Thursday, April 03, 2014

Argentine Lakes District and Fudgies

The Argentine Lakes

San Carlos de Bariloche (the town's full name) is a largish, very touristy, busy place in the midst of the Argentine Lakes District. The city has a Germanic heritage, with some beautiful architecture and delightfully hilly streets. Though we came here for the hiking, the incredible density of chocolate shops tried to slow us down. This town is a Fudgey's paradise. Fudgey: a fudge-seeking tourist (or taffy, or chocolate, or whatever). Mike gets credit for this term. Sometimes, we are the Fudgies. It must be hard to be a diabetic here.

The Bariloche Hostel, so cleverly named, became home for a couple of days as Mike, Lora, and I oriented ourselves and prepared for what would be my final backpack in Patagonia this trip. Situated on one of the more quiet streets overlooking Lago Nahuel Huapi, it was a charming, mid-priced place we could cook in and get useful information from (usually).

According to our guidebooks, the nearby Nahuel Huapi National Park is the most visited in Argentina. Being on the cusp of the off season, we hoped for fewer crowds than we encountered in Torres del Paine. We also needed decent weather on our three-day trek - day two would be the most critical, with its challenging route finding and scrambley Class 3 sections. The park rangers actually require hikers to check in when they begin and end this leg of the trek, advising it only be attempted in the best weather conditions. We figured this was a conservative policy to help prevent people hiking in Keds from attempting the section and falling to their gory deaths. Still, route finding in the clouds and on wet steeps is no fun.

I decided to take part of the day before we started our traverse to explore (by bike) the nearby Circuito Chico, a winding road with views of crystal blue lakes and fancy hotels and cafes. I felt like I was coming down with a bug as I made my way from town to the circuit on a crowded bus, but hoped that a little exercise would flush it out before our trip. I started to think about the guy who was intermittently coughing phlegm and making out with his girlfriend during our recent two-day bus ride. These thoughts were not comforting.

The bike rental shop was entertaining, clearly tailored to the dumbest people on the planet. "Amber, look at me. Amber, see? This is the helmet. Amber, look at me. This is your safety vest (serious?). Amber, any questions? No? Sign here, and here, and here..." I felt so safe with my junky helmet and neon vest! Better than the guy I passed later on, tearing down a hill with his helmet hanging off the side of his head.

Though the ride felt good and made for some great views, I was decidedly getting sick and figured I should rest if I didn't want full blown swine flu after our 20km start the next day. At least it wasn't supposed to rain until day two...

Lora and I started hiking the next morning from the base of the Cerro Catedral ski resort, with Mike opting to ride the gondola part way. After a couple/few hours we passed our mid point of Refugio Grey, a tiny stone building where hikers can pay to stay if they don't want to camp. Not long after passing this refugio we were introduced to what I like to call the trail of insanity. Not really a trail at all, it went straight up the rocky mountain on a route marked by red paint. So appropriate.

The scramble wasn't too bad, just awkward in the way that hiking on all fours with a full pack can be. In about another hour we reached Mike at the pass, stuffed food in our faces, and began the equally ridiculous downhill route. This is when the rain that wasn't supposed to happen started. Sometime during the next five hours or so, when we enthusiastically repeated this up down routine, I realized why the guidebooks tend to break our day into two parts. What perplexed me was the claim that this traverse was the most popular in Argentina, not among "adventurous trekkers" or "experienced backpackers", but average schmucks. Clearly, Argentineans are badass. I was curious how the next day would go, given all it's warnings of peril.

The sweetest sight of the day was Refugio San Martin, our camp and dry zone for a while. Even though we were staying in our tents, they kindly allowed us to dry our clothes and warm up while the rain and wind continued. I didn't mention the wind, but we had that too. Somehow my cold didn't seem any better or worse from the day, but our chances of a weather break for the remaining traverse didn't look good.

The next morning we found the snow line approaching camp, low clouds, and sleet/rain welcoming us. Fortunately, we had an alternative exit route that promised almost not scree or hiking on all fours. I was kind of glad, and we even managed to avoid rain for nearly the entire day. We also picked up solo hiker, Joey the computer programmer from Iowa who was traveling the world. I think Joey really needed some friends because he stuck with us rather constantly for the next 24 hours at least.

That night we camped at a campground in the uber cute/kitsch micro settlement of Colonia Suiza, with the nicest lady I've met in my travels. Ana, proprietor of Camping Ser was a welcoming hostess who noticed I was sick and gave me candies - along with writing down the Spanish words for pharmacy and throat lozenges. She really surprised us when she came looking for us after we missed a bus (totally not our fault), driving us 20 minutes towards town so we could catch the next one. What a great lady!

Though we weren't able to complete the entire traverse, our last trip together was memorable and we finished off our last evening with Argentine steak, wine, and of course dessert. We also got to witness a rowdy street parade complete with drum line, bottle rockets, national flags, honking cars, and police guards. We assumed that the right football team won somewhere that night...

And that was it. I departed early the next morning by bus for Puerto Varas, the jumping off point for my Puerto Montt departure in two days. All of a sudden my trip was ending, but I had one last day to explore...

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