Copahue: where mud costs money

Warmth spreads through my body as I am walking home. Maybe it is from the wine I drank for lunch or thehydro massage I just got at the Copahue Thermal Center. In any case it feels good.

The first thing you notice when you get off the bus in Copahue is the smell. Sulphur. It doesn’t smell, it stinks. It comes from the surrounding geysers as well as the natural pools at the center. Then you notice the houses. Most of them are torusit accommodations of some sort: hotels, posadas, cabins, apartments, private houses, camping. You name it! There are no permanent inhabitants – every single person in Copahue comes in November and leaves in April. If you arrive in the middle of the day, as I did, you also notice the lack of any activity. it is the time of the siesta and the village is dead. Not great when you are starving and there is nowhere to eat. The location and the hospitality of the people more than make up for any minor inconveniences though.

The village is situated in the state of Neuquen (the best apple-pear producing region in Argentina) in the Northern Andes, only a few kilometers away from the Chilean border. It lies at the foot of an active volcano (hence the thermal pools) which boasts magnificent views of the valley. And it should do since it is one of the main attractions in town. The wide variety of waters makes the local Thermal Center one of the best in the world rivaled only by a similar center in Germany.The cordillera surrounds the village and all you can see is bare snow capped peaks washed in sunlight and enless valleys dotted with lagoons and the occasional geyser. I have always imagined Patagonia as a vast pampa where spotted horses run freely in hundreds. I wondered whether this was really the case. Now that I am here, I can confirm it. I saw them with my own eyes. It is always so exciting when something you have imagined turns out to be exaclty as you have pictured it.

Copahue’s remote location make for a scenic but challenging trip. Our broken bus vouchers for it. We all heard the thump below our feet soon after we left Caviahue and the paved road changed into gravel. We were in the middle of nowhere, about 15km away from our final destination and walking was out of the question. So, we all sat by the road under the scorching sun and patiently waited for the emergency vehicle. It is not like we had anything better to do. At least I didn’t and I doubt any of the 60 year old passengers, going to soak their arthritic bodies, was in much of a rush either. Eventually, we all got picked up and before we knew it we got dropped of in the center of the ‘great city’ of Copahue. Next on my list was finding a place to stay. I didn’t need much – a warm bed and running water were more than enough. I got pointed to a nearby hotel and went to check it out. I was out of there before I even got in. They charged a rediculously high amoung of money and defended it with the two meals that were included in the price. ‘No, thank you!’ I thought. We were in Argentina remember, I can get a much cheaper meal. Two ladies standing outside the hotel heard that I was looking for a place to stay and pointed me to a señor Juan Fernandez. I didn’t know what to expect but I was told it was cheap. So I walked the two blocks to thhe other side of the village and found the señor. It turned out that he rented out casillas.’Casillas?!’ I thought. What’s that? Señor Fernandez offered to show me and I followed him through the yard. You’ll never believe where i am staying at. I certainly can’t. I have rented a caravan, A not so small caravan all to myself. As soon as I arrived in Patagonia about a week ago I thought how great it would be to camp here. The place is made for camping. It is such a shame I don’t carry a tent with me. When i saw the caravan I was extatic. The price was also reasonable (certainly much lower than anything else around here). There was no way I was going anywhere else. I am not sure it compares to a tent, maybe it is the second best thing or a better way of camping but one thing is for sure – I am camping!

That first day in the caravan I couldn’t stop giggling to myself. I giggled when I saw the caravan, I giggled inside the caravan, I giggled when I left the caravan. I couldn’t stop saying how great it was! I was so happy. Things couldn’t have worked out better. This is what I call an adventure.

Now is the time to mention a book I picked up in my first weeks in Brazil that I still haven’t finished. Yes, it has been more than two months. It is the diary of a solitary Argentinian sailor who set out to sail around the world singlehandedly in a small yacht using old-fashioned methods of navegation (i.e. measuring latitude using the position of the sun among other methods). He didn’t carry any modern positioning device on board and he didn’t have a motor. Anyhow, as impressive as the story is, it is not the point. The reason I picked up the book was to practice my Spanish, particulalry in Brazil where I wouldn’t hear a word of iit for a couple of months. It is a hard read and not particulalry exciting one but it grew on me. I don’t want to leave it before I knows he’s safe back home. From the book I learned a few things about Argentina before I even got here. I knew about the fideos (spaghetti), the ñoquis, the tea time. It all made sense when I experienced it in Buenos Aires. But this is also not the point of my story or why I am mentioning the book. In the book the author describes his daily routine including the preparation of meals. Since I am camping I very much feel like hime – out in the open, having to rely on my own resources. Last night for the first time I understood, I felt his excitement with the success of the smallest of daily chores like meal preparation. Although I have never considered my meals during this trip in any way exciting or worth mentioning I feel I ought to mention my camping meals. They were some of the highlights of my stay in Copahue and the satisfaction I got from preparing them was enormous.

That first night after two thermal treatments (a dip in a green water lagoon and a green water immersion) I took a quick shower and ran (literally) to the store for groceries. I wondered whether to have pasta (just like the one we had in Guatemala when we camped at the volcano) or lentils dhal. I got the idea for the dhal from another book. The dhal prevailed. I went to the shop three times every time forgetting something. I finally made it to the caravan and got onto chopping the potatoes (yes! my dhal would have potatoes). While it was boiling I chopped the carrot and the onion and fried them in butter. As famous cook Julia Child says ‘Butter is the secret to cooking! You can never have too much butter!’ I then added the lentils, the potatoes, and a couple of cubes of vegetable broth for the taste. Well, my creation was far from an Indian dhal, but it was one hell of a vegetable stew! Finger-licking-licious! I had a lot of it, along with homemade bread, and a glass of red wine. It was one of the best dinners I have had so far! I don’t know what it is but I eat a lot here, I am also full of energy, running up and down the streets. Maybe it is the climate but I have a feeling camping has a lot to do with it. I am so excited.

I am glad I am doing this on my own as it would have felt completely different if I were with another person. Here I have no one but myself to rely on, I have to be creative with my food, and my sleeping arrangement, and there is nothing as exhilarating as the satisfaction of having achieved something on your own. This is my trip now. I am not using the guidebook. This is the adventure I was looking for.

The morning after my exquisite dinner I woke up by myself just before 8am. Always a sign of happiness. A champion’s breakfast followed – a fried egg sandwich with sausages, cereal with yoghurt, black tea, and a pear. Everything takes a lot longer when camping – cooking, washing dishes. The tap water here is freezing cold and I can’t say I am a big fan of washing greasy dishes in the middle of the cold dark night but it is all part of the experience and I am happy to do it. My hands turn bright red afterwards. It feels like burning although they are cold as icicles

After my wonderful breakfast I set out walking to Caviahue, the nearby village where an ATM was available. When I say ‘nearby’ I mean 17km away. I hoped a car would pick me up pretty soon. And it did! A nice elderly couple gave me a lift. I shared the back seat with a local lady who complained about the high prices of hotels while advertising her own little joint as the cheapest one. It really was.

I found the bank but there was no cash in the ATM. There hasn’t been any for the last 4 days as a matter of fact. A lovely couple was also waiting told me the truck would come at 12.30pm. It was 12.15pm. More than two hours later I was the only one still waiting. The truck did come though. While waiting I chatted to the couple who turned out to be real nice. They gave me tips on getting to Chile. I almost forgot – the first night in the caravan at about 23.30h just after I’d got into bed I felt the caravan shaking. I thought someone was walking outside. Not until the morning I realized that what I’d felt were the aftershocks of the big earthquake in Chile.

After I got cash I started walking back. I wanted to make it to the top of a nearby hill that had a great view of the village before I got into another car. My walk turned into a small expedition as it wasn’t until a few kilometers away from the village a young couple finally picked me up. See what I mean when I say that everything takes a lot longer. Even something as simple as taking cash out took about 5h. I did enjoy the view though and took photos at every possible angle.

When I made it back to the camping, I stopped by to say ’Hi!’ to the owner who has been really nice. He asked whether I’d had lunch and I told him I was about to make some.
– Do you like lentils? – he asked.
– I love lentils – I responded.
– I have some lentils with meat leftover from lunch. Do you want them? – he offered.
Sure I do! How could I turn down a delicious, free meal. My lunch was sorted.

Afterwards I went to the thermal center for a relaxing hydro massage. I then came back to the caravan, brewed myself a nice, hot cup of tea, wrapped myself in a warm blanket and wrote this post while watching the sun set over the mountains turning them pink. Spectacular!


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