Chos Malal: a wonderful mistake

‘Chos Malal: enjoy volcanoes and hot geysers’ was what the online version of the Lonely Planet said while advertising the town as one of Argentina’s Top 10 tourist attractions. Lured by the attractive description I set out to this remote town in Northern Patagonia. On the way there I met a lady traveling with her son. She told me she was originally from Chos Malal and was surprised I was going there.
– What are you going to do there? It was a small, poor village when I left. People could hardly get any food – she said.
– Things have changed – I replied. It is now one of Argentina’s top tourist attractions. I’m going there for the volcanoes and the thermal waters – I added.
– Thermal waters?! That is in Copahue – the lady said. A clear sign No.1 I chose to ignore.
If the Lonely Planet said so, then it is true. Nevermind the locals. What a mistake that was.
On the way there I enjoyed the view of a spectacular night sky boasting a million twinkling stars. I sat on the bus, face glued to the window thinking how magical it was.
I reached Chos Malal at 10pm, went to a hotel listed online as cheap but it wasn’t. Note to self: Trust online resources a little less. I then took another taxi and asked the driver to take me to the cheapest place in town. We went to another hotel where the price was reasonable, but the second one we went to was the winner. I settled in, had left over cold ravioli and spent the rest of the night watching a few movies simultaneously.
Morning came, I picked up a town map from the reception desk and set out to find the tourist info office. The small map I had listed the local attractions and thermal waters were nowhere to be seen. A clear sign No.2 I chose to ignore. ‘The tourist info would know better’ I thought.
The lady at the hotel told me the info office was a couple of blocks away. When I got there i found a note saying that the ‘real’ tourist office was near a bar on Ruta 40. It looked close enough on the map so I set out to find it. Let me tell you this – maps lie! The office wasn’t near town, it was a few kilometers outside of it. How convenient! Why not have the tourist info office in the middle of nowhere where a single tourist can’t find it! Yeah, sounds like a brilliant idea! The ‘walk’ there was an expedition in itself. And that’s before I even hiked up some of the surrounding hills. Half way there I was thirsty. The wind made my mouth really dry and my lips started burning. Thinking that the office was close enough (silly me!) I didn’t take any water. Who would?!
I finally made it to the little wooden barack and got all the info I needed. Yes, you guessed it! There were no volcanoes, let alone thermal waters. There were bike rides advertised but no bikes to be rented. There were horse trips but the horses were in a village some 60km away. The best I could do was hike up some of the surrounding hills. Oh well, might as well make the most of it.
Later when I told people where I have been they all laughed.
– Did you like it? – they asked sarcastically. What diod you do?
Nevertheless Chos Malal turned out to be the capital of chivito (roasted goat). Comforting!
I left the tourist info and considered my options. I was thirsty but one of the hikes was just down the road. It wouldn’t make sense to go back to town and then all the way back to the hill. I swallowed hard and set out for the hill. Most people drive or cycle down the famous Ruta 40. I walked. That must count for something! Add to that the scorching sun and the lack of water and you got yourself a survivor! Or an idiot.
After a while I came to a decently looking hill and although I had no idea whether it was the one I was looking for, i couldn’t walk much further without water (see, some common sense left!). I looked for a path, there was none, and I cut across whatever was available. When I reached the top I was pleasantly surprised to see a viewing platform. Ha! I’d found the right hill by accident. I spent some time on top of it marvelling at the surroundings, considering my next move. The hills further down looked appealing.I could see some snow capped peaks and wanted to know what else was there. Unfortunatelly, I coulnd’t go on without water. I wouldn’t make another few hours without it. It was better to go back to town and get a drink. Luckily, soon after I got down I came across a small shop. I got my water and headed to another hill that was just around the corner. I climbed up, sat around for a bit, and decided to go up a higher hill that looked a lot more appealing. I walked up, thinking about future trips, planning itineraries. Ideas were abundant. And I sang. I sang every single song that came to mind – there were Bulgarian folk songs, there was gospel, and there was pop! And it all came out perfectly. have you ever wondered what it feels like to stand on top of a mountain and shout as hard as you can ‘I am the King of the World!’ ? I didn’t shout, I sang at the top of my lungs and it felt great! I was happy.
As I sat on top of the ridge I could see the mountain peaks covered in snow, the valley spread below me, the river lazily making its way through, the colorful houses cuddled close to each other and the little people running around. And yes! I saw what was behind the hills I couldn’t climb.
A special treat was the flock of condors flying above my head. I was singing when I saw one of them glide a mere 3m away from me. It was hardly flapping it wings, taking advantage of the favourable winds. I knew they were big but I had no idea they were that big. I could see its eyes, the beak, the colors on the wings. I was surprised the condors got so close to me despite the singing. I’d imagine it would scare them away but no, they were right there in front of me, doing their thing despite my presence. At this moment I felt immensly honoured that they’d felt safe enough to get so close. It was amazing! Of all animals to see a condor in the wild. At times like this I think ‘I wish YOU could see what I am seeing now.’.
I couldn’t contain my joy as I was walking back. I guess it wasn’t such a bad day afterall. More than that – it was one of the best days I have had on this trip and certainly a great story.
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