South to the Lakes

24 February, Hotel Kilton, Bariloche, Argentina.

Roughly twelve months ago, we were in the small Chilean town of Castro, not too far from here, on the other side of the Andes. We were preparing to travel back to Puerto Montt, a short bus trip to the north and from there cross into Argentina, heading for Bariloche. It didn’t happen! Cutting a very long story very short, we had been robbed in Santiago, recovered and set off with Emergency Australian passports, only to discover that Emergency passports (without visas) were not accepted for entry into Argentina.

So after almost a year and a couple of days of air travel, we are now where we should have been twelve months ago!

We have seen little more than the inside of planes and airport lounges for a couple of days, though it wasn’t as bad as it sounds. We have been travelling business class. Yep, for the first time we have checked in our back-packs and swanned off to the business lounges in Brisbane, Auckland and Santiago, rubbing shoulders with the flying elite. Much as we enjoy travelling “like the locals,” we are rapidly becoming hooked on the luxury of business class.

In Bariloche we have returned to our roots, catching the local Bus 72 from the airport to the town centre.

Threeflights landed at this small airport at the same time and the demand for taxis and Remises (mini cabs) was through the roof. Luckily for us, the plane was early and the extremely irregular number 72 was late. A taxi from the airport would have cost us 150+ pesos, the local bus was 27 pesos for both of us. This morning we were able to pick up a SUBE card in Buenos Aires. This little gem can be used in most cities in Argentina for bus, train and metro trips. At 25 pesos non-returnable deposit and a 200 pesos (13 AUD) load, we are set for most of our local public transport travel through the whole country. So while the swirling masses from the just-landed aircraft muddled about looking for transport, we tapped our SUBE card (just one is fine for two people) and were off.

We realise that it may seem strange to be crowing about saving a few dollars on an airport transfer after crossing the Pacific in expensive business class luxury, but did the people who hung about waiting for a taxi have a chat with a very nice lady from Buenos Aires, making jokes about the comparative advantages of Chile and Argentina and did the many among that throng who were not Spanish speakers get to use their television-taught Spanish (Zorro and the Cisco Kid) on companions in the bus line and the bus driver? Probably not. And we bet we beat then into town anyhow!

25 February, Hotel Kilton, Bariloche
Slow day today which we appreciated after so long a day in the air yesterday.

Bariloche is a year-round tourist city. The attractions are focused on skiing and the lakes of the area. Bariloche is strung out for close to twenty kilometres along the shores of Lago Nahuel Huapi. Beyond the lake the foothills of the Andes loom.

The main focus of the town centre seems to be on food, in particular chocolate and ice-cream. As with most of these tourist areas, one walk up the street was enough for us. We found the tourist agency we needed to book a lake cruise for tomorrow. On our stroll we happened upon a free bus out to a cable car. With a whole day to kill, we signed up and took the short trip to the Teleferico Cerro Otto. The views over the lake to the mountains could only be improved if there was more snow on the peaks.

Eating out costs here in Argentina have been a bit of a shock to us after several recent trips to Asia. Given Bariloche is probably a little more expensive than the norm, we were still a little shocked at the price of our dinner last night. However, when we considered the meal was steak, (not on offer in most Asian restaurants that we would eat at) , the steak was probably the best we’d ever eaten and the bill total of around $50 included a litre of Stella Artois, we decided we’d done alright.

26 February, Hotel Kilton, Bariloche
“Gregarious” just doesn’t cut it when describing Argentinians. We were remarking today how rare it is to see someone, young or old, with earplugs in, groovin’ along in their own world. We guess the reason is that you simply can’t natter to your family, friends or anybody in hearing with earplugs in! For some reason, the Spanish chatter is nice and far less annoying than the constant incoherent babble that emanates from older Americans. “Look Cindy, is that Columbus on a horse?” “Yes Chuck, I do believe it is and look at his cute cap, just like in our Revolution.” While English is fairly widely spoken around a tourist area like Bariloche, it is by no means universal. Nevertheless, every person we have dealt with has been courteous, friendly and helpful - to the point that the young lady who served us at the National Park we visited today, almost came through her window to hug us when she discovered we were Australian. Our experiences with the Latin temperament haven’t always been this cordial.

We took a day trip out on the lake today in near perfect weather to view spectacular mountain scenery. The boat we sailed on was an extra bonus. A classic! Built in Amsterdam in 1938, the Modesta Victoria was a perfectly-maintained period piece, complete with leather-trimmed, first class seating. Our first stop was to the forest of amazing and rare Arrayanes trees, with their cinnamon-coloured bark. Then it was on to Isla Victoria, the main focus of the tour. The island was settled in the 1870s and farmed and grazed within an inch of its life. Once included in the National Park, Isla Victoria became a botanical garden for the study of exotic plants. By far the dominant species is the Californian Redwood. Planted in 1932, the Redwood forest is on a par with the originals still standing on the US west coast.

We took the advice of the tour guide and left the group to explore by ourselves. His descriptions were to be only in Spanish and mostly of interest to locals. There were three walking paths to follow and given the fact that we were on the island for four hours, we strode off, expecting a fairly long hike. After a slow wander through some very pleasant territory, we found ourselves back at the wharf after one hour. Three hours to kill!. A cold water at the rather primitive cafe quenched our thirst, but when we enquired about something stronger, the reply was, “Sorry no cervezas, (beer)”. And we still had two hours to kill! Sitting on the dock and taking in the Argentinian chat and people watching filled in the time.

Tomorrow we pick up a hire car for the day and head off on the Route of the Seven Lakes – a four hundred kilometre drive.

27 February, Hotel Kilton, Bariloche
Early concerns about driving in Argentina were largely dispelled today. We would rate Argentinian drivers at the top of the “Latin” category - that is people who originate from the Southern European/Mediterranean region. Speaking from many decades of experience driving in these areas, the driving can best be described as terrifying! If anything, the main problem in Argentina seems to be driving too slow and at inconsistent speeds. We followed one driver out of Bariloche this morning who varied his/her speed between 30km/hr and 90 km/hr. This driver’s major fear seemed to be corners, of which there were many on our 400km trip through the Seven Lakes district. Originally we thought we had just caught up with a silly old fart. But no! When we finally got to pass this nutter, we clocked him as a 30-40 year old guy! As the day progressed, we caught up with many drivers presenting these strange driving habits. Our theory is that, one, they are very cautious on winding roads and two, many drivers are engaged in extremely important conversations, the intensity of which is reflected in their speed!

All that aside, we had a great day. The Seven Lakes’ drive is just a “wow” at almost every corner experience. We ended up at the small town of San Martin de Los Andes, obviously a very popular spot. We drove half the town looking for a park. Much like us Aussies, the Argentineans love the outdoors. Four wheel drive cars, with canoes or kayaks aboard were everywhere.

There are no words to describe the scenery we saw today, so here are a few images to give a general sense.

1 March, Apart Del Sur, Esquel, Chubut (Patagonia)

Our bus trip from Bariloche yesterday was pleasant enough except that the bus was almost two hours late! The chaos that is a South American Terminal de Omnibus (Coach Terminal) really has to be experienced at least once in one’s life, if only to increase appreciation of your home transport system. Our poor grasp of Spanish is not part of the problem. Locals mooch about with confused looks just as we do. A bus pulls in and the crowd hopefully lug backpacks, cases and bundles of God knows what to the newly-arrived coach. Arriving passengers tumble out, often half asleep, shuffle back to the luggage storage bins to present their tag numbers and reclaim their property. The lucky few who had found the right bus checked their gear and climbed aboard. The rest of us, heads hung low, plodded back to the terminal.

We had arrived at 11:00am. The bus was due at 12:00. We hit the road close to 2:00pm. A Japanese driver would have committed ritual harakiri. Hardened by our two previous trips to South America, we weren’t too fazed. It was a beautiful day, the seats were extremely comfortable, the road was fairly smooth and the scenery, at least for the early part of the trip while the Andes loomed, made any frustration from the delay disappear. As we travelled further south the desert landscapes predominated. Interesting in the afternoon light, but after an hour or two, just a little “ho hum”.

Esquel is a fairly large town for this part of the world at about 35,000 people. It has a real laid-back country feel to it, much like western Queensland and New South Wales towns. It is right at the end of the tourist season, so life is even a little slower than usual hereabouts. We took a 25km local bus out to the nearby town of Trevelin. As the name might suggest, Trevelin has Welsh associations. The southern parts of Argentina were largely unexplored by the middle of the nineteenth century. A group of what we would today call Welsh Nationalists found their way to the then unexplored wilds of Patagonia to set up a colony. They arrived in the area of what is today Trevelin, on 28 July 1865. The area was known as the Valley of 16 October. We don’t know why but many places and streets in South America are named after significant dates. We visited the town’s Regional Cultural Museum which was just amazing for such a tiny town. The history of the Welsh settlers and their influence on local culture and farming methods was well presented with information in Welsh, English and Spanish.

The thing to do in Trevelin is to take Welsh tea. Not being big tea drinkers, we skipped this part of the experience and instead went for our usual lunch of jamon and queso (ham and cheese) sandwiches.
It is probably a little early into our trip for even early impressions of Argentina, but we have had such great experiences so far it would be a shame to lose these early reflections. While we have an extremely rudimentary grasp of Spanish, our school boy/girl French helps a bit and our earlier travels in Spain and here in South America have helped us improve a little, but in no way has this lessened our experience in Argentina. If anything, it has shown us just how welcoming and helpful people can be here.

The areas we have been travelling through in these early days are country towns and cities and fairly isolated. Some places, like Bariloche, are very touristy, but mostly aimed at local tourists. It might be a Southern Hemisphere thing in some ways. The weather is great and that sky is that special Southern Hemisphere blue. As well as that, the Spanish/Latin temperament is at its best when life is good and everything is going well.

Tomorrow, we hire a car and head off to the Parque Nacional Los Alerces.


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