Neuquen on the Rocks, Thanks!

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May 4th 2012
Published: May 12th 2012
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There was much debate about where to head after Bariloche. Mendoza was a long way and far from BA and Eileen was tired of being cold in the mountains so we settled on Neuquen.

After an easy 5 hour ride in a ‘full cama’ bus (the bus equivalent of business class with large recliner seats) I wondered would Neuquen’s claim to fame be its palindromic name. My researching the bus options out of Neuquen as soon as we arrived at the Neuquen bus terminal had Eileen bemused. Why would I not want to stay a few days in a city that boasts a canal irrigation system built to allow crops to grow and be transported, big hydro-electric power stations, huge lakes, petroleum extraction, palaeontology sites, and award winning wines? She had the distinct impression I did not want to stay longer than a few hours when I kept repeating the phrase “when we move on from here”. I decided to take a breath and suspend judgement for now.

The town has large central boulevards with gum trees and I quite liked the town. It seemed like a South American version of Hamilton. We visited the art gallery which had a mix of classical pieces and modern art. The modern installation with mirror chamber captured our imagination and we had a bit of fun posing with it.

The first night I worked late, knocking out my first draft of a report while Eileen made arrangements for onward travel. She was long since asleep when I called it a night.

For our second day we had arranged a visit to a dinosaur dig and a winery but first we had to find onward accommodation in Mar del Plata. Our usual Hostelworld search did not turn up much. A bit more enquiry and we had a place sorted but no way to book on the internet. So with some trepidation I gave the place a call. I’ve discovered that when things get a little difficult all my Spanish words (all five of them, says cheeky Eileen) drop out of my vocabulary, but I finally did the business (well done, Leigh, says Eileen).

Just enough time to visit the bank, get some lunch, and visit a museum before our 1pm pick up ... or so we thought! Massive queues at the downtown banks! Hmm ... a quick count of our pesos and we discover we are just a little short. A walk around and we found a bank with a short queue (30 minutes) and we had 2000 pesos.

The museum got a miss and we headed for lunch. This did not prove as easy as I first thought as all we could find were all sit down places where the meal is prepared from scratch. As time elapsed we got desperate, turned into somewhere which was just opening its doors, and we ordered the dish of the day from the street board. We were in such a rush with now only 20 minutes left that we each thought the other had read the board. It took us a little while to realise neither of us quite knew what we were getting but each of us thinking the other was on to it! The very speedily delivered meal turned out to be a real treat; crepes with spinach and cheese filling with a tomato salsa topping – it was yum!

The visit to the dinosaur dig was fascinating – Eileen asking a thousand questions while I soaked up the information. I liked the factual stuff but I could give the stuff designed to entertain children a miss. Some of these dinosaurs were massive – Eileen is photographed beside the thigh bone of one thought to be 50 metres long.

The dinosaur I am standing next to brought back memories of a Sam Neil film. I would not want to be chased by that bad boy!

The scenery on this trip was inherently varied, from barren brush to orchards. There were large stands of poplar trees all gold and lighting up whenever the sun was out.

After leaving the working palaeontology site we drove for about 45 minutes and arrived at the winery just before the security guard left for the day. The Familia Schroeder winery is a large one by our standards with 15 25,000 litre tanks just for initial processing of red wine and several more for their white wines. If I remember correctly the winery produces 500,000 bottles a year. Despite being a young winery at only 10 years old many of the wines here have won awards. A unique feature of this winery is that the remains of a Titanosaur was unearthed by a digger during building construction approx 10 years ago. A record of the unearthing and some of the bones are displayed in a special area in the winery and the family created a line of “Saurus” wines. We were given a standard winery tour which Eileen enjoyed but I would have been happy to head straight to the tasting room!

We had our tour guides drop us in town at 6:30pm after the winery tour so we could eat before boarding our bus at 8:40pm. We grabbed some fast food at what looked like a South American version of McDonalds. McD’s will have no worries here as the service was slow and the food forgettable.

We headed back to our hostel with plenty of time to spare. Eileen fluffed and changed while I displayed my usual patience! (or lack of it?) We had our hostel man call a taxi and then we waited ... and waited ... and waited. Finally as panic was getting close, a grey vehicle stopped on the street in front of us. I did not recognise it as a taxi as all the other taxis we noticed around town were yellow. A few sharpish words from Eileen to get moving and I was in action getting our bags in the tiny boot. A check of the watch and we realised we were on the critical path!

The young driver motored quietly and gently towards the bus station. Why is it that every taxi driver goes like a bat out of hell except when you are in a hurry?! When an old Peugeot passed us, I encouraged the driver to "ra-pid-oh" (Leigh’s Spanish lesson for you gringos – if in doubt about how to say a word in Spanish, just stick a vowel on the end of an English word). A bit of a discussion to clarify my first attempt at "rapido" and the pace picked up. Next he executed a brilliant move in rush hour traffic – pull into the lane of on-coming traffic and go for it. I was ready to let out a “yee ha” but Eileen was clutching my hand and drawing my attention to the fact that I had a seatbelt but she did not! Her look of fear was obvious so I thought better of yelling “yee ha!”

A plan was hatched – once at the bus station Eileen would race to get our tickets while I pay the driver and follow with the bags. I reach the ticket booth with things in chaos. Eileen was trying to explain to a woman who was directing us to an adjacent company which was not the company we booked with. We were both a little heat up but we kept insisting that they checked their computer system. Finally the man found our online booking. He put an A4 sheet into the printer and printed Eileen’s ticket, then he tore the page in half and put the remainder in for mine. We grabbed the tickets and rushed for the bus. We ran up just as the baggage handler closed the luggage locker. As he reopened the locker and stowed our bags as we clambered aboard and the bus got underway before we were sitting in our seats. Pheew!

Eileen was sitting looking shell shocked while I was just relieved. We made the last bus for the night with a good 5 seconds to spare!! This bus was full cama so we were soon tucking into a meal comprising ham, rice salad, bread roll, toast, schnitzel and mashed potato, washed down with a couple of glasses of red wine.

As I write this blog I have just been given a whisky on the rocks. Newmans have a few things to learn!


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