60. The Lake District (Bariloche, Rio Negro, Argentina)
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.
map stolen from www.lonelyplanet.com
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.
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.
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.
Looking down on the main plaza at sunset from Hostel 1004
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.
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.
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.
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.
(According to flickr.com, 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.
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.
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.