Argentine Lake District, continued; January 5-9

From Bariloche we continued south in the Argentine Lake District, though not very far -- our next stop was the smaller, more laid-back, alternative-to-Bariloche resort town of El Bolsón. Along the way Emily managed to score her fifth horse ride, guided by a true Argentine gaucho (photo 1), and accompanied by Alex instead of Jennifer for a change.

El Bolsón has long been a magnet for hippies, but it gets its share of yuppies too, and those in between. We liked it:
  • As chocolate is to Bariloche, berries and beer are to El Bolsón. The nearby valleys apparently make for excellent berry-growing, and being raspberry fans ourselves, in 1½ days we enjoyed them on several occasions. There are also numerous local cervecerias (breweries) turning out truly excellent beer. The inevitable attempt at combining the two specialties -- berry beer -- is best described as "interesting."

  • El Bolsón hosts a huge craft market every few days, so we timed our stop accordingly. Tim continues to scour shops and souvenir stalls for interesting crystals and fossils. It seems he hit pay dirt in El Bolsón. He's been desperate to purchase a piece of amber with embedded insects, like the ones he first saw in the unusual museum back in Santa Cruz, Chile. Finally he located a piece that would cost only a month's worth of his souvenir allowance (securing permission to borrow ahead into the next part of the trip). The chance to be the proud owner of preserved termites, tens of millions of years old, was something Tim apparently considered to be well worth it. Emily just ate the delicious raspberries on offer at the market.

  • We took an exciting single-track bike ride across and then down some of the nearby mountains. This time Alex got to join us. (Horse rides, bike rides... Alex is having a lot more fun these days!) By ending the bike ride in town, Alex was able to take a taxi up to where we left the camper. It worked very well.
In the previous travelog we mentioned how close we'd gotten, distance-wise, to areas we'd visited earlier in Chile. Now we've gotten even closer. In Parque Nacional Lago Puelo, just south of El Bolsón, we found ourselves in the same valley in which we'd camped in the Cochamo region -- the one with the marshmallow family. Apparently there are plans to connect the two areas by dirt road, but as of now there's only a trail. (Even so, it's complete with customs & immigration posts on both sides of the border.) It's interesting how different the two regions are: That part of Chile was the most remote and difficult-to-reach area we've driven to in the camper, involving ferries and horrendous gravel roads, with no services and very few people making the trip in. Here in Argentina, less than 50 kilometers away, we whizzed into our organized campground on paved roads, with plenty of tourists and numerous kiosks and snack stands to serve every need. Partly it's geographical -- on this side of the Andes the terrain is less steep and there's substantially less rain, making it more hospitable for development.

Moving further south, we next visited Parque Nacional Los Alerces. We'd heard about this park more than once from locals we met earlier, who raved about how wild and unspoiled it is. We're certainly glad we made the detour. We stayed two nights so we could take a substantial day-hike up to a fantastic ridge; photos 2-4. (The hike is long and difficult enough that the rangers insist you register in and out, and they won't let you set off after 10am.) It was a brooding day, but fortunately the predicted rainstorm didn't materialize until late that night. We did, however, have incredible winds -- we haven't seen such winds on a hike since, well, since our previous trip to Patagonia!

If Emily decides to write a story about this hike, the winds will undoubtedly be described with colorful adjectives; they made Emily and Jennifer fairly nervous while scrambling across steep slopes and narrow ridges. (Too bad we left our trekking poles in the camper -- the improvised bamboo stick in the photos hardly did the trick.) Tim, meanwhile, seemed oblivious to the winds as he raced across the most treacherous sections looking at interesting rocks.

Near Los Alerces we made a brief stop at the Welsh settlement of Trevelin, where in the municipal museum the kids were invited to play the antique foot-powered organ (photo 5; Tim pumping the foot-pedals, Emily on the keyboard), and we had a lucky sighting of the Old Patagonian Express (photo 6), made famous by Paul Theroux's book of the same name.

Taking a look at the route map, our prolonged stay in the combined Lake Districts of Chile and Argentina generated quite a concentration of dots. (Los Alerces, the last dot before heading east, is considered on the border of the Lake District and Central Patagonia.) The length of time we spent in the area is testament to how appealing it is, both in its fabulous scenery and variety of things to do. The plethora of dots shows how much we moved around. What's not obvious from the map is that thanks to the dramatic geography of the area, a small move often takes one into a completely different region.

We're certainly not alone in our appreciation of northwest Patagonia at this time of year. In the thick of the tourist season now, campgrounds are very busy, and the more popular trails are rarely private. The vastly increased number of tourists doesn't bother us much, since people-interactions are always an interesting component of the travel experience. Nevertheless, we're glad that the majority of our time in South America was before the real summer travel season hit.

Next: Los Alerces was our last major stop before turning the Hot Chile Camper eastward to make our way across the country and ultimately to Buenos Aires, where we're due in a week. Even if we had more time, it's unlikely we would have driven further south.
The southernmost part of Argentine Patagonia, where it gets interesting again, is an area we've traveled in before. As for the long stretch in between, one of our guidebooks doesn't mince words: "Virtually no one comes this way, because this is one of the world's worst roads through one of its bleakest landscapes."

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