San Carlos de Bariloche, or just Bariloche as its friends call it, is an alpine town in the Argentine Lake District. The word “alpine” is very carefully chosen in this instance, as the town itself bears almost a startling resemblance to Austrian/Swiss/German towns of that part of Europe, complete with wooden buildings, chocolate shops and St Bernard dogs. Charming though it may be, Bariloche owes its Germanic appearance, at least in part, to the large number of Nazi war criminals who fled to this corner of Patagonia to escape justice at Nuremburg after the Second World War. But I digress. The reason people come to Bariloche now, in their droves, is the stunningly beautiful scenery surrounding the town. It’s a hikers’ paradise, no doubt about it, and it’s a must-see on any trip to Argentina. Here’s how we did it.
Bariloche does have an airport, but Argentina itself lacks a budget airline so it’s not really a great option. This is especially true for foreigners, who pay double what Argentinians do for the privilege of getting on a plane. Seems unfair really. The most common way to get to Bariloche is on Argentina’s well-established bus network. It’s about 12 hours from Buenos Aires, which for Argentina isn’t actually that bad.
A note on Argentine buses – there are a few classes of seat you can take: Cama, Salon Cama, Cama Executivo, Semi-Cama… it’s confusing as hell because the standards vary from company to company. Essentially Cama, Executivo and Salon are all varying degrees of first class. You have a wider, more reclining seat and often it comes “con servicio,” meaning you get food and drink included. Semi-cama is a reclining seat, and in our experience in Argentina they don’t recline very far at all. They aren’t advised for overnight journeys if you plan on sleeping, or at least sleeping without the aid of drugs and/or alcohol.
As the vast majority of Bariloche’s attractions lie in the surrounding countryside, you are going to need to get out and about. You can rent a car, which is pricey, or you can take the bus, which is cheap. No prizes for guessing which one we chose. The buses are frequent and, for once in Latin America, fairly straightforward. The tourist maps, which are in every hostel and hotel, explain the routes clearly. You can also use your SUBE card from Buenos Aires, so don’t throw it away or you’ll have to fork out for another one.
Bariloche is a ludicrously popular destination, both with Argentinians and foreigners. Consequently, there are literally hundreds of hotels, hostels, Airbnbs, campsites and any other way you can think to spell out somewhere to rest your hike-weary head. We stayed in Hostel Achelay, where the staff were great and the unlimited breakfast of freshly baked bread and homemade jam was just what the doctor ordered (until the inevitable post-jam sugar crash). If you do stay there, try not to be given the Bob Marley room, it’s really small and the bed squeaks like holy hell. (Also, on that note, hostels really need to give it a rest with reggae. Five months on the road and every time I hear No Woman No Cry I want to strangle somebody. Change it up, seriously.)
Ok, so you’ve come to Bariloche to hike, but where do you start? Well, http://www.trekbariloche.com is a pretty much definitive resource on the topic, so I won’t repeat it here. It’s a great guide for every level of trek, from a multi-day escapade to a half hour jaunt up a hill.
From a personal perspective, we loved Lago Gutierrez, where you can swim (if you’re brave, it’s cold), kayak, and just generally lounge about, as well as do the short trek up to the viewpoint which is bloody lovely. From there you can also do the more substantial trek up to Refugio Frey if you so wish. We also loved the walk up Cerro Llao Llao (pronounced jao-jao with a soft ‘j’ like the French jardin since you asked), a short but sharp hill climb with absolutely staggering views from the top.
Food and Drink
Thanks to it’s aforementioned Swiss influence, Bariloche is very, very famous for its chocolate. It isn’t cheap and it’s mega touristy, but you at least have to check out one or two of the chocolate shops on Mitre – Papa Nui was pretty damn special. Like the rest of Argentina, you can also get excellent steak here, and for the best you must go to Alto El Fuego. Head up either the night before or at lunchtime to book in advance for your evening meal, because the place books out every night. Then simply order the sirloin (bife de chorizo) and thank me later. It’s quite simply the best steak I’ve ever had, and as an added bonus it’s absolutely massive.