Last weekend, my roommate Ida and I traveled from Buenos Aires to Tornquist to camp in La Cueva de los Guanacos, which lies in the shadow of Cerro Tres Picos in the Sierra de la Ventana. This was a relatively spur-of-the-moment trip, and it’s safe to say I couldn’t have done it without Ida as most of the information online regarding this particular camping spot and what it takes to get to the cave is in Spanish — and my Spanish, especially for camping in remote Argentinian locations, is still progressing.
At around 10:30 p.m. on Friday, Ida and I boarded a bus in Buenos Aires. We traveled 10 hours overnight and arrived in Tornquist around 8:30 a.m. the next day. I was pleasantly surprised by my ability to sleep on the bus. I slept through the night and woke up around 7 a.m. as we were dropping passengers off in Saldungaray, a town near Tornquist. Since it’s summer here, the sun was already high in the sky and burning brightly.
It is truly something to fall asleep in one place when it’s dark outside, travel through the night and wake up somewhere completely new and different. Or even to arrive somewhere new after dark and then wake up to fresh sights and sounds in the morning. In a way, you never know what will greet you. For me, the magic of those moments never grows old, especially when I’m arriving somewhere out in nature.
The fields, trees and hills between Saldungaray and Tornquist reminded me a bit of Dartmoor in England, the northern countryside between Milan and Turin in Italy and parts of California. It was beautiful, especially Saturday morning when the bus was quiet. Even the tireless rattling plastic from the night before seemed to have quieted itself a bit.
It felt good to be out in the countryside, venturing toward two days and one night of backcountry hiking and camping. The week leading up to our little trip, I’d been looking forward to unplugging, escaping the city and spending time exploring in nature. Especially since Argentina and its countryside were high on my list in moving down here.
As we drove from Saldungaray to Tornquist, I started writing my thoughts down and continued to do so throughout the weekend. So here’s the story of my camping trip with Ida — and a few colorful characters — in the Sierra de la Ventana.
Once the bus dropped us off in Tornquist, we took a remis — an unofficial taxi — out to Estancia Funke. Our driver reminded me a bit of an older Danny DeVito. Ida talked with him the entire ride. I was doing my best to listen and understand. His accent threw me for a loop. His voice was hoarse, and his mannerisms had me thinking he has some Italian in him. He was quite the character. As we drove down the rocky road, growing closer to the mountains, the car waddled and jumped.
Roughly 30 minutes later, we arrived at Estancia Funke, went inside and filled out some brief paperwork with the young woman who lives and works there.
We then caught a ride to the start of the trek, skipping the first 6 km, with a couple from Bahia Blanca … and a poisonous snake they’d captured to start a snake farm back home. Ida and I had no clue the snake was in the car — contained, but still in the car — until we were en route.
The climate and landscape near Tornquist were more desert-like than I anticipated, and Ida and I had only just learned at Estancia Funke that we’d need to keep an eye out for snakes during our trek. And now we were getting a ride with a couple that was specifically in the Sierra de la Ventana to catch snakes. But fortunately, they weren’t heading to La Cueva de los Guanacos, our campsite for the night. No, prime snake territory is apparently elsewhere in the mountains. Whew.
After eating a small breakfast and changing into our hiking clothes, Ida and I started the hike among cows and wild horses.
The first section was relatively flat, and then we started our ascent through a forest. From the forest, we trekked across slabs of rock that have formed the mountains / been pushed by tectonic plates below over time; over a ridge; down a little, through a meadow and over another ridge; and then down slightly and around to La Cueva de los Guanacos. In total, I think it took us four hours or so to reach the cave in dry and very hot heat.
When we arrived at the cave, there were seven other people there. All male. Admittedly, we were a bit nervous about that. We decided to not jump to conclusions, see how the next few hours went and then make a decision as to whether we would stay the night there or hike on to find another campsite.
Two of the guys were close in age to the two us and were camping in the mountains for the weekend. The other group was comprised of two fathers, who were friends, and their three sons. Ida spent time talking with everyone; I spent time listening. They all seemed harmless enough, and we decided to stay.
Once we’d made that decision and pitched our tent, our next order of business was finding water.
While we’d brought more than the recommended amount of water, we still didn’t think we’d have enough for dinner, breakfast and the return trek. Luckily, there was a water source — albeit small — not too far from the cave.
The two younger guys told us about it, and we went down to get water with them later that afternoon. The water they’d been collecting was coming from a drip — that’s usually a waterfall — so it took forever to fill up all of our bottles. But we had time to kill and were so grateful for the help as we never would have found this water source — nor known to wade across the little pool, wait patiently for the water to drip into our bottles and then filter the water with a scarf or piece of cloth — on our own.
Even with the water coming from “running water” and the one guy filtering it with his scarf, I was still a bit nervous about drinking the water, but really, I had no choice. I needed that water. Thankfully, it all turned out okay.
That evening, Ida and I fixed vegetable soup for dinner using Ida’s little gas burner and a small pot we’d brought from home. We sat in the cave’s opening, ate it with bread and watched as lights turned on in two towns below. For everything night covers up, it can also reveal quite a bit. In this case, during the day, I had no clue there were two towns below us on this side of the mountain. But in the darkness of night — and their need for light — the towns’ presence was clearly visible.
For dessert, we snacked on dried fruit and chocolate-covered almonds. Unfortunately, the sky was overcast that night, so we were unable to see the stars — a bummer since that’s one of my favorite parts of being away from city lights. With a long day behind us and another full day ahead, we got ready for bed, climbed into our tent and drifted off to sleep.
One thing I’m reminded of every time I camp is that I love waking up outside and going about my morning in nature. There’s just something so refreshing about it. Last Sunday was no different.
When we woke up at 8:40, the fathers and sons were already gone and the two other guys were still asleep in their tent. I walked outside the cave and found a spot to brush my teeth and go to the bathroom, taking in the fresh views and scents around me.
Ida made oatmeal for breakfast while I collapsed the tent and packed it up. Then, we sat on the edge of the cave and ate our oatmeal with dried bananas and blueberries. So simple, and so good. There’s just something about starting your day like that that I love. It’s quiet and still and simple and everything a morning should be. No technology. No mirrors. No distractions. Just peace and quiet out in beautiful, majestic nature.
Once we’d packed up our gear and taken a few photos, we crossed back over the ridge above the cave, stored our packs in some rocks nearby and hiked off toward Cerro Tres Picos.
Before we started the trek back down to Estancia Funke, we wanted to summit the mountain, which I believe is the tallest peak in the Sierra de la Ventana.
That we did. But we summited it the wrong way. Well, it wasn’t necessarily wrong — we were following cairns, so clearly, it had been done before — but it wasn’t the way we’d intended to go.
I have a mild fear of heights. The Bright Angel Trail in the Grand Canyon was no problem for me. But this, this was different. There was no true path. We were making our own way through tall grass and then scrambling and climbing rocks up the side of what turned out to be the wrong peak. At one point, I looked up and was in awe of just how flat and tall the side of the mountain was. It rattled me a little. Looking up has never made me feel that way. So from then on, I tried my best to not look up — or down — and only focus on my next moves.
Upon reaching the top, as Ida and I took in the sweeping views, we noticed some man-made pillars on the neighboring peak and realized we’d trekked up the wrong one.
Luckily, it was relatively easy to hike between the two peaks, so we crossed to the other one in a matter of minutes. Finding the “right” peak also made going down much easier.
Back near the cave, we retrieved our packs and continued to trek all the way to the bottom, tracing the route we’d hiked the day before.
On Saturday, we had skipped the first 6 km of the hike by getting a ride with the Bahia Blanca couple and their snake. On Sunday, there was no ride, so Ida and I walked the “extra” 6 km back to Estancia Funke after an already very long and very hot day.
We drank water sparingly throughout the day — thank goodness for those two guys showing us the water source the day before — but even still, when we arrived back at Estancia Funke around 5:40 p.m., we were completely out of water and terribly parched.
The estancia was a welcome site.
We set our bags down on the porch, filled our water bottles in the large kitchen sink, emptied them within a minute and then filled them again. We were tired, exhausted, sweaty and dirty.
After getting my fix of water, I took my shoes and socks off and sat on the cool tiles of the porch. It felt so good.
The last 6 km were really hard on my feet, which I think had already had enough from the rocks and rough, uneven terrain on the downhill hike. My socks were wet, presumably from the day / night before, and I ended up getting blisters on the bottoms of my feet. Not fun at all. A tough lesson learned to always change into dry socks from one day to the next. Always.
Our bus out of Tornquist wasn’t until 10 p.m., so Ida and I spent the late afternoon and early evening sitting on the tiled front porch of the estancia, eating our snacks — and then soup for dinner — and resting.
The cool tiles, the shade of the porch and the light breeze felt oh-so rewarding. Trees, dirt and chirping birds surrounded us. A few dogs slept in the dirt just off the porch. Two Argentinian couples were drinking mate and talking further down the porch from us. The setting somewhat reminded me of something you’d find in the south — or perhaps southwest — in the U.S. There was no Spanish moss on the trees, but it felt like there should’ve been.
Around 8:30 p.m., a remis picked us up from the estancia and took us back to Tornquist. We got a few snacks in the gas station across from the bus station, and I made a new canine friend — a scruffy terrier, my favorite kind — while waiting for the bus.
When the bus arrived, we climbed on board and settled in for the night trip back to Buenos Aires.
As we drove from Tornquist to Saldungaray and then on, Ida and I marveled at the clear night sky through the bus window. We saw so many stars — ones that simply weren’t visible the night before due to the clouds. I love seeing the stars as they always remind me of northern Michigan and my home. Over the years, I’ve found that no matter where I am or what I’m doing — even riding on a bus through the Argentinian countryside — the stars take me back to that special place again and again and again.
So on this particular Sunday night in January, I fell asleep on a bus passing through the peaceful, quiet, starry-skied Argentinian countryside thinking of a place I love dearly after spending quite an adventurous weekend exploring an entirely new place.
January 23, 2017