A Geologist's Delight

Trip Start Jan 20, 2004
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Trip End Ongoing


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Thursday, June 2, 2005

If you happen to find yourself in the quiet agricultural town of San Rafael one day, you would be well advised to stay at Cabañas Turisticas Calderón. It is a very pleasant spot on the edge of town, with five or six cabañas set in spacious gardens shaded by a dozen olive trees. We decided it was definitely not the time of year to take a dip in the swimming pool, and besides, we were more interested in what was making all the commotion in the leafy branches overhead. It turns out that we are here at the height of the olive harvest and anybody who has a few trees is busy "beating around the bush"! Teresa Calderón, the friendly owner of the cabañas, was very eager to explain the whole process to us, as it gave her a chance to supplement her English lessons with some conversational practice.

This was the first time in two months that we had been able to walk around in our shirtsleeves, so we were more than happy to soak up the sunshine and enjoy the warm air as we wandered the tree-lined streets. San Rafael is located in a very arid area and relies totally on irrigation from the Atuel and Diamante rivers which originate in the eastern Andean snowfields. Mature sycamore trees line the open canals, and we enjoyed scuffling through the accumulated drifts of dried fall leaves as we set off on visits to some of the nearby vineyards and a local olive processing factory.

Even in town the atmosphere was very relaxed, and most people seemed to be getting around on two wheels - in fact, the throngs of bicycles appeared to outnumber the cars. Mind you, it was just as important to keep your wits about you when crossing the streets, as, just like everywhere else in Argentina, pedestrians seem to be fair game for anything on wheels! The San Rafaelites seemed to take great pride in keeping their town clean and tidy - even to the extent of swabbing down the sidewalks with a mix of water and kerosene to keep them bright and shiny and lay the dust.

One afternoon as we were walking back from a local fruit and vegetable store, we were accosted by a couple of exceedingly friendly fellows. Our immediate thoughts were that we were being set up for some type of scam, so we were somewhat reserved in our response at first. However, it didn't take long to discover that these were neighbouring campers from a site in Reñaca, Chile, who we had met back in January. They lived here in San Rafael, and had the advantage that they had recognized our van with the Canadian maple leaf decals parked down the street. Of course, we would have recognized them immediately if they had been in the RV they used for their trip to Chile - a converted ambulance!

The highlight of our visit here was a trip to the nearby Cañón del Atuel. The locals claim this natural wonder exceeds the splendour of the Grand Canyon in Colorado - maybe a slightly biased exaggeration, but it certainly makes for an afternoon of "ooohing and aaahing". The rock formations have been four million years in the making, and provide some stunning studies in multi-coloured geological creativity. Of course, it probably looked even better before the engineers recently added their ten cents worth - in the form of four hydro-electric dams and attendant power generating stations. Nevertheless, the scale of the natural rock sculptures far outweighs the human intervention (which is mostly hidden in huge tunnels bored through the rock) and manages to dwarf even the most massive powerline pylons. It made for some interesting hiking and certainly kept our camera shutter busy. The late afternoon sun seemed to set the rocks ablaze with glowing reds and ochres, and then imbued the waters of the reservoir with magical coppery-silver reflections and mysterious shadows and silhouettes.

Back at the cabañas the olive harvest continued in full swing, and the next day we said our goodbyes and headed off towards Mendoza. We had many samples of local produce loaded in the van (mostly grape and olive-based, of course) but our favourite was a jar of home-made quince jam - a parting gift from Señora Teresa.
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