Malargüe, November 10-13

We spent a few days in Malargüe, taking a southwest spur from San Rafael on our overall tour. (See the updated route map, although we're not being so fastidious as to label the smaller towns and individual stops.)

Malargüe is a pleasant town that's just beginning to attract tourists, thanks to its proximity to a variety of natural wonders. It's still a little rough around the edges as tourism goes: shops and offices are open and (more often) closed at seemingly random hours, and our horse-trek was canceled at the last minute because "we were looking for the horses but there's a hole in the ranch fence and we don't know how far away they've gone." (That's translated from Spanish by an English-speaking tour agent in town, who was incredibly helpful throughout our stay.) Otherwise we enjoyed the town and its surroundings quite a bit.

One day we took an excursion to Parque Provincial Payunia, with reportedly the largest concentration of volcanic cones anywhere in the world. The area is reachable only on rough tracks. Along with our charismatic driver and guide Santiago (husband of the helpful tour agent), we were joined by a Los Angeles couple who'd recently completed reaching the high points of all 50 U.S. states (a feat achieved by fewer than 200 people to date), and a German researcher who was in town with an international consortium of physicists deploying thousands of sensors across the nearby desert to detect high-energy particles. It was an engaging group of people and the landscape was stunning (photos 1 and 2). The kids were remarkably tolerant of ten hours bouncing and hurtling along in a cramped four-wheel drive vehicle.

Another day we embarked on a hike up -- or more accurately into the side of -- Malacara volcano. We were guided by Chaco, the owner of the volcano (yes, in Argentina you can own a volcano, or even a few of them if you wish), and accompanied by a pair of Ecuadorian schoolteachers. One of the teachers -- a friendly and eccentric older woman speaking good English -- had arranged the trip; she invited us to come along when, by sheer good luck on our part, she noted Alex peering anxiously into the perpetually-closed travel office that's apparently the sole representative for Chaco's volcano. Photos 4-6 are from that excursion.

It didn't take Tim long after we reached town to befriend José, the local fossil and mineral expert, despite the fact that José speaks no English whatsoever. They bonded over the crystals for sale in the small Natural History Museum, and José soon invited us to his home. The bike ride out of town was a nice prelude to an interesting visit (photo 3) and an impressive personal collection of fossils and crystals.

We used our bicycles extensively in the compact flat town, riding the length of the main drag innumerable times. It's a small place: When we heard that a Los Angeles couple would be joining us on the Payunia tour we spotted them on the street immediately, and we ran into the German physicist too -- he gave us a nice tour of the modern research and meeting center built for the long-term experiment. The other physicists in town weren't difficult to spot, and we became regulars at the one ice cream shop.

On our previous camper vacations we've taken to parking overnight in remote spots with beautiful vistas. We'll no doubt do the same here in due time, but so far we've been sticking to established campgrounds. The main disadvantage of campgrounds (aside from the lack of vistas) can be a few too many fellow campers, but that hasn't been an issue -- for now the campgrounds are nearly empty. One advantage of campgrounds is plugging the camper into a power outlet, but the abrupt malfunctioning of our "shore power" battery recharger has negated that one. (Not to worry -- we have various leads for fixing or replacing it.)

Parting puzzle: Locate our mothorhome in photo 6.

Last-minute addition: No, we did not feel the Chilean earthquake. It was many hundreds of miles from where we're traveling at the moment, although we are headed (slowly) in that direction. At the time of the quake we were bumping along the highway in the Hot Chile Camper. We heard about it a few hours later from the pourer at a wine tasting.

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