Argentina’s Lake District: Beautiful Lake Nahuel Huapi

21 12 2011

Waking up feels unpleasant. I make my way down to the “breakfast” area, where, once again, we are only served croissants, toast, canned fruit, orange aid and coffee. Instead of the usual buffet this hostel has set out specific table servings. I wash down what’s at my seat and in my half-life state it’s not enough and I break the cardinal rule of grabbing extras from the empty place next to me. I am immediately admonished by the hostel’s maternal proprietor! She was right.

Today we are taking a boat out on the lake and then hike a beautiful water trail up to a higher altitude lake. It should be really pretty, with lots of mountains and snow everywhere cascading into the lake.

As we gather outside, someone walks raggedly down the sidewalk. It’s Mat from last night! He has not gone home yet! He is in need of getting to a bed, and it turns out he is staying in our hostel! We make quick re-acquaintances but he is in no shape to hang around. We hope run into each other sometime in the next couple of weeks.

A lengthy drive along the lake shore, past lakeside resorts and estates, leads to a port, Llao Llao, where ferries disembark for various destinations. Just behind the port lies a picturesque resort.

We wait a very long time for our ferry. It must be over an hour. We can see the ash cloud in the distance. The weather on our side of the lake is perfect, of course!

One thing worthwhile during the wait is coffee! They have this ‘electronic barista’ which makes darn good espresso! Heck we could use these in Portland!

Lake Nahuel Huapi is like a Lake Tahoe even bigger, with mountains all around, cascading into the lake. Like Tahoe, it’s over 1,400 feet deep.

Unlike Tahoe, this lake has many arms and peninsulas. So one can’t see it all from any shore. But as you can see from this map, it extends almost into Chile.

Finally we load up and depart. The ferry is a catamaran, with what looks like a space ship suspended above the two pontoons. It’s pretty fast!

Along the shore we see the lovely properties with views. Some have a sailboat moored, and docks.

The ferry picks up steam and really cruises. Although I opt to stay outside, it’s quite nice in the cabin. There are windows in the ceiling so you can see the mountains all around. And for those who want to imbibe there is a bar.

You can walk all around the perimeter of the boat, or even go up on the roof. So, it’s very nicely designed for those who want to see everything.

As we head out, we can see peaks everywhere. On our side of the lake it’s a perfect day. Very little wind, calm water, beautiful sky. Still, we can see the ash cloud and we wonder about what’s going on over on the Chilean side.

It’s so pretty, and none of my friends know about this place. None of them talk about going to Argentina! It’s kind of amazing because it’s absolutely stunning!

Our ferry comes to a small bay surrounded by snowy peaks. We stop at a dock to disembark, have lunch and then do a four hour hike up one of the cascading rivers. It’s going to be fantastic. It’s such a lovely temperature!

Once the ferry leaves we take time to have our picnic on the dock.

We’re told to meet the boat at another dock on the opposite side of the bay later on…

The trail winds amongst bamboo, some alerces trees, and the Patagonian beech trees, just gigantic, dominate everything.

It climbs away from the lake and follows a cascading river. On the climb, the trail is actually built on platforms. I get the idea that this must be really busy in the summer! We’re continually reminded that our timing is 100% perfect. Early November we experience no bugs, and few crowds. Up and up the trail winds. The sounds of the cascading river are everywhere, and there are trail extensions to view it. It’s magnificent.

We witness a duck who seems to thrive here. It’s amazing how it can dart in and out of the whitewater looking for food. It’s called a torrent duck of course!

It is simply amazing. It isn’t here by chance. This guy wants to be here, this is his favorite hunting ground! I’ve never seen anything like it.

We keep climbing, and reach a lake high above! It’s surrounded by high peaks.

I cannot help but re reminded of its resemblance to Yosemite National Park in California.

There are some other tourists there, some Swiss girls. They are really funny, they keep practicing swear words in English!

Here is a video of the mountains and lake area

Descending to the lake, we wend our way to all sorts of different flora, one of which was bamboo. There are tunnels of bamboo. It is native to this part of South America…

A towering Patagonian beech tree

On our return, the ash cloud has drifted closer to our side. It is covering one of the islands only three miles away. It still doesn’t affect us.

We’ve got one evening left in Bariloche. I’m not up for another one like last night! But Elwin is going back to that pub to try and see if Carolina shows up.

Tomorrow we will make our way over the Andes, past the Puyehue volcano and to Puerto Montt, Chile!

The Accidental Wingman: A Night In Bariloche

19 12 2011

Upon arrival in Bariloche, Argentina, we settle in to our hostel, the “La Pastorella,” and its proprietors take complete control of the situation. That is to say, if you like an Italian-esque Mama to control everything. She was quite “maternal,” to say the least! Well, they are “cute,” so to speak, but once again, nobody speaks any English, and it was quite evident that we better not do anything contrary to the rules!

The Swiss-styled chalet has outdoors-facing shutters, which come in handy as daybreak is about 5:30 a.m. Anyway we quickly settle in. Saskia gives us orders to shop and grab food for a picnic lunch. That’s because tomorrow we are to head out on to Lake Nahuel Huapi for a boat ride and then a hike! We won’t have much chance to get a restaurant lunch. Here I go again. I keep finding ham and cheese sandwiches and nothing but dry  bread to go with! On this trip, I have never seen so many ham and cheese sandwiches. These are actually served on the national airline! They are one slice ham, one slice cheese, plain, in between two dry crackly pieces of bread. I try to improve by buying my own bread and cheese and some salami…and a banana.

Elwin and I and Ivo head back to the hostel to drop of our supplies and then head down to the waterfront. Bariloche claims 100,000+ residents. It’s supposed to be kind of sort of Swiss or Austrian-looking, and indeed some of the architecture attempts the motif. But it’s not carried through to enough of the buildings – in fact there is a gaudy casino smack in the middle of the main drag. There are lots of restaurants, ice cream parlours and chocolate shops.

We arrive at the waterfront. We’ve been wondering why, after all these BLUE days, the sky to the west is cloudy? The Andes on the opposite side of the lake, some 15 miles away, were obscured. We were to find out why. What we were witnessing were not clouds. It was ash from the Puyehue volcano, awakening again as it has all summer 2011!  Will it be a problem for our trip? We are to cross the border into Chile soon!

What is that?

Tonight we are to find our own meals and entertainment. With our trip back and forth to the hostel, we lose track of Eray, Angelique and Christof. This was to be the start of an eventful evening! Right now, we are in a hunt for a good meal, and being that it’s around 8 p.m., the restaurants are deserted – nobody eats until past nine!

We strike gold at a restaurant attached to a “Swiss” hotel. Our waitress speaks decent English and is very attentive. We order a bottle of Malbec. The food is terrific! I have a roasted chicken breast which is plump and cooked to perfection.  It has a mushroom cream sauce. Still, we miss our companions Angelique, Eray and Christof – they’d enjoy this place. Ivo has a dish of deer with another type of mushroom sauce and is in heaven. He offers me a bite, which I accept, and my oh my – this warm, sweet mellow flavor, almost like a hint of wine, caresses my tongue – Wow! The waitress says the sauce is just from the mushrooms, and I think they are chantrelles. The explosion of flavor is amazing! We order another bottle of Malbec…

There is only one other table seated, and we hear language hard to understand. Elwin is fascinated. Is it German, or Swiss German, or? Elwin is infatuated, and it is irresistable…he wanders over and talks with these guests, and it turns out three are Swiss, and one of them moved to Bariloche from Switzerland 65 years ago! So we have encountered a first generation European Argentine! Truly living history.

Having satiated ourselves with food, we want to find a pub where local people gather. But of course we don’t know the first thing about the city. We remember a pub we passed on the way down here, so we walk back that way. Looking inside, it looks pretty dead. We pass it up, and walk toward our hostel. But not a half block away I stare into a window of what kind of looks like a dive bar, and something says to me, “This has the makings of the right kind of place – casual, taps, dimly lit, and the people look like they are fun.” So I say let’s give it a try?

We go in, and while ordering our drinks run into Neil, a friendly guy who is a trail groomer at the local ski area! He talks all about grooming, the snow cat, etc. I inquire about the ski season and the conditions. He says it wasn’t a lot of dry snow this year, and believe it or not, the ash from the Puyehue sometimes made the snow grayish! We tell him about Los Alerces National Park and the whales we saw on the coast.

More and more people arrive, and Neil tells me this is a magnet for people working in the tourist or hospitality industry. Then this beautiful woman sits down at the bar. She’s got very light brown hair, parted on the side, and lovely eyes and dangley earrings. She’s so lovely I am having a hard time looking away from her. I’m just enamored, and I point her out to Elwin, and then so is he. She is very involved in conversation with a guy, who seems older than she. Another beer please…and Ivo manages to get an 18-year-old Scotch whiskey and they charge him for a regular one!

It’s not long before it is shoulder to shoulder in here! And somehow we run into two very memorable people. They are British blokes who’ve walked all the way from Buenos Aires to Bariloche (read their blog). It took them three months. Names are Mat and Rob, and Elwin calls Rob “the giant.” We talk all about where we’ve been, where we’re going and learn what it’s like to walk and sleep by the road! Ivo says a lot about his obsession with Scotch Whiskey. I keep my eye on that lovely girl. Mat and Rob bought rounds, we talk about Star Trek and Battlestar Gallactica…what it’s like to be a ski area trail groomer…then I order a round…and I look at the bar and Elwin is somehow talking face to face with the lovely woman at the bar! I marvel how this happened and remark to Mat and Rob how I completely missed it! In fact we are all so impressed, but Elwin and she are having a spirited conversation, and I am beside myself.

I don’t remember exactly how, but somehow I walked over and introduced myself, and her name is Carolina. She’s incredibly friendly, not at all put off by us. I had expected her to be totally defensive. It turns out the guy she was talking to earlier in the evening was her boss! And, he is very enamored with her, and she is not sure what to do about it. I say yes, that is a truly difficult situation. Apparently he is the jealous type.

At this point Elwin heads to the WC. Carolina tells me she thinks he is really great and hopes he will come back! We talk about Bariloche and it turns out she grew up around here. I am still taken aback how so many Argentines are European looking, and she is a fine example.

Well, Elwin returns, and I move on to allow the two of them enjoy each others company.

Elwin is by now, like me, getting pretty hammered. My “good side” wants to go home, but because he is occupied, I become the wingman. Elwin says he will need some guidance to get back. So I make it my duty to stay until the bitter end.

This turns out to almost be my undoing. I go round after round with Rob and Mat. My gut is so full of beer and my head is beginning to spin! At least the pub is so crowded I can lean on others to keep me up. Carolina walks to the other end of the room and sits with some friends. I go over there, and this fat guy tells me to “FLY”!!! I surmise the situation is that he is some kind of “protector” for Carolina, and he doesn’t know she and I are acquainted. Rather than cause a commotion, I just let things flow, though I am tempted to ask Carolina to tell him to go take a “flying leap.”

I guess one beer later Elwin decides it’s time to head home, so we bid our good-byes and I get contact information from Rob and Mat. Outside, we encounter folks lined up to get inside. I don’t know how or why, but we get into this conversation with this punk who is trying to score some pot. He thinks he has smoked the best pot in the world. Elwin has something to tell him…for God’s sakes, in Holland, they have the world’s global pot/hash capital in Amsterdam! This guy needs to go there to find out the real “holy grail” of pot!

Uggh. We make it back to the hotel, and I’m thoroughly awash in beer…ugly…tomorrow’s going to be a challenge!

Andes Lakes and Fjords: Los Alerces National Park

15 12 2011

Into the Andes

I awake early to try and catch a sunrise picture of the Andes before breakfast! Guess what? It’s clear again! Wow! I walk all over Esquel, but can’t get a worthy shot. There are always trees or a building in the way! Where I have a good view of a mountain, it is only partly sunlit as it’s so early. Not photo worthy. Defeated, I head back to the hotel for breakfast. We’re going to Los Alerces National Park today. Everyone’s excited to see lakes, fjords, snow capped mountains and to get out and hike!

Off we go. The road winds and climbs through spectacular valleys with ranches, surrounded with white peaks. Along a bend in the road, we pass a gaucho with his sheep dogs. Some views remind me of the Grand Tetons in Wyoming.

A gaucho, but without a herd...

When we get to the park entrance, it turns out to be closed for winter – we are here early. It opens in a couple of weeks. Although facilities are not open yet we can still enjoy the park’s trails and lake shores. Los Alerces National Park was established to protect a tree of national significance, the Alerces tree, a giant of the cypress family. It can grow to 220 feet high and live 2,500 years. The slow-growing trees were prized for building materials, and thus most were logged. This national park protects one of the last stands.

We had the park to ourselves. It covers 500,000 acres, and there are several fjord-like lakes that seem to stretch forever. It’s beautiful!


We stop at several beaches to take in the spectacular scenery! Popular with fishermen, for its rainbow and brown trout, the area is also a magnet for backpackers, mountain bikers and swimmers.

Other flora includes the Patagonian Beech and bamboo. The Patagonian Beech towers over everything in the forest!

Most of the park is untouched, because there are only roads in the east. The ecosystem is best described as a temperate rainforest.

The beaches have lifeguard towers, which are now empty but signal that the area must be popular in summer.

The highlight of the day is a hike! After so much road time, I’m happy the trip is going to include a lot of hiking from now on. I love to be out on the trail!

So, we hit the trail, and it’s not long before we reach a suspension bridge over a river which connects two of these big lakes.

It’s so picturesque! And looking down I can see 20 trout.

I have never been to New Zealand, but I continue to wonder if this looks like parts of New Zealand’s South Island? I’ll just have to go there to find out.

Well, I didn’t know the name of the exact spot in this video, but it was on the trail in the park! Very pretty.

The clarity of the water and its blue green color was incredible!

Just another gorgeous day!

Our walk winds up and down, along the rivers – it’s a big circuit taking a couple of hours.

We’ll have lunch on the lake, and then it’ll be on to our end-of-day destination, Bariloche, capital of Argentina’s Lake District.

We continue on to El Bolson, where we stop for a break. I mail some post cards, and we also get some of that yummy Argentine ice cream.

The empty road crests at the outskirts of Bariloche, and we can look above to see the ski area – the Lake District is happening in winter with several ski areas around, plus it sits on the mega huge Lago Nahuel Huapi. When we can see from this crest, a distinct change in the weather is obvious! We can see a haze in the distance. Is it changing weather? Nope. In fact it is a cloud of volcanic ash! I had heard there was a volcano in Chile that was erupting since June, and we have arrived in its domain. This is the infamous Puyehue Volcano, which has cancelled flights all summer! We’ll be directly dealing with this pesky villain in the next couple of days!

From the Atlantic to the Andes, and Esquel (via Arizona)

11 12 2011

The adventure turns west. We leave the Atlantic behind, and will continue to make our way over the Andes mountains, to the Pacific. Of course, we’ll not be doing this in a day! We’ll be stopping in Esquel, a small ski town, then Bariloche, Argentina’s ski mecca, and then stop in Puerto Montt, Chile, which sits at the top of Chile’s vast fjord system.

Let's not have a breakdown out here!

Today we have a lot of territory to cover. Leaving Puerto Madryn, we’ll spend hours crossing the Argentinian steppe, a vast flat area said to be the 7th largest desert in the world, with flora like Central Oregon. Crossing this region, you sometimes imagine hills, when there are none. And it’s empty – which is normal in Patagonia!

At long last we do see hills.

Arizona? Nope. Argentina!

The road takes us into a region completely overlooked by Lonely Planet and Rough Guide. It has areas resembling Arizona, or the John Day River!

Where's Clint Eastwood?

Or Oregon’s Painted Hills! Only more of them.

It takes us a couple of hours to pass through this fascinating area.

I was really surprised it isn’t mention, and it’s totally unpopulated.

Activate your zoom to find the guanaco to the right of the summit!

We pass through a valley and we can see painted hills everywhere.

I’m thinking they are like the ones in Oregon – they are ash deposits from distant volcanoes – in this case they are Andes volcanoes.

I am very excited to witness the Andes for real! I wonder if they will look anything like the Himalayas.

After spending so much time in the steppe, all of us are looking forward to seeing mountains all around.

And then we round a bend, and there they are!

Lonely highway with Andes! We are there at last!

It’s not long before snowy, craggy peaks stretch from south to north horizon to horizon – and we are quite far away. I must be looking 70 miles in each direction. And then, what’s this? Something not supposed to be here. But there it (they) are! Pink flamingos all hanging out in this pond way up here?

Flamingos out of nowhere!

It doesn’t take long for me to get used to seeing mountains all around. As they loom closer, I can see lots of snow up above. We are told it will melt and by summer, except for the glaciers, it will all be gone. The mountains look like they must be above 10,000 feet, yet Saskia says they are no more than 6,000.

Toward 5 p.m. we arrive in Esquel, a small ski town, with the La Hoya resort sitting above. It’s late spring, so it’s pretty quiet. But everywhere there are signs of alpine tourism. Esquel is the gateway to Los Alerces National Park.

There are chocolate shops, ski shops, rental shops and tour guides.

There are lots and lots of restaurants, and we are HUNGRY!

But we are in Argentina. We must remember that restaurants won’t be open until 8:00 at the earliest!

So we bide our time, talking in the hotel lobby and then walking around.

This young lady walks into the hotel looking very tired, and a bit sad. She sits down on the couch, across the coffee table from me. I ask what has she seen today? She turns out to be from Spain, and was part of a Spanish version of the reality show “Survivor!” She just got voted off! They had spent three weeks being shuttled around blind in the back of a truck from one “survivor venue” to another. They had practically nothing to eat. She had gotten very close to her teammates! She was pretty bummed, and was going home shortly. But she was glad for the experience.

Well, it was getting near “dinner time,” so we wended our way through Esquel’s streets in search of a meal. We dug up one spot with a likely menu – one that actually had fresh salads! We poked our heads inside, and nobody spoke English. Christof, our universal translator, stepped in and somehow worked everything out. They were not open yet but they took us. Then we got some beer while they got the table ready. And when it came time to read the un-readable menu Christof was there to help out and order, and make diplomatic amends with our server, who turned out to be super cute.

This was one memorable meal full of giggles and laughs, the conversation degenerated on both the female and male sides to less-than formal, more like stories of early life encounters with the opposite sex, and preferences, and such! Soon another bottle of wine was on the table, and we began to wonder what the other people in the restaurant thought of us.

And that was only the beginning. Afterward we ran into Yap and Patricia and all of us went on a pub crawl, winding up at this totally cool old style bar with all kinds of Patagonian mementos hanging from the walls. We succeeded in persuading the proprietors to play dance music and went on from there!

On the way home I saw the Southern Cross for the first time! Or so I thought. What I saw was what turns out to be a “false” Southern Cross!” No matter. I would continue to search for it!

Looking forward to hiking in Los Alerces National Park tomorrow!