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Geologic Column
South American Cowboys
Lisa Rossbacher

The Department of Geology and Geography at Georgia Southern University, where Dallas works, had taken a spring-break field trip to Ecuador. Dallas returned with great enthusiasm for South America, for exploring a new culture, and for taking a summer vacation in a place where (1) we had never been, (2) the dollar had a favorable exchange rate, and (3) the season would be winter rather than summer. In the back of his mind was a story he had read in grade school about the gauchos. Back then, when he was 10 years old, cowboys and the St. Louis Cardinals were the only things that mattered to Dallas. Discovering that cowboys lived and worked in South America was a great revelation — and one that he had never forgotten.

This fascination was what ultimately led us to select Argentina for our vacation. We turned to Patricia Schultz’s book 1000 Places to See Before You Die for guidance about where to go. Not slavishly, mind you, but for advice.

Because geology, as a discipline, is all about a sense of place, many geologists may be fascinated with 1000 Places, as I discussed in my September Geologic Column. When Bruce and Kate Johnson (both with the U.S. Geological Survey) introduced us to the book, they were already working on their second copy, the first one having been disassembled for easier packing. Dallas and I quickly got our own copy, and we used the places listed in the book to organize our Argentina trip. We did not limit the itinerary to only those places listed in the book, but it was certainly a useful guide.

One of the amazing experiences of the trip was a visit to an estancia (ranch) on the Argentinean Pampas (South American praries): Estancia la Porteño near San Antonio de Areco. The 1000 Places book listed several estancias, including this one. We were the only guests during our stay, riding horses and sleeping in the room where Ricardo Güiraldes wrote the ultimate gaucho novel, Don Segundo Sombra. Who wouldn’t love horseback riding in a frosty dawn on the pampas?

We ultimately visited seven of the book’s 1,000 places during our trip to Argentina: (1) Estancia La Porteña, (2) Iguazú Falls, (3) Colonia del Sacramento (a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Uruguay), as well as (4) Teatro Colón and Gran Café Tortoni, (5) Cabaña Las Lilas, (6) and Alvear Palace Hotel and La Recoleta Cemetery — all in Buenos Aires. We also tangoed in Buenos Aires, an activity listed as a “place” (7).

Ironically, one of the centerpieces of the trip, as we originally planned it, ended up not happening at all. 1000 Places raved about the experience of traveling into the Andes in northwestern Argentina on El Tren de Las Nubes (“Train to the Clouds”). The full-day trip takes passengers 217 kilometers up into the Andes, to an elevation of 4,200 meters. The book described the geology as incredible, and the experience as a once-in-a-lifetime sight. The train was only scheduled for one excursion during our two-week visit, so we organized the entire itinerary around being at its starting point in Salta for that date.

When we arrived in Salta, however, our local guide had very little positive to say about the focus of our trip. “The train — I never recommend it,” she said, explaining that the trip is 15 hours “if you are lucky.” The guide said that many times the train is delayed because of technical problems, and that it only stops twice, when everyone must leave the train. In San Antonio de Los Cobres, the longest stop, she said that it is impossible to walk around because of the altitude, and the ride back is a loss because the sun sets early in the winter. “When you finally return to Salta, it is 10 o’clock — and if you think that everything finishes there, imagine 514 people trying to get a taxi,” she said.

The guide instead recommended a personalized tour in which we could see all the same geology and more, with photography stops whenever we wanted, from the relative comfort of her Peugeot 405. We decided not to take the train, missing this opportunity to add another of the 1,000 places to our list. Sure, the guide had a vested interest in persuading us to hire her, but we certainly saw an amazing amount of geology on the day that we did not take the train. We visited Quebrada de Humahuaca (another UNESCO World Heritage Site), drove up into the Andes, walked on a high-altitude salt flat and climbed up box canyons. We saw vicuñas, condors and flocks of parrots. And we stopped and took many photographs, something that, I am certain, the train conductor would not have been so accommodating as to allow.

We have since learned that on the day we did not take the train, it had mechanical problems. And on the next scheduled trip, the entire load of 514 people reportedly almost froze when the engine quit working and the outside temperature was minus 15 degrees Celsius (5 degrees Fahrenheit).

So 1000 Places was valuable in getting us to northwestern Argentina, even if we didn’t ultimately take the Train to the Clouds. The original plan did not happen the way we expected — it probably worked better. And after all, we have to leave something besides Patagonia for the next visit, right?


Rossbacher, a geologist, is president of the Southern Polytechnic State University in Marietta, Ga.

Links:

"Seventeen places," Geotimes, September 2005.

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