Published: August 8th 2011July 28th 2011
All the passengers on our bus are playing a random game of bingo. Neither of us come close to a full house, so don´t get to test whether the victory cry translates literally. But the game´s a fun way of trying to perfect our spanish numbers, and a welcome distraction on our latest epic journey. We also get through 5 or 6 movies which, for a change, are all in English with Spanish subtitles. Bonus. It takes us 36 hours to travel North from from Patagonia up to the Lake District of Argentina, and we arrive at our destination of San Carlos de Bariloche at 10.30pm.
Bariloche is a ski resort town that sits among the beautiful lagos of the Lake District, and we´re here primarily for the snowboarding. Travellers and guide books have assured us of incredible views, including one described by the National Geographic as being among the best in the world. But we need to charge our own batteries here as well as those of our cameras - Kate has picked up a bug.......nothing serious, but she´s feeling pretty rubbish. So after a good night´s sleep, we decide on a chilled day in Bariloche.
We do some odd jobs before heading out for a late lunch. It´s pretty cold and blustery, so we rug up. The streets and cars seem pretty grubby at first, but we come to realise that everything is covered in ash. The erupting Puyehe-Cordon Caulle volcano in nearby Chile has been wrecking havoc not only in South America but also across the bottom half of the globe, grounding flights in Australia, NZ and Africa. Many of Argentina´s internal flights have also been affected. Here in Bariloche, the ski slopes have been shut many times already this season - it seems ash is less slippery than snow. In the town the recent wet weather has weighed the ash down into a muddy and sandy consistency that crunches underfoot. Our hostel is declared an ash-free zone, so our shoes have to come off before we can enter.
Our first full day is mellow. We catch up on the phone with folks back home, before starting to get to know some of the poeple in the hostel. There´s a good mix of charcaters and nationalities, though they don´t seem to have ventured far outside of the hostel so we don´t get much
feedback on the best things to do while we´re here.
Our second day is a wet one. It´s rained all night, and heavy cloud hovers ominously over the normally sparkling lago Nahuel Huapi. It obscures any view of what lies beyond the shores of the lake. That, along with the assitance of a good wind, could hoodwink the unknowing into believing that we´re on the coast of the Pacific.
We decide to rent bikes in order to cycle around part of the Nahuel Huapi National Park which is recommended in our Rough Guide. We take a local bus out of town, on a road which skirts the shores of the lake. The bus ride is a bit of a lottery on two counts - we have to buy a ticket equating to the length in kilometers along that road we wanted to travel, and we then have to try and get off at the right spot. We don´t do too badly and find oursleves within a km of our target - the bike-hire shop.
The rain has grown steadily heavier over the course of our bus ride, and driven everyone indoors. It´s far from the optimal weather
for a 5 hour cycle. On the plus side, it means few people are around to witness our very fetching, his´n´hers, ´mac in a sac´ ensembles (upgraded from the mere ´kag in a bag´s we took camping back home). It´s pouring by the time we reach the bike shop - Iv meets the super-friendly owner, Andy, who can´t quite believe we´re even thinking about cycling, but on hearing we´re from the UK he seems to appreciate that a bit of rain shouldn´t get in the way. But today is does - Kate´s bug is undergoing a bit of a revival. We´re already cold and wet from our short walk from our bus stop to the cycle hire shop and we´re not sure that spending hours out in the cold and rain is very wise. Iv finds Kate in a small B&B/tea shop, warming herself by a log fire. We settle in for a chat with the owner, Alex. He and his wife were sheep farmers before setting up this small venture. His great grandfather was one of the pioneering welsh settlers in Puerto Madryn - he brings out the photo albums and history books. Alex regrets not speaking Welsh himself, but his English has benefitted from a good education in BA. We don´t meet his wife, but her accomplished paintings adorn the walls. We also know from the gorgeous smells coming from the kitchen that she must be a wonderful chef. Alex insists on giving us a tour of the lodgings - perhaps in the forlorn hope that we will stay. We feel for him - his entire´s season´s bookings went up in the smoke of the volcano. The best we can offer is a return vist should we come back to Bariloche.
A short walk takes us to the bottom of a chairlift that transports people to the top of a mountain with the famed 360 degree views lauded by the National Geographic. The rain has eased to a light drizzle, which becomes light snow at the higher altitude. It´s a good ten-minute ascent to the top, where we narrowly avoid being clobbered to the floor by the swinging chairs - we´re both so used to our snowboards whisking away from the top of such chairs that neither of us are much focused on the need to get a wriggle on. We make our way to a platform to marvel at the scenes below. And, we admit, it is the best mist either of us has ever seen. To be fair, a gust of wind every now and again does part the clouds sufficiently to allow sunlight to filter through. The otherwise greyed lagoons below respond with ethereal, silvery reflections. The little we can see is pretty stunning.
We agree the next morning that Kate is well enough to snowboard. In truth, Kate would need to have been run over by a freight train before declaring herself unfit to ride. We arrived in South America in our boarding jackets, and have rented some half-decent trousers, goggles and gloves from the hostels. We plan on renting boards and boots at the resort - Cerro Cathedral. Some of the resorts here are famed for their free-riding - open mountains with few no-go areas. We get an early bus out in the hope we can sort out our gear and buy a pass in time for the first lift. We´re there in good time but need to do a bit of shopping around. A season of fine-tuning our own set-up has turned us into equipment snobs, and we´re not convinced fo the quality of the hire stuff. But we finally sort ourselves out and get in the queue for a lift pass. It´s impressively slow, to the extent that we don´t get on the first chair until gone eleven. During that time we´ve met a few people from the hostel, and we set off in a small group of boarders and skiiers. The riding´s challenging - visibily is poor and there´s lots of snow and wind. The terrain´s variable , so we find ourselves transitioning from deep snow to packed ice every 30 seconds or so. It´s lots of fun and the unpredictability leads to a few tumbles (which is obviously down to the poor rental equipment!). Our numbers dwindle over the course of the day, and by 3pm its just the two of us. We´re enjoying the mountain. There´s little to distinguish the pistes from the rest of it, so it´s a big playground. We´re played-out by 4.30 and start making our way down. Snow at the base of the mountain, which we managed to ski at lunchtime, has melted, so the boards need to come off for the last 500 metres of the descent. We have a beer at the bottom (they always taste ten times better after a days boarding) and reflect on a great day - the chance of riding here was one of the draws of Argentina for us, and we feel happier heading off for the North knowing we´ve been.