Our bus left at 8:30am and stopped off at several small Chilean towns before arriving at the Argentina crossing. The total bus trip was seven hours and passed through the most beautiful scenery thus far. We first drove through the central part of Chile’s Lake District east towards the Andes. It is here where we saw thousands of cows grazing in pasture. As we approached the mountains the hills started to become much more dramatic; surrounded by huge lakes, steep hills and waterfalls. We chatted with a couple from Uruguay who seemed to be fascinated with Canada and North American culture. They asked us if all Canadians had white skin and blue eyes. The male was obsessed with the NBA and some guy named Nash. They asked the most bizarre questions (how much does a hotel cost, how new are your houses, is it always cold etc…) Our bus then drove the beautiful two hour stint through the winding roads of the snow capped Andes mountain range. I was taking as many pictures as I could through the wet window pane. An old woman got stuck in the bus bathroom which was rather humorous. The doors always seem to be incredibly stiff here. Sarah yanked with all the force she could muster after we heard this little faint Spanish accent coming through the wall asking for help. After we passed through the border into Argentina our landscape drastically changed. We were now driving through desert like areas with sandy mountains, small little bushes and grazing horses. In a few minutes we could see the huge shimmering Lake Nahuel Huapi surrounded by an alp like mountain range. The area was speckled with small little houses, this was our destination, Bariloche Argentina.
Bariloche is sort of like the Whistler of South America. The richest of the rich who want to go on a ski holiday come here. The area has much more to offer such as paragliding over the Andes, horseback riding, forest canopy diving and trekking. We arrived at our hostel and I went straight to the bathroom to shower and shave. My beard was thick as I hadn´t shaved in three weeks. I decided to leave a mustache. I have never had a mustache and I was repulsed by the look of it initially. Now I keep it on because Sarah can´t look at me without laughing. She is begging me to shave it off, so I will keep it on my upper lip for just a bit longer simply to spite her.
We set off to explore the city at night and passed by a cute little gelato and chocolate shop and decided to stop to treat ourselves. I had a waffle bowl full of chocolate and almond, strawberry cream and raspberry and red wine cream. We walked all along the downtown strip which is full of chocolate shops. We were actually in shock. These chocolate shops are the size of small grocery stores and are full of sweets. Bariloche is a Swiss-Germany settlement historically so you are bound to find beer halls, chocolate and fondue restaurants all over the city. We realized how cheap Argentina is on our evening stroll. The city has a Lacoste store and I insisted we go in to see if the cloths were any cheaper here. I found a v-neck sweater I tried on at home that was selling for 250 dollars. With the exchange rate here that exact same sweater sells for 70 dollars! At the grocery store we found a bottle of Bacardi rum which sells at home for 40 dollars. It is about 10 dollars here, isn’t this insane! You can get a one hour massage for 20 dollars, fantastical. Sarah and I are certain that this is a bit like heaven. We noticed a huge difference between Chile as there are no wild dogs to be seen, the streets are much cleaner and are full of expensive clothing boutiques (which we love).
The local specialties here are lake trout, venison and wild boar. We walked to an adorable restaurant called La Alpina for dinner. The outside looked like a cute little Swiss chalet and the interior was decorated as a cozy log cabin featuring a fire place in the center. Sarah and I ordered a plate of wild boar with pine nut wild mushroom sauce, a bottle of Cuesta del Madero Vino blanc and a big pot of bubbling Swiss cheese fondue. We got a bit tipsy off the wine. I hadn’t seen both of us smiling in a long time. We both agreed that moments like this were the best part of traveling. We walked back to the hostel, into our room and chatted with our two flat mates from England. They are traveling for over six months straight. They started in Mexico and have been to Cuba, throughout Central America and all over South America. They are heading to Chile so they can fly out to New Zealand, Australia, Bali, Fiji, Singapore and Thailand. When backpacking I always seem to find people who blow my trip plans out of the water. I love these easy going travel hungry people.
In the morning I headed downstairs for breakfast and sat with the quintessential Frenchman. He is from the city of Paris, has a perfectly athletic body, curly blond hair and a matching mustache. I didn´t realize we were both sporting mustaches, how corny is that! Sarah and I walked downtown to the town hall which is outfitted with a large glockenspiel clock tower. We stopped at the Friends Cafe which is open 24 hours a day and has an extensive menu. The interior is really eclectic with mannequins skiing above your head and many antique toys hanging from the ceiling. The walls were covered in old movie posters and Three Stooges memorabilia. I ate a lovely batch of sugar covered churros and a cup of thick cocoa. We walked across the street to one of the many grandiose chocolate shops. The entrance of one of the shops featured several huge Russian dolls spinning over the doorway. We purchased a bag of chocolates: coconut, lemon, toffee and almond and Bailey’s cream. The chocolate was shockingly cheap; only three dollars for the both of us! We walked past a spa sign and decided to walk inside and inquire about the cost of certain packages. We were greeted by a man who looked as though he would be a member of the gay mafia. A huge portly flamboyant man who had hair longer than Rapunsel. His head smelled of chemicals as he was currently dying his hair dark brown while working on a haircut for one of his seated customers. He told us that a one hour massage is forty pesos which is about twelve dollars! Back home we pay at least fifty dollars for a one hour massage so this was an incredible bargain. We felt a bit sketched out by the seedy location. When I found out that the gay Mafioso would be my masseuse a chill went down my spine. We walked to the lake front and nibbled on our chocolates whilst staring out into the sunshine snow peaks. We discovered that our little perch was in fact the local make out point. We enjoyed staring at the several cars full of young Argentinean couples as they expressed their undying love for each other publicly.
We spent the evening at a fabulous little microbrewery called Antares Brewpub. Sarah ordered a flight taster of their eight craft beers. Since we arrived at happy hour (7-8pm) I was able to order any pint and get the second free. One pint was nine pesos (and seeing that three pesos equals a dollar, I ended up paying three dollars for two pints!) We decided to sit at the beautiful mahogany bar top so we could stare at the bartender as he ran around pouring drinks. We were given a bowl of salted peanuts and a basket of bread with a cheese and ham pate. I ordered two pints of Honey Lager which was sweet, hazy and perfectly cool. I spent ten dollars on my entire meal (including the beers): Antares frita (french fries, four cheese sauce, smoked bacon and scallions) and Bruschetta with smoked wild boar, grilled cherry peppers, rochet and garlic confit. We were stuffed and the beer had kind of bloated my stomach as if I were some sort of party piniata in training. We walked back to the hostel along the cool and dimly lit streets, heading to bed early as we had to wake up at 7am the next morning.
7am is a really nasty time to wake up in the morning. We threw our cloths on in the dark and ran downstairs to find a short, frizzy brown haired and exuberantly energetic lady calling our names. She didn´t speak a word of English and just pointed outside into the cold early morning traffic. Our bus apparently wasn´t stopping on the street for us. We sort of had to run right after it and jump on as it coasted along the street. The bus picked up the rest of the group, stopping at some very nice ski resorts along the way. We would be sitting on a bus for next twelve hours as we took an interesting tour of the Seven Lakes of Patagonia. The trip is a famous adventure for tourists here as our bus drove alongside many other tour buses throughout the day. At the front of the bus sat three ridiculous Brazilian woman who we knew had never experienced these kinds of cold temperatures (let alone seen snow and ice). The three of them made me laugh all day because they were certainly not camera shy. They took pictures of everything: blades of grass, pieces of ice mixed with mud on the ground and even a pile of wild cow shit.
Sarah and I sat at the back of the bus beside two friends from Paris. The girl was 22 and had been doing an internship in Buenos Aires for a few months. Her amigo was a 24 year old Parisian who is moving to New York in July to work for a Finance company. She smoked like a chimney. Every single time the bus stopped she took out a cigarette and lit up. I think she went through two packs in twelve hours. The first hour or so of our tour the sun had yet to appear. Sarah and I doze off as the ever so energetic tour guide shot off facts over the speaker system about the glacial origins of the lakes we would be seeing today. We stopped at a cute little town briefly and enjoyed a quick espresso, croissant and cream filled cookie at the local Cafe. We desperately needed to wake up. The windows inside the bus were completely fogged up. We all used a squeegee to clear our windows every few minutes so we could look out over the lakes and forests at the mystical landscape of foggy wonderment.
The tour guides banter was outrageous throughout the day. She would pass out little post cards of “local Indians” which were actually dressed up mannequins at a museum somewhere in town. She also passed a few postcards of local wildlife we never actually saw and a few branches so we could “touch the forest.” Her descriptions along the trip had Sarah in stitches. At one point they actually stopped the tour bus so people could look into local homes. We rolled our eyes as the Brazilians excitedly chanted ¨picture, picture, picture.¨ They love their pictures. The tour guide would explain in enthused detail: ¨to the left are fallen dead trees, to the right is a river, up ahead we will be traveling on an unpaved road.¨ Little did we know this unpaved stretch of road would be a good ten hour trip. I could not stop laughing as we hit the dirt road that wound through the Andes. At one point everyone in the bus was actually air born. I had never hit my head on the roof of a bus until now. Sarah and I thought we may just puke after a few hours of constant sharp turns and mountainous climbs. A few of the older passengers almost fainted when they looked out their window and glared down at the sharp cliff face heading straight down towards a raging frigid river. We stopped at a little farm along the way for a few minutes so that people could purchase some farm fresh cheese, sausage and coffee.
Sarah and I walked around the lake and took pictures of horses, ducks, chickens, dogs and cows. Throughout the Seven Lagos National Park (where we spent most of our day) the mountain roads are teaming with wild cows. I didn´t even know wild cows existed until now. They stand staring in the middle of the road as tour buses honk their horns and shout for them to move back into the forest. They don´t seem to be the most intelligent animals. We stopped at many scenic and panoramic river valleys, mountain tops and lakefronts. It was really nice to just sit down and stare out the window as the day became warmer and the sun cut through the clouds. The forests here are all autumnal reds, oranges and yellows.
We finally stopped in the town of San Martin los Andes where we had lunch with our two Parisian friends. We all shared a bowl of potatoes, salad and devoured a huge plate of veal Parmesan. We walked down to the beachfront and took some pictures of the lake and surrounding mountains and then quickly walked back to the square to meet up with the group again. The bus drove back to Bariloche in about three hours, stopping twice at a beautiful river (as we approached the river the tour guide exclaimed in Spanish ¨prepare yourself for the most unforgettable place on earth. Mountains, river, lake and forest…what more could you ask for.”) We chuckled in the back seat as she continued to play up the scenery. Our last stop was at a gorgeous little lookout; to the left we could see the sun setting on snow peaked mountains and to the right looking down we could see a red and orange forest and beach front covered in evening shadow. We were now freezing as the Patagonian foothills are certainly a chilly local. The last hour of the drive we fell asleep under the stars as the bus curved across the desert towards the glowing city of Bariloche. Sarah and I enjoyed our trip but wished it had been a half day adventure as twelve hours is a bit draining. We also thought it was rather funny that tourists actually do this full day trip because we (as Canadians) are used to these views in the West Coast and Muskoka regions. We realized that we take for granted our countries many lakeside views and mountain vistas. Sarah and I headed to the hostel bar for free dinner to realize it was a vile spinach and egg custard. We decided to walk downtown at 11pm for a bed time snack. We shared six sugar coated churros and hot chocolate before heading back to bed for a cozy sleep.
We left the following morning at 10am for a half day of Patagonia Argentinean cowboy adventures. The bus picked us up and five others from our hostel. A mother and daughter from Bristol and two friends from Ireland. The short 25 minute drive outside of the city to the hillside ranch was enjoyable. The temperature today was -2 degrees and I knew as we drove across the sheep filled desert that we would be freezing our fingers off. I had no clue what to expect as I had not been horse back riding since I was a wee child. I was a bit terrified actually. I have never enjoyed sitting on powerful beasts with zero control of my bodily security. We drove up to the huge farm property. A small little farm house spewing cedar smoke from the chimney greeted us as we got out of our little bus. The ranch has over fifty horses and it was really fun to stare at all of them over the fence as they mulled about. They had about every size and colour you could imagine. I jokingly asked if I could be placed on a mule, donkey or baby horse as I didn´t want to have to sit on a huge stallion for two hours. We sat in the farmhouse for a few minutes drinking hot coffee, tea and Elmate in front of a huge raging fire. Elmate is the traditional drink of Argentina. The cups fit in the palm of your hand and are usually made of metal or leather. Locals fill them with a tea-grass mixture and pour hot water into the little cup. They sip on this swamp like mixture with an ornate metal straw which filters out all of the vegetal garbage. Sarah tried a sip of it and almost vomited. Apparently it tastes incredibly bitter and a combination of dried vegetable and stale crackers. Argentina´s cowboys love it. To each his own I guess.
Our cowboy tour guide was quintessential in every aspect. He was about fifty years old, wore the cutest little cowboy outfit and a French cap on his head. He showed us pictures on his wall of Duchess Fergy of England who road his horses a few summers ago. He was incredibly proud that royalty had been on his farm it was rather endearing. We were ushered outside to the fences where a young farm boy paired us up with various horses. I was mortified when I was told to get on a giant horse. I couldn´t possibly get myself on that thing, I thought. With a great deal of help and heaving I hoisted myself onto the harness and saddle. Once everyone was on their horse we were given brief instructions on how to control the equine beasts and then we were off.
I had no clue what our trip would entail but here is a brief synopsis: we pretty much followed the horses in a line over a river (which was terrifying for me as my horse refused to cross and Sarah´s horse stopped all together to take a shite and drink some water). Sarah’s horse was rather awkward, it farted all day, shit and constantly stopped to eat grass and drink water. She was always at the back of the line it seemed. The cowboy led us up a very steep hill which terrified me. I clung on for dear life basically. The scenery was beautiful. We were horse hiking through the Patagonian foothills. I kept thinking ¨pinch me¨ this is ridiculous. We were climbing through desert surrounded by mountain top fog. The foliage was beautiful: yellow and black long wild grasses, pine forests and prickly little bushes (which scraped my calves as my horse bounded through the mountain tops). We crossed a huge valley and entered a thick cedar forest before we arrived at a vast open field. At this point my heart jumped out of my chest. As soon as the horse realized it was on an open field it started to full speed gallop. I screamed like a banshee as my horse pounded across the barren desert floor. I felt like I might die. I also realized how painful it is to gallop as my ass was bruising itself as I sped through. The two men from Ireland were complaining about their ¨bruised family jewels¨ which had me in hysterics.
Our horses spent the next hour descending the mountain tops (which was the most terrifying experience of my life). My horse felt the need to trot down steep cliff faces. At one point my horse was crossing a mountain with barely a one foot diameter for its hoofs. I looked down to my right and saw river rapids, closed my eyes and said a brief prayer. After a heroic and ever so memorable horse back tour of Patagonia’s rugged terrain we all arrived back at the farm house for lunch. We all ran to the piping hot fireplace to warm up as our hands had seized up from the cold. My legs and ass could barely move I felt like a spaghetti noodle. Lunch was a splendid assortment of traditional Argentinean cowboy grub. We had a bottle of Malbec, empanadas, fresh salad, sliced potatoes with garlic and herbs, baguette, various spicy pesto and pastes for our gigantic sausage and a beef steak platter. We stuffed ourselves and then walked over to the fire place to enjoy a hot cup of tea before our driver drove us back into the city.
Sarah and I got dropped off in the center of town and quickly found the LADE Airline office. We were ever so happy to book a flight for around 120 dollars to El Calafate for Saturday at 11:30am. The bus ride from Bariloche to El Calafate is 32 hours long and costs about 70 dollars. We thought the extra 50 dollars was well worth it. After successfully purchasing the last two tickets available for the flight we walked back to the hostel and had a good snooze.
Today is Friday the 24th of May and it is Argentina´s most celebrated holiday. Independence Day is a celebration of the countries separation from Spain. Sarah and I just so happened to be walking by the square at around noon when the procession started. A parade of traditionally dressed locals were marching through the street in true celebratory fashion. Sarah and I thought the parade was adorable as little girls wearing blue and white dresses (the colour of the nation’s flag) were skipping with flowers in their arms. Little Argentinean boys were wearing traditional dressy cowboy suits, many of which were sitting on their own cute little ponies. Several caravans were pulled by huge oxe and bulls through the street as everyone clapped and took pictures. The parade stopped in front of the town hall where everyone sang a patriotic song (I assume it was the national anthem). The square was full of buzz and smiles and smelled of sweet popcorn and cotton candy.
We walked up the main street to putter around the holiday market. Again many more woolen products, little elf statues and glass and leather jewelry. We bought a local treat as a walk about snack: a waffle cigar cone which has dulce de leche pumped into the center. We had lunch at a little spot called Dias de Zapata, serving up authentic Mexican cuisine. I had a plate of re-fried beans, chicken tacos and corn and rice pilaf. We walked further downtown realizing that the holiday created somewhat of a ghost town. Most shops were closed but the cities biggest chocolate shop was open! We each meticulously selected an assortment of hand made chocolates and had a waffle bowl of creamy gelato. I selected chocolate mint, banana caramel and raspberry cream. We sat in the main dining hall and laughed as we looked up to see that the entire ceiling was decorated in corny mall display dummies, Swiss elves making chocolates.
We walked through a beautiful grass filled park towards the cities Cathedral. We took a moment to sit on seats that had been carved out of tree stumps. The sun was blinding today as we stared out onto the mountain panorama in front of us. The interior of the cathedral was minimalist yet beautiful. It reminded me of the inside of some sort of ski lodge. Wooden beams, small yet colourful stained glass windows and walls made of huge stone slabs. The cathedral is perched on the top of a grassy hill which we descended towards the beach. I slid on my sun glasses as the sun was blinding by the lake and we sat on a boulder overlooking the mountains. This place really is beautiful and out of this world. After a nice boulder nap we walked back towards the square and sat on a bench staring at a mass of youthful locals. This was clearly the hang out for younglings. A group of older kids sat on the hood of their beat up VW while playing corny American pop music as their younger friends attempted to skateboard. Sarah and I stared at three groups of Saint Bernard’s for the majority of our stint in the square. The situation is as follows: tourists walk down to the square and are greeted by two beautiful Saint Bernard’s; a cute little baby and a beautiful adult with shiny lush fur. The owner of the dogs asks if you would like a picture with his canines and he then charges you a ridiculous amount for the service. We saw countless tourists all excited to have their picture taken and then their faces turned into somewhat of an appalled expression when they realized they had to pay these crooks money.
Our last night in Bariloche was a relaxing one. I continued to plug through my novel which seems to never finish. Sarah is on her third book already and consistently bugs me about how slow I read. I retort her comments by painfully coughing, sneezing and then glaring at her in a sickly fashion. Our two new room mates for the evening are from Quebec and oddly enough will be on the same flight with us tomorrow morning. We headed to the hostal bar for our last mystery free dinner. Tonight’s meal consisted of a volatile assortment of soupy sludge in a bowl. Sarah claimed she reckons they don´t even serve this kind of stuff in prison or at the worst summer camps. We played a game which allotted points to the people who could name the most ingredients in the bowl. We determined: overcooked rice, potato, tomato sauce, carrots and a disgusting mystery animal fat that looked like honey comb. I chatted with a really nice guy from London England who is sort of a wandering ski bum. He lived in Whistler last season and is here in Bariloche to work on the mountains. The ski and snowboard season starts here in three weeks so the town will be bustling with young things very soon. Sarah and I walked to the cinema as we heard the third installment of Pirates of the Caribbean was playing tonight for nine pesos a person (three dollars). We arrived to a throng of teeny bopper locals and soon found out the film was dubbed in Spanish. Rats to that. We walked back up the steep cliff back to our warm little hostel and read on the couch until an appropriate sleeping hour.