Bariloche….After the Ash

We woke up as the bus was cruising a corner in the midst of sandy-brown mountains. Looking out the window, in the distance a massive blue-turquoise lake was approaching, surrounded by snowy peaks.

We had finally reached Argentinean Patagonia. The start of the end of our journey in Argentina and the region we had most been looking forward to.

From San Juan, we had taken a 20-hour bus ride to get to Baríloche, one of the most popular cities in the region, and capital of the Río Negro province. The region also boasts the great Lakes District, which encompasses everything from Neuquén, down to Esquel.

The Lakes Region is an important agricultural and commercial hub for Argentina. Historically it was home to the indigenous Mapuche people up until the 19th century, and before them, the Puelches and Pehuenches people dominated the area.

When we arrived in Baríloche, still stiff and sleepy from the bus ride, we luckily had a couch to go to for the next few nights. The Couch Surfer’s name was Leandro, originally from Tucúman in northern Argentina, Leandro moved here with his house-mate to work at the Centro Atomico, like many of Baríloche’s residents.

It seems like there are two main labour occupations in Baríloche – if you don’t work at the Centro Atomico, you almost certainly work in the region’s usually thriving tourism sector.

The Centro Atomico has an interesting history, as we were told. Apparently back in 1950’s, a German scientist named Richter (who some claim was a Nazi) came to the area wanting to do some atomic research and told the Government at the time (President Juan Perón) that he had some important information in the nuclear sector and that he wanted to conduct experiments. Perón welcomed him and made a pact that became known as the Huemul Project and Richter was permitted work on Huemul Island .

In the end, the Richter didn’t produce any results, his ‘work’ aroused suspicion and the project was terminated but in its place an atomic centre was born, for all physics, nuclear engineering and nanotechnology research.

Argentina now has two operational nuclear power plants, and a third one that has been stalled by political and financial concerns. Argentina’s nuclear status is hotly contested, and the centre is a favourite debate for the region’s sustainable development.

Leandro welcomed us into his home in Puerto Moreno, and while he went back to work, we took some time to discover the city. Now, the first thing that I noticed about this city was the plentiful-bordering-on-ridiculous number of chocolate shops there were. Formally settled by Swiss immigrants, it’s only logical that chocolate is one of the region’s specialities. Mamushka is apparently ‘the chocolateria’.

That’s not the only legacy the Swiss left behind. The maple-coloured, timber houses here are reminiscent of the kind you find in Switzerland, not Argentina. 

The centre of town is a very orderly place, seemingly operated solely for tourists. But despite the touristy atmosphere, it has to be one of Argentina’s most pleasant town centres. Though there is still evidence of the ash that fell on this town a few months earlier.

That night we sat and ate dinner with Leandro, and shared stories about Argentina, Australia and France.

Leandro recounted his memory of the day the volcano erupted. “Everyone thought it was the end of the world,” he said. “At around four in the afternoon, the sky suddenly turned dark, as if it were nightime.”

The remnants of the eruption still cast a dark cloud (so to speak) over the city, and indeed the region. A usually busy tourist season for Baríloche, this winter the streets are calm and the impact of the missing tourist dollars are felt all round. Closure of its airport until at least the end of the year adds heavily to that impact.

Over the next few days we explored the areas around Baríloche. The first on the list was the Cerro Campanario. Bus 20 took us to the base where instead of taking the 40 pesos ride up to the top of the mountain, we decided to enjoy the 1km walk through the surrounding forests. It was not an easy climb but the views of the Parque Nacional Nahuel Huapi from the top were well worth it.

Although the skies were grey, the next day we braved the cold and the gloom and took the Circuito Chico, a 60km loop along the stunning Lago Nahuel Huapi, ending at Colonia Suiza.

From just outside of town, we took bus 20 that stops at Puerto Panuelos. From there there’s an easy walking track, that follows the lake inside the Parque Nacional Nahuel Huapi, through El Senderro de los Arrayanes, passing Lago Moreno playa and mirador, and eventually leading to Lago Escondido.

We took our time along the way of that 8km leg, stopping for picnic and photos, and arrived at Lago Escondido around 4 hours later.

From there we then had to scramble uphill to the entrance of Colonia Suiza, another 4km away to take the last bus at 5.45pm.

On the Friday, we moved couches to the house of a young couple originally from La Pampa – Laura and Enrique. That night we were invited to dinner with them at one of their friend’s houses – a lively Quebecoise girl on a working holiday in Argentina – with some other travellers, Portenos from the big Bs As. It was a fun night with pizza, wine, Fernet, and a blended mix of Castillano, French and Quebecois.

These two with their dog Mateo were fantastically hospitable and took the time to show us around some of the ‘places to visit’ in Baríloche. The next day Enrique took us on a trek from Lago Gutierrez to Villa Catedral, on the other side of the mountain.

Down by the lake bike-short clad athletes were starting a quad-athlon, a full day of canoeing, running, skiing and cycling, though not necessarily in that order.

After walking some 2 hours along a steep track away from the lake, we found that all paths to the valley from this side were either cut off or closed by the park’s authorities because of the snow. Once arrived at the lake mirador, it started to snow, but we continued on in our search for the valley and backtracked to the start of our journey.

The only path we found led up through the forest along with the athletes, and eventually it led down to the valley below.

We had made it! It was no quad-athlon effort, but we had walked approximately 10-12kms in snow and very steep terrain. An effort that could only be rewarded by a hot chocolate at Mamushka’s in the ski village.

The next day we took it easy with a ride up to Cerro Otto. It started snowing and there was not one tourist in sight at the deserted Otto. From the car park we walked up with Mateo up to the top of the Teleferico and watched the snowfall over the city below before turning back.

This was our last stop in Baríloche. The time spent here was worth the 20-hour bus ride, and the city and its surroundings, though still wears signs of the erupted volcano, is one of the most beautiful and pristine places we have visited yet in Argentina.

Next on the itinerary – road trip to San Martín de los Andes, via Villa Angostura y la ruta de los siete lagos!

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Comments
2 Responses to “Bariloche….After the Ash”
  1. jackluc says:

    Welcome to great and beautiful Patagonia. When you get to El Calafate you certainly go to the great lakes. Don’t miss El Chalten and then take the track to the “El Senior Fritz Roy” base camp. Don’t get lost in the fog and beware of pumas!Cheers . Luc

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