Bariloche and Ruta 40
08.12.2010 - 14.12.2010 12 °C
We stumbled bleary eyed off the 17 ½ hour bus ride to Bariloche and caught our first glimpse of the Andes – a range of mountains that runs almost the entire length of South America.
Bariloche itself is nestled in amongst the Andes on the edge of an huge alpine lake, Lago Nahuel Huapi and is surrounded by trees. It reminded us of Queenstown (and services several ski-fields) although the town itself appears to be trying to imitate Switzerland, with wooden buildings and St Bernards roaming the streets.
While we had blue sky for our first afternoon in Bariloche, it was howling a gale and the next day brought rain and drizzle. Despite the weather we hired a car with two German girls from our hostel to drive the La Ruta de los Siete Lagos (Road of the Seven Lakes), a picturesque route on gravel roads north from Bariloche to San Martin. The road was spectacular and would have been even better if the clouds had not prevented us from from getting a good view of the mountains surrounding each of the lakes. Lots of photos included in the gallery.
The next day a huge storm kept us inside with wind, rain and SNOW! It did not snow much in Bariloche itself but the surrounding mountains were covered the next morning.
We woke up to blue sky and took a bus south for the day to a town called El Bolson. Thanks to the snow, even the bus trip was amazing. In El Bolson we visited the local hippy market which only allows goods which have been handmade to be sold. We bought some excellent food – think raspberry and cream waffles for breakfast, immediately followed by a lunch of giant chicken and schnitzel sandwiches costing around four dollars each and listened to some Jazz at a local festival. For the afternoon we hired mountain bikes and rode into the surrounding hills, searching for the perfect vista and the most difficult off-road tracks to test Jess's skills on the bike.
Our last day in Bariloche was spent walking around an area further along the lake front called Llao Llao, where there is an enormous state built hotel. It looked like it would be an amazing place to stay, set against the foot of Monte Tronador (3500m), surrounded by lakes and including a private golf course within its grounds, but unfortunately, I think one nights accommodation there is about 4 times our entire daily budget.
Our next destination was El Chalten, some 1400km's to the South and on the road travel time of around 24 hours. To get there we decided to split the trip over two days and bus through a segment of Ruta 40, a famous Argentinian road that stretches more than 5000 km (almost the entire length of the country) from Cabo Virgenes in the south to La Quica in the north.
As we moved south from Bariloche the road left the Andes behind, with the mountains gradually flattening out into a vast expanse known as the Patagonian Steppe – a barren, sparse region of endless nothingness and terrible pizza restaurants, which provided the perfect opportunity for neverending road shots (see gallery).
The land is clearly farmed but appears so arid that you rarely see large groups of animals and the only signs of human life are the occasional vehicle overtaking or passing in the other direction. To give you an idea of size we briefly visited an Estancia (farm) on day two which covered more than 40,000 hectares.
Despite the monotony I enjoyed watching the landscape pass by (although Jess had an alternative opinion) and the day was made more interesting by the bus regularly breaking down. Que departure of the drivers (apparently also mechanics) from the bus to tinker, restart the engine and then hopefully continue driving. Given that we were literally in the middle of no where with no cell phone reception the buses incessant beeping was slightly concerning and the regularity of breakdowns steadily increased until we seemed to be stopping every 10 minutes over the last 100 km. Luckily the bus limped into our stopover for the night only a couple of hours behind schedule.
In the morning of the second day we went to see some UNESCO protected ancient cave paintings at a nearby Estancia (farm). The paintings themselves were more than 8000 years old and while Jess and I were not blown away by their artistic skills, the canyon they were situated in was really interesting and I have attached photos of both. It was then back onto the bus (a new one) for the remaining 600km, this time with the majority of the distance on unsealed gravel roads.
Forty hours after we departed Bariloche we left the Steppe behind and headed back into the Andes to arrive in El Chalten – a tiny postcard perfect village lying in the midst of the Andes enclosed by granite cliffs on all sides. We happily said goodbye to our bus and collapsed into bed. I'll provide an update on El Chalten when we leave in a couple of days.