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.