Bariloche or Bust
Trip Start Mar 29, 2010
23Trip End May 24, 2010
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A city of more than 100,000, Bariloche is considered the heart of Northern Patagonia, located in area known as the Lake District. As you may of guessed, this part of Patagonia is characterized by its multitude of lakes, many of which, are nestled in between touring mountains. To give you an idea of the size of Argentine Patagonia, Bariloche is about a 36 hour bus-ride from El Calafate, or a two-hour plane flight due north (We opted for the plane flight).
Admittedly, the city’s surroundings are spectacular. Bariloche hugs the banks of Lake Nahuel Huapi, and is surrounded by large mountains that offer impressive views of the Andes and the Argentina Pampa
After three weeks in Southern Patagonia, however, Bariloche seemed polluted, crowded, and overdeveloped. It had been weeks since we were in such a heavily populated area (not that the city is a metropolis, by any means), and it seemed that ever car on the road pre-dated the advent of catalytic converters and spewed thick black smoke.
Granted, some circumstances explaining our bad impression were beyond Bariloche’s control. The City’s downtown, which is supposed to be a highlight, was consumed by public demonstration complete with protesters burning rubber tires.
It turned out to be a transit strike, which was just a tad ironic. I work in the field of public sector labor relations, and an impetus of this trip was to get away from my work. Yet, there I was, chatting with a cab driver over the terms of the bus drivers’ most recent collective bargaining agreement. The decisive issue was the duration of the contract. According to the cab driver, the transit union asked for a five-year contract, the government countered with two years, and after a day-long strike, management caved
It´s a story I know well.
Since Bariloche’s was not the quaint lake-side town we envisioned (and consumed by smoke), we focused our energies on the surrounding countryside – which did not disappoint. We did a short day hike in the municipal park, where we strolled through a number of arrayanes forests and enjoyed some pleasant views of the lake.
We also showed up to the Hotel LLao Llao – the most expensive hotel in the area – for a cup of tea. Our guidebook suggested that we could simply “stroll the grounds.” Instead we were greeted by a security team when we showed up at the front entrance.
It was clear that our kind was not welcome, but then again, that´s rarely stopped me before. So I weaseled our way into the tea room (we had to sit on the couch, not at a table) for an absurdly expensive cup of tea and a lovely view. To be fair, the china in which the tea was served looked very pricey.
During our second day in Bariloche, we did a 36 kilometer bike ride known as the "Circuito Chico." It´s a well-known bike route known for its hills (they were painful) and scenic lake vistas
In reflecting on our time in Bariloche, some of my favorite moments involved the food. We had two great meals while in town. In one restaurant (Naan), the owners converted the first floor of their house into a restaurant. The food was great (fusion cuisine, not necessarily Argentine), and the atmosphere very distinctive.
We also enjoyed a fantastic vegetarian meal at a restaurant with a simple, though not so creative name - Restaurante Vegeteriano. There was no menu (you simply had a choice of with or without fish), and you ate what was prepared. Fresh vegetables are a rarity in Patagonia, and after nearly a month of a beef-only diet, the meal represented an enjoyable change of pace...even for the most committed of carnivores such as myself.
Finally, there was the chocolate. With its Swiss and German influence, Bariloche is famous for outstanding chocolate
In all in all, we managed to have a good time in Bariloche, despite our poor first impression and the fact that we thought the downtown itself was heavily overrated. But as we found out, one doesn´t travel to Bariloche for the city - you come here for the surrounding countryside.
If using the Lonely Planet as your guidebook, beware. The section on Bariloche is at best horribly outdated, at worst flat out wrong. A couple of useful things to know:
First, you need to leave downtown Bariloche to do just about any outdoor activities, unless you do a pre-packaged tour. For example, if you want to bike the Circuito Chico, take the bus westward to kilometer marker 18.3, and begin the ride from there. At km marker 18.3 there is a bike rental shop. No one does the circuito chico from downtown because the road is too busy and the ride is somewhat unpleasant
Second, we found some of the accommodation listings to be inaccurate. For example, Hostel El Gaucho is not as flattering and inviting as they would suggest (at least for the double rooms). There is better value that can be found in the area.
Third, at this time of year, there is very limited hiking in the national park. The municipal park is opened year round, however. There are a few trails that are available, though they are not as strenuous. If you´re looking for a full day of activity, get to the bike rental shop at opening and combine the circuito chico with some hiking in the municipal park. You´ll have great views, see some interesting terrain, and feel like you´ve had a full day and are entitled to the chocolate temptations in town.
Finally, if you plan to hike to Cerro Castor, know that trail head is in town off Ave. Pioneros and NOT at the base of the gondola. The hike is just a gravel round leading up to the ski resort, but it does have some great views. If you´re pressed for time and can´t get to any of the other mountains, it´s not a bad way to spend an afternoon. But then again, you can also just take the gondola to the top.