Suitcase on wheels     stuck in the snow   sniffer dog

Friday, December 23, 2005

60. The Lake District (Bariloche, Rio Negro, Argentina)

From Ushuaia I first flew to El Calafate, where I had a two day wait for my next flight to Bariloche. Because December is the high season, I couldn't get a direct flight from Ushuaia to Bariloche as they were all already booked. So I opted to take the two flights, paid two sets of departure taxes and 4 taxi fares to and from the airports (grrr). Ushuaia's at the very bottom of the map where it says Parque Nacional Tierra del Fuego, and Bariloche's in the middle where it says Parque Nacional Nahuel Huapi.

map of argentina
map stolen from

Travellers note: I probably could have eventually gotten a direct flight if I'd tried again and again over a few days, as many people cancel flights or change their dates at will at the last minute, as it seems you can do so here without penalty. And, I'd forgotten to check the availability at LAN Argentina, the newly-launched offshoot of LAN Chile.

I flew with LADE, which is the Argentine Air Force's airline, from El Calafate to Bariloche. That was a bit of an experience... As is my custom, I usually try to be one of the last to board my flight as I figure it's more comfortable to wait in the boarding area than be sitting on the plane waiting for everyone else to board. So when I walked across the tarmac and climbed the stairs and entered the plane, I asked the stewardess which seat was mine. Es libre (it's free), she told me, which meant we could sit where we liked. Oh-kay. Fortunately for me the only seat left wasn't right at the back.
The flight went El Calafate -> Bariloche -> Buenos Aires. So when we touched down about seven of us disembarked and waited at the baggage carousel for our luggage. I could see the handlers unloading the bags and couldn't see my suitcaseonwheels, and sure enough it didn't come through. So I told the handler they'd forgotten my bag and he asked me to describe it (negra y plastica) and he raced off to find it. I was standing there waiting, thinking to myself that I thought Bariloche would have a bigger airport. And then I said to myself, hmm, I thought more people would have gotten off as Bariloche is a popular place. Doubt was beginning to creep in... no, surely not. After a few more minutes I asked a lady - are we in Bariloche? No, this is Neuquen, she told me. Oops, I gotten off the plane one stop too early! It wasn't a drama though, as people were still boarding my plane to take their flight to Buenos Aires. But the poor guy was still searching for my bag - oops, my mistake, sorry fella. I noticed that when I got back on the plane the cabin crew started making their announcements in English as well as Spanish.

Everyone who comes to Bariloche says they'll stay a few days and ends up spending a week there. Probably because there's lots of things to do, lots of great restaurants, lots of chocolate shops, and a pretty good nightlife too. Its downtown is very picturesque, with log and stone buildings built in the 1930s but kept in good condition ever since.

Bariloche - 06 - Clock Tower
Main plaza in Bariloche

The first 2 days I was in Bariloche were absolutely freezing, although it was spring a freezing cold gale was blowing in off the lake, which itself looked more like the ocean thanks to the waves whipped up by the wind. It was colder here than in El Calafate or Ushuaia, which was surprising since Ushuaia's so much further south. Then again, Bariloche's at 770m but Ushuaia's at sea level.

Bariloche - 07 - Lake
A wave crashes into the lakefront jetty

Because of the cold weather, I didn't really get out and do much those first two days. I was staying in a great hostel run by a Kiwi, 41 Below, whose DVD collection I made good use of.
On about the third day I met some other Kiwi guys and we walked up Cerro Otto, one of the many nearby hills, for the view of the city, lakes, and mountains.

Bariloche - 15 - Cerro Otto pano
The view from Cerro Otto

We could have taken a gondola ride up but had opted to walk it instead - it took us over an hour and was extremely steep towards the top, but atop the restaurant was a revolving restaurant which we recuperated in. I'd never been in a revolving restaurant before.

Bariloche - 21 - Sunset
Looking down on the main plaza at sunset from Hostel 1004

A couple of days later I met some Spanish guys who wanted to hire and share a car, to see the surrounding countryside. Of course I was keen to do it again, as we'd had a good time when we'd hired the cars the other times. Although I did meet one Dutch backpacker who hadn't had such a good time.
When you hire a car in Argentina, it comes with some insurance, but the insurance excess is for the first $2000 pesos (US$700) damage. And if you vuelco (roll) the car the excess is $10,000 pesos (USD$3300) as it's assumed that you were driving recklessly. Well, the Dutch guy hired a car with 4 others he didn't really know, and they all set off to see the whales and penguins of Puerto Madryn (see my entry #56. Penguins!). The Dutch guy was driving, and everything was in his name and his credit card.

Siete Lagos - 03 - Car crash
Random pic: a different hire-car crash

Well, he pulled out to pass someone on the ripio (gravel) roads, and for whatever reason, as he was passing, the other guy swerved left, possibly to avoid a hole in the road. So our guy swerves left to avoid being hit, but then the car starts sliding, so he steers right to get back on the road, does the old over-correcting, gets the wobbles, and eventually the Ford Ka he's driving does the dreaded vuelco (roll). Luckily no one was injured, but while they were waiting around the other guy took off. So the $10,000 peso franquisia (excess) had to be paid by the Dutch guy and the others. That's $2000 pesos each - ouch. The two English girls of the group fronted up with their $4000 peso share, but the other two, an Israeli couple, pleaded poverty, emptied out their pockets, and stumped up with about $1000 pesos between them. Forcing the Dutch guy to have to pay the rest, since it was on his credit card - $5000 pesos. Double-ouch. He wryly told me those were two Spanish words he'd never forget - ripio, and vuelco.

Monte Tronador - 01 - Jose Sergio
Jose and Sergio, the Spanish guys

The first day me and the Spaniards set off to see Mount Tronador, a mountain with a black glacier. I was intrigued to see what a black glacier looked like and it was pretty cool - it was black because the ice was full of volcanic ash. It didn't quite look like the black crystal I'd imagined but more like a dirty glacier.

Monte Tronador - 09 - Black Glacier
The black glacier

We gung-hoed it past the "Do not pass" signs down to the lakefront, where I asked Jose if he was going to do some iceberg hopping polar bear style. To my surprise, he took up the challenge! Man, this was gonna be funny, especially if he slipped and ended up in the freezing water!

Monte Tronador - 10 - Jose icebergs
Our hero psyches himself up - click to watch video

He had a bit of a leap to do - about 2 metres from a standing start. I figured he'd be able to make the leap but he'd either slip on landing or the iceberg would sink under his weight. Well, he actually made it! The iceberg started to sink as he landed but he hopped onto the next one and then the next one which was big enough. Getting back wasn't so successful though, as one of the ones he'd jumped on sunk under his weight and he had to clamber up off it onto a bigger one, icy-wet feet and all. I'd say the water was pretty deep where he was too.

Monte Tronador - 13 - Jose icebergs

After that we visited some waterfall on the way back to Bariloche.

The next day we headed north, up to the town of San Martin de Los Andes, via the famous Seven Lake Route. As the name implies, the route passes a number of lakes, all of which are beautiful but nearly identical. It was definitely a case of seen one seen 'em all, but the day was great, our first day of beautiful weather, and the lakes were amazing.

Siete Lagos - 02 - Lago Espejo
A speedboat crosses Lago Espejo

Siete Lagos - 05 - Puente
Amazingly clear river

Siete Lagos - 09 - Sergio Jose lunch
Lunch stop

On the way back we took a different route further from the mountains, and the change was dramatic. Whereas the Seven Lake route had been all lakes surrounded by forest, away from the mountains it was lakes still, but surrounded by dry grass - maybe we were now above the tree-line. That night we returned the car without a scratch and only 10km under the 700km we'd pre-bought - sweet.

That night we had a bit of a boy's night out - inch-thick steaks in a parilla (steak house), ten-pin bowling in a manual bowling alley, which meant I kept score with pen and paper and kids working at the end of the alleys re-set the pins by hand (surprisingly efficient, although sometimes there'd be a bit of a wait), and finally off to some bar for a bikini contest.

Bikini Contest - 03 -
Bikini Contest

Bikini Contest - 06 -
Quality Argentine meat

(According to, that picture is my most viewed picture - and that's before I've even published it here!)

The next day I bid the Spaniards farewell and headed south to El Bolson, a former hippie town that still has a Greenpeace kind of feel. I watched some concert in the central park and enjoyed the best icecream I've ever tasted - from the Jauja icecream shop. They must have had about 50 flavours, I opted for one scoop of cinnamon with one scoop of mate (the Argentine herbal tea). From there I visited nearby Lago Puelo, got sunburnt, and had a swim (well, a plunge) in the icy mountain lake.

Bariloche - 22 - Matt sunset
Me and the sunset in Bariloche

I returned for one more night in Bariloche, before taking a 19 hour bus-ride back to Buenos Aires. I was actually looking forward to this bus ride, as I'd finally gotten to reserve a supercama seat. I'd been waiting all year for this - the cream of the Argentine bus service, as the seat and footrest recline (almost) completely flat. And being high season I'd had to book this ticket a week in advance, when I first arrived in Bariloche. And yep, it was comfy, I slept well and arrived in BA fresh enough. The only downer was they only played 3 movies on the trip and I'd either seen them already or didn't want to see them. The 81 year old Argentine-Russian lady I sat next to was more interesting than the movies anyway, telling me her life story in her good English which she hadn't had the chance to use in 20 years. They served meals on the bus, airline style, and the champagne cart came around late at night.

Bariloche - 25 - Matt supercama

Feliz Navidad everyone! I'll be spending Christmas and New Year in hot and sweaty BA, but at least I'll be with friends and my girlfriend. I've been busy here in the week since I returned, researching a business idea I have to start something up in Ushuaia. We'll see how it goes.


  • Hey happy new year & I guess xmas is bigger there than here too, a few christians here in the Bangalore & Kerala, so a bit of glitter around - maybe even praying...
    If you start some business in Ushuaia I'll be sure to come visit - maybe even learn more spanish than "donde este telegraphico? & dos cervesa por favor" I'm off to Goa on the 25th - 1st time there for 5 or 6 years - pity about the timing.
    have a good NY. B

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 12:30 AM  

  • Happy New Year Matty!

    Watched Diarios de motocicleta last night, some excellent views of Chile and other bits of South America. Fantastic movie I thought.

    If you've seen it, this is how I picture you travelling around, except for the motorbike and being a Cuban revolutionary in the future. Although you never know . . .


    By Blogger Slag, at 8:59 AM  

  • Cheers Ed! Nice little blog you've got going there too.

    Yep I saw The Motorcycle Diaries in the cinema in NZ in Jan '05 just before I left. And then saw it about a month ago on a bus to Rio Gallegos here in Argentina.

    Seeing it before I left was good, as it was a good preview of what to expect scenery-wise. And seeing it here again was good, as I've actually been to many of the places in the movie. Probably most.

    Of course, travelling now is so much easier than back then, I can get there sitting on a bus while watching a DVD, or even catching a flight. That seemed like real travelling how they did it.

    I guess I could have made it real by if I'd hitch-hiked a bit, but I would have felt like a dick hitching with a suitcaseonwheels - although I met an Israeli girl who was doing just that.

    By Blogger mattyboy, at 10:29 AM  

  • For anybody renting a car in Argentina, the way to do this is to place it on a good credit card that provides extra insurance. Make sure you make a reservation WITH THE CARD first (or they will not provide you with ANY coverage, you need to have a reservation, not just a blank voucher or some other stuff, it has to go on the card. If you get into the same kind of trouble this guys had with their rental, the credit card insurance would cover you. It happened to me, car was stolen, I paid nothing, not even one dolar!

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 9:30 AM  

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