Watching the employee who works at the tourist info office in Sierra de la Ventana ride her bike to work, lean it against a tree and leave it there for the day without locking it, assured us we had arrived in a good place. This is the kind of place where you leave your keys in your circa1980 beater truck in case someone might need it. It was a sense of relief when a destination we’d chosen to visit turned out to surprise us with its comforts, scenery and people. We rolled into town with the 7am sunrise. Starting around 8:30, cafés slowly started to open their shutters and set up chairs, followed by shop-keepers sweeping dust from their entries and flipping their signs to read “Abierto”/ “Open”. After two days of consecutive travel from La Paloma, including a day walking in Buenos Aires that ended with an 8 hour overnight bus, the pace was perfectly matched to our cloudy brains and stiff bodies.
There were a plethora of cabanas and hotels to explore in hopes of finding our perfect fit. After a few hours of walking around the dusty town, we were successful. Everyone was just starting to stir as we arrived at the smallest hostel we’ve seen; Hostel – Casa De Juani (House of Juani), named after its owner, literally welcomed us with kisses. Juani’s girlfriend, Marina, gave us our first “besos” experience in Argentina, the customary kiss on the cheek given when greeting friends. We later learned that, normally, Juani and Marina live in the house, which has their bedroom and a 4 bed bunk room. However, when there are guests who desire the double bed, Marina and Juani give them their room and sleep in their VW van parked in the backyard; Brilliant. We felt like we were renting the whole house. We had free reign over the yard, kitchen and common areas. Juani even insisted on taking what we needed from his garden. Our anticipated 3-4 days here turned easily into 6 nights.
The hospitality of Argentina kept its promise for our whole stay. Since our hostel was about a 2km hot walk to the supermarket, for our first trip we hitched a ride with some Argentinan visitors in their family-packed van. We stopped at the nearest supermarcado only to find it shut down for a 4 hour siesta break, they insisted on driving to every supermarket in town (5 of them) to find us one that was open. When we came to the conclusion that all of them were closed, but would open in a half hour or so, they recommended we do what all Argentinians seem to do at this time of day; eat ice cream. They dropped us at a Heladaria (ice cream shop) next to a supermarket where we enjoyed the local flavours, still stunned at their genuine kindness.
Our attraction to the area, which officially lies in the province of La Pampa, were the outdoor activities offered in the wide open spaces such as hiking but on Sunday, our second day, we decided to stay close and check out the local watering holes. In a desert like climate, after 3 years of drought and a hot summer day, these refuges brought the residents of the surrounding hills and estancias (ranches) to town with picnics and inner tubes for a day of leisure at the local fresh water pools. Of course we had to experience the chill of a pool after walking in the mid-day heat.
Parque Provincial Ernesto Tornquist offers many different hikes with different viewpoints and levels of difficulty. Our intended hike from the base of Cerro Ventana to the Heurco at the summit was advertised to be a 5 hour return trip with a start time of no later than 11am allowed. Unfortunately, our bus to the park was 30 minutes late, and we missed the 11am deadline by 15 minutes. The less-than-pleasant park ranger insisted that we needed to pick a different trail. We chose Pilatones, a less vigorous trail marked for 2-3hours return trip. We did consider taking the turn-off to the Heurco trail, but not knowing how hard it would be and comparing it to hikes in BC, we decided to stay where the rangers knew we would be hiking, just in case. Though the first incline was somewhat challenging, we reached the end of the trail in 25 minutes, one-third of the advertised time. Totally not satisfied with that, we decided to carve our own path – up rocky edges where we could get a higher view point and hook up with the return trail at another point. After just over an hour, including at least 30 minutes to take it all in at our highest point, we returned to the base. In a disappointed voice, I told the rangers we were back from hiking their 2-3 hour trail in 25 minutes. We totally could have hiked the Heurco, likely in a couple of hours, rather than the advertised 5. We’ll keep that information in our memory bank as we move south toward more trekking in Patagonia.
Since the next bus back to Sierra was a 4 hour wait, our thumbs came in handy. After passing by us, and rounding the corner, Roberto pulled a U-turn, cleaned off his front seat and offered us a ride. He spoke no English, but slowed his Spanish to a crawl for us to talk about the area. He was heading to the supermarket and so he dropped us off at our road and went on his way. 6 hours later, on a trip to the supermarket, Dale ran into friendly Roberto again. Roberto, we discovered, was actually the owner of the store we’d been shopping at for the last 3 days.
We arrived back “home” to find our little house hosting new guests. Abel (Australia), Patrick (Brazil), and Cecilia (Argentina) were now all a part of the Casa De Juani experience. That evening, after cooking and sharing a tremendous feast of risotto we managed, for the first time to attempt conversation in Spanish. We were impressed with how much we could communicate and understand. Body language is a fantastic dictionary. Who would have thought that all those nights playing charades would pay off.
The following day, the gang of us, including Inti the dog, piled into the back of Juani’s 1975 Chevy ¾ tonne stick shift and bumped along dirt roads north west through the Montana-like landscape, deep into La Pampa, to Juani’s grandfather’s house. The house was situated in gated camping community built around the Laguna (lake). We felt truly honoured to have been invited along and had one of our most enjoyable nights of our trip. Simple times with a home-made didgeridoo, and fun people conversing in different languages is always a recipe for good memories.
We were sad to say good-bye to our new friends. Marina and Juani live a simple, almost care-free, and interesting life with a genuine love for people. We are grateful to have met them and look forward to when our paths may cross again.