¡Hola a todos!
Well, here we are once more. My current location is Mendoza, the heart of the Argentine wine region, and I find myself with time enough to blog once again. I apologize for the apparent confusion, writing of destinations that I visited as far back as two weeks ago but, I am determined not to let this e-travel journal dictate my trip – it must work around my itinerary instead!
In my last blog, we travelled as far north as Bariloche on an epic bus journey from El Chalten. Epic, unfortunately, in the sense of distance as opposed to experience. My trip took me from El Chalten back south to El Calafate (a duration of four hours). From there, I journeyed east to Rio Gallegos and then north along Ruta Tres (Route Three), a smooth and swift journey up to Comodoro Rivadavia and then west and north to Bariloche, a journey of thirty hours. The views from the bus were surprisingly breath-taking, considering that the landscape remained barren, largely flat and very empty. Nonetheless, countless travellers who have preceeded me – indeed, Darwin can be counted among them – have remarked upon the lasting impression that this apparently non-descript scenery has left in their minds. I am no different; the Patagonian steppe is indeed without much of eye-catching value but, the stillness, the emptiness and the sheer sense of space combine to form a powerful visual effect nonetheless.
Powerful an effect as the Patagonian countryside formed, I was relieved to enjoy a somewhat full night's sleep, after which I returned to drinking in the now drastically altered view of northern Patagonia, awash with green valleys of bountiful fruit trees and colourful shrubs, little communities nestled away among the foliage, a welcome sight after so much dusty emptiness. A cluster of villages approximately two hours south of Bariloche left a particularly strong impression upon me, passing through in the late afternoon as I did, with the failing sunlight striking a memorably mellow scene: “season of mist and mellow fruitfulness” - Keats could easily have been descibing the view before me. So taken was I that after a few days in Bariloche I returned to one such village, El Bolson, for a weekend visit but, more on that episode in good time.
I arrived in Bariloche late in the evening, a little tired, a little ripe (read very smelly) and somewhat disorientated: I had not checked any maps of Bariloche before embarking upon my bus trip and so was not particularly well informed – I find that this adds to the excitement of a destination. After a couple of faulty Spanish conversations, I found myself on a customarily rickety, bumpy bus journey into the city centre. As I still had no real idea where I was headed, with only a hostel name and the name of the building that houses it, I asked a local lady where said location was, to be informed that I was actually at the bus-stop for my very destination; cue a hurried exit from the bustling bus with all of my gear – I'm not sure how many friends I made in my frantic efforts to depart the cattle market – sorry, public bus – but, I'm sure the bruises will have subsided by now. I arrived at my destination, Hostel 1004, so-named due to its location on the 10th, and highest, floor of Bariloche's tallest building. The views, I was to discover in the daylight hours of the following day, were stunning, over-looking the lake upon the edge of which Bariloche sits, as well as the central civic square and much of the city's skyline, against a back-drop of lush, wooded hills and mountains.
There will doubtless be places upon my trip, as indeed there have already been, where I am afforded what feels a more “authentic” insight as regards local customs, culture and the like. There have also been, and will surely continue to be, other places where such an insight is largely lost, yet replaced with its own meritous vision. Bariloche strikes me as such a location. The city is comparatively new, experiencing a huge population boom in the middle of the twentieth century and home to many immigrants, particularly Europeans, who have – naturally – brought their own customs to bear upon the city. The result is a striking picture-postcard image of an alpine community, most reminiscent in my mind of Geneva, complete with lake-side setting. One line of reasoning put to me by a fellow traveller is that in the aftermath of the Second World War, many German scientists relocated to Bariloche, seeking to start life afresh. It seems to me that this is a case of the chicken and the egg. Bariloche's civic centre was designed by a single architect, using the alpine scene as his inspiration. The result is a largely uniform centre, crowded with wooden and blue-stone structures and it is this similarity to home that I think persuaded – and continues to entice – so many Europeans to this urban centre. Such a shame that the Welsh settlers did not gamble but, instead chose to remain upon the Atlantic coastline, in the barren wastelands of eastern Patagonia. Ah well, I'm sure that they are happy.
Beyond the delights afforded by such European architecture, the city is famous for its equally European-inspired chocolates and ice-cream. I lost little time in “bonding” with fellow travellers over a tub or four of decadent Italian ice-cream and wonderful Swiss-flavoured chocolate. Yum. Another star attraction in Bariloche is the hostel itself: 1004 is warm, friendly, inviting and simply brilliant. The staff were the best I have encountered so far in my hostelling experiences – they are ever-ready with sound advice concerning activities based within the local area and work very hard to keep the hostel looking its very best. All four staff-members knew my name within the first day of my stay – it honestly felt like a home from home. On top of this super luck, my fellow travellers here were equally delightful; the central communal area of tables and comfy chairs contributed to a healthy exchange of food, drink, advice, travel-stories and fledging friendships. It was here that I met some lovely Americans from Washington state, keen to host me when I eventually find my way to Portland, then Seattle. It was also here that I met two wonderful, though – woefully – temporary, additions to my travelling-band. Sebastiaan from Haarlem, Holland and Kelsey of Edmonton, Canada are two of the nicest people any solo traveller could ever hope to meet and we have swiftly become firm friends. A healthy appetite for food, alcohol, adventure and sarcasm was sure to be a sweet recipe for success and so it has proved.
On my second full day in Bariloche, we three took to the road and hired bikes to cycle a local, 25km route of breath-takingly beautiful scenery and utter tranquility among some of the most picturesque lakes I have ever had the fortune upon which to feast my eyes. This was a route of undulating hills and dales – my first opportunity to cycle in two months, I was in my element. 'Circuito Chico' (literally, small circuit) contributed to one of my finest days of travel thus-far; of course, while the scenery, the bike and the exhilaration of moving quickly of my own design were all significant factors in my enjoyment, it was the brilliant company of my two new-found friends that really elevated this trip. Setting out from the bike-base in the mid-morning, we streamed off down-hill to our first scenic viewpoint, that of the most exclusive hotel in all of Argentina – Hotel Llao-Llao. Perched a-top a hill, surrounded by lakes of electric blue and verdant, sweeping mountains, complete with its own 18-hole golf course, the sight is rather magical. Although my companions and I decided against stepping inside the hotel for a spot of (very early) afternoon tea, we did at least take full advantage of the wonderful views and photography opportunities offered up by the hotel's viewing stations within the grounds. After finally discovering an internet café that can cope with uploading my photographs, you can hopefully see these very views on my photo albums page (fingers and all else crossed).
Wheeling forth from the hotel, we journeyed to a local hill, the name of which the aforementioned hotel takes as its own. Here we dumped the bikes (chained to a tree and cunningly hidden by the indisputable skills of Sebastiaan – I have never before seen bikes that so clearly resemble a tree) and hiked the thirty-minute climb to the summit and its sumptuous panoramic views of the surrounding lakes. We took a swift bite of (packed) lunch – salami, gruyere cheese and cucumber once more for me – and headed back downhill to our trusty, two-wheeler steeds. We rode on to a delightful, secluded lake-side picnicking spot, where I came close to losing one of my beaded wristbands (yes Kelsey, one of my bracelets) while attempting, dismally, to skip a stone. Thankfully the eagle-eyes of Sebastiaan came to my aid and ensured that the remainder of our day out passed dried-eyed. The final, glorious highlight of our trip involved a detour from the circuit, to head off-road (well, it called itself a road but, really) to Colonia Suiza, a quaint little settlement comprising of a single main street. Here, we feasted upon more decadently divine home-made ice-cream (I think that the Chocolate Suiza was possibly the finest flavour I have ever tasted...) before entertaining ourselves in the local play-ground – it is far too long since I was last on a See-Saw (or Teeter-Totter as Kelsey so endearingly termed it). There ensued some hilarious action as we tried, gamely and ultimately successfully, to balance the three of us upon a single See-Saw, followed by a profound exploration into the etimology of the term 'See-Saw'. My own thought was that on a See-Saw, a participant “sees” all around while at the high of the See-Saw motion and the view then becomes what the self-same participant “saw” when they return to the grounded position. Yes, Kelsey was very impressed as well... honest.
We returned to our hostel at the end of a sublime day out, with smiles and sun streaked across our faces and a strong bond of friendship forming for all of us. The discovery of “foreign” customs, cultures, experiences is always exciting but, so too is the euphorically familiar sense of friendship being made and experiences being shared. A special day indeed.
¡Saludos a todos!