Category Archives: Lago Puelo, Chubut (Patagonia)

On top of the world

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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!

Sweet nectar of life: Our grueling trek was made immensely more refreshing by many stops to drink from the crystal-clear mountain streams
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One of many precarious log bridge crossings:
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8000-year old Alerce forests:
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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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100km of hiking and 2km of altitude in 3 days. Not our usual Boxing Day routine, but one we will never forget.

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Granja #3: Strawberry fields forever…

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Wow, it seems like we haven’t written in this blog since last year!

* Pause for all the Melnyk clan to laugh appreciatively *

Happy 2012 to you all! I don’t know how the northern hemisphere is faring, but down here, Josh & I are still married and doing very well, so if Winnipeg actually did get an Ikea, I will assume the world decided not to end after all. (For the confused of you, ask Josh one day about some of his favourite EA stories :P)

After leaving our farm full of nuevas experiencias (if you missed it, read about it here!), we were suddenly left without anywhere to go, because our illustrious “friends” (yes, of the lumberjack, strawberry and rainbow variety) completely disappeared. We took a week as a mini-holiday and stayed in various hostels and campgrounds around El Bolsón, meeting some incredibly interesting characters and trying to find a new farm to take us in.

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Applying for university from our campground in Argentina… Just another normal day while traveling! 😛
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We ended up receiving a cryptic but friendly reply from a WWOOF farm we had emailed awhile back: it said merely, “¿Tienen carpa, chicos?” (“Do you guys have a tent?) We got picked up the next day by Carlos and driven out to a strawberry farm near Lago Puelo, a small town about 30 km from El Bolsón. “¡Hay un montón de WWOOFers aquí!” Carlos said, laughing… And he wasn’t kidding. There was a veritable village of tents set up around an outdoor kitchen shelter and seven other WWOOFers sharing the space.

Our tent overlooking the strawberry fields (forever…)
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It was quite a change after being totally on our own for the last week, and after living in the middle of nowhere with only one other couple for company for the last month. It was such a change that I hid in our tent for the first hour, trying to muster enough sociability to get out and join the throng. But, as Josh kept reminding me, it would be very good practice for living at camp, so eventually I faced the music (literally: there was constantly a guitar floating around) and let myself love and appreciate and be challenged by our time there. The crew included Jean and Judi, who were both from the South of France but hadn’t met until this farm; Roxane (French) and Robbie (Dutch), who went to university together in Belgium; Arlette and Faylin, recently graduated from high school in Illinois; and Alec, who majored in Yoga and Sitar at his Buddhist university in Colorado.

Every morning, we’d get up and breakfast together, then pick and sort strawberries until 1:30pm. After lunch, it was too deathly hot to be working in the sun, but also too hot to siesta in our tent, so we’d cool down by the little stream that ran by the house or walk to town for popsicles. The sun would finally relax around 8pm, so we’d work until around 10pm. When it was finally too dark to see if you were picking up strawberries or slugs, we’d go and make dinner. Jean, who had been a Boy Scout for years, was the self-appointed chef, leaving the rest of us with not much else to do but chop veggies, play cards, and cuddle with the two farm kittens while we waited for dinner.

Waiting for dinner with Chef Jean:
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It’s amazing we managed to fill the buckets, what with the amount of snacking we did while working!
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For Christmas, as previously mentioned, we decided to have a potluck where each WWOOFer would make a dish from their home country. On Christmas eve, all of us WWOOFers sat around the kitchen all morning, preparing our dishes for the potluck that night and watching 30 Rock – it felt just like Christmas holidays at home! Suddenly, Faylin and Arlette came running into the kitchen, demanding to know if we could all stop cooking for a bit. They then chucked scraps of paper in the air and sent us on a farm-wide scavenger hunt, which included shimmying across the river on a log bridge, braving the bee hives, and chasing down the host’s son who had a clue in his pocket. When we arrived back at our kitchen, panting and swimming in sweat after running around for an hour in +30C, there were juice boxes and cookies as prizes on the table!

The party started that night around 11pm, as we all carried our contribution to the feast out to our hosts’ backyard. Les français made crepes and tomato quiche, Robbie painstakingly crafted a triple-layer coffee-butter cake, the Americans made mac-n-cheese , and Josh and I concocted a glaze out of Patagonia honey and oranges for the Christmas ham. Carlos insisted that each of his kids try some of the “ham from Canada” (which, I believe, were some of the only English words he learnt). We then got to watch the kids open their presents, and they all got bathing suits for their Christmas trip to the beach… Where were the wool socks and new flannel pjs? 😛
Paola, our other host, passed out our gifts: huge jars of strawberry jam that we had made the day before. (And a month later, we’re still enjoying it!) The evening wound down with a Regina Spektor singalong around the fire – not exactly caroling, but close enough!

Jam-making with Paola:
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Carlos serving our international feast:
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Christmas jam sesh:
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Christmas day, Josh and I got up early, decorated the kitchen with streamers left over from my birthday, and left a tub of dulce de leche for everyone from Santa. Then, we walked into town and went to a little church we had seen the week before. It felt a bit like the Ukrainian church: all the kids (from adorable toddlers to awkwardly adorable preteens) put on a little pageant, and then at least three different “brothers and sisters” got up to “give a word” to the congregation. The people were so friendly (we got kissed and blessed too many times to count!), and it was wonderful to be in a church community again. No matter what language you speak or culture you find yourself in, there is a sense of home and of family within a church.

For lunch, we bought sandwiches at the YPF gas station, which was literally the only place open on Christmas. We ate our Christmas lunch of milanesa sandwiches sitting on the boulevard, and afterwards walked another 2h to el lago of Lago Puelo: a gorgeous, clear, turquoise blue lake surrounded by mountains. We lay on the beach all afternoon, and I ended up getting a tan for Christmas!!

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For dinner, we were planning to just go back to the gas station to get food (so classy, I know, but it was the only place in town that was open!), but on the walk back, we found a little restaurant on the side of the highway that reminded us of our favourite restaurant in Kenora – and it was open! The owner came over and explained that he had misplaced the menu, but he could still tell us what he had. So he started to recite: “Pizza, thirty pesos. Milanesa, twenty… No, twenty five pesos. Empanadas, twenty five pesos.” Then he looked at us expectantly. It was possibly the most adorable menu I’ve ever encountered!

We walked back home under the stars, in the still-warm night air. It was a very, very merry Christmas!

We wish you a ¡Feliz Navidad!

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It’s so hard to believe that it’s Christmas time, and that at home, there is snow and Christmas carols and family gatherings happening. We will be spending our Christmas in Lago Puelo, Chubut (Patagonia), living on an organic strawberry farm in a tent village with seven other WWOOFers: 3 from the USA, 3 from France and 1 from Holland.

Tomorrow night, our host family is cooking us an asado and each WWOOFer is making a dish from their home country. Josh and I are attempting honey-glazed ham and peanut-butter cookies (filled with dulce de leche!) However, Argentina doesn’t have peanut butter, so we will try to make do with Thai peanut paste. Wish us luck!

As amazing and fun as it is to travel around this beautiful world, there is really no place quite like home at Christmas, so please know that we are thinking of and missing you all!!

Since we knew it’d be +30C here in Argentina at Christmas (which it is!), we captured a bit of Southern snow to share with all of you at Christmas. Click here! 🙂

(or copy and paste the following in your browser:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T7tdgWoR21w&feature=youtube_gdata_player )

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

much love from,
Sara & Josh

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