After a few days spent in Mendoza doing not very much apart from cycling round the region's world famous wineries sampling the local tipple, we make another jump southwards - a 1,200km, sixteen-hour jump mind you - to a city whose name most Argentines cannot mention without getting all misty-eyed and gooey. San Carlos de Bariloche - or, more commonly, simply Bariloche.
The last leg of the marathon bus journey, from the city of Neuquén to Bariloche, sees our bus crawl its way through a thick, murky fog of dust - this is the dreaded ash cloud which since June this year has been pouring from a fissure in the Puyehue volcano system over the border in Chile, smothering whole towns in several feet of volcanic sand and pumice stone, threatening to wreak havoc on the area's busy summer season. It's a most disconcerting sight - and one which has not been much publicised outside the country - but fortunately for us the bus breaks free of the band of ash as we approach our destination.
Nestled at the foot of the Andes at the thin, western end of wedge-shaped Río Negro province, at the very northern edge of
Patagonia, windswept, almost Alpine Bariloche occupies a stunning location, wedged between snowcapped peaks and the shores of the deep blue Lago Nahuel Huapi. In the winter months of July and August, Bariloche attracts snow bunnies in their thousands. In summer, its glut of gorgeous, wooded mountains, lakes and rivers - together forming the insanely popular Parque Nacional Nahuel Huapi - provide some of the most wonderful walking to be had in the country. Add to the mix nationally famous chocolate and ice-cream (Argentine helado
deserves its own entry, and it shall have it) and you have the recipe for a very nice time indeed.
Bariloche doesn't disappoint, that's for sure. In the space of about four days we've hiked over 70km in some of the most stunning scenery we have seen so far - in Argentina or anywhere else, for that matter. We've munched our way through veritable piles of local chocolate (a must to keep one's energy levels up while hiking, of course) and gobbled about a kilo and a half of gorgeous ice-cream (for the same serious nutritional purposes) to make up for all those calories we've burned climbing up hills, scrambling over rocks and hopping across
rivers like the nimble mountain goats that we are (sort of).
The backcountry around Bariloche is liberally sprinkled with refugios
, small but highly atmospheric mountain lodges which are brilliant for overnight hikes to more out-of-the-way places. For a few pesos (well, quite a few, inflation in Argentina is completely nuts) you get a spot to unroll your sleeping bag (if you're lucky a disconcertingly grimy mattress, too), use of the refugio
's kitchen, a toilet - usually an outdoor dunny miles away from the refugio
building itself, making for interesting night-time visits, groping around in the pitch black, given there isn't the slightest watt of electrical power up in the mountains - and, of course, that wonderful feeling of self-sufficiency you get from having carted everything from your sleeping bag to your dinner up a mountain with you.
One particularly memorable two-day walk took us 18km into the foothills up to the Refugio San Martín
on the shore of the gorgeous turquoise Laguna Jakob, through a fascinating and typically Patagonian landscape of lenga
trees, thickets of bizarre bamboo-like colihue
bushes, along raging mountain torrents with ice-cold water so pure you can fill your
bottle up without a care in the world, walking along stony streambeds, tiptoeing across squelchy bogs, clambering over boulders, wading across rivers just below roaring waterfalls, hauling ourselves up (and then sliding back down) slopes still covered in snow from the winter to gaze out at gorgeous, painfully blue glacial lakes - without seeing another soul for hours and hours. By the time we get to the refugio
it's nearly dark, we can barely take another step and can just about keep our eyes open long enough to cook and eat our dinner by candle-light, as the first stars appear in the sky above the towering peaks surrounding us, before collapsing into our sleeping bags. But, boy, is it worth it - and there's still a whole lot of Patagonia waiting for us.
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