Sight for Sore Eyes

It was at about kilometer seven that I began to wonder if I really was the outdoorsy type; at about nine-and-a-half, I was having serious doubts.

I mean, it was my own decision to break off from the group of tourists with whom I’d taken a boat from Villa La Angostura through the breathtaking Nahuel Huapi Lake to the end of the Quetrihué peninsula during my week in Argentina’s Patagonia. The wimps were going to do a 15-minute circuit on a raised wooden path looking at some barkless trees and head back on the boat.

Not me, I was going to trek the 13 kilometers back. I had bought some hiking shoes that drove a dagger into my sense of aesthetics, but I’d just grin and bear it. I had acquired a Gore-Tex-ish jacket that would keep out any inclement weather. But my nature-appreciation experiment was showing signs of distress. The jacket now tied across my waist had to be hitched up every three feet or so and I’d just stepped pretty much in the middle of a good-sized cow patty while looking at, I don’t know, some vines or something…poison ivy?

Yes, there are country folk and there are city folk, and I had pretty much decided at that moment I was a member of the latter club as I tried to get the gunk out of the grooves on the sole of my right shoe.

Occasional groups of young people whizzing by on mountain bikes left me wishing I’d chosen that option. I’d decided to walk the route, thinking I’d be doing some more intense communing with nature that way, and get better pics. Well, I’d gotten about as up close and personal as I wanted – shit-smeared shoes, a couple of insect bites, raging thirst.

At one point late in the game, I came across three young women sitting on the trail. They asked me about the walk and I tried to feign enthusiasm. One looked like she was smoking a joint, which seemed like good preparation for what lay ahead.

Lake placid

Lake placid

But, as appears to be the case in Patagonia, even the most citified person cannot fail to be awed by the region’s natural beauty. (Slide show below.)

And once I turned a final corner on this tiresome hike, I was hit hard in the face by a fantastic vista of deep blue lakes surrounded by pine-covered mountains and valleys. Frustration, swept away. (I still made a beeline for a kiosk selling drinks.)

I didn’t know much about Patagonia before going, besides the fact that it comprises the southern part of Argentina and Chile. It’s a huge region with varied geographic features: from arid, scrubby flatlands to forested mountains to ice fields and glaciers.

Where to go? My first travel itinerary was ambitious. I thought I’d fly to the Lake District, do some driving around, then fly down to Calafate and see the impressive glacier there, on which you can trek if you’re under 45 (time’s running out for this guy), then take another flight down to Tierra del Fuego, the most southerly tip of South America, called the End of the World. But, seeing the cost of flights here, I scaled it back considerably…even foregoing airplanes all together.

Despite my general dislike of buses, especially the thought of sitting in one for 20 hours (the time it would take me to get to the Lake District from Bs.As.) I was told that’s the way to get around in Argentina, especially for gringos on a budget, who pay three times what Argentines pay when it comes to airfare. So, I booked the highest class on the ómnibus and crossed my fingers.

A far cry from Greyhound

Well, this ain’t Greyhound. First class was on the upper deck of a double-decker monster, fitted out with seats you see in business or first class on a plane. You’re served snacks and meals, and at bed time the seats fold down to 180 degrees. The only negative was the movie selection; there were about three or so, I think. One forgettable Robin Williams vehicle and two straight-to-cable flicks heavy on the explosions and bad acting. The sound was piped over loudspeakers, and my iPod ran out of juice half-way through.

First stop, 20 hours later, San Carlos de Bariloche, the starting point for Patagonia’s lake country and the Seven Lakes Drive I was eager to do. Perched on the edge of the azure waters of Nahuel Huapi Lake, it’s got an odd Swiss Alps feel – only en español. That’s largely due to the chalet-style architecture from the 1930s that was inspired by the early German and Swiss settlers. It’s called the “Bariloche Alpine Style” and uses local stone, varnished wood and carved gable ends. It’s all over the place. Sometimes it looks too precious to be real, but I suppose it is.

There is, however, a dark side to this pretty place – Nazis. For years, the head of the German Bariloche school was a former high-ranking SS officer. Adolph Eichmann, the architect of the “Final Solution,” is said to have lived here for years before his eventual capture and trial. After World War II, Argentina in general was a haven for Nazi war criminals, some of the most notorious who enjoyed explicit protection from then-President Juan Perón, Evita’s husband.

Alpine Style

But walking down Bariloche’s main drag, I didn’t spot any swastikas or suspicious Lederhosen, but a lot of outdoors shops and ski suppliers. There’s a big ski resort not far from here, Cerro Catedral, and the place is packed in both summer (boating and fishing and hiking) and winter (skiing, of course). I hit it just after the summer throngs had left. Perfect.

The region is known for its chocolate, and chocolate emporiums line the streets – delicious and deadly. I did not resist temptation. In the afternoon, I took a gondola up the Cerro Otto, a mountain and, I think, small ski resort just east of town that offers spectacular views over the region and its glittering lake.

But you know, a picture is worth a lot of blathering, and I took a bunch of them. So I’ll just add a slide show here and conclude the Patagonian adventure in the next post. Besides, I’ve got Spanish homework to do.