Saturday, December 24, 2005

Patagonia I: When San Martin (de Los Andes) and (San Carlos de) Bariloche meet!


Following Maya and Barak, me and Lee went on the bus to San Martin, a little and charming town sitting on Lago Lacar between mountain ranges and forests. The sweet little town left us with a taste for more when the next day we took the 11 am bus to Bariloche, the peak of Patagonia as the commercial states

A costly “loo”
Waking up early the next day, I went quickly to find a bus that goes to Bariloche as I heard from a lot of people that it is very hard to find space on buses that goes to Bariloche now that it Christmas is near. There are two common paths to go to Bariloche, one through Osorno situated at the middle of Chile while the other is through San Martin de Los Andes in Argnentina. The later is said to be a stunning road and is better than the Chilean one, so we obviously took the recommended path. Two agencies fare this route and I entered the closest and was happy to hear they have a bus for the next morning (we were told that we need to reserve a place couple of days ahead…) and without too much hesitation booked the two of us place for the next day 11 am bus. We had some arrangements and we wanted to chill-out on the lake shores after the long climb and eventually after doing and walking all around the place, we finally managed to rest by the lake with couple of bears only at evening time. There we met with Nir, a guy Lee met already in San Pedro de Atacama and was looking for partners for the Caratera Austral. Due to the fact that we were to meet with Maya and Barak in Bariloche (and thought about maybe do it with them) I declined politely. In the mean time, Nir decided to work several days in his hostel till he gathers enough people to travel with to the adventurous Carratera Austral road.
Relaxing on the shores of Lago Villarica, Lee suddenly had the urge to go to the bathroom (“the loo” as the brits say) for a quick one and we started our way back to the center of town. Only, it didn’t take to much time for me to realize she needs to find a place NOW, and we half walked fast looking for a place before she is gonna have an accident. It was clear that she wont make it dry to the hostel, which is on the other side of town so we had to find an alternative. We passed by a police station and I offered her to get inside (now, what kind of a though policemen would say no to such a plea from a nice and about-to-pee sweet girl??) but Lee thinking about the FADIHA of being in such a position decided to find another place…So, we kept on going till I noticed a café on the other side corner (a classic place for a quick run to the toilettes) and Lee, without even pondering about the issue or the place, nodded and dashed across the street and with me on her heels. Stopping short of the entrance, she switched without cracking the gear from a fast run to a tranquil walk on the beach (I almost cracked up a laugh when I saw that change in her movement) and elegantly we entered the café which was mostly empty (and soon you will understand why). The waiter greeted us and even though she was on the verge of loosing control, Lee asked patiently where are the bathrooms. The guy mumbeled some left and right and before I knew it Lee was already half dashing half walking giving me her backpack, which clinks of empty beer bottles spread from it to the whole café hall.
While I was going through the hall I noticed that we could not have chosen a pricer café, with full wood furniture, classic music in the background, and saliva generating tortas in a state of the art fridge’s. And the only thing I thought about when I approached one of the tables was “THIS IS GONNA ONE PRICY PEEING…”. As I was doing my steps on the parquet floor, Lee was doing hers into the bathroom and quickly realized the same thing, as the light clicked open without her touch and the decoration and chrome shining tap brightened her gaze. When I was sitting and going through the menu, trying to guess how much a café con leche (coffee with milk) would cost us, Lee already was guessing the same while she was doing what she had to do.
When I saw her coming out with a bright smile, I mistakenly though it was a smile of relief when it was actually a smile of: “THIS IS GONNA ONE PRICY PEEING …”. She didn’t know what I saw in the menu, so when I told her that a coffee will cost us more than 2 USD (a lot in South America), she giggeled a bit and said that there must be something cheaper. I already accepted the fact that we gonna pay something dearly (the hell with it, I though, at least we gonna have a classy coffee). And then Lee brightened and said:” here, there is something that costs less than a dollar!”
Without even looking at the menu I already knew what she is looking at and I replied with half a smile: “Lee, this is butter, what exactly can we do with butter??” Lee blurted an “Ah!” and then rethinking I replied to her:”Yeah, I guess we can buy it and use it to smooth out our exit of this joint!” We both laughed so much the waiter thought we were two drunken muchileros that mistakenly found themselves in the most expensive café in Pucon. He was even more astonished to our puzzled gaze at the menu, thinking and rethinking what we should take when we don’t have too much to spend on REAL food as he didn’t see us enter and ask for the toilettes. Finally, we decided to go “big time” and order the Torta de Chocolate, which was superb even if costing over 3 USD…This is one Torta de Chocolate we would not forget so easily I can tell you that!

All things happen for the best – San Martin de Los Andes
So, the next day we woke up early so we could get organized before our departure to Argentina. The weather got worse in night and the wind blew cold and strong. Villarica was covered with low grey clouds and the feeling of winter came back after three days of sun and warm weather. I wanted to buy a road map of Chile at Gideon’s place but it was packed with Israelis so I decided to skip it and try to buy this map in another place. We walked fast back to the hostel as time passed and managed to come to the bus agency exactly on time (though the bus was being late). While waiting for the bus we met an Israeli couple which is traveling in Argentina after living in Israel for the past 30 years. We talked with them a bit before we saw Nir coming up with his bike, looking for Israelis as part of his job in the hostel. I asked him if he has the Chile map and if I can buy from him the map and he will buy another map later. He said he got to fetch from his hostel and he will do his best to come back in time before the bus comes. And, as the bus came and we uploaded the bags we saw him paddle up to us in the nick of time! We switched the map with the money and with saying goodbye I boarded the bus.
The way to San Martin passed near lakes and forests, all green and inviting. After some time we came to the Chilean border crossing and quickly were given the stamp-out and returned to the bus. While waiting we saw a heavy motorcycle coming to a stop near us and I think the WHOLE bus was looking with envy at it: a grey big touring motorcycle, most probably a BMW fully equipped with two elderly polish couple boarding it off. As I looked at the boxes on the motorcycle I noticed that they are doing a world-wide tour starting from Poland, through Africa, Asia, South East Asia and South America – the list of countries they visit in their tour was impressive and I could hear the whole bus talking about that “attraction”…
We continued on driving for 5 minutes till we got to the Argentinean border crossing and there we got stuck for an hour and a half! Damn, those Argentinean are SO slow…While we were waiting we talked with the elderly couple and learned that he is doctor that came to Argentina as part of work and she works as a lawyer – the ideal polish mom combination, isn’t it??
Finally we were stamped and climbed the bus to continue to San Martin which we arrived around 4 PM and found out that there are no more busses that leave to Bariloche that day and we had to stay in San Martin. The couple told us about their Israeli hostel (Nahum) so we came after them and lodged in one house with two Israeli guys and an Israeli nice couple: Shaul and Hauvi. The two decided to quite their job and to fly to the US to work there for couple of years before returning back to Israel. Before starting their work, they wanted to absorb some of the South American atmosphere. For Shaul this is his second time in South America and after talking with him Lee realized that one of the family friends were at the same time and they might have met in the past…Small world indeed!
We went back to town to take some pesos out of the machine as well as buying the ticket for the next day bus to Bariloche, as well as buying some food for dinner and breakfast. While going back to the hostel we realized that this is indeed a town we could stay easily for atleast two nights more. This town looks like Interlaken (as Lee and another guy told me), with wooden cabins and shops with the forested mountain in the background and a tranquil lake situated close to the center of town. A really chill-out town with pleasant atmosphere. But I was eager to catch up with Maya and Barak which were in Bariloche after they themselves “got stuck” in San Martin. The hostel itself was very homey and inviting with a bit sarcastic and cynical owner, Itisik. The next morning we met him at the street and Lee asked if she can get his card and he replied in a semi smile: “I give my credit card only after marriage…”
We were quite busy that morning because Lee decided, finally, to buy a decent and fitting backpack after she broke her back for the past 9 months. We scrutinized the numerous outdoor shops and finally found one backpack which was at the right volume, was fit and the most important thing – Lee liked its colors!!
But, in order that Lee will be sure it is fitting her well, we needed some weight to put into it – what can be better than her own stuff? So, we told the vendors we are gonna come back in 10 minutes, took a taxi and went back to the hostel. We took all our stuff and drove back to the store and to the amazed faces of the vendors, we transferred all the contents from one backpack to another, and then Lee shouldered it and walk with it. I helped as best I could to fit it well to her back and physical dimensions and overall she felt it was comfortable. I had only one thing that I didn’t like about that backpack (the fitting system in my opinion is far from being ideal) but as I felt that she felt good with it and it was comfortable for her, it is a small price to pay for all the other advantages.
We quickly walked back to the bus station (good test for the fitting of the backpack) and boarded the bus to Bariloche.

Bariloche, The peak of Patagonia?
The bus to Bariloche usually passes through part of the 7 lakes circuit so we had some good views of some of the best vistas in South America (one lake was so clear and calm, that the mountains and clouds reflected on the face of the water like they were a giant clear mirror). Yellowish bushes and blue TURMUSIM were dotting the whole road and were a good setting to the whole atmosphere of nature at peak of its bloom. A good chunk of the road is a dirt road so the ride was relatively slow so after 4 hours we came finally to Bariloche bus station that is situated outside town. Getting out of the bus station, Lee’s first remark was that she feels a different Bariloche, now that it is warm and sunny. I looked forward to see the city and we quickly climbed the first taxi we saw and drove to La Ciervo Rojo (The Red Deer), an Israeli hotel not far from the center of town. Checking into a two bedroom cost us dearly, 30 pesos (10 USD), some 50% more expensive than the last time Lee was there (May, the “dead” season between the hiking season and skiing season) and she was surprised for the high price. Explaining the receptionist that this is her second visit didn’t convince anyone to give us a discount so we settled with that. Earlier we got an email from Maya and Barak that told us they might check in so I asked if they are there and the receptionist told me they tried to look for a place but the whole place was sold out and they had to look for another place…We went outside to look for an internet and check the email. We found out they are staying in the flamingo and that they reserved a place for us too in a 4 bedroom dormitory. Now that we did check in it was not appropriate to leave unless we pay for half a night so after talking with the flamingo’s receptionist we decided to stay in the Red Deer till we leave Bariloche. We met with Maya and Barak five minutes later and guess what – they have a flight from Ushuaia to Buenos Aires only on the 10th of January which means they have time to do the Carratera! I was very happy because I was not sure Lee would join me when it was only the two of us to bear the weight of the prices. We went outside to the main plaza where good view of the lake and one giant San Bernard kept us busy.
After walking and talking we got into the Touristica café/chocolate shop and had some nice coffee and cheese cake. We decided that we will first look for cars in Yankale’s tourist agency that most Israelis do the area attractions through (Yankale is also the owner of the Red Deer, btw) and try to find a good price for 7-8 days touring the Carratera. Going to the agency, we found it fully packed with Israelis and there was no chance to reach the representatives so we skipped it and instead went to have a steak in the famous Don Alberto (Called El Boliche De Alberto). This was a special day: Not only Barak was celebrating his 27th birthday but also Lee wanted to compensate me for not celebrating with me my own 28th birthday, some two months ago. So, with a good Norton red wine accompanying the whole meal, we all had our pound of meat: Me and Maya had 250 gram of reddish thick Antricot (Bife de Chorizo) while Lee ate the chicken steak (her first meat since Salta…). Barak took the full advantage of the place and went for the complete 450 gr steak, which he finished quite easily). It was a great and delicious meal!
Even so, over the meal all of us felt a bit dissapointed of Bariloche. Not that it isn`t nice, but after all the stories I heard about it, I thought I am gonna come to heaven. Well, indeed the meals were good and cheap, but thats about it. San Martin de Los Andes was much much nicer (even if a bit more touristic...). Dissapointment is THE word to described our impression of Bariloche, and as Lee said, sometimes it is best to visit places off-season. I guess that Bariloche is one of them, as the snow covers most of the ugliest buildings in the city and gives the city a nice glossy shine (as I can only imagine...)
The next day we woke up in order to find a car for the Carratera Austral tour and also for the Seven lake tour. However, after passing through several travel agencies (including Yankale) we found that none of them have a pick-up truck and those that have a 4X4 Jeep demand a high payment for the rental, a cost we can not bear. One agency offered us a Kangoo car that we could rent for 70 USD a day with an option to leave it in Comodoro Rivadavia (a little town on the Atlantic coast, south of Bariloche). As the car was available only from the 21st of December and also the location of return didn’t fit into Lee`s plans and we wanted to do this all together, we decided to put this option aside. Instead, we decided to rent a private car, a Gol (A similar South American version of the European Golf) from this agency and got prepared for the famous Seven Lake tour in the Argentinean Lake District…
After finishing with the arrangements, Maya and Barak went for horse back riding in the hills surrounding Bariloche while me and Lee went to have a good rest as we were quite exhausted...We talked about meeting again at Yankale's agency for the Carratera Austral lecture. Well, Lee was finished from tiresome (and also was not too enthusiastic about meeting all the ISRAELIYADA) and I went outside while the weather cleared after a heavy hail storm that rocked Bariloche for some 10 minutes. I met Maya and Barak in the agency, just to find out that there was no lecture that day. Maya and Barak were also not too enthusiastic about the horse riding trip, as it was too fast going instead of going slowly and enjoying the views. We went outside to have some coffee to wake up when we met with Shauli and Hauvi and after talking on the sidewalk for ten minutes we decided to find a warmer and nicer place to talk. We all got into a bar which had a live band (really nice!) and we ordered coffee and tea (!) and chatted for almost 2 hours! After that the three of us (Me, Maya and Barak) went to check out the Don Alberto Pastas, only to realize it was a TRUE disappointment! That pasta was one of the worst I had, and all of us felt it was tasteless…And with that, we decided enough is enough and went to sleep for the long day that expected us touring the 7 lakes (not knowing what the day will lead…)

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