Thiis the 3rd installment of our TR to Chile & Arg (Part I: Southward Ho:Adventures in Chile & Argentine in Chile forum & Part II: Lake Crossing in this forum)
Argentine Lake Country
Our pre-arranged cab delivered us promptly to our lodgings at Los Juncos at kilometer 20 of the lakefront road that ran west from San Carlos de Bariloche. Los Juncos was immediately likeable, a converted farmhouse filled with an eclectic collection of furniture and art. Music – a languid mix of Brazilian lounge, jazz vocal standards and French pop – whispered in the background. One of the owners, Gabi, warmly greeted us and we half-dragged, half-carried our luggage to our upstairs room. We were starved – we hadn’t eaten since noon – but too exhausted from our long day on the lake crossing to even think about going out for dinner. Instead we decided to eat in – and Gaby was to be our chef. Works for us!
While he cooked, we started with wine, a superb bottle of Pulenta Estate malbec. It was so wonderful just to sit, listen to the music and relax! Our first course was a green salad – a real green salad – and a samosa (actually an empanada in disguise) of spinach, anchovies and black olives. Both were fabulous. Next up was an absolutely superb spinach and ricotta malfatti and a Thai lamb in curry sauce w/ vegetables, which was a bit under-seasoned for Thai food, but savory nonetheless. Dessert was simple and heavenly, figs flambéed in Gran Marnier. We crawled upstairs to our comfortable bed, sated and exhausted.
We slept in and started the day with a late breakfast of whole-wheat medialunas (miniature croissants), fresh bread, orange juice and fruit. And real honest-to-god coffee. After breakfast we set out to explore Bariloche. We were fortunate that the “20” bus ran straight into town and had a stop in front of Los Juncos. The previous evening our cab driver had mentioned that everybody who bought property in the Bariloche area wanted a lake front view; the twelve miles into town proved him right. The lakefront road was continuously fronted with alternating commercial areas, artesania shops, restaurants, hotels and lake front houses. We exited the bus at one of the first stops in Bariloche and began our explorations.
Bariloche didn’t make a positive initial impression, a situation worsened by the unseasonably warm weather. Every other store seemed to sell a mix of overpriced outdoorsy clothing and Patagonia/Bariloche-themed t-shirts. We wandered a bit, entering stores and fingering synthetic fibers and eyeing cotton t-shirts. We visited the central plaza, lined with heavy stone German architecture. In the center was a vandalized statue of General Roca (hero of the Argentine campaign against the Mapuche Indians) astride what seemed to be the world’s most exhausted horse. After an obligatory gift purchase (t-shirts), we had hot chocolate – fabulous! – at the famous Mamushka café and then wandered some more. The cathedral had an impressive neo-Gothic exterior. However, we were too sapped by the heat to check out the interior – a mistake in retrospect as the stone cathedral was likely to be cool inside. We found a tourist office and some maps. By then hungry – and with many stores closed for lunch – we went to the parilla recommended by Los Juncos, El Bolinche de Alberto, for a 2:30 lunch.
El Bolinche de Alberto – there are four branches in Bariloche and the surrounding area - was up a steep side street. It was crowded but we had prime seating where we could watch the cooks at work grilling over a large wood fire. The grill could be raised and lowered to allow the addition of more wood. Watching the grill master work the various sausages and cuts of meat was like attending a carnivore’s ballet; this was an art. Our meal arrived promptly and we slid the breadbasket away.
• A large porción of lomo de chorizo cooked perfectly “al punto” as we had requested. (“Chorizo” in this case refers to a cut of meat, not the sausage we are familiar with in the USA).
• An immense mound of extremely crisp and delicious papas fritas.
• A half bottle of the house malbec.
All in all a fabulous meal that was too big to finish for about U$D30.
After lunch, we began our trudge through the heat back to Los Juncos. We were uncertain of the exact route – as well the location of stops – that the #20 bus took going back to kilometer 20 and on to Llao Llao. (The street we came in on had become one way once the bus entered Bariloche.) So we walked out of town to the two-way coast road we had taken in. It was a bit of a walk in the heat and we couldn’t find any marked spots, which was a tad odd as stops on the way in had been clearly marked. An inquiry at a hotel resolved the issue: The stops back were directly across the street from the marked stops in – they just didn’t bother with marking them since everybody could see where they were. I think this comes under the category of logical but not exactly intuitive.
When we returned to Los Juncos, we met Flavia, Gabi’s sister and co-owner. We liker her immediately and talked at length talked about Los Juncos, Bariloche, the upcoming four day “bridge” day weekend (one of two in March) and our plans. The grounds of Los Juncos were so pleasant they seemed to invite inertia, particularly given the heat. We spent the rest of the afternoon there, wandering the grounds, admiring the nearby arm (Brazo Campanario) of Lago Nahuel Huapi, washing clothing in the sink and updating our emails. (Our room was within reach of the Los Juncos wifi.)
That evening, we took the #20 bus back down the road to Cerverceria Berlina at kilometer 12 for a dinner of one empanada and two salads accompanied by wine and artisanal beer. Berlina was a bit noisy with a rock-and-roll décor and soundtrack. I don’t think I’ve seen that many Rolling Stones posters in one place since 1972. We took a taxi back to Los Juncos.
Our plans for the next day called for at 10:00 a.m. rental car drop-off at Los Juncos followed by a road trip to San Martin de los Andes via Villa la Angostura and the Seven Lake Drive. 10:00 came and went. No car. Both Flavia and Gabi were out. We managed to figure out how to use the house phone to contact the car rental agency in Villa Angostura. There had been a mix-up. In January, we hadn’t responded to an email that had, in passing, mentioned a very minor price change (less than U$D5 a day) in the daily rental rate. The rental agency had taken our non-response as a lack of further interest and had cancelled the reservation without notifying us. Through sheer oversight, we had not done our customary re-confirmation. The result: no car on the Saturday start of a four-day holiday weekend. (Tuesday was Mardi Gras and Carnival was being celebrated for the first time ever in Argentina by Presidential decree; not coincidentally, there’s an upcoming presidential election in autumn.)
After a series of phone calls made by the car rental lady in Villa la Angostura, she finally managed to acquire a car from a Bariloche car rental agency. Although it was initially supposed to be there within an hour, the car did not arrive until after 12:30 – and only then after repeated phone calls tracking its purported progress from the far side of Bariloche. We then had some extended bilingual negotiations with the rental representative, Newton. The car was more expensive than our initial rental (understandable given our 11th hour request) and he wanted to be paid in cash (doable, although I wondered if his employer was aware of this requirement). But Newton also wanted us to return the car to the Bariloche airport Wednesday morning – which was some distance out of town. But we had to catch an early morning bus to Puerto Montt, Chile, from the centrally located Bariloche bus station. On top of everything else, Newton wanted to charge us a surcharge for washing the car – an absurdity in a country where many of the roads are dusty ripios. (The car in question was already coated with khaki patina of dust.) Back and forth we went. We managed to get some concession on the price, but had no luck on the return location or the washing surcharge. We felt that we had been held hostage to events, but signed some papers and took the car.
We were on the road a little after 1:00. The route took us first through Bariloche on the south side of lago Nahuel Huapi, then around the east side of the lake until we took a left on Route 231, the road to Villa la Angostura. As we moved east after leaving Bariloche, the landscape turned from green to brown – a high desert ended right at Bariloche. Route 231 paralleled the north shore of lago Nahuel Huapi and we soon found ourselves again in the coniferous foothills of the Andes. Villa la Angostura is fairly close to Bariloche – the drive was only about an hour and a half even after winding our way through Bariloche’s thick holiday traffic.
Villa la Angostura reminded us of a Colorado ski town…a main street of four or five blocks of stores and restaurants, all recently constructed out of rough timber. It wasn’t unpleasant, but the part we walked around seemed to have an aura of a forced and artificial rusticity. We sought out an older restaurant, La Encantada, on a side street for a late lunch. (We barely made it before closing.) We started by sharing a great empanada “de trucha” (trout). Our mains were lomo de trucha w/ papas and Patagonian lamb, also with potatoes. I liked my lamb – and the accompanying oven-roasted potatoes – a lot. We were less enthusiastic about the trout and its bland potatoes. I had a glass of wine – a Patagonian red – which was excellent. After lunch we strolled through town – perhaps three of the five blocks. The stores were repetitive and the sun was ferocious. We returned to the car and hit the road.
Villa la Angostura is the starting point for the Argentine ‘siete lagos’ (seven lakes) drive as well as the only crossing in Patagonia to Chile via paved road. The siete lagos route is in the process of being paved, but most is still unpaved, perhaps due to the prevalence of government-decreed holidays. Hence, most of it is either under construction or unpaved ripio. We had also gotten a late start due to the stressful car fubar. Perhaps this, in combination with the extensive time spent in Chilean lake country, accounted for our lack of appreciation for the siete lagos drive. We drove past the various lakes and dutifully noted their differing hues. But our underlying feeling was that of viewing something we had seen before – majestic and beautiful, yes, but familiar. Perhaps we’d become jaded.
From our very moment of arrival, however, San Martin de los Andes captivated us. We immediately loved this small charming town and its mixture of gaucho and modern, Argentine and German. We found our lodging (Casa de Eugenia) without difficulty and immediately loved it as well. It had a common area filled with books in various languages and whimsical items (e.g., a collection of old cameras) followed by a series of vividly painted guest rooms. We had an option of rooms and chose the one furthest in the back, which was comfortable although occasionally stuffy – we left the door to the patio outside open when we could. We settled in, and, as we had so often this trip, washed various articles of clothing and set them out to dry. Then we went to the common area for wifi access and checked emails and current events. Later, based on the recommendation of the woman at the desk, we set out on foot across town for dinner at “Bar and Bistro” Torino. We found it with little difficulty after a longish walk through town. The dish I ordered was, I think, one of the best of the trip…lamb-stuffed ravioli with a sauce of caramelized onions studded with berries that the menu described as “fruta de bosque.” (I later determined that these were most likely calafate berries.) The salad we ordered was OK. The wines, glasses of chardonnay and malbec, from the “Fin del Mundo” winery were both good. In fact, the chardonnay was excellent. As we walked back, we stopped for dulce de leche ice cream at a busy corner ice cream store. Then we wandered to the central square where people of various ages danced to recorded folklorico and tango music and artisans offered their wares. We pressed our noses to the glass of a gallery of fine art photography and eyed a kid (cabrito – a baby goat) being grilled Patagonian-style, splayed in front of a wood-burning fire. It would have been hard to imagine the festive air, the late-night crowded streets, the quality crafts, or the music on the other side of the mountains in the comparatively staid – albeit more prosperous – Chile.
The next morning, after a good breakfast of eggs, pastries and fruit, we conferred at length with the owner of Case de Eugenia, Augustín, regarding local driving/hiking possibilities. He recommended the hike to cascada Chachin off lago Nonthué at the western end of lago Lacár. So we braved the thirty kilometers of rough ripio (route 49) on the north side of lago Lacár to do just that. The road became even bumpier as we left route 40 at Hua Hum for the falls. We lurched down a road that seemed scarcely more than a clear spot in the woods. But the drive was worth it – it took us to a remote trailhead in Parque Nacional Lanín. Entry was free, unlike national parks in Chile. The trail wasn’t crowded, despite it being a beautiful Sunday morning. We hiked to the falls on the well-maintained shaded trail. When we arrived at the overlook, the falls were a little distant but beautiful nonetheless. After our return hike, at the trailhead kiosk, I had a lengthy conversation in Spanish with an Argentine family about our trip – where we’d been, where we were going. They were passionate about both San Martin de los Andes and the nearby Junín de los Andes.
When we left the Chachin trailhead, I promptly took a wrong turn on the little road we’d driven in on. We spent half an hour going to ever more remote parts of the park on an increasingly bumpy road before arriving at a barricaded bridge. Ooops. We righted ourselves and eventually found the road back to San Martin de los Andes. Following another suggestion of Augustín’s, we turned off about halfway back to go to Café Quechuguina, a lakeside restaurant. The little road took us through fields of summer flowers to an old barn and an adjacent farmhouse. Outside, there were several tables set up under a huge oak tree. At one of them – at the head of the table of a group of eight – was none other than Augustín. Another table of six sat nearby. We selected one of the smaller tables and carefully adjusted it for the optimum combination of shade and sturdy footing. It felt like a Sunday in the French countryside – the dappled light, the fields of flowers, the old path that went onwards and downwards to lago Lacár. A server explained the abbreviated menu and took our order. The food was delicious: Chicken curry with rice, gnocchi made of polenta, and a bottle of Cafayate torrontes, a familiar white wine from the Salta region in northwestern Argentina.
Following lunch, we befriended the owner/chef, Jeannine. As our luck would have it, we were the last customers on the last day of the summer season. She was shuttering up the restaurant the very next day in preparation for her return to Buenos Aires Wednesday. She owned a frozen food business there. We took her phone number and made tentative plans to contact her in Buenos Aires. We then had a walk down the path to the lake, going through a field of purple thistle-like flowers until we entered a forested area. We reached the lake and we just wandered.
Due to our late afternoon lunch in the country, we skipped dinner, instead opting to meander through San Martin de los Andes and have an ice cream cone whenever we encountered a parlor. It was impossible not to love this delightful town!
The next day, after another superb breakfast, it was time to return to Bariloche. Instead of returning on the siete lagos route, we opted for paved road – northeast on route 234 to Junín de los Andes, then south on paved roads. We didn’t have time to actually stop in Junín de los Andes, but, from what little we saw of it, it had the same appeal as San Martin de los Andes, a mixture of gaucho and German style that was a little reminiscent of the American West. From Junín, we went on route 234 towards route 40. The vast landscape turned to high desert. The Andes receded to the horizon and the sky stretched out into what seemed a speckless infinity of blue. We stopped at a viewpoint under fantastic basaltic cliffs stained white in places by condor droppings. High above in the immense sky we saw the condors effortlessly gliding. Our route 40 drive was one of the most scenic of our trip, lined with increasingly convoluted rock formations as it neared the intersection with route 237.
A little after noon, we followed a roadside “trucha” sign to Hosteria Gruta de las Virgenes, where we stopped for lunch. Hosteria Gruta de las Virgenes overlooked a river and spectacular shattered volcanic hills. The food was inevitably less spectacular than the scenery: So-so trout, the oxymoronically named but oddly tasty milanesa napolitana and Argentina’s finest bottled water. The next twenty or so miles of route 237 were simply awesome: a parade of jagged hills. These ended well outside Bariloche. We nonetheless arrived in Bariloche with a feeling that the paved road via Junín and routes 40 and 237 was more scenic than the siete lagos route.
We returned to the very same room in Los Juncos and filled Flavia in on the car rental story. She was indignant, both in regard to the washing surcharge and the airport drop-off. She conferred with the car rental lady in Villa la Angostura and they tag-teamed Newton into submission by phone. He eventually agreed to waive the washing fee and to allow us to drop the car off at the bus station. At one point during the telephone negotiations, she turned to us, rolled her eyes, made a face, and hissed that Newton was Brazilian – she could tell by his accent. Thank you Flavia!
Having a car – we didn’t have to drop it off until Wednesday morning - gave us more flexibility in regard to exploring the Bariloche area. That afternoon we went to the pricey and cavernous Llao Llao resort for cocktails and were rewarded with a spectacular sunset. We then ate dinner at a branch of Bolinche de Alberto at kilometer 11 of the lakefront road. The meat - we ordered filet instead of the lomo – was still good, but the fries were a bit soggy. Tuesday, we hiked lago Escondido near Llao Llao – there’s a municipal park adjacent to the ridiculously luxurious lodge – and took a drive in the hills overlooking Llao Llao, the lake and the hills on the far shore. We lunched again at Berlina – more salads – and drove to Villa Cerro Catedral, way above Bariloche and the lake. That evening, Los Juncos recommended a pizza place named “la Barra” and accompanied the recommendation with a byzantine set of directions. We managed to find it anyway. Closed Tuesdays. The owner of the pasta shop next door recommended another pizza place called “Don Corleone” up the hill and down the road on Avenida de los Pioneros. Somehow, we managed to find it. Also closed Tuesdays. Tuesday is definitely not pizza night in Bariloche. We drove into Bariloche proper on Avenida de los Pioneros and somehow stumbled across the oddly named Restaurante Kandahar. We remembered it being recommended in guide books and popped in. Great décor, great food, great wine – indeed, so great that I lost my notes in regard to what it was we ate and drank. But it sure was good.
We returned to Los Juncos for our last night. The next morning we found Newton waiting at the bus station parking lot with a lop-sided smile. I tossed him the keys and we were off to await our 7:30 bus to Puerto Montt, our stepping stone to the far south of Chile.
Note: All things considered, we would have preferred to spend more time in Argentine lake country, particularly in San Martin and Junín. It would have been nice if we could have done our itinerary more efficiently – spending two nights apiece on a Bariloche/San Martin/Bariloche circuit gave us a feeling of constantly being on the move. Maybe we would have appreciated Villa la Angostura and the Seven Lakes drive more had we not felt rushed. And we should have allowed enough time to visit (and stay) in El Bolson, a mountain crafts town south of Bariloche. And, of course, we should have done our chocolate and ice cream research in advance - and reconfirmed our rental car reservation.