Ask not for whom the wind blows…

October 31, 2005

After we rented a car in San Juan, we decided to head to the small mountain town of Barreal, because we had read about carrovelismo, or land sailing, a sport where you attach a cart to a boat sail. It sounded like fun, and the pampas of Barreal, an 8 mile long and 2 mile wide dry lake bed, were supposed to be an ideal spot with reliable winds.

We arrived in Barreal late in the day, after driving some rough roads. We made an appointment to go sailing the next afternoon, since there is little wind in the morning, but in afternoon the winds can reach up to 50 miles per hour.

With the next morning to kill, we decided to take a hike and then see the observatory located near pampas. While the Andes surround Barreal, if you are walking from town to take a hike you are limited to the dry slag heaps that surround the town. They are, even by desert standards, exceptionally uninteresting. For those familiar with the American west, they less attractive than the Badlands of South Dakota and lacking the “excitement” of Wall Drug.

After our hike, we visited Leonocito, “The most important observatory in South America — operated by a national government of South America within their own country,” or so we were told. It was actually very interesting. I had never been to a working observatory and I learned a lot, including how a reflector telescope works (it uses a pair of mirrors rather than a lens). I also learned that in addition to light, heat pollutes astronomical observations (think about those mirages you see on the highway on hot summer days) so the entire area surrounding the telescope has to be keep 2 degrees below the outside temperature, even when the outside temperature is was 4 degrees below zero F (-20 C).

Beyond the educational component, our guide offered ample entertainment by explaining the history of the project. She explained how the telescope had been purchased in the 1960’s and the observatory had immediately started construction. Then with great pride she also explained how, rather than wasting money buying expensive off-the-shelf systems, Argentina had opted to build all the supporting hardware and software themselves. Even with little distractions for the government like the Falkland Islands war, the observatory became functional March 1st, 1987, a scant 25 years or so after they started! She then repeatedly explained how it was not obsolete. We thanked her for what really had been a wonderful tour and headed down the bumpy road to the smooth pampas for our land sailing appointment.

As we drove toward the lake bed, I noticed that there wasn’t really much wind on the road. As it turned out there wasn’t any wind on the lake bed either. We spent an hour and a half waiting to see if the wind picked up while we chatted with the charming guy who rents the land sailing equipment and who had been sailing there for twenty years. I took lots of photos. Finally, I taught Soyan to drive a stick shift, since there was nothing to hit for miles in any direction. Still, there was just no wind. We tried to make plans for the next day but as it turned out our guide (the only guide) was headed in for surgery and was going to be gone for a week. Apparently the wind was not going to blow for me.

We packed up and decided we’d go to Rodeo the next day to try our hand at windsurfing. Maybe they’d would have some wind.

Photos of land sailing even though there was not any wind.
Photos of the Leonocito observatory.

I love pot holes.

October 26, 2005

Road SignI love potholes — because that means the road is paved. We have just spent a fantastic week driving through San Juan Province, Argentina. We went from San Juan to Barreal to Rodeo to the Valley of the Moon and back to San Juan.

It was a great trip with spectacular landscapes, charming towns, wonderful people but some stressful driving conditions. We rented a Suziki “Fun”. Having a car was fun, but not all of the driving was.

We went 1000 miles over a few good roads and a lot of dirt, gravel, sand, and crumbling mountain passes with two way traffic on one lane roads. The winding mountain passes came complete with steep drop offs and only occasional guard rails. This was just the spot to drive a stick shift for the second time in my life and the first time in 18 years.

We endured 2 agricultural inspectors, 6 police check points, dozens of detours and hundreds of badenes or dips as we learned. We made the whole trip with out major incident. We did get stuck in the sand once, but this was on a national park road and we were with a ranger. It was a quick fix. We also turned back, afraid to cross a stream when we were headed toward, La Finca Media Luna, a hotel in the mountains.

I do have to credit Jim Roger’s and his very entertaining book, Adventure Capitalist: The Ultimate Road Trip, a story about literally driving around the world with some excellent advice: When inquiring about road conditions be sure to ask people if they themselves have actually travelled on the road, rather than that they have simply heard “it is fine”. Also be sure to ask several people. This saved us from driving a 120 mile “short cut” with 2 rivers only crossable by 4 wheel drive.

Here is a lovely “detour” that we drove on for 50 miles:

This is how you save money on gaurd rail. Only use it where it is absolutely necessary:

If you can’t see the videos, you can downlod the the detour or the guard rail videos.

Some photos of road conditions are available.