Travelling Without a Guidebook

It’s often occurred to me that an interesting premise for a travel article would be to visit a place and explore it without the help of a Lonely Planet Guide or a Fordors. Don’t get me wrong; these are fabulously useful tools and I have a shelf full of them at home, but they have their downfalls. For instance, you tend to stay pretty close to the beaten track when using one since if a hotel or restaurant or excursion wasn’t popular before it was in a guidebook, it likely will be afterwards. As a result, you tend to see the already discovered.

In order to enjoy the path less taken and to discover the inside of a place, you have to talk to the locals. This can be hard when you don’t speak the language, but even when you do, or when you speak it haltingly as I do, there is a tendency, given that we have guide books, to not put in the effort it takes to find locals who know their place and will share their secrets with you. I know, for instance, that when people come to me in Caledon, where I’ve lived for most of my life, I can give them great hiking or cycling routes, ones that no guide would have and ones they would be unlikely to put together themselves even with good maps.

Our  journey has been mostly one of talking to and, importantly, listening to, locals and then following up on their suggestions. Our last week of travel has been getting us to tomorrow when we will start our ascent to the Tigre Glacier. We’ll follow a route that goes alongside Lago Cholila, on whose shores we are now staying, up the Tigre River to the glacier high up in the Andes.

We first heard about this climb from Mauro. On our way to the fiesta in Cholila, he excitedly described the landscape as we drove along the twisting road that drops down from the dessert into the small town of Epuyen. Mauro was born in El Maiten, but lived away, as they say in Newfoundland, for many years. He eventually returned to the place where he said, “my heart lies.” He pointed out an icy white glacier that stood out clearly though it was a long way up. In passing, he mentioned that you could ride up to it. I pounced on this idea and quizzed him on what he knew about the journey. When I mentioned the idea to Alex, he picked up on it too. It soon became our next destination. Completely unplanned, not coming from a guidebook. Just a goal with a rough description from someone who knew someone who knew someone who said they knew someone who’d done it.

Similarly, we decided to check out having “Te Gales” or Welsh tea at Casa Piedras after the owners of the Paralelo 42 Restaurant in El Maiten raved about it. We were not disappointed when we sat down on the verandah of the elegant stone home (circa 1926) owned by “Tolly” and her 92-year-old husband Miguel. The couple, both fit and active, had lived all of their lives in the region. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid were neighbours to Tolly’s grandparents. As we drank copious amounts of excellent tea in china cups, much to the delight of Alex who grew up in England, and enjoyed so many homemade cakes, bread, scones, butter and preserves that I almost couldn’t climb back aboard Judy when we left almost four hours later, Tolly told us about growing up in this remote part of Argentina. She explained that all of her recipes (She makes all of the cakes, bread and preserves herself.) were handed down to her by either her mother or grandmother or Miguel’s. She was especially proud of her mixed blood – some Mapuche, some Spanish, some Italian and some Welsh. “I’m tutti frutti,” she said with a smile and a twinkle in her eye that only an attractive eighty-year-old woman can pull off. Alex was entranced.

While we gorged ourselves, two cars pulled in. Julio, an charismatic 64-year-old Argentinian was obviously a friend. He was accompanied by an attractive couple and their two preschool-aged children who turned out to be Julio’s cousins visiting from Plata del Mar near Buenos Aires. We joined into the conversation and before we knew it, Julio had invited us to visit him at his place on Lago Lezama. It was up in the hills about an hour’s drive away by car. Rather than let the offer pass us by as these sorts of invitations often are, I asked him if he was serious because if he was, we would love to drop by.

So the following day, the hottest yet, we bid our farewells to Sr. Fuentes who had so generously allowed us to camp on his land for three days. Before letting us go, he invited us in for fresh empanadas, introducing us to his friend Sr. Avila, a old time gaucho who lived, coincidentally, along the small dirt road that lead to Don Julio’s. Two hours later, we arrived at Sr. Avila’s humble house set in a valley where his only neighbours were the prolific mosqueta bushes, a small but roaring arroyo (steam), a handful of cows and horses, and soaring white-topped mountains. Sr. Avila had already returned and had his horse all saddled up so that he could show us the shortcut to Don Julio’s. He mounted his very handsome Criolla horse and, decked out in his gorra, bombatchas, and shash – his everyday work clothes – and wielding a large machete, he cut a very handsome figure.

With four dogs in tow, we set off along a wooded trail. I felt like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz skipping down the Yellow Brick Road. Our group kept growing as people were caught up in the romance of our adventure. I remarked to Alex, “This is how I dreamed things would go, but figured they never would.”

Under brilliantly blue skies, we climbed straight up the steep slope of the Andean foothills, our horses huffing and puffing in the intense heat. An hour later, we arrived at a gate that marked the end of Sr. Avila’s assistance. Hot and tired, we finally arrived at “The Lodge.”  It turned out that Don Julio owned a small lodge – or an enormous house – depending on how you looked at it – that sits right on the shore of the huge, crystal clear and delightfully warm Lago Lezama.

He treated us to a comfortable bed, hot showers and delicious cafe con leche in the mornings. I am a dedicated coffee drinker, but had given up my java for the easier and more traditional Yerba mate that is so much a part of Argentinean (and Uruguayan) culture. Though less to my liking, its bitter taste and high caffeine content satisfied my cravings. So after almost three weeks on the trail, Don Julio’s offerings were divine.

By the end of our two-night stay, the normally reserved Don Julio had also bought into our journey, telling us his own story as well. Now 64, he purchased 4000 hectares of land about 10 years ago that he had since registered as a nature reserve. His rambling estancia house, filled with lovely gaucho gear as well as beautiful carpets and other things he brought back from Africa, had actually been mistakenly built as a stable.  After transporting the wood and other construction materials he required for his house by a wooden “Contiki” raft that he paddled across the lake, he returned to discover that his builders had used it to build a barn rather than his home. As result, our bedroom door and the three others on both sides of a broad hallway, had half doors because they were built as horse stalls. He slept upstairs in what was supposed to have been the hay mow. But all in all, the structure made a very fine home and a great story.

After a long goodbye and his promise to visit us in Canada (His daughter lives in the US.), we left with a hand-drawn map that showed us a back country route between his land and Lago Cholila. It also included the names of all the estancia owners along the way, the names of two lodges on the lake where we might like to stay for a night or two, and contact information for some old timers who could help with the route up to Tigre Glacier. We spent the next night still on his land, camped beside the Pedrigoso River as it emerged from a deep canyon into a long flat valley that we would follow to Lago Cholila. That night we slept under an increasingly threatening sky feasting on rainbow trout that Alex caught with his fly rod.

We woke to rain, but decided to saddle up three horses and climb up into mountains to look for a pair of lagunas that we could see on our map. The horses still fresh from their time off at Don Julio’s quickly scrambled up the first 1000 metres or so. What would have been a very tough mountain bike ride or a grinding hike was over in no time. Soon, however, the path we’d been following disappeared. We found ourselves bucking our way through dense underbrush that refused to give way. After literally bashing through, I began dropping my stirrups and riding with my feet level with Judy’s ears. It was the only way to protect myself, and even then I could feel the bruises rising on my knees and shins.

We soon arrived at a lookout with a tremendous view that allowed us to see the mountains near El Maiten. So much had happened to us since we’d stayed there that it seemed like a lifetime ago that we’d camped by the Rio Chubut. The lagunas we were after turned out, or so we deduced, to be one valley over, but a different lake spread out far below us and we could see the tip of Lago Lezuma. The sky was alive with enormous clouds that were filling in. It was a foreboding vista so different than the clear blue of the last three weeks. The wind was picking up as it often does at higher altitudes and squalls were turning into constant rain. I was glad to be wearing the heavy raw wool poncho I’d bought from one of Beto’s neighbours on a hot day several weeks ago.

I’d brought along some hot tea, cheese and bread, but we elected to save lunch until we were back in our camp with a hot fire. Although our route up had taken us behind the ridge where we now stood, Beto lead us down the front of the mountain. He explained that he was looking for a shortcut that would connect with the trail we’d followed on our way up. Again we bashed our way through unforgiving bushes, as we climbed down an ever-steeper slope. Occasionally, we had to pass though dense stands of dwarf lengas, a type of beech tree. It was really hard going and not to my liking at all. My already black and blue shins were taking more beating, and I’d been speared in the stomach. The horses were starting to complain too. Rather than pass willingly through the undergrowth, they would balk and only go forward with the encouragement of a revelenke. After 30 minutes of this insanity, we arrived at a sheer cliff and had to turn back. Obviously this was not the route Beto sought.

As we made our way back up the slope, I was following close on Alex’s heels. Mosquito stepped high up over a big fallen log which Judy tripped over. She then threw her head up and began dancing, shaking her head and neighing wildly. I tried to settle her before realizing that she was being attacked by swarming bees. She’d stepped on a nest. I yelled at Alex, “Bees, bees, we’re being attacked by bees. Get going.” Finally it registered and as the bees began to swarm around me too, stinging me in the neck, the back, my ear and leg, Alex moved on. But we were in thick bush. Progress was slow and the angry bees kept swarming all around Judy and me. They got inside my heavy poncho and down my neck. I was trying to shoo them away, get rid of my poncho and urge Judy through the shin-breaking bushes all at the same time. It seemed an eternity until we were far enough away that the bees decided to leave us alone. “Are you alright?” asked Alex. He knew that whereas, I have a very strong stomach and seldom am bothered by intestinal bigs, I often react badly to insect bites.

I assessed the situation and realized that although there had been a lot of bees, they weren’t very aggressive nor did they pack much of a punch. I was, or so I hoped, very lucky. I only had about half a dozen stings and they didn’t hurt much. My only concern was the one on my ear. I could feel that it was already swelling. Judy began munching on mosqueta (how they can each such prickly things I’ll never understand) and seemed unperturbed now that the marauders had disappeared.

I was more anxious than ever to get back to camp, but we would have two more false attempts at finding the path before we suggested to Beto that we would be better to retrace our morning’s route. It might be longer, but we would have a better chance of finding our way. Beto wasn’t happy with this idea, but we set off anyway. Soon we were surrounded by impenetrable lenga and had to retreat. How, we wondered had we ever made it to this place?

Alex, who was wearing merino long underwear but who didn’t have a warm poncho, was getting really cold. We decided to regroup and have some hot tea, cheese and bread. While we ate, Beto, stubborn as he can be at times, left to once again look for a direct route. He came back claiming to have found it so we mounted and followed him down again. It was obvious that he hadn’t found the path he sought so we let him ride on. After waiting for him for 20 minutes or more, we decided that he must have taken off. With new resolve, we decided to retrace our route from the morning. Somehow we would find a way through the lenga.

It was a horrible hour as we forced our increasingly unwilling horses to smash through thickets of dense bush that would get caught between their legs tripping them. At one point, Mosquito reared up unseating Alex who slid slowly from his saddle landing on a thorny bush. Occasionally, we would get off and lead them up or down steep slopes ever fearful that they would trample us if they stumbled. We weren’t panicky, but we were more than a bit concerned. Alex was cold and it was 5pm. We’d been out for a long time, long enough that we were starting to decide what plan B might be.

We battered on until Alex called with a cheer that he’d found our tracks from the morning. We were indeed on the right route. Nonetheless, it was impossible to keep following the hoof prints, though I felt as if I were the cowboy on the Canadian television show Mantracker, which gave me some relief from the abuse my shins were taking.

Finally, we arrived at an outcropping of rocks behind and below which we were pretty sure we’d find the trail. As we stopped to regroup, Beto also arrived. He was clearly relieved to have found us, and excited to say that he had finally found the path down. Reunited, we descended rapidly. An hour later, we arrived back at our camp. After looking after the horses, we got the fire roaring and changed out of our wet things. We were soaked though. The rain let up and between the fire and the breeze our clothing and tack began to dry as we tucked into the cheese and bread and made a hearty pasta dinner.