(Altitude: 258 m / 839 ft, Population: 8028, Phone Code: 0297)
West of Comodoro Rivadavia, the flatness of the Patagonian steppe is occasionally interrupted by an ancient volcano. Oil derricks whirl and dip, pumping black gold from the depths of the earth. The origin of that petroleum, the petrified blood of this land鈥檚 denizens hundreds of millions of years ago, becomes clear upon reaching Sarmiento.
Sarmiento's history pre-dates human settlement. Many eons ago, even before South America separated from Africa, the area was part of a vast semi-tropical forest in which dinosaurs roamed. In the countryside around the town, there are petrified forests and dinosaur fossil fields. Even in the village you can see giant reptiles hanging out in the Parque Tem谩tico Paleontol贸gico Valle de los Gigantes. Homosapiens came over 12,000 years ago, ancestors of A贸nikenk. Mapuche indigenous migrated from the northwest more recently. One of these was Don Desiderio Torres, who lived on the banks of the R铆o Senguer. In 1887, he married a local A贸nikenk woman. Ten years later, other families came: five Welsh, one Lithuanian and two Polish.
Sarmiento became a major hub for commerce. In 1939, the rail line from Comodoro Rivadavia arrived to pick up goods from inland Patagonian villages and haul them to that Atlantic port. Cargo and passenger service continued until 1974. The line was permanently closed in 1977. There is a plan to recover the rails and have special runs from the town to surrounding petrified forests and dinosaur fossil excavation sites.
But there is more to Colonia Sarmiento than its fossilized past, and visitors traveling to Bariloche, El Bols贸n, Esquel and other cordillera towns will find it a pleasant stop on the long journey. Along the north edge of town, the R铆o Senguer flows to Lago Musters, eight kilometers (6.4 mi) away. The lake covers 450 square kilometers (174 square mi) and is 40-50 meters (455-488 ft) deep. Both waterways are excellent places for fishing pejerrey patag贸nico (Patagonian silverside), perch, catfish and trout (all year in Lago Musters; in season in the river). Other activities include boating, hanging out at the beach, and observing black-neck swans, several varieties of duck and other birds. Lago Colhue Huapi, east of Lago Musters, an enormous lagoon only about nine meters (29 ft) deep, may be no good for fishing or other nautical activities, but it's a birdwatcher鈥檚 Eden. Unfortunately, there is no public access.
Out toward the Precordillera de los Andes (Andean foothills) that tower to the west are places to visit on tour with authorized guides. Sixty kilometers (36 mi) west is Alero de Manos Pintadas. A two-kilometer (1.2-mi) trek across the prairie leads to this rock overhang painted with handprints and geometric designs. T煤nel de Sarasola, a 400-meter-long (1300-ft) natural lave tunnel reached after a 3-kilometer (1.8 mi) hike, is 45 kilometers (27 mi) away.
Agro-tourism is also on Sarmiento鈥檚 agenda. Just outside town, Granja San Jos茅 does guided tours of its greenhouses, hydroponic tanks and orchards (Tel.: 489-3733). Chacra San Cayetano is also near the village and specializes in cherries and other fruits (Tel.: 489-8707). Cherries, strawberries and merino sheep are grown and raised at El Labrador, a bed and breakfast (Ruta Nacional 20, 10 kilometers west of Sarmiento, Tel.: 0297-489-3329).
Upon re-declaring her independence at age 29, Lorraine Caputo packed her trusty Rocinante (so her knapsack's called) and began...