A short visit to Bariloche

22 January 2015:
10:25 – Another hitchhiking day – this one much shorter than the previous epic journey. I’m headed to Bariloche which is just over 100 kilometers from El Bolson – a couple hours’ ride at most. After an hour or so of waiting near the gas station in El Bolson, a very old man picks me up and offers to take me 20 kilometers down the road toward Bariloche. I accept and hop in and listen to his stories. He says he always wanted to hitchhike when he was younger but never got the chance, so now he takes hitchhikers whenever he sees them.

11:58 – After some very slow driving he leaves me by a chorizo stand along an empty stretch of mountain highway. I’m a little nervous about this but he tells me how to walk to his house, which is about half a kilometer down the road, and says I can knock on his door if I need anything.

12:07 – The advantage to hitchhiking in the middle of nowhere is people are a lot more likely to pick you up. After less than 10 minutes of waiting next to the chorizo hut a friendly couple has pulled over and re-arranged their back seat to make room for me and my bag, and they’re happy to take me all the way to Bariloche. They’re selling perfume, and we make a couple of stops along the road where they take a little box of scents into a store and chat with the owners for a while. In between they chat with me and offer me fresh cherries. In Bariloche they show me where to find the best chocolate shops and give me big hugs goodbye.

I spend the afternoon and evening relaxing in the hostel where I’m staying. It may be my favorite hostel so far: a beautiful, airy house full of natural light. Three-quarters of the common room is a big picture window with a low, cushioned bench running the length, surrounding a small indoor garden overgrown with climbing ivy and various potted plants. It’s light and cool inside and the plants seem to have a cleansing effect on the air even with the windows closed. Hammocks hang on the little deck outside. The huge kitchen is well stocked with sharp knives and sturdy pans and a huge gas stove.

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In the evening I manage to escape downtown for drinks with a friend before returning to finish the night chatting with the hostel’s owner about music, Ireland (his home country), and Argentina. Finally at midnight I sneak into my dormitory (careful not to wake my roommates). I curl up and fall asleep, sinking into a deep, thick mattress tucked in a little nook in the wall.

23 January 2015:
11:24 – I’ve been traveling outside the strange, isolated, Imperial-system island that is the US for about four months at this point, and I’m getting pretty good at the mental conversion from Fahrenheit to Celcius (today I think it’s about 23 degrees C out – comfortable); but the miles-to-kilometers conversion is still throwing me off. I’ve gotten as far as the understanding that kilometers are shorter than miles (a kilometer is about 2/3 of a mile), so a journey of 100 kilometers should be shorter and quicker than a journey of 100 miles; but I haven’t really internalized the actual proportions. I tend to just vaguely assume every journey measured in kilometers will take less time than I expect it to. Normally this is something I can work around if my estimates are a little off, but today I am gasping for breath and stomping the pedals of my rented mountain bike and swiftly coming the realization that 26 kilometers is a much longer distance than I thought it was.

I’m being treated to fine scenery as I sweat and curse and pant up some pretty steep hills along the “circuito chico”, which is a loop in the main road near Bariloche that climbs a small hill and offers impressive views of the lakes. I make it up the top of a huge hill, sweaty and panting, and find myself looking out at a massive body of water so blue it looks almost dyed. This lake flows in curves around various steep hills rising along the perimeter, bordered further still by high rocky mountains with granite tops. At the lake level, thick deep green forests form a belt of vegetation bordering a thin band of yellow beaches along the shore. Nothing seems out of place. It’s beautiful in a carefully manicured, resort hotel kind of way. I realize that the scenery is probably naturally this beautiful, but there seems something artificial about it. It’s tame.

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I bike for some hours along the steep circuito chico, which passes for a time through forests away from the shore. I stop for chorizo and coffee at a little hut by a small, rocky beach. At the edge of the lake I dip my hair in the freezing clear water.

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17:48 – exhausted, I lock my bike to a white fence near an open plaza scattered with artisan kiosks selling ice cream, Swiss chocolate, and unusual handicrafts. I’m a little worn out to appreciate it, but I’ve come to a small village called Colonia Suiza – Swiss colony. This place has a beautiful hand-crafted look to the buildings that I was missing in El Bolson. There are lots of wooden cabins with strangely pointed roofs – probably constructed for the benefit of visiting tourists, but still fascinating. I’m so tired and hungry I buy and eat an entire half kilo of chocolate ice cream – that’s one full pound, my fellow Americans. It goes down easy and gives me a boost of energy for the gentle climb up a gravel road toward the city.

18:58 – I round the corner of a dusty, earthy track and drop my bike as I run over to a family of tourists admiring the lake. I’m going to be late to meet the van driver from my hostel who’s coming to pick me up at a meeting point we agreed on earlier in the day. I beg to use someone’s cell phone to call him, panting, and estimate another 45 minutes to get to the main road where we’ll meet.

It’s only 20 minutes to the meeting point but I wait for another hour before Santiago, my driver, shows up. “Sorry,” he says “I’m Argentine, you know. I went to drink a beer with my friend.” I’m too tired to worry about this or anything else. By now I feel confident in my understanding of exactly how long and how difficult a bike ride of 26 kilometers is.

24 January 2014:
10:48 – I lie along the cushions in the hostel’s indoor garden and start to doze. Normally I might feel guilty for taking a nap in the middle of the morning, but I give myself permission to enjoy it today after yesterday’s long bike ride.

To pass the morning I make sketches of the indoor garden and read. It’s a quiet day.

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Everyone traveling for months at a time needs these quiet days, these do-nothing days (or do-laundry-and-errands-days, which are just as important). I sometimes feel guilty for taking the time to relax (“you could be outside exploring!” says my annoying brain); but really if I try going anywhere when I’m this tired I’ll just feel grouchy. On a short trip you can push yourself and skip sleeping and catch up on rest when you return. Long journeys require a different approach.

14:10 – I slip through throngs of tourists choking Bariloche’s hot streets. Shops selling high-end outdoor gear, expensive shoes, and chocolate blast drafts of cold air out into the street. Bariloche is famous for chocolate, so I wander into a little shop that seems less touristic than some others and try some chocolate poured into sheets and gently folded on itself. Sadly, it’s nearly tasteless – mostly butter and sugar with hardly any cocoa flavor. It could be a bad batch, but I also wonder if this is chocolate adapted to the Argentine palette – sweet foods here tend to be quite sugary, so bittersweet chocolate probably wouldn’t sell so well with the tourists here, most of whom seem to come from other cities in Argentina.

16:08 – I’m strolling a little aimlessly down a side street in Bariloche, heading away from the town center when by chance I run into a French girl I met in Puerto Madryn nearly a month ago – Caroline, who was working at the hostel where I stayed for a night. I’m astounded at the unlikeliness of our meeting – a quiet, out of the way street, nearly a month after we met, in a town I wasn’t even sure I would go to in the first place. We hadn’t even exchanged emails. We talk and make plans to meet the following day.

25 January 2015
Caroline and I chat mostly in English on the way up the steep Cerro Campanario, a hill overlooking the lakes and mountains around Bariloche. Last time we met we spoke Spanish, but today I’m grateful for the time with an English speaker to rest my brain.

At the top of the hill – a steep but quick 30-minute hike – we try more chocolate (still disappointing) and I make some sketches.

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In the afternoon we visit a beach by the lake called Serena. The sun is hot here, but the breeze is cool and I’m not keen to swim. I do it anyway, because who knows when I’ll be back? But the water is freezing and cloudy with dirt and I’m back on the shore within a few minutes to warm up.

In the evening I pack and plan tomorrow’s hitchhiking route. The map says another 1400 or so kilometers to Mendoza – pretty far. I decide the best plan is to try to hitch to Neuquen, about 500 kilometers away, stay the night there, and see about covering the remaining distance to Mendoza the day after. I’m having trouble motivating myself. Hitchhiking requires more planning and care and worry than jumping on a bus and waking up at your destination. The inertia of staying in one place for a few days is sometimes hard to shake off.

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