Sleeping giant ... hope he stays that way

There were a few seconds of pure panic.

I had just braved a disgusting restroom in the bus station in some mid-sized city about seven hours into the return trip from my week in Patagonia. The bus had pulled into a brightly lit station at around 11 p.m., just as I was dozing off, when the steward came up to the top level and blasted out some sentences in rapid-fire Spanish. I was fairly sure he said the bus was stopping for ten minutes, but asked an Argentine next to me; she held up ten fingers.

So, a quick trip to said facilities, and back to the platform area, ready to get down to sleep for, I hoped, a big chunk of the trip back to Buenos Aires.

But, the dock where my bus had been was empty.

I know I gasped out loud. There was a bus from the same company two docks over, so I ran over to it, but the destination sign said Mendoza, another city. Could I have been that stupid? What had that damn steward said, a ten-second stop? Why did I even get off the damn bus? There was a bathroom on board. My computer, my phone, my passport, half of everything stitch of clothing I have here in Argentina was on board that now-absent vehicle. Where the fuck was I, anyway?

The panic must have been pretty visible because out of the corner of my eye I saw an arm waving at me. I looked over in the fluorescent glare and recognized a guy who had been sitting a couple of rows back from me. “Don’t worry,” were his first words after I went over to him, like a castaway greeting the ship coming to save him. “The bus is coming back in ten minutes.”

Shoreline

Had that initial, white-hot fear been founded, it would have been a very crappy coda to an otherwise delightful week in Patagonia. (Slide show below.)

After a pleasant day in Bariloche (see previous post), I had rented a white VW Gol, Volkswagen’s entry-level car designed in Brazil that’s a hit in South America. This was no high-performance vehicle, more like a Ford Fiesta with slightly better styling, but it was cheap. I’d read that there were lengthy stretches of road coming up that were not paved, and some four-wheel drive, manly vehicle would have set my mind more at ease. To distract myself from the gravel surface coming up and the possible results of my miserliness, I just kept scarfing down the chocolates I’d bought in town until I was sick.

But then I reached my first destination on the Seven Lakes Drive without having to leave the comforts of asphalt. Villa la Angostura is a little up-market town next to the peninsula where I did my hike, also in the last post. I don’t know; it was pretty and all, but felt kind of like a tourist trap, although the trap has mostly been set for the wealthy Argentines who come here to ski or who have second homes. I mean, don’t get me wrong, the scenery cannot be beat. But the town itself didn’t offer much besides chocolate shops or stores featuring all the same Argentine handicrafts.

Nothing interesting here

And let me tell you, I am not impressed (by the handicrafts, that is). Every time I’m in Asia, I just go wild seeing interesting things to bring back. I just keep myself in check so my apartment doesn’t begin looking like a Chinese restaurant.

But here, there’s been no temptation to pull out my wallet for any of the cheesy, chintzy stuff like badly painted wooden figures, vaguely “native” looking I-don’t-know-whats, knives (so many it’s scary), or cups meant for mate (the national tea-like beverage, wait, or is that Pepsi or Sprite, which everyone seems to drink much more of these days?).

Well, I did get the DVD of that Argentine movie that just won the Oscar for best foreign-language film. At least I’ll have something.

So, I did that hike, fell victim to a woman selling a bunch of dulce de leche products my expanding waistline does NOT need, and crashed.

The next day me and the Gol left Lake Nahuel Huapi and paved roadway behind, hitting the gravel, jerking and shuddering alongside fantastically beautiful lakes nestled amid forest-covered mountains – Lake Correntoso, Lake Espejo, lakes Falkner and Traful. They were all azure blue and shimmering under the bright, late summer sun. They’re perfect for long treks on their surrounding mountain ridges or for setting up tents on their tranquil shores – if I were into that kind of thing.

Wish I hadn’t been so worried about my seen-better-days car just shaking into a million pieces, or kicking up some rock that would put a huge scratch on its white (well, tan at this point) surface. I did get out a couple of times to snap some pictures, although a car would inevitably pass by and I’d be lost in a thick cloud of kicked-up dust for a few minutes. It was only half-way through this stretch that I realized the car actually had AC and I didn’t have to have the windows open and hold my breath whenever some SUV would roar by, leaving me literally eating his dust. The windows stayed up after that.

Bouquet

Back on asphalt and up to San Martín de los Andes, a truly charming town that’s cute indeed, but not treacly cute like Villa la Angostura. I stayed at this B&B called La Casa de Eugenia, and if you’re even in San Martín, this is the place to be. The place has an incredibly laid-back, nice host, beautiful design and furnishings that aren’t snotty, and a breakfast to die for. Thank you, guide book.

The food in the area: excellent. Ravioli stuffed with lamb in a blueberry sauce, local trout, or medium-rare Argentine steak with, yes, some version of potatoes, usually accompanied by a nice glass of Malbec.

It was then that I headed up to Junín, the angler’s paradise I mentioned in the last posting, as well as home to the Christian sculpture garden. It was also the place of death of the Blessed Laura Vicuña, a girl who lived to the ripe old age of 13 and was beatified by the Pope John Paul II. She gave herself to God because her mother was shacking up with a farmer to make ends meet. I don’t think she can be canonized because Laura’s backers can’t produce a miracle she performed.

But the real miraculous aspect of the region is the extinct (I certainly hoped so) volcano rising like a earth god above everything around it. It’s called Lanín, rises 3,776 meters, and elicited another audible gasp from me when I first spotted its snow-capped peak while jerking and shaking down yet another unpaved road. I was headed down the northern shore of Lake Huechulafquen after having stopped at the national park ranger station. I asked about hikes, but “easy, shortish ones.” The woman told me about one that, in the end, appears to have been designed for small children. I guess I came across like even more of a wimp than I thought.

Lakeside idyll

As I walked around this forest path reading signs featuring the adventures of a comic forest elf and his “living room in the forest,” powerful Lanín kept watch behind me, resting after an eruption many moons ago which spewed volcanic rock all over the place. You can climb the peak, but it takes three days and you need to be outfitted with things like ice-axes and crampons, and prove to the rangers that you are mentally and physically prepared for the experience. I didn’t think I’d pass that particular test. I was content to appreciate it from afar, as well as the astoundingly beautiful lake not far away, placid and glistening under a brilliant blue sky.

Time was running short, so back in the car for a bumpy ride back to San Martín to get my stuff and make the three-hour trip back to Bariloche to catch the bus that afternoon. I had to put pedal to metal even around some hair-raising turns since I was running late. But by God, I didn’t want to miss that bus. Can you imagine missing your bus out in the middle of Patagonia?

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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.