Company on the road: the good and the bad kind – Bariloche & Malalcahuello

The more to the North we travel in Argentina the more pleasant the temperature gets and slowly the dry pampas give way to green woods. Bariloche is the Argentinians’ prime holiday destination for a reason. As the locals are still in their summer holidays, we doubt we’ll have the beautiful spots all to ourselves. We’re not going to be alone in the van either. Sandie, a Belgian girl we met in Rio, will be joining us for some adventures!

Empty roads… that’s officially in the past now, as more and more traffic surrounds us on our way North. In the buzz of El Bolson we suddenly see 2 people enthusiastically waving at us and pointing at our license plate. That can only mean one thing: fellow Belgians. Although we had told ourselves to drive straight to Bariloche and in no case take any hitchhikers – there is currently an outbreak of the deadly hantavirus in this area – we stop anyway so Tim and Astrid can accompany us to our final destination. Not only do we have a very sociable drive, we also get an invitation to join them for Burning Man 2020! That’s an absolute dream of the both of us, so who knows… When we near Bariloche we suddenly come to a halt. Traffic jams, we almost forgot what it felt like. We have no choice but to line up behind the rest of Argentina until we reach the campsite. We stay in Colonia Suiza, 15 km outside of Bariloche because the city itself is notorious for it’s car burglaries, especially targeting foreign cars. Additionally it is so busy that we don’t fancy staying long and even don’t think about hiking here. Fortunately Colonia Suiza is nice. There’s a big food market which even draws in tourists from Bariloche. We pick up Sandie at the edge of town and pass by the Patagonia brewery for a beer before going back for another night on the camping. This brewery, belonging to Hannes ex-employer Ab InBev, is probably the most scenically located one in the world! As Colonia Suiza is lively only during the day, we cook for ourselves. The campsite has an enormous oven so we use the opportunity to make Hannes’ mom’s lasagna recipe – our favorite – and it tastes like home a little! The next day we leave Bariloche and find a nice place to camp at the beginning of the 7 lakes route. We laze around in the sun, cool down in the lake and by sunset start to prepare our bbq – yes, we’re living the Argentinian life now, tranquilo. In the morning there are waffles on the menu. They are not as perfect as last time, but the cream and strawberries more than make up for that, and hey when are waffles ever actually bad?! The sun is hiding today when we start the road trip along the famous 7 lakes. It’s pretty, but to be honest, we’ve seen much more beautiful spots down South. Admitted, when the sun does come out once in a while the colors look a lot more vivid and so we might just be unlucky today. We find a beautiful place for lunch, but at the end of the day we conclude we’re not very impressed with this hyped holiday destination. The roadtrip ends in San Martin de Los Andes, of course also very busy. We’ll not sleep here but before driving on we need to have dinner here as we fear the next town, Junin de Los Andes, won’t have much on offer. None of the touristy places can really please us so we go for a quick bite in the Irish Pub. The dessert is a killer though: a local specialty is a jar of frozen raspberries firstly dipped in white, then in milk chocolate. Delicious! Stefanie already had them in Buenos Aires, but Hannes was sick back then and really wanted to find them now. In Junin we find a nice riverside spot where Sandie can pitch her tent and we can park the car. It’s next to the municipal campsite, but who needs campsites, right?! When driving around town we realise we were wrong about this place. There are many restaurants and all of them look a lot more cosy and authentic than those in San Martin, darn!

While driving out of Junin de Los Andes the next morning we see some birds sitting in the meadow next to the road. Only after passing them we realise these were not just some birds. The flock of condors starts taking off the very second we pull over to watch them and graciously they soar right over our heads. We’re on our way to Chile and pass through some amazing scenery along the way. Our goal is the national park of Malalcahuello. We plan to do a multiday trek here around one of the many volcanoes and through the endemic araucaria or monkey puzzle tree woods. These loony-looking conifers are typical for the region and their peculiar shapes are a pretty sight on the horizon. We register with the rangers and pay the entrance fee, gladly this time, as they are not asking for 15 euro… High temperatures are forecasted but the day starts very pleasantly. At first we hike through the woods, which offer some cool shade. But when we arrive at the tree line, the heat hits us. Fortunately at this altitude the breeze keeps us cool. Going up, Stefanie struggled a bit and got behind a bit. But once at altitude the fluent trail walks easy and, as agreed, we wait for Sandie at the last of 3 miradors. She doesn’t see us waiting there so assumes we got going really well and already walked on. Other hikers, more attentive than us, let us know she already walked on so we swiftly pack up and start the chase. Not an easy job to catch up with someone who thinks she has to catch up with you, we can assure you… After a while she waits for a bit with a crossing hiker and that’s when we see her from afar. Hannes’ roaring voice can’t reach her so she doesn’t notice us and walks on again. By the time we meet, we’re already at the first campsite of the hike. Instead of eating at the mirador we have lunch here and discuss our further plans. It’s only just after noon so too early to call it a day. On the other hand we’re 15 km on difficult volcanic terrain away from the next protected campsite, a bit much. We could probably sleep on the volcano but out in the open the temperature at night will drop steeply. Sandie doesn’t have the warmest of camping gear so we decide against that idea and stay for a lazy afternoon in the sun. We’ll get up early so we can cross the lava fields during the cool morning. In the evening we hike up a few 100 meters to watch the sunset but we’re a tad too late. We don’t get to see the sun anymore, only the gorgeous golden glows on the forests and volcanoes.

The next morning we also hope for a great sunset and break up camp before dawn. Stefanie gets up, as usually happens before a tough day, with a horrible mood and Hannes gets the full load for breakfast. After a while he’s fed up with the whining so he tells her that we go back if she doesn’t feel like hiking. Stubborn as we are we continue in the same mood and we walk back to town a day earlier than planned. We keep our manners and tell Sandie she can walk on for a while or even finish the hike and we’ll wait for her in town. She hikes up a bit further on the volcano but doesn’t get treated to any different spectacular sights so then also turns back. For some quality time we want to visit the local therms but soon ditch the idea when we find out the entrance is 15 euro for just a pool and a little jacuzzi. Instead, Hannes takes a dip in the river and we enjoy the weather from our campsite with a nice meal – as fresh veggies and meat were nowhere to be found in town we opted for pasta carbonara and loads of wine. On our final day together we scramble up to Crater Navidad, named after it’s eruption and formation on Christmas 1988. The volcanic scenery is stunning but we’re glad we left early. The sun is scorching hot on the black lava sand. At the edge of the crater the heat is also present but here the sun is not the culprit. Our bottom gets uncomfortably hot and wet when we sit there and we notice steam rises from the rocks still. We enjoy the view for a while and slide back down to continue towards Santiago.

With the dusk setting we realise none of our front lights are working anymore. One was broken already but now the second one died as well. We quickly pull over as we don’t want any trouble with the Santiago police. We can’t really find in the dark how to replace it and the gas station mechanic is sure that it’s the fuse and not the light. Changing it doesn’t help so he starts putting tape on the lights and flashes on the big headlights. That way we don’t hinder any oncoming traffic and police won’t notice our lights are broken. Nothing a little tape and Chilean creativity can’t solve… in the city we say goodbye and drop off Sandie and then hurry back out. We’re not here for Santiago – which doesn’t appeal to us – but we just want to drive the spectacular border pass to Argentina. The switchback road takes us almost up to 4000 meters into the Andes. At the top the Cristo redentor stands tall to remind both nations of the peaceful resolution to a border conflict. And the view is magnificent, well worth the slow ride up. Back down on the Argentinian side we make a stop at the el Puente del Inca, which has nothing to do with Inca’s. The bridge of layered sedimentary rock shines brightly yellow and orange in the sun and there are remains of an old spa which used the warm, sulphuric water seeping from the mountain.

We’ve suddenly arrived to actual summer! Now that we’ve reached these warmer regions, we’re craving some refreshment again. The drought around us extends to our throats but Argentina is well equipped to resolve just that. Carried on by a summer breeze we drive towards the splendid vineyards of Mendoza. We’re not only here to see this amazing country, we’re here to taste it.

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