Our overnight bus transported us southwest from Malargüe’s rain-shadowed range lands into the gorgeous green heart of northern Patagonia known as the lakes district. One of our fellow passengers had also been among those who’d been turned away from the bus station the night before. Since we were sitting across from each other, I commented on our good fortune to finally be on our way as we marveled at the rapidly changing landscapes. I learned that this gentleman’s name was Patrick and that he was a former French naval officer who, after retiring, had spent part of each of the last 16 years traveling the world. He was currently making a return visit to western Argentina and following the same general path as we were.
We both had chosen as our first destination the picturesque pueblo of San Martin de los Andes. Its setting bears a remarkable resemblance to Lake Chelan in Washington State’s eastern Cascades. However, the granite peaks that tower over this valley are higher and sharper than at Chelan. And the early Swiss, German, and Italian immigrants strongly influenced both San Martin’s alpine architecture and sensational cuisine. We so enjoyed this comfortable community that we decided to stay an extra day beyond our usual three to do more exploring.
Looking out across Lake Lacar.
The crisp, clear autumn air was already turning a few leaves yellow near our lovely little inn.
This old steam tractor sat on the edge of a local park.
Rusty savored a local brown ale along with his smoked-trout-stuffed ravioli with wild-mushroom sauce—it doesn’t get much better than this!
Typically Argentine, the parrillas featured flame-roasted meats but also offered pastas and trout.
Although we’d seen no crows or ravens in Argentina, we noticed these hawk-like birds that flocked and squawked like crows and loved to patrol near people.
On rented bikes, we explored the uncrowded roads, ending here at this viewpoint.
This apple tree in the backyard of our inn provided us with all the crisp apples we could eat.
On our two-hour morning bus ride along the scenic Seven-Lakes Highway south to our next village of Angostura, Abby and I began noticing a continuous covering of fine gray sand along the roadside that occasionally covered the roofs of nearby buildings. At first, we wondered whether this highway’s extensive road reconstruction project might be the cause. But the vast quantities of this cement-like material and the distance it covered back from the road made this seem unlikely. Something about its color and texture seemed suspiciously familiar. I then remembered recently reading about a nearby series of volcanos (Puyehue-Cordon Caulle Complex) in Chile erupting and sending clouds of pumice ash blowing across the Andes and into Argentina. Abby and I both recognized it as we recalled our return to Seattle from Eugene, Oregon, in June of 1980 and seeing the extent of that ash fall from the May explosion of Mount Saint Helens.
Our bus waited while this front loader worked to widen the scenic highway between San Martin and Angostura.
As we drove by, we saw that ash still covered this roof after almost one year since the Chilean volcanos’ eruption.
The village of Angostura is tucked into the northeast corner of Lake Nahuel Huapi, the largest (200 square miles) and deepest (1440 feet) lake in Argentina (about the size and depth of Lake Tahoe). This lake’s crystal-clear waters turn bright emerald along the shallows near shore but quickly change to a deep cobalt blue as the bottom plunges down into the depths. Its several forested islands, including the immense Isla Victoria, reminded us of the San Juans in Puget Sound. The raw and rugged peaks rising above evergreen-blanketed valleys resembled those we’d seen around Lake Tahoe, California, and Banff in Alberta, Canada. The biggest difference we noticed was the lack of lake-front development. Because this district is one huge national park, the areas for human habitation are strictly limited, resulting in it retaining a wonderful near-wilderness ambience.
As we gathered up our luggage and were getting oriented in our new locale, we heard the greeting of a familiar voice. Patrick, our new French friend, was also there at the bus station, but he was waiting to board the bus to travel on to Bariloche. Since he had preceded us to Angostura by two days, Patrick gave us some tips on where to eat and what to see before he had to head out.
Angostura is much smaller and much more rustic than San Martin; except for the highways and the main commercial street, its roads are of packed earth. Fields and forest tuck in between the occasional shop, restaurant, and hostel. Our little B&B, Residencia Rio Bonito, was actually an extended family home where the mother managed both her guests and her children, much like we experienced in Chilecito. We found it both comfortable and conveniently located, only about a block from the bus station and the center of town. And at only $42 per night, it offered everything we needed.
One of the can’t-be-missed adventures that Patrick mentioned involved taking the tour boat across Lake Nahuel Huapi to the Quetrihue Peninsula to see the amazing Arrayanes forest and then hiking the 8 miles back across this wonderfully wooded, island-like park back to town. Our first full day in Angostura dawned bright and clear, so we packed water and a light lunch and walked two miles over to the dock to buy our tour-boat passes.
We boarded our cruising catamaran to cross the lake to the distant peninsula.
The close-by water was so clear, it was almost invisible; at a distance it became turquoise.
We got underway and spent a glorious hour crossing to the peninsula.
At the southern tip of this peninsula is the smallest, and most unusual forest we’d ever seen.
These Arrayanes trees grew farther north only as big bushes, but in these few acres they’d mysterously turned into a true forest.
Their beautiful bark was so thin and water-absorbant that they stole all the moisture from competing plants.
The cinnamon, brown, and white colors looked like they were applied by an impressionist painter.
A couple of tree-huggers checked out the curiously cold skin of an ancient Arrayanes.
From this southern-most tip of the peninsula, we started our 8-mile hike north towards town.
After the Arrayanes forest quickly ended, towering cyprus trees lined this trail.
This dog greeted us as we landed at the peninsula’s dock and then accompanied us as we took the guided tour of the tiny forest. We assumed that he belonged to the park guides.
At the end of the tour of the Arraynes forrest, Rusty and I headed up the eight-mile trail to town. These two dogs joined us.
Soon the dogs proved their worth, working together to chase off these cattle that were blocking our trail. We assumed that the dogs belonged to a rancher that lived nearby.
Later, these gauchos came down the trail moving several head of cattle with their own dogs assisting. After they passed, our two dog companions continued with us. An hour or so later, a few other folks who’d also been on our boat passed us. With them was that big brown dog that had greeted us when we first landed. As we all reached the trail’s end near town, these dogs were still with us. A local fellow told us that all three dogs lived in town. He further explained that every morning they’d all walk the eight miles down to the boat dock, arriving in time to greet that day’s boat’s passengers. Each then choose their favorite hikers to guide back to town. Aren’t dogs amazing?
We found a wild world of weird and wonderful plants.
After returning to civilization, we enjoyed one of its finer offerings at a convenient beach bar.
While there, a fellow traveler from Buenos Aires identified our crow-hawk as a Chimango Caracara, a gregarious member of the falcon family that behaves much like our crows.
(He does have two legs, he’s just resting the other one under his chest feathers)
On our last day, we rented bikes and headed out of town. Our first destination was to see what these folks claim to be the world’s shortest river. It flows about 100 yards between two adjacent lakes.
The world’s shortest river? (From the footbridge looking west)
The higher of these two lakes feeds this tiny river. (From the footbridge looking east)
The lower lake receives the outflow of that tiny river.
Rusty decided that he wanted to visit the award-winning Australis micro-brewery on the other side of Angostura, so we rode another five miles south down the highway to see it and sample more of their great beer. We learned that the brewmaster’s father fled to Angostura from Buenos Aires after working for Quilmes Brewery for 40 years; this was during the Argentina depression and violence of the 1960s.
The friendly barkeeper (and wife of the brewmaster) told me of their long and fascinating history.
Rusty talked beer making with the second-generation brewmaster and his esposa.
The third and final destination for our lakes-district tour was Bariloche, the full name being San Carlos de Bariloche, on the southern end of Lago Nahuel Huapi. While Bariloche is the most famous destination in the lakes district, unfortunately, it is no longer the prettiest. Now it is a large, touristy town with a busy airport and bus station. We are so pleased that we started our tour of the lake district from the north, saving Bariloche for the end. Then again, with Rusty’s duffel-bag problems, we needed to search for the solution in a larger city with more stores and services.
On the morning of Saturday, March 24, we took a two-hour bus ride leaving Villa La Angostura, viewing more gorgeous mountain and lake vistas as we wound our way to Bariloche. We were lucky to book a hostel five kilometers from the center of town on a tranquil hill above the lake. Brian, the owner of our Green House Hostel, picked us up from the bus station and helped orient us to the area as we drove to his place. And what a special place it was! He helped us carry our bags up three flights of stairs to our own little suite in what used to be the attic of his big green house. Our sanctuary offered its own small kitchen and excellent views out over the lake. Its only downside was that the steeply pitched roof resulted in Rusty needing to hunch over and duck around to avoid hitting his head on the beams.
Brian gave us a free bus pass card to travel back into the city for our shopping expedition. The wheel on Rusty’s bag had not held up long after his silicon-glue repair, so we were in the market for a new rolling duffle and only had that day since most stores close on Sundays.
Bariloche has some beautiful old mountain-lodge architecture. We were surprised, though, by how much graffiti covered many buldings.
We walked all over this hilly city, visiting several sporting goods and luggage stores. One very pleasant surprise was running into our fellow traveler, Patrick, the Frenchman. We shared a few more travel stories but needed to continue in our duffel-bag mission. We bid farewell again, hoping we’d see him in a few days in our next destination, El Bolson.
The rolling duffel bags were quite expensive and not very strong. Rusty finally settled on a big rolling suitcase that seemed very sturdy, with three tough-looking wheels. Our best news was that the one he liked was on sale and included an extra paying-with-cash discount.
Sleek and black new suitcase meets tired, battered brown duffel. Hasta la vista baby!
With our mission accomplished, we began exploring the city for fun. We noticed some sort of big protest march going on that had something to do with education, but also had anti-capitalism and communism overtones.
To my dismay, these boys were spray-painting the old horse statue during the protest.
By 6:30 p.m., we were famished. As we were walking,we checked out a few restaurants noted in our travel guide book. However, we found that most had an 8:00 or 8:30 p.m. opening time for dinner. To our great good fortune, the Mexican restaurant noted in our book had a happy hour that started at 7:00. We were also pleased that they actually had corn chips to go with their tasty guacamole and would serve us dinner after we’d finished our appetizers.
On Sunday morning at breakfast, we enjoyed meeting some of the other travelers at the Green House. A special connection was with Katie, from Colorado, who had just been accepted in a Masters of Environmental Science program at Western Washington University (where Jonathan just graduated). She was touring by herself through Argentina for the next few months before returning home for her move to northwest Washington.
In the afternoon we took the local bus twenty kilometers farther up the lake and back in an alpine valley to the Colonia Suiza, a village first settled by Swiss immigrants in 1899. We wanted to explore their Sunday crafts market. What an adventure that turned into! We’d hoped to arrive in time to hike in the hills above the village. We soon learned that, being Sunday, the buses only came out there every two hours instead of every twenty minutes. By the time we finally arrived at the Swiss Colony, it was 5:00 p.m. and the craft and food markets were closing down. We enjoyed seeing the old buildings, but needed to start hiking back out to the main highway to try and find a bus before dark.
Sorry, Rusty, no time to stop at this brewery if we’re to get home before dark.
After walking for close to two hours, we met a man taking photos at this view point overlooking the Lao Lao resort. He graciously offered us a ride back to our hostel. The beautiful voice of Nora Jones was coming from his car CD player. As we drove, he shared that he was a “brother,” but not yet a priest, at a local Catholic church. Originally from Buenos Aires, he was so happy to be in this beautiful setting that felt closer to God. He was a kind man who drove us an extra 10 miles past his home to get us back to ours—a beautiful ending to our lakes district adventures!