We wanted to do something fun outside on Christmas Day, and the closest we came was a 20- minute horseback ride through puddles during which we showed a nine-year-old horsewoman what city-slicker chicken shits we are. It’s unfortunate that you can’t see Pete’s mud-covered leather boat shoes or hear the nine-year-old yelling at me repeatedly to drive the horse better.
We rose early Sunday morning in Bariloche—at the same time a half dozen police officers were mediating a dispute between some drunk club kids and the taxi drivers across the street—in order to leave The Room for the last time and get to the bus station for a 7:30am departure.
We made it out of town at 8am and $60 lighter after boarding the wrong bus, and were excited to drive over the Andes and cross into a new country.* By the time we got to the other side of Lake Nahuel Huapi it was gently raining and we’d seen several rainbows.
Two “chofers” were going to share the driving. The one who was not driving checked our tickets and passports and distributed packages of cookies along with hot coffee and tea in glasses with straws.
It was too much for me: the early morning start, curvy road, fogged up windows, and the odd couple in front of me—a young guy and an older guy, both awkward, who may or may not have been traveling together and who spoke in English, German and Spanish, none of which appeared to be their native language. I curled up with Lou and went to sleep.
About two hours later we reached border control for Argentina in a mountain pass west of Villa La Angostura, and 40 kilometers later we went through Chilean border control. In between, the highway was bordered with drifts and dunes of ash with the texture of kitty litter. It is humbling to imagine the volcano explosion that instantly pulverized that rock and distributed it miles and miles away.
Shortly after we officially entered Chile, Lou said that his neck really hurt. Then he started to whimper. I guessed what was coming and could do nothing but let it happen. Pete heard Lou crying and came forward from his seat at the back of the bus next to the bathroom and a giant-sized American rock climber (!!) in order to help with the clean-up, and then Lou made an excellent decision to sleep until the bus stopped moving.
If you enlarge the Google Maps image above, you can tell that, just like with the American Rockies, when weather systems approach the Andes they start dropping precipitation: the terrain on the west side of the Andes is green and the terrain on the east side—starting at Bariloche—is arid and nearly treeless.
From the Chilean border we drove west across lush valleys, and near Orsono we started to see free-range dairy cows, horses, beehives, orchards, and cultivated fields. It looked a little like Wisconsin after a rainy spring.
My first let down was the town of Osorno, which screamed “distressed”: wooden row houses with two rooms up and two rooms down, peeling paint, and crooked, single pane windows. Treeless streets. Broken windows. Graffiti. And bodegas and comida rapida businesses that wouldn’t look out of place in the roughest parts of LA.
The outskirts of Puerto Varas looked the same, and then finally we reached the Puerto Montt bus terminal on the Pacific Ocean, six and a half hours after leaving Bariloche.
To me, Puerto Montt lives up to its description as a dump. Pete thinks it just looks like a Latin American city (“You should see Quito…” he says). I am reminding myself that there are many seriously ugly parts of the Twin Cities, and that everything looks worse under gray skies, which Puerto Montt has nearly every day.
Puerto Montt’s main attraction—and what brings people here from Bariloche—is shopping. There’s a big mall with department stores where ATVs are parked across from ladies handbags (or coolers and tents across from motorcycles across from children’s bathing suits). The mall also has a food court, called “Food Court,” where we ate at a restaurant reminiscent of Café Latte. The mall was packed.
At night we walked to a superstore called Jumbo (“Yoom-bo”), which is like a Carrefour or maybe an upscale Wal-Mart. Bing Crosby was singing Christmas songs overhead and there were aisles and aisles of toys, housewares, home electronics, wine and food. There was an entire aisle devoted to milk—plain milk on one side and flavored milk on the other. It was overwhelming and kind of distasteful, but cheaper than in Bariloche. And they stocked Jif-style peanut butter.
On Monday morning we walked two miles to the bus terminal and got in a micro going to Puerto Varas, which we had heard was small and quaint. As soon as we got off the bus I bought some Rainier cherries from a guy on the street and then we found a lovely restaurant facing Lake Llanquihue with a great view of Osorno volcano. We ordered fries for Lou, a savory crepe for me with corn, fresh spinach and diced tomato in a creme sauce, and a salad with a scoop of quinoa for Pete. It made my day to eat a hot meal that wasn’t made of bread or pasta and cheese.
We had promised Lou that we would take him to a kids park at Jumbo, so we headed back to Puerto Montt mid-afternoon. It turned out the kids park was just a climbing structure in the corner of the Jumbo cafeteria, but we met some charming elementary school kids who asked for our autographs and talked with a group of moms. The ladies were lovely, curious about what we were doing and full of suggestions for our time in Puerto Montt (and they oohed and aahed about Bariloche). Unfortunately, even Pete can only understand about 50 percent of what Chilenos say.
We can’t wait to get “home” to Bariloche.
* We needed to leave Argentina in order to renew our tourist entry permits, which are only valid for 90 days.
Today was a national holiday (“to commemorate some battle,” according to Mirna), so we booked an all-day excursion to see a glacier.
The sun was shining from a cloudless blue sky as we headed out of town in a micro with our driver, our guide Mica, and several Argentines including a group of women from Buenos Aires in their 50s or 60s that Pete called “the Golden Girls.”
We headed south and west, driving through the barrios or pueblitos pequeños of outer Bariloche where humble homes—many in the midst of years-long or never-to-be-completed renovations—led to a dozen or more rudimentary shacks that were not very far from the town dump, where we saw open pit burning. Then we drove around Lago Gutierrez, which is much, much bigger than what we saw when we went to Luciana’s.
To get to the glacier we needed to drive deep into the unpopulated part of the Nahuel Huapi National Park. A two-lane highway got us about a third of the way from Bariloche, and the rest of the way we drove on a narrow, extremely rocky road. We were the kids in the back of the bus, so we suffered the most despite having a luxurious amount of leg room.
We stopped for pictures several times on the two-plus hour drive to the glacier, and during our break at a campground next to some rapids I impulsively bought a couple of Cokes. It felt like we were leaving civilization.
All along the journey Mica offered commentary about the history, geology, and flora and fauna of the countryside, which neither Pete nor I could hear well enough to understand. But the volume of information offered, the enthusiasm behind it, and occasional chuckles from the Golden Girls convinced us that Mica was a good guide.
We finally arrived at the end of the road where we were surprised to see a restaurant serving a few different entrees, beverages including hard liquor, and an assortment of beautiful desserts. (Who are the poor truckers bringing in all that food? And where do the restaurant staff live? They have to drive in during the morning and can’t leave until afternoon because most of the road is so narrow that it is unidirectional.)
Pete, Lou and I sat under tall trees eating the lunch we had packed, surrounded by Argentines and their thermoses of hot water and mate cups. In front of us was a thick sheet of snow and ice perched on the top of Mount Thunder, and we could hear ice melt pouring from cracks and crevices all along the mountainside. After lunch we did a short, easy hike up the Garganta del Diablo (Devil’s Throat) to better see the waterfalls.
Our next stop overlooked the base of the black glacier, a glacial moraine, and a lake of ice melt turned green from pulverized rock. Several times we heard snow breaking off the ice sheet on Monte Tronador, and it truly sounded like distant thunder. Once a chunk of snow broke free directly in front of us, and it seemed to fall so slowly that I was sure I could have lifted the camera to shoot it if I hadn’t been mesmerized. When the ice finally hit the slope below it again sounded like thunder.
All along the drive Pete and I remarked that the scenery was comparable to what we have seen in Glacier National Park, except this was even better because the glacier hasn’t completely melted.
This morning Lou got a haircut from a very nice guy named Matías. Then we tried to do too many errands on too little breakfast, which led to berrinches (tantrums) and lágrimas (tears). We all felt exhausted and Pete and I almost canned our plans to do a hike on the Circuito Chico until we realized the alternative was staying in The Room. Together.
So we hopped on the colectivo and headed to the bus stop near the Hotel Llao Llao, from which we could walk along the road to a trailhead.
All three of us enjoy walking a path through the woods under perfect weather conditions, but Lou in particular responds well to the outdoors. After a five-mile hike (GPS proved it!) we were tired but happy and grateful once again to have easy access to such an amazing natural environment.
Last Sunday (November 18) we took a guided excursion called the Circuito Chico, or short circuit. We left town in a micro bus (called a “micro”) and drove west along Lake Nahuel Huapi. It was another gorgeous day, and our two-lane ribbon of road was bordered with conifers and leafed-out trees, masses of yellow flowers, blue lake water, and hostels, hotels, private lake homes, tea houses, and parrilla restaurants. I quickly came to understand that tourism absolutely dominates the local economy.
About 20 minutes out of town we made our first stop, at the base of Cerro Campanario. A chairlift would take us up to the top of the peak and then we could take the lift back down or hike down. The guide said we would be there for about half an hour, so I agreed to stay in the bus with Lou, who was sleeping in my lap. Over an hour later, Lou woke up and we had a snack. Eventually, the rest of the passengers boarded and we left. I missed some spectacular views, so we’ll go back on the colectivo (“bus”) some time.
Here are some pictures from the rest of the tour.