7 January 1997
Once again I have to remember a new number at the end of the date, and once again I will have cheques returned marked "incorrect date" - how the years creep up on one these days! Next door's New Year party was as loud as expected, and we slept as little as expected, and if we were awake at 12 o'clock it was only by default.
Elena is showing some signs of progress in her swimming, and will do several lengths of our small pool at a time (still with arm-bands of course, although they have less and less air in them). She will spend hours on end playing with her Duplo bricks, constructing bizarre and random edifices, and I must confess I quite enjoy it too, although her clumsiness still frustrates me (yes, I know all kids are like that - for that matter she is probably better coordinated than most of her age - but I still maintain that that is no reason not to be frustrated by it, or to admit to that frustration). The other current favourite are the jigsaws she received for Christmas, which she is slowly getting the hang of and which keep her amused for hours, but which still require quite a lot of adult participation.
Caracas is still in hibernation, most businesses having closed down until 13th January this year, and Julie's pre-New Year busy spell seems to have died down, which is probably just as well as she is trying to train up two new employees in the four days she has available before her conference in Argentina. One is a student from Trinidad, and I found it interesting talking to her about the Trinidadian perspective on Venezuela (Trinidad is, after all, just a few kilometres off the Venezuelan coast): it seems that many Trinidadians come here for vacations, and many come here specifically to shop, to add to the many cheap Made In Venezuela goods already available in Trinidad itself. All this was a revelation to me, having never considered Venezuela to be anything like cheap, and certainly having no idea they exported anything.
Unbelievably I am still discovering new parts of the Avila National Park after nearly three years - it is a huge park, and if anything I have
neglected it because of its very convenience. I drove up into what is probably its most developed part, known as Los Venados, hidden behind a forested ridge, and was surprised to discover a beautifully-maintained area of gardens, trails and even a little street of lovely old colonial houses, hidden deep in the cool jungle. I ambled around some of the trails through the cloud forest, past small pretty waterfalls and open areas covered in wild bizzy-lizzies, and if I got lost I was hardly concerned. As I was most of the way up the mountain, (albeit not at its highest part), I decided to continue driving up and over to the Caribbean, which I had still never actually done.
|Avila National Park, Caracas, Venezuela (yet again)
The road was paved to the pass at the top, but the descent to sea level was over twice as far as I had ascended from the Caracas valley, and the downhill section was on some of the worst roads I had ever driven, at times even putting to shame a certain dirt track in Mérida - at times I had no choice but slither through the mud using existing tracks like a cross-country ski run, even in
low-ratio four-wheel drive. The route took me down through the scattered and isolated agricultural village of Galipán, deep within the National Park itself, and luckily there were enough people around to check whether I was still on the right route from time to time, because there were certainly some sections where it would have been literally impossible to back-track. Further down, below cloud level, there were splendid views along the coast to the developed beaches of Caraballeda and Macuto, the docks of La Guaira, and the airport at Maiquetía, as well as over the deep blue expanse of the Caribbean itself. The poor old car had its best work out since the Gran Sabana, and will probably need yet another new set of shock absorbers.
On another day I drove up probably the most historic part of the Avila, the Camino de los Españoles, the original road over to the coast. After the
initial steep paved section through a straggling Caracas barrio, the road became a mainly good dirt track, with occasional (very occasional) short (very short) sections of original Spanish cobbles (even these few remnants were falling into bad disrepair, and there has obviously been little attempt to conserve them in any way). The road led over a low pass in the Avila range, although according to the Guardia Nacional it was "not recommended" to try following the road all the way down to the coast. Up near the top, I walked up to the old fortín, and to the Castillo Negro on a hill-top with views down to the Caribbean (I never did find the Castillo Blanco, although it would presumably have been as much of a ruin as those I did find).
Still with that feeling at the back of our minds that we may not be in Venezuela too much longer, (although we still have no definitive decision on when, or even whether, we will be moving to Colombia), I have continued exploring, and at times revisiting if only for the sake of a photo and an incipient nostalgia, the immediate area. It speaks volumes about the area that I can still discover some beautiful places within an easy day-trip of Caracas after so much times, especially given that I think I have been reasonably assiduous in my explorations right from the word go.
Recently I revisited Pico Codazzi near Colonia Tovar, and even arriving by
9am on an ostensibly clear day, (that being the earliest time I would ever be able to get there given that I have to wait for Maritza to take over Elena and then wade through the rush hour traffic), the cloud and mist had already rolled in to foil my photos, although I possibly had a better overall view than on my last visit. In my relief at having reached the summit, it took me a while to realise that the whole area was quite literally covered in wasps. I had been blundering about without noticing that I was stirring up (thankfully just a few of) the wasps which appeared to be in some sort of dormant period - there were huge unruly piles of them on the ground, large clumps on most of the bushes and bamboo plants, and the metal shack which presumably used to be a weather station or something similar was covered in a coating of bodies several centimetres thick - it was difficult to say, but I would guess there may have been up to a million of them. And I had just been merrily brushing through the vegetation, completely oblivious to them - if they had decided to swarm I imagine I may well have been dead by now. I froze until the activity died down a little before gingerly making my way back down, noticing with a sickening feeling that there were many more clumps on the vegetation along the path I had come up, and it was some time before my sense of panic and paranoia calmed down.
|Distrito Federal, Venezuela (Pico Codazzi, Puerto Maya)
To make up, I shortly chanced to see a sloth crossing the road (in their inimitable fashion,
ie slowly and seemingly painfully), and as it was the main Colonia Tovar to La Victoria road, I decided to help him (her?) along, rather than just stand guard over his passage. I was surprised how soft its coarse-looking fur was, and how little it weighed - it must have been fur, bone and very little else. Ever since my first sight of a sloth in Costa Rica several years ago, I had fallen in love with the animals, which seem to have such a sad, almost apologetic, smile permanently fixed on their faces, and it surely must be a quirk of evolution that they still exist at all given their apparent almost complete lack of defences. Strangely, I must confess to getting a lump in my throat whenever I see them.
I left him clambering laboriously up the other bank, and decided that while I was in the right general area I would try to locate another coastal village about which I had recently read. This involved driving down to Puerto Cruz de Limon, which I remembered as having been on good road some two years earlier, but which had degenerated to a single car width due to encroaching vegetation, and at times was scarcely passable due to several major landslides. However, the weather was clear and the scenery lovely so I pressed on up the rough dirt track over the cliffs and headlands towards Puerto Maya.
Having stopped about midway between the two towns to take yet another picture, I then managed to do something I used to do with great regularity
but which I had not done for six or seven years, namely lock myself out of the car. As there was no traffic and little likelihood of any, and with the
midday sun beating down on me, I decided that there was nothing for it but to break into the car forcibly. Not well practiced in such manoeuvres, I was
a little stymied when I found I could not break the smallest window with the available stones, but eventually the rubber seal worked loose and I was finally able to gain entry, with only minor subsequent repairs needed. Nothing daunted, I carried on to Puerto Maya, and found my efforts justified by the views of a beautiful little cove, almost fjord-like, nestling deep in the impressive mountain scenery, and at the end of the road a lovely beach and a typical sleepy Caribbean town.
But the month's big trip - and I still seem to be averaging a trip a month these days, even with Elena - was one of our more expensive ones, though none the less wonderful for that. Julie attended a conference in Buenos Aires, and Elena and I flew on at the end of the week. I had hopes that Elena would sleep all the way through, given that it was an overnight flight, but I really should have known better - from the time we arrived at the airport (10pm) she was bouncing up and down, full of the joys of spring. At 1am she ate more of my meal than I could manage at that ungodly hour, and it was 2.30am before she finally admitted defeat and slept. At 5am Caracas time they were coming round with breakfast, so all in all it was not one of my better nights. But we made it, and Julie was waiting at Buenos Aires airport to relieve me.
A few stragglers remained from the conference, so we joined them for a laid-on tour of the city, which seemed like a good way to orientate
ourselves, and (more importantly) did not require much effort or energy on my part. We were ferried around in a mini-bus and deposited at strategic points in the city, such as the Plaza de Mayo (with its Casa Rosada presidential building from whose balcony Evita made her famous speech, and its voracious mosquitoes hidden in the grass), and the interesting mausoleum city in the heart of fashionable Recoleta (where, guess who, Evita lies buried). By way of a change we took a little local train from a northern suburb, along the massive Rio de la Plata estuary, passing the mansions of Buenos Aires' great and good, stopping off at a modern shopping centre en route to eat, ogle at the prices, and to try to keep Elena amused.
The tour was also a good introduction to some of Buenos Aires' and Argentina's interesting history - how the Spanish colonists decimated the
local Indian population, and later how all the recently-freed blacks were wiped out by a plague (which, together, account for the noticeably European appearance of most Argentinians); how Perón stole the hearts of the people despite his rather unsavoury habits, and how his concubine-made-wife Evita was raised almost to goddess status, again against all odds and despite her humble origins and rather wacky outlook on life; how the repressive regime of the '70's (just one of many in the country's turbulent political history) managed to "disappear" 30,000 political enemies, including many who probably were not enemies at all; and how the recent free-market policies have transformed the country into a shining example of South American economic success.
During the next couple of days we returned to some of our favourite places, and explored new one such as the gaudy, multi-coloured shanty houses of La Boca (slightly touristy these days, but still quite clearly a working class district), and the antique and bric-a-brac stalls which take over the arty area of San Telmo on a weekend, and where we also watched some tango dancing (the tango is something of a Buenos Aires obsession, and we ran into dancers all over the city - there is even a tango channel on the TV). We actually spent an awful lot of time just sitting in bars and cafes, partly because of the prodigious heat and humidity,
partly because there were so many of them, and partly just because that is what one does in Buenos Aires. The whole atmosphere of the city was very relaxed, people were friendly and chatty, the buildings in the centre of town were grand and almost Parisian, and we merely found ourselves going with the flow, so to speak. The women in particular lived up to their reputation for elegant dressing, and were at least the equal of the women of Caracas in looks, but with that touch of class which is usually lacking in Caracas.
It is also a city that works - moreover, a South American city that works. The streets are clean and well-signposted; the buses are frequent and
cheap; the traffic light are centrally timed, and people scrupulous about obeying them; the stores are smart and well-stocked (if expensive); there are many parks, both large and small, with unbroken swings and slides, and (unheard-of luxury) soft sand on which to fall. Dollars are accepted equally with the dollar-pegged peso, which made life somewhat simpler. The old dock area has been completely regenerated, and is now lined with restaurants and cafes, and full of promenading families and canoodling couples. The whole city felt (and apparently is) very safe, and walking out at night is a completely normal thing to do, especially give that the Argentinians do not even think of going out to eat until 10pm - we had some trouble finding restaurants open at what we would consider a reasonable time to eat. All in all, we found it an enchanting city, and even Elena enjoyed it and all the attention she received, especially from the waiters in the cafes.
After a few days of this decadence, we were in the air again, headed for
Puerto Iguazú in the north-eastern corner of Argentina where it meets both Brasil and Paraguay. Here we had also splashed out on an expensive hotel, whose main attraction was its proximity to the spectacular Cataratas de Iguazú, rather than slumming it with the riff-raff in the town half-an-hour's drive away. Located at about the southern hemisphere equivalent of Miami (which gives some idea of the size of Argentina, given that its southern tip is only about 10° from the Antarctic Circle), Iguazú's climate is semi-tropical, which in practice meant even sweatier than Buenos Aires.
|Cataratas de Iguazú, Argentina
We were treated to an aerial view of the falls on the flight, but it
took our first walk through the lush jungle to get some idea of the scale of it, and even then it is difficult to put into words: above the falls, the Rio Iguazú widens to some 4km, dotted with wooded islands, and where the volcanic plateau ends abruptly, the water plunges over the 60m precipice in 275 (count them!) separate falls, ranging from wide curtains of white water to delicate leaping cascades. The largest single fall, known as Garganta del Diablo, forms a narrow V-shape in the centre of the river, and its spray obscures most of it. Higher and wider than Niagara in total, most of the falls are broken by ledges or rocks, which only adds to rather than detracts from their beauty. Mini-rainbows form in the spray, and swifts dart in and out of the cascades.
On the Argentinian side of the river, where we stayed, easy trails and bridges allow close encounters with some of the smaller falls, and a chance
to see some of the huge variety of butterflies which still live in the forest. Apparently there used to be over 500 species, as well as many species of tropical birds, before tourist helicopter rides started to become popular, and although these are now banned by the environmentally-conscious Argentinians, they still run almost constantly across the river in Brasil. Certainly, although clouds of butterflies were in evidence, the birds had clearly upped and gone, and a bird-watching hide we visited was totally deserted. We saw monkeys on the trails too, apparently oblivious to the crowds (this was the main Argentinian holiday season), and, on another trail which took us deep into the jungle away from the falls, a solitary agouti. All this walking, incidentally, was achieved while toting Elena around, despite the heat, as she refused to walk anywhere as soon as we arrived in the country.
One morning we joined a half-day tour to the Brazilian side of the river, near the much bigger and rougher town of Foz do Iguaçu, and, as we had read,
the overall views of the falls (most of which are actually in Argentina) were indeed superb. There was also a trail past some overly tame raccoon-like animals, which culminated in a catwalk out into the river where we could feel what felt like the full force of the spray from the Garganta del Diablo straight in our faces. We were all of us completely drenched, but the experience was exhilarating, and Elena could not believe that we were allowing her to get so wet. She started to become very confused when, back on Argentinian soil, we followed that with another walk through a torrential tropical downpour.
Meanwhile we were making the best of the wonderful buffet in the hotel for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and making good use of the pool (and of the course the swings and slides), and even at times relaxing. But all too soon our time there can to an end, and after a last night in Buenos Aires, I waved goodbye to Julie and Elena (VIASA, the Venezuelan airline with whom we had all arrived, had gone bust in the meantime, but luckily they managed to get home via Lima).
The next leg of my trip started with another flight, this time across the endless and featureless pampa of Central Argentina to the northern reaches of the equally vast region known as Patagonia. My stress-free (Elena-free) flight disgorged me at San Carlos de Bariloche, in the foothills of the Andes, where I picked up a car and headed straight out along the coast of Lago Nahuel Huapi, the largest of the hundreds of lakes in the so-called Argentinian Lake District (there is a Chilean Lake District just over the border).
|Lake District, Argentina (Bariloche, Nahuel Huapi, Volcán Lanin, Siete Lagos, Los Alerces, Monte Tronador)
The road (in beautiful condition, perfectly signposted - was I really
still in South America?) then followed the lovely blue Rio Limay through the Valle Encantado where the rather barren-looking sage-and-brown hills of the region were adorned with some fantastically-sculpted volcanic rock outcrops and pinnacles, many with evocative (if unimaginative) names like the Finger of God, the Sentinel and the Castle (puh-lease!). The vegetation here was restricted to coarse grass and low shrubs, the only trees being by the river itself, particularly the rows of tall, thin, very European-looking poplars around the small farms which dotted the valley. The cloudless cobalt blue sky, and the sapphire blue river, which soon blossomed into a positively electric blue lake, all provided quite a striking contrast to the drabness of the surrounding hills.
If Iguazu was the southern hemisphere latitude of Miami, and Buenos Aires the equivalent of, say, Washington DC, the Argentinian Lake District would be Southern Canada or Idaho, so the climate in summer was warm, hot at times, but usually with a fresh breeze from the mountains, and with the added advantage that the sun, however hot, does not burn as viciously as in tropical Venezuela. Certainly for almost all my stay there (and also in Buenos Aires) the skies were beautifully clear and blue from dawn to dusk (and that dusk does not fall until well after 9pm giving me an unaccustomed three extra hours of daylight). In winter of course prodigious amounts of snow fall hence the various ski resorts in the area.
Eventually the road rolled into Junín de los Andes, an ordinary enough looking town, but whose sparkling rivers make it the salmon and trout
capital of Argentina (both fish were apparently introduced, but are obviously thriving). My way was blocked by a silent, placard-wielding demonstration, as the whole town seemed to be protesting the treatment of one Miguel by the local judiciary. It was interesting to see that, despite the almost pride with which our Buenos Aires guide had told us about the efficiency with which the Spaniards had removed the local native population all those years ago, the majority of the town (or at least those who were concerned about Miguel's treatment) seemed to me to be almost full-blooded Mapuche Indians. I was to see many more people of more or less obvious native stock throughout the towns of the area, and would often see a group of Indians (families or gangs of youths) riding out in the back-country on what seemed to my untutored eye to be beautifully-groomed pedigree Arabian horses, not the mangy old ponies the native population seem to use throughout the rest of South America - another example of Argentinian one-upmanship.
Early the next morning, I set off towards the Chilean border, just some 60km distant, on the trail of Lanin volcano (in the eponymous National Park), of which I had caught distant glimpses on my approach the previous evening. At 3,774m, Lanin is by far the highest peak around, as well as geologically one of the youngest peaks in the Andes, and its perfect volcanic cone shape is permanently crowned with glaciers. Etched against another brilliant blue sky, it made a dramatic sight indeed as the gravel road approached almost to its ashy base, hard by the Chilean border, passing en route many of the native pehuén (araucaria or monkey puzzle)
trees. I set off on a three hour walk away from the volcano and down towards beautiful deep blue Lago Tromen. Unlike most of the scenery I had been passing through, Lago Tromen is enclosed by heavily-wooded hills on all sides, and the feeling of solitude and peace as I walked along its shoreline of volcanic pebbles with only the peeps of a hawk for company was intense. The walk back was through shady forest replete with showy orange amancay and purple mutisia flowers, and the sounds of more birds than I had heard since leaving Venezuela.
Having arrived back at Junín in good time (even the unpaved roads were in
good condition!), I decided to make another detour to equally beautiful Lago Huechulafquén where the view from another angle of Volcán Lanin across the blue lake was one not soon to forget. Again I had only a few fishermen for company here as I ate my picnic lunch on the pebbly lake shore. So it came as something of a shock when I eventually coasted in to San Martin de los Andes, just 40km from Junín. San Martin, set in a wooded valley on Lago Lacar, is a fully-fledged trendy ski and summer tourist resort - Swiss-style chalets, squeaky clean streets, prize-winning gardens, natural wood signposts, beautiful people. Everything about it suggested Switzerland, but there I was in Southern Argentina. And there also were hordes of tourists, parading up and down past the up-market stores, and making my search for a cheap hotel room quite tricky.
It being Saturday afternoon, peace and quiet seemed unlikely, so I set about some of the local tourist attractions. The small town of Quila Quina, some 20km down Lago Lacar's coast, was likewise full of the weekend beach and water-sports crowd, and I did not linger long. At the main ski resort of Cerro Chapelco I took the tourist gondola as far as it went, but not content with the views I decided to walk up further, continuing up to where the vegetation ended and the going through the dusty grey volcanic ash became distinctly messy. The views over Lago Lacar and the surrounding mountains were splendid from my precarious perch at around 1,800m. It took a while to get used to the fact that these Andes, despite their distinctive salmon-pink bald summits and craggy rocks, were so much lower than those in Venezuela: apart from the snow-capped volcanoes, very few peaks even broke the 2,000m mark, and the towns were very much lower still (San Martin, for example, lies at 640m, and Bariloche at 770m). Argentina's (and Chile's) giants are found much further north on the Chaco and altiplano around Mendoza, San Juan and Salta.
The next morning I pushed on south along the famous Seven Lakes Drive, past a string of gem-like lakes in the Andean foothills, first within Lanin
and then the adjacent Nahuel Huapi National Parks. As far as I could tell, the seven lakes referred to were Machonico, Hermoso, Falkner, Villarino, Correntoso, Espejo and Nahuel Huapi, although I passed several more, all of which were as beautiful as each other. My own favourite was maybe Lago Correntoso for the greenness of the surrounding forest and the memories of Canada it invoked for me. But this was a popular tourist route, and as Sunday morning progressed the traffic became thicker (although never to the extent of being a problem).
By the time I reaches Villa La Angostura at the northern end of huge Lago Nahuel Huapi, I was ready for a walk to escape the crowds, and guessing (correctly) that Argentinians were not great hikers I set off on a long
trail through the Peninsula de Quetrihué. The peninsula is protected as Los Arrayanes National Park, (despite its being anyway within Nahuel Huapi National Park) for the rare cinnamon-barked arrayan, or myrtle, trees it harbours. I actually only saw a few of these, but the trail led through a shady forest of huge coihué trees, affording fine views over the lake at first, and then just some very pleasant hiking further into the interior. The flora was surprisingly familiar - dandelions, yarrow, wild roses, foxgloves, columbines and dog daisies, as well as some exotics for good measure. Other than a speed-crazed mountain-biker (whom I later passed nursing a puncture - I knew the word for "tortoise", but the Spanish for "hare" eluded me, so I held my peace), I saw very few people after the first kilometre or so, and although I decided my time had run out before I reached the end of the 12km trail, I must have been quite close before turning back. After this longish walk, I decided to complete the trip with what I thought would be a quick stroll up to the view-point on the isthmus of the peninsula, not realising just how many steps were involved, but the view over the lake was certainly the most spectacular of the day.
After so much wonderful lake and mountain scenery, I had become quite blasé
by the time I came to complete the last leg around the coast of Lago Nahuel Huapi to Bariloche. The lake is nearly 100km long, and never more than 12km wide, with many arms and legs and peninsulas and islands, but even the occasional glimpse of the snowy bulk of Monte Tronador across the other side was not enough to rouse me from my torpor - I was all laked-out. Back in Bariloche, a pleasant town whose pretensions as a ski resort seemed more American than Swiss, the job in hand was finding accommodation, especially as a single person for one night only seemed to be persona non grata for many hotels and posadas. However there is always somewhere desperate enough, and after some relatively unsuccessful gift shopping I retired to my bed to plan the following days.
This involved (surprise, surprise) more beautiful lakes - Gutierrez, Mascardi,
Guillermo, Steffen - and some even more impressive mountain scenery and snow-caps, especially along the Chilean border which my south-bound road parallelled (generally speaking, the Argentinian-Chilean border links the crest of the Cordillera, so, in mid-summer at least, any snow is likely to be on or near the border). The recently-paved road whisked me down to El Bolsón in the shadow of the 2,200m rock wall of Cerro Piltriquitrón, from where I made a short detour to Lago Puelo, set in its own little National Park at the foot of the dramatic Cerro Tres Picos - three huge rock pinnacles protruding from a mantle of glaciers.
After the fruit-growing region around Epuyén and El Hoyo, it was back onto gravel track for the long detour to Los Alerces National Park, my fifth in two days! I missed the turn-off to Lago Cholila, apparently one of the prettiest lakes in the area, although once into the Park there was no shortage of still water. If Nahuel Huapi National Park is the Banff of Argentina, then Los Alerces is its Waterton Lakes - not far away, but much less well-know and more tranquil, and with just as much to offer. Alerces are actually a local variant of larch trees, many centuries old, although these are mainly found at the far end of Lago Menendez and I arrived too late for the daily boat trip there. But the coihué and cypress trees were magnificent anyway as I made my way past Lagos Rivadavia, Verde, Menenedez and Futalaufquén.
Here, as in the other Argentinian National Parks I had visited, there were ample camping facilities (both private and public) and other accommodation, marked trails, free information and leaflets, and opportunities for excursions by boat, horseback, etc - everything which a National Park should have (and none of which Venezuelan Parks have, I could not but help to reflect). Having missed the boat, so to speak, I contented myself with some more hiking: a shortish steep trail to a magnificent view-point high over Lago Verde; a longer one along the turquoise Rio Arrayan to Lago Menendez, with a tremendous view across to 2,253m Glaciar Torrecillas, and then back along the shore of Lago Verde; and finally a short stroll, complete with interpretative leaflet to some 3,000 year old indigenous petroglyphs.
I think Los Alerces had been my favourite Park on balance, but I had
packed a lot into the day and my photo-snapping finger was weary. I made a rather desultory visit to Trevelín, just to see what an Argentinian Welsh settlement looked like (there are several in Chubut province), and the answer was: actually, very much like any other Argentinian town, but with a red-brick Methodist Church Hall. I stopped for the night in the equally non-descript town of Esquel, in a hotel which was much more like the standard I was used to on my Venezuelan trips, but which had the advantage of being cheap in order to salve my conscience a little after the previous excesses of the trip.
The next morning was the first cloudy one of the entire trip (interestingly, a hitch-hiker I picked up a couple of days earlier assured me that just a few kilometres away in Chile it had been raining almost constantly for several days - which is probably why none of it had made it over the Continental Divide into Argentina), and I contented myself with returning to Bariloche by the quicker non-scenic route, followed by a more sedate tour of the more immediate area around Bariloche. Left with more time than I had anticipated, I reflected on how nice it was to be in a place with so many options, either organised tours or self-guided trips (the infrastructure and signposting is sufficiently good for this to be a viable option, and there are tourist information centres to advise you, even to book your accommodation if you want, as well as providing free maps and leaflets). Argentina seemed to me to have just the right mix of development and wilderness - the old, the fat and the lazy have every right to access to such beautiful places, provided there are still wild and isolated spots for those willing to walk the extra kilometre or rough it a little - and in that respect it follows more the Canadian example than the American, which in my opinion has made its wild places a little bit too accessible, although population factors also come into play.
Lecturing aside, I chose some of what the leaflets called "traditional
excursions" of the Bariloche area, ie those lower down my list of priorities. Driving out west along the lakeshore through he smarter end of Bariloche (more Swiss chalets and fondue restaurants here), I eventually arrived at the well-known town of Llao Llao whose nucleus seemed to be a huge hill-top hotel. However, I did find a good walk nearby through cool forest of bamboo, coihué and cypress upto a rocky lookout at 1,000m, with a predictably spectacular view, despite the overcast weather, over the western side of Lago Nahuel Huapi
Continuing round the trendy Llao Llao peninsula, I turned off soon onto the worst road I had yet encountered in Argentina. I was probably a little rash in dragging the little rented Fiat up the steep dirt road full of large potholes and deep gullies, but I actually quite enjoyed the challenge of negotiating the obstacles without bottoming-out too dramatically. By a mixture of prudence, luck and experience I managed to get a good way up to the 1,600m climbing
refuge (the last section up the spiky rock wall of 2,076m Cerro López is for serious climbing enthusiasts only), and parked up to continue by foot (I later found out that this was considered a hiking trip anyway, not a drive). But the cloud came down to meet me, and the first drops of rain quickly persuaded me to abandon the quest, especially as I knew there was no way I would be able to negotiate the road back down in bad weather. As it turned out I just managed to beat the rain down, and it occurred to me that, in safe and well-organised Argentina, this was the first time I had come even close to what one might call an "adventure".
I continued round the tourist circuit to the highly-recommended Colonia Suiza, and if I thought that Colonia Tovar in Venezuela was kitsch and naff, it certainly could not hold a candle to the Argentinian version. Suffice to say, I did not linger long, preferring to repair back to Bariloche to write postcards and set about the daily chore of picking various types of burs and other prickly things from shoes, socks and trousers.
And I was, after all, up early next morning for another wild excursion. The weather continued unconvincing, even with a sprinkling of rain as I turned down the gravel track along the western shore of Lago Mascardi. Further along I forked towards Cascadas Los Alerces, a powerful, bustling waterfall reached by a short walk from the end of the road (this was the first time I had actually felt cold, and I was finally glad I had packed a sweater). Here, as on some other narrow roads, the very sensible system is
in force whereby one can go up between certain hours of the morning and afternoon, and down between others, rather like a rush-hour one-way system. However, I was there so early, and there was so much I wanted to do down the other fork, that I confess that I deliberately flouted the rules (not that I passed anyone else). Up the other fork (now proceeding legally), the weather was desperately trying to clear, and soon indeed the clouds parted from the mountains, and Lago Mascardi, milky blue with glacial deposits, was illuminated with sun. I stopped off at pretty flower-bedecked Hotel Tronador to borrow their views, and then up a little-used trail to Cascadas Los Cesares (actually in its way more impressive than the much more well-known Cascadas Los Alerces), which falls in three or four steps, the last a huge drop which made me quite giddy from my precarious vantage point.
As I continued the weather miraculously improved all the time, and as I approached Monte Tronador I was all but amazed to see it rear its snowy head
through the clouds. At 3,554m, Monte Tronador is the highest mountain in Nahuel Huapi National Park (and, but for Volcán Lanin, the highest in the Lake District), with its three distinct peaks (the central and highest peak straddling the Chilean border of course) and the large area of glaciers connecting them. Most of these glaciers end abruptly as they tumble over huge black cliff-sides, and streams of glacial meltwater leap over the cliffs, either as wispy wind-blown spray, or in the case of the largest as a full-blooded waterfall. It was to this last, Garganta del Diablo, that I made my first walk, and when the trail ended at a big sign indicating dramatically "Warning: Avalanches. Your life could be in danger", I ignored it without a second thought (I was obviously feeling rebellious that day, unused to such concern for my safety and welfare), arriving after a scramble at an invigorating close-up view of the falls, followed by an equally invigorating scramble back down.
Still long before the tour-bus crowds would arrive, I examined the Ventisquero Negro, a large accessible area of very grubby looking dust- and gravel-coated glacier, scampering up and down some of the moraines, and generally doing all those things of which a tour guide would disapprove (I had also saved $29 by coming under my own steam): Oh, I was feeling wicked that day! This being civilised Argentina there was of course a wonderful "tea-house", serving hot chocolate and great home-made cakes, right where I wanted it.
After advice from a ranger, I then tackled a more serious walk, and although only two-and-a-half hours in total, it was by far the most taxing
hike of the holiday, mainly for its unrelenting steepness, but also for the natural obstacles of a river and several huge fallen trees, and some scary loose scree at the top. But the views, over the huge amphitheatre of cliffs with their hanging glaciers and waterfalls, and more particularly the close-up over a pale-blue, creaking side-glacier, with a back-drop of brown peaks as far as the eye could see, made all the aching muscles worthwhile. The initial descent over the scree and volcanic dust was downright dangerous, and once or twice I slid out of control, but it became easier and I knew the tea-house was waiting for me below. By this time the tour-buses were doing their stuff, which meant it was time for me to leave the Park (legally, after 4pm, as it happened) for the dusty drive back. En route, a short detour and walk up to a small ski resort afforded good views over the islands of Lago Nahuel Huapi, but it felt a little tame after all the wonders I had seen.
The next day, my last in the mountains, started cold and windy with white breakers on the lake, and it did not take long to decide to make it an easy day, hanging around town and "doing" the local provincial museum, before my flight back to Buenos Aires (and just as I was getting to grips with the curious local accent, where "y" and "ll" are pronounced like a French "j", making it sound almost Portuguese at times). In Bs As, I stayed in a hovel (that is "hovel", not "hotel") on trendy, humming, neon-flashing Avenida Lavalle wishing I had either the energy or the inclination to do something with it. Luckily for me the next day, Aerolineas Argentinas had taken over VIASA's flights to Venezuela, and the journey was long but without incident.