Bariloche or Bust

Trip Start Mar 29, 2010
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Trip End May 24, 2010

Flag of Argentina  ,
Saturday, April 24, 2010

To say we had high expectations for Bariloche is an understatement.  According to our guidebook, the city has "one of the most gorgeous settings imaginable."    Stories from other travelers gave us the impression that Bariloche was a land of milk and honey, or at least microbeer and chocolate.   

A city of more than 100,000, Bariloche is considered the heart of Northern Patagonia, located in area known as the Lake District.  As you may of guessed, this part of Patagonia is characterized by its multitude of lakes, many of which, are nestled in between touring mountains.  To give you an idea of the size of Argentine Patagonia, Bariloche is about a 36 hour bus-ride from El Calafate, or a two-hour plane flight due north (We opted for the plane flight).  

Admittedly, the city’s surroundings are spectacular.   Bariloche hugs the banks of Lake Nahuel Huapi, and is surrounded by large mountains that offer impressive views of the Andes and the Argentina Pampa.   There is a well-known national park that share’s the lake’s name, and multiple ski resorts that make the city a year-round tourist destination. 

After three weeks in Southern Patagonia, however, Bariloche seemed polluted, crowded, and overdeveloped.    It had been weeks since we were in such a heavily populated area (not that the city is a metropolis, by any means), and it seemed that ever car on the road pre-dated the advent of catalytic converters and spewed thick black smoke. 

Granted, some circumstances explaining our bad impression were beyond Bariloche’s control.    The City’s downtown, which is supposed to be a highlight, was consumed by public demonstration complete with protesters burning rubber tires. 

It turned out to be a transit strike, which was just a tad ironic.  I work in the field of public sector labor relations, and an impetus of this trip was to get away from my work.  Yet, there I was, chatting with a cab driver over the terms of the bus drivers’ most recent collective bargaining agreement.  The decisive issue was the duration of the contract.  According to the cab driver, the transit union asked for a five-year contract, the government countered with two years, and after a day-long strike, management caved.

It´s a story I know well.

Since Bariloche’s was not the quaint lake-side town we envisioned (and consumed by smoke), we focused our energies on the surrounding countryside – which did not disappoint.  We did a short day hike in the municipal park, where we strolled through a number of arrayanes forests and enjoyed some pleasant views of the lake.    

We also showed up to the Hotel LLao Llao – the most expensive hotel in the area – for a cup of tea.  Our guidebook suggested that we could simply “stroll the grounds.”  Instead we were greeted by a security team when we showed up at the front entrance.   

It was clear that our kind was not welcome, but then again, that´s rarely stopped me before.   So I weaseled our way into the tea room (we had to sit on the couch, not at a table) for an absurdly expensive cup of tea and a lovely view.  To be fair, the china in which the tea was served looked very pricey.

During our second day in Bariloche, we did a 36 kilometer bike ride known as the "Circuito Chico."  It´s a well-known bike route known for its hills (they were painful) and scenic lake vistas.   Along the way we snapped a few photos of the lakes around Bariloche and stopped to have lunch at a small Swiss-inspired village called Colonia Suiza.   We also made our way to the top of the one of the area´s mountains (Cerro Castor) where we were able to look over the entire Argentine Lake District. 

In reflecting on our time in Bariloche, some of my favorite moments involved the food.  We had two great meals while in town.  In one restaurant (Naan), the owners converted the first floor of their house into a restaurant.  The food was great (fusion cuisine, not necessarily Argentine), and the atmosphere very distinctive.

We also enjoyed a fantastic vegetarian meal at a restaurant with a simple, though not so creative name - Restaurante Vegeteriano.  There was no menu (you simply had a choice of with or without fish), and you ate what was prepared.  Fresh vegetables are a rarity in Patagonia, and after nearly a month of a beef-only diet, the meal represented an enjoyable change of pace...even for the most committed of carnivores such as myself.

Finally, there was the chocolate.  With its Swiss and German influence, Bariloche is famous for outstanding chocolate.  It´s reputation is well deserved.  We spent part of an afternoon sampling the goods in each of the City´s largest chocolate shops.  It was a guilty indulgence, but well worth the stomach ache.

In all in all, we managed to have a good time in Bariloche, despite our poor first impression and the fact that we thought the downtown itself was heavily overrated.  But as we found out, one doesn´t travel to Bariloche for the city - you come here for the surrounding countryside. 

Traveling Notes

If using the Lonely Planet as your guidebook, beware.  The section on Bariloche is at best horribly outdated, at worst flat out wrong.  A couple of useful things to know:

First, you need to leave downtown Bariloche to do just about any outdoor activities, unless you do a pre-packaged tour.  For example, if you want to bike the Circuito Chico, take the bus westward to kilometer marker 18.3, and begin the ride from there.  At km marker 18.3 there is a bike rental shop.  No one does the circuito chico from downtown because the road is too busy and the ride is somewhat unpleasant.  With a stop for lunch at the Colonia Suiza and plenty of time for photographs, the loop took us about 4.5 hours to complete.

Second, we found some of the accommodation listings to be inaccurate.  For example, Hostel El Gaucho is not as flattering and inviting as they would suggest (at least for the double rooms).  There is better value that can be found in the area. 

Third, at this time of year, there is very limited hiking in the national park.  The municipal park is opened year round, however.  There are a few trails that are available, though they are not as strenuous.  If you´re looking for a full day of activity, get to the bike rental shop at opening and combine the circuito chico with some hiking in the municipal park.  You´ll have great views, see some interesting terrain, and feel like you´ve had a full day and are entitled to the chocolate temptations in town.

Finally, if you plan to hike to Cerro Castor, know that trail head is in town off Ave. Pioneros and NOT at the base of the gondola.  The hike is just a gravel round leading up to the ski resort, but it does have some great views.  If you´re pressed for time and can´t get to any of the other mountains, it´s not a bad way to spend an afternoon.  But then again, you can also just take the gondola to the top. 


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Comments

axel on

I completely coincide with you on Bariloche.

it is about as over-rated as places come.

I don't know if its a local thing, but it does thrive the bigger it gets, and the noisier, more bustling, etc etc

everything you come to get away from by traveling so far, you find in Bariloche

I recommend to my friends to avoid the city itself, and if they must, to go to Llao Llao.

Other towns in the vicinity are much nicer and more tranquil and the surrounding natural areas are great.

the climate is a good deal drier than on the Chilean side, which can be a good thing in winter, and it gives a different landscape just crossing the border.

the Chilean side is much greener and lusher, and Argentina looks like Chilean patagonia a thousand miles further south

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