Tuesday, 24 December 2013

Me encanta Bariloche

I am spending my last month in South America in San Carlos de Bariloche. This small city (population just over 100,000) is located next to the Andes, and the city is actually built within Nahuel Huapi National Park. It promotes itself as an adventure capital with trekking, rock climbing, mountaineering, kayaking, fishing, mountain biking, ski-ing and much more on offer. It also has a lot of other not so healthy temptations like home-made chocolate and ice-creams, and bakery's with pastries to die for. Alongside meat -especially BBQ steak - Dulce de Leche (caramel milk) is part of the national diet in Argentina. I am staying here with my friends Carina and Mark and they buy it in 10kg containers! It is amazing that there are not more obese people in this country.

All the locals say this is the best chocolate shop in Bariloche so of course I had to try it out

Mark, Carina and their two children live in Dina Huapi which is a small suburb 15km out from Bariloche. Mark's sister, her husband and their three children are also visiting from New Zealand so there are 10 of us in the house. I am sleeping in Carina's workroom where she has her knitting and sewing machines. I have the dog and sometimes the cat for company at night time.

Carina, Me and Mark at a party to celebrate the two year anniversary of the opening of  Spanish school I attended for two weeks in Bariloche

I spent my first two weeks in Bariloche at Academia Bariloche to learn some more Spanish. Which I have to confess is still dismal. At the school there was only one other pupil in my class, Manuela from Switzerland. Luckily for me she is keen on tramping and mountaineering. She has also visited NZ twice. Every weekend the two of us have organised to go out tramping in the mountains that surround us here.

Me and my Spanish teacher Graziela

View from Cerro Campanario - The school organised a walk to this popular lookout. Our guide, Warren from NZ, claimed that National Geographic voted this view as one of the best in the world.

For our first tramp Manuela and I caught a local bus to the main ski-field near here called Caterdral. We walked to Refugio Frey (these are huts where you can sleep, and even buy meals and drinks) and over a pass with some snow still on it, to the next valley where we camped. Once we passed the Refugio we barely saw any other people in the hills. We slept in Manuela's tent which was so spacious it felt like a palace after my small Macpac one person microlight. The downside of having such spacious accommodation was that her is more than twice as heavy as mine to carry at 3.5 kilo's.

Me at Refugio Frey
Lake beside Refugio Frey

The next day we walked over another pass and managed to lose the track going down a steep scree slope. So we ended up having to do a bit of a bush bash to find it again which did not impress Manuela very much. On this trip we noticed there was a lot of bamboo growing in the valleys. Carina told me this is not native here but  seems to be taking over the forest in places. Last year the bamboo flowered which happens once every 70 years or so. This is very hazardous as the pollen is poisonous to humans. We also encountered  tábanos (horse flies) for the first time. They buzz around you while you are walking and every so often they bite you. Fortunately for me they seemed to prefer Manuela so I did not get quite so many bites. Putting on insect repellent does not seem to deter them.

Walking up to the pass

Protest action by nurses that I came across in Bariloche on my way to catch the bus to El Bolsón demanding higher wages.

For our second trip in the mountains we caught the bus to El Bolsón which is two hours south of here and did a three day hike to Heilo Azul (Blue Ice) Glacier and Cajon Azul (Blue Canyon). It was extremely hot and the  tábanos were out in force. During the tramp we had to cross some very interesting swing bridges with wooden slats that were either missing, loose or had big holes in them. When we crossed these bridges I was not fully confident we would make it to the other side they were so dodgy. The good news is new bridges are being built. They just weren't completed yet. I had wanted to climb one of the peaks in the park, Barda Negra, which overlooks the Heilo Azul Glaicer but there was too much snow and we did not have ice axes. So we had to content ourselves with only going as far as the glacial lake. We have discovered that Club Andino can not be relied on for giving out accurate information as they told us we did not need ice axes. 

Campsite at Hielo Azul. Manuela´s "palace" in the background

Glacier and lake at Hielo Azul. One hour walk up from campground

One of the swing bridges we had to cross in Hielo Azul

 The day after returning from El Bolsón I finally took my bike out of it's box and assembled it. I had left it at Carina and Mark's house during my earlier travels. At 2.30pm that afternoon I set off to bike the Siete Lagos (Seven Lakes). I planned to do an ambitious 270km in two and a half days with almost half the route on gravel roads. The problem was I thought I could just jump on my bike and do what I was doing three months ago. Plus I had also forgotten how sore my backside could get. Strange how only a few months can dull painful memories. During the trip I was walking my bike up hills I could have easily cycled a few months ago. As for the sore backside there was no cure for that! But even the downhills were hard work and I often had to pedal hard to keep moving forward instead of enjoying coasting down as you normally would do. The fact that my bike also desperately needs some new parts and a tune up, the gears kept slipping when I was riding, did not help things.

On my first day I biked 70km to Confluencia and up to Paso de Cordoba. As it was almost dark by this time I just set up my tent on the pass beside the lookout platform. Although I am sure I was not meant to be camping there. Although my camping spot was a little cramped and looked to be a popular toilet spot judging from the amount of toilet paper sticking out of the dirt, I did have great views of the sunrise the next morning. 

As I had no water supply on the pass and had run out of water I had to bike for an hour to find some before I could have my breakfast. The valley here is very pretty with lots of interesting rock formations including one called The Finger of God. While one side of the road borders Lanin National Park I was surprised to find that most of the land was private land even in the designated National Park area. I reached my first lake, Lago Meliquina, by lunchtime. There is a small village here so I bought myself a beer to have with lunch by the lakeside. It was very peaceful and deserted by the lake until a family drove up and plonked themselves down beside me despite the fact that the lake shore was extensive.  I was not impressed so I moved on and stopped further around the lake to have a swim as it was boiling hot by this time. Despite the temperature the water was freezing. By early afternoon I had reached the road which is the main tourist route for the Seven Lakes. Although even here some of the route is gravel. Although it is in the process of being upgraded to tarseal. When I finally did reach the new tarsealed section hours later it had lovely wide side margins for cyclists. 

I finally found a place to camp by a river just as it was getting dark having clocked up about 110km. The next day I biked to Valle de Angostura which is a quaint little town which lives off selling artesenal (hand crafted) souvenirs to tourists and overpriced food and drinks. The last 62km back to Dina Haupi was on a much busy road with lots of trucks and buses whizzing by and no nice tarsealed cycle lane only gravel on the road margins. Most of the vehicles were very considerate but a few trucks and buses came a little too close for comfort. I arrived back at Carina and Mark's place tired and dusty and relieved to have made it. 

Sunrise from my campsite at Cordoba Pass

Lago Meliquina

The day after I got back from my bike ride I headed off again to go tramping with Manuela. There is just so    much to do here and just not enough time so I have to make the most of every day. During the week while I had been out on my bike Manuela had faced a grilling from both Club Andino and the National Park office about our intentions when she went to get information about doing another tramp in the mountains here in Bariloche. She was told that the route we wanted to do was very steep and dangerous. The woman at the National Park Office told Mauela there was lots of snow and avalanches and that we should not go. We were surprised to hear this as we understood it was a tracked route and it has been so hot here the snow has been melting like crazy. Thankfully Manuela stood up to both Club Andino and the National Park Office and told them we were going anyway. We had to get "special" permission and sign a form absolving the national park of any responsibility if we had an accident etc. I hired ice axes for us and met Manuela midday on Friday to catch the bus to the start of the track. We walked up 800m to Refugio Lopez were we camped. From the Refugio we could see there was hardly any snow. When we talked to the hut warden about our intentions for the next day. He was very relaxed and said that not only was the route not difficult (in fact there was a well marked trail) it was also not necessary to carry ice axes as the snow had melted. He said that the woman in the national park office did not know what she was talking about.

The next day we woke up to another beautiful day and walked up to the pass. Since we had ice axes we used them to go up a steep snow slope but we could have easily avoided the snow and gone up the rocks. At the top we had fantastic views of Mt Tronador which at 3470 metres is by far the highest mountain in the area and lies right on the border between Argentina and Chile. Behind Mt Tronador we could see several volcanoes across the border in Chile. We had a steep descent down a scree slope to a basin and then up over another pass to Lago Negra where there is another Refugio. We camped here and walked out to Colonial Suiza which is a tiny village which was colonised by the Swiss in the early 1900's.

Refugio Lopez

Refugio Lopez and Lago Nauhel Haupi in the background. Bariloche and  Dina Huapi are situated on this shores of this lake

Me on top of the pass with Mt Tronador in the background
Manuela crossing another dodgy bridge

I love it here in Bariloche there is so much to do and see in the outdoors and it is all easily accessible. But it´s not all paradise. The dust here is unavoidable and it covers everything. It's impossible to even keep the houses dust free. This is not helped by the fact that all the roads in Dina Huapi are dirt roads and even in Bariloche once you get out of the city center it is the same. This is not uncommon in South America. Also the  tábanos which come out in summer are a menace and can spoil ones enjoyment when out hiking. The heat is intense at times but the weather has been amazing and hardly any wind. It really is an outdoor lovers paradise.

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