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Part 2: Malargue and San Rafael

The next day, we headed out quite early to Malargue.  It took us a while to get out of Mendoza; we got turned around and ended up taking the wrong road.  We finally got going and headed south.  We saw some impressive mountain peaks, some of them still were snow-covered.  We drove past Las Lenas, the famous ski resort where all the Argentinean socialites go to see and be seen in the winter. 

As we got closer to Malargue, we noticed the countryside was dotted with white plastic containers.  There is an astrophysics experiment going on where they are trying to measure the high-energy cosmic rays that come to the earth from space.  This is called the Pierre Auger experiment.  These plastic containers are actually water tanks and they are acting as particle detectors for the experiment.  At the end of the project, there will be 1600 of these scattered around Malargue, 1.5 km apart.  We didn’t get to the observatory but saw it in our comings and goings.

We got in to our cabins around 2:00 and our guide was scheduled to arrive at 3:00.  So, we unloaded fast and then picked up some food so we could cook that night and for the next day. 

That afternoon, we went with Pablo, our guide, to the Llancanelo Reserve to see all the birdlife on the lake. They say the best time to visit is in the spring because the lake is high and many migratory birds come here to nest.  We were advised to take a guide with us so we would know what roads to take and so he could tell us about the birds.  We were all disappointed with how little we saw.  We couldn’t get very close to the lake at all because we couldn’t walk in the mud – it’s really stinky mud and we’d sink.  We were at least 0.5 km away from the edge of the lake and the flamingoes were just dots on the water.  The lake was really low so we were walking on a salt flat and the wind was so powerful.  We were getting whipped by dust and chunks from the surface of the dried mud from the lake.  Not really an enjoyable walk but we did it nonetheless.  Honestly, not a tour we’d recommend.  We did stop at a small creek along the way, which was beautiful.  It was like an oasis in the desert!  There was a small farm by the creek and a single hired man lived there – what a lonely life!



We stayed at the Monte Coiron cabins, just north of Malargue and they were great.  Cecilia and Juan are a young couple with two kids who decided to move to Malargue from Neuquen because they loved the area.  Juan works for the government in an area dealing with oil.  Cecilia is an artist and designed their house 3 years ago and the three cabins opened up a year ago.  They are so helpful and friendly and offer a great place to stay.  The cabins are really nice and well designed and they offer lots of the small details.  On New Year’s Eve, they brought over a bottle of wine for us.  Those little things that make all the difference.

The next day was New Year’s Day, and we did a day trip to La Payunia, a beautiful area of a chain of volcanoes.  Pablo came with us again and it was a long drive to the reserve on bad and then really bad roads.  We hit so many bumps that we lost track of how much we banged around in the van.  If we hadn’t had a guide, there’s no way we would have found our way there.  It was so rugged and empty and there were many little roads; we never would have been able to get there.  The main volcano is Payun Matru at 3690m but according to Pablo, there’s a chain of 800 volcanoes in the area.  We drove through lots of pampas and saw plenty of man-made “guanacos”, the oil wells that pump constantly in the area.  It took us 2 to 3 hours to get to our first stop – the Pampa Negra.  It was amazing…everywhere you looked, it was black volcanic rock dotted with golden tufts of grass and some cactus.  This lava covered kilometres upon kilometres and it come from volcanic action hundreds of years ago (as opposed to millions of years in some parts of the area).  Pablo laid down on the lava and said it was like a hot stone massage; I felt it and it was wonderfully warm but not too hot.


Mother-in-law cactus:

We drove further along and passed what Pablo called a horseshoe volcano, where the crater formed a horseshoe shape.  We also saw tons of black igneous rocks, some small and some huge and all from the most recent volcanic eruptions.  Then we stopped at the Pampa Roja, where oxides in the lava make the ground have a reddish hue.  We stopped at a place for our picnic lunch and got to see where the goat herders stay when bringing the goats across the pampas to their farms, many of them closer to the mountains.  And all around the reserve were herds of real guanacos.  It is apparently the largest concentration of guanacos in the world.

Both Derwin and I loved it there.  It was like you were in another world and we could have hiked around the place all day long.  It would have been neat to spend a couple days there and camp overnight.  The stars would have been amazing to see because you’re out in the middle of nowhere. 

We continued back along the same bumpy, horrible roads.  Pablo didn’t tell us which parts of the road were worse than others, which he should have done.  It would have saved us much heartache later.  We passed by the Rio Grande, which was a beautiful big river that starts in the Andes and continues down to the Atlantic Ocean, with a name change to the Rio Colorado.

Once we got back to the cabins, we started getting ready for supper and Der and Del unloaded the van.  They noticed that the front, right wheel was crooked…noticeably.  It was on a terrible angle!  It was from one of our bad bumps so we just had to wait till the next day to get it looked at. 

Saturday morning, we went to the one mechanic in town who was open and got the prognosis.  Being the car genius that I am, the mechanic and I had a very complex conversation about the condition of the wheel.  Uh-huh…  I know that something was wrong with the suspension and that the end part of the “almortiguador” was bent and that’s why the wheel was on an angle.  That and he didn’t have the part to replace it.  Change of plans again!  We went back to the cabin and just hung out there for the day.  While I was busy trying to figure out where we could get the van fixed, the kids played outside with Der, Papa and Nana and had a great time.  The family who owns the cabins has two dogs and three cats so the animals kept our kids very, very happy.  Later that afternoon, we checked out the planetarium that they have in Malargue; it looked super neat but the show that was on at that time wouldn’t have been of much interest to Kirsi so we convinced her that ice cream was the better choice.  For such a small centre, Malargue has a lot to offer.  There’s the planetarium, the Pierre Auger Observatory, a museum, and a ton of outdoor activities – rafting on the Rio Grande, excursions to Llancanelo and La Payunia, horseback riding and tons of hiking and trekking.

The closest Hyundai dealerships were in San Rafael (2 hours away but back the way we had come) and Neuquen (several hours away but further south).  And of course, both were closed for the long New Year’s weekend meaning that Monday morning was the first possible time we could get it fixed.  We opted to go to San Rafael because we wanted to drive as little as possible on that tire.

Sunday, we went to San Rafael to see a bit of the city and play in the pool with the kids.  We decided to get a hotel with a pool and it was a great decision.  We got there mid-day and we enjoyed a fantastic meal of Argentinean beef under a grapevine trellis.  Then we played in the pool before the thunderstorm rolled in.  When we arrived, the temperature said 37C.  Hot! 

Monday morning, we started on getting the van fixed.  We first went to the Hyundai dealership, which was just next door, to see if we could get a new shock absorber.  The guy was nice but he said that they didn’t have the part in stock and they’d have to order it from Buenos Aires.  That would be a minimum of 48 hours and we didn’t have that kind of time to wait.  Not only did we want to get down to San Martin, we also had limited time in the country with our insurance and the permission for Derwin to drive the rented vehicle.  He referred us to a garage that they work with. 

So off we went.  Thankfully it wasn’t very far so we could walk back no problems.  We showed up, praying that they’d be able to fix it.  They were super nice and looked at the van right away.  We talked to the mechanics and they told us that they could fix it but they couldn’t replace it because they didn’t have the part in Argentina (that aren’t from the dealership) for the model of our van.  That was the good news.  The bad news was that it would take all day to fix it.  So we were in San Rafael another day.

We decided to get out and walk around with the kids.  Nana, Papa and I took the kids for a walk downtown.  We got Papa’s glasses fixed, went to the grocery store and stopped for ice cream.  It was soooooo hot – I’m sure it was 35C and humid.  We were all just sweating!  Everyone had a good nap that afternoon and then we headed out to the pool again, which was lots of fun.  Kirsi got more and more comfortable in the water.  She loved jumping in and getting us to catch her and then getting rides from Mommy and Daddy.  Aidan liked coming in once in a while.  His favourite game was throwing his beach shoe in the pool and then chasing it with Mommy.  He even got in the water by himself.
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