After out awesome canyoning experience in Puerto Varas, it was time to
move on, this time back to Argentina and the lakeside town of San
Carlos de Bariloche (more commonly known just as Bariloche). Bariloche
is situated right in the middle of a national park, Parque Nacionale
Nahuel Huapi (pronounced Na-well Wa-pee), one of the oldest national
parks in Argentina and the northern edge of Patagonia. The bus ride
here was about 6 hours long and the border crossing went partiularly
smoothly compared to the last time I crossed the border.
Bariloche is the biggest city I’ve been to since Buenos Aires, and
because of it’s location, it is a major vacation spot, both for South
Americans and foreigners. As a result, the city is really commercial
and REALLY touristy. To relate back to Canada, it’s kind of like a
really big version of downtown Banff. Having spent the last four weeks
in small, Patagonian towns, I was initially quite turned off by
Bariloche, but it grew on me after a while and I came to like it quite
a bit. It doesn’t hurt that Argentines know how to do ice cream really
well, and we very much enjoyed the many ice cream shops around town.
The bus station was on the outskirts of town so we decided to take a
local city bus to the hostel as opposed to a taxi in order to save
some money. These local bus rides soon became what I had come to
expect from South American buses – packed to the brim with locals
going to and fro, the buses also act as free school buses for the
local children. Needless to say, navigating these buses with our large
backpacks was quite the fun challenge much to the amusement, and
sometimes annoyance, of the locals.
Our hostel in Bariloche, the Tango Inn billed itself as a 5-star
hostel which I have to say is a little generous. Although nice, I
would not rank it among the top places I’ve stayed on the trip. It did
have some things going for it though, such as the jacuzzi overlooking
the city that we very much enjoyed.
For our only full day in Bariloche, we took a local bus about 18km out
of town to a mountain called Cerro Campamiento. Rather than paying to
take the chairlift up, we did the 20 minute climb to the top and were
afforded some amazing views of the surrounding area. After having some
lunch at the peak, we went back down and down the road a bit where we
rented some mountain bikes to ride the roughly 30 km Circuito Chico,
a never-flat, up and down circuit around some of the lakes and forests
of the area. Never have I wished more to have my own, lightweight road
bike than trying to climb these massive hills on a heavy, cheap
mountain bike. An exhausting ride, it was nevertheless a great way to
see some of the local scenery first hand.
Back at the hostel, we decided on our next move over dinner. Ever
since I started traveling with Robyn and Tom, I have been treated to
some really excellent cuisine – not so much the local fare, but really
great meals cooked from scratch in the hostels using fresh ingredients
from the local supermarkets. It’s going to be a shock to my system
when I leave these two and they are certainly inspiring me to be more
adventurous in the kitchen when I get home. Anyways, the next move –
after spending a long time thinking about going to El Bolson (a less
commercial version of Bariloche about an hour to the South), we
settled on a hostel in Villa Los Coihues, a small community about 30
minutes outside of Bariloche by local bus. The area basically consists
of a grocery store, two restaurants, a beach, several campgrounds, and
many, many nice cottage-like homes. Given that we were going there for
the weekend, it kind of felt like back home, having a cottage long
weekend break from work (in this case, work being the hard job of
traveling). Our hostel, Hostel Los Coihues, was a really nice and big
log house run by a group of wonderful people who spoke absolutely no
English. In one funny instance, the manager tried to introduce us to a
girl who was camping outside the hostel (the hostel also hosts campers
outside and allows them to use the common areas of the building). The
girl was English but the manager tried to introduce us in Spanish and
no one had any idea what he was saying. After several failed attempts
to get his message across, Robyn caught on, looked at the girl and
said ‘You’re from England?’. Yup, that was easy and the manager looked
very relieved that we’d sorted that out. All in all though, I’m
getting much better and more confident with my Spanish which is
making life a little easier down here.
Though we spent a large part of our weekend eating ice cream, having
fantastic dinners, and sitting on the beach, we also decided to do a
little hiking. We happened to be right next to a big trekking area
described in my Lonely Planet Trekking in Patagonia book and we found
a trek right next to us that is recommended to be done in two days,
with camping in the middle. With no camping gear at hand, an after
talking with a few people in the hostel, we just decided to do it all
in one day instead. Once again, we got some great weather for the day,
cloudy with some sun poking through, not too hot and no rain. From the
hostel, we walked to the entrance of the National Park and then about
an hour or two along flat terrain not unlike what I encountered in El
Chalten a few weeks earlier. Then we started climbing through thick
forest and didn’t stop for at least two hours when we finally arrived
at the wind exposed Refugio Frey.
Here, the wind was as bad as anything I had previously encountered in
Torres del Paine. There were several army-like rock shelters built by
the Refugio for campers and we crouched behind one of these to eat
some lunch before tackling the wind again. All around us were signs of
the wind’s effects including destroyed tents stuck in bushes. We went
to continue our trek, but the wind was so bad it was lifting water off
the nearby lake and attacking us. It was another edition of Man vs.
Wind. We retreated behind some rocks, opened our map and reevaluated.
We could surrender, raise the white flag and return home the way we
had come, bruised and defeated. Or step up for battle, attack with
force and push on to victory. And we did just that.
On the other side of the lake, the wind calmed down and we found ourselves at the base of a valley surrounded by mountains – it was clear the only forward was up but where? After some map checking and horizon scanning, we found the “trail”, more like boulder climb up to another lake overlooking the entire valley below. Once again, we were surrounded by near vertical rock walls. Following the spray painted red dots on the rocks, we climbed up to a breathtaking, top-of-the-world view of the National Park. The trek is described in Lonely Planet as an “exhilirating, high level route” and they were not kidding. The next segment of the hike was not for the unfit or the faint of heart. Walking along a high ridge, it was like walking a tight rope 2000m above sea level, nearly shear vertical drop to our left and high winds, picking our way from boulder to boulder. This was definitely the most technical hiking I have ever done. The trail took us to the top of the Cerro Catedral ski hill, where lucky for us, none of the chairlifts were running. We spent the final two hours walking down snowless ski slopes. All in all, a long and hard, but great day of hiking!
After some more time at the beach, we packed up and are on our way to the heart of Argentine wine country, Mendoza.