One Month in Backpacker Paradise
One Month in Backpacker Paradise
If you love backpacking, you have to find a way to visit Patagonia. Don and I have been in South America now for a little over one month, and in that time we have fallen in love with the Lakes District in Northern Patagonia. We spent the first week of our 10-month trip in Buenos Aires, Argentina, exploring the city and feeling mostly very small and a bit stressed out. We enjoyed our time there, but we were anxious to leave the sprawling metropolis and drive 20 hours southwest to Bariloche, the ¨Breckenridge¨ of South America. As we rounded the last river bend and our eyes fell on the craggy Andes and bright blue Nahuel Haupi lake, we knew we were in for some adventures. In the middle of summer, Bariloche is packed full of tourists escaping the heat of the north and looking for cool water and shaded forests. In the winter, the city is bustling with skiers, making turns at the country´s largest resort just 15 minutes from town. But in the spring, Bariloche´s temperature hovers right around 70, most trails and roads are blessedly quiet, and a multitude of bright yellow and purple flowers contrast sharply with the vibrant blues and greens of clear skies and lush foliage. Spring here is heavenly, and the opportunities for adventure are endless.
Don and I were incredibly lucky to find a job exchange here in Bariloche at Hostel Punto Sur, a lively and well-run hostel in the center of town. Upon arriving, we were given free beds, free food, and free friendship, all in exchange for some front desk work (read ¨Spanish practice¨) in the evenings 5 days a week. This opportunity continues to benefit us as we use the hostel as a home base between various excursions and adventures into the surrounding Nahuel Haupi National Park. We have become good friends with the staff here, sharing in ¨asados¨ (BBQ´s), road trips, and long days in the sun. Tomorrow it will finally be time to go and begin our journey north, first stopping in Mendoza for a week (famous for its world-renowned wines) and then continuing on to Salta. It will be hard to leave this place that we´ve begun to call ¨home¨, but we feel satisfied in knowing that we´ve enthusiastically explored many of its hidden treasures and breathtaking vistas.
Our adventures have ranged from half-day hikes to a 3-night backpacking trip, with everything in between. Three great trips all lie within a 30-minute drive from town. A popular walk/hike/bike ride is called Circuito Chico, and it includes 2 bus rides and a few hours of easy activity. One bus takes you from town along the lakeshore to the end of the line. From there you can rent a bike, or, like we did, simply walk approximately 8km around the perimeter of a peninsula, and then be picked up by another bus on the other side. The walk was nice and leisurely, but the real gem was the secluded Playa Via Tacul that required a short dirt trail detour. The beach comes complete with white sand, at least 15 shades of blue water, and snow-capped mountains in the near distance. Other nearby destinations include two different mountains with far-reaching views, both with chairlifts available. We of course opted to hike rather than use the chairlifts, which made for a couple dusty, sweaty days. Cerro Campanario is a short, steep hike with a nice cafe at top, and Cerro Otto is a long, dirt road with a rotating restaurant on top that you can´t go in unless you´ve bought a ticket for the chairlift. All these trips quickly whet the appetite for more, and hint at a broad spectrum of available hikes and destinations.
If you´re looking to spend a night under the stars, and want a bit more challenging hike, there are over six refugios, or mountain huts, available with lodging or camping options all within a couple hours of Bariloche. Don and I stayed at two of the more popular huts overnight, Refugio Frey and Refugio Lopez. It is truly impressive the amount of versatility you can find among the various hikes in this area. The hike to Refugio Frey was long and mostly gradual, with large areas of dusty, hot, burn zones that eventually ended in the midst of Lord of the Rings-esque mountains. We camped near a small, clear lake and took in 360 degree views of craggy peaks. The hike to Lopez, on the other hand, was shorter, steeper, and almost fully under the cover of lush forest. At the top, the reward for your effort is an expansive view of the entire Lakes District. You are still on the side of a craggy mountain, but you rarely take your eyes off the lakes below. We found both camping trips to be accessible, challenging, rewarding, and memorable...and we were able to complete each of them within 24 hours!
If you did want to ¨get out of town¨ while in Bariloche, there are various opportunities in the surrounding cities too. Don and I wanted to check out El Bolson while we were here because we heard it was a great little town with a ¨hippy¨ feel to it. We did some research and learned that El Bolson has its own network of thirteen different refugios! Where do you even begin? Don read a bunch of blogs and picked Cajon del Azul (Blue Canyon) as our adventure of choice for a 3-day side trip. We enjoyed the town for a day, but really looked forward to the camping trip we had in store. A long, hot hike landed us at rock cliffs and crystal clear swimming holes. We spent a whole afternoon jumping off rocks into the water, laying out in the sun to dry, and then doing it all over again. After another successful night of camping we hiked back to town and took the 2 1/2 hour bus ride back ¨home¨ to Bariloche. It goes without saying that we could have spent 2 months in El Bolson alone, but alas, we were happy to have seen it at all.
Our crowning achievement, and the most extensive backpacking that we have experienced so far in South America, was the 3 night trip around Mount Tronador that we just completed yesterday. It is possible to link many of the trails, refugios, peaks, and lakes in the area in order to form multi-day treks, so the most challenging part becomes choosing which one to do. We chose Mount Tronador because it is secluded (it takes 2 1/2 hours on a bus on a dirt road to get there) but still within reach of Bariloche, you get to see a few different glaciers, and it ends with a scenic boat-bus-boat-bus trip back to town. Like before, on this trek we were impressed with the area´s versatility, and the challenging nature of much of the hiking. Each day left us absolutely exhausted and completely satisfied. Our first day included a steep climb up a rock wall to a ridge that sat between two different glaciers and a multitude of waterfalls. That night we forded a river in order to sleep in the flat, shady, sand bank on the other side. Our second day included a long, somewhat steep climb up the mountain to Refugio Otto Meiling which sits right alongside one of the glaciers we had seen the day before. The hike was similar to Mount St. Helens, except that it was hemmed in on all sides by glaciated peaks. On day 3 we retraced our steps back down the mountain and then headed up a gradual valley to a riverside campsite. It would have been the perfect afternoon of sunbathing and reading, were it not for the horse flies that came out in droves and left us feeling like crazy people when we left the shelter of our tent for more than a couple minutes. So we stayed in our mesh bubble and entertained ourselves with books, lists, and plans. We got up the next morning, unaware of exactly what we had in store.
The plan was to hike a relatively short 8km over ¨Pass of the Clouds¨and then to camp on the other side. We got to the pass after a steep, buggy climb, and soaked in the magnificent view of cascading water and hanging glaciers, but we weren´t ready to stop. We could see Lago Fria in the distance, the lake that would be our final destination, and our hot, smelly bodies egged us onward. We ended up hiking a total of 20km, the last 12km more like an obstacle course through a swampy rainforest than a trail. It was physically and mentally challenging, but we kept our spirits up and made it to the lake by mid-afternoon. After learning that we in fact were not allowed to camp at the lake (as we´d planned when we continued past our planned campsite), we made plans to catch that day´s boat, and then quickly made our way into our own refreshing, milky blue swimming pool. It was some of the best swimming either of us has ever experienced and we smiled when we thought about all the waterfalls we had seen ending up there in the lake. We relaxed on the boat tour back to Bariloche, and promised ourselves that we´d plan a multi-day trek in each country we visited.
For as much as we did in this area, we only just scratched the surface of all that is available. A popular excursion for many tourists is called the Seven Lakes Route, and usually involves renting a car for a day of epic sight-seeing. There is also a massive volcano, Volcan Lanin, that many mountaineers like to climb, and there are many other small towns that are absolutely worth a visit. We just keep telling ourselves that someday we will return in order to bike tour down to Ushuia, and then we will have a chance to see more. After all, all I´ve written about is the Lakes District, and this is just the tip of Patagonia. Our year is just getting started, and we are happy to already be taking advantage of our camping gear and knowledge. This was the perfect place to get our bearings and from here, the sky´s the limit. Now, if you haven´t done so yet, don´t you think it´s time to plan your own trip to Patagonia?
For more photos and stories of adventure, please visit my personal blog at life-well-traveled.com!