If you don’t like mountains or hiking then look away now (although there are some bonus whales at the end). As predicted at the end of my last post, we really, really have enjoyed our time in Bariloche, Villa La Angostura and San Martin. In the latter we spent our first full day hiking up to a lake from where snow-topped mountains peeked above forested hills.
On our second full day in San Martin we embarked upon a 29km hike which included a 1km height gain up to a 1,700m peak. It was an exhausting climb there, particularly through knee-high snow towards the top. But, when we reached the summit, in every direction we looked we could see more of those snowy mountains, as well as a few immense volcanoes. Beneath us was the verdant valley through which we’d just walked. I’d rate this hike as one of the best we’ve ever undertaken.
Another highly-rated hike came just a couple of days later. But first we were treated to a jaw-dropping bus journey from San Martin to Villa La Angostura. This route winds through the mountains and forests, passing turquoise lakes and rapid rivers. For three hours I couldn’t tear my eyes away from the spectacular scenery beyond the window.
After we arrived we collected our escort dog (every time we go for a walk in this region a dog attaches itself to us for an impromptu walk) and headed to the large lake which was shrouded with woodland. A very small river connected this lake to another. This smaller – but still huge – lake had a magnificent setting amongst the mountains.
Now it was time for that other highly-rated hike. It was a big challenge, starting steeply upwards, traversing through an icy river (necessitating bare feet and rolled-up trousers), more uphill and then wading for an hour through waist-high snow. Exhausting but truly memorable.
The scenery and hiking here are on a par with the Alps. The fondue, however, is not, but I admire the effort to mimic all things Alpine. Another big difference is the Mapuche population. This indigenous tribe fought off both the Incas and the Conquistadors. Absorbed into the new independent countries of Chile and Argentina, the Mapuche folk found that they’d lost huge amount of territory. The tiny pockets which remain today feel as though they’re considerably more connected to the environment than the encroaching Western suburbs.
After so much hiking our muscles are sore and I’ve developed a bad cold. So, what do we do? Yep, more hiking. This time we headed down, towards the lake and where a large wooded peninsula is connected to the mainland by a tiny isthmus. We took a boat to the far end of the peninsula – a journey so gloriously scenic the time flew by – then commenced the walk back.
The road on which we came to this place took us onwards and didn’t get any less spectacular. We arrived into Bariloche and checked into Penthouse 1004, a hostel at the top of a ten-floor building and with incredible views over lake and mountain. The town itself is bursting with chocolate shops and cutesy Alpine architecture.
It began to rain. We thought it wouldn’t stop and would seriously dent our hiking plans. But then the forecast provided a brief window of sun and so we set off once again for the mountains.
One of the best hot chocolates I’ve ever enjoyed was served in the remote mountain hut Refugio Frey nestled in the peaks behind Bariloche. It sits surrounded by serrated peaks and we waded through thick snow, four hours uphill. When we arrived it looked closed but then a rugged mountain man emerged and told us it was open.
“Tea? Coffee?” the refugio manager asked as soon as we stepped in, exhausted and bedraggled.
“Don’t suppose you have hot chocolate?” I replied.
Thus we found ourselves enjoying a hot, chocolatey delight in this small stone hut looking out on a view so incredible it seemed unreal. Sadly we then had to return, through deep snow, under dripping trees and over swollen streams.
Somehow I managed to book in advance the perfect place in which to recover from all this hiking. Our room in the Charming Lodge & Spa, just outside of Bariloche, came with its own steam room and sauna. It also had a large jacuzzi in the bedroom, which was wrapped in windows overlooking the lake far below and those multitudinous mountains we’d spent the past several days walking in.
Refreshed, well-exercised and blown away by Argentina’s spectacular Lake District, we went to the Tren Patagonico station. There were a few hours to spare before the train departed but, burdened with luggage, we had no choice but to sit in the waiting room, looking at old photos of the steam trains which used to ply this route. The room grew busier and busier, soon we were boarding the weekly overnight train to San Antonio Oeste.
Such a rare train has traffic stopping and people coming out of their houses to wave. The dining car was busy with passengers and served a perfectly decent steak. That night I fell asleep hoping that the partially buried rails wouldn’t result in too many derailments and that we would be delivered at least only a couple of hours late.
We were lucky. The train arrived at 07:05 and we were on a coach to Puerto Madryn shortly after 9. There we boarded a bus to Puerto Piramides on Peninsula Valdez. Here be whales. Lots of ’em.
We could see them from land (as well as a large colony of sea lions), but we could see them much, much easier from a boat. In fact, we watched as a mother and calf right whale appeared a couple of metres in front of us, the water so clear that we could watch the behemoths rise up from the depths then snort out water as they surfaced, soaking us in the process. Truly incredible.