South America 2011-2012: Bariloche, Argentina


A second whack at the bus to Bariloche does the trick. I say my thanks and goodbyes at the hostel before grabbing a taxi over to Cruz del Sur's terminal (of sorts). The good news is that the bus is half-empty, another positive result of the forced day's delay. It's always nice to have elbow room, not to mention a place to put things while not having to worry about the potentially large and/or smelly person.

A couple of hours later we enter Osorno (town), immediately changing course thereafter to make tracks east after the short stop there. It's here where things get interesting, especially as we near the realm of the volcano Puyehue. This is the sucker that's been in eruption of sorts over the last year or so, and there's no mistaking it now - certainly not with the dusting (ashing?) on literally everything in sight. Lush forest, otherwise impressive in that it still looks properly diverse in such heavy logging country, has an added mysteriousness thanks to this coating.

The odd feeling only continues, too, as the sun begins to find itself blotted out. The level of ash accordingly increases with each kilometer of road followed up and into the mountains. By the time we get to Chile's side of the border crossing, it actually looks like it's lightly snowing. It definitely isn't, though, and it particularly could not be doing so with such pleasant temperatures outside. Nevertheless, and in perhaps a bow to Sisyphus, a man with a firehose futilely blasts away at the ground. He's hard at work, erasing this ash-storm's dusty leavings all during our stop to get passports stamped. His dark sweater is virtually white about his shoulders for the effort. It's not for nothing, then, that I have been seeing signs about "ash driving" - exactly like the ones I'd expect to see with regards to snow. Tis the season...

What comes next is downright eerie, a passage through the no-man's land that takes us up and over the Andes. We head through la frontera (the border) which is generally the ridgeline of the great mountain chain. It took a bit of warring to accomplish that, but Chile and Argentina seem ever more comfortable with each other as time goes by.

Crossing properly into Argentina now, beautiful lakes of blue-green hue are now rimmed with white, sometimes sporting a gentle patch of creamy brown where enough ash has collected on the surface. Peaks similarly pop out to both sides, looking as if they are deep in snow. However, what should be a telltale white is more an equally telling light gray. To punctuate the above, and lying to both sides of the road, inch upon inch of the stuff heaps itself into deep piles. In some areas this turns into an appreciable number of feet, a resultant depth from plowing. Not coincidentally, surely, I notice that a number of guardrails (supposedly protecting against cliffs) are downright mangled. I can only figure that it's owing to this very necessary plowing service... or for some other reason I can't come up with to logically excuse their large numbers.

The official crossing into Argentina is perfunctory, at a checkpoint some dozen kilometers within the border. It's completely manned by women here, in a mildly surprising contrast to Chile's male-only border police revue. The aduana building itself looks like a ski lodge, handsomely bolstered by large wooden beams. Inside, no questions are asked, no bags searched - but there are plenty of signs about fresh verboten fruits and vegetables. This leaves me only ever so modestly worried about the trailmix and dehydrated apricots I'm carrying. We get back on the bus and that's that, however, me not feeling in the slightest guilty about potentially breaking these firm-if-unchecked rules. Nothing will be left behind in my consumption of such contraband, I solemnly promise to the seatback in front of me.

Formalities dealt with, the parade of not-snow continues. Now, fortunately, it grows in tandem with staggering views of the national park we are crossing through, Nahuel Huapi. Wow!... and this comes in spite of such amazing scenery being "damaged" with ash everywhere! I choose an alternate approach to the beauty as a consequence, perhaps, feeling fortunate instead of foiled to get an odd version of one of Argentina's premier landscapes. It's not like the rivers don't continue to roll, even if their clear waters are now belied by borders that come replete with clumps of smooth gray.

Eventually we pass numerous pullouts and lookouts that have been somewhat plowed. Evidently some areas have been plainly marked for dumping grounds, making me wonder what'll happen if this mild eruption continues for years on end - which is entirely possible. Will it all just be pushed over the bushes and trees toward the lakes? I can only imagine so, unless the trucks are willing to truck it all the hundreds of kilometers necessary to find the great Argentina expanse known as the Pampas.

More views abound as we near our first Argentine town, Villa de Angostura. To call it swanky would only be the start of things... But it's also more than half-dead, generally shut down in anguish over the ash deposits. Yet it's still oddly quaint and crisp, this finest of resort towns much akin to Aspen or Whistler in North America. Shockingly, too, not a fine point or detail has been unattended to - from the bike trails to the bannisters to the rooflines. Now THAT's bizarre, an absolute first for me in South America. I've always noticed that, even in the richest suburbs, numerous trifles of details are often passed over. There's always SOMETHING cheaply done to the point of shortterm decay being assured.

Thus am I convinced that herein lies something new, possibly a mere hefty upgrade of serious $$$ beyond the usual megarich sprinkled throughout the continent. I only feel somewhat assured of the usual reality shortly later on, outside of the urban zone, when I pass some more humble - merely modest - homes. There are even ones that still have clumps of ash on their roofs, contrasting with their spotless brethren in town. That only further makes me wonder how often the roof-clearing has been going on in town... and how much the weight of ash compares to snow. Just how much of the stuff would it take to crush a roof?

Finally we drop down to the flats to near Bariloche, the bus switching from its strange muzak of Sinatra tunes to introduce a soft rock beat and a change in tune selection. Now it's doing popular tunes with a synthesized Andean pipe flute. Sigh. Still, the changeover from a lineup of My Way, Night and Day, and whatnot - now followed by the Sound Of Silence - is infinitely better than merely being played El Condor Pasa on a loop recording. THAT's what I more than vaguely remember to have been the case numerous times in Bolivia, Perú,and Ecuador. There's no getting off this elevator, regardless.

There's also no opening of windows for fresh air, either, not with the blanket of ash haze that now blocks all views of the mountains that the area is acclaimed for. To this disappointing reality I soon pass out, only coming to some minutes before we pull into Bariloche. Outside the bus I find myself happily sucking in fresher-if-ashy air again, even as I don't quite know what to make of the guy who's taken out my bag and unceremoniously dumped it on the ground as he attends to others. I do, however, find myself more than slightly disturbed when he looks up at me earnestly when I stoop over to grab my abandoned mochila. His recognition of my existence is ostensibly only to say "Teeps?", though - a new form of South American pushiness I'm not quite ready for. Er, sorry, bud. Maybe next time it'll be kept from underfoot - or possibly even stolen. Fat chance of that for the moment, though, not with my tank of books inside.

I next quickly enter the terminal, changing some Chilean pesos for Argentine ones at a kiosk. This enables me to buy a ticket and avoid a suddenly-spendy taxi. Transport is less cheap in Argentina than in Chile, I already know. I instead take the most spacious of local buses I've ever been on in South America into town. That only takes several minutes for the effort, dropping me off right in the center of it all by a park. Along the way I can't help noticing a preposterous number of good-looking women. Maybe this is testimony to the area's wealth, or Argentina women's propensity for plastic surgery. Likely both. In any event, welcome to Bariloche! (and Argentina at large!), I tell myself. It's been a good while, almost as long ago as my last footprints in Chile prior to this trip.

Back in Puerto Varas, meanwhile, I was told about a penthouse hostel that sounded too good to be true. Could such a view at such a price be possible? I'm eagerly game to the idea, of course, one fortunately topped only by my running into one of the people who work there upon exiting the bus. It is thus that I meet Ben, a Georgian (the country, not the state) who's been in the area for seven years. We talk Putin and Russian politics as he escorts me into the building; We shortly head to a back service elevator to reach the top floor.

Inside the hostel a minute later, I can only pause to think: Good god!, what a view! And THAT's without even being able to make out much on account of the ubiquitous ash. I'm immediately assured that, even on these ash-laden days, the vistas are still mostly stupendous. They are, indeed, so I take out my muted trumpet in celebration, soon playing over the town from a large open-air balcony. Yes, I AM in Bariloche, and that last little bit of unknown Argentina has finally come to my grasp.

Right away I get to work on an afternoon coffee as well, finishing the Le Carré book I'd nearly wrapped up on the bus. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is the first book of a trilogy inadvertently begun a year prior in Colombia. However, just like with the Larssen Dragon Tattoo Girl books, I'd accidently started with the second (The Honourable Schoolboy). I nevertheless happily start into Smiley's People right afterword as a double reward - luckily, and by complete chance, it's the other of his books I've brought along in my shrinking pile o' fifteen.

That'll be finished soon, too, even though I'm finding this trilogy more insider-y than his other tomes. Frankly, it's a little bit more difficult to put together piece-wise - but I'm satisfied to merely marvel in his abundance of style (and experience - he was a former spy, after all). Indeed, I really hadn't even thought I'd ever pick up books of the spy ilk again after leaving Clancy et al behind years ago. It was only a chanced pick-up of his The Tailor Of Panama that had rather recently done the trick to sufficiently sell me on his quality. The guy can write.

On a related note, the idea of further lightening my backpack load continues apace: As usual, I immediately donate completed books to the latest hostel's booktrade shelf. I hope this helps my elephantine backpack dilemma soon, but the likelihood of getting my pack down to a "fighting weight" - while lugging about a laptop for the first time ever - is still exceedingly low. This situation instead necessitates repeatedly reminding myself that it sure has been a boon to have Skype so conveniently available. It's also nice not having to use a hostel computer, competing with whatever ambient sounds are about and having to figure out yet another oddly-configured keyboard.

Back in the world of TOURISM, meanwhile - the actual "doings" of my trip - my very belated concept of checking out Bariloche has always included San Martin, its sister town. For this I'm fortunately able to glom onto a small group forming to rent a car, one of four with an English woman, Australian man, and German woman being the others. Off we go, then, to do the popular day tour of the "seven lakes". This will take us back toward the way I came into Argentina, but now we'd be turning toward San Martin when between Villa de Angostura and the checkpoint. More importantly, and in contrast to the bus, we'll be able to stop.

For the most part this goes well, viewpoint after viewpoint offering their literally picturesque details to ready cameras. This is true even as ash blurs some of the finer aspects of such points. All the things I'd wanted to stop for whilst bus-confined are available now: gazing languidly from the large pullouts overlooking the massive blue lake Nahuel Huapi, putting a toe into where the lake is littered with light volcanic pebbles, admiring flowers in full bloom, etc. There's an obvious reason why the tourists head this way, now confirmed twice over by yours truly.

The only drag is our manic German driver, an employee of Mercedes-Benz who doesn't take it enough to heart that we are in a puny Renault. I haven't really been considering survival as an issue, oddly enough. But I should: After initially driving sanely, she picks a moment an hour into our proceedings as the time to start showing off. Suddenly she's putting the poor unsuspecting vehicle through its paces, to the point of making the tires scream multiple times as I wonder if we'll possibly stay on the road. Death grips are slyly employed all around as looks are nervously exchanged.

Easing up on the throttle is only finally achieved when she gets enough (gittery) compliments from any and all. This a good thing - sliding off the road hasn't seemed all that far away at her rate of doing things. Besides, it's not like she's a test driver for Mercedes!, I mentally note... as the others likely do the same. (Her doing so with aims toward somehow impressing and hooking up with the Aussie, who I suspect has been slowly courting her over their travels together, are to be confirmed only after our return.)

Anyway, stop after stop it is, including a lunch of misplaced steaks in Villa de Angostura that are called hamburgers. This is done in the finest Argentine tradition, of course, and none think to complain. Otherwise, the few other places open in town are likely happy that any business comes their way at all from the sound of things back in Bariloche. This includes a chocolateria which we give business to. Poor them! It's damned respectable stuff, we all agree. Nevertheless, and despite what the ash dumpings have done to business, I can't help but think it adds something unusual and interesting... which counts for naught to local businessmen, naturally.

Ultimately we settle for a swim in one of the aforementioned lakes, a nice break from keeping our car's slip-sliding antics. Although no longer driving like a full-on maniac, our chauffeur's attack of the (now) gravel track still suggests slower speeds than she is willing to allow. Then again, maybe there are no gravel roads left in Germany to be accustom oneself to such conditions! I don't know. Meanwhile, THIS particular route probably will be paved soon, or so it seems at least from the looks of the several construction gangs we run into. For ITS part, the lake is awfully cold. Our dip into it is thus more a brave salute to hide cowardice. We all get in and out rather quickly. The ducks can have the water - we'll take the view instead.

San Martin quickly proves itself a place I'll have no need to come back to. Nothing wrong about it whatsoever, but a collection of condos and vacation homes seems to about sum it up. Its Bariloche's $$$, but now without anything to grab hold of for interest. Still, it's beautifully set on a massive lake (Lanin) with the mountains trailing off behind it - that's for sure. And, well, the mountains DO seem to trail a lot quicker to nothingness here what with the ash cover. THAT's just as true, too. But, outside of sunbathing on its large beach with vacationing Argentines, or perhaps eating a gelato or seven on the beachfront, San Martin de los Andes seems sterile in its beauty. So we soon move from gelato to beach to chit chat over a requisite beer. Shortly thereafter we decide to leave. Indeed, the short time it next takes to head through town convinces us that it's just not much of a draw. Yes, we've all heard that there are some nice hikes, but...

Thus we leave town, me finally taking a turn at the wheel after our Englishwoman takes a short stint at learning how to drive on the right side of the road. Not fun stuff for us other passengers, our heads banging into seatbacks and windows at times, but we live. Then I get to drive in the dark for the entire way back. We'll use another route from whence we came, the famous Route 40. The others are convinced that this should be the quick way back, even if it is considerably longer on the map. Hmm. This return takes a LONG time, despite there being only a few cars on the road. Up and down I drive, swerving through curves, cutting through massive lakes that I can barely make out. I return beat to Bariloche, convinced of that the other way HAD to be better somehow. In any event, the others have slept well and we celebrate our return with dinner at 1 a.m. or so.

What comes next takes the form of my days to come in Bariloche: I turn Italian by degrees. First it's on account of the two young Romans who take beds in my room, Guelfo and Roberto. They immediately assimilate me into their game plan: "We a-do a-trekking. You a-trek with us!" Okay, I mumble to myself. Could I have a choice, anyway, what with all that shoulder-shrugging, winking, and hand motion that assumed as much? It seems a fait accompli from the look of things.

Later it fortunately seems the right decision, especially as I get used to their manner of speaking and joking. Roberto does much of the former - at least in the sense of being understandable - as Guelfo handles his apparent aspirations of being a clown with aplomb. Friends since about birth, this is evident as well, the pair often crowding together on one or the other's bed or chair to jointly videophone their mothers, sisters or girlfriends back home. "Ciao, bella!" I hear on each occasion. On one occasion, anyway, I'm excitedly and briefly placed on videochat direct with Roma as well: "Uh... Ciao, bellas!" is about all that I can come up with.

It's not like these dedicated long-distance boyfriends are above finding local girlfriends, however, which Roberto does in no time. It certainly helps, too, that Argentine girls go ga-ga over Italian men - a fact. Suddenly Roberto is showing up with a bombshell who has her charm turned on 11 at all times. For my part, I find that she just loves saying that I come from "Yanquilandia". Well, true enough, but from the looks of these guys' efforts with the local offerings of a female persuasion, I'd gladly trade up Yankeeland for Italialandia any day - if I could only properly learn the correct sequences of hand, mouth, and eye gestures first. Fat chance.

Meanwhile, this Italian invasion is helped immensely with the arrival of two more at almost the same time, Silvio and Mila. These two form a couple from Vincenza (about an hour outside of Milano to the south, known for a certain cheese or salami or something). More importantly, now with the number of Italianos raised to four, I bravely test out my cowboy coffee... and narrowly survive a stern test. Whew - I sweat the decisive results as we all wait for the grains to fall to the bottoms of the cups.

Far more easily does Mila take control of us all. That comes in jointly making gnocchi for a cocktail party hosted by the hostel. Would that any of us thought similarly ahead about our mixing of wine, beer, spiked punch, and some kind of weird egg liquor. Among other things this (sin duda) explains the latest drinking game I learn - called "mushroom", and appropriately so with how the cards are placed over the opening of a wine bottle - and why a number of us decide to head to the nearby Irish pub to apparently drink even more while watching Barcelona hammer Madrid until 3 a.m. in the morning. My two roommates hunt women (successfully - Italians are adored by Argentines) into the wee hours of the night as the rest of us head back to our increasingly-seen-as-odd hostel (more to come) to wonder what the morning will bring in the form of resacas.

We fortunately survive this stern test of hangovers to varying degrees, allowing for a couple of outings with this sustained Italian invasion. The first is a hike up Cerro Otto with EL Guelfo and DON Alberto (titles mine, but universally accepted shortly thereafter). At only 5km outside of town, this is an easy entry hike in the access sense. A local bus dumps us right in front of the thing, and only about 10 minutes outside fo town.

As for the HIKING part, it's a serious hour-long-plus slog that goes straight up the gut of the hill. A typical Andean hike, in other words, without any hint of a switchback. There's no possibility of getting lost, however, not with it paralleling the gondolas that periodically float above us with ease. A number of these are likely filled with occupants thinking "Qué idiotas!" of us below. Fair enough: the ash piles viewed at Villa de Angostura are now front and center - and they're no fun in the sun. Each step or two up seems to include about a half or whole step lost backsliding. ST-EEP this is, as Yoda would agree.

Eventually we summit where the gondolas land. We sweatily take in this maximum of what had been ever-growing deep views of these lakes which lie scattered about and lead back toward the heart of the Andes. This makes for both a "Wow!" and a "What if?" (the latter as in "What if there wasn't so much ash in the air?").

We celebrate by walking about the collection of tourist attractions located about us, taking in none specifically, before heading off to a small woods nearby to one side. There we lunch over the sandwiches we have brought that are turning mushy. They still taste fine, luckily, but we're far more concerned with waving off horseflies - not so luckily. The good news is that these increasingly-annoying pests are stupid and easy to kill. The bad is that there are ever more of them. I'll soon learn that is the recipe for all trails in the area.

The OTHER good news is that we decide to try coming down in another direction. This we start with a discouragingly long and winding dirt road. That is, we do so until we reach a refugio, Berghof. There a tanned Argentine woman timely putts up in her ancient Fiat to point us down a better way. We gratefully thank her, already not looking forward to beaten down in dust under an unrelenting sun.

Our new path is found near the underside of the refugio. Supposedly well-marked, it isn't at one point - but getting lost means finding other things... such as the hidden grave of Otto Miesling. Yes, it is he of the eponymous hill we're on and ALSO the first ski instructor in Argentina. No coincidence there, it shouldn't need to be pointed out.

Next we bump into a cabin further hidden in the woods beyond any appreciable path. It's charmingly adorned inside with a couple of stuffed duendes. How appropriate, indeed: Gnomes WOULD feel at home in such a tiny thing (apparently Otto's original cabin, which we'd later find out from the lone hiker we'd bump into on this disused trail). All good discoveries, but we are nevertheless soon happier to find the correct trail to resume our meandering down through increasing amounts of accumulated ash and sizzling sun. At the bottom we decide to alternately trying hitchhiking or busing it back into town, whichever works. As it turns out the former does - twice - as both drivers have Italian roots to boot and further prove the value of being Italian in Argentina if nowhere necessarily else in Latin America.

In town, a chocolate outing or two is an appropriate interlude between such a first hike and whatever comes next. Yes, they're serious and seriously famous about the stuff in Bariloche, even if I rue the fact that one shop is actually called "Turista" - yeesh! But what a collection to sample! At Rapa Nui, an odd use of the indigenous-yet-Chilean name for Easter Island, I grab more than one small bagful of hopeful treats. I'm eventually convinced yet again - as in Villa de Angostura - that the hazelnut creme (avellanada) is the belle of the ball. G-ulp. Similarly, gelato in the form of the flavor of maracujá, that wonderous Colombian fruit, is impressive as well. I don't particularly remember such fine stuff ever being available on my previous visits to Argentina, but there's no way I'm complaining.

Other chunks of walking reveal one after another name-brand focused high end store, probably natural for a ski town. As for the several poor St Bernard dogs, each stationed at prominent corners for pictures - THOSE are a bit odd. It also seems an unfair use of the poor things' lifespans.

Perhaps the same could be said of the famous lamb dish of the area, cordero, as well. I again eschew my vegetarian habits to go local in trying this meat which is actually mostly fat and bone. What meat there is DOES taste good at least. Sigh - such is the way of things when traveling in this area, anyway, where many a traveler gets caught up in the gourmet side of Argentina. My guess is that it mostly exists in reality only for a select few. This probably even includes the plentiful wine which is so significantly cheap for us visiting "first-worlders".

I'm actually far more interested in the effects of this continual dusting of ash (beyond the rare person probably wisely wearing a particle mask). Not only can it seemingly be tasted at times, but about every surface not attended to has a telltale film of the fine stuff. I suppose the locals are probably now past the point of caring anymore, even if the main city pool at the lake's edge is closed likely as a result. A few piles of ash lie in its emptied bed.

Whatever - I walk on and on along the lake a few times, varying my path of least-bulging-belly here and there by also strolling down the prominent streets. My kind of exciting discovery actually comes in things like a (French) Carrefour. Although not that much more impressive than the other supermercados, I'm stunned and happy to buy a solitary jar of sundried tomatoes. It's expired by a year, plus there's a heftly film of ash-dust on it, but I don't care.

A better day outing, and by no uncertain measure when compared with Cerro Otto, comes in doing the famed Circuito Chico by bike. A group of 8 - then 9 - then 8 (we gain a Spaniard in the process of losing our Chilena) - of us sets out on one fine, seemingly ash-free day. Our Chilean associate-in-bike insists she is cycle-worthy prior to the ride, supposedly spiting our doubts from the look and previous talk of her, but within a minute or two of exiting the bike rental store she wipes out into a gashed, bloody mess. I miss this, fortunately, being ahead with a few others to get the breeze going in our hair. But we are soon all assured she'll be okay after two waves of emissaries from our group catch up with the updates on her condition.

Surprisingly, that happens on the relatively flat section. The rest of it will be pretty hill and dale - even if 25km still isn't much distance. We coast over to the famous Hotel Llao Llao, called the most exclusive or famous hotel in all of South America (we won't even bother with the research of such a claim), relishing the view that several hundred or thousand dollars can buy. We are sufficiently limited to the grounds that don't offer very good pictures, however.

Then we begin our first earnest climb for a dozen or more minutes, soon making a detour to the shores found at Villa Tacul. Since things are now going so swimmingly, a number of us already start to thing of increasing our ride from (now already) 35 to 45km (in the case of the Italians and I). Over the course of 9 hours or so this should still be awfully easy stuff.

The lack of ash, meanwhile, is the bigger story. We have lucked into the best day from over a week in my stay. The previous two days were very windy, hazy, and cold - but THIS marvel of a day is the result. So our lazing at Villa Ancul's beautiful beach leads to hiking over to Lago Escondido to swim in marginally warmer waters. Then we continue a-bike, stopping here and there for picture after picture of stunning scenery. Such peaks, such deep blue waters! Yes, Switzerland should have it so good (well, it does, but it costs way more there and comes with way more people).

Come the bay Bahia Lopez, a few of us split off to check out the "Swiss Colony" that is Colonia Suiza before meeting up again at yet another brewpub, Gilbert's. The colony turns out to be an unimpressive detour, but that's mainly because the colony seems to be lacking its colonizers having anything much open for us to buy or do or see. Hmm.

Thus it is that us happy detourers (Silvio, Mila, and I) are more than game to sneak in a few extra beer samplings before meeting up for more at Gilbert - but no dice. Instead we get the random car driving too fast, each raising piles of volcanic ash on this the almost only unpaved track for the day. This then gets topped by a surprisingly long climb, one required to get up and over the hill to the brewpub. The others all get to miss out on THAT fun. The stout at Gilbert's, however, is marvelous. Yeah, the Chileans and Argentines are unquestionably getting this artisanal beer thing right. Kudos!

Back at the hostel, my Italian posse eventually has to move on, of course. We lay tentative plans to keep in touch; Maybe we'll even meet up again over the next month. The possibilities are there with our trajectories. Still I'm sad to see them go, even as I'm now invited by the staff of my penthouse hostel to hang around for the holidays. Could this warm group of people possibly replace them? Nah, but they at least show how well a hostel can be run. Apparently the trick is that all six are supposedly owners, the hired help problem ubiquitous to other such ventures obviated. Or is it something else? (Here I insert the foreshadowing afforded by their punch that perhaps merely lacks the purple of a fine Koolaid...)

ANYWAY, a final trek before heading out to El Bolsón (and returning to Bariloche for the holidays) is chosen. Refugio Frey sounds intriguing, with views of the stupendous peak or peaks called "the cathedral". Sounds great, and it next comes as no surprise that the town I head to all of half an hour away from Bariloche is called... Catedral.

Here I find still more Swiss chalets, etc., but they're located this time under an array of ski runs and chairlifts. Alas, none are running in summer yet: All that is to be gained will have to be done so on foot. I'm not against this per se, but I'd nevertheless be all for skipping past the lesser stuff for more time in the peaks o' plenty. Not gonna happen.

Although supposedly a four hour hike - the usual, "official", over-estimation - I do it in an easy three with a nice steady pace. The sun beats the first fourth of the trek or so into submission, then a forest covers the next two-fourths with its welcome shade. That comes at the price, however, of an insane number of those same horseflies (tobanos) found on Cerro Otto coming in for the kill. I'll kill perhaps 50 of them over the day, the best opportunities by sheer number coming when I cross the one footbridge that is partially out. There I find a crew of workmen helping by their mere presence to draw them in. I only get included in the bitings/takings in passing, happily hopping and skipping beyond them while making my way over the gaping hole in the bridge that they are trying to repair.

Things improve with the forest cover that now begins, and from then on as well. Birds and lizards make random appearances to keep things lively at odd intervals, too. As for the trees, those are spaced nicely to lend perspective via reasonably penetrating vision through them. A river cuts through them as well, plus even a refuge I didn't know about at one spot. Granted, it's mostly an open room under a rock with a fireplace, but hey - it's still a refuge from the elements (and seemingly the horseflies as well).

That humble abode provides no hint of the Refugio Frey to come, though. THAT is reached when the forest begins to shorten in height and as the trail steepens for the last fourth of the trek up to the refuge. Things get dustier and sunnier at the same time as I finally enter the first "bowl" formed by peaks, spires peeking out more and more. Am I there yet?

Yes, I insist to myself, especially as I approach the upcoming "bowl" of peaks which is my destination... and only after first dunking my head in a stream as a form of obesiance to the hike about completed. It HAS gotten hot over this last section! As if I should care: Wow - what terrain is opening up! I surge out into the clear again, finally passing under the handful of refuge buildings to take in the full, earned view. Yeah, this is not a bad place to put a hut t'at all!

It's not a poor place for a beer, either. Shockingly, the refuge offers both canned beer (Heineken) AND a keg with artesanal Konna beer on tap. You're shitting me!, I'm thinking... as I order two in no appreciable amount of time. I pass on the casero (homemade) apple strudel, however, especially after having just completed this recent hiking tribute to a hopefully more girlish figure (i.e. less belly) in the near future. Right.

But before any of that imbibing I wade into the lake before me, immersing myself in its frigid waters. Then I get my ass immediately out, too: THAT'S FREAKING COLD! In a few minutes more, though, a few women appear from around some rocks. They're soon stripping down to underwear as well, getting into these waters only now that someone has broken the ice. Well, it's not QUITE that cold. One after another they take to shooting or posing in photos (which I assume will be adorning their Facebook accounts within hours, that being the way of things these days). Next, a buff rock climber comes down. His thing is apparently to try and place his Fabio-self into as many shots of the girls as possible. How nice of him to offer to render his services even if none are to be requested.

Meanwhile I pass on catching the numerous tadpoles I'm otherwise seeing in the liquid, deciding instead to eat a sandwich for which I've brought ingredients. I'm joined by a Canadian-South African couple who are happy to engage in sharing their fixings as well, all of us frankly stunned about the beer. I'm just as shocked by all my co-hikers taking off from this lake nirvana within the hour. Wha...?

For my part I hang about the refuge, continuing with this reveling in view. I'm soon drinking another fresh beer from the tap, conversing with the two "rangers" who'll pass the night in the refuge. Apparently they take turns in five night shifts, portering up and down materials each time, while others regularly porter up even more. On occasions they even land a helicopter nearby for more heavy-duty materials such as those needed for construction.

Such is the way of THIS full-service refuge, anyway, even if it is like what is typically available in both Argentina and Chile. One can bring a tent or merely a sleeping bag to them; the attendant staff cook up meals that can be purchased. Not bad.

Meanwhile all this lies under the stunning view of the spire Catedral. It looms welcomingly above its blue lake of refreshing promise. Really, I can't get over this setting - and how there is only one tent in evidence. The place is virtually abandoned to me, even if this serenity won't be around long - not with the upcoming summer invasion of tourists. The beer tastes that much better as a result, perhaps.

But finally I have to make my way down. I do this with a woman who has shown up late; we'll increasingly hurry in making it down in only a little over two hours. An odd mix of Australian, Argentine, and Canadian, she offers decent conversation while panting to keep up at the speed necessary to snag the bus. This we do only as it both arrives and leaves at about exactly the same time. Only then do I realize how much sun I've gotten and how dehydrated I am yet again.

As to the tourist invasion I've just alluded to, THAT's a fact. I can't help but notice how Bariloche is starting to fill up. Now nearing the high season that begins December 15th or so, hordes of student groups have descended onto the town. I'll shortly come to find that Bariloche is THE destination for newly graduated seniors (with likely wealthy parents, from the look of them) - and this is that time of the year.

The partying has begun into each and every night as they prowl around in large numbers. Usually they are chanting or clapping to something or other which I take to be their school or team. Maybe it's Christmas carols that just sound wrong, dead wrong. Whatever the case, some of the others in the hostel begin to complain about this noise from ten floors below. I can't be bothered, figuring it's a small price to pay when overlooking both the center of town while taking in the most sweeping vista available.

And that's how things stand on the eve of my departure from Argentina's Tourism Central. I wrap up Defoe's Moll Flanders; I learn that the interesting and provocative writer Christopher Hitchens has died. The raspy-voiced girl from the Basque country has left as have the quintet of French girls and the Aussie couple that is Hanna and Chris. My elbow still is bothering me from the construction; there is probably an accumulation of ash in my trumpet. Apparently another choripan (wurst sandwich) washed down by another artisanal beer will have to do the trick as I look forward to finally checking out El Bolsón two hours away.

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