Published: June 4th 2008May 31st 2008
Though the scenery gradually increased in appeal as the bus homed in on Bariloche, with mountains, forests, and lakes appearing in the small square I'd cleared in the condensation that had fogged my window, the amount of rain descending from the heavens stepped up from a spatter to a drizzle to a downpour by the time we reached the town itself. Three of my first four days there were to feature constant rain, a miserable pelting torrent that made me regret my choice of a hostel fifteen minutes' walk from the nearest supermarket. The hostel staff's reactions to my aggrieved mutterings about the weather carried an implicit "Well if you will visit in May ..." Lake Nahuel Huapi, on whose shores Bariloche stands, swept frothing rollers into the rocky beach, dissolving my visions of an alpine paradise.
Fortunately I was not in Bariloche only for its scenery. The town has acquired a reputation for the quality of the teaching at its Spanish schools and it was to one of these that I entrusted the cheerless task of improving my knowledge of the language. I had no interest in reading or writing but wanted to focus solely on oral communication, so
I took 2 hours of private lessons each day for a week. Though Bariloche is by no means the cheapest place in the Americas to learn Spanish, I felt that I got good value for money. Through the efforts of my teacher, I was soon talking haltingly about umpteen different topics. I didn't once see her eyes glaze over on the many occasions when I spent thousands of milliseconds searching my brain for the preterite of some irregular verb. By the end of the week, I could even spot the pun in the car rental firm named Baricoche.
I should also give credit to the other guests in my hostel, who spoke no English (or rather, I suspect, pretended not to) and kindly included me in various communal meals, even though my contributions to the conversation were no more insightful than those of a child in a high chair. With their help, I gained more confidence in my understanding of the language and the fear factor involved in listening to, parsing, and then responding to a babble of Spanish began to recede.
Part of my Spanish education included the watching of (mainly American) films on TV that came
Small chocolate bear from Mamuschka chocolateria
Life expectancy approximately 3 seconds after this photo was taken
with Spanish subtitles. However it seemed as though the translations were somewhat simplified. In particular, the wide-ranging and creative usage of swear-words in a film such as "Bad Boys 2" was rendered into a small set of tame Spanish expressions that would have left any non-English-speaking viewer with the idea that Will Smith possessed a mild and genteel vocabulary instead of realising that the film would have had a script about 3 pages long in the absence of any f-word derivatives. At least it meant there was no danger of me turning the air blue in my classes (at least not in Spanish).
My week of lessons happily coincided with an improvement in the weather, and the second half of my stay was conducted in sunshine that, if a little hazy at times, was both warming and illuminating, and I was able to wander at will. Bariloche was originally settled by Austrians, Germans, and Italians, attracted by landscapes reminiscent of Alpine Europe, however the fondue restaurants and roaming St Bernards (Hector was my favourite) have given it more of a Swiss tenor. The log-based architecture is another throwback to Europe, but the town's most famous product is in a
Nahuel Huapi national park
totally different sphere - chocolate.
If you're the kind of person used to browsing the forums of a site such as seventypercent.com
then you would probably not be impressed by what the chocolaterias of Bariloche have to offer. Personally, I'm more of a bulk chocolate consumer rather than a connoisseur (though still just the right side of a glutton), so the novelty value of a town packed with chocolaterias rested more in the opportunity to try out as many of them as possible rather than whether the quality was top notch. I'm not sure if I found all of them, but I visited 18 - pictures and addresses of these can be found in this Flickr set.
Chocolate is available by the kilo, with the different types all the same price and including varieties flavoured with fruit, nuts, or alcohol, as well as of different cocoa solid content, plus novelty items in the shape of cats, penguins, etc. The local speciality is a style called rama (or "branch" in English) that resembles a Cadbury's flake.
The main draw of Bariloche, however, is its setting, with hiking/biking/kayaking/windsurfing/climbing/skiing/etc being available, depending on the time of year. My first outing
was to the top of Cerro Campanario, the view from which was included in National Geographic's Top 10 Best Views in the World (or some such). It was indeed an impressive sight, though the buffeting wind meant I could hardly keep my camera steady to take any photos. Similar views from ground level could be had along a walk near the Llao Llao hotel, a highpoint in the local architectural style where several hundred dollars will procure you precisely one night of accommodation (versus a month in my hostel with a box of chocolates each day).
As Bariloche is a stamping ground of my sister C on her bacchanalian SAGA tours, I had a recommendation from her to ride the teleferico (i.e. cable car) to the top of Cerro Otto. Not only were there more great views to be had, including over the town itself, but there was a slowly revolving restaurant (perhaps inspired by the one in Wengen) which obviated the need for you to choose between them when sipping your cappuccino. There was also a small art gallery containing a lifesize replica of Michelangelo's "David", and a brace of St Bernards looking for photos to take part
I shared my gondola with a Welsh girl who, in her few months of travel in Central and South America, had had 2 cameras stolen, had been mugged once, and had also been on a bus in Colombia that was bombed by FARC. I wasn't sure whether to feel relieved that my own trip had so far been unblighted by similar events, or if I was having the most boring journey imaginable. Good luck to you, Laura, in whatever new misfortune you're currently encountering.
My final outing was a tour into the depths of the Nahuel Huapi national park. By now, nighttime temperatures in Bariloche were dipping several degrees below zero at night, and this excursion matched that during the day. It didn't help that the heating in the minibus took about 4 hours to get going, but the chill was evident in the thick layer of frost covering all the trees, not to mention the clouds of our breath when we stopped for tea breaks. The tour took in Cascada los Alerces, a fierce foaming cataract producing some luminously green water, and Ventisquero Negro, the Black Glacier (more grubby than black) on the lower slopes of
Cerro Tronador. Tronador, aka Thunderer, is so called because of the booming noises that roll down its flanks whenever one of its many glaciers calves off a block of ice. We also stopped at other viewpoints to be treated with scenes of lakes, forests, and mountains that harked back to Jiuzhaigou in Sichuan, down to the pastel colours of the water.
I was reminded again of just how addicted to football this country is. With the Copa Libertadores currently taking place (a pan-South American club tournament), and representation from Argentina in the shape of Boca Juniors and 5 other clubs, it was obvious when a game was taking place by the packed state of any cafes or restaurants with a TV. Bariloche is a good 1650 km from Buenos Aires yet there appeared to be plenty of Boca supporters in the town and I recalled a miniature street parade in Ushuaia after a Boca win, involving much flag waving, drumming, and beeping of car horns - the distance equivalent of fans in London celebrating a victory by a team based in the Sahara desert.
The streets of Bariloche were populated by the usual selection of stray dogs, though
the cars they were chasing included some old French and American specimens of a level of decrepitude I'd not seen before. The fact that these vehicles - with broken windows, numerous dents and scrapes, and engines that laboured on the flat - were still considered roadworthy suggested a section of the population was not exactly flush with cash, belying the spruce and cheery facade presented by the town's main streets.
Though I'd roamed extensively in order to locate all the chocolaterias, some of which were well away from the centre, it was only on my trip to the national park that I caught a glimpse of the poverty existing in Bariloche. As we were heading to our destination, we passed a couple of sprawling barrios in the suburbs that had a vague township air to them - dirt streets, and houses constructed seemingly from whatever materials were to hand on the day. A couple of battered Renaults puttered slowly through this despondent scene.
Throw into the mix the fact that the town was the chosen residence of several suspected Nazi war criminals, the most famous of whom being Erich Priebke who lived there for 50 years before being
The general consensus of the townsfolk is that this is the best of the bunch, with Abuela Goye an honourable second and del Turista the owner of the wooden spoon.
extradited to Italy to be tried for his role in the massacre of several hundred Italians in World War 2, and it does appear that, in the chocolate box of Bariloche, there lurk some strawberry cremes.
There are more photos below