By Nash Wills, Co-Editor
If you’re from Argentina, making the trip down south to San Carlos de Bariloche is somewhat of a right of passage. Nested along the shore of the tremendous Lago Nahuel Huapi in the lake region of the Andes Mountains right at the border between Rio Negro and Neuquén provinces, the mountain town has everything you need—skiing, hiking, beautiful architecture, restaurants, shops—to get a taste of the southern Argentine culture. While living in Jesús María in Córdoba province, I got a chance to take a week off from work, so I decided to set out with 3 friends to go explore the Northern Patagonia region.
My journey began at the humble bus stop in Jesús María where I caught the early morning “omnibus” for a 45-minute ride to Córdoba Capital. From there the real journey began, starting with a 14 hour bus ride from Córdoba to Buenos Aires, stopping in every town, both large and small, along the way. Although flying might get you from A to B more quickly, no true Argentina experience is fully realized without an extended period of time spent on one of these giant busses, and navigating the loco bus system and stations. If it’s your first time, plan on something going wrong.
When I arrive in Buenos Aires, my memories of la vida tranquilo fade fast as I hurriedly readjust to life in the big city. I meet up with my crew outside of a familiar restaurant, El Pinguino, and head over to a friend’s apartment where we are welcomed by the familiar scent of an asado on the parilla, the sound of an acoustic guitar, and the comfort of a couple of warm beds. We reminisce about times past and call it a night just in time to catch a few hours of sleep before zipping off to the airport for an early morning flight to Bariloche.
Descending through the clouds into this gateway to Patagonia is an unparalleled experience. The city sits on the edge of Nahuel Huapi National Park, and is the perfect launch pad for an adventure to any one of the numerous nearby glaciers, crystal clear rivers, snow-capped mountains, or breathtaking waterfalls that surround you at all times. On our first day, we meet up with a few friends and head over to a region called llao llao (pronounced shaow shaow in Argentine Spanish) for a day hike around Lago Nahuel Huapi. Spilled out at an elevation of 2,510 feet above sea level, the 204 square mile, 1,437 feet deep lake is beyond vast, and boasts transparent waters riddled with tiny islands. Our trek takes us through ancient forests and up to enticing viewpoints as we meander along towards our final destination: Lago Escondito (Hidden Lake). The rest of the day is spent munching on empanadas and fresh fruit betwixt intermittent swims and sun bathing sessions.
If the outdoors isn’t your thing, Bariloche has plenty more to offer. Known as the honeymoon capital of Argentina, the main strip boasts numerous shops, bars, clubs, and restaurants amidst Swiss-style architecture. The region is especially revered for its leather goods and chocolate manufacturing industry. Most of the locals are friendly, but as is the case with most tourist havens, they can also be a little unreceptive. After having spent the past 6 months assimilating into the culture, though, my accent is just authentic enough to break through any cultural barriers. Walking back to our hostel from a bar around dinnertime, an alluring scent coaxes us toward its source: a group of rionegrinos slow-cooking a cordero (lamb) over an open fire. They notice our curiosity and respond with some rather curt Argentine slang. This isn’t our first cordero though, and, to their disbelief, we give it right back to them. Thusly a friendship is forged, and we spend the rest of the evening dining and drinking with our newfound amigos.
While Bariloche is the largest and primary hub in the lakes region, it’s not the only one. Having set out on our journey without any initial plans, we decide to take the advice of our cordero compadres to heart and catch the next bus out of town to San Martin de los Andes, a quaint little mountain town about 100 miles north of Bariloche in neighboring Neuquén province. The drive, while long, tightly packed, and a little bumpy, is absolutely stunning. Colloquially known as el Camino de Siete Lagos (Seven Lakes Road), the narrow road snakes its way through the Andes alongside the translucent correntoso river, passing by dazzling lakes, mountains, and waterfalls all the way.
Rounding the mountain pass and arriving in San Martin, our original intention of only staying for 2 nights quickly changed to 3 as we fell under the spells cast by a welcoming people, buen ondas (good vibes), and sensational scenery. Tucked away between mountains in a valley that subtly rolls downwards into a white sand beach that alluringly segues into the clear waters of Lácar Lake, we spent our days taking it all in as we transitioned back and forth between terrestrial and aquatic life.
Our last full day was unquestionably the most memorable: After an early breakfast we made our way to the lakeshore where we rented kayaks and set sail towards a secluded cove that served as the access point for an obscured hiking trail that ushered its travelers up a mountain to a vantage point that peers out over the surrounding area. From there we made our way back down to the lake for a swim and then headed back to town for a nap. As evening arrived, a conversation with some locals at a bar turned into a trip down the street to a carniceria and eventually into a full-fledged asado feast. That night, River Plate—one of the most popular futbol clubs in Argentina—won the Copa Sudamericana for the first time in almost 2 decades, with the fiesta of the century ensuing shortly thereafter. The party continued on into the wee hours of the morning as we paraded around the city with seemingly all of San Martin de los Andes’ 15,000 resident adoring fans.