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Published: March 19th 2019
There are very very few human beings who leave some testament to their presence four thousand years after they have lived. This select band include Patagonian indigenous people of the Pinturas canyon who left generations of ‘negative’ hand prints on the sides of the gorge walls. They were lucky because the gorge had been capped by a harder rock than the base ‘toba blanca’ so overhangs protect the hands from the harsh sunlight.
Today the site, the best of many in Patagonia, is a National Park and UNESCO site. You have to want to get there because even by Argentine standards it is remote. We took a tour from Los Antiguos (Chelenco Tours) having just arrived on the night bus from El Chalten. This meant retracing our steps for two hours South down Route 40. We then turned East and headed into the interior on dirt roads for many miles.
Leaving Los Antiguos the steppe was probably the greenest we had seen it although the golden tuft grass loved by the guanaco still predominated. As we drove in land the green quickly evaporated and close to the ‘Cuevas de las Manos’ even the grass was struggling to maintain a
hold on the dry parched brown earth. The Pinturas canyon was a natural place for the ancient local people to forage: a 120 km gouge in the steppe created by the Rio Pinturas as it winds from the glacial Andes to the Eastern Atlantic shore. The river creates a green boa of fertility, the canyon protecting it from the ferocious Patagonian wind. It is an oasis for guanaco, the major source of food and materials for the indigenous people.
The rock art was apparently created between 1000 and 9000 years ago. The images are made with locally sourced pigments and archaeologists have associated different colours with datable charcoal from fires below them. The hands (las manos) are the stars of the show. There are 2000 of them all created by the artist holding his/her left hand to the rock face and spraying a coloured paste out of their mouth or via bone blow pipes around it so the image is left when the hand is removed. There are children’s hands, delicate hands, suggesting both sexes, hands with injuries and even a six fingered hand. There are ochres, reds, whites and in one area a few cupric green hands.
There are not just hands. Guanaco images, being hunted or in herds, are numerous. There are mythical creatures and geometric shapes. It is incredible that they look like they were just painted yesterday and yet have been exposed to such a harsh environment for so many thousands of years.
The Park service ranger gave an informative talk alternatively in English and Spanish to our merry band, three Argentinians, 2 young Adidas employees from Nuremburg and a Turkish couple of Armenian decent, which complemented that from our guide for the day, Christian. Christian was a free lance guide who had worked from Ushuaia to Mendoza and who professed to having Welsh immigrant blood on both sides of his family.
On the return to Los Antiguos we stopped at another valley. First, we investigated what appeared to be a dried up salt bed. I was the first to walk down in my excitement to examine it closely and ended up shin deep and stuck in the dark mud that lurked beneath the surface. My fellow tour members grabbed an arm each and slowly extracted me from the quagmire whilst Jane caste her eyes to the sky. Each boot was covered
a vicious adhesive grey glop. The guide was very understanding about his minibus!
We then moved to another area which was probably the source of the colours used in the cave art. The reds were almost pink and the colours so bold – it was cross between the Badlands and Alum Bay. Apparently, it is all the product of a local volcano. It added to the coloured hues on my boots as the mud dried.
It was time to travel further North. We stayed in a nice cabin in Los Antiguos that evening, which conveniently has a hose pipe for boot cleaning, and the next day we made our way to Coyhaique, in Chile. This involved a short bus ride over the border to Chile Chico and then a ferry and another bus ride. It turned out to be a good example of travelling when you don’t know the local language or system and which you can choose whether it annoys the hell out of you or is part of the intellectual challenge: When we arrived at the bus station in Chile Chico, I ignored the bus driver’s finger direction and headed for the ferry terminal. The ferry
was there and despite a few enquiries we could not find a ticket office (we think there was one and never ever did find it). We went back to the bus terminal and bought a ticket there because buses met the ferry at Puerto Ibanez the other end. We then tried to use this ticket to get on the ferry. It became apparent that this was just a bus ticket. A ferryman directed us to his boss who said the price: 4500CLP (£6). I only had a 10000CLP note and he indicated he had no change. I headed back into town: the petrol station would not give change; the town bank (located via google maps) was shut. Finally the lady I bought the bus ticket from sorted change for me and I returned to pay the ferryman while Jane had waited patiently at the boat ramp. For me it is the getting there that is half the fun.
Once we had crossed the lake we had also crossed from the East to the West side of the Andes. The change was dramatic. We started to see green pastures, even hay bales. We traced green river valleys. The sky was still rimmed with snow capped mountains many of which are volcanic in origin. Coyhaique was an excellent place to catch our breathe, do some washing and sort out the next stage of journey. We stayed in an old colonial house via AirBnB with Carla – they seem better value than the hostels in this part of the world. Coyhaique is a new city, created in 1925 and now supports the local timber and salmon industries. It has modern malls and supermarkets. We found ‘Waitrose’ olives in one. In many ways it was nice to be back in the real world and away from the tourist hot spots. We had an excellent simple lunch in the ‘Cocina de Bomberos’, which was literally at the back of the fire station.
Technically this was our last stop in Patagonia. I hope we have left no trace. Our next stop is Chiloe island a 30 hour ferry ride up the coast. The calm weather is holding and it is getting warmer so we are starting to enjoy at Southern hemisphere summer at last.
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