From the cordillera to the capital

Last night in the cordillera—where to stay? Not in Bariloche but west of it, where it’s possible to be immersed in mountains, lakes, and sky, rather than atrocious architecture and consumer products. We splurged with a night in a 5-star hotel: the Charming Hotel—who came up that rather silly name? It is on a cliff overlooking Lago Nahuel Huapi with its numerous arms and surrounding glaciated peaks, and has service and food appropriate for a hotel at this level—fortunately, they were offering a 30% discount so we could afford it! The hotel is also situated on an awesome conglomeratic sedimentary rock and the adjacent beach still has pumice fragments from last summer’s eruption, so there was plenty to amuse the geological explorers! Here’s Jay soaking up the view in the early morning on the terrace. We were reminded of Lake Tahoe but with a much more intricate shoreline.


On the overnight bus from the cordillera to the capital—heading northeast. Very quickly one is back in the arid Patagonian steppe with its stark landscape. Then the road is lined with outcrops of red sandstone that are part of the sedimentary basins around Neuquén, where extractions of dinosaur bones and petroleum help maintain a healthy economy and the largest, most modern-looking bus station we’ve seen on the trip.

Then, continuing northeast, as day is dawning, one awakens to a verdant landscape and wonders—have I been transported to the U.S. Midwest? No, but La Pampa region of Argentina is, like our Midwest, the “bread basket” of the country. Vast fields of corn, soybeans, sun flowers and other agricultural products grow well in this flat mid-section of the country that is beyond the rain shadow of the Andes and therefore receives more moisture. Below is a field of corn (taken from the bus window), which helps support the large herds of cattle that provide the beef Argentina is so famous for.


Also like the U.S. Midwest, the rich agricultural land is a product of past glaciations. In both places, rivers flowed from the glaciers that advanced from Canada (U.S.) and the Andes (Argentina) and wind blew silt-sized rock flour (called loess) that mantled the landscape and produced rich agricultural soils. Argentina widens to the north and the Pampa region is distant enough to avoid the vast quantities of gravel (seen in Patagonia) that would be obstacles to farming; rather, it received much smaller-sized sediment that more readily breaks down to form arable soil.

For we Californians, it is interesting to see Pampas grass in its native habitat. Here in California it is an invasive plant that was imported, no doubt with a good intentions but with unintended consequences. In Argentina it is an important grass for cattle—they say one key to the quality of the beef is that the cattle are grass fed. Here is the Pampas grass, again from the bus window,


Back in Buenos Aires—the hot, humid air and warm summer nights feel good after the cool and windy climate of Patagonia. But the crowds of people and landscape of concrete feel foreign after weeks in small towns amidst grass and mountains and sky. There is still some geology to explore though.

First, in the Recoleta cemetery, where the illustrious citizens of Buenos Aires have been buried over the years. These are mausoleums that make our simple tombstones look humble indeed. Like the city itself, the deceased are packed densely one after another along narrow aisles where the still-living can gain access. This is a popular tourist site because of the notables who’ve been buried here—military heroes, doctors, educators, business men, and politicians including Evita Perón—and because of the incredibly over-the-top architecture of the mausoleums. Note the people for scale at the far end of the aisle.


Some would have done well to consult with a geologist before choosing their material and style. Like cemeteries everywhere, this one is good for investigating weathering processes. Marble (metamorphosed limestone) looks great when it is first cut, but in this humid climate will tend to dissolve and deteriorate. Those who choose igneous rocks, such as the labradorite below with its beautiful large crystals, have structures that tend to better withstand the effects of the elements.


Still, the marble is good for sculpting and although the statues have dissolved somewhat, they continue to provide impressive entrances to the tombs. Most of these were carved in the prosperous period of the late 19th–early 20th centuries and the tomb decorations must have been important commissions to support the highly-skilled artisans. This was one of my favorite sculptures, all of which are life sized or bigger than life.


All of this polished rock and artwork must have cost families a small fortune. Some were built like small cathedrals. Here are two side-by-side. The one on the left was built more recently (the rock is in better condition) and it seems they had to outdo the one on the right—they’ve built their tower just a little bit higher!


Another place to see rocks is in the national office of SEGEMAR, Argentina’s geological survey. Here is a sign that shows their full name; the sign is from the Navy’s Hydrographic office, in honor of the hundredth anniversary of SEGEMAR. We went there to purchase maps and books that will help me to expand these geological explanations of Patagonia into a more complete field guide.


In the SEGEMAR building there is also a mineralogy museum that is used to explain rocks and minerals to groups of students and other visitors. We got a personal tour from a very helpful staff member and learned, among other things, that rhodochrosite is the national mineral. Below is an interesting piece that is a stalactite formed in a cave (rhodochrosite is a carbonate mineral).

Before the national mineral, I need to include one more penguin, since they are such a popular topic. To accompany our last dinner in Buenos Aires, we ordered a “penguino de vino tinto”—a penguin filled with wine. It is accompanying a parrillada of roasted brochettes and veggies with sides of french fries and puréed winter squash. Those penguins spread joy wherever they go!


And now, the sample of rhodochrosite.


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