Updated: Jan 25, 2021
We have just left the Lakes District, north of Patagonia, or perhaps it’s ‘northern Patagonia’ - I can’t figure that out. The Lakes District overlaps both Chile and Argentina, and as you can guess, there are lakes everywhere. Gorgeous, blue lakes. It is an incredibly beautiful area and equal to Canadian tourist destinations like Banff but with waaay fewer people. The District has a huge German population who, I’m sure, have been very challenged by curious and mis-informed people who believe the Germans in the region come from Nazi stock. Yes, in 1945, after the fall of the Nazi regime, German Nazi’s came to the area under the protection of a nasty Chilean dictator, Augusto Pinochet (who many know killed, tortured and made hundreds of thousands who opposed his regime "disappear"). In fact, there are some that say that Hitler and his mistress were part of that immigration. One such SS officer who undoubtedly lived in the region was a man named Erich Priebke. Priebke, in 1944, was responsible for the massacre of hundreds of Italians and Jews in retaliation for a bombing that killed 33 SS officers in 1944. This man lived in the pretty town of Bariloche for 50 years, settling into a quiet career in the school system until 1991 when a journalist discovered his existence and persuaded Priebke to tell his story. Thinking it was long-ago history that would create no consequences, Priebke spoke of his role in the massacre to that journalist, and as a result (yay to justice!), was thrown out of the country and under house arrest until he died. The real story, however, is that German settlers immigrated to Chile from 1850 to 1875 as farmers, merchants and artisans, were staunchly loyal to their new country, and had no interest in supporting the new Germany (and the Nazi’s) when that nation was formalized in 1871. They brought great things – like Chile’s first beer brewery in 1851 (wow, that didn’t take long!). The Lakes District is full of German architecture, breweries, and Spanish-speaking blondes.
We break up the 18-hour bus ride from El Chalten to Bariloche, the capital of the Lakes District, with a detour to Los Antiguos. LA is a town just off the border between Argentina and Chile, and a small green splotch in the middle of the dry Patagonia steppe.
Snuggled in beside a big lake with a long, lovely beach, today its beaches are empty because of the raging wind. The streets are quiet as we walk into town with our backpacks. Because we’re ‘stuck’ in the town for a few days (read DO’s and DON’Ts below), we have lots of time to explore. We discover that its lazy centre transitions into even lazier roads that go nowhere but to orchards. And the aspen windbreaks around the orchards seem to indicate that today’s crazy wind isn’t just a phenomenon.
The town calls itself the cherry capital of Argentina, but they don’t stop with cherries. We find both fresh and fermented fruit of all types for sale at small chacras we pass on our walk – of course, we go for the fermented type.
We end up at one of what seem like two restaurants in town, but our favourite meal was found by poking our nose into a small shop on one of the dusty streets in town where a lady sold us two huge helpings of homemade gnocchi with saucy chicken.
DO: Book your bus in AND out of Los Antiguos before you get there. Otherwise, like us, you may not be able to leave when you want to (a gift perhaps though – it’s a sweet town that grows on you when you’re stuck there).
DON’T: Expect a lot from Los Antiguos; just enjoy its small subtle gems: roses upon roses in every colour imaginable, so many cherries you could actually get sick of them, and sunny roads to amble along.
DO: Take a tour to the Cuevos de Manos, or Cave of Hands.More than 800 handprints on the cliffs where people lived and hunted guanacos 10,000 years ago (this is like 400 generations ago if that helps).
Handprints made by young boys who, for reasons unknown, held their hands against the cliff and blew paint through a bone pipe around them, creating the silhouettes. The caves are only a few hours away but difficult to do on your own as the place is forever away, along a loooong gravel road through never-ending steppe (a dry, rocky ecosystem with minimal green anything).
If you’re lucky, the tour will include the Tierra de Colores – a phenomenally gorgeous rainbow of coloured rock in an otherwise grey landscape that’s the consequence of mineralization.
Animal sightings galore, some happy, some not so much (it's a harsh environment!)
One regret…so many cool animals and sights but with only a Spanish guide, our curiosity went unsated. Tip: Tip well when you get an English-speaking guide – maybe we’ll see more in the future.
Bariloche, the summer destination for many Argentinians. After a ten-hour bus ride, we found ourselves in this super cute city full of Bavarian architecture (in fact, it was built to be, and called, ‘Little Switzerland in the 1930’s. The place also serves steaks the size of small cows, and fantastic chocolate, two key reasons to come here. We settled in an apartment with beautiful views of the lake and downtown core, just like it promised. The cockroaches were an unexpected surprise – we’re getting better at reading Air B&B reviews now. A couple of hiking options awaited us but because our sad, tired feet are vehemently rebelling, we chose the easier Cerro Llao Llao (pronounced zhow zhow), rather than the challenging Cerro Cathedral. It was a good choice. With only a little effort, our appreciative feet brought us to an incredibly beautiful vista of Lake Nahuel Huapi and all its deep blue arms and interweaving small islands and peninsulas.
DO: Visit the chocolate shop named “Mamushka,” a doorway to heaven in our opinion.
One side of the shop tempts people with sample chocolates, and when you’re good and hooked, as we were, load you up with bags of the stuff. As you travel further along in the shop you hit a very dangerous café, where their decadent chocolate is melted, poured into cups, and served to you with huge portions of delicious pastries.
DO: Ride the small chairlift on the left of the Havanna Chocolate Museum (whose entrance fee gets you a free hot chocolate).
You'll get a lovely view of the lake and mountain peaks beyond, then be brave and speed down a luge track on a giant toboggan to get back to the street. A small rush and great fun for 300 pesos!
DO: Buy a Sube card and load it with 35-peso fares from a local corner store (kiosko) if you want to ride buses – they don’t take cash. Very handy things these kioskos – they’ll also replenish your cell phone minutes for a small charge.
DO: Walk east a few blocks from the centre to catch any buses going west, and especially the #20 bus to Cerro Llao Llao or you will stand for 25 kilometres which is not fun. The same bus, going the other direction will take you back and forth from the centre to the bus terminal.
DON’T: Visit the Cerro Llao Llao mirador from the parking lot on the western shoreline because you will surely die of exhaustion from the steep, steep, steep trail from the parking lot. Instead, hike the much easier route a short distance from the park entrance at the end of #20 line.
San Martin de los Andes is a little like Banff in Canada – choc-a-bloc full of high-end shopping and tourists but a quarter of the size and an eighth as busy.
It, like Bariloche, is nestled at the end of a blue lake and surrounded by hills, and its streets are filled with roses.
We are the lucky winners of the cutest Air B&B ever, a cozy cabin across from the lake (that came with beach chairs) that should be nestled in snow-covered hills somewhere.
The sun has finally come out for us and we spend a good chunk of time in our chairs on the beach replenishing our bodies’ solar needs. Though our feet are still complaining, we force them up the mountain on the west side of town on the north side of the lake to get the view we’re promised by our host. It’s a dusty trail, steep in parts (very steep if you take wrong turns like we did), but at its end, we are gifted with a view of the town and its beachfront filled with happy dot-people, and around the corner, a massive blue ribbon of water framed by the mountains on both sides. The Mapuche people live on top of this mountain and have managed to take advantage of the growing tourism here, charging a small price to access the mirador and nearby inlet (which our feet staunchly refused to do) via their land.
Villa Pehuenia is one of our favourite places. It’s not easy to get to…it’s only served by one bus company (Campano Dos), and we had to (well, Aaron had to) help rebuild the dirt road that had washed out earlier before we could continue along our path).
We arrive at our hotel by taxi from the village centre after getting dumped off on a corner in the darkness, get settled, have a great sleep, and wake up to sunshine and blue sky. We walk into the new day and discover we are 50 metres away from the lake which, like an ocean coast, appears to curve around a multitude of tiny bays and is dotted with small islands. We rent kayaks and spend the entire day (aching shoulders as a result) paddling from island to island in the sunshine, stopping on beach after beach, no one on any of them.
We bake, we swim in our nothings – so nice! Having had very few hot days, the water is super chilly and so there’s some significant shrinkage if you know what I mean!). The lake’s bays are clear to its sandy bottom and sapphire blue as the water gets deeper. We’re told that the pueblo is relatively new, maybe 20 years old, and it appears that no one seems to know about it. It’s crazy – where are the hoards of tourists and boats that would be on any lake like this in Canada? I almost don’t want to tell anyone about it, god forbid I be the cause of its future over-development, but I really can’t keep such a treasure a secret. I’m trying to push myself to have conversations in Spanish (well, it’s really Aaron that’s pushing me – he’s always saying “Ask this” and “Ask that.” He has much more confidence in me than I do, haha. We meet a woman at one of the little beaches and so, as Aaron suggests, I say hello and we start a conversation.
She dreams about going to Canada as so many people we meet here do. We have a very nice chat and she, to our great delight, invites us into her home when she sees us later on the road for a cold drink and some funny conversation (as good as conversation gets with my limited Spanish). I love when random great stuff like this happens.
DON’T: Miss this place thinking that it’s just a little dusty village off the highway. The village centre is on the highway with its lake below and hidden from view. It’s not far away though. A quick taxi, or a leisurely walk on a windy dirt road lined with wildflowers will get you to this little piece of heaven.
DO: Get out to the islands. Best choice is a kayak for 1100 pesos ($20) each for the whole day. Very worth precious dollars. Or, try a pirate boat or a giant swan, both of which they rent out right beside the dock (la muelle or “mway-zhay”). Or, you can even reach some of the beaches just by walking and exploring either side of the narrow peninsula that extend into the lake from the highway.
Random Observations: Mate (pronounced mat-ay) is serious business here. Old and young drink it day and night, and have special cases to carry it in. Rules abound, i.e. don't say thank you when someone passes you the mate cup. Don't touch the straw with your hands.