Published: September 9th 2012April 11th 2012
Phoenix Rising from the Ash
They say the third time's a charm, but all three of my visits to Bariloche have been charmed. This time, I would celebrate my birthday on top of a mountain (again), climb up most of the mirador/viewpoints around this very scenic city, revisit my favorite trails, chocolate shop and friends and eat a chunk of the world's largest egg--yum!
When I'd last visited in autumn's May, I'd left a day pack with my hostel friends with plans to return in a week or two. However, the Chilean Volcano Puyehue, just over the border, erupted as I was about to return. It blanketed the Argentine Lake District in up to 2 feet of lung-choking ash, and I changed direction. It would be nine months before I'd return--oops.
While the ash had been cleaned from the city when I returned in February, it still covered mountain trails, making them powdery and slippery. And since Puyehue was still erupting a bit, it often filled the air with tiny particles that made photos untenable, left a film of ash on everything and had me reaching for my asthma inhaler. But even this
couldn't eclipse the magic of Bariloche and the tourists had returned!
Every evening for sunsets and full moon rises, I'd head to the lake, my favorite part of the city. I'd follow one of three paths: the cut-stone, street-level promenade, the forested, dirt path halfway down the cliffs, or my favorite, the shoreline where I often had/got to rock-hop. The stony shore was often inundated from small streams that emptied into the lake and created gorgeous bogs and meadows. As happens when I stay awhile in trail-side towns, I became friends with other walkers, giving me a lovely feeling of belonging--a treat for a long-time traveler.
The Circuito Chico and Both Sides Now
Bariloche is ringed with mountains and rises steeply on hills from the deep blue, 100km-long Lago Nahuel Huapi. It lies within the eponymous national park with huge, extinct volcano Mt. Tronador, lots of lakes, rivers, waterfalls, and the popular Cerro Cathedral ski resort. Lots of juicy things to do here and best yet, many trails are accessible by public transport.
My first day, I followed the Circuito Chico, Bariloche's most famous route. I caught a scenic, lake-hugging
bus out of town past wood and stone vacation homes to Cerro Campanario. On previous visits to the popular viewpoint/mirador, I'd taken the chairlift which flies you up through a landscape of labeled native trees to a breathtaking view over several lakes and mountains.
This time, I hiked up to the mirador along a beautiful, steep, powdery/slippery forested trail. At the top, I enjoyed the 360 degree views, a picnic, and the antics of a family of cats, one of whom gulped down a mouse and then pushed a kitten aside so s/he could have some mother's milk for dessert.
Below on Lago Perito Moreno, part of a mountain had been shaved away What it could be?--there's no clear-cut logging here. Then, when I visited the charming village of Colonia Suisa and walked to Lago Perito Moreno, I saw that part of the hill had been removed to accommodate a road. So, I'd seen the lake from "up and down and both sides now," as Joni Mitchell sings.
I've often considered changing my middle name to Ridgewalker because I love walking ridges, seeing both sides of a mountain. I also love
the Joni Mitchell song, "Both Sides Now" in which she sings of seeing clouds, love, life from different perspectives. Here in Bariloche, I got to indulge my passion, climbing up to miradors and seeing huge lakes and the landscape from different angles, reflecting on where I'd been.
On that day, though, I hopped another lake bus to the end of road to walk a leg of the Circuito Chico. I disembarked at the famous Llao Llao Resort and spent a couple of hours exploring the area--Mt Trndador views, Puerto Panuelo and the peninsula with lots of waterbirds, lakeside houses, and an old log chapel. Finally, I walked a gorgeous 11-kilometer forested trail along reflecting lakes, a Romanesque bridge, and a forest of red-barked, gnarly-trunked arrayanes trees before coming to a little resort and catching a bus past even more lakes and completing the circuit.
Mirador Madness and Wide Perspectives
A trail I was keen to revisit was Frey, a challenging, all-day hike above the Cerro Cathedra ski resort, where I'd spent my birthday last year (see my Bariloche blog 3/7/11). This trail has loads of fun, funky little bridges and logs over streams,
as well as waterfalls and a high, flowering meadow.
From the trail, I looked down on Lago Gutierrez which snakes around the mountain and is so long, I'd once thought it was a river. Now, I realized I'd traveled the road on its opposite bank a year and a half earlier, on my way to southern Patagonia. I'd looked across the lake and thought the mountain opposite looked rugged and magical, and now I was climbing that mountain--life coming full circle!
I'd continue to see this huge lake from miradors on many of the mountains that ringed it. It became a bit like the blind men who describe an elephant. From Frey and from the highway south, it seemed to be a river, but from other miradors and its shore, it was a wide lake. I do so love that we can't always trust our own perceptions--there may be more that we just can't see.
I next visited Lago Gutierrez itself and a mirador above it. I caught a bus to Villa Los Coihues (named about a southern beech tree) that dropped me in the middle of nowhere. Fortunately, an old
woman I'd chatted with pointed to a dirt road. I headed down it, finding and following the lake for a couple of kilometers, then through a pine and coihue forest to the Cascada de los Duendes (Waterfall of the Elves). I imagine the place would be mobbed in high season, but for now, there were just a few families and me enjoying the falls.
I then hiked rather vertically up the mountain to the mirador through slippery dirt and volcanic ash (making me wonder if the descent would it be on my rear) to granite outcroppings. This Andean granite is so fabulous to climb on because boots stick to it unlike the smooth sandstone at my California home. Up at the mirador, there were grand views over the lake, town and surrounding mountains though no photos on that ash gray day. Later, I would climb up to the mirador at Cerro Otto and see across to the eagle's perch on which I now stood.
Birthday at Cerro Otto
On my birthday, March 1st, my sweet friends in the hostel treated me to a surprise breakfast party. Then, fueled by a fine sugar rush,
I headed to the mountains, for gondola ride up Cerro Otto. I love the sensation of flying and seeing the landscape from a condor's perspective. Thank goodness I don't have the resources, or I'd take lifts to all mountain tops.
At the summit, I headed to and up another hill (cerro) along a forested trail to the mirador at the giant Piedra de Hapsburgo (Rock of the Hapsburgs) to see Lake Guttierez once again. A park ranger joined me for the last part and gave me all sorts of juicy history as I puffed my way up the steps cut into the rock. It was so satisfying when he pointed out the mirador far across the lake above the waterfall where I'd been earlier that week. I felt I was really coming to know this mountainous landscape.
Back at the visitor center, I met Anna, a designer from Moscow, who was on a whirlwind, three-week trip to Patagonia. She bemoaned the lack of views to capture with her excellent camera. Yet the views were fine--we could see lots of lakes and mountains; we just couldn't photograph them on this ashy/cloudy day. Sometimes, you have
to appreciate what you do have--maybe not ideal, but pretty good.
She invited me for wine in the revolving restaurant atop the visitor center. Oh my! While I always visit these revolving restaurants to check out their views, I've rarely sat down at one--what a treat! For both of us, it was fun to chat with someone traveling in such a different style. I loved that she was sampling the best of Bariloche's famous restaurants, would be taking all sorts of tours and was buying Gore-tex clothes in Bariloche's upscale shops for her adventure. She loved that I was staying long enough to really get to know places and be able to photograph them on clear days. So many ways to live!
The World's Largest Chocolate Egg
Easter week was a madhouse--loads of tourists, and I avoided the downtown, except for runs to Mamuschka, my favorite chocolate shop. I always started my day with sweet perfection--dark chocolate covering whole macadamias on a base of dulce de leche (caramel).
The tourist office and protesters offered lots of entertainment for the masses. There were great programs in the plaza--an organic festival with
all sorts of re-purposed objects (I bought earrings made from a CD), a Theater Day with lots of hippies doing their thing and a wood-carving contest with the chain-saw crowd buzzing away, Protesters led marches with colorful banners protesting mining in Patagonia, increased bus prices for students and low wages for restaurant workers.
These programs took place in the gorgeous plaza that overlooks the lake and is surrounded by alpine stone and wood civic buildings and a fantastic Museo de Patagonia. At its center is a graffitied, tuckered-out hero on horseback, whose lips this time were painted red.
One day, a curious construction was erected in the plaza which turned out to be the wooden form for an 8-meter/26-foot high chocolate Easter egg that was to be entered in the Guinness World Records. Lucky for us, entered food products must then be given away, so that no food is wasted--a wise rule and one we were happy to help them with. Over the next week, we watched a small army of chocoatiers climbing ladders with huge, thick slabs of chocolate they melted together over the form.
Then, on Easter morning, half
of Bariloche descended on the plaza. Fortunately, I was late as usual and missed the worst of the crunch. Still, there were lots of people pushing to get to the front to fill their fists and bags with chunks of chocolate. There was plenty for all.
As the Easter crowds left town, my beloved hostel closed--it hadn't weathered the storm of ashes or Argentina's horrendous inflation. I'd head to San Martin de los Andes, rather like a miniature Bariloche. I wasn't ready to leave the lakes and mountains quite yet.
There are more photos below