Secret Mendoza

Secret Mendoza

Mendoza is not just about vineyards and Aconcagua. This vast province has many secret, secluded locations that nobody visits. Gabriela Raimondo sits down with local explorer Sergio Bongiovanni who reveals all.

Sergio Bongiovanni, or ‘Batata’ (Sweet Potato) to his friends, is an avid y sherman and renowned outdoor enthusiast. His passion for his surroundings and nature has lured him to the most dramatic and isolated parts of Mendoza province. He was born in Maipú and has worked all his life in the province. A dentist by profession, but a countryman by choice; he has spent all his life in the great outdoors. No dentist’s chair could hold him so he works for the Servicio Asistencial Móvil, a mobile medical assistance service that provides health care to people in remote locations. He is based in Lavalle, in the east of Mendoza, where the real desert begins.

His easy going ways makes one feel comfortable at once and maybe that is why he has collected so many stories about Mendoza and its source of life, water.

His book ‘Lo que cuentan los ríos’ (What the Rivers Say) conveys his experiences in the countryside, the rivers and its people. As most y shers, his love for the sport was passed down from his family. He started shing when he was very young at the Club de Caza y Pesca in Barrancas, Maipú. Camping in the wilderness always called out to him. Now, several years later, he still carries the love to explore the mountains and rivers. He has ventured into areas that have seen little people throughout history as most of these breath-taking sights are only reachable by foot or horse.

At the book launch, a woman turned up and gifted him a baby goat – goats are one of the few domestic animals that survive in the desert. The second edition of the book was presented at Le Parc exhibition center at Mendoza’s annual book fair. When asked about what drove him to write this book, his answer was that he wanted people to know Mendoza as he did, a beautiful, remote and quintessentially welcoming place. The province is twice the size of Ireland, yet only 6% of the land is lived on and cultivated. The rest is vast plains of desert bush or high, dramatic snow-capped peaks.

Lavalle, Gateway to the Desert

It is located in the north-east of the province. The remainder of the indigenous Huarpe community live here in what was called the Lagunas de Guanacache. It is hard to imagine that there used to be lakes in this area since now the soils are sandy and arid – the reason being the growth of metropolitan Mendoza. Lavalle is a very poor area with perpetual drought. Agriculture is the main activity in this sparsely populated area. It is a wine producing area and has excellent growing conditions for all types of fruits. Goats and cattle are raised here and there is a big honey production. It is mainly a rural area covering vast distances and that is why the Mobile Assistance Service is needed.

Amidst this vast geography are isolated settlements manned by hardy farmers and herders, the stories and legends of which ll the pages of Sergio’s book.

The ‘puesteros’ that welcomed Sergio into their humble homes are the gate keepers of the culture and natural resources of the area. And they know the best y shing spots. He visits many remote and isolated locations in the province, especially in San Carlos and Malargüe. Malargüe is the very south of Mendoza and has natural parks that would excite any adventurer. The name comes from the native language Malal Hue that means the stone pen or land of corrals since the native tribes used to graze animals there.

Puesteros, Campesinos of the desert

A puestero takes care of an area of countryside and is especially occupied with herding animals, usually goats. They are a bountiful source of knowledge on the local fauna and ora, as well as the legends of the indigenous people, stories that were passed from generation to generation. They herd the livestock from one place to another as the gauchos did a century ago. They are very hospitable people. They will provide food and shelter for any brave traveller venturing away from the cities. They are experts on the weather and its impact on the surroundings. Most of the times they are the only ones there the whole year long. It is not unusual for them to get cut off completely from society either due to heavy rain or extreme weather conditions.

Sergio’s book talks about one of the pivotal historical gures in the history of the country, José de San Martín and his journey through the mountains to Chile. He was, together with Simón Bolivar, the liberator of South America. He was the governor of Cuyo (Mendoza, San Luis and San Juan) where he formed the Army of the Andes and crossed the mountain range to help liberate Chile from the Spanish Army.

Sergio put together an expedition to recreate one of the routes that the Andes Army took through the mountains. The journey on horseback provided him with an excellent opportunity to investigate the rivers and streams marking the border with Chile.

The book is divided in chapters each with stories retelling the customs and life of the country people and focusing on the main rivers of Mendoza. Sergio researched a lot on his own about the geography and history of the place but, the greatest feature are the anecdotes that portrait the workings of the rural community with its hospitality and innocence.

The book opens with the retelling of the ‘recogida’, where several people on horseback herd all the animals to the estancias where they separate, inspect, cure and feed the animals accordingly.

Mythical shing spots also have a prominent space in the narrative. To get to them, one needs to trek for days. Sergio had just come back from one of his many week- long expeditions. In Mendoza, y shing is all about technique since the rivers are fast moving and narrow. The scenery is awe inspiring with virgin places that are a sherman’s dream.

In the book there is a chapter called “Sobre el rastro del lion” (Following the tracks of the lion – which is really a puma or cougar) talks about the great endeavour that was getting to Arroyo Moro (Moro stream) a virgin land inaccessible by road. After consulting with puesteros and local people, Sergio and a friend set off to nd this mythical location for shermen.

He had tried to get to Arroyo del Moro before with another of his friends but the attempt failed since they got stuck in the mountains. The puesteros told him that they sometimes lose cows to those altitudes and never bother to follow them. The cows become wild and the puesteros call them ‘wolf cows’. In another attempt Sergio and Federico leave their truck behind and walk through the rugged terrain.

After two days of trekking through amazing scenery and night skies, they arrived at the promised location only to nd two puesteros who were friends of Batata. They warned them about the lion (puma). The next day was time for trekking and shing.

They were in awe about the amount of trout and the little effort it took to sh them. As they walk on they ran into the tracks of the cougar. It was a female cougar and cubs.

They were afraid at times feeling vulnerable but the lre of good shing was too great. As they returned and joined the puesteros down river, one of them was mourning the loss of two horses and guanacos to the lion.

The puma not only kills out of hunger, the puestero explained. A horse would have been enough for the hungry puma and cubs but sometimes blinded by their hunt they kill more than what they can eat. The next day, they all visited the ruins of an old indigenous settlement. The place was full of artefacts that allowed them to envision what life must have been like centuries ago before the Spanish arrived. The experience left them speechless.

It is very probable that these rural communities will start to disappear. Global statistics show that rural areas are suffering from all time population lows. Yet there is a strong desire to keep the traditions of the agricultural towns alive and well. Grazing cattle over huge distances, as it has been done for centuries, suddenly seems quite exceptional.

The puestero is Mendoza’s nal link with the past and the gatekeeper to a stunningly beautiful and little visited part of the World