I’m on a bus [well I was, over a week ago now..] from Bariloche in the Argentine lake district to El Chaltén in Patagonia’s deep south, via the legendary Ruta 40 that runs parallel to the Andean spine of the country.
I told you it was legendary:
From Villazon on the northern border right down to almost the very bottom, where it narrowly avoids slamming into the (somewhat unexpected, unless you’d looked at a map of course) southern border with Chile by turning sharply to the right (as you look at the map) and tipping you out at Rio Gallegos on the east coast. From there you are just a nudge away from Tierra del Fuego and the *end of the world*. Ushuaia – Argentina’s (and the world’s) most southerly city – as well having a surfeit of vowels, is where you can catch a boat to Antarctica, should you have a spare £4K or so…Despite this being my 5th time in South America I’d not previously made it further than 35 degrees south (Santiago/BA/Montevideo) and while I never expected to be as relieved to get out of Buenos Aires as I was a few days ago, I’m not at all surprised to have been constantly blown away by the stunning beauty of Patagonia (and its notoriously fierce wind quite probably, though I’ve yet to properly experience that).
My first stop after Buenos Aires was the little town of San Martin de Los Andes, a smaller and more quaint version of the more well known resort of Bariloche I’d read (which turned out to be true). I arrived there after an almost 24 hour ride on a bus-cama (cama means bed in Spanish) which is the middle class of service; there’s also cheaper and more basic semi-cama, or business class style, almost flat bed, suite. It was pretty comfy (3 seats to a row) and they served us merienda – a late afternoon snack to keep you going until a really late Argentine dinner, and also breakfast. The coffee was almost nice and though I’d brought along my own wine, it wasn’t needed as they served wine with the 3 course dinner 😊. The service was really good (with a very diligent *cabin crew*) and it made the vast expense a little less painful…
In the morning, the landscape from the bus windows was promisingly dramatic and desolate- including a view of the volcano Lanin (although you can barely tell from this picture, I know).
My spare wine was put to good use as a reward to myself for successfully erecting my tent – by a little stream on the Argentine AA campsite at the edge of town. I polished off half the carton (yes- the best kind of wine!) from the only drinking vessel I had: the smaller of my two saucepans (which definitely enhanced the flavour..).
San Martin is beautifully located on the eastern shore of lake Lacar. It looked seriously inviting and I had every intention of going in – once the wind had died down 🙂
I needed to do more laundry (I’d already done a load in BA but all clothes I wore there immediately became disgusting sweaty rags upon contact) – I didn’t have a washing line but bought a length of cord in town. [Can this blog get any more exciting??]. The next morning it was apparent that my line was uselessly short but not to worry, I improvised with my known cure-all: gaffer tape! A few minutes later the neighbouring couple alerted me to the fact that my wet clothes were now in a heap on the dusty ground. The guy offered to help me with my noodle. What noodle? And what was he going to do to it?? ‘Querés [Argentine conjugation, grammar nerds] ayudar con tu nudo?’ Oh right yes a *knot*. He proceeded to somehow stretch out enough line to construct a knot that wouldn’t unravel under the slightest bit of tension – I immediately forgot the name and technique despite observing closely.
After a sufficient amount of faffing (mostly writing the BA misery blog) I set out to walk to a beach further out of town along the shore to get a swim in that amazing lake. I’d hardly started walking when a passing car offered me a ride – there’s lots of hitchhiking in Patagonia so it’s not as random as it sounds and with my recent experiences in central Asia, it seems quite normal so I figured why not? He was a local – an off duty policeman – and so I ended up with some company and a guide for the rest of the day. We drove out to a place further than I would have felt like walking to- Quila Quina- but which was nicely sheltered for swimming and much less crowded. The lake was fantastic…(I did go in above my knees, honest!).
(Quila Quina is also home to a Mapuche community who sell artesanal goods and offer tours and activities. The Mapuche are one of Argentina’s various indigenous communities – the country’s indigenous heritage deserves much more than a quick link – I’ll try and write more in another post).
On the way back into town we stopped at a couple viewpoints:
This place is not too shabby….
And also hassled some of the local wildlife:
(The horse ran away from me. The sheep ran away too! It’s not as if I was thinking about having a delicious mountain lamb stew for dinner the next day in Bariloche..)
The policeman apparently had a dog and…5(!) cats (including 3 recently born kittens who’d be given away but still..). I surprised (or horrified?) him with my (sort of) knowledge of Chacarera -Argentinian folk dancing. I also tried one of Argentina’s favourite drinks: fernet branca. I had the mint version (mixed with lemonade)- it tasted (and looked) like a visit to the dentist gone wrong.
On Sunday I decided I’d head south to Bariloche – to see what all the fuss was about. While ‘breaking camp’ (seems fitting as something usually does get broken when I dismantle a tent), another neighbouring couple (like the others, Argentinian, probably students – they are all on their summer holiday now and most of them are here in Patagonia) offered me their spare camping gas – I’ll need some but not yet and I don’t have any space for extra *anything*. However I was able to help them dispose of a beer that they had left over and did my best to despatch it while performing the slightly violent and mystical dance known as ‘get the sodding tent back in its carry case’.
spot the beer..
I dozed through a hot four hour bus ride to Bariloche (obviously because of the hot bus and not the breakfast beer), opening my eyes occasionally to glimpse ridiculously beautiful sparkling sapphire lakes surrounded by towering pines. However when I got to my destination I was glad I’d seen small, friendly San Martin first, with its faux alpine wood cabin vibe and everything within walking distance. Bariloche itself is more of a city – a fairly ‘meh’ one from what I saw and if I’d arrived straight from Buenos Aires I might have been disappointed.
The centre of Bariloche has buildings designed by Alejandro Bustillo in the 1930s in a pseudo alpine style and is pretty lively during the long summer evenings…
Having said that, its setting along the southern shore of lake Nahuel Huapi is even more stunning than that of San Martin. And it turns out that the charm of Bariloche is to be appreciated by heading out from the city along the shore and around the national park. (And it’s also a winter sports destination but err..only in winter.)
Along the absurdly photogenic lakeshore of Bariloche..
One evening walking back to my hostel I spotted some locals doing Chacarera in the lobby of a hotel:
I was a bit overwhelmed by the multiple options for enjoying the surrounding nature but the thing that jumped out at me was the possibility of hiring a bike and riding a route known as the Circuito Chico. So after buying a ticket to El Chaltén for the next day, changing the last of my dollars (at better rates than BA; I’m now at the mercy of bastard Argentine atms that charge you a £5 withdrawal fee and only let you get the equivalent of £100 a time) I caught a bus to the start of the circuit at ‘km 18’. A lot of young Israelis travel in south America after finishing their national service, and it seemed like most of them were on my bus – but they got off at the stop before mine to climb a big hill called Cerro Campaniero. The guy at my hostel had advised me that there was a bike rental place at km 18 which indeed there was – a far better plan for me than hiring in town and then knackering myself out just getting to the start of the circuit. It would be ideal to spend a whole day on the route – it’s only 27km but there are various lake stops for swimming and places to get some local craft beer 😊. I didn’t have time for that but it was a brilliant way to spend the afternoon- just one stunning view after another.
stylish helmet on…and the open road is calling!
Cycling uphill isn’t really my thing though so I mostly got off and walked those bits (when I was a kid and cycled a lot – in a fairly flat town – I used to wonder why anyone would choose those funny gears that either spun around really quickly or required immense strain to pedal…). I had some of the locally made chocolate that Bariloche is famous for to fuel me (the centre is basically full of chocolate shops). It was pretty good but I’m not sure it was any better than a Cadbury’s Dairy Milk – more research is probably required 🙂