Argentina: Bariloche/Parque Nacional Nahuel Huapi (Apr 1 to 5, 2015)

How did I spend 5 days in San Carlos de Bariloche, Argentina, the chocolate capitol of Argentina? Hanging with friends, eating chocolate, and……trekking, of course!

Bariloche is only a short, 2-hour, bus ride from El Bolson, Argentina (see previous post). It’s a large town (population 108,000+) located in the lakes district. It’s a destination for tourists and locals given its variety of restaurants, bars, and shops, including numerous chocolate shops, and given its location on the shores of Lago Nahuel Huapi, and its proximity to the mountains which offer skiing, trekking, and climbing.

Once in town, I met up with Dave (England), who I’d been traveling with for the previous two weeks in El Bolson and El Chalten. He’d taken an earlier bus from El Bolson. We enjoyed a very tasty, FREE spaghetti dinner at our hostel (small joys!) then met Kim (US) and Shawna (Canada) at a nearby bar. I’d met Kim at my hostel in Punta Arenas, Chile, in early March. I’d run into her and her friend, Shawna, while waiting for the bus into downtown Bariloche. The four of us met up that night for a few Argentinean beers.

The next day Dave and I changed hostels since the one were at was booked for the night and to join my friends, Carrie, Candice, and Don who I’d trekked and hung out with in Ushuaia (at the tip of Argentina) in February (just before my Antarctica trip). Once settled, Dave and I walked around town and discovered we’d totally lucked out because we happened to be in the chocolate capitol of Argentina for Easter weekend! Every year, to celebrate Easter, various chocolate producers send their students to Bariloche to construct the world’s largest handmade chocolate Easter egg which is cracked apart Easter Sunday and shared with the crowd. Per the internet, this year…”The giant egg fed 50,000 people and was made from 8,000 kilograms of chocolate. The titanic Easter treat stood eight and a half metres high and was six feet across in diameter.” They also construct the world’s longest chocolate bar, spanning two blocks of the main street, which is also shared with crowd. In addition to chocolate-mania, the weekend’s festivities included live music and performances all day Friday and Saturday.

Wow! All of this happening AND there was good trekking nearby. I wanted to eat chocolate (with good red wine, of course) AND go trekking but my time was limited. So, after much deliberation over a few beers, Dave and I devised a plan:  we’d trek for two long days then return to town in time to enjoy the Easter festivities. Later that day, the Ushuaia crew finally showed up at the hostel. It was so great to see them! Candice and Don planned to leave the next day but Carrie was staying in Bariloche for several days so decided to trek with us.

On Day 1 of our trek in Parque Nacional Nahuel Huapi, we woke up super early for the 30-minute bus ride to the trailhead. We planned to hike ~13 mi (20.5 km) to Refugio San Martin. The first part of the trail was along Arroyo Van Titter, so we had lovely views of the river as well as Lago Guiterrez, just south of us. We headed gradually uphill to arrive at Refugio Frey, a wood/stone cabin (similar to those I described in my post about El Bolson, Chile) located on the shores of a glacial lake surrounded by mountains. We watched some climbers make their way up the vertical wall of a nearby spire while we ate. After lunch, we climbed up and over two passes to finally arrive at Refugio San Martin, another wood/stone cabin on the shores of a glacial lake surrounded by mountains. Such gorgeous scenery! And thank goodness because it made it easier to deal with the rain that had begun as we arrived. There was no shelter for the tent campers and cooking in the refugio was not allowed, so we cooked our dinner in the rain then went inside to eat. As we sat there eating our backpacker food (i.e., a cheap packet of soup with pasta), everyone else enjoyed a beautiful-looking paella made by the refugio staff. We didn’t reserve and pay for a meal at the refugio ahead of time, so no paella for us! Oh well, a least we were warm and dry. We began Day 2 by packing up wet tents and starting the roughly 10-mi (16.5-km) hike back in soggy weather. We hiked down a gorgeous valley along Arroyo Casa de Piedra. The trail was steep for the first few hours then became a more gradual descent. Once at the end of the trail, we still a ways to go to get to the bus stop. After ~2 hrs of walking in the heat and dust, we finally caught the bus back to town.

Back at the hostel, we ran into Candice! She’d decided to stay in town for the Easter festivities. So, after a few hours to clean up and rest, Dave, Carrie, Mathieu (France), who’d we’d met at the hostel, and I went to the main plaza to met up with Candice and check out some live music. We didn’t find Candice but the four of us had fun listening to the Argentinean band (who’s name I can’t recall) then having a few beers at a nearby bar. The town was crowded but the vibe was festive and fun. Most of the crowd appeared to be Argentinean and Chilean. The next day was Easter so, Dave, Carrie, Coullaud, and I headed to the main plaza again to taste a piece of the world’s largest chocolate Easter egg. It was only 9am but everyone was out to enjoy a clear, sunny Easter day. The line for chocolate spanned several blocks along the main street, around the corner, down two blocks, around another corner, then along several more blocks along the waterfront. It was a long line. After a while, Coullaud left to go trekking but Candice joined us. During the wait, we chatted, did some good people-watching, and had some matte (traditional Argentinean tea) with our neighbors in line. After an hour and a half, we were rewarded with a large carton of chocolate which we ate sitting under a tree in the plaza. Honestly, the chocolate wasn’t that great (very sugary) but getting it was part of a fun day hanging with great friends and a great end to a fun time in Bariloche!

Here are a few pictures. Click the link to see the full photo album:  https://goo.gl/photos/zAxuEcfb8NLhRmDZ7

Enjoy!

On the way to Refugio San Martin.
The world’s largest homemade chocolate Easter egg!

Travel notes: recommend Punto Sur Hostel (friendly staff, free dinners on some nights) and The Hostel House (friendly staff, large communal kitchen); tap water in Bariloche and water in the national park is potable (no treatment needed).

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Argentina: Rio Azul Natural Protected Area/El Bolson (Mar 25 to Apr 1, 2015)

How did I spend 7 days in El Bolson, Argentina? Well, after multiple days of amazing hiking but no/crappy wifi in El Chalten, Argentina (see previous post) and a 22+ hr bus ride to get from El Chalten to El Bolson, I spent the first day at my cozy hostel glued to my cell phone and tablet basking in good wifi and catching up with family and friends. But after that, trekking, of course!

El Bolson is a small town (population 13,000+) with a variety of restaurants, cervezarias, and shops. It’s known as a hippie town for the variety of hand-made crafts sold throughout town and at a permanent artisan market held three times a week. Given the lakes and mountains surrounding the town, El Bolson is most well known for fishing, rafting, climbing, and….trekking. While there, I trekked in the Rio Azul Natural Protected Area (part of the world’s largest UNESCO temperate forest biosphere reserve).

For my first trek, Yara (Israel), who I’d met at the hostel the night before, and I dayhiked up Cajon del Azul, located along the crystal-clear waters of the Rio Azul. From the trail, we could see smoke from the arson-set fire in Parque Nacional Los Alerces, south of El Bolson. Fortunately, the winds favored us and we couldn’t smell the smoke. Later that day, Dave (England), who I’d trekked with in Torres del Paine and El Chalten, arrived and we went out for a beer at one of El Bolson’s many cervezarias.

The next day, Dave, Luca (Italy), whom we met at the hostel, and I began a 4-day trek up the Arroyo del Teno river valley to the Hielo Azul glacier, over a steep ridge to Cajon del Azul, over another steep ridge to another river valley (Dedo Gordo?), then to Wharton, a small town north of El Bolson. Along this route, there are refugios, log and/or stone huts offering, at a minimum, a kitchen/common area with a wood-burning stove, bathrooms, drinking water, beds, and a campground. Some even offer hot showers, hot meals, and cerveza casera (home-made beer brewed onsite). On Day 1, we trekked to Refugio Hielo Azul, located in a gorgeous, picturesque valley surrounded by mountains. It was so lovely, we decided to dayhike in the area on Day 2 and stay there a second night. On Day 3, we trekked to Refugio Cajon del Azul where we stopped for lunch. After lunch, Dave and I bid farewell to Luca who was returning to El Bolson, and we continued on to Refugio El Retamal, also in a picturesque valley surrounded by mountains. At each refugio, after we set up our tents and ate dinner at camp, we spent the rest of the evening in the warm, cozy hut playing dice games (Farkle and the Argentinean version, Cinco Mil) and drinking cerveza casera. Talk about luxury backpacking! On Day 4, we completed our trek and decided to hitch hike (a first for us both) back to town. With thumbs out, we started walking, stopping periodically to eat wild blackberries growing on the side of the road. Either we looked odd or none of the dozen cars that passed us where going to town because no one stopped or even slowed down. Finally, after an hour and a half of walking (this in addition to the miles of trail we’d walked earlier), we were picked up by a very nice Chilean couple on vacation. Thank goodness because we were still quite a ways from anything (i.e., bus stops, taxis, or phones).

Back in El Bolson, we decided to spend the last night in town at a hostel that also had a campground. It was like camping in a unkept city park (with small bits of trash, cigarette butts, and street dogs everywhere) but it was super cheap (about $8), the showers were hot, and there was good wifi in the reception area. As we walked into the hostel, I was very pleasantly surprised to see Chloe and Toby, an American couple I’d met at my hostel in Puerto Arenas (Chile) and had run into on the Torres del Paine trek (Chile) and in El Chalten (Argentina). They and their dog were on a multi-year road trip from California to the tip of Argentina and back. Later that night, Chloe, Toby, and Luca, came to our campsite and we spent the evening chatting, eating snacks, and drinking lots of good, cheap Argentinean wine. It was good times with good friends in a shitty little campground. Ha! And it was a great last night in El Bolson after trekking in the gorgeous mountains and valleys surrounding town.

Here’s a teaser picture. Click the link to see the full photo album:  https://goo.gl/photos/1b4xXkm7cwwfyRFLA

Enjoy!

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Travel notes: recommend La Casa de Arbol Hostel (good communal kitchen, friendly, helpful staff); don’t recommend Patagonia House Hostel (the camping area is trashy); bountiful beautiful veggies and fruit, tap water in El Bolson and river water in the natural area is potable (no treatment needed).

Argentina: Parque Nacional Los Glaciares/El Chalten (Mar 19 to 24, 2015)

How did I spend 6 days in El Chalten, Argentina, the self-proclaimed trekking capitol of the country? Trekking, of course! After a few days of rest in Puerto Natales, Chile, recuperating from the 9-day Torres del Paine trek (see previous post) and a 8-hr bus ride to get to El Chalten, I was ready to hit the trail. It turned out that Dave (UK), who I’d befriended on the Torres del Paine trek, was heading to El Chalten to hike as well, so we took the bus and trekked together. Besides being a charming small town (perm. population 1,100) with a variety of restaurants and cervezarias, El Chalten is located in the Rio de las Vueltas river valley and surrounded by mountains (hence the trekking and climbing reputation). After just a short walk from town, you enter Parque Nacional Los Glaciares (no entry fee and free camping) and have access to multiple trails. For our first hike, Dave and I dayhiked the 6.8-mi (11-km) Loma del Pliegue Tumbado trail, the only trail in the park where you can view the peaks of Las Torres (10,177 ft (3,103 m)) and Fitz Roy (11,171 ft (3,405 m)) together. From the mirador (view point), the panorama of snow-covered peaks, including the two famous peaks, was spectacular, only made better by the sight of Andean condors soaring overhead. The next day, we started a 3-day, ~22 mi (35 km) loop trek where we watched the numerous peaks, including the Las Torres and Fitz Roy peaks, light up with the rays of the rising sun. Spectacular! All this and we enjoyed amazing weather (sun, light wind, and no rain) during the entire stay in El Chalten! It was a much-needed respite from the cold, windy, wet weather we had in Torres del Paine and Puerto Natales. Back from the trek, I enjoyed the best homemade almond tart ever and spent the rest of that day and the next relaxing at my hostel, chatting with fellow travelers, planning my next destination with glasses of more good, cheap Argentinean wine, and enjoying the views surrounding the charming little town. It’s no wonder that El Chalten is a mecca for trekkers and rock climbers (yes, people climb those peaks!).

Here’s a teaser picture. Click the link to see the full photo album:  https://goo.gl/photos/jP2VvvThPnxygVUY8

Enjoy!

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View of the Las Torres and Fitz Roy peaks from the Loma del Pliegue Tumbado trail

Travel notes: recommend Travelers Hostel Patagonia (good communal kitchen and spaces, friendly staff, many large windows, great view); the panaderia about a block from the hostel on the opposite side of the street has an amazing almond tort (and other super yummy baked goods); recommend buying groceries, especially produce, elsewhere (cheaper, better selection and quality); tap water and water in El Chalten and in the park is potable (no treatment needed).

Chile: Parque Nacional Torres del Paine (Mar 8 to 16, 2015)

After a 13-day cruise in Antarctica (see previous post), I continued north to Chile. How did I spend 9 days in Patagonia’s famous Parque Nacional Torres del Paine? Trekking, of course!

My 9-day, ~81-mile (130-km) “Q” Circuit included the “tail”, the “W”, and the “backside”. I did the hike with Steffen (Germany) whom I’d met en route to Puerto Natales (the closest town to the park). After the first campamento (campground), we befriended Florencia (Argentina), Verena (Switzerland), Grant (Australia), and Jonas (Denmark) who we trekked with for most of the remainder of the route. We also befriended Chris (UK) and others along the way doing parts of or the whole circuit. Hiking with these good peeps added to the whole experience, and was especially helpful in keeping spirits up when trudging through copious amounts of mud and coping with almost daily rain and high winds.

Having completed the trek, I think the park is amazing. But to be honest, I had moments of doubt, like when trekking for several hours through pastures or scrubby foothills. While very pretty, I felt like the overall topography and vegetation were too similar to places I’ve hiked in the So Cal mountains or even the lower elevation areas of the Sierra mountains. From all that I’d read about this park and given the rain, crazy strong winds, and the amount of mud I encountered everyday, I wanted to be blown away (figuratively speaking). For the first few days, I was worried I’d be disappointed. However……the park did NOT disappoint, in fact, I was blown away (figuratively and literally). Along with pastures, I hiked through native grass and shrub lands and moss-covered beech tree forests; hiked along cloudy gray glacial-fed rivers and turquoise glacial-fed lakes; hiked underneath the many snow-covered peaks variously lite up by the sun and shrouded in dark rain clouds; and viewed the famous Las Torres peaks lite up by the rising sun’s rays and topped with an amazing rainbow. In addition to the Las Torres peaks, the park’s undisputed crown jewel, I hiked along glacier Grey, part of the Southern ice field, the 2nd largest sub-polar ice field in the world. And the day we hiked over the pass and viewed this massive glacier, it was speckled by patches of sun peeking through dark clouds, and also topped with an amazing rainbow. I’m not sure why this glacier and associated ice field don’t receive as much press as the Las Torres peaks, but to me, these were the crown jewels of the park.

Trekking in Torres del Paine exceeded my expectations both because of the people I shared the experience with and because of the park’s natural splendor.

Here’a a teaser picture. Click the link to see the full photo album & videos:  https://goo.gl/photos/5hD13yDdAeYB4r829

Enjoy!

Rainbow over Glacier Grey.
Rainbow over Glacier Grey.

Argentina: Ushuaia, El Fin del Mundo (Feb 11 to 20, 2015)

What did I do for 10 days at the “fin del mundo” in Ushuaia, Argentina? After my plane from Santiago, Chile (see previous post) landed on a single track runway, seemingly inches from the ocean surface, I shared a taxi to my hostel with Lorraine and David, a Swedish couple that I befriended on the plane. Like me, there are traveling until the money runs out. After checking in to my hostel, I put on my rain gear and set out for an evening walk. It was about 9pm but still twilight. After walking around this new city a bit, along with other strollers, I found a little cafe to enjoy a salad and a local beer, a Beagle Golden Ale (who’s namesake is the famous Beagle Channel which fronts Ushuaia).

As for the days after that, I spent most of my time exploring the area with a fun-loving trio from the US, Carrie, Candice, and Don, who I met at the hostel. We day hiked to nearby Glacier Martial, did a 3-day backpack on the Camino de la Turbera through the mountains and canyons behind Ushuaia (the southern side of Parque Nacional de Tierra del Fuego) with a side trip to Lago Tempano, celebrated the national holiday of carnival enjoying lots (and lots, and then a little more) of Argentinean wine while watching a local parade, and hanging around town. I even got my first lesson in fire throwing (minus the fire of course) from Candice, a seasoned pro.

While I was tempted to join my new friends traveling north to Parque Nacional Torres del Paine (my next destination), I decided to spend a few more days in Ushuaia. And holy crap am I glad I did! I ended up booking a last-minute 13-day cruise to Antarctica (pics coming in the next post). I’m also glad I stayed as I got to do another day hike back to Lago Tempano and then to Lago Encantada with my German friend, Karen, and hang out a bit with three wild and crazy guys, David, Michael, and James, from Australia, Romania, and the UK. Too bad I had to turn down their offer to join them driving their rental car north to Punto Arenas cuz it would have been a blast, but Antarctica called.

Ushuaia is a safe, clean, charming little city (population 56,500). Besides the wonderful people I befriended, all of whom I hope to see again in the future, what stands out the most about Ushuaia is its location between the Beagle Channel and gorgeous snow-capped mountains (my favorite kind of place as you know).

Here are a few photos from my time in Ushuaia. Click the link to see the full photo album:  https://goo.gl/photos/KMQVQwebjb1X2LvG8

Enjoy!

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Travel notes: recommend Cruz del Sur Hostel (although tiny kitchen and a bit noisy) and Los Lupinos Hostel (large kitchen, rooms upstairs); tap water is potable (no treatment needed); can use collectivos to get to Camino de la Turbera trailhead (7 pesos); can easily get high exchange rate (higher than national rate) around town (better to bring lots of US $$ to exchange and pay cash for everything); recommend Ushuaia Turismo (Daniella) to book Antarctica cruise.