After a 42-hour bus ride from Salta just south of the Bolivian border, I caught a first glimpse of my destination; the famous Argentine town of San Carlos de Bariloche in Northern Patagonia.
Situated next to the crystal clear glacial lake, Nahuel Huapi, and in the shadow of the snow-capped Andes, the architecture will look oddly familiar to those who have explored Europe. It is sometimes easy to forget that you aren’t in rural Germany or a Swiss mountain town, especially if you visit in winter or early spring. Decades ago, Bariloche saw an influx of Europeans and it seems their influence has had some impact on the structural design of this little town.
But Bariloche is a great holiday destination for reasons other than its history. Becoming a place of increasing popularity, Bariloche has hotels in abundance – I recommend a lake view – and activities for a traveller seeking relaxation or a few weeks of adventure.
The atmosphere here is incredibly relaxing, due in no small part to the lack of hectic bustle and many breathtaking views. The residents of Bariloche rely heavily on tourism, so the locals are unwaveringly polite and helpful, although in my experience Argentine folk are hospitable no matter where you are.
Bariloche plays host to an eclectic array of restaurants. In addition to Argentine cuisine and the usual multi-national suspects (McDonalds etc), you will find a number of restaurants specialising in foods from around the world. On a jaunt down the main street one evening, I stumbled across an American diner straight out of the 1950s and decided to indulge in a few era appropriate milkshakes.
One thing Bariloche is not short of is chocolate shops which are most concentrated around the town centre and have a tendency to give out free, liquidised samples. Exquisite, if a bit rich and incredibly addictive, you might find yourself wishing you’d reserved more room in your suitcase for souvenir Argentine chocolate. We did.
Exploring the great outdoors
Due to the prevalence of mountains and lakes in the nearby Nahuel Huapi National Park, there is no shortage of opportunities to enjoy the outdoors. Kayaking is highly recommended; a guided paddle across breath-taking lakes with spectacular views of the mountains and surrounding forests – and with the right guide, a cup of strawberry tea and some ‘Dulce de Leche’. But remember, these lakes come courtesy of glacial melting so you’ll be pretty chilly if you fall in!
The best way to enjoy the beauty of the area is to go on a hike. There is an abundance of guides to take you through the multiple hiking routes in the National Park, many of which reach the Argentina-Chile border. The views are spectacular, particularly if blessed with good weather. Expect to see panoramic views of the Andes, the lakes, the nearby glaciers and with luck, some exceptional wildlife. Needless to say, you don’t want to leave your camera behind on this trip.
If you’re looking for an experience with a touch of adrenaline, white water rafting should go right to the top of your list. This was my second time white water rafting on this South America trip, but certainly the most thrilling. Not only is the backdrop jaw-dropping but rafting makes for terrific excitement that you can be sure is as safe as this endeavour gets. The intensity of the rapids varies depending on how full the river is but for first time rafters, there are lower intensity experiences available.
Bariloche is, in my opinion, an overlooked treasure that provides the choice of a relaxing holiday and an action-packed adventure. Or perhaps a healthy mix of the two. One way or the other, this breathtaking corner of the world will foster some wonderful memories that don’t fade easily.
Hints and tips
If you are planning to visit Bariloche, there are a few important things to be aware of. Trains are scarce in South America and as such, Bariloche is only reachable by car or bus. Plenty of good overnight buses run frequently to Bariloche from most major cities but if you prefer more autonomy, renting a car is surprisingly easy.
Something else to note is that the Argentine peso is quite weak and the currency is difficult to get hold of if you are outside Argentina and, similarly, it’s the devil’s own job to exchange any leftover cash at a reasonable price. Two solutions are to either use a combination of Argentine pesos and American dollars (an acceptable currency in Argentina) or to make sure you spend everything you exchange. Lastly, Argentina has a strong tipping culture and many occupations are funded entirely by tips, so you may receive purposefully poor service if you refuse a gratuity.