Flying to Bariloche was our first internal flight on this trip and we felt it was a little like cheating. However, I was relentless in finding an alternative to the infamous Ruta 40 bus journey from El Chalten to Bariloche crossing 12 hours of dirt road staying overnight and then another 12 hours travelling through vast wasteland. There is only one airport out of Argentina’s southern Patagonia being El Calafate and like all remote tourist places in the world, flights are expensive, especially when you book a week out. We had learnt about an airline called LADE which is run by the Argentine Air Force and surprisingly they had an online booking system. After endless attempts of entering in dates searching for the first available, I got lucky to find not only a flight out but the same cost as the bus, $160USD. My determination in researching hours each night on the internet pays off.
But, and there is always a but. Missy here didn’t factor in the cost of a taxi fare $20 to and from the airports, an internal airport tax of $24 each (am sure this is to pay off the new airport) and luggage allowance of only 15kg each. Travelling by bus for the past six weeks, luggage weight has never been taken into consideration. Even without scales we both know our packs are well over 15kg. Thankfully with luggage excess at $1 per kilo, the damage was the cost of 3 beers back home. No wonder I was complaining knowing now that my pack weighs 20kg! At the end of the day despite an extra $100 to outlay, we are glad to travel a quarter of the way up the country in 1hr 40 minutes rather than the deep vein thrombosis two day bus journey.
However, as we take our seats on the plane, I start to doubt my choice of travel. A much smaller plane than expected (how was I supposed to know what a Focker F28 looked like at the time of booking) and when we hit minor turbulence very bump is exacerbated. After takeoff the couple in front of us found liquid dripping on their heads. The husband kept his arm up with a tissue at the end trying to stop it. I realised I still had a box of assorted bandaids I carried with me in my day pack since my blisters and we bandaided the situation so to speak. (pardon the pun) In the meantime the steward calls the military officer who was on board and the two of them search the overhead section and find a bag leaking shower gel from it. A big phew. No doubt there was nothing to worry about but when things start leaking you do think crazy things in mid air. Although a safe but noisy flight we are glad to be back on the ground.
Bariloche is the main hub and ski resort town in Argentina’s beautiful lake district. It is evident with the alps so close why this is a winter wonderland for skiers and snowboarders and a retreat for holiday makers in the summer. A stark contrast from the wide golden Patagonian plains to resemblances of European snow capped mountains of 2000 metres high surrounded by Lago Nahuel Huapi. Loose discussions between Ben and I begin of how we could incorporate a ski season here, still 4 months away.
We booked a hostel for three days about ten minutes walk down the hill to the town centre. Although a tiny room (getting used to small rooms in the hostels lately) it had gorgeous views across the lake and alps. Unfortunately within a few hours of arriving we could see a strong cold front coming in across the lake with intentions of lingering for at least 4-5 days. Temperatures start to drop with gusty ice winds straight off the lake. Our luck of consistent perfect travel weather for two months has finally run out. We really are not allowed to complain after hearing the news reports of Australia’s disastrous summers of floods, cyclones and fires. Besides, we feel the need to take it easy and catch up on emails, blogs, movies, our tv shows and skype our families.
It doesn’t take long to explore downtown and discover Bariloche is Argentina’s chocolate capital. Every second shop is a chocolate shop. Dominated by either large franchises, boutique stores, or the mum and pa stores, you can’t avoid them. The chocoholic I am is in chocolate heaven!! Ben just laughs as he sees me turn into an excitable child who has landed at Willy Wonkas chocolate factory with my eyes and mouth wide open. At least this cold weather calls for curling up in a cafe drinking the best hot chocolate in Argentina but not cheap at $5AUD so I savour every drop. I drag Ben into every retail shop from one end of the street to the other. This was a mistake as I am now so overwhelmed with too many choices we return to the hostel empty handed. There are no end of ideas on ways to use chocolate, including chocolate beer. Apart from chocolates, Argentina is also renowned for its delicious creamy ice cream (hmm New Zealand ice cream still wins) but we sit and devour a tub of ice cream in between brain freezes.
Yes, Bariloche is “little Switzerland” however, a reminder we are in Argentina as the flags are flown half mast as a sign of respect for Hugo Chavez. The town was greatly influenced by the German, Swiss and Austrian immigrants of the late 1800’s. It is very kitch with all it’s Swiss fondue restaurants, old charm Swiss alpine architecture made of stone or logs with timber windows and hand carved timber window boxes filled with colourful flowers. There are also tourist shops selling everything from Swiss army knives, Swiss cuckoo clocks and there are even St Bernard dogs in the town plaza. A couple of opportunistic locals bring their dogs to the square and charge $10 to have your photo taken with them. I knew my zoom lens would come in handy to take candid shots of the furry models taking a break.
The next few days are met with torrential rain, temperatures plumetting to 5 degrees overnight in the middle of summer with icy winds. This is not what we were expecting after 4 weeks in Patagonia. We’ve been waiting to reach Bariloche to wear our summer gear as we are desperate to wash our limited winter clothes we had been trekking in last week. With no break to this cold weather we are forced to continue to wear the same dirty clothes. Thankfully we don’t sweat in cold climates except for our feet and our thick socks start to smell. We can only turn them inside out so many times.
We make contact with our mate Austin and arrange to meet and finally treat ourselves to an Argentine steak dinner. He ended up taking the dreaded bus up the Ruta 40 and shares with us his nightmare journey up of flat tires and long dusty roads. The prices of steaks in Bariloche are much cheaper than down south so we have been waiting patiently to try it here. I find a restaurant called Alto de Feugo on Tripadvisor that serves mouth watering delicious steaks. They are cooked to perfection with the tastiest home made chips, chimichurri sauce, fresh salad, beers and a nice bottle of Argentine Malbec all for $25 each. Mmmmm, mmmmmm. Yes a meal to remember. Between steak, pizzas and pastas the main staple diet here we start to feel the kilos piling on.
Our plans to stay here for only 3 days now extend each morning checking the weather forecast in search of a sunny day. Although Ben and I travel exceptionally well together and have done so for many years, the combination of wet depressing days in a ski resort town, living in unwashed smelly clothes, stuck indoors in a tiny hostel room, frustration as to where, how and when the next leg of our journey will be and travelling 24/7 for two months can push each others buttons.
Ben pushes me to get out for the day for a visit to Cerro Campanario. I am in a mood as I had read National Geographic recently rated Cerro Campanario in Bariloche the 7th most beautiful view in the world. I debate what is the point on going on a wet day to the top of a hill when the view will be covered in cloud and disappointing. Yep one button pushed. My tolerances are running short and I don’t know why. Maybe I’m just missing our good times in Patagonia and still learning that I need to be more tolerant when weather or things don’t go the way I expect, maybe I’m just missing home. But I know I really didn’t feel like going outside in the cold today. We take the local bus about 10km out of town. The bus is crowded and we stand all the way hanging on like monkeys swaying side to side while the crazy bus driver whisks around the curvy road following the lake. We get out at the chairlift and Ben wanting to save money suggests we walk up. Great, it’s raining and I’m cold and will now get wet. Yes I know, I’m acting like a spoilt princess now but I’m just having one of those days. So I stomp my feet and start the ascent behind him. To my surprise it actually is a lovely alpine walk up. The dense forest protects us from the wind and the increase of oxygen into my lungs must be increasing the happy endorphins. My mood starts to lift as we get to the top. Poor Ben is so patient with me. He’s getting used to pushing me to do big hikes now. Only an hour walk up, a piece of cake after our previous 9 hour treks. Getting to the top exposes us to the elements but we rug up with 2 layers under our wind jackets,beanies and gloves and get some photos in before the next front comes through. Even though the weather gods seemed angry this high up the 360 degree views of snow cap peaks, Lago Nahuel Huapi and Llao Llao peninsular were still spectacular.
There is a lookout above the coffee shop with uninterrupted views however is rather exposed to the gusty winds. Muchas viento!! (much wind) We try to stand still and and the wind actually pushes us backwards. These Patagonian winds are insane. Time for a hot chocolate and coffee to seek some shelter. On our way back we run into Austin and his friends on the bus returning from their bike ride around the lake. Still such a small world.
We meet a fabulous Chilean guy called Rodriguez who nicknames me Princess Diana as he said I speak beautiful English but that I have the worst Spanish accent. He said Ben had mastered the accent perfectly. We enjoyed his company each night at the hostel and he cheered us up with his humour.
The weekend forecast is still gloomy and we desperately need a change of scenery. So we book a ticket 3 hours south to El Bolson for the night and arrange to meet up with Pete and Karin for dinner. Great to see them again and hear their adventures of their hiking and camping on the glacier. El Bolson is a small town, an Argentine Byron Bay in a valley well known for organic produce and agriculture. We only stay one night as the weather starts to clear and head back to Bariloche to organise our bus tickets for the next leg. After much deliberation all week we bite the bullet and decide to head north to Mendoza instead of due east to Peninsular Valdes, a wildlife reserve. At the end of the day we have to acknowledge we can’t do everything and we will see plenty of wildlife north in Ecuador. Still can’t believe the price of our last steak dinner from the other night so we catch up with Peter and Karin in town and order the same steaks.
Day 7 and we wake up to the most glorious sunny day with intense blue skies. The front has lifted and so have our spirits. It has been an expensive week just hanging around town waiting for the sun to appear but we felt it was warranted to see Bariloche and the surrounding alps with no cloud and clear blue lakes. We jumped on the local bus out to Circuito Chico, a looped road around the peninsular at the end of the lake to rent bikes for the day. The photos tell the story here but it was just what we needed. Fresh air under the alpine mountains although the winds were still a bit gusty off the lake, the circuit was protected by alpine trees and the views (after I walked my bike up the steep hills) were just what we expected. Simply beautiful. Thank you weather gods.
To finish the day on a high, I spot a modern hairdresser salon in town and decide after 3 months the fleece needs to be shorn and treat myself to a little bit of girl time to have my hair cut and colour. Sometimes a girl just has to do these things.
What a week, a very long week with the wild weather gods but we’re now ready to step up the travel to Mendoza, the heartland of Malbecs and drink with the wine gods.