Our last week in Patagonia was mostly spent surrounded by glaciers, waterfalls, alerce trees, and swarms of horse flies…just the kind of habitat that Don and I thrive in. Our last day in the woods ended in a relaxing boat ride back to Bariloche, and even though we knew it was time to move north and explore more of this massive continent that we came to discover, it was hard to tear ourselves away from a place so ideal. On Wednesday we boarded a 20 hour bus headed for the wine capital of Mendoza, where we will stay until Christmas Day. Mendoza is a sizeable city, and temperatures have been hovering around 95 degrees midday, so it’s fair to say that we’ve left our “comfort zone”, for now at least.
Last week we traveled to Pampa Linda, the starting point for our multi-day backpacking trip, in a private tour bus because that is the only way to get there without having your own car. The nearly 3 hour drive was mostly on winding dirt roads, and skirted around the southern edge of a beautiful blue lake. Unfortunately, travel into the backcountry is not cheap in South America, and our transportation and park entrance fees alone amounted to nearly $150 USD (still, the trip was worth every penny). Once in the one-building town of Pampa Linda, we began a long, gentle walk toward a popular waterfall and lookout point on a well-traveled dirt road. Our packs were feeling especially heavy, loaded up with 5 days of food, so we accepted a ride in the back of a pickup for a portion of the walk. The glaciers and waterfall at Garganta del Diablo were impressive, but we had our eyes set high up on a steep ridge that promised a difficult climb and rewarding, expansive views. A couple hours later, we crawled, hands and feet, to the very top of Piedra de Perez, and took in views of two different glaciers and over 20 waterfalls of various sizes and strengths. After a few minutes of oohing and aahing, we started back down the mountain, eager to escape the hot Patagonia sunshine that was quickly turning us into lobsters. We walked back down the 8km road until we spotted a campsite that we couldn’t pass up. The only challenge was that the shady, flat site was on the other side of the swift, glacier-fed Rio Manso. After stripping down and performing a leg-numbing river crossing, we set up our first night’s camp, me working on our shelter while Don cooked us a hearty dinner of tortellinis in red sauce.
For our second day, we had planned an ambitious hike up to Refugio Otto Meiling, a shelter that was built directly on the bare face of Tronador, in between two blue-white glaciers. The hike was only 14km, but the second half was all above treeline and included some sun-scorched scrambling, boulder hopping, and snow-traversing. We made it to the top triumphant and giddy, more than a little pleased with the 360 degree view of Andes mountains, glaciers, and rainforest. The actual Refugio is a cozy, international refuge, complete with laughing, beer-drinking climbers and pleasant women baking bread for the evening’s dinner. We were tempted to stay, but we couldn’t justify spending almost $10 USD to camp when we could hike back down less than 1,000m and camp for free. So we found ourselves a nice sandy patch, made some sno-cones out of snow and high-concentration Tang, and enjoyed a windy evening of reading, eating, and relaxing.
The next day’s hike was short and sweet, and ended early in the afternoon at a free, secluded, riverside campground. Unfortunately, we had dropped in elevation, and the horse flies were fierce and unrelenting. We ended up spending a pleasant afternoon caged inside our tent, mocking the bugs that wantd so desperately to feed on us, but couldn’t find a way through the mesh. The bugs were a downer, but we still both agreed we’d rather be there then anywhere else. We woke up refreshed, but unaware of what the day had in store for us. The plan was to hike up and over the “Pass of the Clouds”, and then camp at a site a few kilometers beyond. It would be another short day, but the pass would be steep and we were in no hurry to finish. Or so we thought.
We got to the pass in a couple hours and ate lunch at the newly constructed Refugio at the top. The crew there informed us that the campsite we had planned to stay in was currently closed, and in fact the only legal place to camp would be there at the refugio. It was only 11am and we still had a surplus of energy. We could see down the entire valley where we were supposed to hike the next day, and the huge, milky blue lake in the distance beckoned us toward it. After a few more glances at the map, we decided that we should hike the rest of the way to the lake. It would mean that we were finishing a day early, but the thought of swimming in the lake that very evening was impossible to pass up. From the pass, it was 16 harrowing kilometers to Lago Frio. The trail wound through rainforest, regularly slowed by fallen trees, muddy swamps, and socked in overgrowth. It was humid in such dense forest and we were covered in cobwebs and mud, but the thrill of exploration and adventure helped us over the myriad obstacles. We surprised ourselves by arriving at the lake by 4:30pm, before the day’s boat had even arrived.
We found an official to talk to, only to learn that somehow, ridiculously, camping was not allowed at the lake. Of course we could have stealth camped, but now all the park rangers knew we were there, and were working quickly to ensure that we would take the boat back to Bariloche that very afternoon. Seeing that there was nothing we could do, and also somewhat glad to have the extra day in Bariloche to get stuff done, we finally had the chance to go for a swim. And what a swim it was! The water was warm by our standards (meaning it didn’t burn your lungs when you jumped in) and we spent as much time as we could floating, swimming, and jumping off the dock into that perfect lake. Finally the boat came and we headed back to Bariloche, memories of tree roots, waterfalls, and rippling river stones dancing through our heads.
Our final full (unexpected) day in Bariloche was filled with errands and chores, but ended with dinner at an all-you-can-eat pizza parlor with our friends from the hostel. We reflected back on how good Bariloche had been to us, and looked forward to seeing what northern Argentina had in store. The following couple days were filled with travel, which we are happy to report were perfectly uneventful. Once we got into Mendoza, we walked the streets, looking for the hostel where we would stay for the next week in exchange for a bit more front-desk work. We settled into Hostel Mendoza Lodging, before exploring the town by foot. Between the bus ride and the midday heat, we were exhuasted by the afternoon, and ended up staying in and making dinner our first night. Our thoughts on Mendoza are unremarkable. It is a nice city, for a city. It is hot, and apparently “this is nothing” compared to the temperatures in January and February. It’s most redeeming factors are its nearby vineyards, and its proximity to Mount Aconcagua…the tallest mountain in the world outside of the Himalayas.
Yesterday, to celebrate our 2 year anniversary, Don and I spent the day biking around to different vineyards and olive oil tastings. We had a perfect day, but for me, it didn’t quite compare to the wine tastings available in California, especially the Napa Valley area. We got back with wine to spare, and in the evening went out to a romantic dinner at one of Mendoza’s high-end restaurants. Today we are taking it easy, working a bit in exchange for our room, and hopefully checking out the city’s large park in the afternoon. We have plans to visit Aconcagua for the next few days, and can’t emphasize enough how excited we are to escape the heat a bit and get back out in our tent. It is still hard to believe that Christmas is less than a week away, but the plan is to cook up some chicken with people at the hostel, and leave for Salta on Christmas Day. Now I’ve got to do some research and find out where people swim in this hot city!