Bariloche

Bariloche is on the, round the world, year off backpackers ‘must do’ list. It is supposed to be a gastronomic delight. It is supposed to be a really fun place. Let me say what we thought.
If you were to start with a clean sheet and travel the world to find the most beautiful location in which to build your town then Lago Nahuel Huapi would surely rate among the best spots. The lake, with its blue water, is enormous. One forgets it is a lake. It is surrounded by, majestic, snow clad mountains. At the cleavage of two of these enormous mountain ranges, on the Andes between modern Chile and Argentina, Bariloche grew up into a town. It was ‘discovered’ in 1552 by an Argentinean looking for Caesars town…. He didn’t find the town but he did find one of the most beautiful places on earth.
Nothing much happened here for another hundred years. Then it began to develop. In 1932 the first hotel was built and things progressed or regressed depending on your point of view. Today it is a higgeldy piggeldy mish mash of development. The lakeshore is bordered by used car dealer establishments, huge car parks and dodgy hotels. You cannot walk along the lakeshore and the main road into town thunders along the lake shore separating the town from its best asset.
The town itself is a busy place with both Winter skiing and Summer visitors. We are in shoulder season so it was not too busy. We arrived at a Hostal that we picked at random, called Hostal Pantuk. We got, using all terms loosely, the ‘penthouse apartment`….. It had a smashing view of the lake at both sunrise and sunset. In quite a bit of the floor area one could not stand up straight. It has a kitchen where the mixer tap went up and down as well as sideways – someone forgot to secure it to the sink. The `bathroom` was a gem. There was a real danger when standing in the shower that the base would give way. This would have landed one or other of us in the men’s loo on the lower floor. The installer of the wash hand basin had dropped it while installing but had decided, after applying some strong glue, to install it anyway. But we were happy in our bird’s nest, above the lake, for two nights.
On day one we decided to visit the Municipal Public Park. A local bus would take us. It was just a matter of buying a `Sube` bus card and loading some money on it. That was when the fun started. A Kiosko would sell the card. We found the Kiosko but madam said she didn`t sell cards anymore because the system had been changed. We needed to go to the Santa Fe bus center. She gestured in a general direction. We set off further up a hill out of town. A lovely man stopped to try to help us but alas he said he never travelled by bus so had no idea where this place was – we were standing outside it!!! In we went, loaded up our card and set off back down to town to catch the number 20 bus.
There was a huge crowd waiting and everyone was getting fractious as there should have been a bus every 20 minutes. Then we heard a loud bang and thought it was gunshot – alas it was a banger, of the firework kind, there are plenty of other bangers in Bariloche. There was a protest march making its way up the main street. All the buses were held up behind. By the time the bus came there was sufficient numbers of passengers for two buses. But the driver squashed us all on. He then was directed by the police off the main road and on to a narrow side road to by pass the march. Then he got back on the road. He put his foot on the accelerator and we went like mad along the lakeshore. At this end of town there was a very different story. Beautiful houses lined the shoreline with lush green gardens. The park is 25kms from town. It is a magnificent place, with dense green forest and well marked paths. We had about a 10km walk and returned without event to Hostal Panatuk.
Sleep was difficult for Barry as the locals obviously party on a Friday night and there was a disco right beside us which went on `till 6am – the time we were due to rise to get our bus to our next destination.


San Martin to Bariloche

On our second day in San Matin we took a boat trip on the lake. Unlike our previous boat trip, in Chile, in Argentine no one seemed concerned with life jackets. Several boxes of vegetables and fruit were loaded first and then the passengers.

We had a half load of passengers. This is a wonderful time to visit South America. It is spring time and therefore the ‘in-between’ season. There are very few tourists. Normally the weather is good but not that good. 16 – 18 degrees is norm for this time of year but this year is exceptional. We have had non stop sunshine and mid twenties temperatures. The sky has been a deep blue with a few clouds from time to time. This has meant that all the spring flowers have come into bloom together.

The boat trip lasted for a half hour and we were deposited in a small place along the lake-shore. We had prepared a picnic that we consumed by the lake. It was magic. It was so hot we did not even walk about much. Back on the boat a young lady with her bicycle was loaded aboard first and off we went.

The hostel was buzzing with the ‘young front of house guy’s’ friends. They had come by for a BBQ. Interestingly this group of young men did not drink any alcohol. They were full of fun and good humoured without the need for any alcoholic stimulus. We have not seen a single person drunk either in Argentina or in Chile.

The following morning we rose early to get to the bus station for our bus to Bariloche which is situated further south in Argentina. The trip took four hours with a fifteen minute stop. We travelled through the most spectacular countryside I have ever seen. The route is called “The seven lakes route”. We did indeed pass seven different lakes with huge snow capped mountains descending down into the lake side. The colours of the lakes varied from deep green to deep blue. We also passed the highest volcano in the Andes. This fact was pointed out to us, by a fellow passenger. This is typical of the people of this region. They want you to know and experience the wonderful countryside of Patagonia.

We arrived safely and on time in Bariloche. This is supposed to be the gourmet capital of the region. People also rave about the town and its surroundings.

Our experiences will be saved for the next blog

Crossing into Argentina

So up and out on the road fom Pucon loaded down with backkpacks we made our way to the bus station. The Pullman bus station is a very classy affair. It has soft leather seats and a place on floor one where one can eat or drink something. Our bus was due in at 10.30. Normally in Chile the buses run lke Swiss trains. They come in on time and they leave on time.

This was a bus company we had never used before. It is the only one which crosses the Chilean/Argentine border. There was a motley crew waiting around some of whom we assumed would be joining us. Eventually at 10.45 the bus pulled up. It was a normal ‘semi cama`which means it has reclining seats. On we piled for our next adventure.

The trip to the border was uneventful but beautiful. A couple of kilometers before the border we stopped at a roadside cafe. The guy asked if we wanted to change Chilean pesos for Argentine pesos. I decided it would be prudent to have at least some local cash on arrival since we had nowhere booked and did not have the price of a cup of coffee in Argentine pesos. I got a reasonable rate for the conversion to Argentine from Chilean peso.

Back on the bus we headed towards the border. First we had to stop at the Chilean border where a piece of paper, which had been given to us on entry into Chile, at the airport in Santiago, was taken from us. We were then piled back on the bus to travel across no mans land bereft or our official Chilean papers. The road between the two borders was totally unmade. On arrival at the Argentinian border we had to remain in the bus with the door severely closed until our driver did whatever he had to do to get us released to enter the passport hall. We all queued up to have our passports inspected. I got a really nice guy who asked if it was my first time in Argentina. When I said yes he welcomed me profusely.

After this we had to hang about while the customs official ‘examined’ our baggage. This was after he had chased and caught a lizard for his son who was there with him. He picked out two bags for further examination. One was a young french couple who had their rucksacks enclosed in an outer bag with several locks. The other was an oldish man who also had several locks on his bag. The problem was he also had a million keys on his key ring. He had great difficulty finding the right key to unlock his bag. The customs official had all day. He was going nowhere.

Inspection completed we all piled back on the bus and set off again. The Argentinian side of the Andes is very different from the Chilean at this point. There was almost no vegetation and no animals. The road was unmade for almost 20 kilometers. On either side there was evidence of fire damage. We wondered if the scrub had been deliberately burned down in order to make border control easier. I have no idea what one nation wants to smuggle into the others country and vice versa. But I do know there have been feuds between these two nations forever.

The very scarse vegetation continued for many kilometers until eventually we hit a paved road. The landscape was spectacular.

We eventually arrived in San Martin de los Andes in the early afternoon. As is our habit now we headed in the general direction of town center to find a cafe where we could get our bearings and locate wherever it is we think we might stay.

This time we hit upon a winner. The Zen Tea is a cafe to be recommeded. A really nice young man served us the most delicious sandwiches I have ever had. They were not the cheapest but then currancy in this country is crazy. The whole financial situation is a basket case.

This guy directed us to Hostel Andeluz where we thought we might stay. It was fine – not luxurious like Las Colinas but clean enough. The young man who was doing front of house, loosely speaking, was friendly and helpful if not dynamic.

On the positive side the towels were clean and white, the shower was really hot and had a good pressure. The room was small and dark but the duvet was great.

The less said about the breakfast the better.

San Martin is a very smart chic town. One could think Davos. It is expensive with prices in excess of Europe. Every flash outdoor shop is here.

Remember this country is totally bankrupt – how does that work??? I can`t figure it out.

Villarica

Again one might ask why Villarica. It is hard to explain how places get chosen on this journey, Sometimes it is because we like the sound of the name, sometimes it is because there is a bus going there or sometimes we just end up there.

Villarica was chosen because we wanted to visit and trek in Villarica National Park. When we arrived we discovered this was impossible without a car. This happens all the time but plans get shifted this way and that according to what is possible. We chose, completely at random, Las Colinas for our nights stay. Well it was not totally at random. Two different guidebooks had recommended it. It is situated above the town of Villarica in a wonderful garden. I could have been in my garden in Sherkin. Las Colinas was just taking on its spring colours so there was pink, purple white and orange rhododendron and azaleas. These were ablaze among the libertia, columbine, oriental poppies, centaurea, fuchsia and myriads of other plants with which we are completely familiar from the south west of Ireland. Because the owners, of Las Colinas, were having trouble with the central heating in the room we had chosen, they asked if we would mind if they upgraded us to another room. Well who would mind that? It was a wonderful self-contained chalet set high in the hill behind the main building. We were in heaven. We had lots of room and a lovely bathroom.

In the evening we wandered down town and ate in a very upmarket restaurant. Prices are comparable to Europe for an equivalent meal.

Next morning when we discovered we could not go to the Park National de Villarica we decided, on the advice of the hostel owners daughter, to go to Lican Ray, a small town on another lake. The bus was the usual local rickety affair with twice as many people standing as sitting. Many people had boxes and bags which they fired in the space to the right of the driver. It reminded us of the bush taxi in Africa. The only missing ingredient was the live animal.

We could not work out the protocol for paying for the bus trip. Some paid on entering and others paid on exiting. It really did not seem to matter. The trip took about 30 minutes. The bus driver indicated the path down to the lake where we intended to walk. The sun shone and the lake was spectacular. We walked for about 1.5 hours which took us to a lakeside restaurant where we had “Italian hambourgers” – a first for us. They taste like any other hamburgers….

We walked on for about another hour which brought us back towards the town. We were unsure where we were and ‘asked’ (our Spanish being negligible) where we could get the bus back to Villarica. The young woman cocked her head and said it is just coming. Stick out your hand and it will stop. It did so.

We had decided to eat at the hostel that evening. As we were preparing to go down for dinner the daughter of the house asked if we would like to join her mother and several other young friends for dinner. We accepted gratefully and had a wonderful evening in their company. Carol, the owner, is a very brave young widow who is fulfilling the dream she and her recently deceased husband had of running this hostel in Villarica. She is trying to fulfil both their dreams.  I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Next morning we decided to push on to Pucon. This is just 45 minutes, by bone shaking local bus, to a town further along the lake. Pucon is situated at the joining between two lakes at the foot of Villaarica volcan

Valpo to Temuco via Santiago

We left Valpo a little sadly as we really loved our little appartment. But we are here to see and do as much as time, money and energy will permit. So southwards we press.

We had to return to Santiago as I needed to do a repeat performance of shedding some kilos. Not me personally but my backpack. Another cheap day sack was purchased – this time a rather fetching shocking pink – in which to stuff all my superfluous garments before we set off south to Temuco.

This was our usual overnight bus – “cama salon” as it is known here on the Chilean bus system. Seats pushed back into reclining position, lights dimmed and we are off to sleep as we travel the 677kms south. At about 6.30am we are offered juice and a biscuit. This is a lot less than our previous trip but welcome nonetheless.

We arrive in Temuco at 7am but feel it is too early to attempt to check in at our apart hotel. Around 9am and a couple of weak coffees and teas later we hail a taxi and set off for “Tierra del Sur”. Our taxi man has no idea where this establishment is to be found. We have located it on a map so help him out despite never having been in this town before. When we approach the road where we should find our nights rest the road is barred and very impassable due to the presence of concrete blocks. The young taxi man is not inhibited by this blockade. He jets off in another direction only to arrive back in the same place. This time he is facing in the opposite direction and slips alongside these rather vicious looking blocks. We then trundle down a set of road works to find our hotel.

Tierra del Sur has all the appearances of a faded establishment. But we were greeted profusely by a lovely young woman who turns out to be Peruvian.  Our room is fine but reminds us of a 1970 gite in France – all wood and orangy tiles. It is clean and the towels are great. Later we learn that the hot water is also great – that is when no one else in the entire complex is using any water. If, however, they are, the shower goes stone cold in an instant. Having a shower had to be approached like driving a car. Hand on the wheel ready to reduce cold or increase hot as the other occupants used or ceased to use the water.

One might ask why we chose to stop in Temuco. We would probably ask the same question now that we have been there. But hey someone has to give Temuco a chance. It is a very ordinary town going about its very ordinary business. Because it is off the tourist trail we were made really welcome. We tried to visit the Mapuche Museum on our first day but a strike kept it closed. We used the time instead to familiarise ourselves with the many bus stations. Second day we got into the museum which was really well worth a visit.

I wanted to visit a genuine Mapuche village. The Mapuche are the original people of this country. On day three we set off on a rickity local bus for Cholchol which was flagged as a typical traditional village. This lies to the north west of Temuco. Everyone warned us to be very careful of our belongings as this was a very poor place and people might resent us. We had not the slightest problem and everyone was a sweet as could be. We created quite a sensation and brightened up the day for many people. The only problem was Cholchol did not resemble a native village at all. It looked like a small place that was climbing out of poverty. I was happy for the people that their standard of living was improving but sad not to see any original Mapuche village houses.  The original houses were made of straw. But there was no evidence of these houses. All around us were the usual Chilean wood and corrigaated iron establishments. The residents were certainly Mapuche people and differed from other Chileans we have met. They are very dark skinned with wonderful jet black hair. The ladies plait their long hair using a complicated plaiting technique. We did not tarry long in Cholchol just enough time to visit the tiny museum.

In the afternoon we headed further south on a two hour bus ride for Villarica. It is Friday afternoon of Halloween weekend and the same rules apply as in any bus station on a festive weekend. Everyone was going home for the weekend. We were packed on the bus like sardines.

Villarica will be for another blog.