Saturday, December 15, 2012

Circuito Chico, Cerro Campanario and Cerro Otto, Bariloche

After a later start than planned, thanks to the wine, we let the dogs run on the beach and then leave them secure in the motorhome before we take off. The Circuito Chico is a 65 Km (42 mile) drive that circles up through the mountains around Bariloche following several landmarks and then back into town. Setting off from the campground along Bustillo Avenue and following the shore of Lake Nahuel Huapi, we pass Cerro Campanario. There is a chair lift that climbs to the top and looks out over the whole lake region. We will return here later today to check out the views. Our first stop along the route was going to be the Hotel Llao-Llao. This massive, luxury hotel sits right on its own peninsula. It is surrounded by an 18-hole golf course and is full of 5 star amenities such as a spa and health club, restaurants, a lobby bar, winter garden, a club house, boutique shops, and much more. The location of the hotel is what sets it apart from other world class resorts but we will have to wait to see the interior. Today there is a Jewish wedding taking place and the entire hotel has been reserved and is closed to the public. Oof, the money that is spent on weddings! There are two or three stops along the way, all conveniently placed at the top of the larger hills. One of these is Punto Panorámico and anyone visiting Bariloche should check out the views from here. They are spectacular and will surely take your breath away. Turning in different directions, the point overlooks lakes Moreno and Nahuel Huapi, the Llao Llao Hotel, the Andes and towards the Chilean border. Directly in front of us is an amazing panoramic view of the merging point between Lake Moreno and Lake Nahuel Huapi. The snow-capped mountains in the background frame the lakes and the Llao LLao Hotel looks tiny as it sits nestled into the mountains around it. It is truly a special spot. There are local artisans selling their wares (I did buy some homemade raspberry preserves from one), a choripan (chorizo hot dog) stand and even St. Bernard photo opportunities. However this does not detract from the incredible feeling of being at one with nature. From here it is a downhill ride back towards town where the road meets again with Avenida Bustillo. The avenida hugs the lakeside and provides beautiful scenery that serves as a taste to what lies ahead. Whilst the views found around the lake are beautiful, a ride to the top of Cerro Campanario is a must but don’t take my word for it. National Geographic names Cerro Campanario one of the “Top 10 Views of the World” with “some of the most fascinating views of the region” To be able to appreciate this view you first need to get to the top of the mountain. If you wish to climb the mountain there are a few different paths to follow, that looked to my eye quite formidable and fairly steep. However, for the non climbing, less energetic types there is the Aerosilla Cerro Campanario. The aerosilla (chairlift) begins at 770 meters (2,526 feet) and summits at 1,050 meters (3,445 feet). Marcela and Mariano got on first and Tom and I followed behind them. The trip up the mountain takes about 10 minutes and I found it hard not to sit still as we continued to rise higher and higher. With each tree that passed below us the views continued to get better and better. At the top Marcela and Mariano were there to greet us and we all gushed over the ride and the views. And, oh gosh, the views! The moment our feet hit the ground we went off to the nearest lookout point, reaching for the camera. Fantastic panoramas, fresh mountain air, and breathtaking scenery had me feeling as if I was in my own universe. The mesmerizing mountains were surrounded by the blue sky above and the lake waters of Nahuel Huapi and Perito Moreno down below. We could see for miles in any direction: the other tall mountain peaks of Cerro Otto, Cerro Lopez, Cerro Goye, Cerro Catedral, and Cerro Capilla to name a few. Stretched across the Llao Llao Peninsula was the Hotel Llao Llao, in the distance the charming and enchanting Isla Victoria, where Disney got the idea for Bambi, and looking back to the east, the town of Bariloche. It didn’t take long to understand exactly why Cerro Campanario has received so many accolades. After spending some time at each lookout, we made our way into the little café. It was past lunchtime and we were hungry. We found a table right next to a window, ordered hamburgers and empanadas and sat back to soak it all in. There is good reason that National Geographic named this look-out spot one of the Top 10 Views of the World.” It actually comes in at number seven of the most beautiful views in the world and it is hard to argue. You could spend hours on the top gazing from one lake to the other, one mountain to another and never tire of it. For another bird’s eye view of the area, our third stop is Cerro Otto (Mt. Otto; 4,608 feet). The young or energetic can hike or bike to the top or you can drive 8 km (5 mi) up a gravel road from Bariloche or you can take the Cerro Otto gondola ride, which is probably the easiest way to access the mountain. For us it was a no brainer. We are taking the cable car which is owned by Teleférico Cerro Otto, and with all proceeds going to local hospitals and charities it is a worthy reason but for us not the only reason, to take it. The ride to the top in a little red gondola which sits the four of us comfortably, takes about 12 minutes as it travels up the steep mountain side. Once on top we head outside for some more glorious panoramic views, although by now the wind has picked up and at 4,600 feet, it is quite breezy. Fortunately there is a revolving restaurant which rotating every 20 minutes offers 360-degree views of Lago Nahuel Huapi and the surrounding countryside. With a wide variety of desserts and coffees to choose from, it was a welcome respite from the wind. A very interesting art gallery displaying exact copies of Italian paintings and sculptures which have been certified by the Italian government is located next to the restaurant. There is even a full size replica of Michelangelo’s statue of David which greets you at the door. With the wind picking up, the ride down the mountain took a little longer as they slow the gondolas significantly during windy weather. Feeling quite tired from our days adventures, we head back to Camping Petunia to be greeted by two very excited dogs who needed to be walked and four tired fishermen (Martin and the boys) who despite trying all day have nothing to show for their efforts. It is the store and chicken for dinner. Once the dogs are walked and happy again and the boys still at the lake playing and fishing, we opened another of our delicious red Argentinean wines and we all toasted our day spent in this beautiful area of Patagonia. With the tantalizing aroma of chicken emanating from the barbeque, with the sun gradually setting behind us bathing the lake, mountains and sky in shades of red and surrounded by good friends, my husband and the dogs, it was a great ending to a memorable day. Now if only our kids were with us.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

An evening with friends from Rada Tilly

Imagine our surprise when not only Marcela, Mariano and Pelusa arrived but also Martin (whom we had rented the cottage from in Rada Tilly) with his two boys, Juan Cruz and Facundo and their cousin Marco who is the same age as Facundo (about 11). We kept in contact via Skype throughout their 10 hour drive and had promised to have an Argentinean “Assado” (barbeque) waiting for them when they arrived. Tom went to the local meat store and purchased some excellent porterhouse steaks and by 9pm, we had the grill going and red wine open. Even though it had only been a couple of weeks since we left Rada Tilly, we had missed them tremendously. When they arrived the two dogs went totally crazy, it seems they missed each other also. They ran and played on the grass whilst we caught up on news of each other’s activities although neither dog strayed too far from the tantalizing smells emanating from the grill. Marcela and Mariano had brought us gifts. A beautiful carving knife and another steak knife and fork set, all with handles made from deer horn and in custom leather sheaths. They are absolutely gorgeous. The cabanas are also a success and everyone likes their sleeping arrangements. The views around the lake are spectacular. Everyone is hungry and it seems, thirsty. Between the 5 adults we consumed most of the meat and almost 6 bottles of wine! As the night wore on, the dogs exhausted themselves and well, so did the humans. We make our plans for the next day. We will split up. Martin and the boys want to fish, whilst Mariano, Marcela, Tom and I have a sightseeing trip in mind. Our plan is fairly ambitious as we are going to first drive the Circuito Chico (Small Circuit) and then take in the panoramic views from the tops of both Cerro Campanario and Cerro Otto. We will all meet back up at the campground for dinner, when we will barbeque again. We plan on maybe fish, if the boys catch any that is but decide to have chicken as a backup, just in case. The store at least is very reliable! As Tom and I made our way back up to the RV, we check out the stars and locate the Southern Cross. We are tired and mellow from the wine. Winston is tired and mellow from playing with Pelusa. Life is good.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012


San Carlos de Bariloche, usually known simply as Bariloche, is situated in the foothills of the Andes on the southern shores of Nahuel Huapi Lake and surrounded by the Nahuel Huapi National Park. Established in1934, the park is the oldest national park in Argentina and is bordered on the west by Chile. It is dominated by the Andes mountains, with rapid rivers, waterfalls, snow-clad peaks, glaciers, extensive forests and numerous lakes. Bariloche is the biggest city and a starting point for us to explore the Lake District region of Argentina. Besides Lake Nahuel Huapi (in Mapuche, nahuel means “jaguar and huapi means “island”) there are also lakes Traful, Mascardi, Gutiérrez, Guillelmo and Perito Moreno. So much is written about Bariloche that has made it famous or infamous, accolades and gossip, some of it is true and some are simply myths that have been perpetuated over the decades. Of course there are people who believe in the myths, which is why they are still told. One truth is yes, fishing throughout the Lake District is world renowned and with 650 square kilometers of surface and 454 meters deep, Lake Nahuel Huapi is the largest and deepest clear water lake within the district. The trout pulled from this lake are spectacular. But Nahuelito, I am afraid might just be a myth. Nahuelito is a lake monster named after the lake and its sighting is widely (and wildly) talked about. Reported widely (and wildly) since the 1920s, it predates that other famous lake monster “Nessie”. Whether it is a fact or fiction, Nahuelito has allegedly been seen by both local people and tourists with widely (and wild) varying descriptions, mentioning of it as a “giant water snake with humps and fish-like fins” or “a giant swan with a snake's head” or “the overturned hull of a boat which undulated” and last but not least “the stump of a tree which slithered side to side”. Its length is also varied ranging from 15–150 feet (4.6–46 m). Hmmm! Have I mentioned that wine is widely (and sometimes wildly) consumed in copious amounts in Argentina? Just a thought. Another truth is that yes, Bariloche did make headlines in the international news world, when it became known as a haven for Nazi war criminals such as the former SS Hauptsturmfuhrer Erich Priebke. When he was captured, it was discovered that Priebke had been the director of the German School of Bariloche for many years. But Hitler and Eva Braun, I think might just be a myth. The story is that Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun lived in the hills above Bariloche after World War II until the early 1960’s at an estate that Argentine Nazis chose as Hitler's refuge. Two books, one by Argentina author Abel Basti and one by a British writer have perpetuated this particular myth, which has been discounted by other historians but nevertheless the story persists. And yet another truth is that Bariloche is the “Honeymoon capital of Argentina”. It is definitely the number one destination for newlyweds and you only have to visit here to see why it could develop that romantic connotation. But “the living happily ever after” part, I think might be, sadly a myth. The story being if you honeymoon in Bariloche you will live “together happily ever after”. I can only say I hope all newlyweds sincerely believe it but the realistic part of me has to call that a myth. The other truths about the city is that it is also known as the "Gateway to Patagonia", a truth if you are heading south, it boasts the largest ski resort in the southern hemisphere at Cerro Catedral, a geographical truth and it is the "Chocolate Capital of Argentina", a truth judging by all the handcrafted chocolate shops I have seen and this is not a myth, you got to love a place that dedicates itself to chocolate. The final truth is Bariloche's deep blue lakes, towering mountains, glaciers, boating, fishing, exploring, dining, shopping and just simply relaxing which makes this an incomparable city. The scenery alone leaves most people breathless and I think we are going to enjoy ourselves here, immensely. And that is not a myth but the truth.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

To Bariloche via El Bolson

We would have liked one more day at Los Alerces but we have arranged to meet up with Marcela and Mariano in Bariloche so once more we are on the move. The drive north out of the park winding past lakes Menendez and Rivadavia is again filled with amazing scenery. Besides the Alerce trees for which the park was created, there are many other types of conifers and pines. It is also springtime and the green shrubs which we have seen all winter are now in full bloom. Flaming red notros flowers on dark green trees dot the landscape whilst Andean lupines in white and numerous shades of pink and purple line the side of the roads. Interspersed with these are amancay which has the most dazzling sunshine yellow flowers. In stretches there were miles of these amancay and looking at them reminded me of Wordsworth’s poem “Daffodils”. Although not daffodils they were, “beside the lakes and beneath the trees, fluttering and dancing in the breeze” and so bright we felt we needed our sunglasses just to look at them! It was a glorious spring day in the Andes. Our night stop is the small Andean town of El Bolson which has a renowned artisan fair on the weekends. Since this is Wednesday we missed it. Darn. At least the campsite was well equipped and quiet. The next day was an easy drive as we wound our way further up the mountains past high Andean glacier lakes, mountain passes and more of those gorgeous yellow amancay bushes to the city of San Carlos de Bariloche or as it is simply known “Bariloche”. Our Brazilian friends Luis and Luiza had told us about a great campsite called Camping Petunia which also has cabanas for Marcela and Mariano. However on arrival the first thing we saw was a sign that said “No se admiten mascotas” or in English “no pets allowed”. We go into the registration office and meet Noel who told us that as long as Winston is well behaved and walked on leash through the campsite then there was no problem. We tell him that our friends who have reserved a cabana for the weekend are bringing their dog also. After some negotiations and after assuring him that our pets are extremely well behaved, he agreed to let Pelusa stay in the cabana with Marcela and Mariano. We found a beautiful campsite just above the cabanas overlooking Lake Nahuel Huapi. There are four cabanas just below us built into the hillside. It is perfect for Marcela and Mariano and of course Pelusa. Just a short, easy walk either down a walkway or via a staircase takes us down to the lakeshore where we can let Winston run off leash. We can look up and down the lake and see the peninsulas, inlets and on the other side of the bay the city. Snow-capped mountains encapsulate us. This will be ideal for our stay.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Parque Nacional Los Alerces (Los Alerces National Park)

On the outskirts of Esquel, the road to the park is paved until you arrive at the visitors’ center. We stopped into the center and chatted with a ranger who gave us a map of the park with tips on camping areas suitable for RV’s, advice on taking another road when exiting the park which would be much shorter than going back through Esquel and cautioned us that Winston must be kept on leash at all times. There was no entrance fee or any other charge for camping and we could stay as long as we want. It seems to us that Argentina charges high fees for entering their main, popular parks like Iguaçu Falls, Punta Tumbo and Perito Moreno Glacier and then little to nothing to go to other equally as memorable but less visited parks. Once inside the park the road is another loose gravel road. These roads, which the locals call “ripo” can alternate between fairly smooth large pebbles to washboard where the trick is to drive at just the correct speed to glide over the ruts but below the level of actual skidding and landing in a ditch or worse, down a mountain side to other parts which are so potholed and uneven that driving at any speed over 8 miles an hour is an absolute mind jarring, bone-rattling experience. This road was no exception and our average speed was about 10 miles an hour. This was ok because the scenery is spectacular. Los Alerces was designated a national park in 1937 to protect the Alerce trees. Alerces is considered to be some of the most ancient trees in the world and while many of the trees in the park are reckoned to be over 1000 years old, some are actually thought to be around 3,000 years old. Running alongside the Chilean border to the west, it nestles into the backdrop of the towering Andes mountains. The park is also part of a complex lake system, connected by a multitude of sparkling, winding rivers. At the southern end, there is also a hydroelectric dam which provides energy to Puerto Madryn. We plan to travel from the southern end of the park around Lake Futalaufquen and follow the river road past Lake Menendez to Lake Rivadavia where we will exit the park in the north, hoping to find a suitable campsite along the way. The first set of campgrounds around Lake Futalaufquen closest to the visitors center were full of cars and we could see quite a few people, not really what we had in mind to enjoy our national park experience, so we kept on driving. Did I mention that the scenery is spectacular? Because it does deserve a second notation. The gravel road winds up and over mountain passes and then down into river valleys to camping areas on the edge of the lake but still we drive on. We have not found the ideal place for us. Just when we started to think we should turn back and re-scout some of the previous campsites, we decided to try one more place listed on the map as Playa El Frances which is at the northern end of Lake Futalaufquen where the Rio Arrayanes enters the lake. The side road down to the river was steep and uneven but when we arrived, it was amazing. We had a flat open area to ourselves with our door opening almost at the edge of the lake. Perfect. We let Winston run a little as we kept a close eye on him and then put him on leash to walk the trails around the campsite. Being a beagle, he would almost certainly take off if he picked up the scent of a rabbit or spied some other wildlife, besides it was the rules! One other couple pulled in and parked a little way from us in the trees and then it was silence. No cars, no other people. At dusk, a deer and her fawn came down to the lake to drink and the sounds of birds settling in for the night filled the area. That night, the stars were just amazing and as we went to sleep, the stillness and silence of this beautiful ancient forest enveloped us.