Thursday, January 20, 2011

Junín de Los Andes, Argentina, Part 1

Our rose-filled campground, Junin de los Andes, Argentina
After leaving the lovely, but torturously hot town of Sierra de la Ventana, we decided it was time to move to a fresher clime. We’d wanted to visit the mountain town of San Martin de los Andes for some time; our friends raved about its Alpine (or more accurately, Andean) beauty and the wide range of outdoor activities available. It seemed to be the perfect place to cool down, but after talking to other travelers and locals, the neighboring town of Junín de los Andes sounded like a much better choice: cheaper, less touristy, more laid-back and situated only 45 minutes away from San Martin by local bus. We arrived in Junín in the early afternoon and walked directly to the tourist office. The staff gave us lots of great information, including local hiking trails, Wi-Fi locations, good places to eat, and a list of budget hostels and after leaving our backpacks and camping gear with them, we headed out to find a place to stay. Most of the hostels were relatively expensive and were unappealing (dark rooms or smelling strongly of cleaning fluids or mildew), so we decided to check out the campsites.

Fly fishing in the many icy, trout-filled rivers of Junin 

We found a wonderful, tranquil campground called Alberque Mallin Beata Laura Vicuna, a peaceful place filled with rose bushes and tall poplars waving in the breeze and bordered on both sides by trout-filled rivers. The manager, Dulio, a friendly, helpful man, showed us around the grounds and we decided that sleeping under the stars with the sound of the wind in the trees and the rushing mountain rivers and breathing rose-scented air beat the hostels hands down (and at US$6 a night per person, the campsite was the deal of the century). We settled in with our tent in a cozy grove of trees on soft grass and set out to explore the town. Junín de los Andes is famous for its trout fly-fishing, and fishing supply stores, fly-tying workshops and restaurants serving fresh trout dinners are on every corner. In season, the fast-flowing icy rivers are filled with fly-fisherman (and for that matter, fisherwomen and fisherchildren) in waders casting for the many trout who brave the frigid waters. Being Argentine, they will inevitably also have a cigarette hanging from their lips and their yerba mate thermos close at hand on the nearby river bank. The area also attracts many foreign tourists including Americans, Canadians, Chileans, Germans, Dutch and Australians among others who flock to the area not only for the excellent fishing, but to hike up the volcanoes, kayak, sail, river raft and sample local game at the many restaurants (most menus include deer, trout, salmon, rabbit and wild boar).

In front of the decorated monkey puzzle tree, Christmas Eve

We arrived on December 22nd, just in time for Christmas and the town was festively decorated for the season. In the main square stood a charming Monkey Puzzle tree decorated with colored lights, ornaments, bows and foil-wrapped gift boxes. At that time of year, it is summer in the Southern Hemisphere, so even though we were in the Andes, the weather was pleasantly warm and sunny. Behind white picket fences were cottage gardens overflowing with bright red and yellow poppies, daisies, pastel-colored scented roses, lupines in shades of blue, violet and pink, poplar and pine trees. We had a dinner of trout at a local popular restaurant, Ruca Hueney, but found the food ordinary and the service disappointing. Luckily, the next night we found a smaller, but much better place called Sigmund’s on the outskirts of the town. Our friendly waitress, Cynthia, brought us a delicious wood-fired pizza topped on one half with smoked deer jerky and on the other with smoked trout (and of course, washed down with several cold amber Austral artisanal beers).

Delicious smoked trout and deer pizza at Sigmund's Restaurant 

Local people kept advising us to visit Via Christi, a kind of sculpture park/hiking trail that commemorates the journey of Christ to the cross. Not being the most spiritual person on earth, I balked at the idea, imaging a miniature version of a religious theme park, but Luis wanted to visit it so I relented and was pleasantly surprised. The trail is situated in lovely pine woods high above the town and filled with a mix of modern and original sculptures, Aboriginal art and Gaudi-style cut tile structures. The larger-than-life pieces of art depict world peace, religious, cultural tolerance and non-violence.

A sculputure celebrating the union of the world's religions, Via Christi

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