Lakes, mountains and chocolate

Trip Start Aug 12, 2011
Trip End Jan 31, 2012

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Flag of Argentina  ,
Tuesday, November 15, 2011

It had been a bit of a mission but we finally made it to Bariloche in the lakes district of Patagonia. Patagonia is quite large, though, and Bariloche is in the northern bit. The guidebooks call it "Argentinas response to the Swiss Alps" because of the mountains, skiing, Saint Bernard dogs and chocolate stores. In fact, we think they make a bit of hay from the comparison. The movie selection on the way there was (again) astoundingly bad. We can handle ACDC, we are Australian, but not the full length recording of their live act. Something that we learnt soon after our arrival in Bariloche is that the town suffers from the ash from a volcano on the Chillean side of their border. When the volcano (the same ones that inturrupted flights in Australia and NZ earlier in the year) has been sending up ash and there is a westerly wind, the air in Bariloche and around gets filled with ash. Which gives the Argentinians cause to curse as the volcano is in Chille but the Argentinians often get the ash. It was definitely noticeable around town and also on rocks and logs and in the snow along the path when we went walking. In Bariloche the ash can be very bad in terms of visibility (you cannot see the lakes or mountains) and it also gets into your hair and eyes.
We headed straight to the local mountaineering club and picked out an overnight walk up to an alpine lake not far out of town. However one of the hostel workers was determined to change our mind at the last minute (for the better as it turned out) and we headed for another lake. The walk is known as Refugio Frey, which is the name given to the mountain 'refuges' for hikers and mountain climbers. They are a bit like a hostal in the mountains - some have draught beer in summer, you can camp as well and just hang out there for a few days until you run out of food. Or, you can do what we did and not bother with a tent or food and get the refuge guys to whip you up something and use the bunks. The food was good, considering, and if you hadn't had the foresight to bring a bottle of wine they even had a selection there. They also had a resident cat to keep down the mice population. The people who run them stay there for a year or so at a time, looking after the place and hikers/climbers. Our spanish had been slowly improving, which was helpful in these situations. Although on the whole, more people in Argentina speak a little bit of English than in Bolivia or Peru.
A dry start to the walk owing to a recent bushfire saw the path changing to beech trees with rushing streams and high rocky outcrops. The last bit pushed past the treeline into a bit of snow left into spring and to the refuge. You might get a bit stir crazy staying there for a year, but the view was undeniably spectacular. The hut sits by a couple of high altitude lakes surrounded by jagged rocky peaks still with snow all around, like a natural catheral. The area is a Mecca for rockclimbers in Argentina.
There is a climb, really, not so much a walk, up past a second lake to the pass into the next valley. We weren't the first to rise that morning, and we found ourselves accosted by a lone Brasilian/German guy who was in dire need of a personal photographer. Once we had performed this duty we clambered up the rocks to the top of the pass. The view into the next valley was incredible and had us wishing there was less snow so that we could walk across to the next hut. Simon thought he saw some condors but it may have just been the altitude. After the strenuous climb up we rather enjoyed 'skiing' down the snow on our hiking boots which shortened the return trip considerably (hiking through snow is tough work). When we headed back down the hill from the refuge  after lunch we heard a "knock, knock, knock" and looking up saw a woodpecker. It was beautiful with a black body and bright red head. Simon took about 50 photos of it. After the beech forest we took an alternate route down past Lake Guiterrez which ended in the area where all the swanky houses are. We met an old man out for his evening walk who was keen for a chat and wasn't at all bothered that we could only catch the gist of what he was saying.
We continued to pack it in that day after our long walk as we had plans to meet some friends from the Inca trail for dinner. They had a recommendation from their hostel about a good 'parilla' or steak restaurant. So we took our hungry selves there and ordered a Lomo steak for us while our friends had bife de chorizo (two different cuts of steak), we had learnt by then that one portion between two plus some salad is plenty of food for two!
The next day Simon had a day of guided fly fishing planned while Miriam had opted for horse riding. The hostel was again full of good advice, the horse riding company Miriam went with did their excursions in a protected valley which meant lovely green forest, streams, lake and importantly - no clouds of ash. As the trip is designed for people with no horse riding ability (like Miriam!) the morning involved a quiet walk through the lovely countryside. A little excitement was added by Miriiam's faithful stead, 'Poco'. This name was a little perplexing as he was an ordinary sized horse, not at all little as his name suggested. It was soon decided that his name must be short for 'poco lento', that is a little bit slow. Poco had a tendency to stop to sniff things or eat some grass and generally be a couple of lengths behind the other horses. He also picked his own route a bit and deviated from the path occasionally. Our morning ended with a walk along the lake and a wade through the water. Our group that day was five women and we enjoyed a good giggle together over a yummy lunch of goulash and red wine.
As for the fishing trip, anyone who knows anything about fishing knows that catching fish is not the objective of a trip. And so it was for the day spent fishing waist deep in rushing ice cold meltwater learning how to cast. No fish were caught, so mission accomplished. In the spring, the melting snow means the rivers rise and flow strongly, pushing the trout into the river mouths downstream. This is where Simon stood in skins+thermals+pants+waders for several hours in the wind. Thankfully, due to extreme fanaticism, he did not feel the cold until back at the hostal. Still, he hooked a couple, but they conveniently got away so it was steak for lunch (yet again). No problem, as the parrilla 'El Boliche Viejo' that the guide liked to take people for lunch had perfected their art and we could easily have spent the afternoon there with their red wine.
We were having a funny few days of chance catch ups as we had discovered that as well as our friends from the Inca trail some old friends of ours from Perth, Chermaine and Dale, were in town. They took us out to a cosy restaurant in town where we filled up on fondue! We had decided we needed a break from red meat, and fondue sounded like a decent second option.
As we had by that stage neglected to visit the town's famous chocolate shops we spent our last morning in town visiting the artesan market and sampling the wares of the two most celebrated chocolatiers. We were particularly impressed by the fresh raspberries coated in chocolate.
The culinary onslaught did not finish there- we headed next to El Bolson on a two hour bus ride. This is where we met lemon pie flavored ice-cream.
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