23 Nov Central Argentina & Chile
Days 522 – 528 –
After a slow start to the day, and a stop for gas and groceries, we made our way to Altos de Lircay Nacional Reserve in Chile. It was amazing to suddenly be in a forest, and it seemed like ages since we’d been in one. We arrived late in the afternoon, paid the hefty entrance and camping fees, and found ourselves to be the only campers. It was still very early in the season and we think we may have been the first campers of the whole season, as there were no other tire tracks on the ground. After choosing the best campsite of the thirty available, we went on two short little hikes through the woods and wondered if it was going to rain, as forecasted. It didn’t rain, even after we started cooking dinner, which was a welcome surprise.
The next day we woke up ready to start the hike we came for, El Endrillado, a 12 mile hike to a high plateau (and some say UFO landing pad) through the forest, offering great views along the way. We had perfect weather but we didn’t see any UFOs. The next day we headed towards our next destination, Parque Nacional Laguna del Laja.
We arrived at the park in the morning and seemed to be the first ones there. The ranger charged us the price of a local, rather than a foreigner, (half the price) for some reason, and we were happy to pay less. We started with a short hike to two waterfalls, and then had lunch by the lake. Most of the park was still closed because of snow on the roads, so we didn’t have much else to do after lunch and decided to spend another afternoon on the nice Chilean highways. We drove about 160 miles south and stopped at a very loud truck stop for the night. Unfortunately, the weather was calling for days and days of rain which put a damper on our hiking plans around Pucon, an area known for its hiking. We used the slow internet connection to try to figure out a plan, but just ended up getting frustrated. So we just tried to go to sleep through the rumbling trucks and screams of drunken dudes around our car. A good night.
In the morning we came up with a list of potential places to check out in Pucon. We spent the whole day going to hotels in the rain, many of them closed, most just way too expensive, and one that was fine but they wouldn’t let us park in their gated parking lot for no apparent reason. We ended up just not being able to find a place for a reasonable price, and the region was going to be rainy for the foreseeable future. So we just went back to the highway and slept at yet another highway rest stop, this one a bit quieter.
The next day we arrived at a small hotel in the next town pretty early, around nine in the morning. We were wet and exhausted, and the truck was kind of a mess from us camping in the rain, and it just wouldn’t stop raining. The kind family running the hotel, which was just their house with some rooms for rent, let us check in early, park under an awning to rearrange our truck, and built a fire in the fireplace to dry us out and warm us up. We enjoyed almost a full day of recovery before crossing back over to Bariloche, Argentina the following day.
Days 529 – 532
The border crossing was again efficient and painless. We were happy to be back in reasonably priced Argentina after a couple weeks in Chile. We drove over a very snowy pass on our way to Bariloche, enjoying the view of the lakes from the road in-between rain storms. We checked into a little apartment hotel for about the same price as a no-amenities camp ground in Chile, it even had heating! We spent the first day exploring Bariloche, eating a nice steak lunch and sampling some of the famous chocolate and ice cream shops.
The next day since the weather called for less rain, we decided to do one of the most famous hikes in the whole area, the hike to Refugio Frey. We woke up early to take the bus to the trailhead and were hiking by 8 am. The weather was drizzly at first, but within an hour as we ascended the snow started really coming down. Though our hiking boots are not snow boots, per se, they did a great job at keeping our feet dry as the snow became deeper and deeper. We hiked through forests and along rivers, a view of a lake in the distance, but the mountains surrounding us were invisible in the snowy haze.
By the time we reached the first shelter along the path, the snow was over two feet deep and we were the first ones on the trail, so we were slipping and stepping into deep powder. The path (below) became less and less a trail and more and more a scramble through the snow. We stopped for a break at a shelter built under a massive boulder and watched the snow fall for a while. We had about a mile left to reach the top, but the snow was falling harder and the trail becoming steeper. Finally, after another hour, the refuge came into view, but just as it did and we came out from below the tree line, and the snow was suddenly 6 feet deep, and each step we took we fell through to our hips. The last quarter mile up the hill to the refuge was a fight, with freezing wind blowing the snow into our faces and each step a challenge and the snow was now filling our boots and getting us wet.
Once we made it to the refuge, we ordered a hot chocolate and let our feet dry a little while we ate our lunch. Unfortunately, the snow and white haze completely blocked the fantastic view of the lake and mountains that made the hike famous. But hey, there was hot chocolate. The hike back was a little easier going down, but still a long day. Afterwards we dried our wet gear by the heaters in our little rental apartment and spent the evening relaxing, cooking, and planning our next move.
The following day as we packed up the truck to leave, the sun was shining bright and beautiful – the day the forecast had said would be worse weather. So we took the morning to drive to some viewpoints of the lakes around Bariloche before turning south. We saw many of the lakes and mountains we should have been able to see from our hike and felt like we were in the Pacific Northwest. Both beautiful places when it’s not raining.
Days 533 – 535
We pulled into our next stop, a small town called El Bolson, right on time to try their specialty ice cream (not as good as Bariloche’s) and browse their weekly craft market. This town’s guidebook description was spot on: a mountain hippy town. We watched them playing music on the street in their flowing pants and crystal necklaces, twirling their dreadlocks, riding skateboards and selling their hand-made organic soaps. It was cute and cool to see, although not quite our style.
We checked into a little grungy campsite just before it started raining. We were the only campers but the hippie host was very friendly, practically forcing us to drink tea with home-grown honey, and jamming to Pink Floyd. He was fun to talk to, had lived in El Bolson his whole life and really loved Patagonia. It rained all evening, so we ate cold leftover pasta in the front seat, being too lazy to put out our tailgate umbrella and cook.
It was still raining when we woke up so we weren’t too keen to get an early start. We headed to a coffee shop to get some internet and work out another plan, decided the weather forecast was completely unreliable, and headed to the trailhead of the hike we had wanted to do: Rio Azul. After a short drive and a steep 4×4 road, we parked on the rivershore a few hundred yards from a little closed up brewery and the trailead. The sun would shine bright, no clouds, and then twenty minutes later it’d be raining. We’d get out of the car and fiddle or cook, and then run back inside when the rain started. We did not get a long enough window to hike that day, but thought we’d camp there anyway. We ended up meeting the American guy that owned the brewery and he invited us over for (free) beer. He used to live in San Diego, so it was interesting to talk to him about San Diego, Argentina, and owning a business there. He let us know that the next day the weather would be great.
And he was right. We spent most of the day hiking in the glorious woods along the turquoise river until we made it the canyon. We only passed a few other hikers and couldn’t have asked for better weather. We ate a cheese and cracker lunch on the shore of the river with a view into the canyon. We decided we like our campsite enough to stay one more night after hiking, and we spent the afternoon and early evening outside, watching Guachos (Argentine cowboys) on horses, dogs following closely, cross the river into the mountains. It was warm enough to eat dinner outside, likely for the last time on the trip south into Patagonia.