Lovin' Los Lagos

Last Saturday I hopped on a packed bus to a place I hadn't been in a while: the airport. It was there that I was reunited with my old friend Isaiah to kick off a between jobs funeployment adventure in Chilean and Argentinian Patagonia. We spent the afternoon strolling the town and doing what friends do when they reunite: making fun of each other, sharing stories, and catching up on life. 

We settled in on the dock on the edge of town, taking in views of the town and the monstrous body of Lake Llanquihue. Puerto Varas is the main tourist city that adorns the lake’s dock, a traveler’s adventure haven with a variety of exciting tours and activities. The town seemed uninteresting at first, but we happened to stumble upon an outdoor art gallery, food truck alley, and local festival to keep us occupied. 

Sunday we woke up early for a day trip to Volcano Osorno, which on clear days dominates the view from town and out on the lake. On the way our tour guide filled us in on many of the sights with historical significance in the area. The surface of the volcano was shrouded in constantly moving clouds and mist portraying a sharp contrast between the pitch black volcanic rocks and bright white snow. As we approached we never got a clear view of the cylindrical peak, but behind us the valley of Vincente Rosales National Park displayed the fertile soil that past volcanic eruptions have merited. 

At the refugio we had an option to take a ski lift up to the first layer of snow, but the views were obscured by the some clouds and strong winds coming through, so instead we opted to hike up the side of the mountain, passing through a land inhospitable to any vegetation. Huge rocks, volcanic sand, and deep red soil marked the volcano, which has always exploded from the craters around the outer edges and never from the top most caldera.

20 minutes into the walk we turned a corner and were blasted with a gust of wind straight into our faces. Staggering under their force, we tried to keep moving forward, but soon enough our guide told us we had to turn back for safety’s sake. It was all fine with us, as the only view we had now was off white clouds engulfing our surrounding and sheets of rain pelting us in the face. 

That afternoon we were united with Felipe, our guide for an afternoon fishing trip. Talkative and eager to rekindle his English after spending over a decade guiding trips in the USA, he chatted with us about an ever-growing number of celebrity acquaintances. We launched from a bank just 20 minutes from Puerto Varas; whereas the accessible bank of the river was lined with pedestrian fisherman near town, the river current soon carried us far away from being in sight of any other humans. In fact, we wouldn’t see more than one boat for the next six hours. 

Felipe hooked on some lures and then gave us basic instructions in casting…we were off! Isaiah handled the tricky prospect of fly fishing amazingly well, swinging the line back and forth over his head like a whip before letting the bait slowly settle into the water.

The river was absolutely beautiful, as we passed through a never-ending forest; some sections flowed fast, while other had glassy surfaces that let us just float along at a lazy pace. Fishing is a practice in patience: cast the line, let it catch, reel it in, repeat. Usually that process gets interrupted by the excitement of baiting a fish, but they didn’t seem very hungry. Felipe told us to just keep casting and focus on the technique instead of the results; we certainly had no problem having a great time out on the boat. 

The afternoon wore on, and although the sun finally emerged, not much else changed. We kept casting lines to no avail, enjoying the peace and quiet of the river. Despite the lack of results nothing could flag Felipe’s spirit, as he kept us entertained with stories of celebrity clients while smoking a steady stream of cigarettes and laughing at my poor casting skills. At the end of the day we found that catch and release fishing isn’t about bagging a massive trout - although that would have made things more exciting - but rather about enjoying nature’s impressive scenery and letting your mind drift away for a few hours. To quote Felipe: “any day spent fishing is better than a day in the office."

Monday morning instead of walking through the concrete jungle of Manhattan, Isaiah hauled on a backpack and he, Stefje, and I set off for a camping trip. At the bus stop to our destination of Cochamo, we met Rich and Laura, a couple of travelers with the exact same plan. The five gringos took a local bus and we rode for two and a half hours to a tiny town set on the banks of the Reolancavi Estuary, an inland fjord of the Pacific Ocean. The day before Stefje had checked the weather and warned us that we might be facing some rain during the hike, but the was just an impenetrable cloud cover and I was optimistic as we started the 13KM hike through the rainforest. Oh how foolish I was! What followed was a rough yet apt introduction to Patagonian trekking: the single strongest and most unrelenting rain storm I’ve ever encountered while hiking. The branches of the thick forest vegetation provided coverage at first, but soon enough all five of us were soaked to the core and shivering cold. 

The forest itself was a wondrous sight, overrun by moss that quickly recaptures fallen logs and occupied by a dizzying number of trees in every direction. We were deep into area so far only claimed by mother nature. 

We crossed three steams, trying to keep our shoes dry, before finally coming to a massive river crossing and realizing staying dry was a lost cause. From there the trail twisted an turned, hugging the bank of the river to ensure we were never tougher from its serenading sounds. In hindsight, “trail” actually seems much too complimentary a work for the path we followed, as the main route was so bogged down in mud that at times it deteriorated into a swamp and at other times the rain caused certain sections to become a river. Thankfully previous hikers had cleared alternative paths, and a series of intertwined side trails wove like a family of snakes through the underbrush. The only trick was choosing the right one. 

At times the side paths would rise above the main one, the route eroded by years of rainfall to form vertical walls as high as ten feet above. The entire time we could grab glimpses of the pure white foam of the roaring river, its currents crashing down on rocks below to form formidable rapids. A four to six hour planned hike ended up taking much longer due to all the side trails and swamp jumping we were forced to partake in, but finally the interminable journey yielded some semblance of a reward, as pulled into a clearing and craned our heads upwards to get our first taste of the scenery which makes the Cochamo valley a traveling destination. 

My awe was rekindled by a row of massive granite domes and peaks rising out of the forest, their faces shrouded in mist yet with waterfalls still visible cascading down the smooth sides. I was so caught up in staring that Isaiah had to remind me to turn around, where a scraggly granite wall half a kilometer high dominated my view.

Quickly, we understood how this became a world class rock climbing destination. It was still another hour of walking in soaked shoes before we reached the next signs of civilization. Leading the way to one of the valley’s secluded campsites was a river-crossing cable car, which of course Isaiah had to use to indulge his inner child, traveling out to the middle of the river to take in views of the rain-flooded waters. 

Just beyond there was La Junta, our scheduled destination for the night. We had no idea what to expect upon arrival. Would there be dry campsites? Other people? Thankfully, it was the surprise of a good kind for once. From thirty yards away we could see a roofed building with smoke billowing out, signaling the end of our soaking hike. A few kindred souls had started a fire, and all five of us immediately wrenched off our soaked gear and huddled around the warmth, infinitely grateful for a dry place to rest. 

Our relief was palpable. You could see it in our eyes, hear it in our voices, as we exchanged pleasantries with the crowd and hung layers of soaked clothing above the crackling flames to dry. The compatriots at La Junta were a mix of hikers passing through on multi-day treks and hard core climbers making the spot the base camp for anywhere from a week to a month. How did the survive like that, we wondered? Canned foods and lots of ramen, they answered. 

The rain continued on for hours, falling without reproach and forming puddles around the cozy wooden cabin. Inside, we ate and drank and ate, infinitely grateful we weren’t preparing cold food while trapped inside a rain-soaked tent. At 8pm, when the sun was just beginning to set, the briefest pauses in precipitation halted the pattering of rain on the roof and Isaiah ventured outside to scope the scene. 

“Morgante!” he called, “you gotta come see this.” I stepped outside and couldn’t believe my eyes. The clouds and mist had receded just high enough to expose a 300 degree panorama of the valley’s climbing walls. Everywhere except the opening we had entered from, glistening granite domes peaked their scraggly domes over the try line, their tops reflecting off a fresh layer of snow. Slack-jawed, we stared with naivety at the beautiful sight, failing to anticipate the implications for the others. 

When the first rock climber came out, his disgust was evident. By the time the rest of the crew saw the damage to their pristine lines, a feeling of frustration seeped through the crisp mountain air. For them, snow spelled disaster. It would be at least four days before it melted and dried the routes enough to resume climbing, and instantly there was talk of packing up shop and scoping other locations. 

It was a cold night, but my exhaustion from the day’s trek yielded a deep slumber on the cold wooden boards of the refugio. Before we knew it, we had to turn around and head back towards Cochamo, allotting plenty of time for the return trip as the multitude of rain was bound to make the path even muddier, the creeks even stronger. Of course rain dominated again as we trudged step by step out of the mucky camp, the surrounding mountain shrouded in low layers of clouds that gave them a resplendent shimmering haze. Through the mist we caught one last glimpse of the snow-covered peaks and pine trees, then bid the scene farewell and ducked back into the rainforest. 

Compared to the horrendous day before, the way back was nothing. Under the constant cover of branches we could only hear the light rain instead of feeling it, a welcome respite from being perpetually wet. The hike was tiring yet straightforward, as we already conceded everything was going to get muddy and were much more direct, stepping through puddles and swamps as long as it meant we were taking the quickest path back to a dry bed. Overnight some of the water had evaporated but other parts had sunken into the ground to form hazardous sinkholes; multiple times I found myself ankle deep in black goo. The rest of the water had flowed into the river, making it roar with force down cascading sets of rapids. 

We worked our way back to Cochamo for an afternoon meal of piping hot seafood soup and were all set to catch the 5pm bus back to Puerto Varas. If only traveling in these tiny towns was that simple. 5 o’clock came and went, and then 5:30 and 6, all with no sign of the bus. When Stefje and I went to the police station to ask what the deal was, they inexplicably told us it probably wouldn’t be coming. Why? No sabemos. We don’t know. Hmmmm. 

So far in an hour of waiting on the “main road” we had only seen half a dozen cars pass through, so I was skeptical about hitching a ride and downright furious that the bus simply wasn’t coming. We ran back and forth around town, pleading with anyone who would listen to us for information about how we could get to the next town. Was there another bus coming? Yup, tomorrow. How much would a taxi cost? Oh, only $80 US dollars. Our best option was to hitchhike, but it would be tough to catch someone at the time of day. 

Right after the tourist office closed for the day and gave up on my exasperated pleading, we managed to flag down a pickup truck loaded up in the back with old tires. 

“I’ve only got room for 2” the driver said, indicating the back seat conveniently occupied by another tire and a bag of deer meat. Through some Spanish groveling and Chilean hospitality, we found a way to cram into the bag seat, making our legs fall asleep but ensuring that we got a ride all the way back to Puerto Baras. 

It was imperative that we get back that night because Wednesday we were off again. A light rain again fell and the sky was a dismal overcast, making it perfect weather to sit on a bus for the overland journey across the Andes mountains to Bariloche, Argentina. We all slept, read, and enjoyed breathtaking views of a recently snow-whitened forest, gaining elevation and crossing the border at one of the many mountain passes. Argentina, here we come! 

In mid-afternoon we were already in Bariloche, Argentina’s single most popular tourist destination and the largest city of the entire lake district. Set on the banks of monstrous Lago Nahuel Huapi and ringed by snow-capped mountains, Bariloche is a nature and adventure lover’s paradise. To quote the town’s extensive marketing campaign: “There’s plenty to do in Bariloche!” Sure, I’ve been to numerous tourist towns in my travels, but this one take the top spot for its wide range of activities and significantly developed infrastructure. 

Our first stop in town was at the well-staffed tourism office, where a bilingual guide answered all of our questions with aplomb and outfitted us with an overwhelming number of maps and brochures. Afterwards we strolled the main streets of town, a maze of chocolate shops, overpriced restaurants, and tiny tiendas to buy trinkets or souvenirs. Field trip busses brought hordes of energetic schoolchildren, every one of them to buy some of Bariloche’s famous artisanal chocolate or ice cream.

We decided our top priority was to take in the sights of the wider provincial area instead of the touristy town, so that evening we rented a car and the following morning we set off for the famous “Route of the Seven Lakes.” Not to be outdone by Chile’s lakes and volcanoes, Argentina’s features breathtakingly wide bodies of water and complex ecosystems, all surrounded by pristine mountain scenery. 

The weather was again primarily grey and rain was threatening, but the low layer of clouds offered a mystical beauty that made the blue waters of the lakes really stand out. First we made our way West out of town, driving along the South bank of the city’s main lake towards Llao Llao National Park, where the town’s development gives way to forested land and serene lakeside views.

Afterward we backtracked East and then started progressing North through a protected area with significantly fewer inhabitants and a more rural feel. Wind whipped across the huge lake at a frenzied pace, picking up so much speed along the way that the surface was dotted with whitecaps. The scale was so grand it looked liked the ocean had been transported inland. When the rains finally did come, they were light and misty, falling like gentle snowflakes onto our faces whenever we stepped out into the brisk spring air. 

Throughout the afternoon we criss-crossed a land covered with lakes, each one offering different perspectives of the area. There were quiet lakeside beaches to relax at, plenty of drop-dead gorgeous waterfront campsites, and the perpetual feeling that mother earth had truly made a majestic world. 

In the late afternoon we drove along the outer edge of the last lake, where the town of San Martin de Los Andes has developed. A mellower vintage of Bariloche, the town is still overwhelmingly dependent on tourism, but lacks the urban expanse and tall buildings of its bigger sister to the South. 

We drove around and found a private apartment to rent for the night and enjoy a domesticated evening of cooking dinner and getting a restful night's sleep. The steady patter of more rain woke me up during the night and it was still falling when we rose, but just an hour into the second day of driving we got our first taste of blue sky and rejoiced. On the way back to Bariloche we took an alternative scenic route, veering East along a dirt road studded with amazing views. We would along the side of a river for the next two hours, encountering hardly any other cars yet plenty of stunning rock formations and endless forests. 

From the precipice at the top of the last hill we were greeted by one last view of the road winding through the dry valley floor, a postcard perfect moment to remember the day by. 

The view of Bariloche, dwarfed by its backdrop of surrounding mountains. 

By the middle of the afternoon we could have driven back into Bariloche, but decided instead to make the most of our time with the rental car by venturing to an awesome steakhouse outside of town. It was time for Isaiah to experience the true Argentinian dining experience: parilla

Translated it just means grill, but parilla signifies so much more to Argentinians. It's their way to eat great food, drink wine, and enjoy a long meal with friends and family. Soon enough we had a sizzling coal-fired platter in front of us with a spread of steak, pork, and sausage all complemented perfectly by a bottle of Malbec. It was like dining in heaven. 

By the end of Meat Marathon 2K15 we were ready for a food coma, and boy did we have the right place picked out to do it. The three of us checked in at The Penthouse: Bariloche's most spectacular hostel. Staged in the tenth floor of an apartment building, it includes an outdoor balcony with a breathtaking view of all the area has to offer: snowy mountains, the crystal clear lake, and a bird's eye view of the town below. 

Saturday it was time for us to get up close and personal with the famous waterways of the area by embarking on a kayak trip through Lake Gutierrez. Our amiable guide Pablo brought us straight to the lake's edge, where we strapped into some kayaks and paddled out into water so clear you could see more than 20 feet deep. 

Instantly the wind whipped straight into our faces, creating surges that pushed the kayak backwards and made us paddle just to stay in place. Nevertheless, the views were just perfect, with rocky mountains and tree-lined hillsides on either side of the beautiful water. It took our full force of paddling to keep the kayak stable when the huge gusts of wind gathered speed and rippled across the surface, but it was fun navigating through the choppy surface and breathing in that fresh and open air. 

We kept to the coast to stay sheltered from the high winds in the middle, eventually coming upon a nice picnic spot where we enjoyed a traditional afternoon snack of yerba mate (a tea infusion) and medialunas (delectable Argentinian croissants). 

It took three consecutive days of trying and getting rejected due to high winds, but on Sunday Isaiah was finally able to indulge his inner pilot and go paragliding over the town, taking in views of the ridiculous scenery. Meanwhile I waited below for my opportunity, but by the time they got down the instructor was wary of the high winds and ultimately I didn't take off. 

Officially finished with being dirty and surrounded by smelly backpackers, Isaiah ended his trip on a spectacular note by booking a room at Bariloche's legendary Llao Llao hotel. Surrounded by lush rolling green hills, intense mountain peaks that seem right outside the windows, and perched high enough to provide perfect views of the lake, this is a five star hotel just for the views. 

The amenities weren't so bad either, as we spent the afternoon exploring the grounds, venturing out into the nearby park for a walk to a stunning viewpoint, and then soaking away our adventurous week of travel in the hotel's heated pool. 

It was a memorable end to an action-packed trip, and unlike any atmosphere I've found myself in recently. After playing tour guide and treating Isaiah to my side of the world (camping, hostels, and hitchhiking), it was nice to get a taste of the high life with him. 


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