Sometimes you spend hours of research and hundreds of dollars on excursions and activities, and other times you get offered to do them all for free! This week, in addition to a couple of beautiful hikes that we planned on our own, we had the incredible luck of doing many wonderful activities without spending a dime. We rode horses, stand up paddle boarded, canyoneered, and mountain biked; and we hadn´t planned on any of it. Needless to say, it has been a fun, busy week, and besides being a bit worn out, we are more excited than ever to be learning new things every day and getting to know the wonderful people and land of Argentina.
Our hike up to Refugio Frey (a small mountain hut in the middle of the Andes) was spectacular. (I´ll be the first to admit that my blog is becoming riddled with superlatives, but I have to at least attempt to define the nature of the places we are experiencing, even if I have to start pulling out the old thesaurus.) We left town on a city bus at around 11am and drove 20 minutes to Bariloche´s ski resort, Cerro Catedral. Our trailhead started out from the parking lot, and climbed steadily for 10km through dusty burn zones and lush forest before ending above tree line surrounded by snow-covered craggy peaks. The second half of the hike was much steeper than the first and had us catching our breath and looking around in amazement every 5 minutes or so. When we finally neared the top, and had the refugio in sight, the scenery reminded me of Goat Rocks in Washington´s Gifford-Pinchot National Forest. There were quite a few people already at the refugio, (the total size of the developed space was about equal to two football fields with one small building in the middle), but we easily picked out a sheltered cove for our tent and unpacked our gear. The hike had only taken us 3 1/2 hours so we had the whole afternoon and evening free to explore, lay in the sun, and take in the incomparable views. It was fun to be outside camping, and we were relieved when we slept well all night and stayed warm enough with the gear we had.
The next day we woke up, casually packed our things, and then began the easy descent down the mountain. We got down by noon, once again enjoying a warm day without a cloud in the sky, and took a bus back to town. We had to work at 4pm, so we had just enough time to shower, get in a quick nap, and then man the front desk. To our surprise, Martin, our boss and the owner of Hostel Punto Sur, arranged a small asado just for the employees, so we ate an absurd amount of delicious meat for dinner, and washed it all down with white wine served in a hollowed out honeydew melon, just one more great idea that I hope to bring back home with me to the states.
One of the most popular attractions in Bariloche is a looped road called Circuito Chico. It is only about 20 minutes outside of town, and fully paved, but most people choose to walk or bike most of the circuit. We thought it might make a perfect half-day activity, so the next morning we caught a bus to the starting point of Colonia Suiza. ¨Catching a bus¨ is not quite as easy as it sounds. There is no clear map of bus routes and times, nor do all the buses stop at one central place, nor do all rides cost the same. When you only speak a little Spanish, getting on the right bus and off at the right stop takes a combination of translation, hand motions, map searching, and just plain luck. From the bus stop we began the 9 km walk around the peninsula, where we would eventually (hopefully) catch a different bus back into town. Within minutes of walking, we had a dog join us, and no matter how hard we tried (Don even attempted yelling at him…but he saw right through it) he would not leave our side. We´re still unsure whether ¨Buddy¨(as we named him) was homeless or not, but he ended up walking the entire circuit with us, only to be left behind when we loaded on our bus home. The walk was lovely, and it was a gorgeous day for it. The highlight was a short side hike to a desolate beach named Via Tacul, where we ate lunch and took lots of photos. We made it back in time for another evening of ¨work¨, which really means we made it back in time to study Spanish, meet people from all over the world, check people into their rooms, and watch TV.
Another half-day merited another hike, this time up Cerro Otto, the closest mountain to town, and a must-see viewpoint. The hike starts out approximately 7 km from town, and follows a long dirt road with little shade and fabulous views. Once again, we had 2 dogs join us at the beginning of our hike, and they stuck with us all the way to the top and all the way back down. We had a heard that there was a rotating restaurant at the top of the mountain, so we worked up a big appetite on the way up. Unfortunately, when we got to the top we learned that we weren´t even allowed in the restaurant unless we bought a ticket (which included a ride up and down the gondola), so instead we just walked around and took in the view. We got there just in time to watch some paragliders take off and circle majestically around the mountain. They provided some nice entertainment before our long (hungry) hike down. Once we were about halfway back, we accepted a ride from a nice local who drove us back to town. We spent the rest of the evening working, but Martin also cooked up another asado, this time for more than 15 people (guests at the hostel), so we indulged in our second delicious asado of the week.
The following day we were feeling a bit worn out so we spent most of the day resting, with a short visit to the closest beach and a long overdue dip in Nahuel Haupi Lake. The next day was our day off (how quickly it had come!) so we made tentative plans to spend the day in town, and then go out for dinner and a movie in the evening. We went to the local theatre, which is located inside a mall, and saw Escape Plan in English, with Spanish subtitles. We had a bit of time to kill in the mall, so we couldn´t help but stop into the ¨Casino¨and try our luck with a 5 peso bill (about 50 cents). We were actually up a couple bucks before we lost it all…fortunately the stakes were low and it turned out to be some very cheap fun. After the movie (which I would definitely recommend), we went to dinner at a very nice German restauarant named ¨Family Weiss¨. We went for cheese fondue, which was as good as we´d hoped, but we also got treated to an included tango performance. It was the perfect way to spend a day off.
The next two days were really the highlight of our week. On Sunday we got to attend Bariloche´s annual ¨Adventure Week¨ at a park on the edge of Lake Gutierrez, another large lake close to town. All of the adventure guiding companies gathered to offer samples of their activity for free to the residents and tourists in town. We joined up with the Bariloche Hostel Association, where we hung out in the sun, ate more tasty BBQ, and took turns horseback riding and stand up paddle boarding in the lake. It was a great day of rest and relaxation and we liked hanging out with the locals and their families. The next day we planned on hiking up to another refugio for a night of camping, but sometimes plans change. In the evening our boss, Martin, came in and asked if we might be willing to put the refugio on hold and instead go ¨canoeing¨ with a reporter from Buenos Aires who needed ¨models¨ to do the activity so he could take pictures. We happily agreed, and even considered heading up to the refugio afterward. Then Martin mentioned how expensive the activity was to do and how lucky we were to be doing it, and we got a bit confused. Canoeing was really that pricey? No, but ¨Canyoning¨ is and in fact, that was what we had just signed up for. Apparently, what we and the Australians call canyoneering, the rest of the world calls canyoning. Our excitement and curiosity levels rose and we went to bed eager to see what the next day had in store.
We met Guido, the journalist/photographer from Buenos Aires, in the morning and together we all waited for Cedric to pick us up. Cedric is from France and is one of the world´s leading canyoning guides. He instructs other guides all over the world and is fluent in French, English, and Spanish. He moved here to Bariloche with his wife in order to begin exploring the nearby canyons and open up the sport in this area. We first drove to his office to pick up gear (including some very thick, very hard to put on full-body wetsuits), and then dropped by his house to grab a few more items. After picking up our second guide (they almost always use two) we drove down a long dirt road to a waterfall you could see from the road. After getting dressed out we actually had to hike quite far to get to the top of a different waterfall that was above and beyond the one we had seen from the road. Hiking in full body wetsuits is not easy! From the top the guides did what they do best, tying knots and setting up an intricate belay system, and we killed time by sliding down a small waterfall into a crystal clear pool below. The water was freezing, but our wetsuits made our swimming surprisingly enjoyable. We then took turns rapelling down our first 28m waterfall, while Guido stood at the bottom taking pictures. The slippery rock and cascading water make rapelling quite a task, but we all got down, where we attempted the impossible task of standing directly under the powerful waterfall. To my surprise, we weren´t done yet. They set up another rapel, this time a sort of zipline looking descent, and we climbed back to the top for our second waterfall rapel of our lives. We were beyond excited to have this incredible opportunity and we couldn´t thank both Cedric and Guido enough for letting us be a part of it. After helping clean some gear, we got back to the hostel a bit beat, and decided to give ourselves the rest of the day off. But again, plans change.
Less than an hour after getting back, after eating some lunch and changing our clothes, Guido came to find us again. This time it felt like he handed us the golden ticket. ¨Would you guys be up for some mountain biking? It is the first trail to be created in an Argentinian National Park and it just opened up last week. The man who made it happen will be our guide.¨ He couldn´t have known just how excited his offer would make us. We explained that mountain biking is our favorite activity and he told us to be ready in an hour. We were picked up by Pablo, a local man who has been riding bikes in the area for over 20 years. He had his very talented daughter with him and together we all drove out to Cerro Catedral (the ski resort) where the trail was to start. They dropped off a shuttle vehicle so we would have the special treat of only riding downhill on newly inaugurated single-track. The ride begins with 4km of single track before it enters the Nahuel Haupi National Park. From there, a 7km trail led us down to a beautiful Lake Gutierrez and back to our shuttle vehicle. The entire ride was challenging, fun, and included a fair amount of stream crossings, sand pits, and root systems. We stopped occasionally so Guido could take photos, and in the meantime got to learn more about Pablo. He had been riding this trail since he was young, but was always getting in trouble with the park service since bikes were not allowed in the National Parks. A few years ago, he decided to try and change what had been the norm since the creation of the park system. He began the long process of applying to change the rules, and make this trail a designated mountain bike route. After a few years of hard work, he was reaping the fruits of his labor. The trail opened last week, and the department of tourism in Argentina recognized it as the momentous occasion that it was. The signs that so gracefully guided us down the trail had only been installed within the last few days, and Pablo assured us that we were the first tourists to ride the now official trail. We got back late (after some much-deserved hot chocolate at the bottom of the mountain) and reflected back on a wonderful day of adventure. We made dinner with Guido (homemade pizzas with wine and beer) and went to bed feeling very happy and spoiled. Guido has promised to send us to some pictures, so I´ll include them in a later post when I get them.
We plan on staying at Hostel Punto Sur until next Tuesday, unless of course plans change. Despite being in one place, and having most evenings ¨free¨while we work the front desk, we do feel constantly busy. There is just so much Spanish to study (I am working my way through Puntos de Partida, the text I used in high school, and Don found one from the 80´s that he is learning from), so much chocolate to buy, and so much planning to do for whatever comes next. Fortunately we have had the privilege of talking with many tourists who have a whole range of advice for us regarding almost all of our future destinations. One girl from Australia is just finishing up over 10 months in South America and was willing to spend at least a couple hours with me just talking about her experiences with different countries and cities. It has been fun to meet people from all over the world, but also strange to see how quickly people come and go from our lives in this new context. Now we´re off to finally hike Cerro Lopez and hopefully spend the night camping at the top. It is amazing how time can fly by and yet feel so slow all at the same time. We´re very grateful we have 10 months down here, because otherwise we might not get it all in!