After arriving back onto the mainland from Chiloé, I had grand plans to make it across to Argentina. Unfortunately, having missed the only bus headed that way, I found myself trapped in rainy Chile.
Wanting to make the best of the situation, I decided to add the tourist town of Puerto Varas to the itinerary. I can imagine it would be glorious in the sunshine; apparently there are even spectacular volcano views. However, neither luck nor weather were on my side, thus I found myself wandering the streets, looking for a hostel, in the pouring rain. (Clearly the weather hadn’t stopped the tourist industry from booming, as everywhere was full!)
Other than an afternoon spent walking through the woods around the Saltos del Petrohué waterfalls, I treated myself to plenty of R&R in Puerto Varas. Played a lot of cards, indulged in more cake cafes and, accidentally on purpose, cooked enough food for a small family, for myself. I felt particularly swanky when sloshing red wine into my sauce, a la Jamie Olivier, in a slightly grotty hostel kitchen! But wine is cheaper than all other ingredients here, so ¿porque no?!
Said waterfalls were, again, something I could imagine being far more impressive, weather permitting. Gushing rapids took on some jagged, tactile lava formations; a high speed, dirtier version of the Galapagos Tunneles, if you will.
Somehow plagued by mosquito bites, despite the biblical weather conditions, I was once again on a mission to leave the country. Unfortunately, Bariloche, Argentina, was similarly afflicted with monsoon season. Adding to this, I found myself at the bus station, miles out of town, with no Argentinian pesos and no way of acquiring any where I was. Thank god for Yvonne, my Irish Bariloche buddy, who took me under her wing, providing money for the bus and company for the following five days.
In an attempt to immediately immerse ourselves in Argentine culture, all we successfully achieved on this first day in Bariloche was an obscenely large, meat-heavy meal. The guidebook had warned about ‘generous portions’, but I could not have anticipated the six, sizeable lamb chops that were presented to me. (I let myself down and had to take some in a doggy bag.)
When at last the sun shone, we ventured into the surrounding countryside to soak up some spectacular views, along with some overdue vitamin D. A short (but horribly steep) hike up Cerro Campanario offered a vista across multiple adjoining lakes, autumnal colours and jagged snowy peaks. Not dissimilar to Guatapé (in Colombia, all those weeks ago), only with blistering winds to boot.
At the foot of the hill, it is common to rent bikes and cycle the Circuito Chico. However, after breaking the bank on the aforementioned meat feast, we decided to take it on foot instead. We passed the grand Hotel Llao Llao, which looked straight out of a Bond film (and sadly dwarfed the quaint wooden church nearby into insignificance.) A walk through the woods, a picnic under some looming peaks and we were done with nature for the day. Luckily an elderly couple, in a swanky car, took pity on us at the bus stop and became our guides for the rest of the circuit and the drive back to town; dropping us off at one of the most glamorous chocolatiers I’ve ever seen. Think 1930s stained glass, meets Willy Wonka’s mouthwatering sights, smells and amusingly uniformed workers.
Unfortunately (or perhaps most fortunately of all) this seemingly innocent trip to the chocolate shop set a precedent for the rest of our time in Bariloche. Owing to one too many beers with our Argentine hostel-mates, we were unable to face the grand hike up Cerro Cathedral. Instead, we challenged ourselves to the Bariloche hat-trick: a town famed for its chocolate, artisanal ice creams and craft beers.
Of course, still aiming to live on a budget, we rinsed all the free samples on offer; from glamorous Russian themed shopfronts, to seedy erotic chocolate shops, we left no sugary napkin unturned. Ice cream-wise, I sampled eight different flavours, in four days, from three separate establishments. Amusingly the fruity flavours were virtually untouched in all display cabinets; chocolate and dulce de leche maintain a stronghold over this diabetic town.
Similarly sickly sweet is the general appearance of the area. I had ‘Welcome to Duloc’ from Shrek stuck in my head for days! Even the cathedral, a nice pointy change from colonial architecture, looked straight out of a cartoon. Thus we counterbalanced our sugary surroundings by finding the ‘cool’ part of town and treating ourselves to some cheap piercings. Again, ¡¿porque no?!
The second time we planned to climb Cathedral, we were instead thwarted by horrific weather. Even our back up plan, to visit the nearby town of Colonial Suiza, failed, as the second bus we needed didn’t seem to exist. Not wanting to show ourselves up in front of our new French friend Charlotte, we instead took refuge in a kitsch tearoom, ate yet more cake and then scaled Cerro Campanario again. The views are somewhat lesser when the wind and rain prevent you from ever fully opening your eyes, but it was an achievement nonetheless.
Perhaps my most successfully Argentinian evening, and the pinnacle of our gastro-tour, was when we guilt-tripped our hostel’s resident trainee chef to cook up an asado feast (indoors, due to the monsoon.) He had been all talk for several days, so imagine our surprise and delight upon returning home to find yet more piles of meat and a whole host of accompaniments. He even catered for my ‘no beef’ diet, despite it being totally alien to all Argentinians. We gorged ourselves; an international family dinner, with no shared language, other than attempts at broken Spanish and French. The perfect end to a week of culinary delights. (Or the perfect ‘beginning of the end’, as the night progressed to several local cervecerias before closing in the wee hours.)
With knee-ache from one too many hills, brain-ache from attempting to speak too many languages and stomach-ache from severe overindulgence, I boarded my 19 hour bus to Mendoza; and was charged ridiculous amounts for the privilege! (But at least I was fed three underwhelming inflight meals and treated to a game of bingo included in the price.)
n.b. Everything in Argentina is expensive; not least because all cash points charge a fiver and limit your withdrawals to just £100. The amount I’ve spent on ATM charges alone doesn’t bear thinking about!