Two people exploring the world, seeking adventure & unique experiences.
Abandon the Volcano hike and get to Argentina
The plan had been to try and climb Volcan Villarrica, but with unfavourable weather conditions and rain in town we decided to move straight on to San Martin de Los Andes in Argentina. The bus left at 8.30am and would arrive into San Martin around 1pm.
We had some business to deal with as we tried to use Exchange4free to get some blue dollar pesos. This was a strategic point for us as it was the southern most listed location to obtain them using the website. A note for others, the further south you travel, the lower the rate of exchange you will be able to obtain compared to what is listed online. Our plan had come to a halt though as our money wouldn’t be available to pickup until the following day. This meant an unplanned stop overnight in San Martin. We’d been approached by someone at the bus station offering accommodation at a fairly cheap rate of 120 pesos per person ($9.30). The place was called Patagonia Andina B&B. The place itself was really quite nice and very clean, but the owner was certainly borderline crazy. We’d only recommend this place as an emergency option to other travellers purely due to his weirdness.
7 lakes by rental car
With a change in plans, we decided to rent a car for the next day and do our own 7 lakes tour. The only other option that day was to go with a tour company for 600 pesos ($46ea). The rental car cost 650 pesos ($50) plus 200 pesos ($15.50) in gas between 3 of us.
The 7 lakes route goes from San Martin de Los Andes south along Route 40 to Villa la Angostura for 110km of driving bliss. Our first stop off was a viewpoint looking out over the town of San Martin and Lago Lacar.
The next few hours would be a series of scenic viewpoints, abandoned campgrounds, snow capped mountains and generally breathtaking scenery.
At about the 70km mark is a section of dirt road that lasts for 15km. Using a rental car, this is probably the biggest fear as other cars and trucks throw up potentially windscreen breaking stones. The excess for any damage to the rental car was 8,000 pesos ($600), so certainly not an ideal scenario and thankfully we had no problems except for some cows crossing our path and some very friendly ducks looking for food.
We stopped for lunch at one of the final roadside lookout points near Villa la Angostura.
It was at this time that we split the group. Nancy and Rodora caught the bus to Bariloche from Villa la Angostura (52 pesos / $4) while Toby returned the car to San Martin de Los Andes before also getting on an evening bus to Bariloche (148 pesos / $11.50).
The hostel of choice was “Hostel 41 Below” with a homely kind of feel and friendly staff. A place in a 6 bed dorm cost 120 pesos ($9.30) and 150 pesos ($11.50) in a 4 bed with views of the lake. Rodora and Nancy went to explore the happy hour at Konna almost directly across the road with 2 for 1 pints (40 pesos / $3). They also tried their tasty pizzas and we would return in a few days to try their burgers and be beyond happy with the results.
Mountain biking in great scenery
We would again test Nancy’s physical abilities by going on an all day mountain biking adventure. The hostel recommended Circuito Chico Adventure at kilometre 18.3 (reached by local bus). Bike rental wasn’t all that cheap at 180 pesos ($14) for the day, but it included a good map, instructions and safety gear. Who knew that safety gear existed down here?
The total circuit would take around 27km of road. Add 6km to visit the town of Colonia Suiza and another 3km for Villa Tacul. We would start riding at around 11.45am and be back by 4.30pm riding at a slow pace and including a lunch stop. The initial views of blue lakes and snow capped mountains did not disappoint.
The main highlight of Punto Panoramico was reached easily in the first hour and offered probably the most scenic views of the day.
Our next major stop was at Hotel Alun Nehuen where we would stop for lunch on the shores of the lake, while also trying to avoid some strong winds.
We would then continue along on our road trip. There was so much scenery and thankfully some lovely blue skies.
Toby did the side trip to Villa Tacul, but wasn’t overly impressed with the effort. The next major stop was the Llao Llao Hotel and Resort. It’s a short uphill ride to the top with some scenic views. For those with an unlimited hotel budget, this place really did look amazing.
With the sun slowly setting and the weather cooperating, we took a short walk from the bike rental place to the entrance of Cerro Campanario. National Geographic rates this as one of the best viewpoints from a chairlift in the world. Current cost was 100 pesos ($7.75) for the return trip. We took the walking up option which should take the best part of maybe 30 minutes depending on your fitness. Upon reaching the top you are rewarded with more scenic lake views to take photos of. It was a little cold and windy at our arrival time of 6pm and we purchased a hot tea at the café which then abruptly closed.
We were contemplating to stay for sunset, but with it being over an hour and half away and the chairlift going down closing at 6pm, we decided against this idea.
Hiking to Refugio Frey
We started with the local bus out to the ski resort of Cerro Catedral. The trail starting point is fairly easy to find, but ask for directions if needed. The trail is roughly 9.5km each way and should take about 3-4 hours up and about 2 hours back depending on conditions, how many photos you stop to take and some time to soak in the views. The first couple of hours are quite flat and follow along the lake ridge line. The trail is quite well marked and a lot of bridges have been built to help hikers find their way.
The trail overall is quite well maintained and the only difficulty we found was about 15 minutes from the top where the snow line started.
When we arrived at Refugio Frey we instantly regretted not coming up with our gear to stay the night. This is a truly incredible place to spend some time. It might be a little cramped if there are a lot of people, but it was very clean and very welcoming. The lower level is the kitchen and dining area, while the upper level has a huge set of bunk beds suitable for around 30 people to sleep comfortably. Downstairs had some electric heaters and a wood stove for the cold winter nights. Food and drink is based on size and weight of hiking it in. For example a cup of coffee is only 15 pesos ($1) but a can of soda or beer is 30 pesos ($2). There are no mules here (which is fantastic) so it is hiked in each time the caretaker is changed over (about once a week). The views at the top are really nice and there are other hikes to do from the top depending on the season. For those that stay overnight, you can buy meals at the refuge for around 100 pesos ($7.50) for dinner.
Argentinian steak dinner
It was finally time for us to try steak in a real Argentinian restaurant. The hostel recommended a local place called “Alto el Fuego” which really brought new meaning to personal service. The kitchen had a glass window you could watch everything through from the dining area.
You could even go to the kitchen door and select your cut of meat personally where it was seasoned and placed on the huge BBQ grill.
It is true what they say and Argentinian’s do prefer a more undercooked and bloodier meat on their final dinner plate. If you like medium in a normal western restaurant, ask for it to be more well done. They were willing to put it back on the fire longer if you wanted it cooked further. I expect they were well used to western tourists wanting it cooked longer.
Beer tasting is very popular here
This region of Argentina and in neighbouring Chile has a whole range of craft breweries. For the craft brew lover you could spend weeks here in a beer heaven. One of the popular places is called Manush where you get a set of 11 samples for 75 pesos ($5.80). The focus is much more on red and darker beers as you can see from the colours in the photo below. Toby very much enjoyed the change with some darker beer. One thing we’ve learned about Latin America is that the focus is almost always on Lager or Pilsner type beers, which can get a little tiresome (yes Toby even said that).
If you’re in this area you should make the effort to visit El Bolson which is about 2 hours drive south from Bariloche. The bus costs 69 pesos ($5.30) each and should be done during the day to enjoy the scenery of lakes and forest. This ticked our typical box of small town with great access to nature. We stayed at the centrally located La Casa del Arbol (120 pesos / $9.30 each in 11 bed dorm).
We’d arrived on a Saturday which meant there was a quite large local market setup around the main plaza with lots of local artesian works to buy and also some delicious food (empanadas, cakes, beer).
With it being a sunny afternoon we stopped in at the El Bolson brew pub to sample a blonde beer (53 pesos / $4 a pint) and enjoy the large outdoor patio area.
Hiking to the Indian’s Head
The next day we would pack a picnic lunch and go hiking to a viewpoint, a blue river and finishing at the Indian’s head. The day would start off typically with us adopting a dog (who ended up being from the hostel also) who would come with us the whole day. Dogs in this town are very territorial, so whenever we walked past other dogs, they would be barking and get quite aggressive towards us until we had moved on.
The river as you can see from the photo is a really very blue colour. Just beautiful!
The final part of the hike was visiting ‘Cabeza del Indio’ (Indian’s Head). This has quite a nice viewpoint and definitely worth the effort to have a look.
Lago Puelo – El Bolson
Lago Puelo is about 45 minutes one way by local bus (18 pesos / $1.40 return). The entrance to the park is at the end of the bus route and there are a couple of easy hiking trails along the lake with viewpoints. You can take a much longer route for a 5+ hour hike along the lake, but we didn’t have time.
Returning to Bariloche
That day we would return to Bariloche and try another hostel called Penthouse 1004. We highly recommend this hostel for the amazing views of the lake not only from the common room but from the dorms. It’s set on the 10th floor of an apartment building where they’ve converted a large apartment into a hostel.
Plenty more to explore. Keep following the blog and our Flickr account for updates. http://www.flickr.com/photos/toraadventure/
*Note that all our Argentinian values are converted at the Dolar Blue rate of around 14 pesos is equal to US$1. The official rate is much closer to 8 pesos is equal to US$1 at the time of writing (Sept 2014)