Before I start singing praises to the beauty of the famous Lake country or the Wild West of Argentina I need to give you some advice on a challenging topic of transportation or more precisely renting a car in Argentina.
When we arrived to Argentina for the first time in the fall of 2002 with our children in tow, we were secure in our conviction that a reservation with Hertz will procure the high standard of service one (used to) expect from a well know travel brand.
Well, we were wrong, very wrong. Our middle sized car to transport five people turned out to be a Match Box size of the car seating less than one and half malnourished Pygmy from Amazonia with only one piece of luggage, an elegant office leather case filled with ten sheets of legal size paper plus a small gold Mont Blanc pen. Not much more! Fortunately for us, we were met by an Argentinian friend at the BA airport who was so disgusted by the service we received he made us cancel the reservation then and there, took us home and handed us the keys to his big car.
You’d think we learned our lesson. But no, hearing lots of horror stories about car rental in Argentina we made another reservation with big name Hertz in Bariloche. It is all just a franchise name on a shingle these days so upon arrival we went through highly anticipated exercise with Hertz airport office staff, rather entertaining to fellow renters. It was the reconciliation process between what they think we deserve and what we think we should get according to English print on our Hertz confirmation email. All arguments lost their weight and validity as the reality set in on discovering that Hertz (and the other rental car companies as well) had only one size of car anyway and only in either white or a few different shades of grey to chose from, and even those in short supply or awaiting return from the car wash.
Our assigned car was white,
a little bit bigger than the Match Box of 2002 (good) and we did not have any kids in the back seat (even better). After listening to a comprehensive warning on not leaving anything in the car when parking anywhere or even stopping for a pee break (lest the car gets broken in) we compressed our duffle bags into the trunk, and refreshing the fine memories of our teenage years driving manual stick cars in Europe, we settled for what was offered. Before you would count to ten we were on our way into the sunset to discover the beauty of this land and have, now a very late lunch with a new Servas friend Brenda. What a treasure to have planing advice from a local, and someone who really knows her backyard well.
Bariloche is a natural center of this region spread on the shore of one of the largest lakes here AND headquarters of the National Park with the same name of Parque Nacionál Nahuel Huapi. Do not even try to memorize it. After a week spent driving around it, I still do not remember it. Like many others. But the Park is about 85 years old, the first N.P. in Argentina and the most visited, thus bringing to Bariloche a huge tourist crowd to ad to 100,000 residents.
So we quickly decided to leave Bariloche behind and get further into the countryside where nature prevails over the number of tourists. First, going to the north we drove to the Land of Seven Lakes between Villa la Angostura, a much smaller, cosier town, at the northernmost reach of the Lago Nahuel Huapi and another N.P. Lanín. There are definitely more than seven lakes and rivers lining up Ruta 40, a famous highway running full length of Argentina from Tierra del Fuego on the eastern sides of Andes to the Bolivian border.
As the traffic on Ruta 40 became less dense, it made it much easier to stop at frequent miradors (view points) for picture taking
or having a late picnic lunch on the river bank.
The higher end lodges and hotels were replaced by plentiful campgrounds on more than breathtaking lakes
like this Lago Traful
serving at the estuary of the Río Pichi Traful their young backpacking and hitchhiking clientèle, (that we often tried to cram into our car)
in a natural Salón de Té with their drink of choice – mate té, an old indigenous Guarani Indian crop grown from special tree leaves.
We know that nothing can beat the beauty of Iguaçú Falls (see our next blog) but you simply could not neglect the local falls
with wide variety of birds making you unhappy that you have not developed sufficient birdwatching skills. Not having a big shot camera with even bigger télé lens would be to our disadvantage, but our trip’s artistic director easily bridged this gap by mastering her latest iPhone model.
Pleased with our progress we landed that day in the real jewel on the Ruta 40, a beautiful and the absolute cleanest clean town of San Martín de Los Andes. In spite of disappointing foggy weather next morning
we pushed nevertheless further north on unpaved roads stretching our minicar’s durability
and hoping not to loose some essential parts such as wheels, or non-essential parts like suspension (no biggie, after a mile or two on those kinds of roads you do not feel like you have any suspension, anyway). We proceeded ferociously towards the Parque Nacional Lanín. It was named after its main attraction, almost 12,400 feet (3780m) high Volcán Lanín,
which appeared just like Fata Morgana with its carved pyramid shape on the horizon over Lago Huechulafquen
(another local name difficult to read, correctly pronounce and memorize, tell me about it!). We did not try to reach its top, it would have taken us more than three days of strenuous effort and we would have had to shed more than 35 years off our shoulders (yes, on February 21, almost to this day 35 years ago, we succeeded in our attempt to reach the snowy top of Kilimanjaro!). Still we were rewarded by a garden like place at the base of the Volcán with a cozy Mapuche Indian church
with a coolest carved rendition of Nativity scene!
On it you can find all local flora and fauna including in the back the fantastical tree, we have never seen in the wild, only planted in the city scape or a botanical garden.
It is a national tree of Chile and it’s known scientifically as Araucaria Araucana but you may have heard it being called Monkey Puzzle tree or Monkey Tail tree.
Easily (actually extremely slowly) growing over hundred feet tall it is qualified as coniferous
but I would hardly call this green stuff on its branches needles; leaves seem to be a better fit, no matter how hard they are. What a treat to see a grove of these trees!
Our follow up trip on the comfortable boat crisscrossing one of the Lago Huechulafquen far reaching arms could not be spoiled even as the weather did not fully cooperate and soon hid the snow capped volcán behind the clouds.
We were so excited that nothing could stop us from crazily celebrating our trip on the nearby pedestrian bridge over a clean mountain river.
We knew we were in gaucho country as we started to pass estâncias. But then we started seeing people on horses all spiffed up in their best gaucho outfits. It is a yearly Puestero – a gaucho fiesta. What an amazing timing! Of course we have to stop! Let the pictures speak!
After three beautiful fun filled days spent north of Bariloche we decided to turn south and further into Andes even if it meant leaving the decent comfort of the paved Ruta 40 and more miles driven on bumpy mountain roads. We wanted to reach the base of glacier covered Cerro (Mount) Tronador where our leader hoped to secure with her charm a last minute room in Pampa Linda Lodge.
The plan was for her to ride a horse as high as she could towards the ice fields of Cerro Tronador with me following her on foot while feeding us both with trouts I would fish for in the mountain streams. Well, it did not work as planed as we overslept the crack of dawn horse expedition departure to Refugio and no fish could be found in icy waters of mountain streams and lakes this high up.
Nevertheless we did have a lot of fun even if the weather was changing by the minute.
In this part of the trip we learned an invaluable lesson about Horário enforced on certain mountain roads imposing one-way traffic in prevailing direction. We had no clue, of course, and were very surprised to find cars driving on our! side of the road, blinking their lights at us, and gesturing in unmistakably unfriendly ways! That was a hard lesson, indeed.
Then we were chased by the clouds
further south to the town of El Bolson, known as hippie capital of Argentina in 1980’s. There are still plenty of hippies left. They do all sorts of hippie things like making jewelry and jam, carving trees
or setting up great coffee shops and charming, artistic B&Bs.
Close by is a cabin where Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid of of 1960’s movie fame
settled in 1901 with $32,000 ($2,500,000 today) of booty from their last American bank robbery. After Pinkerton detectives tracked them here, they ran away north to Bolivia where they found their end in the shootout with a platoon of Bolivian army in Santa Cruz.
We did not rob the bank, just enquired at the local Western Union office about moving some emergency cash from our home bank account to pay for our frequent visits in our favorite El Boson watering hole called Jauja (pronounced Hauha, huh?!)
Quality of their coffee
and helado (ice-cream) was unmatched by anywhere else in Argentina!
As we left Patagonia for warmer pastures the view from the plane bid us a blue goodbye!