Friday, 29 April 2011

Walking in Bariloche

Today's walk didn't quite go to plan as the cable car in Villa Catedral wasn't running.  I am staying in San Carlos de Bariloche, in Argentina, not far from the Chilean border.  I took the bus from town up to the little skiing village of Catedral which, at 9am was something of a ghost town.  Its well out of ski season now, and I was hoping for a long downhill walk, without all the effort of walking uphill first, but the cable car doesn't run on Mondays out of season.  So instead, an unplanned 3.5 hour ascent before getting the fun of walking back down...

I set off on the Refugio Frey trail, signed as 4 hours up from Catedral, in bright sunshine, no wind and cold air - lovely walking weather.  The path was surrounded by lenga trees and green bamboo (not a native species).  There was some snow on the trail in places but the walking was still easy going on a mostly gentle incline.  The clicks, tweets and chirrups of many birds were ever present and the hypnotic crunch of walking boots on snow added to the atmosphere.

There were many dead tree trunks rising above the bamboo, killed by fire and now either black or white.  After about fifty minutes, Lago Gutierrez came into view, yet another enormous lake, although I could see the other side of this one.  Despite walking in direct sun, the lake was dark and the other side of the valley was still in shade and looked oppressive, with the top of the ridge just hidden in grey rain clouds.

Burnt tree
 The path steadily climbed the side of the valley, turning inwards a few times to cross a waterfall, then back out again.  Ninety five minutes in, I reached a fork and turned uphill, following another deep valley, with the ever present sound of water below.  Now in shade and on a steeper gradient, the cold air really opened up my lungs.  The path levelled off through beautiful woodland, in dappled sunlight.  The river appeared and, crossing a "one person at a time" rickety wooden bridge was loud enough to drown out conversation.

A bridge hanging onto the rock face

The boulders were getting bigger the further I ascended.  A boulder the size of a house is really something to see up close.  Two hours twenty into the walk I reached a tranquil picnic area with a wooden shelter built against a rock face.  An excellent spot for a lunch stop, on the wooden benches, I heard, and then spotted, three magellanic woodpeckers, with their black bodies, bright red heads and white striped back.  They allowed a close approach before retreating further into the woods.  This area had a simple chapel, consisting of big wooden cross, metal bell and simple shelter against another huge boulder.
The chapel

Climbing steeply away from the picnic area and then settling into a hard, but manageable climb, the snow was always threatening to block the path, but never more than a few centimetres, sometimes slushy in the sun.  The path later opened out of the trees, with vast views across the valley to strips of fresh snow far across on the other side.  Refugio Frey soon appeared above, at an altitude of 1,700 metres, to complete a beautiful 3.5 hour walk up.  I paused by the small Laguna Tonchek, surrounded by steep rock faces on three sides, before stopping in the Refugio for coffee.  This was a delightful little place to rest.  It is small, but with a selection of books and maps, friendly staff and prices no more than you would pay in town (impressive given it is supplied by helicopter) and the other walkers were friendly and keen to chat.

An excellent view while drinking coffee
Refreshed, the brisk walk down to the fork took just an hour.  This time I took the path down to Lago Gutierrez, which had much less of a view of the lake than I had hoped for.  Initially, a steep path, followed by a sandy track shared with mountain bike riders, this was pleasant but not as nice as the walk up, without the lake view.  A woman walking up had asked me to distract a black and white collie which had been following her for several kilometres.  I convinced it to turn around and it proceeded to lead me all the way down to the road, a good 7-8 kilometres.  Each time I stopped, the dog stopped, looked back and waited until I continued.  I never did find out where it came from.

2.5 hours down from Refugio Frey, I at last hit Lago Gutierrez and paused on a pebble beach, looking across the still and quiet waters of the lake.  The water, as with all the lakes here, was exceptionally clear.  The lake is beautiful, but sadly shielded from view from much of this side.  The final part of the walk was a dull couple of kilometres along a dirt road, back to the main road to pick up a bus into town.

This was just one of many trails in the Nahuel Huapi National Park, with plenty of options for multi day treks, staying at refugios.

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