I almost didn’t go to Bariloche at all. Further south, while freezing all my extremities off in Ushuaia and El Calafate, people talked endlessly, endlessly, eeeeendlessssssssssssly about their plans for Bariloche: A very popular Argentine town beside the undeniably beautiful Lake Nahuel Huapi. But as spectacular as the place sounded, the chipmunk-like never-ending squeal people kept emitting about it turned me completely off the idea. (Sometimes such constant chitter-chatter works in the opposite way, and you find yourself booking a bus ticket leaving the next day. And other times, well…you feel like you’ve already been there and wouldn’t gain much more from actually seeing the place with your own two eyes.)
In any case, June had come around and I was a stone’s throw away from Bariloche in El Bolsón, staying at a hostel run by a sweet, but incredibly fundamentalist elderly Christian called Carlos who was attempting to persuade me that science did not, in fact, exist.
“Isn’t it a miracle that it rains fresh water while the ocean is salty?”
He would ask, between sips of mate. (He did not appreciate the childlike picture of the water cycle I drew for him in answer.)
When the time came to move on from El Bolsón, I realised I didn’t have any real excuse not to continue steadfastly north and see what the heck was up with this tourist magnet. Especially as Carlos was going there – not unlike a medieval lord – to collect rent from all the countless properties he owned. And so Rebecca, a hilarious Swede also staying at the hostel, and I made the trek – driving along at a rate of knots with Carlos and listening to a Spanish language CD of cheesy Christian songs his son had recently brought back from his trip to Egypt and Israel…along with several white robes and the notion that camels were the new black.
June was an unintelligent time to go to Bariloche, as the ski season hadn’t yet started and only the very ballsy were still attempting to skid professionally across the inordinately cold lake.
But still, despite our off-season arrival there was a lot to do there. Disgustingly, on reflection I’ve noted that a great chunk of it involved eating conspicuous amounts of yummy food. But then on further reflection, I’ve accepted that when I’m in a place, eating a lot will form a large part of the entertainment anyway. (Thankfully, I’m in a continent where having a bodacious booty is considered a must, so I may as well just forge ahead and get me one of those.)
Anyhoo, let’s have a trawl through…
5 WAYS NOT TO DIE OF BOREDOM IN BARILOCHE IN THE OFF-SEASON.
1) COMMUNE WITH NATURE / CHECK OUT THAT WHOPPING HUGE LAKE
Nahuel Huapi lake is immense. So much so that an elderly Argentine gentleman declared it the largest in South America, a claim which I corrected (and in doing so, broke his heart) by informing him of Lake Titicaca’s existence. But in any case – ten points for Nahuel Huapi. It is enormous, blue, clean (well, clean-looking…of course, I didn’t jump in to find out for sure) and sports many fine coves and inlets to splash about in or laze about near.
Exploring Nahuel Huapi in its entirety involves a lot of time, as well as access to some sort of vehicle: It’s that big.
Plenty of people bike or drive around sections of the lake using the popular Circuitos Chico and Grande (Small and Large Circuits) to take in sights such as the smaller Lake Perito Moreno, Lagoon El Trébol, the San Pedro and Llao Llao Peninsulas and Victoria Island. However, as we were there on a drizzly, slippery-road sort of day it seemed ominously clear that attempting to cycle in the rain next to all that traffic would likely involve us being splattered meatily across the bitumen. We had been told that buses completed the same circuits, but later found that as it was a Sunday the timetable was painfully inconvenient (going out at 7am and returning at 10pm no thank you!). And so, we hitch-hiked a little bit before eventually giving up, driven home by the rain.
Cars and buses aside, you can also zip up Cerro Otto on a chairlift to enjoy a panoramic squiz of the lake. Again, I admit that I didn’t do this and will henceforth back up my refusal in two ways:
- One, it was a rainy day and I really didn’t care for a panoramic view of a foggy body of water.
- Two, I think chairlifts are a crock. They usually set you back the cost of a couple of beers – and really, I’d much rather spend my amusing, wackily-named foreign currency on golden ale.
But happily, on a clear day (which we did have one of!) simply sitting by this monstrous lake and going “wowwwww” is all you need to do.
This, we DID do.
2) STUFF YOURSELF SILLY WITH BARBEQUE GOODNESS
(Yes, thank you very much sense memory, my mouth is actually watering as I write this.)
Our Couchsurfing host Phil convinced us to go along to a buffet parrilla one night – although of course, not much begging was needed. He chose La Parrilla de Tony (Avenida San Martín, 574 1º Piso) for its local status as a hot spot – and man, was he right. The place is so popular with Argentines that there is actually a “locals” and “tourist” price; a hideous occurrence which travellers had told me occasionally existed in this country. Verrrrry blonde Rebecca and not-so-blonde-but-clearly-not-Argentine me were asked to lag back and shut up as Phil and Marco negotiated prices. The owners knew full well what us scoundrels were attempting, but in the end let the entire group eat for the Argentine price of $130 Argentine pesos (USD$27) each.The price includes all the sausages, chorizo, steaks, chicken, offal (yummy!), fries, salads, sides and WINE you want, as well as dessert and bread for all. We swapped dessert for coffee in the end – as it was truly an indecent amount of food put before us – though we did eat every last scrap.
(And the boys, for the record, scoffed the offal and asked for seconds.)
3) FOLLOW THE BARBEQUE GOODNESS WITH A LOTTA SOMETHING SWEET
Apart from skiing, water sports and for being where most Argentine kids go to party and puke when high school finishes, Bariloche is famous for being a chocoholic’s heaven. Mitre, the main drag, is dotted with a variety of artesanal chocolate shops: Mamuschka, Chocolates Bonifacio and the decidedly less swanky Chocolate del Turista topping the list of most-visited.
But my sugar-hit provider was Rapa Nui.
Much like a youngster’s football team – and the club song and colour jersey he will forever sing and wear – is chosen at birth by their family; so was Rapa Nui given to me. Titi (really his name!), Phil’s French mate was the responsible one.
Only minutes after arriving in town, Titi declared it necessary (nay, honorable) for us to choof off down Mitre and inhale as much chocolate and ice cream as humanely possible. I really wasn’t feeling the sugar love that particular day, and so ate a beautiful little cupcake, injected myself with caffeine and was done with it well before his sundae arrived.
But Titi was not. No, his dessert was a holy relic to which he donated 45 minutes of devotion – which were in turn, hilarious minutes for me. For almost an hour, this pint-sized Frenchman unpacked that dairy creation, savouring each mouthful, moaning When Sally Met Harry Style and shrieking loudly each time he found another hidden chocolate gem inside.
It was wildly entertaining.
4) LEARN TO DANCE ARGENTINE WONDERS AT A PEÑA
Originally, I was going to use this blog to write about my (mis)adventures in an area I’m neither familiar, nor comfortable with: Dance. Dancing is to South Americans what smoking cigarettes and brooding is to the French. People do it wonderfully. And they have no qualms about jigging about on any flat (or not so flat) surface; whether it be the streets, in their apartments or at a club. The point is not that I don’t dance…I do…but usually under the influence of a colourful cocktail topped with a bendy straw and several slices of tropical fruit. Oh, and I will not often be the one who suggests that my mates and I all immediately commence wiggling about our hips to the beat.
In any case, when in Rome…
After stuffing ourselves stupid with barbeque delights (a time, I attest, in which you do not want to do anything except lament your swollen stomach from a horizontal position on a sofa) Rebecca and I were taken along to Peña Folklórica Carpa Coplera to see how it was done. (A peña is a live-music event where traditional dances are danced, a place where folk culture is held in high, estatic regard by regular people. And how.)
Here were lawyers, students, the unemployed, actresses, ferry drivers and builders all practicing the same dance form their parents, grandparents and great, great, great grandparents had practiced well before reggaetón opened its unfortunate mouth.
I was roped in for impromptu lessons by an alarmingly tall Argentine from Salta – the birthplace of Chacarera, the style being danced most that night. (Ezequiel reminded me curiously of my younger brother Ben…but as approximately 10% of all men I meet remind me of Ben while managing to look nothing at all like him, I wasn’t toooo freaked out.) He soon had me well-versed in Chacarera and no longer feeling like a confused wooden stick in a sea of bendy spaghetti strands.
The great thing about these peñas is that everyone just gets in and does it. There are some show ponies of course, but the focus is on…just have a go.
5) CLIMB TO THE TOP OF SOMETHING TALL
In June, as the snow was yet to fall and cover them in a dangerous layer or ten of snow, there were several treks which were still very possible to do around Bariloche. We chose the hike to Refugio Frey – a simple affair of one day in and one day out.
This moderately challenging walk takes you past a collection of attractive lakes, gullies…and the occasional frozen pool of water (poised of course, to trip you up unexpectedly causing your feet to skid about comically as if a cartoon character, before you fall flat on your soon-to-be-bruised arse).
Refugio Frey is nestled by Lake Toncek; a lake which in the winter freezes. This was an insane novelty for me – an Aussie girl who’s seen snow precious few times and never a frozen lake – and a boon for the Barilocheans who come here on wintery weekends to ice skate…
…and fight for a space to sleep in the Refuge.
Refugio Frey is a simple, two level affair: Kitchen and dining room downstairs and bedroom upstairs. One bedroom. For well over 100 people. With a single platform dividing the room into a sort of split-level scenario, be prepared to be squishing in on one of these platforms, sardine-like and spooning veritable strangers. Beds are awarded on a first in, best-dressed basis. Upon arrival, you sign your stats in a notebook and are told either to take your sleeping bag up to the bedroom, or hang out.
“Hanging out” means that they will try to accommodate you as best they can – probably moving aside the tables and chairs in the dining room after dinner’s over, and propping you up on one of several spare mattresses lying about.
(A word of advice: If you enjoy sleeping on a relatively soft surface, go to bed early. We chatted outside with some other travellers into the wee hours, missed the allocation of horizontal surfaces appropriate for sleeping, and were as such required to snuggle up on the tiled kitchen floor. Our friends had to sleep next to the front door and battle the cold air coming in the cracks from outside. That night, I believe the refuge literally could not have taken a single other person. Fire hazard, anyone?!!
Food is also a game: You can either eat the meal prepared by staff, or cook for yourself. We researched precious little and didn’t realise this first option existed – so having hiked in with all manner of groceries, we found ourselves “cooking” (or, negotiating for space and sanity) with other families in the badly-lit outdoors shed kitchen.
It was such a battle (resources, and lighting were scarcely provided), but we were so pleased with the result in the end, that we just had to take a photo of our sloshy mess.
The next morning, people went off ice skating. But, those who’ve known me for a while or who’ve read about my adventures bike riding or sandboarding will know that “The next Amy Caron or Carissa Moore” is not how anyone would be tempted to describe me (hell, I’ll admit to using Google to learn who Amy Caron and Carissa Moore even are!)
“Likely to stack it horribly,” is much more akin to the description people surely whisper behind my back.
Anyway, I’d not registered that ice skating would be on the menu at Refugio Frey, and had not brought enough pesos to rent skates even if I’d wanted to. Nor was I feeling guerilla enough to fight all the feisty 9-year-old girls ready to punch all and sundry who got in the way of them and a pair of skates. And Rebecca – curious for a European – admitted that she didn’t like ice skating.
So instead, we went for a (in hindsight, possibly irresponsible) mountain adventure:
Scrambling up the slopes surrounding the lake, punching holes in the ice with our boots…
…arriving at the top, feeling like the love children of Xena and Wonder Woman…
…before sitting up there for a while, fretting about how in the name of all things holy we’d get down again.
We did manage to get down again…
(I suppose that’s clear, given that you’re reading this story) and happily trotted back through the forest again to Bariloche, to feast once again on roasted meat and wondrous ice cream treats.
So there you have it: Bariloche is marvellous with a capital M if you’re there at the “correct” time of year…you’ll be able to ski, snowboard, waterski, kite surf, windsurf and rock climb your tush off.
(But, if you’re driven there by a hymn-singing Argentine gentleman in June, do not fear: You’ll find yourself eating, drinking, dancing and sleeping uncomfortably close to strangers on kitchen floors to your heart’s content.)