Buenos Aires to San Rafael, November 6-9

We're well settled into "Hot Chile Camper," the provisional name for our motorhome, although we're open to better suggestions. Braced for a shock, our first impression of the Argentine box-on-wheels in which we'd spend the next ten weeks was a pleasantly positive one.

We're experienced short-term motorhome vacationers, having rented numerous times before -- in Alaska, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the good ol' Continental USA. Three factors determine motorhome comfort: size, layout, and "systems." Hot Chile isn't going to win in the size department, although from what we can tell she's the biggest available south of the Panama Canal, and there are benefits to avoiding a true behemoth. She has a great layout for her size, and the systems (refrigerator, stove, toilet, water pump, etc., not to mention the vehicle itself -- in this case a middle-aged Mercedes truck) are at or above average. (Never mind that we can't use the oven and stovetop at the same time, the refrigerator is dormitory size, and "Hot" in the name alludes to poor ventilation while driving; all of these are pretty typical.)

One significant difference from our previous camper trips is that there aren't any other campers! The outfit we're renting from, Andean Roads -- seemingly the biggest operation in all of Argentina and Chile -- has a whopping six motorhomes in its fleet. Happening into any of the other five in a territory this vast seems rather unlikely, and we haven't seen any private motorhomes yet either. But it's still spring, not quite the high tourist season, and we haven't spent much time in touristy areas; things may change.

This leg of our trip has provided less instant gratification compared with the first leg, which began with the sights of Athens, or with our usual vacations. Our first few days have been eaten up by lots of shopping to get the camper provisioned with food and other supplies, buying bicycles for Alex and Jennifer (successful, but not as quick as we would have liked), and driving the entire width of central Argentina to get from Buenos Aires to the mountainous regions where the fun begins. (We decided not to hang around Buenos Aires before beginning the drive, since we've spent time there before.) Much of the drive was similar to the U.S. Midwest -- thus the lack of scenic photos in this travelog -- but the birdwatching was outstanding in some spots, and rumor has it the cows make tastier beef down here. As the hours passed on the long straight highways with poor ventilation, we did wonder occasionally whether we should have paid the hefty repositioning fee and extra airfares to begin our tour somewhere other than Buenos Aires. Probably not -- in the long run it's a tiny fraction of our time.

Finally we arrived in San Rafael, just east of the Andes. We embarked promptly on what we'd been envisioning all along; biking into town from a camping spot on the outskirts, enjoying a bit of cafe hopping, souvenir shopping, and cruising the main avenues. It was idyllic, until the thunderstorm hit. We got covered in mud and rain on the return trip, with a particularly scary moment occurring when a power line fell inexplicably, hissing and sparking, not ten feet from Tim. Recovering and cleaning up after that type of adventure is particularly challenging in the confines of a camper, but we succeeded.

We've put up a map approximately tracing our route; it's also linked from a convenient spot on the travelogs page. Of course the map will only be updated when we have internet access, which, from our experience so far, won't be all that often.

One aspect slowing down our logistics considerably is the language barrier: most people here don't speak a lick of English! It's refreshing in a way, but since our Spanish is extremely limited (to say the least), every attempt at communication, from bicycle purchases to finding a bank, camping area, ice cream shop, or small item in the grocery store, is an exercise in wild gesticulation and mutual lack of understanding. (In a few cases, scribbling a map or other information on a scrap of paper has worked wonders, but usually not.) The people are extremely friendly, helpful, and patient, but to take advantage we'll need to improve our Spanish, tout suite (oops, make that legiro). We may discover that English is more prevalent in the more touristy areas, though we can't count on it.

All the goods we brought along for school and other activities have been seeing considerable use. We've plowed through quite a bit of schoolwork already as we've been driving (in sharp contrast to the first part of the trip; photo 2), and the kids have been practicing their musical instruments daily (excuse the pajamas in photos 4 and 5). We'll see if it lasts as we move into more interesting territory.

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