Day 16 (Sunday February 12, 2012) After breakfast we brought the bikes from the parking garage to the front of the hotel and began to load them up. A friendly man greeted me with an American sounding “buenos días” and we started to talk—in English. He turned out to be from Southern California (San Clemente) and owned a KLR 650 back home. He had actually grown up in the city of Arcadia, very close to my home in Claremont. The man was traveling with his wife in a rental car. They were planning to drive south to Chos Malal, the same direction we were traveling, the next day. He had hurt his hand rock climbing in Mendoza so we could not shake hands. I regretfully did not ask for his name—if you are reading this, please tell me who you are
A few kilometers south of Malargüe near Cascadas Manqui Malal we made our first stop to rest and to collect fossils—the same type of fossils that Charles Darwin collected here in Mendoza more than a century ago. Her Majesty Ship Beagle spent quite a bit of time sailing up and down the Patagonian shore. In Patagonia Darwin had the chance to collect many fossils of giant mammals that would later became significant evidence for his theory of Evolution by Means on Natural Selection. After the Beagle sailed around the Cape Horn, Captain Fitzroy ordered a lengthy stay in Chile to plot the shore. Darwin took that opportunity to cross the Andes from Santiago, Chile into Mendoza. He made some interesting geological observations up in the Andes and also discovered many fossils—of particular significance were the remains of a coniferous forest. Darwin also collected several mollusks—Ostrea, Turritella, Ammonites, and a small bivalve—that according to his description are very similar to the ones we collected here. We took pictures of the fossils but did not bring them with us. There is little room on a motorcycle to drag rocks around!
As I mentioned before, Southern Mendoza feels very Patagonian including the presence of many old volcanoes and lava fields at the foot of Andes. South of Bardas Blancas the road follows the valley of the Río Grande. East of the valley is La Payunia provincial reserve, a unique place soon to be declared World Heritage Site because it features the largest concentration of volcanic cones in the world. At a given point the Río Grande enters an expansive lava field and cuts through the black lava. At La Pasarela (the footbridge), route 40 crosses over the river offering a splendid view of the narrow gorge carved by the Grande on the thick layer of black basalt. It seemed like a perfect place for kayaking—may be on my next sabbatical.
South of La Pasarela, Ruta 40 turns into a rough gravel road with serious wash-boarding and frequent dust pools until it reaches the area of Ranquil Norte. I rode a large portion of the approximately 50 kilometers of this rough section standing on the foot pegs to allow the bike to bounce around freely beneath me. My legs, arms, and torso were tired but my butt was thankful for the break. As soon as we got to the asphalt it began to rain. Despite the heavy thunder and the lightening the views were lovely. From the descending road we had very broad views of the steppe and its mesas. Patches of showers alternated with sunny areas. The wet creosote bushes—close relatives of the bushes in the Mojave and the Sonoran deserts—released a sweet perfume that made the ride more pleasant. We crossed the Barrancas River to enter the Province of Neuquén. In almost every Patagonian river valley people plant columnar Lombardy poplars as windscreens. Even during the winter months the dense leaf-less branches create an effective wind barrier. We rode past Volcán Tromen and saw the snow covered peak of Volcán Domuyo at a distance. A year ago I was at the Domuyo hot springs collecting cyanobacteria for some DNA studies. I would not have guessed that I would be back a year later looking at the Domuyo from a motorcycle. After two quick rest stops at Buta Ranquil and Chos Malal, we crossed the Neuquén River and continued south in the direction of Las Lajas where we wanted to spend the night. We could not find a hotel at Las Lajas so we continued on route 40 to Zapala. As we were arriving to the city, the sun appeared from behind the clouds and lit the thorny bushes of the steppe to produce a gorgeous Patagonian sunset.
Dinner was bad and expensive. A dog bit a piece of my sandwich.