Getting from El Calafate to Bariloche is no easy task... a detour to Rio Gallegas (further south) to change buses and 28 hours in a bus later, I finally arrived in the most northern part of Patagonia. It still shocks me to think just how big Argentina is! I know 28 hours sounds horrendous, but they have different levels of buses here, the most luxurious being the cama buses which are like flying first class. The chairs are like big comfy armchairs, you can only fit 3 accross the bus instead of the standard 4, so I could curl up in in the chair and recline it to about a 30 degree angle and pull down a padded leg rest to join the seat at the same angle and make it like a bed! Add to that being served hot meals for breakfast, lunch and dinner, along with soft drinks and even wine, plus movies being played throughout the journey... not so bad, eh?!! (One bus I have been on since even had a game of Bingo with bottle of wine as a prize!) Plus the benefit of being on a bus is that every couple of hours it makes a stop either for passengers or fuel so you get a chance to get some fresh air and stretch your legs too... cushty!!
Bariloche is a pretty big city in Patagonian standards, so very different to every where I had been since leaving Santiago over a month earlier. There is some kind of Swiss connection which I havenīt yet figured out, and being in the lake district is set on the shores of a lake with a mountain backdrop, so the combination of these along with lots of wooden Swiss style buildings and St Bernard dogs lazing around in the plaza, you could almost shut your eyes and imagine being in the heart of Europe. Apparantly Bariloche has the best chocolate in Argentina which would account for every 4th shop in the main street being a chocolate shop.
It was a bit to expensive for me to justify, plus I would much rather spend a eighth of the price buying one big slab of solid chocolate which I know I would enjoy just as much, so during our quick tour of the shopping street me and Peter ducked in and out of the chocolate shops trying the freebies instead! Itīs pretty good chocolate.. maybe not the best in the World but definitely good for South American standards! (Needless to say my favourite was the one with a thick layer of dulce de leche in the middle, haha!)
After a lazy first morning following the big bus journey to get there the day before, we spent the first afternoon figuring out the local bus system and heading off to Lloa Lloa,
a far point of the lake where the boats leave to go to an island where you can hike. After seeing the price of the boat ride we quickly decided a small walk around part of the lake would suffice, and then headed back on the bus stopping at Cerro Campanario, a chairlift up to a viewpoint of the area. We had been so lucky with the weather that day... it had started off looking cloudy and misty, but had burnt off really quickly and next thing you know I was I walking around in a t-shirt getting sunburnt!
It was so good to be out of my thermals and thick warm coats! On the way back down the chairlift we got passed by a dog going up on one the other side, no lead attached and the safety bar up, looking perfectly content like it was a very normal thing for a dog to be doing... Iīm sure that if you come back in ski season you would actaully see that dog on skiīs!
That evening as well we found a veggie restaurant so for the first time in ags I didnīt have to cook for myself and went out and had some really great food (Argentina is almost impossible for veggies unless you chance upon a veggie restaurant or live off pizza).
The next day we had hoped to be able to go paragliding and had to wait around trying to find out if there was space for us both to do it. Unfortunately, just before mid morning we heard back that there was only space for one of us on that day, so instead we headed up to Cerro Otto, another chairlift to a higher viewpoint on the other side of the town.
Again, we had really great weather so had amazing views of the surrounding lakes and forests. Whilst there, we actually saw people arriving to do the paragliding and stopped next to them to watch one taking off. For anyone that has never tried it or seen the take-off procedure, it involves laying the chute out behind you in the direction of the wind, waiting for a gust of wind to blow, and then runing as fast as you can down a very steep hill until the wind catches the chute lifts you into to air. I tried this 15 years ago in Austria on a fairly easy slope, where I had the misfortune of my chute not opening and being left running and then tumbling roly-poly style down the hill... So when I looked down this hill and saw how steep it was, and how little room there was to run down it before it dropped off, I was quietly very relieved that we hadnīt been able to do it!!
There is a famous route in the lake disrtict called the "7 lakes route" which most people hire a car to drive around in a day. We had decided against this as it involves a full day just driving and rushing around to get from viewpoint to viewpoint, and the people I had spoken to that had done this had all said they ran out of time at the end. One thing to note here is that some of the villages can be a couple of hundred kilometres apart, and they are not always connected by paved roads, so the journey can be very solw and very bumpy. So instead we opted to travel by bus to a couple of the villages and stay overnight. Our first stop was to Villa Traful, just 1.75 hours away although it looked so much closer on the map!
Now, being low season we had expected things to be closed but didnīt think it would be too much of an option, until we arrived and got off the bus at one end of the village trying to find accomodation, and ended up walking the entire length of the village which must be about 3kmīs sprawled out along the side of Lake Traful, until we eventually found a small tourist information office that could point us in the direction of one of 2 options for us to stay that evening, both of which were a bit more than hostel style budget! The village itself is very cute, lots of green and trees with the odd wooden chalet building mixed in. We went for a walk in the afternoon to the 2 local waterfalls which were not the most exciting or impressive, but did get a good view of the lake from up high.
We had managed to find out that the only bus out that was heading in the direction we needed to go wasnīt until 7pm the next day, and with only 2 shops and 2 tea houses open in the village, one of which being the place we had stayed, we opted to try and hitch hike out instead. It probably wasnīt the best idea on a sleepy Sunday in a small village with very little passing traffic, so 3 hours later we were still stood there waiting having only counted 6 cars gone past, most of which seemed to be locals going to pick up some firewood, but luckily just after that a very friendly local family stopped and took us all the way to Villa La Angostura (with a few unscheduled stops for their little boy to be sick!), a slightly bigger but still small and very pretty town full of yet more chocolate shops on the shores of lake Nahuel Huapi.
One thing I am yet to work out is if there is a Christmas related theme going on in Villa La Angostura or if they just cannot be bothered to take down the Christmas decorations....
Our bus the following day wasnt until the evening, so we made the most of having a whole day and went for a hike in the national park, a 24 km return hike to the Arrayanes forest.
Having been in Argentina for a while now, the first couple of events shouldnt have come as any surprise as it seems quite a common occurrence, but still did...! Firstly was the shock of having to pay 65 pesos each to enter the park when the locals only have to pay 25 pesos, and next was the failure of the park office to mention to us that there were 2 paths from the entrance, with the main one being closed further up the track - we found this out the hard way when we got to a blockade after walking 1km up a steep hill!
Back at the bottom we did notice the very small sign wrapped around a gate post (the gate was wide open!) that was not at all obvious, but it had warmed our legs up nicely for the just as steep 2km detour path!! The rest of the walk was thankfully uneventful and the forest was very pretty and there were some great lookouts of the Nahuel Huapi lake along the way which also made a perfect picnic spot.
By the time our bus arrived into San Martin de los Andes it was very late and pitch black, so the next morning was a really nice surprise to see just how pretty the town is. Its set on the shore of Lake Lacar, complete with a beach, and the whole town has been built to resemble a European alpine village with wooden chalet style buildings, tree and rose bush lined streets, and everything blending in with the surround.
And it also has to be one of the cleanest places I have been to in Argentina, actually no, in the whole of South America! The weather was still great, so we stayed here for 2 days, walking to the lookout points that gave views of the lake and the town and appreciating the last bit of the lake district that I would be visiting.
The distance between where I started in Bariloche to where I finished in San Martin de los Andes is 262km (direct route).... and this is only a small part of the lake district! It took me a further 6 hours on a bus to get a bus connection from the northern most town, and it stretched accross the border to Chile too, so again, another place that I will have to come to and explore more one day - it will be a perfect place to come back to and explore on a bike I think!
Ever since meeting Peter in Puerto Natales we had kept in touch and agreed to meet up further north when we both got there, and my next stop at the Argentinian lake district was close to where he already was in Chile, so we arranged to meet back up in Bariloche and explore the lakes together.