I had researched a number of options for how to get from the Lake District south to Patagonia, both on the Chilean side and the Argentinean side. I wanted to try out the Chilean journey south, but unfortunately without a car, I was either looking at an expensive three-day ferry (though I had some friends take that option and enjoy it) or a nightmare of figuring out point-to-point buses and ferries, and I might still need to cross back into Argentina. OR, I could cross over to Bariloche, where I had the option of a single, 28-hour bus ride to get to El Calafate, on the Argentinian side of Patagonia, or I could take the same bus route, stopping through a number of towns along the way. Through simple logistical ease, I chose the Argentinian route, planning on likely making the journey from Bariloche to El Calafate in a single shot. But first, Bariloche...
To get to Bariloche I spent nearly a full day on a bus from Pucón, Chile. The only time I dislike long bus rides is when border crossings are involved, as it means that you have to spend nearly an entire day on the bus, rather than sleeping through it on an overnight route. Thankfully, this route was a very scenic one, with a couple of stops along the way where we could stretch our legs and pick up some snacks. Since I actually had my paperwork from paying the reciprocity fee for Argentina this time, crossing the border was a breeze. When we finally neared Bariloche, I witnessed one of the most incredible sunsets from the bus - the mountains that bordered the lakes looked absolutely on fire as reds and pinks filled the sky. It was full dark by the time I arrived, but thankfully I had pre-booked a hostel that five people had separately recommended - Penthouse 1004. I highly recommend this spot if you're ever visiting Bariloche. Occupying the penthouse suite on the 10th floor of an apartment building near the center of town, the hostel has a fantastically cozy common area with incredible panoramic views of the surrounding lakes. It also gets major points for freshly baked, homemade bread every morning and a massive kitchen.
My first full day in Bariloche was a bit cold and dreary and rainy, so the obvious choice for the day's activity was to try some of the famous chocolate that the town is known for. After wandering around town on my own that morning, I met up with my Swedish, Danish, and Israeli friends who had just arrived from San Martin, and we settled on a place called Rapa Nui (the same name as the local Easter Island culture), a massive chocolate shop / cafe (with a massive projection TV and an adjoining ice rink… go figure), where we plopped onto couches, ordered coffee and rich chocolate treats, and sat for hours stuffing our bellies. My selection was a chocolate mousse so large and so rich I couldn't even finish it.
To counterbalance the massive amount of chocolate I just ingested, I swung by the grocery store on the way back to the hostel and loaded up on some fresh produce to make use of that amazing kitchen. I'm pretty sure the handful of days I spent in Bariloche were some of the best cooking I've done in all of South America! Back at the hostel we had an entertaining evening with my three friends as well as two Irish guys, two South African guys, and an American, playing an app game called "Heads Up" in which the group tries to get the individual to guess the word that the app is showing, from movie titles, to charades, to impersonations… given the wide range of countries and cultures we had represented, it was a pretty entertaining evening!
The next day, I set out with an American guy from my hostel (a Brooklyn-ite on a two-year career gap world tour) to do a bike circuit not too far from town that promised amazing views of a number of different lakes. We took our time that morning and caught a bus to the Cordillera Bike rental shop, a spot recommended by our hostel. Once we arrived, we were briefed along with a South African couple who had stopped in to do the same circuit, and who we would bump into numerous times later that day! The first section of the ride was fairly easygoing, with gentle rolling hills, though we did catch a bit of rain at the very start - thankfully it was few and far between!
We decided to stop and check out Hotel Llao Llao - the largest in Bariloche, a massive mansion-esque hotel with a rich hunting lodge feel to it - perched atop a hill with an incredible panoramic view of the lakes and surrounded by a sprawling golf course. We wanted simply to take in the view and maybe sneak in for a look inside, but our attention was quickly drawn to a parking lot full of gorgeous (if a bit dusty) old cars. As we began to chat with one of the owners, we learned that they were part of a rally from Buenos Aires all the way to Ushuaia, driving and working on their own cars which, aside from some modern iPod set-ups, contained no electronics, purely mechanics. The cars were impressive on their own, and we spent a while just browsing the parking lot before attempting to get a glimpse inside the hotel. Only patrons are allowed inside, so we went straight to the desk to inquire about rates and availability for a potential "future stay" and were permitted to check out the facilities. We wandered through the lobby and a delicious looking lunch buffet to an outdoor patio with a fantastic view of the lakes, then downstairs to a massive game room where we were quickly told to leave after a few tries at the ping pong table!
We continued our bike tour through steep up and downhills, planning to stop at a small beach area, but completely missing our turn off. Rather we continued on, through rows of trees and massive tangles of tiny yellow flowers, until we reached a small lookout point over Lake Escondido, where we rested for a bit and snacked on the bits of lunch we had brought along. Here we ran into the South African couple again, and we basically stuck with them for the rest of the circuit. From the lookout point, we crossed a small bridge between two lakes, then made a steep climb up a road flanked by more of the beautiful yellow flowers. Finally we reached a small bar/brewery called Gilbert that had been recommended by Cordillera Bike. The four of us sat down over the small complementary sampler, then each ordered a pint of our favorite from the batch (three stouts and an IPA, between us). We stayed long enough for the boys to have a second pint, then continued up a short way to the highest point of our circuit and a magnificent overlook of the lakes and mountains below. We didn't stay too long, as it was getting close to time to return our bikes, and while the four of us never met back up as planned for a drink later that evening, I would run into that couple again quite a few times along my greater journey. :)
The following day I joined my original group of three for a day trip to do a hike to Mount Tronador and a visit to the Black Glacier in nearby Nahuel Huapi National Park. We drove nearly two hours to get to the park, and despite the gorgeous scenery, most of us were nodding off by the time we arrived. Our group of four had joined up with a Korean family of three and a mother and son from Spain, all from our hostel, and we were led by a local tour guide. The hike was fairly easy, but unfortunately was very slow-going (and therefore less enjoyable than it would have been otherwise) due to the makeup of our group. After about 3km of an easy, quick downhill, we crossed a bridge over a small river and began a very gradual uphill hike through a canopy of enormous trees, through occasional tunnels of bamboo-like plants with tufts of greenery at every joint. Eventually we all made it to our intended destination, a large sliver of a glacier atop a rock wall, part of Mount Tronador. The mountain's name translates to "thunder", and we quickly learned why as we listened to the rumbles of the ice as it shifted. Not long after we arrived, we actually saw a huge piece of ice break off with a thunderous roar, tumbling down the rock face and leaving a stream of snow in its wake. We sat down for a while to watch the glacier and enjoy the lunches we had brought along, before we continued back along the same path to our original starting point.
Thankfully the group was a bit faster on the way down, and we made better time on the way back. We piled back into the car and drove over to the viewpoint for the Black Glacier, so named because of the dirt and rock the glacier has picked up over time, and it appears more like a shiny slab of black rock than actual glacial ice. We didn't stay long at the viewpoint since our hike had taken so long, and we were hurried back to the car for the two hour ride back. This time I at least stayed awake the entire way to enjoy the view!
I was nearly regretting my decision to take the 28 hour bus ride to El Calafate the next morning after all the driving we did that day, but back at the hostel I met a Canadian couple who would be taking the same trip - and sitting just across the aisle from me! - so that made the idea seem slightly more bearable. We also met an Aussie traveler / photographer at the hostel that evening who shared dozens of gorgeous photos of El Calafate, El Chaltén, and Torres del Paine, making me more determined than ever to actually make it all the way to Torres del Paine and do the W trek!
Excited for the next stage of the journey into Patagonia, I awoke early the next morning to set off on the longest bus ride I've taken thus far...