Saturday, January 30, 2016

South America (Argentina) - Day 57 - 62: Bariloche

Our bus got in just before midday, a little later than planned. We grabbed some maps from the information desk and then hit a snag...they didn't have a SUBE card top up facility. We'd assumed, wrongly, that all bus terminals would be able to charge up the CARD YOU NEED TO USE THE BUS but no, this was wishful thinking. Cursing the lack of common sense in this system, we jumped in a taxi to the centre. Then came the fun part: finding a place to sleep. I left Gilly with the bags and marched off in the general direction our massively out-of-date guidebook suggested we should go. The first place I went to had a quad room for 700 pesos since he hadn't been able to sell it, but there had been a guy at the terminal touting doubles for under 500 so I carried on. No luck. The rest of the places were either cramped dorms or a similar price. Bariloche is a pricy place to sleep. I grabbed Gilly and we went back to the first place.


Hostelería Portofino is run by a Canadian called Brian who also owns a small winery in Mendoza. He was really helpful in giving us information about good places to eat and drink, and a map of the area. In truth though, considering it's technically a city, Bariloche is pretty compact. There is a twenty-to-thirty block by six block area which contains almost everything you could want: restaurants, accommodation, and lots and lots of chocolate shops. Chocolate is a huge draw for the area, as Bariloche is effectively the Switzerland of South America, right down to the winter skiing, hikes and elaborate log cabins. As it is summer here there's no snow to be seen, but there are plenty of walks to do. There are two offices dedicated specifically to this in the centre as well, providing maps, bus numbers and hours and recommendations. After a salad and smoothie at Panini and a choripan (hotdog) at a nearby food stall, we got details of a couple of day hikes we could do over our stay since we weren't equipped for camping.



As well as chocolate, Bariloche is home to a plethora of artisan cervecerias. Every other resto-bar claims to serve craft beer, so Brian pointed us to his favourite: Berlina. Like most of the bars it had a half price happy hour from 6pm to 8pm, and we got a couple of pints for 30 pesos a pop (£1.50) along with a massive basket of monkey nuts which are very satisfying to open. A few games of cards saw us through to 8:30, where we'd booked a table at the extraordinarily popular Alto El Fuego. The place was heaving, but when our 17oz rib eye steak arrived, we understood why. We'd eaten plenty of steak in Argentina and it had mostly been good, but none of it had truly blown us away. This place was something else though, and along with the salad, chips and half bottle of Malbec, we were truly stuffed. We shared the steak. I can't imagine eating a whole one as we'd end up doing what the American couple next to us did: ordering pretty much everything on the menu then leaving most of it.



The next morning we got up to a croissant and a cup of tea before walking ten blocks to a different hostel (Govinda) we'd found online, as Brian didn't have any more availability. Our new double room was nice enough, and after picking a day bag and making lunch, we took the 20 bus from town to the base of Cerro Campanario (bus 20 and 22 go there regularly). This is one of many hills in Bariloche where a chairlift runs, but we'd decided to walk up it instead. The path was quite steep in places but otherwise easy, and we got to the top in half an hour. The views over the area alone are worth the trip. We caught the chair lift back down, letting us take in the fantastic scenery. If you only go one way, down would be preferable otherwise you'll just be staring at the side of the hill. After lunch we took the 20 bus again, this time to Llao Llao (pronounced sh-OW sh-OW). This was a longer and more tiring trek which took us almost 3km up the hill. Again though, completely worth it.









After coming back down, we took a circular route along part of Circuito Chico, up a gravel road and back onto the main road where we walked back to the place the bus had dropped us. The whole trek took just over three hours, and we were covered in dust and dirt. One hot shower later, and we were ready for happy hour again. This time we chose Wesley pub, next to Alto El Fuego for a couple of IPAs and golden ales (and monkey nuts, natch). The beer was slightly better than Berlina, the nuts were worse. Clearly, further research into other pubs is required. We tried and failed to get a table at Manush, so instead walked a bit further down to Antares. A serendipitous find, since the burger I ate there was outstanding - the best I've had on the trip so far, and in my top five overall. A bottle of wine may have been overkill but we did it anyway, then went down to a beach hostel to find a French girl we'd been speaking to on Couchsurfing. She couldn't host us but had invited us out for a social with some other CSers from Germany, England and Buenos Aires. Oddly though, after we all introduced ourselves she left to go to a salsa class. We were both feeling a little the worse for wear, and after some polite conversation with a couple of people, decided to call it a night. Needless to say we were feeling a little woozy the next morning, but a cup of tea sorted us out enough to get to the bus station. We bought our first 'full cama' tickets to Mendoza for Sunday hopefully guaranteeing us a good night's sleep on the 18 hour journey...) then bought two day return tickets to El Bolsón for 11am. A lack of planning meant that the return bus back we wanted was sold out, so had to pick a later one which got back at about 10:30pm. Fran and her parents were arriving in the afternoon so it meant we were unlikely to see them, but they were staying for a few days so we'd have plenty of time to catch up.

El Bolsón is a small town created by hippies in the seventies, and still remains a popular destination for backpackers and hikers. Every hippy stereotype you can think of can be found here: dreadlocked rastas, barefoot arty types selling dreamcatchers, the scents of incense and weed drifting on the breeze to the sound of Pink Floyd, and more tie dye than is feasibly wearable by one community. On Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays there's a market which runs until the late afternoon - we arrived at around 1:30 so headed straight there for a look around. It was surprisingly good, far better than the flea market it had been described as in online guides. After circling the stalls in an hour at a leisurely pace while sipping a draught Cray beer, we wanted over to the nearby Jauja heladería for some cooling gelato whilst a series of rotating bands played sets outside. It was almost twice the price of the Grido chain stuff we'd had before, but the difference was immense. A quarter kilo of tiramisu, chocolate brownie and raspberry in sheep milk ice cream, all delicious. For "proper" food, we walked back to the market and picked up a couple of veal kebab wraps from Che Shawarma and a fruit smoothie. It was crazy hot, well over 30 degrees, and doing too much walking wouldn't have been a good idea, so we strolled over to a couple of nearby plazas (read: bits of green with either a small monument or a playground), then tracked down a cake shop for afternoon tea. Le Cafe de las Flores is basically someone's back yard converted into a cutesy tea room, but the strawberry mousse tart I had was fantastic, and Gilly's lemon cheesecake just as nice.







All told, we probably consumed enough sugar in four hours to make a dietician faint but the hit was definitely needed. The town was a pleasant surprise, banishing any fears of it being another Iruya disappointment, but I think that if you didn't come on a market day you'd definitely miss out on much of the vibe of the place. For a day trip in that respect it's definitely recommended - for those with more time there are plenty of hostels around too, so it could be worth staying for a few days to soak up the chilled atmosphere. Our 8:15 return bus turned up at 9pm (no explanation needed, Argentina time), meaning we didn't get back to the hostel until 11:00pm but luckily the bus was going through town on the way to the terminal so we were able to hop off one block away from our hostel. We'd been deciding which trek to do the next day - it was a choice between Cerro Catedral and Cerro Lopez. The former was much longer, over 24km, while the latter was easier and shorter but more touristy. It was also allegedly the nicest mountain in the area, and Fran and her mum were going up the next day so we arranged to try and meet up along the way. It meant getting up at 6:15am so we were really feeling the strain of several long days the following morning.

We trundled down to the bus stop to get a bus to a crossroads a good 18km down the road, and then waited for a number 10 bus to take us the rest of the way to the start of Cerro Lopez. An hour came and went, and we were starting to wonder if it was ever going to turn up (and regretting not spending more time in bed). Finally it arrived, and we realised we could have got the same bus from the centre directly to the entrance rather than break up the journey and lose sleep unnecessarily. You live and learn. The trek itself was very steep to begin with, and there are are quite a few parts where scrambling is needed. We soon hit Roca Negra (Black Rock) and the mid-point refuge there, which is basically a café-cum-bar serving breakfast but we'd already eaten and were keen to plod on. After that, the paths divided into a "quick" route and a longer "easier" route. We decided to go hardcore and pelt it up the rapido route. Disconcertingly, our final destination was Refugio Lopez, a bright pink building which was visible from miles away...on top of a massive hill, which didn't look like it was getting any closer no matter how much we walked.





Eventually we reached what I thought were white rocks on the trail, but which turned out to be snow. Huge chunks of snow and ice. Given the heat, I can't believe it hadn't all melted, but it certainly explained the streams we passed. Since we didn't get to go to the Moreno glacier, we satisfied ourselves with having a snowball fight here instead. Not long after, we got to a fantastic lookout over the valley which I attempted to hurl myself off, and then it was plain sailing around the mountain to get to Refugio Lopez. It was big and pink. And unlike what I was expecting from a refuge (namely, a wooden shack with the bare minimum of shelter and supplies), this one not only served pizza, but also artisan beer. Yes - you can get a craft beer up the side of a mountain. I don't even want to think how they achieved that, given that the only means of transport that can traverse the route is a motorbike, and potentially a quad bike for some of the way. It made me wish we hadn't brought a packed lunch, but part of me thinks that beer at that altitude was probably not the best idea. Oh, and there was also an infinity pool, just for giggles. Astounding.







Twenty minutes after we arrived, we spotted Fran and her mum trekking up the mountain behind us, cue much waving and joy, especially from Milt. We rested up for a good half hour whilst the ladies did lunch, before making our way back down to meet Fran's dad. Val and Steve were amazing people, really friendly and welcoming as was to be expected given they were Fran's folks.


It took us a third of the time to get back down the mountain, and we were in luck at the bottom as a bus pulled up five minutes later to take us back to town. Team Fran were staying in a swanky apartment in town, so we got cleaned up in our slightly grubbier hostel room and made our way back to town for some super food and beer at Manush, where Val taught us both how to play Monopoly Deal. It's a great card game, which even people who hate Monopoly - like Gilly - can enjoy. Three beers in we capped the night off with some more cards and a bottle of Torrontes at Nuestro Terrano before calling it an evening.


Life admin was on the cards the next day, including laundry (which I almost cocked up when I agreed to pick it up the following Monday...when we would be in Mendoza), getting a sewing kit to help sort out some of our deteriorating threads, and having a value lunch of chicken (me) and a very odd lasagne (Gilly) at Cazuela. Then it was time to go chocolate tasting around the town. There are dozens of places, and almost all of them will give you a free sample when you go in. Feasibly, you could spend the day cramming yourself silly on freebies, but we did the honourable thing and bought a selection of organic chocs from Delicios de la Patagonia. We'd planned to meet up with the Naylors again that evening after they finished their meal at Alto El Fuego on our recommendation, whilst we stuffed a huge sharing plate from La Picara into our faces and drowned it with wine. However, their excursion that day had tired them out, so we trotted over to Ruta 40 on our own for happy hour beer with a superb guitarist sat outside, and watched the night go by.





On our last morning in Bariloche we endeavoured to meet up with the family again at a nearby beach. It was rocky not sandy, and not really my kind of beach at all - although after the likes of Whitehaven I admit to being unnecessarily picky about the type of sand I plant my arse on these days. A public transport malfunction meant that the gang didn't actually arrive until we were waiting at the bus stop to come back - they pulled up in a taxi, so we just had time to say a quick goodbye before we had to dash off back to the hostel.



We were booked onto a 18-hour bus to Mendoza, the wine capital of Argentina, and we were promised wine en route so I was pretty excited, especially given we had a full cama bus which meant we could - shock! - lie down fully and potentially get a full night's sleep. Excitement soon faded to disappointment when the wine failed to materialise. Even the food failed to live up to the standard of our previous bus, offering up yet more variations on yellow. I took a punt on a couple of films on the way: Heist, which turned out to be a lot better than I was expecting, and Where Hope Grows, which started out as an interesting little melodrama but unfortunately played its hand way too early as a pro-religious and hugely offensive film which used Down's Syndrome as a means of manipulating its audience to deliver its dubious message. I went to sleep hoping for great things from Mendoza. Specifically: wine.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

South America (Argentina) - Day 55 - 56: Puerto Madryn

We got up to a breakfast of cake, tea and Frosties, sugar being the order of the day. After moving out of our room and leaving our bags to be put into a much cheaper dorm, we joined Fugu tours with five other people for the start of a 400km round trip. Our guide Thaniel really knew his stuff and provided an entertaining commentary throughout the entire day without flagging (unlike us, who grabbed naps between quiet bits).

Trelew was founded 150 years ago by Welsh miners. The area is a bush steppe, a semi desert, and water shortages are a big problem. In Puerto Madryn the main industry is aluminium, with one factory employing over 5000 people and producing 470,000 tons per year. Japan is a big buyer; it's likely that if you own a Toyota car the aluminium came from here. Before the area was designated as a protected site pollution was a huge problem. Now there is less than 2% pollution per year. Fishing and tourism are the other big industries (300,000 people per year visit Puerto Madryn) and more people are moving to the area each year - Thaniel believed it averaged seven per day.

The roads around Peninsula Valdés aren't particularly exciting, mostly gravel with scrub on either side punctuated by estancias (ranches) where gauchos live. They're like Argentinean cowboys, except with sheep rather than cattle. They can shave a sheep in two minutes - the record is one minute 25 seconds in Argentina - and there is enough wool on one sheep to make $25. The biggest estancia has 50,000 sheep. Time is literally money, hence why speedy shearing has become an art.


Our first stop was an excellent visitor centre which provides information on all of the animals in the peninsula. Bad timing meant that whales were off the agenda (they leave in December), but we were looking forward to seeing elephant seals and sea lions. En route there were plenty of guanacos to spot, an animal in the same family as the llama. They can spit up to 10m at considerable velocity, but the entire park is built around a culture of preservation so it's prohibited to get out of your car to take photos (snapping from the window is fine). It's heartening to see a conservation project like this, which hasn't sacrificed the natural ecosystem for the tourist dollar.


When we arrived at the next destination, Puerto Norte, we were surprised by a long-haired armadillo wandering across the road. Too quick for us to snap it unfortunately, but a nice bonus nonetheless. A walk to the viewing platform presented us with a colony of both elephant seals and Antarctic sea lions living happily together. It was the start of the breeding season so we also got to see a few pups here and there. Stop three was Caleta Valdés, where there was a small penguin colony. We had the choice of doing either this tour where we would get to see a bigger variety of animals, or Punta Loma which housed a huge penguin colony. We opted for the former; decisions like this are always tough when travelling - there are so many things to see but never enough time to do everything, so sacrifices need to be made. On the plus side, we got to see plenty of Magellan penguins here along with their chicks which made Gilly very happy!








Next up was Punta Cantor, which wasn't quite as exciting; just a few elephant seals dotted around. En route though, we got to see a Patagonian mara (an odd-rabbit-like thing which looks almost like a mini kangaroo), and a burrowing owl. There's a shipwrecked schooner called the Lolita here which can be seen at low tide (it wasn't when we were there). However, on the way to our final stop of Punta Pirámide, we got chatting to an American couple who had been to southern Patagonia. Everyone we'd spoken to on the trip who had been there had raved about it, and we'd pretty much discounted doing it due to time/travel constraints. Now though, with a bus to Bariloche due to be booked imminently, we changed our minds. It sounded like a few days split between El Calafate (for the glacier) and Chaltan (for the hiking and scenery) would be the best use of time, so we endeavoured to look into what would be needed to change our plans when we got back in the evening.




First though was Punta Pirámide, A hippy little surfer town with five hundred inhabitants. It was almost 4pm, we'd not had anything more substantial than a bag of crisps since breakfast and we were absolutely starving. The guide recommended a restaurant but after looking at the menu we decided to go for something a little lighter elsewhere, and shared some empanadas and a milanesa at Bottazzi next door. Apparently these guys are good for whale watching...we might find out at some point in the future. There wasn't much else to see in the town in truth, it's geared towards feeding pricey food to surfers and the beach is pretty naff. Since the tour was over, we piled into the minibus and headed back to Puerto Madryn and our hostel.


Due to the New year, Rodrigo had put the price of a double room up to 700 pesos (£35) from 550, which was already at our top end, so we moved into a dorm instead which seemed spacious and comfortable enough for one night. After trying to navigate the almost impenetrable omnilineas bus website to work out how to get to El Calafate and then to El Chaltan, we worked out it would cost us a fortune in buses, take ages to move between places (at least two fourteen-hour buses), and there was no guarantee we'd be able to leave for Bariloche when we wanted. A trip to the bus station was even less help - despite there being numerous companies all advertising trips to these destinations, you can't buy a direct ticket. Instead you have to buy a ticket for the first leg from one company and then a ticket for the second leg from another. And due to the queues at each line, you had no idea if there would be any tickets left when you got to the second company. Furthermore, because El Calafate and El Chaltan are so remote, they can basically gouge visitors in pretty much every aspect: travel, accommodation, food, and so on. In the end we decided to put Patagonia on our list of places to come back to in the future, and returned to the original plan of going to Bariloche the next day. We went out for a meal at La Taska which was filling but not exceptional, then headed back to our dorm.

After breakfast, we went straight to the bus station and an hour later we had two tickets to Bariloche, which seemed to be far simpler to obtain: one fourteen-hour overnight journey, with the same kind of bus that took us to Salta (it seems that fully reclining seats are a luxury and sell out pretty quickly), and it was leaving at 9:30pm that day. That left us with a decent amount of time to fill, so we took a trip to the oceanographic museum housed in a lovely building on the outskirts of town. It's set over four floors and has plenty of interesting information charting humanity's relationship with the sea from the early settlers until today. Most of it is in Spanish but Google translate helped immensely. A long lunch at Bendito Viento provided us with the first thin and crispy pizza we'd had since setting off; it seems deep pan is more popular here than back home. It's also worth noting that my glass of white wine cost less than Gilly's glass of orange squash. It's almost like they WANT you to drink.




With still more time on our hands, we decided to head to the Ecocentro 5km out of town. It was a hot, tiring walk along the beachfront, but we made a doggie friend on the way. We arrived to find it only opened from 5-9 each day, except when tour boats were docked. I'm not sure how they make their money back for four hours a day, since the centre is a modern, fairly high tech building by Argentinean standards, and at 125 pesos entry the price reflects it (the previous museum costs 10 pesos normally, free on Mondays). We must have seen twenty other people at most while we were there. It's a dual language experience, lots of interesting displays about the whales and other wildlife in the area, as well as a couple of auditory rooms where you could listen to whale sounds. In one room, you could lie down and feel the vibrations from the whale song pulse through your body. Pretty fun.







After getting onto the centre's Wi-Fi, we found that there was a bus which would take us back to town. Great news, until it turned up and we realised it took SUBE cards, which we hadn't topped up since leaving Buenos Aires as we hadn't realised anywhere else in the country uses them. Fortunately, the bus driver spotted our bemusement and that we were tourists and waved us on for free. Being a gringo does have its perks occasionally. Even better, it stopped outside our hostel so we grabbed our bags, failed miserably at finding an open empanada shop, bought some fruit from the supermarket, then went to the bus terminal. There was a bit of time left so I ran back to town and picked up some garlic and herb flatbread things and an ice cream to tide us over. Just as well, since the food on the Don Otto bus didn't get served until after 11pm. It was pasta with chicken and some other bits, far nicer than the yellow grub on the Salta bus. We watched a TV show then settled down to try and sleep as best we could. Despite firing off multiple couch surfing requests, we'd had no responses yet, and the bus had no Wi-Fi so we couldn't check if anyone had agreed to host us. It looked like we'd be spending the start of our first day in Bariloche looking for accommodation!