Welcome to Patagonia, Where Paradise Packs a Punch
Going from Buenos Aires to the Patagonia lake district near Bariloche, which we did earlier this week, is a bit like leaving Los Angeles and landing near Tahoe — times ten. Everything seems exaggerated here: the countless mountain peaks appear more dramatic and in-your-face than even the Rockies, and their snowy caps seem whiter and thicker. The lakes (literally all over the map) curve around every bend, dotted with islands, and the water enlarges the landscape with its reflections. The grass looks greener and the waterfowl is weirder.
The weather goes to extremes, too, like a toddler whose sunny disposition changes without warning to a tantrum. We arrived to an intensely blue sky and refused to believe forecasts that hinted at possible snow flurries. Snow? Slushy rain, maybe. But yesterday, we woke up to blizzard conditions and were transfixed as snow covered tulips and left white layers on all the trees.
We heard the storm was called a nevada de tonto (or something like that), meaning a fool’s snowstorm, because it took everyone by surprise, and another person mentioned it snowed harder yesterday than any day in winter. Colly called it a “swinter wonderland” (for spring + winter).
We were enchanted — and woefully under-dressed. When it crossed my mind last week that I might need warmer clothes for Patagonia, I bought a pair of tights in Buenos Aires to wear under my sleeveless dress. A blizzard? So we piled on layers under our thin windbreakers and kept warm enough (sort of).
If you’re wondering where we are exactly, we’re about 1000 miles west of Buenos Aires, near the border of Chile, in the Rio Negro province on the Andean range. We’re in the midst of a vast national park called Nahuel Huapi (which I still can’t pronounce!), and the main town, Bariloche, is a ski destination. We spent part of the week about 13 miles west of Bariloche at the Llao Llao Hotel — which, like its surroundings, is over-the-top in scale and grandeur. (Pronounce it like Zsa Zsa’s name ending in “ow,” as in “Zsow Zsow.”) Opened in 1940 and rennovated in the early 1990s, it was reborn as a world-class hotel after being shuttered for lack of funds and neglect for nearly two decades, starting in the mid-1970s (not surprising, since that time coinscides with the country’s Dirty War). It reminded us of Yosemite’s Ahwahnee with rustic yet luxurious hunting-lodge architecture and decor.
We went there because so many people recommended it, and we wanted a short stay in a hotel where the kids could swim in an incredible indoor-outdoor pool and do other activities organized by the hotel (it’s a very child-friendly resort) while we got the lay of the land and figured out longer-term accommodations. Getting the lowest-level room at off-season rates made Llao Llao almost reasonable in terms of cost — but still, I’m wincing at the bill. It was a guilty pleasure to be there for three days, but we were quite ready to leave, feeling bloated from the obscenely lavish breakfast buffets and gouged by prices for drinks and other services. Our happiest memories from the place involve swimming at the heated pool in the storm and eating dinners in the lounge, where we played nonstop games of Uno and five-card draw, using peanuts for poker chips.
Affordable cabañas to rent are available all throughout the region — especially in these non-holiday spring months, when tourists are few and far between — so Morgan did a lot of research to sort through the options. We ultimately decided to stay close to Bariloche for a couple of weeks since the town, which some criticize as too touristy, has more to do than some of the more quaint and far-flung other towns. He found a cozy little place with a deck overlooking the lake. It’s part of the Villa Huinid hotel, so we have access to the hotel’s pool and gym, but it’s a separate condo-like one-bedroom cabin with a kitchen so we can cook meals. We adore it and are grateful to be in a place that feels like a home.
As for what we’re doing — besides transitioning, exploring and studying with the kids — we’ve spent a lot of time researching the area and deciding where to go from here. After much deliberation, we decided to stay in this region for almost a month and then drive up to Mendoza, rather than fly or take 18-hour bus rides on side excursions to places such as Iguazú Falls on the East Coast or El Calafate glacier down south. There is so much to see and do right around here, but it’s hard to tune out those who advise we can’t pass up the chance to see other parts of Argentina. Imagine being a foreign visitor to the United States and hearing people say, “You absolutely have to visit Yosemite and Niagara Falls and …” — which entails a lot of air travel and expense. We’ve decided to stick to our original plan of settling into a region and getting to know it. We plan to rent a car a few days from now for day trips, and in a couple of weeks move to a cabaña about an hour away near a town called Villa La Angostura. We recently signed up to run a trail marathon near there on November 14.
Speaking of running, Morgan and I got in one good run before the weather turned. We headed out on a trail that passed through a tunnel of bamboo, fern and cypress tress. Slowly we climbed as the vegetation thinned and the lakes came into view. I’m at a loss for words to adequately describe the feeling of being up there and taking in that view — feeling so small, so remote, so full of life and gratitude, disbelieving where we were and what we were seeing. Thankfully, Morgan brought his camera.
Tags: Argentina, Bariloche, blogsherpa, family travel, Llao Llao Hotel, Patagonia, RTW travel, San-Carlos-de-Bariloche, Sarah_Lavender_Smith, The Lake District, trail running, travel advice, Villa Huinid