South America 2012-2013: Villa La Angostura, Argentina

I make my inauspicious return to Villa La Angostura. Clouds and rain make things work in that low-key way. The Seven Lakes, the wonderland which lies between San Martin and this next Swiss village of sorts, are seen exactly how I remember them as the bus motors along to my new home of some days: beautiful. The paving of the road is coming along, I note, now replete with the expected cyclists churning away here and there not oblivious to its charms. After two and a half hours in Heidi country, we eventually reconnect with civilization for the last stretch. This comes in the form of the next road down to the south that makes a pass run to Chile: We take it in the other direction to shortly pull up in Villa La Angostura.

In town I walk the inescapable several blocks of chocolate shops and regional products (jams, chocolates, pastries, wild meats such as deer and boar), then divert from this frenzy of merchandize by a mere couple of blocks to find my hostel. I meet my host, Sebastian, as reggae music blares away inside to otherwise empty living room. I spy some comfortable chairs, immediately thinking of the upcoming (continuation of) crappy weather, plus the holidays and impending onslaught of tourism: HERE I will stay for a spell. Buena onda, as they say, imbues the place. Perhaps that's a misplaced surfer-ism, but it's entirely apt: good vibes, indeed!

So it is as I take up residence as herds of Dutch pass through in the first several days, all staying for about a night. Again I run into the Frenchman Robin, then the Seattlite also sharing my St. Martin dorm room shows up for a day as well. So, too, do some contestants for a road race of approximately 100 miles. It coincidentally ends here in Villa the day after my arrival, each finishing runner (walker!) getting a quickly-assembled congratulatory crowd and a fresh blasting of "Flight of the Valkyries" as they pass through the inflated finish line/tube. The ones in the hostel, for their part, get right to some heavy boozing before quickly disappearing to Bariloche and points wherever else.

Well, no thanks as far as that road runner madness a pie(!) goes, but I'd sure like to do some hikes in this area. Thankfully the volcano Puyehue is happily quiet this time around, its ash mostly pushed out of the way where necessary. But the rain! Sigh. That puts a literal damper on strolls, the temperature only peaking at 15-17C (shy of 60F) to boot. Make that sigh, la deuxieme fois. To such tragic circumstances, anyway, I can at least ensure that the enormous David Copperfield tome isn't to be any longer for my backpack - and it isn't. Whew: I feel like a boat that has dropped its ballast, buoyantly popping up to watch its waterline improve significantly. Now it's on to The House of the Spirits - FInally! (I've been intending to read it for years.) Sure, I really should've read this one in Chile - where it takes place - but whatever.

As to the walking, I quickly get one significant (i.e. recommended) hike in early, just beyond the town's environs. Naturally, it comes with bursts of rain, sometimes even heavy ones, but the convenience of being driven to the park entrance by fellow tourists - and having some fine company to chat the day away with - makes it a happy go. It'll be the fellow Seattlite, a Bonarense Argentine (from the province of the capital) and an Aussie joining me for about 25km of walking. This leaves TripTrumpet a weary boy for the next day, yes, but it is a pleasant stroll indeed of lookouts and trees.

This fine walk is also one with a caveat, seeing that it ends with a brief standoff with some bulls: We scramble through the bush to get around them as they eye us warily. As for the park's highlights, these are mostly taken to be the arrayan trees found within in some number, although they only really come at the very end of this peninsula jutting into the massive Lago Nahuel Huapi that forms the park. As pretty as these arboles are, I nevertheless have to admit that they pretty much look like a bunch of madronas to me - but that's not a bad thing, even if they don't necessarily make my heart go pitter-patter.

Some days of rain and more rain come next, naturally, but on the plus side this means hanging out a good deal with my fellow guests. We eat together, drink together, and I get a chance to speak a lot of French as the city of Toulouse (in the form of the the aforementioned Robin, plus now the couple Emanuel and Sandra) has come to stay through the holidays along with me. Some other Francophones from elsewhere in France and Belgium add to the mix periodically, with the bulk of the other visitors coming from greater Buenos Aires - as usual.

The latter would include our hosts, of course, plus their friends Naty and Maxi (who, along with Sebastian, healthily raids my stash of jazz music mp3s on my laptop). There's also the lovely Silvana who, along with her expert eye and camera hailing from the brew-'burb of Quilmes, joins us along with a guitarist, Román. He makes good use of both the house guitar and the one he has in tow for me to play along with. His oeuvre includes a healthy sample of Beatles hits (never can go wrong!) and Argentina rock (which I'm less a fan of, but is pleasant enough when sung only to an unplugged guitar). Then again, at times we find it best for him to just play some chords while I make up something appropriate to the occasion. That works.

A trio of rarely-seen (and not terribly successful) trout fishermen and an Iranian-American, speaking about every language under the sun while reminding all of us rather emphatically of Roberto Benigni, round out the cast of notables. There is the ever-revolving cast, of course, each of whom flops in only for a night which make their presence ephemerally known. Chief among these folks are the long haul cyclists going both toward Bariloche and San Martin on their Seven Lakes (and usually far beyond) tours. They're good for some shared cycle tour stories with yours truly, and usually not without a small amount of jealousy on my part. This never includes the part about riding in the steady downpours which seem to be all too regular right now, however.

Our crowd of regulars, however, naturally insist an asado need be had. This we do in due course to Silvana's urging, with guitarist Román chosen to tend to the meats being slow-cooked on the grill. This is yet another dinner to be eaten at the witching hour which is midnight, often-enough the norm in Argentina - and with enough red wine to ensure that mornings go that much slower. The epitome of such feasting will come soon enough as well: our Christmas meal planning gets underway a week before the event. A master list is formed, with meat being by far the biggest concern among the Argentines. We nevertheless will expand such fare to effectively represent a small United Nations - more factually a European Union of heredity - on the table of grub.

To prepare a proper Christmas belly, however, I take to some more (and marginally more ambitious) hikes, rain be damned. And damn me it does plenty on this next one, to the narrow point between the great Lago Nahuel Haupi and the next one to its north, Lago Correntoso. A river (El Rio Correntoso, literally "the swiftwater river") bridges the tiny gap between them to take the prize as the shortest river in Argentina if not the world. As Villa La Angostura means "Narrows Town", I take this to be the root of the name.

The town literally only inhabits a chunk of land squished between a hell of a lot of water up in the mountains. I look down from the main bridge to another older one in one direction, then spy some fishermen braving the current on the other side. I quickly have enough of the wet, gray gloom, happily hitching back to town with some Portenos (those of the capital part, or port district of Buenos Aires) similarly waiting for a break in the weather. We're practically driving blind with the amount of fog in the windows.

My next hike doesn't go terribly better, wet-wise. For this I head in the same direction as the last hike, this time turning off before the río to head up to two lookouts. One sports a grand view to the west, the other is of a waterfall deeply tucked into the bush. In between drenchings I squirrel around their access trails, first taking in the waterfall (Cascada Incayal) from above far and near. I then getting mildly lost on my way to the Mirador (lookout) Belvedere.

Naturally I'm not completely fooled by the sign that rather openly declares "FALSE TRAIL!", as in "Falso Filo Belvedere", but I'm still a bit chagrined enough to finally pull out my map: apparently I'm on my way to a summit some unknown number of kilometers away, that of Falso Filo Belvedere. Duh. The super steep (and sustainedly so) incline was a hint, of course, so I make my way down to take another trail toward Belvedere. There I indeed find quite the view, if nary a decent pic with the dark grey sky is to be had.

Mostly I'm impressed by the continued presence of great clusters of orange balls on trees throughout the hike. These I believe are called Darwin Fungi, or Llao Llao ("zhow zhow" to the Argentines) in Mapuche language. They're provably squishy and, I believe, inedible, getting to be about the size of a child's fist and compressing just like a sponge. They seem to only inhabit the parts on a tree's bark where there seems to be a misshapen bulge (which I believe are what the door handles in the hostel are made of). All I know is that they stick out and are interesting just by being different. Plus they provide something to kick down the trail since so many of them are found there.

Hike Number Four is planned as "the big one" for the area: Cerro Bayo. Supposedly there is a commanding view up at the top within the confines of the ski resort located there. Said summit is actually high enough up that the rain has been SNOW a couple of times lately, so I'm not sure what to expect. I head out of town in the other direction (from Correntoso) for a handful of kilometers, then trudge the six up to the resort. I take in some views, then a waterfall on the Río Bonito at Km5 (which outdoes Incayal in my book) with no one around for a quiet lunch. When a horde of ten eventually arrives to spoil my redoubt, I ramble up and into the cluster of mostly-shuttered buildings.

Supposedly here a guard will tell me to turn back, so I wander about inconspicuously near the edges of the buildings to try and avoid contact. I believe I'm spotted by at least one of the two guards, but no one pays me mind outside of the ubiquitous free-roaming Cujo-dogs. I avoid their occasional, evidently territorial barking, quickly heading up into the deep ash to follow the first chairlifts to my promised view. I'm careful not to get knee-deep in the stuff while otherwise happily taking in the prodigious quantities of lupine flowers.

When I get up to some 'cat-tracks, I run into a couple of hikers who are coming down. They inform me to better follow the track that heads off to the left, one that roughly follows the course of the "Panoramica" chairlift. I guess I should've figured that out on my own. The promised views eventually come, about just after I've been seeing snow to my left and right. Eventually I stop to take it all in, taking a host of what should certainly be crappy pictures that will beg to be erased shortly after viewing. Now and again the weather takes a pause in the gray of brief, light drizzles of the day, allowing feeble sun-dom as I sit for a spell and listen to music.

Finally, however, it's time to I hike down, catching a ride with some Belgians halfway down the access road to apparently give my French another test. We shortly find ourselves back on the wet streets of Villa. 15-20 kilometers of trudging makes for another upcoming day of rest, I decide... under yet another forecast steady rain. Sigh #3, but there's really no point to the counting. The rain, the rain...

Hostel life is affected by the rain, of course. Everyone is grumbling about it, but usually with smiles of despair that seem to be keeping things healthily in check. Red wine helps this immeasurably and, for the local crew, there isn't anything that smoking joints and playing foosball on the patio won't cure. I'm quite sure that they won't be taking to the hills on the sunny days, either, not at the rate where someone else arrives with yet another stash to wipe out and the fridge's beer stock happily kept in trim.

I rather more boringly read and write a bit, or play the trumpet a bit more. I get some hints of Argentine movies to look for somewhere in the mix, managing to take in one at hand that is in bad nick. It stops and starts its way to a finish, this El Cuento Chino. Such is par for the course, where the DVD offerings of many a hostels in Latin America can be quite extensive while almost completely and illegally copied. This makes for some poor quality at the onset, with the consequentially decreased interest in their care compounding the likelihood of a poor viewing. It probably doesn't help, either, that they're often handled by people who are drunk or stoned. The movie is good, in any event: It's about a Chinese man dumped and duped into Buenos Aires, speaking not a word of Spanish let alone Porteño.

Merry Christmas! Well, it's Christmas Eve and the weather is the worse yet for the wear. And we are all worn by now. Heavier rains, now with whipping winds, introduce the festivities to challenge the wrath without. Within, however, we cook a storm. The Argentines prepare their various beefs and heavy, creamy salsas, plus a turkey. There's also a guacamole, a salsa de criolla, egg and tomato salads (the latter by me), various sandwich-making foodstuffs for the beef to be shoved into, a homemade applesauce (me again) and a tapenade to round out the main offerings. The French well attend to desserts of crepes and truffles, naturally, plus a number of others bring items of chocolate or fruit confites in addition to a tiramisu.

Mostly, however, it's an evening of heavy drinking. I go from Manhattans of middling bourbon, to irascible Fernet-cola devil brews, to champagne, to red wine. I avoid the bottle of mystery liquor from Chile on principle and skip the beers to maintain my girlish figure, of course. My stomach is una cloaca, yet a happy sewer at that as I avoid the further offerings of pot and LSD from other guests. Said imbibers of non-liquid forms spend most of the next several hours laughing like hyenas, having the time of their lives in finding absolutely every and anything apparently hilarious. They make us laugh even more in the process at their expense, making the drug's effects doubly powerful on the cheap for the rest of us! So there's more foosball, naturally, then everyone is playing their music on the hostel's computer-stereo system to share their tastes with everyone else. Reggae is given far too much of a go for my tastes, sure, but perhaps it's the most appropriate of choices all things considered. Things are still going moderately strongly when I check out at 2 or 3, stuffed and whipped from belly to brain.

The return of the sun, meanwhile, means it's time to jam in my last activities. One of these is to head over to Puerto Manzano to take in some lake-mountain views with the French couple. We are aided immeasurably by a hitch on a pickup truck waiting near Cerro Bayo's entrance. We jump out of the truck bed right at the water's edge, then sit in front of the lifeguard station on the deserted beach to happily mow through an overstuffed sack of Christmas leftovers we haven't done nearly enough walking to earn. So we eventually do just that, following the lake's edge until we hit the Rio Bonito draining into the lake, next roughly following its beautiful riverside trail to the main road. The hiking continues back toward town for a few kilometers before a local bus is heard rumbling by: We immediately abandon any plans to walk the remainder, more in favor of getting back to the hostel and eating even more food.

The final escapade is one that I'd been waiting on good weather specifically for. The idea is to rent a bicycle and head toward Chile. One by one the Frenchies decide to join me until there are four of us headed out on my next to last morning in Villa. Our mountain bikes are proper horses to mosey down the lightly trafficked highway, stopping at viewpoints over the Lago Nahuel Huapi before ignoring the turnoff to San Martin. A viewpoint over Lago Espejo shortly follows, then a bike-hike to take in a more remote arm of the lake, La Ultima Esperanza. Ash dunes make the riding a bit interesting before we dump the bikes to walk the last bit as we should have all along.

Lunch at the lake is accompanied by pretty views, then we head on more toward Chile. Emanuel, we find out, is apparently on the biggest bike ride of his life. He's none too happy, but continues with a grimace as we head first up, up, up, then down, down, down to Rincon Brazo, another corner of the lake with plenty of ash and pumice pebbles to spare. I had been at this very spot a year prior, walking into the lake filled with floating rocks of ash and whatnot up to my knees. This year the lake has receded significantly, leaving behind a large bed of pumice that we ride over to access the lake.

The way back starts with a climb that just about finishes poor Emanuel off, then we head back to our previous view of Espejo and then make our way down to the beach. Here Emanuel decides to just take the main road back. As for us remaining three, we opt for the Road of the Condor. It's the former highway paralleling the current one, now just a dirt-ash track in the woods. The trees are dense and the bird calls beautiful as we hike our bikes up before the long descent to Rio Correntoso. 50km in all, I think, sums up the riding under a brilliant and long awaited sun.

Back at the hostel we eventually charge through the last dregs of alcohol. Whereas the previous night I was treated to the company of a couple of cyclists who sang and played guitar to the tune of some well-turned tango, tonight is only drinking and more drinking. I finally say no when a few decide to head out and make it a night to end all nights. Some are still in bed, even, when I get up to a pleasant morning of coffee, laundry, and trumpet before taking the 1 p.m. bus to Bariloche. Villa, NOW I think I know ye!

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