Saturday, August 6, 2011

The Switzerland of South America (Bariloche, Argentina)

More alpine European than South American, I could have easily thought I’d accidentally wandered into a Swiss village. With its enviable location, San Carlos de Bariloche snuggles up to the majestic Nahuel Haupi Lake though the drizzling rain and fading light hid the amphitheatre of snow-capped mountains and glistening glacial lakes.

Bariloche must be the cavity capital of the world. With a main square of cute alpine stone and wooden village houses and an elegant grey stone church steeple all staring over the lake, every second shop sells chocolates and nougat, samples tempting wary shoppers into their chocolate lairs. White chocolate, dark chocolate, nut chocolate, milk chocolate, chocolate-covered fruit, chocolate nougat, chocolate fountains, chocolate fondues, chocolate of every form and shape and size. Feverishly made in front of eager shoppers and sample liberally shared, it is impossible not to be tempted by these sweet flavoursome jewels. Mamushka and Rapa Nui (less sales-y) are my favourites, but it is like a child selecting a favourite toy when they are all so enchanting and enticing. Dessert in Bariloche is simply wandering the chocolate shops sampling tasty sugar-sweet morsels.

However the main reason to visit Bariloche is to travel the inviting trails among the mountains and lakes. There are four main trails to choose from – Circuito Chico runs along the southern flank of Nahuel Haupi Lake, Circuito Grande runs a triangular course around a variety of lakes and the granddaddy tour is the Road of the Seven Lakes (Ruta de Las Siete Lagos) that travels north to San Martin through spectacular landscape. A fourth path takes a variety of buses and boats to weave a marine and alpine path through the Andes to Chile, one of the world’s more scenic and interesting border crossings.

Despite the fact I haven’t ridden a bike further than ten yards in over five years, I am assured that the best way to explore Circuito Chico is by bicycle (and chico does mean little!). Running along the lake, I am assured by the smiling tourist office that the path is flatter than a sumo wrestler’s mattress and a comfortable undertaking for anyone of average fitness with lots of stops on the way for enticing panoramic views. High on chocolate and with a promise of fine weather, I relent and hire a bicycle.

Packing my backpack with nutritious sticky nougat and enough chocolate to fuel a Tour de France team, the morning is picture perfect. Bypassing further shops flogging chocolate (can all these shops really stay in business selling the same goods?), the road hugs the glistening lake for kilometres passing the inviting Cerra Otto (the view from a later mountain is vastly better) and Pretty Beach (Playa Bonito) until reaching Cerro Campanario.

A short and slightly rickety chairlift (or aerosilla) ferries my exhausted legs to the top for a commanding view proudly described as one of National Geographic’s top ten views of the world. Always suspicious of such lofty claims, the 360 degree panorama is truly staggering and apparent the second that I clamber off the aerosilla.

Stellar panoramas (top photo), bracing mountain air, and breathtaking natural scenery abound in every direction. To the west, a chain of snow-capped Andean mountains is the scenic border with Chile while mountains in layers of deepening blue fade to the horizon only blocked by a handful of taller nearby peaks. The chaotic arms and legs of Nahuel Haupi Lake glisten and highlight the deep dark forests of the shoreline while other lakes daub the landscape. Bariloche seems a long forgotten starting point and is visible to the east almost twenty kilometres away.

Named like a Chinese giant panda, the exquisitely sited Llao Llao (pronounced jow-jow) Hotel (arrow in photo) sits on a narrow isthmus of land and doesn’t spoil the vista of this natural wonderland.

Only a few kilometres further on is the Weiss Family Smokehouse. For 40 years, this Austrian-born family has been smoking various meats and fish making for a worthwhile brief detour before reaching the wooden St Edward the Confessor Chapel and the imposing and palatial Llao Llao Hotel. The chapel was closed but the hotel is open for business.

Though dressed completely inappropriately for this luxury hotel and somewhat sweaty and dishevelled, I front up for a reviving coffee and snack. The overly polite staff greet me like a long-lost son (they train staff well in fancy hotels!) and usher me to a quiet, hidden discrete corner.

Fully uplifted, the Circuito Chico leads towards a small forested peninsula for a tour around Perito Moreno Lake (who founded Nahuel Haupi National Park and for whom the famous Patagonian glacier is named) towards the hotel. A tiny forest hides the suitably named Puerto Pañuelo (Handkerchief Port) that offers boat trips to various islands within Nahuel Haupi Lake including Puerto Blest which eventually leads to Chile.

Following Nahuel Huapi Lake’s inappropriately named Tristeza (sadness) arm, Lopez Bay (Bahia Lopez) has more superb views of forested hills before crossing a small bridge that finally turns back towards Bariloche and back for further deserved indulgence into chocolate and nougat.

The Circuito Chico is a superb (and long) one day cycle (or half day bus ride) around stunning Andean scenery with a Swiss flavour and a highlight of the Argentinan Lake District.

Map courtesy of Bariloche Lake Front


Donna Hull said...

Mark, your write-up on Bariloche is simply too tempting. You had me at the word "chocolate."

Barbara Weibel said...

I hadn't planned to wander into Argentina during my upcoming SA trip, but if this butts right up to Chile I'm going to have to make an exception - simply gorgeous!

Mark H said...

@donna: Check out Mamushka Chocolate if you get to Bariloche and do explore the wonderful scenery. Has some elements of the Rockies about it.

Ana said...

("can all these shops really stay in business selling the same goods?)" yes, they can. Absolutely everyone buys chocolate, it's one of the things Bariloche is known for.

I like your writing style :)

Mark H said...

@ana: I did see nearly everyone indulging in chocolate.

Christie said...

Nice stuff! I'm enjoying reading your blog here!

Mark H said...

@christie: Thank you.

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