The region around Bariloche in Argentina and across the border in Chile is known as the ‘lake district’. But that only tells you a part of the story. There are indeed a lot of gorgeous lakes in all kind of shapes from small lagoons to huge ‘inland seas’ and in all kind of colours. But more interesting there are also the mountains and volcanoes. And who says mountains says hiking. And so we put on our hiking boots once more and got out there…and we soon found out that this region has way more to offer than we had time for.
Our first stop was the town of Bariloche also known as the ‘Switzerland of South America’ or the ‘chocolate capital of Argentina’…sound very promising indeed. Unfortunately while we arrived after our 2 day road trip on the ‘Ruta 40’ a bad weather system had also arrived after weeks of gorgeous summer weather in town. The next day was grey with some clear spells but also with quite some rain. We decided to take a day off and get some practical stuff done. For chocolate tastings good weather is not required and so we sampled some of the local goodies. Sure they were better than the average stuff I have had on the road but, if you allow me to be a bit chauvinistic, most of it did not come close to what we have at home. The next day the weather had not really improved drastically but as there were some rays of sunlight in the morning and as our time in town was running out we decided to get out anyway for a ‘scenic bicycle tour’ (the ‘circuito chico’). The tour that was only about 30km looked very easy on paper. However after a few scenic kilometres the weather deteriorated quickly and soon it was pouring down. We got completely soaked and the wind was blowing from all directions . Whichever way we turned it seemed we were riding right into it. Also as soon as the sun was gone, the temperature dropped and poor Caro was freezing. Not really a fan of cycling and definitely not of cold weather, you’ll understand that it was not really her lucky day. We were both very happy to be back in town. Luckily a nice dinner with a very interesting lady from the land of Oz and a couple of bottles of exceptional local wine made that we soon forgot about that day’s activities and ordeals.
The next day would be our last day in Bariloche (and Argentina) and I still really wanted to do some hiking in the mountains in the region. The weather forecast was looking a bit brighter (still cold but with more sun and no rain) so we decided to check it out in the morning and decide if we would head out or not. The next morning the air was crisp and there was still quite a bit of clouds but the sun was also gaining strength. Across the lake we could finally see the mountain range which had received a nice coating of snow during the storms the day before. We got our gear together and decided to go for a hike to Cerro Cathedral. All though it was cold and the fresh snow made the hike a bit of challenge at times, the sun was with us most of the time and the scenery was absolutely stunning. It was just another day in hiker’s paradise.
After more than a month in and around Argentina, the time had come to leave the country. It was rather strange to leave. Even though we know for sure that we will be back here someday (we have only seen a fraction of this great country), it felt like we were leaving the country behind while some really though times are coming. In my previous blog on Buenos Aires I talked about inflation and on how some people are predicting a new economic crash in the near future. During our last days and weeks in the country, we could see things getting worse every day. Of course we were in what is known to be the most expensive region of the country but seeing the price of the same meal in a restaurant going up by the equivalent of a euro every two days is not really a good sign. Everyone is fearing a new devaluation. The government has issued new rules and laws prohibiting Argentinians to buy more than a certain amount of foreign currency . But it is clear that whoever can, is trying to get their hands on hard foreign currency (USD, Euro). Not only shops and restaurants are very keen to accept euros at very good rates. Also hotels that are usually known to have the worst exchange rates ever, were offering rates up to 50% above the official rate. On the street (black market) I was even offered double the official rate. Unfortunately we carry very little cash so we could not benefit much from these great rates. But to all you people planning to come here in the near future, be advised that until the whole thing comes down once again: “(hard) cash is king”. Pack a lot of it or Argentina will be a very expensive country. The more we talked about it with people the more the picture got ugly. There are stories of ‘clandestine currency exchange meetings’ from which well to do Argentinians come back with huge suitcases full of dollars or with their pants completely stuffed with euro or aussie dollars. On the other hand we met many young Argentinians in Chile that had fled the country and took whatever job they could get across the border. In their home country they said they would need to work two jobs to make ends meet. But they couldn’t even manage to find or keep one job. Moreover any money they make could be worthless the next week…
Across the border in Chile things look a lot brighter. After a couple of terrible decades of Junta dictatorship and ’state terrorism’ the country is now in much calmer political waters and the economy mainly fuelled by copper exports is doing great. Even though the country suffered one of the worst earthquakes ever recorded only three years ago, you have to look really hard to still see the effects of this disaster. Talking about earthquakes we had now officially arrived on the infamous ‘ring of fire’. The countries on this ring circling the Pacific ocean (from California to Chile and from New Zealand to Japan) are very prone to heavy earthquakes and also typically have very high volcanic activity. The first thing we saw when entering Chile was a huge snow capped volcano just across the border post. And we saw at least 5 more on the two hour drive to our next destination Puerto Varas. The town of Puerto Varas is situated right next to a gorgeous lake with two volcanos dominating all views. We had come out here especially to do some canyoning as it is supposed to some of the world ‘s best. Unfortunately all canyoning trips had been cancelled. Depending on the source this was due to issues with the land owner or because of a recent serious accident. Too bad but we did get to check out that other typical feature of this area in Chile: the German heritage. There has been some major German immigration in the past and this is still very visible today. Not only in German street names but also in the very Germanic construction style. They even have a copy of the ‘Marienkirche’ from the ’Schwarzwald’ in Germany. But the thing that we enjoyed most were the ‘Kuchen’ that were sold all over the place: absolutely enormous pieces of cake with chocolate, fruits, cheese and whatever you can imagine.
Next stop was Pucon, the ‘adventure capital’ of Chile. Whatever you can imagine they have it; mountain biking, rafting, skydiving, etc. We were there to climb the local Villarica volcano. As the climbs only happen when the weather is perfect (no clouds, no wind), we were watching the weather reports anxiously and keeping our fingers crossed for good weather. From whatever weather reports are worth in mountainous regions, it seemed we would get a chance on the day after our arrival. But as the guide explained we would evaluate further in the morning. From the town centre and once again at the base of the mountain. After that he would decide if it was ‘Go’, ‘No Go’ or ‘50/50’. The last meaning that we could start climbing but that there was a chance that we would need to return short of the summit.
In preparation of the climb we grabbed some more gigantic pieces of ‘Kuchen’ and had a swim in the “freezing” (after Antarctica that is very relative) lake and did a walk around town. We noticed and memorized all the escape and evacuation routes that were signposted all over town. There have been serious eruptions here in the past and the volcano is still very active. Yet thousands of people sleep on its lower slopes during summer months. When in the middle of the night the ’evacuation alarm‘ started going off, I think Caro was the first person in town to be out of bed… Was this real? Had the volcano woken up? Just when I started thinking about putting on some clothes the alarm stopped . We found out the next day that the same alarm is used to alert the fire brigade in case of a fire or a big accident.
Early the next morning the weather at first sight did not really seem that great: completely clouded. However our guide told us not to despair as these clouds often only hang in the valley and he had good hopes that at the base of the mountain it would be better. The drive up there was nerve wrecking (for me at least, Caro was sleeping). Will it clear out or not? But all of a sudden the sun started to come through the mist and only a couple of hundred meters further we broke through the mist/cloud cover and could see the volcano in its full glory. At that time we all thought we were ‘home free’ but for the guide it was a 50/50 situation. There were some cloud formations in the west that could mean trouble later on. However we set off as the next days would definitely be ‘No Go’ due to wind or rain. The start of the climb was really steep and the guide started at a really fast pace (probably because he wanted us to get on the ridiculously expensive ski lift for the first part of the trip). Caro and I always walk our own pace and we were soon lagging behind the rest of the group that was desperately trying to keep up with the guide. After only a couple of hundred meters we noticed that one of the guys in front of us was going to ‘blow his engine’. Not even 1 km into the trek we passed him. I tried to explain him to walk at his own pace. However being passed by a girl didn’t really fit with the South American machismo and so he tried to clamp on to us. He soon had to let go anyway and we would not see him anymore on the rest of the trip. After the first part the guide slowed down a bit and we were able to continue all together except for our Chilean friend. A bit further we needed to put on our helmets and take out the ice axes as we would start walking onto the snow an ice of the glacier. This is where the hike gets pretty dangerous if you don’t know what you are doing. The slopes are really steep and if you start sliding and don’t know how to use the ice axe, the only thing that will stop you are the rocks all the way at the bottom of the glacier hundreds of meters below. Every year people die here because they are not fit to do this climb and are exhausted by the time they get to the ice, because they don’t have the right equipment or because their guide hasn’t properly briefed them on how to react when something happens. We got a decent briefing and some practice and made it to the top without accidents.
The views had been awesome during the whole ascent but at the summit they were really incredible. There we really saw the ‘ring of fire’ in the landscape. There was a string of volcanos as far as you could see north and south. Some of the volcanos had had their tops blown off in eruptions but most of them still had the beautiful perfect cone shape with a nice icing of snow on the top. As the weather was holding we had time for a hike around the crater, dodging the sulphur clouds that the volcano was spitting from time to time. We had hoped to get a glimpse of the lava but we didn’t get to see that this time. But judging from the explosions we could hear (and feel) the volcano was still very awake.
The way down would be a lot easier and more fun than the way up as we got to slide down the snowy slopes. In winter you can actually ski all the way down. We put on ridiculous protective suits and were sliding all the way down to the end of the glacier using some ‘prepared slides’ . Good fun. Caro had her own technique to slow down the speed by gathering as much snow between her legs as possible. When the collected snow got too high and she came to a stop she got up, stepped over the little snow mountain and started gliding again. As yours truly was always behind her to protect her from some of the suicide pilots out there, on my way down I kept blowing through little walls of snow blinding me for a couple of seconds and completely covering me in snow.
Believe it or not but we were pretty tired after the day on the mountain and were happy to be in bed that night. The next day we would catch a night bus in the evening and we did not really have any plans on what to do. As the weather turned out to be pretty nice, after a lazy morning we wanted to make the most of it and started to look for things to do. To my big surprise (after the misery only a week before) Caro came up with the idea to do a cycling tour to one of the lakes. It was a nice scenic ride but it was definitely not a walk in the park: a lot of uphill a lot and battling the wind on the way back. Combined with the fatigue from the climb the day before it was a pretty tough nut to crack. We decided that this was our last bike tour on this trip or at least for the next couple of weeks…