Sunday, January 14, 2007

The Fiesta of the Huemul

RTW Day 86
By the way, worked out that I'll probably be spending Day 100 of my travels on the Torres del Paine Circuit trekking! Marvellous!!

Today's festival

So I leave, feeling rather hung over, locking my door (this has significance later!). On the main square there are a couple of hundred people waiting for the free bus to the festival. I get the impression that the organisers had under-estimated how many, so extra buses are quickly laid on. Doesn't bode well for the food, though, does it?! I end up on a bus, at the back in the luggage area, no seats, so I'm standing, for a 45 minute drive. It's hot, bumpy, and I'm right at the back. I do not feel good! Somehow I make it without throwing up! Out of the bus, [GPS: 47.11786S, 72.48728W] and the first thing we see is the fantastic roasting of the meat going on:

A hot job

Turns out the meat is not the protected species Huemul, it's lamb. I am slightly disappointed, but don't want to be arrested after all. With all of the carcasses stretched out on crosses, it looks like there has been some sort of awful cult ceremony! The meat looks good!

The silence of the lambs

They are also frying meat for burgers, which comes first.


I take my bread roll, some chopped onion chutney, and wait for some meat. Doesn't take long. I take a bite. I can't seem to bite any meat off. What is going on? Seemed to me I had the toughest most chewy piece of meat ever! Why, oh why, for it looks so good!


This is one of the situations where I am slightly disadvanted being a "meat virgin". Having been vegetarian for half my life, there are often meat situations where I don't really know what I'm doing. For example which bits to eat when you're hacking through some particularly unprocessed meat. Frankfurters and salami are fairly easy, I've got them worked out. Steak I generally avoid fatty bits but otherwise know what to do. Chickens and other complicated things, my general policy is to eat everything that doesn't look like fat or a vein, and if I chew for a while and nothing is happening, I'll spit it out.

So this piece of meat.. I manage to bite off one piece of meat finally, and I chew away. There's something wrong here. I'm pulling so hard to get the meat off, I've completely squashed the bap. Slightly embarrassed, I resolve to chuck the meat, which I do when no one is looking. I hope it's not all going to be like this! I now have small strands of very chewy meat stuck between all my teeth, so go to find a drink. They do like their sparkling drinks ("gaseosos") here, especially fanta. Yucks. I find some lemony drink, and attempt to extract the meat from its lodgings.

Horse love

The place where we are is an "estancia", which I guess translates as "estate", which here in Argentina and Chile means farm. The setting is absolutely beautiful, nestled in a valley surrounded by small hills, surrounded by a declared national park. I'm glad I didn't try to walk it though. As usual, the distance lies were out en-force. The tourist brochure says it's 9km North of town. Well, as the crow flies, maybe, but the sign at the entrance to the park says Cochrane is 18km away, and it's a good 20 minute drive *inside* the estate to get to the farm. A group does turn up mid-afternoon having trekked here, but they all have camping gear, and presumably stayed overnight somewhere along the way. Incidentally, much reference is made to a very English-sounding name. Tompkinson or something. I believe he bought the whole area and then made it a nature reserve. Similar to a private version of the National Trust back home.

The estancia from above

Leaving the young guitar players on stage, I find one of the chaps we met last night in the main building playing "truco" (or trew-co?), a card game which is native to Patagonia. I join them and watch for a while. It's bizarre. Three cards are dealt to each player. One person will put down a card in front of him. The next player in front of him, seeming (to me) to bear no relation to the first. Sometimes the players can't go with the cards they have, so they skip their turn. However, I can't work out any connection between what they are laying down. The cards are all numbers, similar to a traditional pack, but the objects on the cards are truly surreal. There are carrot-shaped multicoloured gherkin things, yellow Oriental spirals, a bloke in a dress, sometimes a bloke in a dress holding a gherkin as a weapon, and a card covered in spears. I head back outside.


It would seem the main meat feast is ready! After waiting for the keen beans to have their share, I grab some bread and try to get near one of the tables where the slicing and dicing is occurring. It's a bit of a scrumage. I realise that the secret is to bring your own knife, then you just hack off the bits you want, without waiting for the two chaps who are doing it on everyone else's behalf. A particularly smug-looking chap is helping himself to what must be his third portion already!

A serious business

When I get to front, I am given an enormous fatty lump. As I am given it, the chap says something to me. I wonder what he says. "Apologies, this bits a little messy, but come back for more?", or perhaps "That's all you're getting, you lardy gringo"?! It's great fun when you're in a country understanding very little but being talked at all the time!

Gauchos dancing

There are copious quantities of salads on hand too, which I avail myself of, then find a spot on the grass to enjoy my feast, as music is played on stage.

Where does grass stop and salad begin?

I hack away at my piece of meat, separating flesh from fat. There is bone all over the place. I wonder what "bit" this is? The actual meat is delicious and tender, which is a relief after my burger nightmare earlier! I find a particularly nice bit right against the bone.

Just acting, kids

Having eaten my fill, I get confortable, and have a snooze under the bright sunshine, not very successfully as kids run about screaming, and I have a football kicked against me a couple of times. The music is good though.


In the distance above the hills, large birds circle and rise up on the thermals. Are they condors? Patricio appears, and thinks not. This is the umpteenth time I've seen dark birds with large wingspans behaving like condors, but have been told they are probably not. I hear someone else speculate that they are though. Do condors look so very different to these birds? I'll probably never find out (until I go to London Zoo!).

A complete mate-tea set

There are people climbing the nearby cerro (hill), and I watch a chap climb what looks like a sheer rock face. Suddenly I notice on the side of the hill - Guanacos!

Llamas in disguise

These are llamas by all but name, and there's a "herd"? of them pottering about! I resolve to head up and have a look. Am delayed slighly by afternoon tea and carrot cake, but one must have one's priorities right, and afternoon tea is the appropriate thing to do. The chap on stage now is doing an Argentine John Lee Hooker meets Elvis gig.

Boom boom boom boom, uh huh

I wander up the hill. It's not as steep as it appears from far, but the view from the top is magnicifient.

Hielo Norte

The estancia's setting

Elusive guanacos have done a runner though. Walking up I am covered in small spiky balls, which I pluck off, some of them rather painfully as their spikes are almost like rose thorns.

Attack of the small spiky critters!

After enjoying the hill, I head down, only to watch all of the buses pulling out! There's one bus left, the large coach-like one, which I walk briskly towards, hoping it won't drive off in front of me. I didn't find Patricio in the festival, and assume he was on one of the other buses. This bus is of course completely full, so I end up sitting in the stairwell at the front.Ah well, beats standing at the back of the one on the way here! On the road out of the park we meet a 4x4 which has run off the road into a ditch. The smug guy with his own knife is here, and I hope it's his vehicle. Turns out it's not, he's just stopped to help. Damn. We use the bus to pull the 4x4 out of the ditch (one would have thought, being a 4x4, it should be able to reverse out on its own!). Another chap offers the use of his chain to do the towing. As the vehicle comes out, the chain snaps in two. Turns out he had used a coat hanger to join it in the middle! Classy.

Back on board, the chap sitting on the dashboard (don't you just love countries that make full use of buses!) briefly chats to me, and I encounter that nasty social situation - the "polite wait" - i.e. after making polite conversation, how long must one wait before turning back to your book, or putting headphones back on, without appearing rude? The usual format is after the last word, is spoken, to look meaningfully into the distance, as if carefully considering the advice imparted, but secretly waiting to see if any more will be said. 10 seconds clear, I feel it safe, and resume my music. We drive alongside Rio Baker again - I can't get over how blue it is!

Fish-scales again

Walking along the road near my hostel, the "Ale" bus I took from Chile Chico to Cochrane comes along. The driver, recognising me from four days ago, waves frantically and pulls over. He'd found a lens cap on the bus, and thought it was mine, as I was taking lots of photos on our trip. How very decent of him!

Arriving back at the hostel, I find to my horror that my door is unlocked! Inside, my laptop, and my money and credit cards are not especially well-concealed. The damn maids had made my bed, then not locked the door afterwards! Unbelievable. I'd be vaguely forgiving if they cleaned the room, but they don't - my bathroom is apparently never cleaned, and the bin not emptied. Am not impressed.

Incidentally, a slight feeling of impending doom is washing over me - the day approaches when I will have to carry everything - my full and day packs, and camera! My journey from Villa O'Higgins in Chile to El Chalten in Argentina, which involves a couple of days of trekking, is a one-way trip, so no leaving bags anywhere! The horror!

Viva Patagonia!

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