News of our mishap travelled fast around Rio Mayo and next thing a guy called Lito called into the hotel asking about the crazy gringo’s who’d had the accident. Lito is a bank courier and every day he drives from Comodoro Rivadavia on the coast (where we can get a hire car) to Rio Mayo & back again. He offered to take us in the back of his van – an offer we leapt at as the daily bus leaves at 6am in the morning. It was great as he didn’t leave until 2pm and we could stuff all our camping gear into his van. He duly turned up & not only did he take us to Comodoro, but he took us to the bus station to enquire for costs / times for tickets south to Rio Gallegos and he showed us a number of hotels recommending the excellent 4-star Hotel Austral as a stop over (cheap at ₤20 a night for the 2 of us). Lito is yet another example of the outstanding hospitality we’ve found in Argentina and he has offered to drive us back when we return hopefully with Mag’s arm mended.
Comodoro Rivadavia is the centre of the petro-chemical industry in Argentina – there were oil heads all around on the road into town and the town even has a petrol museum! We found a VW Golf (or Gol as they are known here) and arranged a 3 week rental and set off south for Rio Gallegos and then across to El Calafate & the Moreno Glacier. The drive to Rio Gallegos and the next day west to El Calafate took us through the amazing landscape of the Patagonian Pampas – vast areas of flat rolling grasslands. We saw groups of Guanacos (‘ginger’ llamas), Rheas (mad South American Ostrich/Emu type birds) and lakes full of pink Flamingos & geese. It is an awesome place – very bleak & desolate but with a strange compelling beauty. It’s like a planted desert – there is nothing here but it is still a beautiful place. We also experienced some of the notorious winds as we drove through a late afternoon squall just before Rio Gallegos.
Rio Gallegos wasn’t too pleasing to the eye – a windy desolate looking place that smelt of gas – but an essential one-night stop over. But never judge a book by it’s cover – we met a really nice restaurateur called Guillaume who runs ‘La Estancia’ – an excellent Parilla / Asado joint (it looked to be the best in town). In addition to serving us a decent dinner, he also answered some of our queries concerning roadside shrines in Argentina. There are 2 types – the first have what looked to us to be a little house with the Virgin Mary inside & these were surrounded with plastic Coke bottles full of water. The second type was another little house, this time with a male saint inside but surrounded by red flags making very colourful roadside displays. Guillaume explained that the first type of shrines are ‘Di Funta de Correa’ and the second are shrines to ‘Gauchito Gil’. Correa was a family name of a lady whose husband abandoned her with her child. She set off with the baby to find him, across a desert in the north of the country where she perished under the harsh sun. However when other travellers found her body, she still held her baby to her breast, nourishing it with her milk so that it survived. This was hailed as a miracle and shrines sprung up all over the country – made by travellers (mostly truckers & people who drive for a living) where offerings of water (in the Coke bottles we saw) are left in return for safe journeys.
Gauchito (Little Cowboy) Gil (pronounced ‘Heel)’ is a similarly tragic story only this time it concerns affairs of the heart. The hero falls in love with the daughter of the owner of the Estancia (ranch), but when the father hears of the affair he is dead against his daughter having anything to do with a lowly cowboy – a person very much below her station. So he has the hero – Gauchito Gil – taken out into the desert and beaten up & left for dead. However the hero manages to crawl dying to his love for one last kiss, leaving a trail of blood across the desert on the way – hence the red flags. We had a closer look at one of the shrines & what we thought was a saint is actually an effigy of a little cowboy (likewise, in the Correa shrines the little statuette is of a dead woman suckling a baby). Red flags are hung out for help with matters of the heart and we were both very moved by both of these stories and their physical presence in the number of shrines for both types across the country.
Our final stop on this road was El Calafate – a place more akin to a North American mountain town and stopover for visiting the Moreno Glacier. We found a Cabaña for hire for a few nights in ‘Cabañas Nevis’ run by a third generation Scot called Ansell Campbell. His family had been in sheep farming but he gave it all up as a bad job (he hated sheep with a passion!) to get involved with the tourist industry instead running these lovely little pine cabins here in the mountains. From our window we have a stunning view of the snow-capped Andes out across the turquoise blue Lago Argentina – 3rd biggest lake in South America – it really is a wonderful location. On the road today, we had another wildlife encounter this time observing about 12 birds of prey feasting on some dead hares at the side of the road, whilst overhead a huge Condor speculated on the scene. The birds were a mix of some fawn coloured hawks and some little eagle type birds, which we later identified as crested Caracaras. We are now approaching some of the highlights of the whole trip – the Moreno Glacier, Torres Del Paine National Park and Ushuaia at the bottom of the continent. In spite of our setback at losing the bikes, we are still glad to be continuing the trip as the really important thing is for us to see these places. Mag’s arm has settled down fine and we can do these things with minimal interference from it. It is coming up to the end of our first month on the road and the only second thoughts we are having about the trip is that we should have done it years ago! It has been one of the most fulfilling periods of our entire lives!