San Carlos de Bariloche, January 1-4

We arrived in the extremely popular resort city of San Carlos de Bariloche (Bariloche for short) in time to ring in 2008, enjoying champagne in our camper and the whoops and firecrackers outside at Camping Petunia (certainly our first campground with a web page; they had a wireless hotspot too). The campground was packed unusually full thanks to a motorhome caravan of Germans, at least a dozen strong. It was the kid's first New Year's Eve staying up until midnight, though it wasn't much of a stretch given how "Argentinian" our daily schedule has become (discussed below).

We focused our time in the Bariloche area on two of its best assets: chocolate, and outdoor pursuits. We were genuinely impressed with the quality of the chocolate and huge variety (not that we're connoisseurs), with the bark-like milk chocolate as pictured in this article becoming a family favorite. Yum! We visited the chocolate shops a few times -- it was impossible to resist -- but one can only indulge for so long before it's time to work it off.

Leaving behind the chocolate and the hordes of tourists (including many groups of recent high-school graduates -- apparently the "Bariloche trip" is a post-graduation rite of passage throughout Argentina, and graduation was in December), we headed into the mountains for an epic overnight hike. First, reaching the trailhead required driving up a winding gravel road that's so narrow it's designated one way in different directions at different times of the day. Because of the timing, we spent a night at the trailhead, but it was hardly a waste -- the area had terrific biking and excellent scenery (photo 1, for example).

The next day we hiked up to Refugio Otto Meiling, a full-service mountain hut on the slopes of Cerro Tronador (literally the Thunderer, so-called for the constant icefalls from its hanging glaciers). Photos 2 and 3 show some of the vistas along the way. The hut sits on a rocky area between two glaciers, with superb views of the glaciers and the valleys below (photo 4). Accustomed to the Alpine huts we'd stayed in when we hiked the Mont Blanc Circuit in August, we were disappointed ("shocked" might be a better word) when, after the long hike up, we approached what appeared to be a small and very run-down building. Looks can be deceiving, though -- once inside we found the hut to be clean, reasonably comfortable for sleeping (mattresses for 30 in a large loft), cozy and convivial in the dining area, with friendly staff and excellent food.

At the hut, we learned that it was possible to go higher on the mountain -- a walk over glaciers to a well-known viewpoint called "The Edge" --  by hiring the resident mountaineering guide. After some debate, we decided to go for it the following morning, and what a good decision it was. (Our indecisiveness was partly over money -- unaware of the mountaineering expedition opportunity, we hadn't brought enough cash with us to the hut. Showing true kindness, the hut let us run a tab they trusted us to pay when we were back in Bariloche.) The next day was unusually clear. We suited up, roped up, hiked up, and greatly enjoyed both the bit of mountaineering experience and the terrific views
(photos 5-7). As a sequel to her Climbing Volcan Villarica story, Emily has penned an account of our mountaineering expedition. Don't miss To "The Edge" by Emily.

We returned to the hut around midday, hiked all the way back down to the trailhead at a good clip, then jumped quickly into the camper and managed to drive out before the one-way road switched direction. Whew! That was one long day.

The Otto Meiling hut, and even more so "The Edge," are very close to the Chilean border -- remarkably near
the Cochamó area that we visited a couple of weeks ago (see the route map). Most of the Argentina-Chile border runs along the ridges and peaks of the Andes, so although we were extremely close "as the condor flies," it's a long way by any other means.

As if the hiking expedition wasn't enough adventure, the very next morning Tim embarked on his second tandem paraglide flight. (His first was in the Pyrenees in August.) This flight was a little different: he knew already what it's like and how much he loves it, and because the winds were light and the flight instructor spoke good English, Tim was allowed to control the paraglider for much of the flight. Needless to say, it was a big thrill, and we continue to hear from Tim about his bright future in paragliding. The flight was a little different for the rest of us too: this time we watched the landing (photo 8) instead of the takeoff.

Over our few days of adventures we learned what a small town Bariloche is, at least in the outdoor tourism industry. (In reality it's not so small, with well over 100,000 people.) A woman named Julieta, visiting her brother who runs the mountain hut, came along on our "Edge" expedition. We discovered along the way that Julieta happens to be the ex-wife of Ernesto, the paragliding pilot. When we met Ernesto a couple of days later, he looked at Tim and said "You're the boy who plays the french horn." It turns out Ernesto had passed by the hut trailhead the night we were staying there and had taken notice of Tim practicing his horn outside the camper (photo 9).

Early in our South America travels, there was a strong earthquake in northern Chile that many of you contacted us about. We're not sure whether you've lost concern over our well-being, or volcanic eruptions don't rate, but there's been a significant eruption of a volcano not far from where we've been traveling. It wouldn't have affected us even if we were still in that area, although Emily wouldn't have been happy: Villarica rumbled quite often while we were climbing it, and Emily inquired at least as often about the probability of an eruption. (She even dreamt about one afterwards.) Emily wasn't too happy either about the regularity of nearby glacier avalanches during our "Edge" climb. Although there was no actual danger in either case -- these things are monitored closely and the thresholds for trail-closing are very conservative -- her fears are certainly understandable.

Ending with a more general topic, here's an update on the perennial question of how much we should pack into each day while long-term traveling -- i.e., do we ever relax? If anything, we've been filling up our days more than ever. More accurately, we've been tacking activities onto the end of each day with abandon, resulting in a late bedtime (sometimes extremely late), which then results in sleeping late in the morning unless we have an "appointment" of some sort (horse-riding, paragliding, whatever). This schedule is exacerbated because it's now light out until almost 11pm, and because Argentines (and Chileans), including children, stay up very late every night. So when, at 8:30pm before even thinking about dinner, we decide to do that last errand, walk, town visit, or drive just a little further, we can always tell ourselves that we're just assimilating into the local culture.

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