Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Don't lie to me, Argentina

ADMIT IT: You've stolen some of Canada's mountains

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I left Chile and went to Argentina on a whim.
I'd met a dude from Calgary who was on his way to San Carlos de Bariloche, and even though I hadn't planned on leav­ing so soon, crossing the border right then and there seemed like the thing to do.

It's travelling for 18 months in a nutshell: plans don't mean squat.

So we're on a bus, just past the continental divide -- all water from here on out flows to the Atlantic. Geographically, we're apparently now in Argentina, but I can't be fooled so easily.

A green Parks Canada sign is about to appear, I can feel it: "Congratulations! You've made it through The Rockies! You're on Highway 1!" The jaws of 50-plus passengers will simultaneously drop, as the bus driver explains that we've done the miraculous and completely swapped hemispheres and are now on the lookout for a special coffee shop called Tim Hortons.


That's how similar Canada and Argentina looked to me.

And while I'm sure a scientist could relate it to longitude and latitude or some other geographical phenomenon, I like to think of it as chance. It was a freak occurrence, but by the time I'd completed my first walkabout in Bariloche all similarity had vanished.

For starters, there was (sadly) no Tim Hortons. Instead, I was presented with a weird herbal tea called mate and steaks the size of my head.

I was forced to drink delicious red wine and powerless against the señoritas who encouraged me to eat more and more.

It's true, if you're an eater -- a no-frills, no funky stir-fry eater -- you belong in Argentina.

The dude from Calgary lived in an apartment with a local Argentine, and it was there I learned the sacrosanct customs of this incredible nation: Always share your food, take a midday nap, kiss everyone on the cheek, and for God's sake, make some conversation. It's still the warmest country I've ever visited. Refreshing, the way people want you to understand, slowing down their speech and mimicking your crazy hand gestures if that's what it takes.

For four days I stayed, drinking mate and feeling at home on the treed slopes of Cerro Catedral, a place similar to Whistler in both physical appearance and village atmosphere, but about one-tenth the size. We'd talk about our ski day, always stop for churros, and sit down by the lake as the sun jumped over the mountains and into the west, dropping into the country from which I'd just come.

It was nice, really, but I just couldn't block the magnetic force that is The Bus. Drawing you, your bags, and about 50 Argentines onward, heading due north where, instead of swapping hemispheres, we turned the clocks back roughly five decades.

If you're near a computer, plug Argentina into Google maps, and try to find the town of Malargue. It takes six clicks of the zoom function to appear. And if you throw said town into Wikipedia, you'll find 233 total words about it, most of them outlining its failed oil exploration and its signature dish, the chivito (baby goat).

But it wasn't the cuisine that attracted me to Malargue. It was the location. The close proximity to Las Lenas, a 3,430-metre Andean superpower, the culmination of South American skiing, and my playground for the rest of the "summer."

I arrived in early afternoon, checked into a small hostel, and walked outside to buy some food. Nothing was open. The only lifeform I saw was a dog baking in the afternoon sun. There were tumbleweeds rolling across the main drag -- literally. I returned to the hostel and asked what in Columbus was going on. Siesta. Big, hard, mountain-shire siesta, where even the songbirds take a nap.

On top of this, it's like someone had told a lasting joke, that if you drive as slow as possible you'd get unlimited gas mileage. That if you didn't touch the speed pedal -- not at all -- but instead just let the clutch off until it grabbed, you could drive forever. People do it there! I swear! Once they're awake they roll down the street at like five miles an hour, creeping along in drive mode, no foot-to-pedal touching whatsoever. Just cruising.

Clearly I had to try it. I was living in the town, and needed to do my part. And luckily enough, I'd become good friends with Mr. Johnny Bristo at this point, the only other gringo in town and the owner of Pollo Loco (Crazy Chicken), a strong-willed Ford Explorer that flew us to and from the mountain on a daily basis.

We picked a Sunday and, completing the turn onto Main Street, Bristo took his foot off the gas and slightly reclined his seat. We began to cruise. And you know what? We liked it.

For the next two months it was high-speed cruising to the shred in morning, powder cruising narrow pitch and open bowls all afternoon, and 1950s cruising once back in Malargue, where it takes three hours to do the groceries.

It's the diversity that the world's eight-largest country brings. How, when two months of small-town living mixed with world-class shred are over and you pack Pollo for a loop of the country, you see a vast layer of societal tiers. From abandoned roads with coffin-sized potholes to the Paris-like streets of Buenos Aires; the surf towns and wildlife reserves on the Atlantic to the end-of-the-world lighthouses in Ushuaia at the southern tip of the country.

Fence posts race by your window, the movie continues, and at times you don't see another vehicle for more than an hour. You camp on the side of the road and pass three-building towns, see a cloud of lights slowly approach from the horizon before finally re-entering civilization, where the mate, vino tinto (red wine) and head-sized steaks are perpetually waiting.

I'd traded my spot on the bus for a co-pilot role, where duties included roadmap navigation, iTrip control, and the occasional 500-kilometre driving segment. Pollo clucked happily away and we covered a ridiculous amount of road, seeing much of the Argentine paradox, before coming to a stop at that Andean midpoint once more.

We were going back to Chile. Bristo had waves to surf. The water was gonna flow west again. You understand.

 Brett Logan chronicles his South American adventures in a regular series in the Free Press Travel section.

NEXT: Chile Redux


Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 16, 2009 E1

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