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.

Our first view from the hotel by Lago Nahuel Huapi, near Bariloche. We were struck dumb as we took in the view (which extended in all directions beyond this IPhone snapshot); all we could say was, "Wow."

Our first view from the hotel by Lago Nahuel Huapi. We were struck dumb as we took in the view (which extended in all directions beyond this IPhone snapshot); all we could say was, "Wow."

Another shot of the lake from our first day near Bariloche.

Another shot of the lake from our first day near Bariloche.

I wish I knew what to call these beautiful creatures. They're everywhere.

I wish I knew what to call these beautiful creatures. They're everywhere.

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.

It's spring down here. At least, we think it is! It's hard to tell.

It's spring down here. At least, we think it is! It's hard to tell.

I got all excited when I woke up and saw these snow-covered forests, and I thought, "Winter is coming!" and then I realized, "No, it's not!"

When I woke and saw these snow-covered forests, I felt a split-second flutter of excitement about the onset of winter before remembering that this is an anomaly and summer is around the corner.

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).

"Can you say, 'está nevando'?" "No, but we can say, 'We're freezing!'"

"Can you say, 'está nevando'?" "No, but we can say, 'We're freezing!'"

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.

The view of the back of Llao Llao hotel and its grounds from our room. Believe it or not, we were in the most affordable "non-view" room. Rooms overlooking the lakes were much more costly. I'll take this view any day!

The view of the back of Llao Llao and its grounds from our room. Believe it or not, we were in the most affordable "non-view" room. I'll take this view any day!

Click to enlarge and see Morgan's series on how the weather changed in four hours.

Click to enlarge and see Morgan's series on how the weather changed in four hours.

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.

The Llao Llao lounge, where we ate dinner a couple of times.

The Llao Llao lounge, where we ate dinner a couple of times.

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.

Morgan in our cabaña. The sofas in the background convert to beds for the kids.

Morgan in our cabaña. The sofas in the background convert to beds for the kids.

My kitchen for the next two weeks.

My kitchen for the next two weeks.

The kids were thrilled to discover a play structure, chicken coop and several free-roaming dogs right outside our cabaña.

The kids were thrilled to discover a play structure, chicken coop and several free-roaming dogs right outside our cabaña.

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.

Morgan and I worked in one trail run before the weather hit. It started with a couple of miles through thick bamboo.

Morgan and I went on one trail run before the stormy weather hit. It started with a couple of miles through thick bamboo.

We made it to the top of one of the peaks.

We made it to the top of one of the peaks.

This is heaven! (in spite of the cold)

This is heaven! (in spite of the cold)

Morgan's pano from our trail run.

Morgan's pano from our trail run (click to enlarge).

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

1 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Pingback: Salomon K42 Race Report: An “Adventure Marathon” Lives Up to Its Hype | Sarah Lavender Smith on November 18, 2009

6 Comments

  1. Cheryl, October 24, 2009:

    WOW!!! This place is absolutely stunning!!!! Love the pics… especially the panoramic and weather shots. If I were there.. I would be in danger of not wanting to leave!!

  2. Oren, October 25, 2009:

    Sarah, looks like its time to take up backcountry skiing/snowboarding. Many of my friends – and I – would pay a lot of money to be in Patagonia in spring with fresh snowfall. Take advantage of the powder! :-)

  3. Martha, October 25, 2009:

    WOW – soooo pretty. What a different place than you’ve experienced before! The first thing I thought of when I started reading was, “how did they bring warm enough clothes for this in those little bags?!” But you guys are tough… Glad you are having such a wonderful time – Love you!

    : ) Martha

  4. David W. Lavender, October 25, 2009:

    Oh, my god. Gorgeous! What I wouldn’t give to have my kayak there to explore those lakes (when the weather warmed a bit, of course). Hope you get the chance to do something along these lines.

    Fun to read this post on a day when we woke up to a few inches of fresh powder ourselves. The new stove is loaded, but we have yet to actually light it. Might tonight.

    I think your plan to stay put for a bit is a wise one (go for depth over breadth), and I love that you all look so happily besotted by the landscape!

  5. Luv2Ski007, November 10, 2009:

    enjoying your blog.

    from the pics looks like you children maybe like each other . . . well most of the time I’m sure.

  6. Lito, November 10, 2010:

    Those birds are called caiquenes (plural), caiquen (singular). They are endemic in the Patagonia region. Very nice postings!

    Lito

Sorry, comments for this entry are closed at this time.