San Carlos de Bariloche, Argentina
There was some hesitation about boarding a bus for 22 hours to take us down to the start of Patagonia. We would never dream about taking a journey like this by bus at home which is the equivalent of traveling from Melbourne to Brisbane without a stop. But do as the Argentines do, and with a year to budget we boarded the Via Bariloche executive class (carma) at 3:00pm and left Buenos Aires for the long night ahead. However, the luxurious surrounds made the journey as comfortable as it could be – reclining seats to 180 degrees, a plethora of movies loaded on to our individual screens for on demand viewing, and afternoon tea, dinner, whiskey, desert and breakfast all catered for and served…not bad. Drifting in and out of consciousness we finally awoke at 8:30am the following morning after a long night, peeled back the curtains and found ourselves in the middle of snow covered mountains, icy lagoons, alpine coverage and a temperature something below zero – we had arrived in pristine and extreme Patagonia, a world away from city life.
San Carlos Bariloche is situated in the foothills of the Andes just a stones through from Chile and beautifully placed on the shores of Nahuel Huapi Lake and National Park. Coming to tourist fruition in the 1930, Bariloche is where wealthy South Americans (mostly Brazilians), Europeans and North Americas venture for their ski holidays, trekking, rafting and to give it a true swiss alps feel…chocolate and fondue (without the key party). Jumping off the cama coach we took in the freezing air, grabbed our bags and started our first stroll across snow, a difficult feat with a heavy pack, black ice on the roads and sleep deprivation. We trudged to the local bus stop, just about loosing it numerous times and after the bus passed us by, we opted for a taxi to take us the further 2kms into town and to our hostel – Perikos.
Murray left me with the bags and walked off to try out his best espanol on the closest taxi driver and moments latter, a late 60s pensioner came screaming up in a tiny rusty box with wheels and ushered me in to the vehicle where Cold Play blasted from his sub woofer, hip hop videos were being watched on his mobile and where he drove with one hand and one eye on the icy roads to get us into town. After a few spin outs we made it to Perikos, a beautiful wooden lodge of a hostel where the owner had named the cosy quarters after his beloved hound that was with him while he built the hostel from scratch, was a key attraction for the guests but died in 95. With pictures of the friendly brown mutt all over the walls, it brought a tear to your eye..aww poor Periko.
The intent of coming all the way south to Bariloche was to see a glimpse of Patagonia, some snow and the surrounding mountains. Skiing was out of the question due to my dodgy knee and the extremely high risk that one of us would pull more than just a hammy resulting in the 12mth trip reduced to 2. So instead we opted for a comfortable trip up the closest mountain – Cerro Otto. Covered in snow, you reached Cerro Otton by a 12 minute chair lift through the alpine, over the german style houses, through the clouds and up to a revolving cafe and lookout. Paying the $25 fare up we went and viewed some spectacular scenery across all key mountains in the district, the lakes that you could sail through all the way to Chile and across the Andes dividing the two counties. It was -3 degrees and with three pairs of pants, tops, jumpers, jackets, beanies and gloves, it was damn cold. We reached the top and took photos quickly before running inside to sit and revolve the most pleasant way while drinking a bottle of red. Ahh what a life. It was approaching 5pm and the the scenery took on that golden, pinkish haze so we descended back down the mountain before dark and back to the warmth of our heated hostel.
A few interesting characters we meet on the way included Californian Mike, a mid 20s spanish teacher slash rock climber that after trying out life as a broker for less than 12mths back home, he decided the corporate life wasn’t for him. So he spent the last year teaching english in Buenos Aires and traveling South America. A few Aussie mates from Brisbane were also traveling through and after not being able to cross the boarder over the alps rom Santiago through to Mendoza in Argentina due to the freezing conditions, they opted to head south to Patagonia. After a few helpful hints and hesitations learning his boss died a few years ago in a flight bound for Cuba and on the same airline we were planning to booking with (hmm might give that one a second thought).
The following days we awoke to falling snow, the town completely covered in fresh powder. Murray was fixated as it was the first time he had seen failing snow. And sitting for our morning breakfast of coffee, cornflakes and Rod Stuart singing christmas carols in the background, it really did feel like a festive time of year. The key attraction in town was the town civic centre occupied by the defaced statute of the German settler that had developed the modern town supporting mass immigration of German, Swiss and Italian residents, clearing the indigenous population. Clearly they weren’t happy about it. The centre looked out over the lakes and to the alps and was a perfect setting for what else but St Bernards with fake rum barrels tied around their necks, sitting out in the snow all day while the owners charged the Brazillians in their 80s looking ski outfits for that authentic looking photo. Why?! The towns cathedral was also an impressive site, perched right on the banks of the lakes edge, the neo-gothic design stretched up to the low hanging clouds. The main street was adorned by chocolate shops and packed with touts screaming out discount prices to get you in to buy buy buy! The shop front windows were impressive decorated with chocolate fountains and a billion flavors to tempt you in. We couldn’t pass up on buying at least one box to try but was a little disappoint. Those samples they passed out to get you in must have been the good stuff to get you in while the lower grade was waiting for you when you opened the box back home. Just like cocaine.
The next leg was crossing over the Andes to Chile on the Friday morning. Our international bus tickets purchased the day before would take us across the boarder, through the Chilean town on Osorno and down south an hour to Puerto Varas, still part of the Lake District. The night before departure, Murray complained of feeling ‘clammy’ and weird. So venturing back to the hostel after coffee we just made it through the doors before he decided to bring up the cheese, tomato and possibly dodgy ham tosdada he had for lunch…great. After a sleepless night and still feeling ill, we called it at 7am and decided we had to miss our ride out. Day break was around 9am so just before I spoke with reception (and the helpful lady with a piece of tissue stuck up her right nostril) to organise another night stay and spent the day wondering around town while Murray tried to sleep it off. After google doctoring the symptoms I narrowed it down to heart disease, cancer, phenomena, altitude sickness (which we were too low for) and the most likely cause..a bit of bad food or water. So we waited it out until we could comfortably make the next leg. And 48 hours later, we trudged back out to the bus terminal and waved goodbye to Argentina and hello to Chile.