Wednesday, March 31, 2010

El Bolson

I took a weekend trip to El Bolson, the hippie cousin of Bariloche. It's only two hours from Bariloche by bus and is the organic eater's paradise. There's a huge market most days that offers homemade EVERYTHING. My friend and I got homemade empanadas, a fresh vegetable tarta, tried a few different microbrews, and bought a bunch of ripe raspberries for the bus ride home. Definitely a successful trip.
El Bolson is a farm-based village and specializes in everything casero. Even the kioskos will have eggplant milanesa sandwiches made with homemade bread and tomatoes from the garden around back. They have multitudes of microbreweries with as many flavors of beer as you can imagine. Each refugio around El Bolson also offers their own personal variety of cerveza. There are also many different jams and "dulces" made with the fresh berries from the surrounding forests and farms. My favorites are sauco, rosa mosqueta, and guinda. These spreads make great gifts!!
El Bolson is also the birthplace of Jauja, the infamous patagonian ice cream chain. I have become spoiled in regards to ice cream after living in Buenos Aires for two years, but I think Jauja might have something on all the porteno chains. They use a lot of the fresh local berries to make creative flavors you wouldn't be able to find anywhere else. I've come to know and love Jauja from their branches in Bariloche, but it was definitely worth a visit to the mothership in El Bolson.
El Cajon de Azul

I stayed the night in a refugio called El Cajon de Azul during the full moon. The refugio has an organic garden where they grow all the vegetables they cook with. They also brew their own beer on site and have a very cute and fuzzy army of kitties to guard against mice. El Cajon is almost a mix between an estancia and a refugio, situated in the middle of "gaucho-land." It's a little more geared towards comfort than most of the refugios around Bariloche (you can shower!). The refugios in El Bolson seem to be suited for the casual backpacker versus the more mountaineering-minded escapes around Bariloche. The river and the refugio get the name "azul" because of the stunningly blue water of the Rio Azul.
El Rio Azul

Thursday, March 25, 2010

The wheels on the bus...

In order to have a truly complete South American travel adventure, every explorer needs to do at least one excessively long trip by bus. The thought of a 20 hour bus ride is intimidating, but these journeys are a must....and can even be enjoyable. The flights within South America are expensive, and buses provide a cheap and easy-to-use alternative. Because buses are such popular forms of transportation, they are a relatively comfortable, clean, and safe way to move from point A to point B. The nicer buses have seats that almost fully recline to make a legitimate bed. If you're taking a particularly long trip, it's worth it to splurge for the full "cama" bus. Overnight buses also eliminate the need to book a hostel or other accommodations for the night--you're saving money while snoozing!

The buses offer food en route, but the quality of your in-transit meal varies greatly from company to company. It's always a safe bet to pack snacks 'just in case.' However, the nicer buses offer a pretty decent meal with a complimentary mini bottle of wine (definitely helpful when it comes to sleeping). On other rides, you may get stale or soggy ham and cheese medialunas that look like they've been trapped in plastic wrap for well over a week.

Be careful not to eat or drink too much. The bathrooms on the buses are predictably not the most luxurious. Additionally, as the steward explains when you arrive on the bus, there are absolutely NO 'number 2s' allowed on board. One unfortunate passenger on a bus trip I was on clearly could not restrain himself long enough to follow this rule. He was publicly chastised, turning beet red and mumbling apologies, in front of the whole bus. On long trips, they stop at rest stops to refuel along the way, and you may use the restrooms there. Make it quick...a friend of a friend was left behind at such a rest stop en route to Mendoza. He had to get on the next bus headed there and luckily had friends on the bus that left him to collect his luggage.

The "in-bus" entertainment usually leaves a lot to be desired. There are always a few movies queued to play, but you rarely are watching Oscar quality flicks. I've watched Phat Girls dubbed in Spanish THREE TIMES on bus rides. Occasionally you'll get a good one that will occupy the brain for a few hours. These movies are never censored. On a bus full of families and children, my dinnertime movie was once Lord of War. A great movie, but packed with drugs and violence and probably only appropriate for non-breastfeeding audiences. My favorite part of the entertainment selection is the music video hour. Sometimes hours on end of crazy, over-the-top reggaeton music videos: amazing. With these questionable entertainment sources, don't forget to pack a book and mp3 player in your carry-on.

Overnight bus rides do have their fair share of unpleasant moments, but overall I enjoy travelling by bus here. They are very comfortable and the time always passes much faster than you think it will. You simply have to be prepared for whatever twists and turns the trip will bring you. Below is my list of on-board essentials when preparing for a long bus ride:

  • Warm socks: It gets really cold on the buses...even in the middle of summer. Many of them have air vents located on the floor, so a pair of cosy socks always serves well
  • Blanket or other warm clothing: same reason as above. Also, a bit of a personal preference...I love wrapping up in blankets while sleeping
  • Snacks: I always try to bring some fruit (nothing they serve you will be fresh) and a few other of my favorite goodies (Frutigrans!!)
  • Earplugs: You only have to be stuck next to a snorer or crying baby once to never forget them again
  • Sleeping pills: I always need a little help when trying to sleep in transit. Booze is also an acceptable substitute...especially when returning from trips to wine country. Don't knock yourself out too hard though. I've never encountered problems with theft on buses, but I've had friends that have had things taken.
  • Book: Self-explanatory
  • Magazine: When I get sick of (or finish) my book
  • Luggage ticket: Don't lose this! They give you a little slip of paper when you check your bag below...hold on to it!
  • Charged mp3 player: I actually don't have one so never travel with one, but for most this is a long trip essential.
Suerte and happy trails!

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Tour de Refugios

I have spent the last month trekking in Bariloche, hiking to many of the refugios. Refugios are small cabins located in the mountains that offer full service kitchens and a warm place to sleep. Argentina and Chile have both embraced this European tradition of mountaintop refuges and the Patagonias are sprinkled with these little home-away-from-homes. Refugios also mean that trekkers don't need to carry a tent or cooking supplies...great news for tired feet and sore backs. Also, if you're willing to shell out some pesos, almost all refugios offer high quality dinners and breakfasts made in house. You can get a piping hot meal of grilled trout and veggies or a hearty steak dinner while soaking in the wilderness.
These high altitude hostels are all definitely worth the walk:

Refugio Frey: Frey is probably the biggest and most well-known refugio. It's located in the ski center Catedral and is the only refugio in the area open year round, with great skiing in the winter and great biking in the summer. High granite "fingers" create a climber's paradise and travelers flock from around the globe for some of the best climbing in South America. Frey, perhaps more than the other refugios, seems to host a kind of community. People come and stay for stretches of days or weeks versus simply passing through.

View from Frey

Refugio Frey

Dusk walking around Frey
Refugio Lopez: Lopez is a great refugio to visit if you're short on time. The entrance to the trail is located close to the picturesque Colonia Suiza, a quaint little village with a market that has an array of local handiwork and food. The market is open on Wednesdays and Sundays and I HIGHLY recommend the waffles with raspberries and cream or dulce de leche and cream. Lopez is a relatively short climb that takes you up to amazing views overlooking the Lake Nahuel Huapi. You don't really need to do an overnight stay at Lopez because it makes such an easy day trip.

Refugio Lopez

View from Lopez

Refugio Italia: This refugio is located at Laguna Negra. The entrance for the trail up to Laguna Negra is also close to Colonia Suiza, but the trek is longer than that to Lopez. However, the majority of the trip is through the forest along a relatively flat plane. Only the very end gets steep and rocky. Refugio Italia is hidden away next to an impressive--you guessed it--black lagoon. Reward yourself with an artisanal beer after your hike brewed in the refugio.
Refugio Italia at Laguna Negra

Refugio Jakob: Jakob is a picturesque wooden cabin transplanted directly from some kind of fairytale. Jakob is the kind of place that just makes you want to frolic. It is a warm, tranquil escape compared to the hustle and bustle of some of the other refugios. The family that runs the refugio have been there for over 25 years, and the smiling, bouncing, half-mountain-goat children of the refugiero add to the fairy-tale feel of the place. All the refugios in the area are connected by paths winding through the forests and mountains of Bariloche. I did a hike from Frey to Jakob, from which you may also continue on to Laguna Negra.
Refugio Jakob
Inside Jakob
Path down towards Jakob
Refugio Otto Meiling: Meiling is located en route to Mount Tronador. The entrance is at Pampa Linda, a little paradise worth a trip all on its own. Mount Tronador has many glaciers and the roaring calving of the ice gives the mountain its name: "Thunderer." The refugio is clean and efficient, with a disco ball and surprisingly advanced sound system hinting at potential high altitude revelry.
Refugio Otto Meiling (note the condors flying above)

Me on the glacier near Meiling

Meiling by morning