Thursday 4 May 2006

Nico, Pisco and the other Nico

Nico, Refugio Meiling, Mt TronadorPisco is basically a Chilean (and Peruvian) colourless brandy made from muscat grapes. Mixed with these ingredients...

3 Glasses of pisco
1 ½ Glass of sugar
2 Glasses of lemon juice
White of an egg
Shaken ice
Add drops of Amargo Angostura
(Dash of Cinnamon on top) you a pisco sour, the national drink of Chile, although Peru claims it too.

So why am I writing about Pisco when I'm no longer in Chile? Actually I didn't even try it in Chile. But it does join my very short list of mixed drinks that I will be happy to drink, including
  • Old Fashioned
  • Mojito
  • Caipirinha
  • G&T (obviously)
  • Cosmopolitan
  • Rum and ginger ale
  • B52s
So I've joined an excursion to Pampa Linda to go see the stunning Mt Tronador up close and personal. The bus no longer runs there, this late in the season, so this is my only option. The plan is to head over the Paso de las Nubes and take a close view of the mountain from all sides in Argentina. The 'International' peak itself is right on the border of Argentina and Chile. The guys at Club Andino in Bariloche (CAB) tell me the route is open but I'll need to take a tent. No problem with that.
But when I get there, things aren't quite as planned. First the excursion has dawdled along stopping to take pictures at all the favourite spots so it's much later than planned. Second the people at the Gendarmeria Nacional tell me the way is closed due to water, fallen trees and all sorts of other problems.
Change of plan. I head up the mountain to the Refugio Otto Meiling right between 2 glaciers on the mountain. They tell me the refugio is open. It's stunning up there. The sky is completely blue, making the view fantastic.
When I get there I find the refugiero doing some end of season work to the building to make sure the winter, snow and wind don't destroy it. He looks at me, seeming displeased. I quickly work out I'm the only customer tonight and he's fuming that they haven't told him someone's on their way up. He likes everything just so. The place is immaculate and in far better order than the other refuges I've seen. But he's very unfriendly. So I decide to get my book out, eat some food and wait for dark, then catch an early night.
Later, he puts the kettle on to make mate. Well, he couldn't possibly drink mate by himself when there's only one other person there. So I get the impression he's mellowing out and going to invite me to join him.
I pop out to the loo. When I come back, the kettle is off the boil and he's holding a bottle of what looks like vodka. Actually, it's pisco. And he asks me if I'll have one. He makes an entire cocktail shaker of Pisco Sour. Meanwhile he rants about the state of the APN, which takes care of the National Parks. There was supposed to be a guardaparques at the bottom of the mountain but he'd gone off somewhere. And he is supposed to let the refugiero know that people are on their way up in case anything should happen to them. Back in November, two tourists died. It's not a difficult walk but these things can happen. When I tell him that the Gendarmeria had stopped me going over the Paso de las Nubes, he suggested that it was all lies about the route. Just to stop me going. Too much hassle keeping tabs on a tourist.
A friend of his is due to join him this evening for some wine and a steak. They both happen to be called Nico and run refuges. The other runs the Refugio Frey, on Cerro Catedral, near where I passed on the Nahuel Huapi Traverse. For ease they are Nico M (Meiling, where I am now) and Nico F (Frey). Nico F is running late so Nico M gets the first bottle of wine out of his impressive cellar (half way up a mountain). A great bottle of Escorihuela Gascón Sangiovese from 2001. This is one bodega I'll have to visit when I go to Mendoza, where it's located.
When we've polished off the bottle (that's after we've had the Pisco Sour), Nico F arrives. We've moved on to the 2003 Eschorihuela Gascón Syrah. And when that goes we have the 2004 EG Cabernet Sauvignon and then the 2003 Malbec. It's gone 5am, we're pulling stupid faces and taking stupid photos. Definitely time for bed. I want to get up at dawn to take pictures of the sunrise over the glaciers....
I wake up at 11.30. It's a beautiful, sunny day. I open the curtains and a condor flies past. Well, I guess I missed sunrise. I have some coffee and bread for breakfast, but first get some pictures.
Around 2.30 we have a big spag bol, then Nico F and I head back down the mountain. He's going to give me a lift back into Bariloche. There is no other option, given that my excursion was a day tour and returned the same day. I had intended to get a boat back from the end of the Paso de las Nubes walk.
In the end, I had a stay in the refugio, a huge amount of drink plus lunch the next day thrown in. All free. More important, it turned out to be good fun. I was very impressed by Nico M's entrepreneurialism. Essentially he's a concessionary in the property owned by CAB. It's up to him to make as much money as he can from customers. Well, I guess he didn't make a lot on the night of 4th May but he runs a good ship and invests in areas that will make good returns and keep customers coming back, as many do, judging by the visitors book.