels a lot during the year but likes his birth town. He is amazed at how fast the town has grown in the last few years. Because of his travels he has a broader appreciation for what Calafate needs; he is the next generation, part of the young Argentineans that will make a difference. Yet he can do little to bring water to this desert. In order to sustain plant life in a better way, at least 700 mm. of rain is needed. A better average would be 1000 mm. With the measly 300 mm. that fall here, what do you do? Can you pump water from the Lake with wind power and water the surroundings? Is this ecologically best for this area? The water would water the trees and would, after that run back into the Lake, creating a circle effect. Lucas and I talked about this but it requires a larger undertaking than just talk.

For lunch, which is provided on this tour, we stopped at a natural watering hole. It must be the consistency of the soil that keeps the water at this spot. A very shallow depression collects run offs and this spot served us as a picnic area.
A chuck wagon was set up with two yurts nearby for shelter in the snow or during extreme cold spells in winter. This tour runs all year long, day in and day out; it is a business after all.
Lucas was our cook too; and a very fine chef indeed.
With supplies he had in this car, he whisked together a barbeque of strip or flank steaks and served them on fresh baguettes with sliced tomatoes. It was so delicious I had two of those sandwiches. As soon as Lucas showed up to cook our lunch we had a visit from a desert fox.
This fox kept his distance but was there because he knew there would be left-overs for him at the end of the meal or even a morsel thrown to him from us. I say us because after some time another Range Rover van showed up with five other people. We all shared the lunch Lucas prepared.
Even the fox, now accompanied by his mate, got his share.
This sheltered spot in the middle of nowhere was surrounded by huge boulders some 70 million years old. Those colossuses sat strewn around us, giving us protection from the wind, giving us a feeling of security, of coziness.
After his truly outstanding lunch, after cleaning up and locking up the chuck wagon, we proceeded to the Mexican Hat Rocks. When I first heard this from Lucas I thought of a rock formation that looks like a sombrero, a Mexican hat. So I was looking around from inside the truck to spot it from far away. Again we bounced along some tough roads, even meeting a larger group of people in an off road bus, an Italian made Iveco truck but we never felt crowded on the road. The spaces we were in were just too vast.
When Lucas stopped to show us the Mexican hats I was confused. Looking around I saw nothing until he stepped to the back side of large boulder and there in the middle of the rock I saw a brown stone that looked like a Mexican hat stuck to the boulder.
Lucas told us it was created by erosion but I am not sure how that happened; especially since I saw other, similar looking examples nearby on other rocks. It looked like a cannon ball hit the boulder and flattened out, leaving a rim and the main part of the ball stuck in its center. Of course there are no such cannons around; it was just my impression of the way it looked to me.

But then I read some more on line and found out that those ‘crashed projectiles’ are from the violence of nearby volcanoes which shot heavier, melting rock pieces into the air which embedded themselves into the softer boulder.
Erosion over eons helped and viola, a Mexican Hat. This area is millions and millions year old. A lot happened here before I was around.
So this is my theory, you can disprove it if you like.

After this 4x4 tour we needed an ice cream to sit and talk things out. Entering an Ice cream parlor back in El Calafate we met the chattiest Argentinean yet. She practiced her ‘Spanglish’ on me and did not stop. We had already paid for the ice cream and were waiting for our two scoops but she talked, talked, talked and talked. Oh was she happy, chatty and bubbly.
It truly took 20 minutes to get the 2 scoops served. Non-stop she talked in a mix of very bad English and Spanish about her family, her life, her ambitions, etc. We did earn this ice cream I want you to know.
Back at the hotel we had another chat with Walter from the BMW group who was later joined by John before they had to rush out for dinner.
It was a good day, I learned about real life away from touristy Argentina. I liked that a lot.

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