I was in awe the first time I saw the Lake Nahuel Huapi, a body of water so large that my mind could hardly contemplate that it was not an ocean (surface area = 530 km2, shore length = 357 km). I saw the mountain ranges of the Andes running along the border of Argentine and Chilean Patagonia, a terrain that seemed so forbidding, unpassable and beautiful at the same time. I thought of the infamous outlaw trio, Butch Cassidy, the Sundance Kid and Etta Place, escaping bounty hunters over a hundred years ago, by crossing this vast `lake into Chile by steamboat… a boat, that may or may not resemble the one I see right now, cruising across the calm blue waters.
I had come directly from the cosmopolitan bee-hive of Buenos Aires by long-distance, overnight coach, and the first sight of the calm waters, the green hillsides, the snow-capped mountains (landscapes that I had associated with the Swiss Alps or New Zealand) made me feel as if I had been transported to the other side of the planet.
TRAVEL: I travelled by coach with Via Bariloche, paying AR$1,200 pesos ($75 USD, December 2016) for a one way ticket with ‘Semi-Cama’ seating, which meant comfortable seats that almost reclined fully. Long distances coaches in Argentina are very comfortable – they are clean, fully catered (in the past, this included unlimited wine and whiskey, but, sadly no more) and the highways travelled on are usually well maintained. Be sure to check your luggage allowance, as most services will only allow one piece of check-in luggage per person, and any extra luggage will attract additional charges.
We drive along a long, quiet road into the city of Bariloche de San Carlos, following the smooth curves of the lake. The coach dropped us at the main bus station, which is also the old train station, constructed of large block of sandstone with a tall-pitched roof, something one might expect to see in a provincial town in France perhaps, not in Latin America. From the station, there are local buses that take you into the City Centre, and onto the ring road that runs around the edge of the lake all the way to Llao Llao Golf Resort. This is about a forty minute ride all the way to the end of the route at the resort – chances are your hostel, hotel or holiday apartment will be somewhere along this scenic route.
Hint: If you are coming from Buenos Aires, be sure to top up your SUBE public transport card. Unlike the capital, there are few places to charger your SUBE, except at supermarkets. We recommend you charge a 100 pesos or more, if you intened to rely on public transport. Because of the distances between landmarks (ie, from the city to Llao Llao golf resort is 23 kilometres), each journey could cost around $18 pesos ($1.25 USD).
As we pass through the city, we’d see constant reminders of another time throughout Bariloche, which is a small city which is equal parts historic and modern. Heritage hotels and churches and multi-million dollar modern lake houses and restaurants. All of it surrounded by pristine lakes, snow-capped mountain ranges and pine forests. The weather was perfect. Being Australian, I had never experienced a dry heat before and was pleasantly surprised that summer could be sweat free (We visited Bariloche from mid December until late January) . The days were mostly warm in the sun, usually with a cool breeze. Excellent conditions for hiking, but still quite cold for swimming on most days (there were some actual hot days in January where you could actually stay in the water for awhile). You will need to pack warm clothing, especially if you plan on camping or hiking, as the nights are cold and the temperature drops at higher altitudes. The warm and cold means you get the best of both worlds – outdoor adventures during the day, food and wine during the evenings.
Bariloche’s City Centre is small (as you’d expect for a city of less than 130,000 inhabitants), but quaint, with several heritage stone buildings giving the place a feel of a Swiss mountain town. The main attractions in town is really food, in particular, the three famous chocolaterias, all within a block or two of each other on the main street of San Martin – Turista, Rapa Nui and Mamuschka. All three sell chocolates by the weight – select from a vast array of chocolates from the display cases and pay for your boxed chocolates at the cashier.
Craft Beer (Cerveza Artesenal) in Bariloche
If you have come to Bariloche by way of Buenos Aires, you might’ve noticed the craft beer trend that washed over the whole city, where only five or so years ago, it was almost non-existent. This is not the case in Patagonia, where according to locals, they’ve had excellent handcrafted beer, forever.
Which brings me to another very good reason to come to the City Centre of Bariloche – Manush is hands down the best Cerverceria in town. Everyone knows this too, which is why the place is almost always packed, and waits for a table at peak times (after 8pm) during the summer can be up to an hour long. However, having eaten there many times, I can report that the waits are worth the while – the burgers at Manush are simply the best I’ve had in the country, which includes Buenos Aires, a city plagued by the global craft burger craze. The secret to their burgers – the housemade brioche buns, which in my opinion, is an often overlooked, but important element to the perfect cheeseburger.
I recommend going during Manush’s happy hour (5:30-8:30pm) this is a good time for tourists, as it’s far too early for dinner for Argentines, hence a little less busy. Also, cheap beer.
If you simply can’t handle the wait, there’s another pretty good cerverceria right next door to Manush. Berlina is probably the second most well known beside Manush, and they have two other locations in Bariloche outside of the city centre. The Berlina in the city has a rock ’n’ roll aesthetic (complete with a custom motorcycle mounted on the walls) and great beer; the food is good, but doesn’t compare to Manush.
But the most beautiful of all the cervercerias has to be the newly opened Cerveceria Patagonia (Ruta Provincial 77, Km24.7, Circuito Chico), which is owned by beer giants Quilmes. They have a large and fine selection of beers, as well as unmatched views of the lake. The only downside is that there is no public transport to its location (Hotel Llao Llao at 23km is the nearest stop), you’ll need a hire car or a taxi to get to and from there.
Dining in Baroliche
You’re in Patagonia, which means you ought to eat lamb, cordero. You won’t find a bad cut of beef anywhere in Argentina, but it’s widely known that when in the south, you should try the cordero. The best parrilla in Bariloche is Alto El Fuego Parilla (20 de Febrero 451). For a moderately priced (but still great meal), try the stylish restaurant-bar El Nacionel (San Martin 490).
If you are tired of traditional Argentine fare – and let’s face it, while tasty and filling, pasta, empanadas and steak isn’t the most exquisite cuisine in the world – there are other modern dining options.
For foodies, one of the best degustacions in the country can be found right on the beach of Playa Bonita, with million dollar views of the Lake Nahuel Huapi. Butterfly, is a small seven-table restaurant by chef Andres Lopez, serving European styled degustacion with a focus on Patagonian produce. This is an expensive meal, but worth it for those who enjoy fine dining. Highly recommended. To see a sample menu or book a table.
For an after dinner late night cocktail, we recommend the dark and moody 1920 Speakeasy (San Martin 510), right next door to the Hotel Panamericano.
As an amateur hiker, the trails through Parque Municipal Llao Llao, which begin right near the Llao Llao golf resort, was great for hikes between two to three hours long, of no real difficulty. There are three main trails, all of which could be done in a day if you are fit and motivated. The tracks are clear, and you are often crossing paths with other trekkers. The trails will lead you to several beaches, including the popular swimming spot of Villa Tacul, as well as a couple of impressive lookouts – Cerro Llao Llao and Mirador del Tacul.
There is a tourist information booth in the carpark at the entrance of the park but don’t rely on it for much information – it was closed every time I went by (and I went by plenty of times). I recommend buying a hiking map from a kiosk or adventure wear stores (there are plenty in the City Centre).
There are many challenging mountain treks in the Nahuel Huapi National Park for more adventurous hikers. One of the easiest and most popular, that can be done in a day is Refugio Frey – at the top, there is a lagoon of turquoise coloured water, and a small mountain lodge where you can drink homemade beer and stay overnight.
Hint: You must book ahead if you plan to stay at Frey. http://refugiofreybariloche.com
Refugio Lopez, atop a mountain behind Llao Llao, is another beautiful moderate to easy hike that can be done in a day. For more information on other hikes and mountain lodges, including difficulty ratings, check the official site of Bariloche here: http://www.barilocheturismo.gob.ar/en/huts
Hotel Llao Llao
The Hotel Llao Llao is one of the most beautiful and prestigious hotels in the whole country, widely known for its architecture (resembling the famous hotel from the film, The Shining) and its stunning location at the edge of Parque Municipal Llao Llao. Unless you are a guest at Llao Llao (where President Obama visited on his recent trip to Argentina in 2016), entry into the hotel is restricted. We recommend booking a table for high tea or lunch if you really, really want to visit the inside of the hotel. Be prepared to pay five star prices!
You don’t need to be a guest however, to walk up the long driveway to the front of the hotel, where there is a lookout over both Lake Nahuel Huapi and Perito Moreno. This is a handy location to stop and rest, as it the final stop for the buses heading to Parque Municipal Llao Llao.
You get a postcard perfect vantage point of Hotel Llao Llao from the San Eduardo Chapel (Avenida Bustillo on kilometre 25.5), a stone and log building that looks like something from medieval times – there’s no snooty doormen stopping you from wandering around there.
Kayak hire will be available at almost any beach that isn’t windy on the day – the kayak renters tend to move around, but you can always find kayaks for hire at the main beach of Playa Bonita.
A good local spot is at Lago Perito Moreno (map pictured below) – just check both sides of the road to see which side is less windy.
Bonus: Keep an eye out on makeshift parillas on the side of the road – there’s always a good chance someone is grilling choripans.
Biking in Bariloche
Driving around the long roads that run along the lakeside and through the national parks, I often looked out and saw tourists struggling on mountain bikes by the roadside, not looking as though they were having a lot of fun. It is often listed as an ‘activity’ for Bariloche – all I see is danger to the riders and an annoyance to drivers – clearly, the roads there are not built for biking.
For biking enthusiasts, there is a truly great route via the Seven Lakes, taking you all the way to Chile. I, being an un-atheletic bookish sort, haven’t attempted something so challenging – I’ve driven this route, and it is beautiful. Friends that have done the route on two-wheels recommend Codillera Bike, for hiring and planning your trip.
Villa La Angostura
If you feel like an escape from the city, take a drive or the bus to the small resort town of Villa La Angostura. This is a beautiful little town of expensive holiday hoses, tall pine trees and stylish cafes and restaurants.
Being a resort town, you’ll find a lot of holidaymakers lazing by the lakeside or lounging in cafes. For the adventurous, a good daytrip from Villa la Angostura is to the Parque Nacional Los Arrayanes, a national park famed for its forest of distinctive 300 year old redwood trees. You can either get there by a boat ride across the lake (1hr), by bike (the track is quite steep and difficult in places), or on foot (3 hours each way, but the rewards are spectacular views). The national park marks the beginning of the Ruta de los Siete Lagos, the renowned biking trail mentioned above.
NEXT STOP: We go to El Bolson for chocolates, ice cream, beer and more hiking. Also, hippies.