84. Mount Tronador 2 (Bariloche, Argentina)
A day trip to Mount Tronador is one of Bariloche's most popular excursions, and I'd been waiting all summer for an agency to call me to do one. The call finally came from one of the agencies towards the end of January, and I couldn't wait. The guide and I circled around town picking up the passengers from their various hotels, eventually setting off with a full load - 10 passengers in back and me and the guide up front.
Six of the passengers I already knew - the day before I'd taken them on a daytrip to the small town of El Bolsón, an hour and a half south of Bariloche. The road to Mount Tronador is the same road to El Bolson - formerly the 258 but now a part of the famous Ruta 40 which covers Argentina from North to South. The Ruta 40 (Route 40) used to bypass Bariloche and El Bolson until a couple of years ago, when Tourism Argentina started to use the road's length and reputation as a marketing tool, and it became trendy to drive the entire route. Eventually it was decided to re-route the Ruta to pass through Bariloche, since Bariloche is one of the tourism capitals of Patagonia.
We took the asphalted Ruta 40 40km south of Bariloche, then turned off for what would be 40km of bumpy, dusty gravel roads. I took it slow as I was wary of damaging the van's suspension, axles, blowing a tyre, anything, what with a full load of passengers adding extra stress to the van's weak points.
We stopped for lunch in Pampa Linda, a small village with a couple of restaurants, a national parks office, and a gendarmeria (border police).
Also in Pampa Linda were about 50 other minivans and buses all doing day trips, and my guide Paula introduced me to some of the other guides and drivers over lunch. Many of the restaurants around here give the drivers and guides a meal, so long as some of our passengers are dining there. The other drivers joked about giving me some sort of baptism, since it was my first Tronador trip.
After lunch we carried on towards Ventisquero Negro, the Black Glacier, black because it's full of volcanic ash. The final hill before we arrived was a short but steep climb and in front of me a bus had stopped halfway up to drop down to first gear. I came up behind him and to not hit him I stepped on the brake pedal - which, had no give and went flat to the floor! What happened next happened quickly. All at once I had no brakes, the engine had stalled, and we'd started rolling backwards very quickly down the steep hill! I was pulling on the handbrake to no avail, pumping the brakes, trying to figure out how to stop the van. I put it into 2nd gear and let the clutch out, and although the engine had stalled, that action slowed and stopped the van. The passengers were obviously a little shaken and suggested getting out and walking up the hill. I started the engine and we climbed the hill, where I got out to see what had broken - sure enough, the right rear wheel was leaking brake fluid - a broken brake fluid tube. The guide said we only had another 100m to go to the black glacier, so we carried on.
Once there I took the wheel off and with the help of the other drivers and some borrowed tools we bent the steel brake tube over and hammered it closed. I remarked that the brakes breaking on me was my baptism, and the other drivers who weren't helping stood around cracking jokes about the gringo's first trip. The repair worked, and we were able to continue the trip - another 5 km or so to a glacier-melt waterfall, before turning around and heading back the same way towards Bariloche. It took an eternity to return via the 40km of gravel, but finally, with a round of applause from the passengers, we rejoined the Ruta 40 and asphalt.
After that I decided the roads were too tough to do any more gravel trips - which meant no more Tronador and no more Siete Lagos, which helped me decide to give up on my tourism venture here.
Update: I forgot to mention that my van breaking down was by no means an unusual occurrence. The other drivers told me that something breaking on a Tronador trip is quite common.
Up next: one last visit to Mount Tronador