Nestled into the foothills of the Andes and built next to the stunning Nahuel Huapi Lake, San Carlos de Bariloche is a town primarily supported by tourism. Whether in the winter for ski season or the summer for rafting, kayaking, sailing, hiking, trekking or biking, Bariloche is the nature-lover’s nirvana. My first, admittedly nerdy thought upon taking in its breathtaking landscapes dotted with pristine lakes, fog-enclosed mountain peaks and lush forests was that it looks exactly like the New Zealand set of Lord of the Rings. After spending a month in the heat and humidity of the Buenos Aires summer, the delicious mid-60’s temperatures and fresh mountain air of this resort town was just what the doctor ordered.
The first decision to make when planning a trip to Bariloche is whether to brave the 20-hour bus trip (average price $275 ARS) or spring for the two-hour plane ride ($250 USD). Either way will get you to Bariloche relatively hassle-free, it just depends on your wallet and schedule.
Next, don’t fret over finding hotel vacancies. There are hundreds of hostels, hotels and resorts throughout the city. Most are located along the main road on the lake, along with restaurants, bars and shopping. This road changes names as it meanders along the lake, so most refer to specific locations by their distance in kilometers from downtown. Example: Estoy quedando en Hotel Condor, entre kilometros seis y siete (I’m staying at Hotel Condor between kilometers six and seven). It may sound confusing on paper, but makes perfect sense when physically in Bariloche.
Once the basics are down then it’s time to start planning the fun stuff! If visiting in the winter, skiing at Cerro Catedral, one of the biggest ski centers in South America, is a must. The summertime, however, offers a variety of options. High intensity whitewater rafting on the Manso River is a great activity for thrill-seekers. Aguas Blancas is a company headquartered in Bariloche that will take you for an 11-hour adventure to the class-3 rapids two hours away on the Chilean border. While $330 ARS per person may seem a little pricey, the trip also includes two enormous and delicious meals (a large breakfast and an afternoon asado), pick-up and drop-off at your hotel, all the necessary equipment and a rafting experience you’ll never forget. If wary of extreme rapids, however, it might be best to choose a different activity. The Argentine class-3s are nothing like what you’ll find back in the States. Falling out of the boat isn’t exactly uncommon, but the helpful and funny guides will be sure to kayak you to safety.
As far as hiking goes, there are trails galore for every duration and intensity. Just ask the concierge where you’re staying or anyone with a backpack on the street what their favorite hike is and go explore! The 7,500 km Nahuel Huapi National Park encompasses all of Bariloche and the surrounding mountains, lakes, forests and plains. For those of a lazier disposition who still want to see the dazzling high altitude views, Cerro Campanario (Av. Bustillo km 17) is a small ski mountain about 20 minutes away town that offers chairlift service for $30 ARS. At the top there is a charming café with delicious postres (desserts) and spectacular 360º views.
After full days of adventuring and a much-needed siesta, it’s time to hit the Bariloche nightlife. The city is heaped with restaurants of two varieties: parilla (grill) and pubs. Like in Buenos Aires and other cities throughout Argentina, meat is the foundation of the Bariloche diet. For the most part, the beef is juicy and delicious, and costs about the same as in Buenos Aires. For a delectable and traditional Argentine meal, head to El Boliche “de Alberto,” a family-owned establishment. There are two locations, one downtown and about 15 minutes away which might be closer to some hotels (Villegas 347 and Av. Bustillo km 5.8) The simple menu and enormous steaks grilled to perfection are reason enough to splurge on this delicious parilla.
Bariloche is also heavy on Irish and English themed pubs, many of which are called cervecerías that brew their own artisanal beers. Wilkenny (San Martín 435) in the heart of downtown is a popular hangout for young travelers, and at night it turns into a pretty decent party. Skip the food there, however, like many Irish pubs in Buenos Aires, the fare is neither Irish nor Argentine: just icky. Farther up the road on a beautiful hill sits Berlina, a cervecería of much higher quality in terms of both beer and food (Av. Bustillo km 11.75). Happy hour is from 6-8 p.m. and offers pints of their homebrewed light, red and dark beers for $15 ARS. The nachos and picada plates are also delicious treats after a day of hiking.
For other post-exercise indulgences, be sure to explore Bariloche’s countless chocolaterías. Famous for this traditional Andean dessert, there really is a chocolate shop on every corner, sometimes three. Throughout the region, the chocolate is mouthwatering, cheap and handcrafted. Some of the best brands include Mamuschka (Mitre 298) and La Abuela Goye (C. Namuncurá 59). For buying souvenirs and gifts, El Reino de Chocolate (Mitre 360) has beautifully gift-wrapped packages of chocolate in every variety and flavor. Again, all of it is laughably cheap, so be sure to stock up!
As for late-night activities, Bariloche is home to several clubs and even a casino! El Casino de Bariloche (Av. San Martín 535) is small, smoky and filled with locals betting on low-stakes games. If luck is on your side, it can be a great stop before going out. Right across the street from Wilkenny’s is Dusk (San Martín 490), a dance club with free entrance, great tunes and reasonably priced drinks. Other hot spots nearby include The Roxy (San Martin 580) and Cerebro (Juan Manuel de Rosas 406). If in need, all are walking distance from the cabstand outside the casino. Like in Buenos Aires, the clubs don’t open until around midnight, with peak hours between 3 and 4am.
Overall, Bariloche can provide a beautiful escape from the headaches of big city life, a true connection with the wonders of the natural world, a fun place to meet fellow travelers and glorious satisfaction for chocolate lovers. I will never forget the four days I spent there and can’t wait to go back!