Patagonia, the last hurrah

21 Dec

Patagonia, that humongous swath of land, which makes up the southern half of Argentina, is also its least populated region. Only a handful of towns exist within, most of them established in the late 19th or early 20th-centuries. San Carlos de Bariloche, in the Patagonian province of Rio Negro, is one of its better known ones.

A favored winter sports destination by Argentines, Chileans and Brazilians alike, it is equally popular in the summer months, attracting hikers and mountaineers from across the continent. Not one to betray its European roots, Bariloche is also known for its alpine-style architecture, specialty chocolate shops, and an ever-expanding roster of microbreweries.

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Driven entirely by tourism, the town’s population has swelled over the years; construction activity has soared, and the number of visitors continues to grow. So much so that there is no off-season anymore. For a less hectic pace, and a not-so-touristy vibe, there’s Cerro Catedral, an alpine-style ski village located about 25-mins west of the town center.

Winter sports are definitely not our thing, but the higher elevation ensures that there’s still some snow on the ground, and plenty on the mountain sides – this is, after all, the tail-end of ski season – so my party of four, most of whom are visiting from much warmer climes, seem perfectly content.

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Hotels in the area are few and far between, and with the exception of El Living, a cozy restaurant cum mini grocer, dining options around Cerro Catedral are scarce. So we’re forced to venture out beyond the little ski village, to one of many Cervecerias or brewpubs that line the coastal road leading west from Bariloche.

The kitschy, coaster-lined interiors of Cerveceria Blest are not short on character, and easily the most welcoming of the lot. The quality of brews and pub grub doesn’t disappoint either. As with the rest of Argentina though, Guinness, unfortunately, is out of reach…

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In the neighboring province of Chubut, a little-known railroad occupies a special place in my heart. La Trochita, or the small gauge, made famous by Paul Theroux, in his bestseller, The Old Patagonian Express, has long been on my South America bucket list. It is partly the reason why I’ve dragged my visitors all the way down to Bariloche.

The railway – now solely operated as a tourist venture – has been closed for well over a month, but I’m determined to at least visit one of its railheads to pay homage. I set out early one morning – with an unsuspecting cousin in tow – for a 300-km round-trip on what ends up being mostly dirt roads…

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El Maiten, a dusty frontier town, is only beginning to show signs of life as we pull up outside its station, a little past 10 AM. We glance towards the platform, and there’s a locomotive in steam, hauling a set of old wooden carriages up and down the yard. Testing is in progress. Its a matter of time before La Trochita plies again. I endeavor to return, whatever it takes…

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Nestled along the south shore of Lago Nahuel Huapi, Bariloche is also the gateway to the country’s spectacular Lake District. The districts largest and deepest lake, Nahuel Huapi, extends across the border into Chile, and has the country’s oldest national park named after it.

Ferry excursions depart daily from Puerto Pañuelo, a passenger port located about 25-km northwest of Bariloche. With a little bit of luck, you could sail out on the Modesta Victoria, a historic vessel built in Holland in 1937; the same one the Obamas used on their visit to Patagonia earlier in 2016…

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The first stop on our 4-hour long excursion is at a little pier on the north shore of Lago Nahuel Huapi. The picturesque pier serves Los Arrayanes National Park, a forest reserve known for its collection of Myrtles, many of them several centuries old.

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Quickly dispelling all internet rumors that the same species are found on a particular island in Japan, our guide informs us that Luma Apiculata or the Chilean Myrtle (Arrayán in Spanish) are only found in the Andean Patagonian forests of Argentina and Chile, and Los Arrayanes National Park holds the largest collection of these trees in the world.

A beautifully-built trail forms a small loop within the National Park, enabling visitors to get up close and marvel at the orangish-golden bark of this unique tree, which also happens to maintain a surface temperature significantly cooler than other species within the same forest.

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Back on the Modesta Victoria, we’re now headed southeast towards Puerto Anchorena, the gateway to Isla Victoria. Covering an area over 31-square kilometers, the largest island on Lago Nahuel Huapi is home to over 2000-species of trees, including several varieties of pines, firs, maples and oaks.

Aarón Félix Martín de Anchorena, an Argentine aristocrat, after whom the island’s point of entry was named, was the man responsible for much of the reforestation that took place here in the early 20th-century. Today, the island serves as a forest research station for Parque Nacional Nahuel Huapi, with only its center section open to visitors. We eventually spend an hour on the island, most of it gawking at the very imposing Ponderosa Pine Grove…

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Across from Puerto Pañuelo, perched high on a bluff, sits the impressive Hotel Llao Llao. It’s the priciest address you can hope to have during a stay in these parts, but even if your budget doesn’t allow for one, consider going there at teatime.

Touristy and expensive as it may be, High Tea at the Llao Llao is a must do while in Bariloche. Arrive there hungry, if you can, cause it’s a meal and then some. Even if you’re not looking to satiate your appetite during teatime, the views alone will make the price tag worthwhile.

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Puerto Pañuelo and the Llao Llao Hotel lie roughly at the midpoint of Circuito Chico, a scenic loop road that’s extremely popular amongst day-trippers from Bariloche. The loop, 24-km in length, initially follows the western shore of Lago Nahuel Huapi, gaining some elevation a little past the Llao Llao peninsula, and then eventually circling back and around Lago Perito Moreno. Close to sundown, finding ourselves with a little extra time on hand, we decide to complete the loop, and are all the richer for it…

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The country’s lake district extends well beyond the shores of Lago Nahuel Huapi. Across the lake from Bariloche lies the palindromically named province of Neuquén, home to Camino de los Siete Lagos or Road of the Seven Lakes. If you have a full day to spare, it’s apparently worth doing the 3-hour drive north to San Martin de los Andes, stopping off at the many overlooks in between. If not, there’s Villa la Angostura, an alpine-style resort town that’s less than half the distance, with a route that’s no less breathtaking.

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A couple of miles shy of Villa la Angostura, we turn off onto an obscure dirt road that winds its way down to Bahia San Patricio, a picture-perfect cove, framed on its west side by Los Arrayanes National Park. Las Balsas, a cozy, chateaux-style boutique hotel sits on its eastern shore, and on the recommendation of a friend, we’ve decided to make that our lunch destination for the day.

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The hotel is gorgeous; lunch at its little restaurant is excellent, and the setting is pretty hard to beat. It’s pricey for sure, but there’s no question about it – I know precisely where I’m staying, the next time I find myself in these parts.

Ruta Nacional 40 connects Villa la Angostura with Bariloche, and its route, which hugs the eastern shore of Lago Nahuel Huapi, is dotted with campgrounds. We stop off at La Estacada, an incredibly pretty lakefront campsite, to pay our respects to the mighty lake, and dip our feet in its chilly, pristine waters…

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At 1,405-meters (4,608-feet), Cerro Otto is one of the highest peaks around San Carlos de BarilocheThankfully, you don’t need a ski lift to get up there. Teleférico Cerro Otto, a cable car system, whisks you up there in a matter of minutes.

Once on top, you can choose between the customary photo op with a Saint Bernard, or for something a little more strenuous, paraglide off the side of the mountain. For lesser mortals, there’s 360° views to be had, of the majestic Andes and the stunning Lake District. A lasting impression to leave Patagonia with, no doubt.

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Addendum

Eighteen days following our return from Bariloche, I’m back at Aeroparque Jorge Newbery Airport, having just completed a fourth trip to Patagonia. This one though lasted all of 36-hours and included 4-hours of flying and 8-hours of driving! Sufficient enough to let me check off The Old Patagonian Express from my bucket list. In less than a week, I’ll wrap up my stint in Argentina and head back to NY… 

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A full set of pics from our visit to Bariloche and my journey on the Old Patagonian Express can be seen on my Flickr.

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One Response to “Patagonia, the last hurrah”

  1. Grace March 30, 2017 at 4:19 pm #

    The joy you exude is the only thing that tops the photos.

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