La Carretera Alta, Part 11 – The Nefarious Villains of South America

Los Arenales, Argentina, South America
Approaching Los Arenales, Argentina, mere moments before disaster struck…

If you’re planning a trip to South America, you’ll be repeatedly warned of the multitudinous perils that await hapless tourists there. The infallible accuracy of Common Wisdom would have you believe that this is a land without mercy, a continent teeming with barbaric villains whose most earnest desire is to strip you of life and limb. But if you’re not yet convinced, you certainly will be after reading my chilling tale…

High in the mountains, at a crag named Los Arenales near the Argentine-Chilean border, our van suffered a catastrophic drivetrain failure. Two bearings in the tripod joint (which connects the lateral drive shafts to the differential) had blown out, rendering the car unserviceable. We were some 15km distant from the nearest town, which incidentally had the nearest phone service as well. There was nothing for it but to head down, so I laced my shoes and ran into town.

When I arrived in town, I was remarkably hungry, so I entered a small restaurant with the hope of grabbing a bite to eat. I had no cash, and because the internet happened to be down, I couldn’t use my card either. Even though I didn’t have two pesos to rub together, the lovely girl behind the counter presented me with a gigantic stack of empanadas, maybe a dozen altogether. They were leftovers from yesterday, she explained, and I could have them for free as a gift from one erstwhile traveller to another. They were amazing.

As I stepped outside to call for a tow truck, a white ute pulled up in front of me. Morag was in the backseat, having been rescued by a pair of friendly young men working for a local tourist outfit. As it turns out, both drive rally cars in their spare time and are pretty handy on the tools. They drove us back up to the car, disconnected and jury-rigged the drive shaft with some classic bush mechanics, then drove both vehicles more than 50km to Tunuyan, the nearest city of any real consequence. This took the better part of half a day and they extended this help without so much as being asked.

In Tunuyan, we were introduced to the best mechanic in town, a friendly guy named Leo. Over the next two weeks, Leo and his crew restored La Tortuga to her former glory… well, almost. As it turns out, it is difficult to a point that is almost indistinguishable with impossibility to locate the parts for a 2004 Toyota Hiace in Argentina. Instead of simply ordering replacements, the parts needed to be reconditioned and repaired in situ. This meant a visit to a local machinist who could make some bearings from scratch, as well as a local suspension specialist who could recondition our rear shock absorbers.

Between siestas, public holidays, and the general mañana work ethic of South America, this was not a speedy process. Luckily, on our first night in Tunuyan, we also met Rulo. A retired doctor and one-time soldier, Rulo is a social butterfly who seems content to spend his days wandering the streets in search of conversations with locals and stranded Australian tourists alike. When he asked where we were staying, we told him we would sleep in our van on the side of the road whilst the repairs were undertaken. He wasn’t having a bar of it.

“Where will you go to the toilet?! Where will you get water from?!”

As it turned out, Rulo owned a property with a large yard, something of a rarity in many South American towns and cities. He insisted that we park our car in the yard where it would be secure. He also invited us to stay in his home, but we explained that we would be more comfortable sleeping in our own bed inside the car and that the yard would more than accommodate our needs. This was a puzzling notion to him, as I’m sure it is to many, but he accepted this and offered the unfettered use of his bathroom facilities.

Over the next two weeks, Rulo and his lovely wife Miriam made us feel at home. They checked up on us every day, invited us for lunch and dinner, introduced us to their family who were visiting from Mendoza, even did our laundry. Again, we never asked for help – they simply gave it without thought of reward or compensation.

Later rather than sooner, various replacement parts were installed and Frankencar was ready to roll once again. Despite the impeccable hospitality, two weeks is a long time to spend in a town like Tunuyan. Our feet were decidedly itchy by the end of the fortnight, but we have nothing but warm memories from our stay.

I hope by now it has become obvious that South America is a dangerous place and its people are not to be trusted. I beg that you heed my tale when considering your next destination, and urge you to choose somewhere safe and sane. Why not try the United States? It’s a popular holiday destination with an unimpeachable safety assessment according to DFAT. It’s also the only place in which our van was raided by unscrupulous junkies during the entire trip, but surely that’s just an anomaly…

Ryan Siacci, Esq.
February 2019

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