An oasis in Patagonia

Argentina 2007

Four days of walking in San Carlos de Bariloche, in the Argentinean Lake District, finds me winning pool and feeling relaxed

Hotel Llao Llao, nestled in the Argentinean Lake District

Switzerland? No, don’t worry, still Argentina

Something woke me. It might have been a pit in the road, it might have been a passing car, but whatever it was, it definitely woke me.

A stoney desert surrounded us. Tiny pale shrubs poked out of the dirt. The road led straight out in front of the bus and dipped under the distant horizon. I could see an end to the desert — flat lands became hills became mountains — but that was far away.

I was tired. I shifted position in the seat and shut my eyes. Sleep.

Another jolt. I felt that disappointed feeling of wanting to sleep but knowing I wouldn’t. I was uncomfortable. I moved my feet. I opened my eyes.

We were in Switzerland. I blinked.

Massive snow-capped mountains tore into the overcast sky. Below them sat lakes, deep blue lakes so large waves rolled onto their shores.

I saw fir trees. No, I thought, this can’t be Switzerland. It looks more like Canada. British Columbia.

But it wasn’t. It was Argentina. It was the Lake District.

On the lake

A beautiful sunset over Lake Llao Llao, Bariloche

Sunset. The views from the balcony of Hostel 1004 were amazing

We spent three days in Bariloche — formally San Carlos de Bariloche — the largest town on the Argentinean lakes. We’d had a tip: go to the tallest building in town, Centro Bariloche, take the lift to the tenth, the top, floor, and look for room 1004. There’s no sign, but it’s a hostel.

We did just that. The views were stupendous. From the common room we took in the town, Lago Nahuel Huapi, and the surrounding mountains. The sunsets were astonishing.

That first night we ate at a tasty vegetarian restaurant and then made the mistake of going to a bar recommended by Lonely Planet. South Bar was full of Brits following the procedure for getting drunk and gently making small talk to see who fancied whom.

This wasn’t why we travelled to Patagonia. We left after one beer.

On the last night we fared better: we went to the restaurant all the locals went to, La Fonda del Tio. Nadia had the world’s biggest steak; I had pasta; we shared garlicky chips — more garlic than chips.

When we left, Nadia smelled like a true Frenchwoman.

On the way back to the hostel we spotted what passed for a discoteca. It was a cross between an abattoir and a pool hall. We stopped to play pool and have a beer. While watching the locals it was comforting to realise that men dance badly the world over.

I won at pool.

Passing the time

As the sun sets over Lake Llao Llao, a téléphérique carriage passes us as we head down to ground level in our carriage

Téléphérique. We saw the sun set on the way down

During the days, we walked. We walked around Lake Llao Llao (accidentally coming across Argentina’s most famous hotel, Hotel Llao Llao). We walked through woods, and along paths surrounded by bamboo. We sat and ate cheese sandwiches next to a lake where a boat sat, sunk in the water.

The solitude was fantastic.

On the last day we took a téléphérique to the top of Cerro Otto. (Neither Nadia or I know the English translation of teleferico, so we ended up using the French.) Again, the views were simply astounding.

We sat and drank coffee in the revolving restaurant at the top of Cerro Otto, watching the lakes, islands, and mountains circle in and out of view.

I think the further south we go the more relaxed and peaceful I become. In The Voyage of The Beagle, Darwin tried, unsuccessfully, to explain why he too had been so captured by Patagonia. W. H. Hudson concluded in Idle Days in Patagonia that is offered a primeval calmness; Bruce Chatwin felt it was the peace of god. I might call it the peace of nature.