Wednesday, March 31, 2004

Woke up in Necochea pretty early so I could catch a bus to Bahia Blanca at 8 a.m. I was thinking of spending a night or two there since it is a good size city and could have some semblance of a nightlife, but the real reason I was heading this direction was that I wanted to go hiking in a place called Sierra de la Ventana.

It was a 5 hour bus ride and when I got to Bahia Blanca it was raining pretty hard. There were no hotel suggestions in the lonely planet and an online search had told me there were no hostels. That makes it a little difficult to decided where in the world to stay...not that finding a hotel is difficult, but just finding the best area of town to go to. Traveling in Argentina has been tougher than Brazil for sure. Without other travelers passing through the region, and without hostels, you can't get suggestions and tips from other people as you are going along. I'm also learning there are far fewer buses going to smaller places...and that would be the case in Bahia Blanca. The only buses to Sierra de la Ventana leave at 6 a.m. and 8 p.m. I didn't want to take the 8 because arriving somewhere a little late at night with no place to stay can have disasterous results. I prefer, if possible, to always arrive in places when there is still daylight. On the otherhand, finding a hotel in Bahia Blanca, and having to wake up at 4:30 in the morning to head back to the bus station didn't sound that appealing either. I decided to try to take a bus to a different town that was closer to Sierra de la Ventana (B. Blanca is just over 2 hours away), and then perhaps I could organize easy transportation to the mountain from there. A very nice woman at the information booth in the bus station helped me figure out the best option would be to head to Tornquinst and then I could do a trip to the mountain from there for she said Tornquinst was much cheaper for accomodation. It was great, but the only problem was that I still had to wait 5 hours for that bus to leave. I ended up getting some lunch and then passing most of the day on the internet in the bus station. I was glad I didn't decide to stay in B. Blanca because it was pouring down rain the entire afternoon and showed no signs of stopping. I was hoping that near the mountain it wasn't the same situation, because I knew if it was just as wet, trails wouldn't be open.

I arrived in Tornquinst at 8:00 p.m. It's not exactly a metropolis...there isn't even a bus station. The bus just stops next to this small store where they sell bus tickets. I was able to find out that there is a kombi (small van) to the mountain but it leaves at 7:30 a.m. It turned out to be raining in Tornquinst also though, so I was pretty sure the trails would be closed the next day. The woman at the "bus station" agreed, but I figured I would get up the next day and talk to the drivers.

Now it is the middle of the week and I am in a tiny little town that has only 2 hotels. The first place I went to told me they were full...which I didn't really believe in the least. There wasn't a single car parked out front, and as I said, it's not exactly a city that is bustling with activity. I’d venture to say I was turned away for other reasons (infer what you want). Since it was raining, I was a little frustrated, but trudged on to the other place...where I checked in and was absolutely the only person there. Hmmmmm...two hotels and one is full and the other is completely empty...yeah, that makes sense. Anyway, I was happy, this hotel was extremely nice, but a little pricey (35 pesos). That isn't much in dollars, but in most of my travels I never paid more than 20 pesos, which is almost half that.

Anyway, the couple that owned the hotel were extremely nice. The old man told me that there was no way the trails would be open the next day, but I could perhaps have the kombi driver call the folks at the base of the mountain in the morning and ask to be sure.

I ventured out into the cold, wet night in search of food, but there was absolutely nothing open but one small little kiosk. Amazingly, I found a small internet place that was open, but NOT surprisingly, the interenet was down.

Back in my room I dined on a fine cuisine of chips and worked on journals until I couldn't keep my eyes open.

Thursday, April 1, 2004

Woke up at 7 to find out about the trails but as I suspected, they were closed. The person I talked to also told me they would probably be closed the next day too so I was faced with the dilemma of how much time I was willing to wait things out. I figured I would wait until tomorrow atleast and then make a decision. For now, I had a day to kill in Tornquinst.

I went back to my hotel and had a small breakfast and went back to bed. Later in the afternoon, I went to the small tourist office (yep, there is one) to get information about the hike, but it was pretty much of no use. I walked around the town, literally. I had thought it was small at night when I arrived, but in the daylight you could really appreciate the size. Standing in the dead center of town (at the place where the buses stop) you can see the edge of town in all directions. This place seriously can't be any bigger than two square miles. I'd say they don't see too many Americans coming through and certainly don't see many black faces. Many of the kids I saw when walking around were staring at me out of curiosity. I few brave ones ended up coming up to talk to me a little. I always enjoy it when that happens.

I went and found a small store to buy some ham and cheese to make a sandwiches for lunch and dinner (gotta offset the expensive accomodation) and then headed back to the room. I ended up seeing a couple good movies in a row (thank God they have cable here).

Since it wasn't raining that night, I figured maybe I could find a small bar and play pool or something. There were people out in the streets but not many. I didn't find much happening...I was pretty lonely so I stopped in a phone place and called Adriana back in SP. It was great to talk to her, even though it was for a pretty short time.

Back in the hotel I caught up with journals, watched another movie and hit the sack.

Friday, April 2, 2004

Got up at 7 with my fingers crossed that I'd be able to go on the hike today. The kombi driver wasn't sure, but I figured I'd have to take my chances so I got on board.

The drive to the mountain, Cerro de la Ventana, is only about 25 minutes but I had thought the mountain was in the town of Sierra de la Ventana, which is about 40 minutes away. Anyway, the van was going along and I saw a couple signs that made me think that maybe we had passed it so I asked the guy. I turned out I had only missed it by about 3 or 4 km. so I got out and had to walk back to the trail head. It wasn't that far, but most of the walk was uphill. I didn't mind though because it got me pretty warmed up and the views were spectacular. This is the region of Argentina where it just begins to become mountainous. Everything else all around is pretty flat and it has been the most beautiful part of Argentina I have seen from a scenic point of view.

It took me about 45 minutes to reach the trail head, which I did around 9:00a.m. I was VERY happy to find that the trails were open! It was a little concern for me because the kombi I wanted to return on would be passing by at 11:30. I wanted to get back to town so I could check out of my room as I was thinking of taking an overnight bus back to Buenos Aires. When I got to the trail head, the guy told me there was no way I would be able to summit and then get back to catch the Kombi by that time. The problem was, the next kombi would not pass until 5:30...meaning I would have WAY too much time to kill since it was supposedly a 2 hour hike one way. The mountain, "Cerro de la Ventana" is well known for a large hole that appears to be a window (ventana in spanish) at the top (see the pictures...they show it well). The whole point of coming here is to reach the "ventana" so that is exactly what I wanted to do. The guy told me that there are a few other trails that I could do near the base though, but I would probably still have to sit around for a couple hours. That wasn't as much of a concern for me as was paying another night for the hotel if I wasn't going to stay there...but I had come so far to hike this mountain that I HAD to do it. Cest la vie. It turned out to be more than worth it in the end!

I hit the trail pretty hard since I was already warmed up and passed through the first and one of the steepest parts pretty quickly. As I worked my way up the mountain, the views were amazing and I was snapping away with my camera. It turned out to be an absolutely beautiful day but since it wasn't the weekend, and most people thought the trail would be closed, there was vitrually nobody on the mountain. That was great because I virtually had the whole entire mountain to myself! When I was at the base, the guy had told me that only two other people were on the mountain. About 45 minutes into my hike, I ended up catching up with them. They were a young couple, Luciano and Virginia. I had caught up with them on one of the toughest stretches of the hike. It was almost straight up and there really wasn't a trail. It was almost like rock climbing in some spots, you really had to pull yourself up...a bit difficult for anybody, so you can imagine my surprise when I learned that Virginia was SIX MONTHS PREGNANT!! I couldn't believe she was out there doing it, but she was! We all talked for about 5 or 10 minutes while I rested and then I bid them farewell and said, "See you at the top!"

The more I climbed, the better the views got. I was very happy I had waited and gotten a chance to do the hike. Finally I reached the "ventana". It was pretty amazing up there...although it was pretty cold and windy. There is a type of mountain goat (not sure of the official name) that looks like a llama in this part of Argentina. I saw several them when I reached the summit...they were across a canyon from me. One thing that was pretty amazing was that when I saw them, I sort of said "cool" under my breath and even though I was easily 200 meters away and barely whispered it, they heard me and looked up! Nature can very impressive at times.

About 45 minutes later, I was joined by Luciana and Virginia. They had made it. We snapped a ton of pictures and talked for awhile. They are a great couple and were very nice. It turned out that the “ventana” was not actually the highest point of the mountain. There was another peak nearby that was slightly higher. Luciano wanted to take me there (he had been here before) so we passed by the "prohibited to go beyond this point" sign and hiked on. Ten minutes later we reached the true summit...took more pictures and then headed back to the "ventana" to meet back with Virginia. When we arrived, a couple more people had arrived at the summitt. We bid them farewell and headed down. We wanted to find a place to have a bite but wanted to get around to the other side of the mountain where we would be shielded from the wind. Luciano and Virginia shared their sandwiches with me as we sat for about an hour chatting. It turns out that they live in sort of a twin city to Buenos Aires called La Plata...close enough for me to visit when I get back to BA!

We walked all the way to the base together. On the way down we passed this very old couple (probably in their 60's) that was working their way up. The husband had never hiked a mountain before, had set it as a life goal is was doing it for the first time. Pretty awesome because although the hike was not too long or difficult, that one stretch where you have to climb for awhile is pretty difficult. I wasn't sure if they would make it though...they were both pretty tired and ready to turn around. We encouraged them, telling them the worst was almost over and to keep going for it. We wished them luck and continued on. Near the base, Luciano and Virginia went to rest while I headed for another short trail. There wasn't much to it ended near a small natural pool where I stopped and rested for awhile.

I returned to the trail head where I found Luciano and Virginia resting. I had run out of water so I was dying to buy some more at the small store and also to get a little food. We all chilled and talked and then Luciano had the idea to do the last of the three trails that was supposed to end in a nice canyon called "Garganta de Tortuga". The hike was easier and rather short. We basically followed a river that had cut it's way through the mountain. It actually reminded me a LOT of Matacanes...very cool.

We reached the small waterfall at the "garganta" in no time and it was also pretty neat. Again, we took many really was a fantastic day on the mountain. I couldn't have been happier to be out there. When we got back to the trail head, the old couple we had passed hours before was returning...they had made it to the top!!! They were pretty worn physically but extremely proud that they had made it. I had climbed a mountain that day with a 60 year old couple and a six-month pregnant woman! Nice to see folks stretching their comfort zones.

Luciano and Virginia invited me to stay a day with them in Sierra de la Ventana where they had rented a house, but there was no way for me to return for my things in the hotel and then get back there. Plus, I wanted to head back to Buenos we parted ways and I promised them I would go and visit in La Plata.

When I finally got back to Tornquinst, I was exhausted. All the activity from the past few days had taken their toll on my legs. After a shower I decided I would get on a bus to BA that night rather than sleep and catch one in the morning. I figured I'd be able to get sleep on the bus and then I would have the day to rest in BA. After a great day of hiking and a long week on my own, I got on a bus, headed back to Buenos Aires.



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