Bariloche – the Swiss capital of Argentina

The waiter’s cell phone rings.  As he fishes it from his pocket and places it to his ear, he happily responds “Mutti!”, but then proceeds to speak to his mother in Spanish.  This scene we witnessed completely sums up Bariloche – Argentinian, but for all the important things, Germanic at heart.

The town was settled by German and Swiss settlers in the late 19th century and much of the its businesses were started by or at least pay tribute to these early families.  The waiter above was working in the Weiss family restaurant and the Weiss family name can be seen on countless other shops and establishments throughout the area.  From walking around town and looking at shop signs, we think there were only four German speaking families that started the whole thing. . .

Due to this heritage, the town is known as “little Switzerland” and pretty much looks like a small alpine ski town – it helps that it’s located on a lake surrounded by mountains.  It also has a huge focus on chocolate and beer (yum!) and is a hotbed for outdoor pursuits such as trekking, mountain biking and skiing (it hosts Cerro Catedral, the largest ski resort in South America).  Sadly, to Jen’s disappointment, we weren’t there at the right time of year to hit the slopes.

However, a negative side to this heritage – Bariloche was also a haven for Nazis following World War II – with some theorists thinking Hitler and Eva Braun, themselves, escaped here and hid away until their natural deaths in the 1960s.  Anyway, we weren’t there to go Nazi hunting (although that’d make an awesome blog post) – instead, we were there to enjoy the beautiful landscapes, eat chocolate and drink beer!

After an 18-hour bus ride (which was gorgeous – see post on Patagonian bus rides), we arrive in town in the early afternoon and head to our digs for the next few nights – Moving Hostel travel bar, which is a great place with super friendly staff and a pretty good breakfast selection.

Because we just came from Mendoza, where our time was spend drinking wine, we hadn’t fully prepared for our visit to the town.  Thus, we spent the first hour chatting with one of the hostel workers, trying to figure out what we wanted to do.  Thing is, we were there at the height of the summer season and our first idea to rent a car and drive around the seven lakes in the area was quickly deflated.  The earliest we could rent a car was in three days, late on our last afternoon in town – no bueno – or actually, nicht gut.

Although there are bus tours that take you around the seven lakes, the idea of only being allowed out at pre-ordained viewpoints with 50 other people to take photos was not appealing to Jen.  Plus, the first company that the hostel reception called to inquire about costs was already booked, so we figured not to pursue further.

Instead, like in Mendoza, we decided to reserve bikes for the next day and just do the Circuit Chico, which takes in parts of a few of the lakes.  We had other ideas to enjoy the town, but wouldn’t book anything, as we were still hopeful that I car might become available for the day after.

With the next day planned, we decided to spend the rest of the afternoon/evening wandering around town, enjoying its alpine village feel.

We also walked along the shores of Lago Nahuel Huapi, which was really, really windy at the time.

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We started to get peckish (and thirsty), so we headed for dinner and our first beers in town at the Manush brewery.  Erwan tried the IPA and Jen tried the Victoria. Both were good, a hoppy IPA, and a malty Ale, but did not make it to the Top 10.

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For dessert, we headed to Rapa Nui, one of the many chocolate shops along the main street.  And this place was a bit more special, because it had an ice-skating rink inside.

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After Jen’s hot chocolate, Erwan’s chocolate beer and a few truffles, we called it a night.

The next morning (after our lovely hostel breakfast), we head to the bus stop to travel the 20 km (11 miles) to Circuito Chico Mountain Bike, the rental shop, which was at the start of the Chico Circuit.  We find the bus stop easy enough, but the bus we need just drives right past – it was already full.  The next one was also packed and drives right past.  And the third.  By this point we’ve already been waiting about 40 minutes, so we headed to the main square in town (which is two stops earlier), thinking we’ll be able to get on a bus there.  Nope, that one drove right past as well.  We’re a bit concerned, as we were told that the bike place could give up our reservation if we don’t get there by 10am and we know that we only have so much time to cycle the 30km of the circuit before we’d need to return the bikes.

As a side note, we learned later, that due to it being high tourist season, the buses are packed already at the other side of town, with all the campgrounds located in that area.

Jen saw two backpacker-looking girls (who were also disappointed when the last bus just drove past) flag down a taxi.  Jen jumped in on the deal, asked where they are headed and if they would like to split the taxi.  Turns out they were also renting bikes to cycle the circuit – perfect (although even with splitting the fare, we’d still have to pay $12 more than the bus $2 fare).  The girls were two American nurses who were travelling around South America for three months – at the moment they were heading north through Argentina, having just come from El Chalten and then heading to Mendoza.  We were doing the opposite.

We arrived at Circuito Chico Mountain Bike, and it’s a slick operation – way more professional than any of the other places we rented from so far on the trip – proper safety equipment and demonstration, a presentation and map of the circuit, a number to call for pick up if you don’t want to continue.  As part of this, they advised to cycle the circuit clockwise.  This is interesting, as Jen had read on blogs to go counter clockwise.  Hmmmm, neither give a reason on why to go either way. . . The presentation also warned us that the route is hilly, or in their words “it is never flat, always up or always down”.

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After getting the presentation and testing our bikes, we headed off – in the clockwise direction (like proper Germans, we’re good little citizens and follow the instructions from authority).

The trail starts out fairly easy, as it’s mostly downhill to get to the first good vantage point – a bridge crossing the first lake.

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However, after that, it’s uphill.  For awhile – seriously awhile.  However, it’s worth it because at the top is probably the best view of the circuit.

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Sadly, we got there at the same time as two tour buses, so it was packed with people and getting the photographs took some time.

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Continuing on the trail, we arrived at another brewery – Patagonia.  Good thing we stopped by – not only do they have a fantastic view, but they also provided us with a ski bench from which to enjoy it.

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As it’s a fairly common beer found throughout the country, we’ve had Patagonia before and we knew what we wanted to order.  However, when Erwan asked the bartender for our Bohemia and Kiine, his response was “I don’t like serving beers that you can get in bottles.”  We, thus, found out about all the brews that they had solely at the brewery and tried 4 of those – Oktober Fest, Ginger Bell, Double IPA, and Pilon Pana.  Oktober Fest was a red ale, which was easy to drink. Ginger Bell was a refreshing lager with a hint of ginger as an after taste – very original. Pilon Pana was supposed to be a local fruit beer, but we could not tell what it was and it was a bit disappointing. However, the Double IPA at 9% made it to our Top 10 on this trip, so far…?

Well oiled, we hit the road and decided to cycle off the route for the 8 km, trek to Colonia Suiza, a small village, also inhabited originally by Germanic immigrants.

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In particular, our cooking teachers in Buenos Aires had advised us of a good restaurant in the village, where we could get Curanto, the traditional food of the area, which is meat cooked on hot stones – Erwan was intrigued.

The village, is also known for its market, but sadly it is only on Wednesday and Sunday (we were there Friday).  We knew that the market wouldn’t be going on, however we thought the restaurant would be a good bet for lunch and thus thought nothing of the additional distance that we then had to cycle.

When we get to the village, sure enough, the market isn’t going on, however there’s still tourists milling about.

After a cycling the main drag, we don’t see the recommended restaurant and thus asked for directions.  Yet there are more tourists than actual villagers milling about, so nobody knows it.  It also doesn’t help that everything in the village is named Goye (pronounced Goche) so even the locals we came across aren’t sure to which we are referring.  After a few frustrating cycles along all the side roads in the village, we found our place.  However, as it’s not market day, they weren’t serving Curanto.  To make matters worse, on non-market days they have a very limited menu, with the only vegetarian item being fried potatoes.  Not exactly the grand meal, we had in mind. . .  Nonetheless, considering we had just cycled all the way to and throughout the town it in search of this place, we stay and have the menu del dia (Rainbow Trout), with fried potatoes for Jen. . .

All this additional cycling made us tired.  By the time we get back to the main circuit, we were exhausted.  And yet, we were only about a third done!  Furthermore, with the side diversion and lunch, we now only had three hours to return the bikes before they closed.

We got to cycling and only stopped at the viewpoints quickly to take photos (fortunately there are no more big tour buses), so it was a bit easier.  And they weren’t lying when they said it wasn’t flat.  Unfortunately, it also felt like it was more uphill than down. . .

We do take a bit more of a rest at Bahia Lopez, but even that was only about 10 minutes.

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Shortly after, we get to the Llao Llao Hotel – a posh hotel (again in chalet style), which we heard has good afternoon tea.

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This is about 2/3s through the route.  Thinking about how shattered we are, we decided that rather than push ourselves to finish the route (and probably no longer get enjoyment from it), we’ll stop here, enjoy an afternoon tea and then call the bike company for a pick-up.  We had already splurged earlier with the taxi, so why not go for broke with the additional pick up charge?

As we walked through the reception of the hotel, it is clear that we were fish out of water.  Two sweaty, probably smelly, helmeted cyclists wearing dirty shoes amidst a lovely grand hotel and its even grander guests.  They allowed us in regardless – however not for tea – we had to book that in advance.  Thus, they seated us in the grand lobby, where they allowed us to order hot chocolate for Jen and a beer for Erwan (Cervezeria Blest Raspberry).

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After which, the reception even called the bike company to pick us up (probably thinking good riddance).  We get picked up and the driver turns out to be a local guy, who in the winter is a ski instructor and former racer and actually taught throughout the world, including the US, Canada, France, Andorra and Switzerland.  On the way back we also realise why they suggested going clockwise.  The part we didn’t cycle was the least interesting bit – no viewpoints, with the street mostly lined with little cottage industries, tourist shops and cafes.  Still not sure why the blogs suggest hitting this part first – if we had done so, we would have been exhausted by the time we got to all the good views (if we would have gotten to them at all).

After dropping off our bikes, we fortunately arrived just in time to catch a bus back (they come only every 20 minutes), however it was pretty packed and we have to stand the whole way.

After some quick naps, we headed out to dinner – but there was a problem.  Jen’s dodgy knee was acting up and she couldn’t put any pressure on it.  With Jen limping along, we thus, decided to go to the closest place to the hostel – a pizzeria (still very good due to Argentina’s many Italian immigrants).  After dinner, we got some ice from the hostel staff for Jen’s knee, raised it, took some ibuprofen and hoped it gets better.  Jen also had a brief online chat with her sister, Linda, a physical therapist, to see if it could be anything serious.  Linda suggested the same three things we were already doing. . .

Fortunately, after a solid 8 hours of sleep, the knee feels better the next morning, so we could still play around town – yay!  For our second day, our plan was a boat ride in the morning out to Victoria Island and then a ride up Cerro Campanario for the panoramic view, before maybe taking in some more breweries.

We booked the boat ride through our hostel and it turned out to be a lovely day for it.  The best part was that we were constantly followed by seagulls, who were quite happy to be fed along the way. . .

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Our first stop on the boat ride was Bosque de Arraynes, which has a forest of the arrayan, a very unique looking tree with multi trunks of orange color.

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It is supposedly the forest that inspired Bambi – although we understand that this is something they just tell the tourists.  It doesn’t stop them from having a cute, picturesque cottage, in front of which you can get professional photographs. . .

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After a quick wander through this forest, we reboarded the boat to head to Victoria Island.  The island has a beach and various hiking trails.  However, when we arrived, we realise that it is already 1pm – how is this a half day tour?  We inquire further and it turned out we were actually booked on the full day tour, which doesn’t get back until 5pm.  This would be too late to get to the top of Cerro Campanario, as the cable car closes at that time.  We explained our dilemma to the boat staff and it turned out our only options were to wait out the tour, or head back right at that moment with another boat.  As we really wanted to see the panoramic view from the mountain, we choose to head back.  So, we only experienced the dock of Victoria Island and its views. . .

Once back at port, we caught the bus to Cerro Campanario.  Well, at first we tried to hitchhike as it seemed the bus was taking forever.  Nobody picked us up, and then the bus finally came.

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At Cerro Campanario, we learned that the cable car to the top is actually a chairlift.  It felt so strange to be on one without skis, but up we went.

And thank god we did – the views were stunning!

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With our fill of landscapes, we headed back into town, stopping at the Berlina brewery along the way to test a few of their specialities (we recommend their IPA).

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After a quick rest at the hostel, we then went out to dinner at Family Weiss restaurant, which is where this blog post started.  It’s a restaurant that specialises in fondue and all things Swiss.  Mmmmmmm. . .

Fondue, hot chocolate, beers, beautiful landscapes, cycling – what more could you ask for in 3 days?  Danke schoen Bariloche!

 

 

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