Lake Crossing to Bariloche, Argentina

Trip Start Aug 06, 2008
Trip End Dec 04, 2008

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Sunday, October 26, 2008

Gosh, it seems like ages ago that we were in the deep south of Patagonia. I looked up my itinerary to check the dates and discovered that it was only four days ago that we left Punta Arenas for Puerto Montt - it's getting increasingly difficult to keep track of the days! Puerto Montt is about halfway between Punta Arenas and Santiago, and is the gateway to the Lake District, a beautiful region of crystal-clear, emerald lakes and magnificent snow-capped volcanos. We arrived there in the morning, then took a taxi to Puerto Varas, about 20 km north of Puerto Montt. The countryside here is significantly different from the steppe-like south; it's hilly and very green, with some beautiful forests. Some of the hills were completely blanketed in Scottish broom that were in full bloom, giving entire hillsides a bright yellow cover. Puerto Varas is a quaint town right on the shores of Lake Llanquehue (pronounced as 'jean [as in French]-kway-way') and looks across to the stunning Mt. Osorno, a Mt. Fuji-like volcano, on the far side of the lake. The town was founded by German immigrants and that's pretty evident in the architecture and the numerous German names all over town. It was a pretty cloudy day with occasional showers - guess we've run out of 'good weather' luck. Bit of a shame as we couldn't see the volcanos, just a bit past the snowline while the peaks were completely shrouded in thick clouds. Puerto Varas is a resort town with many hotels (built almost exclusively in Swiss/German alpine style) that offer gorgeous views of the lake. That evening, we went for dinner at a lovely restaurant called Living. We had a beautiful view of the lake while we enjoyed our salmon and leg of lamb (superb! OMG 9+) and a bottle of Montes Alpha's Merlot, our absolute favourite red. This estate churns out some exquisite reds - we've tried the Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Camenere and they're all absolutely divine. If you see this label in your local wine shop, don't hesitate!
Our lake crossing tour started early the next day. This is a very popular tour in this region. It starts in Puerto Montt/Puerto Varas and takes you through the Andes by a combination of boat and bus and ends in Bariloche, Argentina. We chose the version that stops for the night in Peulla, a hamlet in the heart of the Andes. We left Puerto Varas by coach and headed east to Petrohue. We managed to catch a glimpse of the conical peak of Mt. Osorno as the clouds lifted for, literally, a few minutes. I showed Frits the photos I took from the plane when we flew from Santiago to Punta Arenas on that clear day (see previous blog) to give him an idea of what it looks like on a cloudless day! Along the way, we stopped at the Petrohue waterfall at the foot of Mt. Osorno. The falls were rather impressive and the colour, a deep emerald, was stunning. A lot of the rivers and lakes in this region have that same colour (in varying degrees) as the water originates from the glaciers which carry heaps of minerals with them from the mountains. The minerals, especially copper, give the water this beautiful colour. From Petrohue, we boarded a boat which took us on a two-hour trip through the beautiful Lago Todos Los Santos (All Saints Lake). It would have been an awesome boat ride had it not been for the poor weather. The lake should've been a bright emerald, instead it was grey, and the surrounding mountains were all hidden behind clouds. The guide showed us pictures instead (!) of the lake and the four massive volcanos that rise steeply from its shores. We arrived in Peulla just in time for lunch. Peulla is nothing more than two hotels, a few houses and a pier! Its location though is just spectacular, with the reed-filled lake, beautiful rivers and waterfalls, and the imposing snow-capped mountains right at its doorstep. I guess being out here, right in the middle of the Andes mountains, made us feel adventurous so we decided to go zip-lining through the forest canopy: a first for both of us. I'm usually scared of great heights (see how I skipped 'The Edge' experience in Melbourne) so I was quite hesitant but we went along and did it anyway. We were joined by an American couple and the guide strapped us up with safety lines, hooks, helmets, gloves and the trolley. For those who don't know what zip-lining is, it's basically zipping through the forest, high up in the canopy, from tree to tree while being suspended from a cable. There are special platforms built high up in the trees (these were, at 20-odd meters, relatively low. I chickened out of my first zip-line encounter in Costa Rica years ago - those were considerably higher... 40 - 60 meters above the ground!) from which you launch yourself and the cable guides you to the next platform and you zip to the following platform from there. The first was easy enough. The terrified look on Frits' face was priceless! Don't think I've ever seen him that scared before! The second was quite scary as the distance between the two platforms was about 80 meters and there was a considerable descent, which meant a greater speed. Frits was close to trembling and I told him (and myself!) to relax, assured him (and myself) that it was totally safe. Off he went and it went well. Then it was my turn, the guide gave me the signal to go and I lifted my feet off the platform and away I went. Strangely enough, it wasn't panic that swept over me, it was pure exhilaration. This is fantastic, I thought. I didn't brake so I zipped down at a tremendous speed, only slowing down when I neared the platform. Loved it! OMG factor: 9. We went from platform to platform eight times and it was awesome! Funny how fear has us in its grip in so many ways but when we let it go for just a bit and explore that unknown, we then realise how silly we were to harbour that particular fear in the first place. After the ziplines, we went back to the hotel and spent the rest of the afternoon chatting with the Americans and downing a couple of pisco sours :-)
We had a rather extraordinary experience at dinner that evening. We sat down across from an elderly American couple (in their early-80's) that shared a table with a Spaniard who spoke no English. Since the couple didn't speak any Spanish, the lady told the Spaniard, "why don't you talk and I'll just nod my head and smile"!! She was hilarious! They had some trouble ordering so I helped them with the translations (me translating Spanish!! haha! I may not speak the language but I know my food and wines!!) and ordered their food and some wine. Tired of the arduous conversation at their table, they soon turned around to us and a cross-table conversation began. Then another couple (from Colombia) sat down and they joined in the conversation, and then two other couples (from Brazil) joined in later, and soon we had a conversation across five tables! Everyone had to speak up as the tables were about a meter or two apart! It was a lively, boisterous, evening which we enjoyed tremendously. The elderly couple were going to attempt the canopy ziplines the next day (I admire their determination) and we shared our experience with them. As we left, they got up, gave us a big hug and the lady said to us (laden in her heavy New York accent),"I don't know much about you but I love you to bits already". Now isn't that sweet! :-)
The next day, we hopped onto a bus and continued on our lake crossing tour. We left Peulla behind us and continued deeper into the Andes mountains. The scenery was spectacular. We drove past the dense temperate rainforest (only one of two places on Earth with temperate rainforests; here and in Washington state) - loved the huge beech and sequioa-like trees - and past various waterfalls and gushing rivers. The Chile-Argentina border was at the top of the mountain pass and the Brazilians clambered out of the bus and were thrilled with the patches of snow. We arrived at Lago Frias (another stunning lake) and from here, we took a boat to Puerto Alegre. The weather on this side of the Andes was a lot better and we could start to see the true colour of the lake and the imposing mountains around us. At Puerto Alegre (which isn't much more than a pier and a hut), we climbed onto a bus which took us to Puerto Blest where we stopped for lunch. After lunch, we continued by boat to Puerto Panuelo, stopping at some impressive waterfalls along the way. The boat ride to Puerto Panuelo along the Lago Nahuel Huapi offered us a magnificent vista of the huge forest-clad mountains. We arrived in Puerto Panuelo an hour later and a bus was there to take us on the last 25 km to Bariloche, which is where we are right now. Bariloche is a popular ski resort in the winter. Its location, on the shores of Lago Nahuel Huapi and backed by the Andes mountains, is just breathtaking. The town itself is ok, a bit of a jumble of kitsch; there are lots of restaurants, shops and hotels. The town is famous for its alpine architecture and chocolates - there's a thriving chocolate industry here. We had some but weren't too impressed. Guess you wouldn't be if you lived next door to Belgium, in my book, the true chocolate country! Villa Huinid, our hotel here sits atop a hill and commands brilliant views of the lake and the mountains. The view from our room window is really like a postcard - it's quite surreal, getting up in the morning and looking out the window!

We fly over to Buenos Aires tomorrow where we'll be for a few days. I'm sure we're going to love it there! :-)

Till my next blog!

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