Nestled in the foothills of the Andes, the beating heart of the Nahuel Huapi National Park may well be the most beautiful place in the world.
Being the last flight of the day from Terminal 5 is a peculiar experience. Heathrow – synonymous with queues, crowds and perpetual angst – was unnervingly empty. The vast, bright, but people-less atriums surrounded by sealed stores and vacant restaurants gave the place a post-apocalyptic feel; the two Duty Free employees having a cigarette in the toilets being the only sign of life until I reached my gate.
London to Buenos Aires is British Airways’ longest non-stop flight, clocking up some 6,900 miles in 14 hours. 14 hours in which to muse about the oddities and comfort of long-haul flights – the sadism of reclining your seat, the velvety texture of airplane food and the unwavering homogeneity of pilots (surely they can’t all be middle-aged men?) to name just a few. I was going to include a full debate on each as a prelude to this blog, but I thought a 1,500 word rant could be a tad off-putting at this early stage.
From touching down on the tarmac at Pistarini airport, the next eight hours of travelling were remarkably painless. Immigration flew by, the shuttle service to the domestic airport was timely, good value and comfortable, there was no queue at check-in, I had bags of leg room on my internal flight, my bag came off the carousel in prompt fashion and I was the first drop-off of my van transfer.
I was staying at the Hostel Inn Bariloche – a place I’d chosen solely for the view – and I can happily report that the online pictures didn’t do the place justice. The deck, with loungers and tables overlooking central Bariloche and the vast Huapi lake (which gives its name to the Nahuel Huapi National Park I was now in), was simply lovely.
I would have been perfectly happy sipping on beers and soaking in the view for the rest of the evening, but, as surprising as it sounds, I made some friends and went out for a cheese fondue, which gave me the chance to whip out my one Spanish sentence: Los zorros son alemeños que matan las gallinas (foxes are vermin that kill chickens). I didn’t make any more friends.
The sui generis nature of Bariloche is also its primary drawback: there’s simply too much to do. Hiking, cycling, white water rafting. Riding, kayaking, paragliding. Think of an outdoor activity that takes place on water, rock or track and they’ve got it; a super-sized playground. The most popular part of the playpark: scaling Cerro Campaniaro; the ‘best view in the world’ according to the hostel receptionist.
These sweeping statements are not my cup of tea, but nevertheless, there is usually some foundation in them, so I headed for the bus. Roughly 18km west of Bariloche centre lies a set of lakes, islands and peninsulas that seem to be the hub of tourist activity in the region; the main draw. You would have thought the bus system would therefore be up to scratch. Nope. No timetables, no consistency – I’m sure there’s a knack to them, but at my first attempt it took me a solid 1 hour and 45 minutes to just get on one.
From the base of Campaniero to the summit is a short, but relatively intense, 45 minute uphill hike. Covered by woodland, there is nothing to write home about, which made the emergence at the top even more breath-taking. I dislike superlatives. I believe that their over-usage detracts from their significance. It’s the reason I took the receptionist’s homage with a mighty dollop of salt. On this occasion, I shouldn’t have been so cynical: the view from Campaniaro might well be the most beautiful I’ve ever seen. Even with the capricious Patagonian weather deciding to moodily spit over the mountain, it was awesome. Adjectives are useless in these moments – they just don’t do the beauty justice.
Some people’s paradise is a white sandy beach and azure sea, others may plump for snow-topped peaks, never-ending desert canyons or even the unique green of the British countryside. These are all worthy, but for me, the combination of shimmering lakes, resplendent mountains and bountiful forests is unassailable. The view from Campaniero is the cherry that sits on the shoulders of the cherry. Mesmerising.
Back in San Carlos de Bariloche – to give it its full name – I went very Beetle’s Eye View. I walked and walked, dipping down side streets, onto beaches, under bridges, through gardens – anything that piqued my interest. And pique my interest it did – from Christmas trees made of skis to an abandoned public pool, a graffiti-strewn velodrome to a shy paleontology museum, I walked all over Bariloche. Any other highlights I hear you ask? Certainly: the fiambréria serving treats like mayonnaise pie and dried cabbage ball; a to-scale fake horse in the middle of a dusty backfield; a Cathedral; endless rows of Swiss-inspired architecture. There really is nothing like just walking in no particular direction – you never know what you’ll find. To be that guy who quotes Russian novelists in a blog, Dostoevsky once said that the only way to explore a city was to get lost in it. Nicely put Fyodor.
Back at the hostel, an animated game of ‘what swear words are there in your language’ was taking place in the bar, which I had no intention of joining. I appreciate that some people may have come to Bariloche for rejuvenation, but regressing to the banality of 11 year old platitudes was not what I had in mind. I hit the hay.
Day 3 and I had my eyes set on the Circuito Chico. I had envisaged a leisurely cycle around 27km of rich Patagonian tapestry and on the latter point, I could not have asked for more. Littered with bays, islets, peaks and beaches, the Circuito Chico inveigles sincere consideration of emigration, and that’s before you take into account the numerous idyllic lake-side properties that adorn its finer edges. However, ‘leisurely’ is not exactly the word I would use to describe the cycle; ‘horizontal’ neither. Perennially up or down, I found myself walking the inclines and freewheeling the descents; I suppose ‘cycle’ is a bit of a misnomer then too.
My first prolonged pit-stop was the Patagonia Pub, whose unimaginative name seemed to be its only fault. An unassuming gravel path does little to entice the weary traveller, but as I’m sure a famous person once said: if you don’t ask, you don’t get. The Patagonia is one hell of a watering hole. A microbrewery with homegrown hops, the beer is, needless to say, delicious. Oh and then there’s the open terrace overlooking one of the lakes – the sort of beer garden that makes a mockery of every other. The festival-idyll vibe was enhanced by fairy lights, chairs made of skis (must be a thing), hammocks and the smooth reggae on the selecta – the irony of Concrete Jungle streaming out as I supped my Weiss Beer was a nice touch.
The next stop came at Bahia Lopez, where I bumped into one of my hostel roommates. He spoke no English, but I think I managed to convey my feelings accurately through the laconic spouting of ‘muy tranquillo’, ‘incredible’ and ‘me gusta mucho’. Those three technically challenging phrases would not be out of place anywhere on the circuit, which – despite the casual sodomy from the bike seat – continued to charm for the full 27km.
Think Argentina, think steak. I will probably have more than one in my time here, but the bar could not have been set higher in round one. So high that I found myself taking photos of the slabs of cow delivered to our table – an action I usually revile. I’m not writing a restaurant review, so I won’t dip my toe into the delectable-tender-mouth-watering vernacular that denigrates that genre, but I will say this: you don’t hire a waiter who solely serves steak if it isn’t top notch.
Not to be outdone, the wine waiter was keen for us to try one of the more expensive options on his extensive list, but, being Argentina, you know that a bottle of Malbec for under £10 will still be fantastic. Perhaps if he had the handle-bar moustache, vermillion bandana and ‘I’ll butcher you if you ask for ketchup’ stare of the meat waiter, we would have been more liberal with our wallets. Alas, he did not.
1.25kg of prime cow ingested by the four of us, the thought of doing much else that evening was not high on the ‘to-do’ list, but on our way back to the hostel, we stopped off for a drink at yet another craft beer bar: Bachmann. Perusing the menu, it struck me that the beers here – and in all the other craft breweries in Bariloche – never had individual names. No Gamma Ray, Punk IPA or Atlantic, there was simply the style: Amber, American Pale Ale, IPA, Weiss, Stout, Pilsener. I don’t really know what to discern from this. Maybe it says something about prioritising quality and taste over commercial interests. Maybe they all just come from one brewery.
Before coming to Bariloche, I had my heart set on one activity: paragliding. I was prepared to pay top dollar, but even money cannot control the weather. With wind on the peaks deemed too severe to fly, I set off to hike to the summit of Cerro Otto (1405m).
As a hiking neophyte, I probably underestimated the trek, which was spent mostly at 45 degrees, with the last 20 minutes coaxing more use out of my hands than my legs. But, I certainly underestimated the all-consuming feeling of awe one feels at the peak. Maybe it was because of the hike; maybe it was because the sun was dancing across the sky, or maybe it was down to the phantasmagorical view, but I was overcome with a burning desire to just let loose at the summit, to yodel to my heart’s content. So I did. Slight fear of being noticed was brushed away by my sense of belonging; I’d earned this strange release. Besides, there was no-one around. I stayed there for an hour, eating my lunch, reading my book and every five minutes or so, just gazing out over the jaw-dropping scenery. I said it when at Campaniaro – I’ll say it again – it’s breath-taking.
My descent only accentuated my love for this day. Lolloping down a pathway through the forest, I came across Refugio Bernhof – one of a number of mountain shelters scattered across the north of Patagonia. Here, I was able to order an artisan beer, served on a balcony overlooking the woodland slopes. Luca – the guardian of the shelter – spoke at length about the shelter’s isolation, the solitude being a small price to pay.
Refreshed – and feeling a wave of smugness about my decision to quit my job back in October – I trundled down through the mountain for around 4km until I hit the main road, when feeling like Forrest Gump, I just wanted to carry on walking. So I did. I walked to the lake and then all the way back to town (a further 6km) affirming my growing belief as a true hiking disciple.
Despite such hard graft the day before, I endured a restless night due to the combination of a violent storm both outside and in the adjacent room. The morning looked ferocious – the kind of sky that is ready to strike you down on the merest of provocations. But, being Patagonia, it was only necessary to seek refuge in a coffee shop for an hour or so, before that frown was turned upside down with beaming sunshine.
By now, I had a particular routine: head to the greengrocers for two bananas and a giant plum ($20AR), the nearby fiambréria for a baguette and charcuterie ($30AR), up the hill to the smooth-jazz playing CoCafe for a coffee and wifi ($40AR), before a long wait at the bus stop, which inevitably led me to walking most of the way. Today, the latter reached such a pinnacle that I ended up hitch-hiking to the base of Cerro Catedral instead. My goal, Refugio Frey (1700m).
The hike to Refugio Frey can be characterised in around three stages. Initially, you embark on a flat traverse through 10-feet high bracken, log bridges and a copse of burned, white trees that protrude from the ground like clones of Saruman’s White Hand. All the while, the resplendent Lago Guttierez rests idly below.
This is followed by a woodland hike, twisting and turning your way up through the trees and rivers, until you reach a cabin in the woods: a resting point, one hour from the top. It is from here that the calves start being kicked into serious action, and as you emerge from the trees – no longer protected from the increasingly strong sun – you start to see what all the fuss is about.
The mountains open up a vast valley of brown and green, of gravel and grass, of snow and sand. Here, forest meets rock, mountains greet trees and sun burns face. A potent cocktail. But, there was more. After finally reaching the shelter, you are greeted by a luscious mountain lake – 1700 metres above sea level – enclosed on a plateau guarded by mountainous sentinels. Ever wondered how rivers start? Well, here you go.
I tucked into my lunch on a rock overlooking the lake, with a cold beer from the neighbouring shelter. The Lord of the Rings analogy came back to me as I thought of the numerous mountain shelters in this section of the Andes – all constantly inhabited by at least one person; the lighter of the beacons.
I stayed for around an hour, before trundling back to Bariloche. Upon my return, I headed to Manush – known for having the best beer in Bariloche. A (nother) craft brewery, it serves half-price pints during a generous happy hour (17.30-20.00) and incredibly delicious they were too. First off I played safe with their Pale Ale, before settling in and trying the range. Well, I had walked 28.7km, 271 floors and 32,576 steps.
Lessons from Bariloche
So, have I come back enlightened? Will a solo trip to the Andes see me come back a changed man? I doubt it, but that’s not say I haven’t learned a thing or two:
- Hiking is awesome; there is no other feeling like it.
- Walking shoes are seriously comfy; I’m going to wear them around London.
- Argentinians understand sarcasm much better than Europeans; both good and bad for me.
- Singing on mountains is liberating; well, you’d expect it to be wouldn’t you.
- Bus timetables are underrated; no secondary comment to make.