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02.26.2006

Junin De Los Andes

In northernmost Patagonia up against the border with Chile is a child's drawing of a volcano come to life - a triangular white peak covered in snow, with a kind of hump on its southern slope that makes it look like a hunchback. This is the Vulcán Lanín, a stratovolcano that sits on the horizon like a single pointy tooth. To the south of it stretches the Lanín National Park, in the heart of Argentina's lake district.

Apart from its scenery, which is what you would expect from a place called 'the lake district', the region is famous for its trout fishing (catch and release, a gastronomic lap dance) and a very strange kind of tree called the pehué, or araucaria, or monkey puzzle. The araucaria looks like a shoe tree made of giant pipe cleaners and is probably as unfriendly a plant as you can get without using thorns. Up close, the branches of the alcuara display a cylindrical arrangement of triangular artichoke-like leaves. These leaves are tough and spiky, so even brushing against one of the branches feels like running your hand across a saw blade. The trees are popular with Western gardeners (who came up with the monkey puzzle name), but are notorious for their ability to inflict severe injury if you happen to step on their fallen leaves barefoot, or get caught by a falling branch.

Araucaria come in male and female forms - the men are a regulation dark green, while the females cover up with pretty russet flowers that grow into large pine cones, with edible nuts. These nuts once formed a staple food for the local natives, the Mapuche, who worshipped the trees as divine beings and even paid them the ultimate staple-crop compliment of figuring out how to distill their seeds into booze. But the Mapuche fell on hard times in the late nineteenth century. After hundreds of years of resisting first Inca and then white colonization, they succumbed to an intense 'pacification' campaign (the towns in this area were founded specifically to exterminate them) and now constitute a small minority of the local population. This puts an awkward spin on the local history, but the survivors have been graciously allowed to continue gathering the pine nuts, and in an unusual experiment have been given a stake in administering the local national park (a big deal in statist Argentina).

One of the charms of the Lanín park is that it's really not easy to get to from anywhere. Buenos Aires is some 1500 kilometers to the northeast, and the nearest city of any size is in Chile, over the Andes. The main town on the Argentine side is Bariloche, which has made a name for itself as a fishing and ski resort and (borrowing an idea from the Swiss) a place to get fantastic chocolate. Junín de Los Andes is a small town about three hours north of Bariloche, and a gateway to the northern part of the national park, as well as Lanín volcano itself. Its main concession to the growing tourist trade has been adding a large painted trout to each of its wooden street signs.

Like every other town in Argentina, Junín is laid out on a grid and centered on a Plaza San Martín. The park in that plaza has an equally predictable (although still baffling) little statue of an older woman off in a corner, inscribed simply To Mother. In an orgy of extravagance, the main few blocks in the town center have been paved, although the road turns quickly to gravel at its edges, and from there peter out into pasture and brush. The border of the national park is a rickety forty minute van ride to the west.

Horses graze on the outskirts of town and there are telltale plops of manure in places in the streets, corresponding to the occasional clomp-clomp you hear during the afternoon siesta. The heat must get to the poor animals - in similar country in Provence it was too hot to try and keep horses or cattle, but the Argentines either have a system for keeping their livestock cool or are just too plain stubborn to compromise their supply of beef by yielding to the demands of climate. Chickens and dogs are the most numerous residents of Junín proper, barking and crowing in the morning to make sure the town wakes up, and then taking it easy through the hotter parts of the day. Dogs here sleep deeper than any dogs I have ever seen, flopped over on their sides in the shade with paws extended and neatly stacked. They are a uniform brown color from the dust.

An unexpected source of joy throughout our stay in the town was the Junín bus station, a little building surrounded by greenery, percolating with young students and backpackers. Whether by disposition or because of something special in the maté, everyone we encountered there was unusually friendly, even by the high standards of rural Argentina. A man with a cart outside hawked Super Panchos, the Argentine foot-long hot dog, the only bad meat product in the country. Across the street, at a sage distance from the cart, some strange birds were strolling and pecking at the grass: each was the size of a small turkey and has a elegant curved bill. I found out later these were black-beaked ibis.

Another bird kept swooping around right above the terminal, keeping a close eye on the pancho stand, clearly unafraid of people. It looked like a cross between a small hawk and a pigeon, with the claws and leggings of the former and the head of the latter, about the size of a crow. Later on I would see enormous swarms of these birds assembling in Junín's central square, roosting in the evenings on all the large radio antennas and conifers, and even (when it got truly crowded), dejectedly landing in the alaucara, though that triggered a fussy half-minute or so of careful wing-balancing and adjustment. Although the town being absolutely full of these birds I have not been able to find a single mention of them since, either in online bird guides or in the massive collection of stuffed Argentine birds at the natural history museum in La Plata. I still don't know what they were.

We arrived ill-prepared, a dysfunctional party of five with no reservations on a weekend at the height of tourist and fishing season, but within half an hour we were in a spacious and inexpensive apartment, referred by a friendly taxi driver to the town's English teacher, Sonia. Sonia had a big house with an annex next to it for guests - a room with two regular beds and a bunk bed, children's sheets on all of them, and a large hand-drawn poster of Harry Potter in a robe with angel's wings. From then on, Junín could do us no wrong.

Sonia's yard was an oasis of green grass in a dusty, dusty town. She kept it fenced off to protect the two rabbits that live there, one white and one black, doted on by her three-year old daughter. At the hottest part of the day the rabbits would lie panting on bare patches of dust under a hedge, like the penguins at Puenta Tombo. We watched the rabbits and sat in the yard with Sonia, who poured us tereré, the lemony hot-weather version of maté. Children of all ages cycled through the yard and the house, which seemed to be the focal point of the whole neighborhood. Smaller kids would run in and out, conscientiously shutting the gate for the rabbits' sake; the teenagers would kiss us on the cheek and then go in to paint and do other chores.

Junín was full of these sweet-mannered teenagers, and a considerable number of the male variety seemed to spend their evenings milling around in front of Sonia's house, which may have had something to do with the presence of her beautiful teenaged daughter. One of the suitors would roar by on a dirt bike every half hour, his face hidden in a giant helmet. In the wee hours of Friday night, some others drove over in a car and did doughnuts in the dirt road outside, blasting Creedence Clearwater Revival. We walked in the house at two in the morning to find Sonia playing a weary game of Galaga at the computer while her three year old sat in front of a Disney movie, absorbing English, too stubborn to sleep.

The days here are hot enough to trigger the universal siesta, which lasts from three to four hours. This makes it feel like you're getting two days in one, and also makes it easier to eat a large steak dinner at midnight. By the time evening comes, the stores have opened again, it is pleasantly cool and a breeze is blowing in. The nights this close to the Andes are clear and cold, with an ink sky filled with unfamiliar southern constellations. We are hundreds of kilometers from the nearest bright spot on the map, and when the power fails briefly one night the sky show is breathtaking. The Milky Way is an irregular stripe, and to the right of it are two faint cotton balls, the Magellanic clouds The bigger one is about the size of a grapefruit held at arm's length. I'm surprised to see familiar old Orion up in the northern sky. The Southern Cross is bright but tiny compared to what I had imagined, tipped over on its side like a kite.

The siesta, on those days when I could stand to skip it, was the perfect time to go jump into the fast and cold stream that ran just a hundred meters or so past Sonia's house. This was the best way to get cool in the hot part of the day, and the little riverside park stayed almost deserted until people began to wake up at three o'clock. You could jump in upstream of a little pedestrian bridge and be propelled along at an exhilirating clip, with little children bobbing up around you, until the stream hit a shallow gravel patch some two hundred meters later and slowed down enough to let you and the kids claw your way out. A wire fence bisected the river further downstream, slicing up the weak and forgetful before they could be washed out into the Atlantic. When no one was looking, small tanned children would drop like apples from the rickety pedestrian bridge into the shallow water.

The drive up to the national park is rough and bumpy, with spectacular views every time the Pigpen-like cloud of dust surrounding our van clears for a moment. We trace the stream up to its source in a fat blue glacial lake almost at the foot of the volcano, which looms much larger from here. At the park entrance we discover that all the jolting has somehow jammed the van door shut, trapping us inside, to the great mirth of all the occupants. The driver shrugs and walks off somewhere, returning with a maté. One of the passengers tries to disassemble the lock from the inside while everybody else makes jokes. Other vans pull over in a show of solidarity, and soon their drivers are drinking maté with ours. Half an hour later, the door latch pops open, and we are free.

Argentine national parks seem to offer only two kinds of hikes: a sedate thirty-minute stroll along a wide footpath, or a multi-day trek through gorgeous and difficult terrain, the kind where they make sre you brought crampons. The day hike so popular in the United States seems to be nonexistent. It is possible to hike to the base of Lanín volcano and back in one day, but you're only allowed to try if you arrive by eight in the morning. To go further up requires ice equipment, sweaters, determination and a guide. You spend one night at the 2,700 meter refuge (with "good views of the surrounding countryside"), and go up to the summit and then all the way down the next day. The last section of the volcano is a long 45 degree climb. They say it is dormant.

We opt instead to eat a steak and take a boat tour of the large blue lake. Again the sheer friendliness of the guides is shocking; these people after all have to spend every day of the season ferrying sunburned tourists around the same limited circuit. The trip leader runs around the boat pointing things out to everyone, stopping only to serve NutraSweet espresso and miniature chocolates to the passengers from a tray. At the tip of the lake we slow down near a nonplussed angler fishing where a stream enters the lake. Our trip leader grows even more excited, and throws a small aluminum bucket into the water, with a rope attached. The water in this stream is supposed to make you ten years younger. It gets passed out in tiny Dixie cups and everyone trundles down the stairs to drink it, while the angler looks at the fifty foot boat with murder in his eyes.

Taking photographs on this cruise feels like going hunting in a zoo. You can lift your camera and point it at random in any direction, and you get a National Geographic cover. All the glacial lakes at the foot of the volcano are vivid blue, with coarse black sand surrounding them. In some places there are bare, lunar lava fields; in others the forest grows right down into the water. The forest has a pestilential look since the cane that forms its underbrush has flowered - something that happens only every few decades - and now lies dead on the ground, with only a few new shoots visible.

When the boat docks again I change into swim trunks and try taking a dip in the glacial lake. Much of what I am swimming in was recently snow, so there is an abrupt transition between the thin top layer heated by the black sand and Patagonian sun, and the icy bottom layer that lies in wait just below your ankles. The sand on the banks is so steep and coarse-grained it shifts like quicksand, so that as soon as you step out into the water your feet slide down in a series of slow-motion avalanches. We gringos are the only ones swimming; even the panting dogs won't go into the water. The black beach is as hot as a griddle and burns your feet badly if you have been foolish enough to leave your shoes inshore.

Back at the bus station again, a shaggy man with a microphone headset on approaches us and begins peppering us with questions. "Where are you from? What made you decide to visit Patagonia? How did you hear of Junín?" He's doing a radio show, mercifully not live, and I answer his questions with the effortless ease that is my hallmark in Argentina:

"We are from Nuevo Djork. Observe volcano. Volcano is pretty and we like it. We like water, like the heat. We like the heat and also we like the river. It is not hot in Nuevo Djork. In Nuevo Djork it is cold. Patagonia is very pretty. Penguins are here, beef is here, and also there is wine."

Inside the bus station a woman sells us a ticket to Neuquén, and onwards to Buenos Aires. She's the first person in Argentina to speak to me slowly, and the transaction unfolds in a beautiful dream of comprehension. The bus will be coche cama, a fully reclining seat. Steak will be served. The bus will arrive in Buenos Aires fourteen hours after departure. Outside the bus station, taxi drivers are standing outside, smoking. When a cab gets a fare, the other drivers push their cars forward one slot without turning on the engine, then get back out to stand in the shade. The pancho man is back with his hot-dog stand.

I see two guys drinking maté from a hollowed-out horse's hoof in another bus company's ticket window. I ask them whether I can take a picture, and they pose it gingerly for me.

"We didn't kill it", one of them explains.

Late one night in her house, Sonya catches us being stereotypical Americans, by which I mean we're drinking whisky on ice late at night at her kitchen table. Reciprocally we catch her being a typical Argentine, which means she is giving her three-year-old a bath at one in the morning. Sonia has a request for us: Do we know of anyone who would like to do a langage exchange with her in Junín? She's looking for either a teenager who wants to study abroad (you would get an infinitely nicer Argentine teenager in return), or an adult who would come to teach English. Personally I can't think of a better place to spend a school year. I'd be happy to put any interested reader directly in touch with her to figure out the nuts and bolts of it.

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