Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Neuquén -- a day in the life







Last night we had dinner at the hotel—The Hotel del Comahue, Neuquén's best ($145 a night, including tax)—with some friends that we hadn't seen for 30 years. By popular demand, the first shot here shows my wife, Norma, the second from the left. The guy on the right is a cardiologist, and his wife, on the left, is a retired OB-GYN. He is one of those people who can entertain you all night with jokes and stories. One story he told us was how he had directed his own heart bypass surgery. One day, about six years ago, he realized that he was having a heart attack. He jumped in a cab and went to the hospital where he ordered all the appropriate tests, etc. His associate came by later in the day and went to his room, handed him a bunch of stuff (blood tests, echocardiograms, etc.) and asked his opinion. "Wow," he said, this guy here is a goner for sure." Turns out those were his own tests he was looking at. So at that point he jumped on a plane to Buenos Aires and went straight to one of the top cardiolgists there and asked him to do the operation. Just so you know, he had lamb and red wine for dinner last night.

I woke up this morning early—8:00 am!—because a very dear, widowed friend wanted us to meet her daughter, a 25 year old whiz-bang lawyer in town, at 9:00 am for breakfast. I looked out the window and saw the sun was just coming up. The second picture doesn't do justice to the dawn, but it does give you a feeling for what downtown Neuquén looks like. The third picture was taken just after breakfast. Following breakfast, a lady from the local Hertz agency came by the hotel to deliver the rental car we had ordered. Rental cars aren't cheap here, as the diminuitive Fiat Siena we rented costs about $125 a day, but that includes a drop fee as we are going to return it at the Bariloche airport. I discovered that the best and cheapest way to get a rental is to ask the hotel to do the negotiations with the agency, rather than booking it via the internet, since that would have cost me about 30% more. Don't ask me why.

At 11:o0 am we headed off to say good-bye to another friend. On the way out of the hotel we asked about check-out time. "Whenever is convenient for you," was the reply. It's just really nice when you see the same people at the desk all the time and they know who you are and are so happy to take care of you. It probably also helps that the hotel wasn't full. But still, I can't say enough about how nice and kind all of the people have been at hotels and restaurants. Argentines may be poor, but they never lack for generosity of spirit.

We finally pulled out of the hotel about 1 pm, but it took us 20 minutes to get to the highway (six blocks away) because of a union demonstration that had closed down the main avenue out of town.

Our next stop was El Chocón, which at the time it was built in the early 1970s was one of the biggest hydroelectric projects in all of South America. The reason we went there was to see the skeleton of the world's biggest carnivorous dinosaur (Giganotosaurus CAROLINII) which was discovered several years ago near the site of the dam. The big guy occupies the fourth and fifth photo here. The sixth picture was taken in an adjacent room, and looks like it was straight out of Jurassic Park. I must add that while there were huge and very effective billboards on the highway designed to pull in tourists to the dinosaur museum (e.g., "Warning: voracious beings ahead"), it took us several tries to actually find the place once we pulled off the highway. Only in Argentina can you drive in circles around a very tiny village located in the middle of a vast desert and not find the museum which has the World's Biggest Dinosaur inside.

After that we continued on to our final destination for the day, which turned out to be Villa La Angostura, a beautiful town that is about 450 kilometers from Neuquén. Along the way we were stunned by the magnificence of the vast, open, and flat spaces, and the absence of people. Most of the traffic we passed—on a decent two-lane highway—consisted of dozens of huge buses that were on their way from Bariloche to Buenos Aires and other easterly destinations. I spent lots of time while driving trying to figure out how it could be cheaper for 25 people to travel 1000 miles in a huge bus with 3 crew members on what must be an 18-hour, $50 journey, instead of taking a 2 1/2 hour plane ride for $150. But the biggest surprise of the trip was how much the desert had changed. In the 30 years since we last made this journey, several huge (one must have been almost 50 miles long) new lakes have been created as the result of a series of hydroelectric dams built upstream of El Chocón on the Rio Limay. The last picture is of one of those lakes.

Unfortunately, as we approached La Angostura, it started raining torrentially (the clouds in the last picture tipped us off correctly). As darkness was falling and rain was pouring down, we stumbled into a hostel (Puertas del Sol), to be greeted by an extremely nice gentleman. He showed us a spacious, new, and very clean room with a view of the lake which will cost us about $78 including breakfast. We had dinner at the very nice restaurant which is attached to the Automovil Club Argentino, located in the center of the shopping district, and a traditionally good place for travellers to stop--they will even give you a modest discount if you are a AAA member. Two bottles of very good wine (it was so good, and we spent 3 hours drinking it while recapping all that has happened over the past two weeks), two salad bars, a delicious "provoleta" (a huge hunk of provolene cheese that is rubbed with olive oil and spices and cooked on the bbq), and a half kilo filet of fresh local trout done to absolute perfection with a lemon reduction sauce that we shared and couldn't even finish. How much did that cost, you ask? Including tax and tip, it set us back exactly $50.

1 comment:

Justine said...

dad, please notice the spelling of "greeted" in your last paragraph. It should be g-r-e-e-t-e-d and not greated. ;)

other than that, a very lovely post.