Zapala was just an overnight stop for us. Clair was not enjoying camping much but we had agreed a stop in Chos Malal as we continued up route 40. However, we got to the town and didn’t like the look of the municipal campsite. I don’t know why, we just didn’t have a good feeling about it. Instead we decided to continue to Buta Ranquil where Clair had spotted a hotel on iOverlander, Hotel Portal Norte that sounded both nice and cheap. Two words that go together very well.
So we pushed on, the countryside is desolate and flat. the wind hot and dry. the road stretches on and on but thankfully does have at least a few bends and the odd hill. Saying that though the whole area is fairly flat and despite the patches of green scrub we are riding through a desert. We even had a near miss with an armadillo that crossed the road in front of us.
There is something almost zen like as we ride along. The drone of the bikes with the hot wind means we are sweating away in our gear. We have all he vents open and our jackets unzipped in an attempt to stay at least hot and not melting hot. Everything merges, I know we cannot hope to remember any of the finer details without stopping for photos every few minutes. We alternate between talking to each other, music or just the sound of the wind in our helmets and ride and ride and ride.
Everything is sandy and dusty. At one point, we stopped at the side of the road, there were a couple of trees in front of an abandoned cafe or bar and we needed a few minutes out of the sun. Clair nearly dropped her bike in the sand and rightly abandoned it at the side of the road. I stopped by her bike and we trudged into the shade 50 metres away. The heat is heading into the mid thirties now and like all mad dogs and English men we are stupidly riding in the midday sun. Peak temperature is usually about 4 pm but by 1 pm its killing us.
We arrived at Buta Ranquil and we knew from the map the hotel is on the main road which skirts the edge of town. We parked the bikes at the side, under some shade and walked in. Its still early so we had to wait for a room to be ready a little while. That’s OK but we strip our gear off worrying about the smell of it and what mess we’ll leave on the polished stone floor.
After a while though we checked in and the room had air conditioning. Long showers were followed with a proper siesta, we slept until early evening. luxury. The couple that run it were really nice and one of the first things they did was showed us a card left by Steve and Janette of tiger800rtw.com who we had met in Pucon.
Before dinner we walked into the village to have a look around. It is typical of many small towns in Argentina that cling to the edge of the main roads. There is a feeling of desolation, many building are gutted and empty shells. The main road is paved but the side roads are all sandy and dusty. But, the people are not downtrodden or sad or dirty. they are proud. Houses that are occupied are looked after. The park, the centre of every small town was busy with a band playing and kids of all ages running around and there is a real sense of community and life. We were accosted by a group of the kids with a microphone, they were running around ‘interviewing’ people in breaks in the music. We were poor fodder for them, any questions asked take us a moment to process and we stared dumbly at the microphone as the kids laughed at our silence as we tried to come up with a few words. some ran off to the next interviewee but a couple hung around for a moment to show off their English speaking skills. It’s obvious from what we see that kids are pushing themselves to learn English and they are often happy to practice on us.
The hotel, Portal Norte, was very nice, I think the dining / reception / kitchen area is also the owners living room. The rooms are in a section at the back and although there was a sort of homemade feel to the building, it was spotlessly clean and we were made very welcome. The owners have two young children and they spent ages coming and looking at us, the daughter who was about six talked and talked but we had no idea what she was saying. The son was maybe two or three and spent the entire time taking my hat and giving it back. In the evening we sat outside and Clair and I became handy climbing frames and people to show all their toys off to.
Buta Ranquil though sticks in my mind because of the events with money and fuel. As western Europeans we are used to paying by card, cash is useful to have for some things but the card is king these days and sometimes we get caught out. At the hotel, we had quickly realised they may not take cards and we were embarrassed to find that we were low on funds. We had checked the bank on our walk into the village, it had recently had a fire and there was a temporary bank outside. The cash point though was in the main building still behind a door you could open with a bank card. Our cards did not work on the door. The bank itself though was promising as we had withdrawn from one of them before.
We were low on fuel, we had about 100 km left in our tanks. In the UK, we would never even think about this as a problem but checking the map, the next fuel was way, way further than that. 100 km would get us back to Chos Malal but that would lose an hour each way and lets be honest, the roads are not exciting to ride. So, in the morning we scraped all of our pesos together and had enough to pay the bill, so far so good. We rode into town knowing that it was very likely that Saturday morning traffic to the bank would give us an opportunity to get in the door and get some cash.
Clair got in but quickly realised that the people ahead of her were having trouble and it turned out that the cash machine was broken.
Next stop was fuel. The garage shown on the maps was derelict but the hotel owner had told me we could get fuel next to the hospital. There was a workshop with pumps so I asked if they took cards. The women told us the card machine was broken. Damn!
She also told us we could get cash from a kiosk in a shop on the high street! Hurrah! We went back into town, found the shop and I asked. “Come back after 11am” I was told. It was only 2 minutes away so we went back to the park, stripped off our gear which was already feeling pretty unpleasant with the morning heat and waited.
I have to admit, that I was enjoying myself. I really get a kick out of dealing with people and so despite the inconvenience and the fact neither of us wanted to ride back to Chos Malal at all, I can only describe myself as optimistic.
11am came around so I walked to the shop, I had left my passport in my gear! I walked back to the park and then back to the shop again. I handed over a debit card and it was rejected by the machine. Third time lucky? we tried a credit card. Nope.
I walked back to the park and gave Clair the bad news. We really, really did not want to ride to Chos Malal again but it was looking bad. I suggested we go back to the hotel that we had left nearly two hours earlier, hoping to ride early and miss the worst of the heat before we stopped. By now the sun was really up and beating us as hard as it could. So, gear on and back to the hotel. I managed to change some Chilean Pesos with the owner, 20,000 Chilean converted to 1500 Argentinian (about £17). Things were looking up, we should be able to get enough fuel.
I had forgotten how cheap the fuel is though. 1500 pesos filled both tanks and still put 3 litres of fuel into our jerrycan.
Back on the road!!!