Reaching High in Nahuel Huapi National Park

Bariloche hooked us with the number of scenic hikes it offered. The diverse Nahuel Huapi National Park is its doorstep and oh boy did we partake.

Our first trek was to the top of Cerro Campanario…a dusty steep path underneath a chairlift that takes less limber travelers swiftly to the top. The kids tend to both complain that they have to climb their way up while others are being transported and then bluster incredulously at the top, “why are those people getting a treat? They didn’t climb up!” Oh, the early creation of hiking snobs…

View from Cerro Campanario

View from Cerro Campanario

Campanario was fun but easy and too much in the tourist path (perhaps it was the multitude of tour buses at the entrance?) but it gave us a taste of the beautiful views to be had…islands, lakes, mountains…mind blowing beauty.  So next, we decided to try our hand at Cerro Lopez, a 12km trek, the goal of which was the Refugio Lopez. Refugios are as they sound…refuge from the elements. The Lakes Region has a wonderful network of refugios so that you can hike from locale to locale without camping equipment and end your hike with a glass of Malbec…so civilized.

The Hike to Lopez Refugio

The Hike to Lopez Refugio

One thing Bariloche has in spades is dust…each day we come home, whether hiking or not, it covers our shoes, socks and shins. The trail to Lopez provided dust by the fistful, billowing out with each step to greet the person next in line. The trail is not well marked and we were fortunate to have Sean’s keen directional sense to lead us correctly up. When we at last reached the refugio, we were rewarded with stunning views and sweeping condors. At one point, Kyle and I sat taking in the view and two condors flew right in front of us…my mouth was agape…my camera in hand but no ability to respond, I was so astounded by their size.

After Lopez, we were ready for a multi day trek and consulted the ever helpful Club Andino for an itinerary. And thus we found ourselves one early morning taking a minibus to Pampa Linda to commence our three day trek. Pampa Linda sits at the base of Mount Tronador two hours south of Bariloche. A popular hike is up to the Otto Meiling refugio, which sits dramatically at the edge of the Castaño Overa glacier. It’s common to cross the glacier to the Rocca refugio, then hike into a valley to Lago Frias, where you can ferry and bus it back to Bariloche.

Hike to Rocca Refugio

Hike to Rocca Refugio

We were hitting Otto Meiling in reverse, a 14km hike to Paso de Las Nubes to stay at the Roca refugio, then crossing the glacier with a guide to the Otto Meiling refugio, and down along the Otto hike the last day. The hike up follows a river and Patagonian trees, bamboo and rocks surround the path. A warm pine aroma and the sun shining down accompanied every step. This was the first hike in a long time with full packs and the last push was brutal…both amazed at what my body is capable of and shaming myself to be stronger. At the top we were rewarded with the view of a lush valley, 15+ waterfalls cascading down the rock around us, and condors playing above the cliffs. The hostel itself is new and spacious with an inviting common area and, as it was nearing the end of the season, we were lucky to have a room of bunk beds to ourselves.

Rocca Refugio at Paso de Las Nubes

Rocca Refugio at Paso de Las Nubes

It was at this lovely contemplative place that I realized we were peso-poor. Here’s the thing about pesos…the common bill is $100 (roughly equivalent to US$12), so US$200 feels like an enormous amount of money when converted to pesos. But all things in Argentina are expensive and the money quickly goes. I meekly returned the sleeping bags we rented to the hostel manager…we couldn’t afford them if we were to eat after our long hike! No Malbec that night!

The next morning we met our guide for our first glacier crossing. We started with a two hour hike up to the glacier with our refugio getting smaller and smaller behind us.  Just as we were about to gear up, we noticed a juvenile condor perched just 10 feet away!

The glacier crossing seemed to be a beginners trek…hard to know what deep crevasses we missed by an inch but from a novice’s view point, it seemed an easy trek. The views were beautiful and I tried to capture photos while also ensuring I didn’t step in a crevasse.

Our Glacier Trek

Our Glacier Trek

We crossed quickly and removed the crampons, ropes, etc to finish the hike to Otto Meiling. The popular refugio owes to its setting…dramatically sitting at the glacier edge with layers of mountain peaks in all other directions. If the wind wasn’t blowing so hard, you’d sit on a rock peak admiring the views. But the cold quickly forces you inside the refugio, a small, cozy place. Sleeping quarters are simply one big room…you grab a mattress, find a space and hope that there aren’t too many snorers in the place that night (there were!).

The refugio graciously let us settle with them post hike so we were able to end our day with a bottle of Malbec and filet mignon with sautéed mushrooms…heaven.  The accommodations may be simple but the food is gourmet!

Despite the sleeping arrangement, we were lucky to share the space with only eight other hikers. The capacity is for 40 and I’ve heard they’ll pack in more…that’s a lot of post-hiking-stinky bodies in a small space.

Otto Meiling Refugio

Otto Meiling Refugio

The hike down the next morning was uneventful…not as gorgeous as the path we took up. We were thrilled to reach the bottom and lay in the grass of Pampa Linda awaiting the bus back to Bariloche.

I highly recommend this hike…it makes my list of top ten experiences on this trip.

Lastly, an easy day trip is Cerro Catedral. You take a gondola and then chairlift up and then hike the last 30-45 minutes to a spectacular lookout. On one side you see Bariloche and the lakes, on the other peaks that look like they’d be on Mars and an enticing mountain valley. From here you can hike to refugio Frey.  For us, this was an easy day trip, one benefit of which was that the 3G of my Argentinian cellphone plan purchased weeks earlier in Buenos Aires finally kicked in on my iPhone! It’d been stubbornly absent since purchase.  Perhaps all I needed was to get a little bit higher to a satellite that day to nudge it on.

Cerro Catedral

Cerro Catedral

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Bound for Bariloche

Our arrival in Bariloche started off with a hitch. But first, our second overnight bus ride.

From Puerto Madryn, we caught a 14-hr Don Otto bus to Bariloche in the lakes district. I had booked the kids the front seats on top and was envious of their view and in fear for their safety. The service and product was an improvement from our Andesmar experience…except now the late night entertainment was the A-Team movie. (Never thought my 12 year old son would be quoting Murdock and the Face to me!)

Best seats on the bus? Entering El Bolson valley.

Best seats on the bus? Entering El Bolson valley.

We were awoken at 6AM by a national guard soldier standing beside me with a gun yelling for everyone to get out their documents. In Rachel paranoid fashion, I had wrapped my backpack straps around my legs so it could not be taken while I slept and now struggled, half asleep and startled to find our passports.

All well though and we continued as we watched another stunning sunrise. Kyle and I grinned at each other as the mountains grew bigger, the trees grew greener and lakes appeared…coming from Seattle this felt like home. We were headed to Bariloche for a week, we would end up staying a month.

I had booked a small apartment for a week on Airbnb. I found a pay phone at the bus station and called the rental agent, who sounded genuinely confused to hear from me.  We quickly realized we were expecting each other on different dates and, darn it, he was correct. Don’t you hate that?

Bariloche Scenes

Bariloche Scenes

As I scrambled on the phone, I thought of my tired, cranky family waiting for me with the backpacks and how I was going to tell them we actually didn’t have a place to sleep after an overnight bus ride. Whoops!

Ashley though is a property manager extraordinaire and he told me to take a taxi to the Holly Cafe, get breakfast for the family, log into the free wifi and wait for his recommendations of hotels with availability. Many travelers simply arrive without reservations and walk from location to location seeking the best room for the best price. This is not my family. Maybe Kyle and I could work up the courage for more serendipitous moments on our own but with two kids in tow, I like knowing where we will rest our heads.

Holly Cafe is at the waterfront south edge of the town center and we enjoyed a rare excellent cup of coffee while taking in the incredible views. Light blue sunny skies reflecting down on smooth darker blue water surrounded by mountains which evolve from grey slate to tree covered green as your eye scans from north to south. Stunning.

Llao Llao

Llao Llao

We spent the night at Alun apartment-hotel, definitely out of our budget but it was walking distance from our next abode, both about 6kms along the main drag Bustillo. In retrospect, we should have gone for a cheap abode in the center so we could visit the tourist information center and the holy grail of all trekking info, Andino. Oh well.

The next day we checked into our apartment for the next week…it was a tiny affair with a marvelous view conveniently located above a restaurant, vegetable/fruit store, meat store and general store. What else do you need?

Bariloche has a downtown that travel guides refer to as the “Switzerland of the Andes.” It’s nothing of the sort. There are amazing views, an abundance of chocolate shops, and yes, 1-2 St. Barnard dogs in the town square ready for photo ops, but that’s it. It’s a hodge podge of tourist shops, kioskos, and ridiculously expensive outdoor wear shops. BUT, when you get out of the center….when you situate yourself close to the Llao Llao peninsula, that’s when you see the beauty of Bariloche…it’s in the seemingly endless mountains, lakes and islands.

Hmm, I think we'll stay.

Hmm, I think we’ll stay.

Our intention had been to head north to San Martin de Los Andes to hunker down for a few weeks but all it took was one long hike in Bariloche to decide to rent a home for an additional three weeks and hunker down.

Passport Virgin

I am pleased to introduce another guest blogger this week…my wicked stepmother, Maggie.  She and my father recently joined us for two weeks in Argentina…a significant leap of faith on their part, for which I am very grateful.  Maggie, or Mémère as my babies call her, has been a joy and rock in our family and I am ever thanking the stars for my wonderful luck in step-parents (Papa Phil is pretty fab too!).  Here Mémère reflects on her own experience traveling to Argentina:

Buenos Aires Scenes

Buenos Aires Scenes

“My parents taught me many things: the importance of family, humor and resiliency, independence and hard work.  Did I say family? Travel was not something my family did.  Family vacations were not in the cards and we never took one.  Well, one summer I did go to New Bedford for a week to stay with my godparents.  That was it.  Home was on Cape Cod, my world was small, and I never knew what a bagel was till I went to college.

Fast forward several decades and now my own children are teaching me things. At the encouragement of our daughter Rachel, my husband and I recently left the comfort and familiarity of Cape Cod to meet Rachel and her family in South America.

Photos captured by Mémère during a grandmother-granddaughter photo class

Photos captured by Mémère during a grandmother-granddaughter photo class in San Telmo

When I first met Rachel she was eleven years old and she and 13 year old Aaron were a package deal, a bonus, that came along with her dad Bruce.  Now, the Greenleys are their own wonderful package in my life and bravely experiencing varying levels of togetherness as they travel round the world.

At 62 this was my first passport.  My first trip to a place where I didn’t speak the language, know the culture, the history, the currency, how to order in a restaurant.  So many firsts.  I loved it.

I chastised myself.  Why hadn’t I learned Spanish!  Read up more on Buenos Aires!  Planned on staying longer!  As I look back through the 600 plus photographs I took I realize this was just a taste.  There is so much to see.  So much I don’t know about. I never missed bagels till I ate my first and now they are a staple. Where should we go next?

Recoleta Cemetery

Recoleta Cemetery

I found I was comfortable in Argentina and Uruguay.  People seemed the same. They came in various sizes and shapes.  Some were friendly and helpful.  Some were not.  My grandchildren were tall and lean and let me hug them.  Well, one hugged me alot and the other tolerated a couple of hugs.  We won’t name names.

This trip was about the things my parents taught me…family and humor and the reward for hard work.  And it was about the things my children are teaching me. Life is damn good.

Photos taken by Julia during a grandmother-granddaughter photo class in San Telmo

Julia’s photos from her class with her Mémère

Ode to Salzburg

While we are currently in Argentina, I can’t give the shaft to Salzburg by not sharing our experience in Mozart’s birthplace.

Mozartplatz, City View, & the Ultimate Job...Horse Pooper Scooper

Mozartplatz, City View, & the Ultimate Job…Horse Pooper Scooper

From country to city to town, we are always asking “Would we come back?”  Salzburg is a resounding yes. Not only is the city our “perfect population” — 150,000 — it delivers on quaint feel with modern amenities.  Visiting in January takes nerve.  Perhaps it’s easy to join a Sound of Music tour the day of, but you’ll miss basking in the sun on wide stretches of green grass that meet up with the mountains surrounding Salzburg.  There is a picnic lunch and a good book in my future, perhaps during the shoulder season.

We spent a brief four nights in a wonderfully eclectic apartment built into the stone mountain on Lindergasse.  Of course, the refrigerator froze our food and a mildew problem was in full effect due to a burst pipe, but that is the life with Airbnb.

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There’s much made of the American obsession with The Sound of Music…people will tell you haughtily that Austrians have never heard of the Von Trapp Family.  Judging by the multiple two story tour buses with Julie Andrews blown up mug, I believe that time has passed.  The kids and I cozied up one night to watch the movie and imagine my glee when they actually enjoyed it.

We did the tour with Panorama the next day and while entertaining, it makes for a long day.  I recommend only doing it with a dozen obsessed, slightly inebriated fans who will unabashedly sing all of the songs as you drive.  Our group was a bit reserved, whispering the songs quietly.

All things Maria!

All things Maria!

The Rick Steve’s walking tour was an easy way to explore the city.  Rumor was of a thick snow and it eluded us so we could enjoy exploring the city on foot.  The homage to Mozart is everywhere, understandably.  There are numerous free concerts throughout the city, even in winter, but the creme de la creme is the summer Salzburg Festival, which is quite the opposite of free.

Scenes around town

Scenes around town

We of course partook in the local foods, both sweet and savory Tylorean style.  Mozart Balls (yes) were on sale everywhere for obliging tourists…chocolate and pistachio truffles.  We visited a few würstleständes for sausage sandwiches that we ate while shivering in the cold.  Our best discovery was a date night evening in a cozy bar with simply the best cocktails we’d had in many months, small bites and great conversation with the other clientele.  I complimented a gentleman on his scarf (clearly a replica of the U.S. flag) and he shared that he recently became engaged to a Californian and the scarf was a gift from his daughter.

Stumbling upon a church concert, the much recommended Fredrich's, Human Chess & the Love Bridge

Stumbling upon a church concert, the much recommended Fridrich’s, Human Chess & the Love Bridge

There’s so much in Salzburg we didn’t do….Mozart’s house, the salt mines, the Hohensalzburg Fortress. All the more reason to go back!

Penguin Love in Puerto Madryn

I am a sucker for penguins. Truly, is there anyone who doesn’t love a penguin? Their shuffling walk endears them to me. Their ability to stand stark still, as in deep meditation, awes me. And their ability to transform their inland awkward amble to such grace in the water, puts a grin on my face.

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We arrived in Puerto Madryn via our first overnight bus. (I’d heard for months about this first class bus experience…beds and food akin to a ticket in the front of the plane. Lets just say Argentina cross country bus travel has been widely exaggerated.) Hi Patagonia, the hostel we were bunking down in, was a quick five minute taxi ride away.

In guidebooks, Puerto Madryn is described as a non-descript town whose only purpose is to serve as the jumping off point to Peninsula Valdez and all the wildlife that comes with it. We liked it much more than planned. First off, it wasn’t Buenos Aires. Ok, that’s mean. Buenos Aires has so much to offer but two weeks in a large city was too much for us, so a small, approachable town suited us just fine. Plus it had the four S’s: sun, surf, sidewalks (!), and seafood.

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As a family, apartments give us space and flexibility but the beauty of a hostel (besides the clear price differential) is the ability to get advice and book tours easily. That can be invaluable and was true of Hi Patagonia. We booked all of our tours through the hostel and that allowed us time to relax vs researching.

We chose a day tour that included seeing dolphins, penguins & sea lions. First up was a boat trip to play with the commorson dolphins, seemingly the love child of a dolphin and a panda. Not sure that there’s greater joy than dolphins playing alongside one’s boat. Oh yes, penguins. Punta Tumbo was our next stop, penguin central. Here Argentina hosts the largest Magellanic penguin population in South America. Seeing that many penguins, in their natural habitat, was positively overwhelming. I believe I grinned from ear to ear the entire time.

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The following day, our theme was sea lions. The boys went kayaking with the mighty animals while the girls went snorkeling with them. The boys won. Leaving three hours earlier, they caught the sea lions still in a playful mode and came back shining bright from their experience. Julia and I, however, essentially took a boot camp class in the ocean. We were told to swim back and forth kicking like mad to create interest from the sea lions to come play with us. Either my boys already wore them out or they didn’t like what they saw because we had little interaction. Instead our guide, nicknamed Gringo, hollered at us nonstop in a Juan Pablo accent, “Girls, girls, quickly swim to me, kick those legs, girls, girls, now come this way, quickly, girls, girls, hurry.”

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In the end we did not visit what this area is most famous for, Peninsula Valdez. Another full day in a minibus before an overnight bus to Bariloche did not appeal. If it had been whale season, we would have made it happen but alas no whales in February.

As we neared the end of our penguin visit, a sophisticated penguin walked down the boardwalk behind us. We stepped off the boardwalk to give him space to pass and as he got the the end, he took a moment, looked around, and then bent down and with stiff determination…jumped off the boardwalk. And I fell in love.

With the penguin and with Puerto Madryn.