Having accepted that Canadians are the only people wise enough to declare Boxing Day a statutory holiday, Sara and I awoke the day after Christmas fully prepared to put in our six hours’ work in the strawberry field. Thoughts of lazily sitting by a fire with good books were far from our mind.
This was probably a good thing.
Halfway through our morning, our French friends wandered over to us and said that there was not a lot of work to be done that week, and our hosts had given us permission to take off for a few days and explore the area. They asked if we’d like to join them on a hike up to one of the many mountain refugios nearby. They seemed to already have it very well-organized (keep in mind that Jean was a Boy Scout, and that Judi works as a shepherd in the French Alps), so we enthusiastically agreed.
We packed our bags full of food which they had already bought (two boxes of white wine seemed to me an odd thing to carry up a mountain, but hey, I guess some cultural stereotypes have to be respected!) and set out to El Refugio Motoco.
What followed was by far the most physically grueling experience of our lives. These two Manitoba kids were very unaccustomed to walking straight uphill at the best of times, let alone in +35°C weather, let alone for six hours straight. When we explained this to our dear French Alpine guides, who would bound up cliffs like mountain goats and look back at us with curious concern, they replied (very apologetically!) that they thought all Canadians lived in the mountains and did hikes like this everyday. Desolé, mes amis!
It wasn’t until the final kilometer of the trek, however, that we encountered the greatest obstacle of the journey: a herd of over a dozen wild cattle, forming a impenetrable wall across our path. This was Judi’s (the alpine shepherd) moment to shine, as he plucked himself a long branch of bamboo and plowed through the bovine barrier. Argentina is a camper’s paradise, with neither mosquitoes nor bears nor wolves to worry about… but they do have wild cows. :S
Dark was closing in on us as we finally arrived at el Refugio, a log cabin situated next to a burbling mountain stream. We were greeted by the log cabin’s sole inhabitant, a kind man named Luis who was surprisingly normal for someone who has spent the last four years living as a literal mountain hermit, as well as his massive dog, Loba (meaning ‘she-wolf’), and his two ridiculously fluffy kittens (the latter seems to be a theme of this trip, much to Sara’s endless joy). We talked with him for quite a bit, and as soon as he heard that Sara and I were married he disappeared back into his shack and emerged a moment later with a bottle of wine, “para tu luna de miel” he said. Apparently Argentine hospitality continues even at 1500m above sea level!
Jean and Judi got to work right away building a fire and a tent, both out of the bamboo that grew thick around us. We enjoyed a delicious supper of pasta, sardines, and, yes, white wine which was now even more in abundance, and fell asleep under the stars.
We awoke the next morning to Jean asking us if we wanted to go for a six-hour hike up the mountain. Déjà vu, I thought to myself, but he was serious. Apparently another six hours would take us to the summit. Sara and I looked at each other with a bemused “well, we’ve come this far” kind of look, and prepared for another trek.
Upwards we went, encountering sparkling beaches of red stone, precarious wooden footbridges spanning death-defying canyons and rapids (hum the Indy song to yourself here, because we did a lot of that!), thundering waterfalls, majestic lookouts, and huge patches of knee-deep snow, until finally we saw the pole which marked the summit.
With renewed vigor, we scrambled up the scree slope until we reached it…only to find that it was only a ledge, with the mountain continuing mightily higher. We repeated this process two or three more times, until finally we crossed the mountain’s rocky spine and saw the opposite side drop down into a churning panorama of peaks and valleys. We had gotten so used to looking at the beautiful view behind us that seeing the world stretch on in all directions was dizzying. From our new vantage point, Jean told us, we were seeing over the border into Chile, and more mountains than we could possibly count. We ate some cookies and began the journey home.
100km of hiking and 2km of altitude in 3 days. Not our usual Boxing Day routine, but one we will never forget.