Services in Bariloche
Find your playful side in beautiful mountains of Bariloche
When our guide Juan’s green eyes sparkled and a sly smile came across his face, I knew what was coming. Moments later he flipped our pink raft, tossing us into the Rio Manso.
The rafting season was edging toward its end in Bariloche in the Argentine state of Patagonia, and the rivers had tamed to Disney World-caliber rapids. Juan had sensed the playfulness of our group of five young women from the moment we began begging to go for a swim. So off we went into the glacier-cold April water.
Because it was my first rafting experience, I struggled at first. After realizing I had a life vest, I surrendered, floating to the surface before Juan grabbed my jacket and pulled me back in. It was my first full day in this gorgeous lake district two hours by plane from Buenos Aires, but I had just figured out the trick to enjoying it: Don’t fight the current.
Once a retreat of the super-wealthy, San Carlos de Bariloche has become the adventure playground for vacationing South Americans. We joined the flow of the crowds visiting during Easter week, called Semana Santa. The area was pulsing with tourists taking in the spectacular Andean scenery and exploring the area’s new extreme sports offerings. Despite the traffic, Bariloche’s natural beauty remains so unspoiled that it’s easy to forget it’s no longer a secret.
The surroundings — Swiss chalets, lush mountains and sparkling lakes — feel like a vaster version of an Alpine getaway. If Buenos Aires is the Paris of South America, Bariloche is its Interlaken.
The similarities evolve from the peculiarities of history. Germans and Austrians settled in the city during the 19th century. After World War II, many Nazis fled to the region, including former SS officer Erich Priebke. He was extradited to Italy only in 1996, and he is now serving a life term. The rest of the Nazis settled comfortably in the region, calling themselves Swiss and furthering the culture of skiing, chocolate and fondue that still lingers. The result is a curious mix of Argentine and European culture that locals enjoy as much as visitors.
That idiosyncrasy was on full display from the moment we touched down in Bariloche. White and brown beams, along with a pointed roof, adorn the chalet-style airport. We arrived at our wooden cabin to find plaid flannel sheets and Shaker-style furniture. Low ceilings and a spiral staircase added to the cozy, cottage feel.
We immediately set about perusing hostel brochures to navigate us through a week full of possibilities. By the time I finished a quick shower, the group had voted. Tomorrow we would go rafting.
The next morning we began the two-hour drive to Rio Manso. Bouncing down the bumpy mountain roads, we got our first daylight views of the region. The reward for every sharp turn was another stunning Andean vista. Lush islands sat amid the numerous sparkling lakes. Cows, roosters, horses and even geese filled farms, anchored by cottages with flowering window boxes.
But there were plenty of reminders that we were definitely in Argentina. Along the way Juan turned around and taught us how to drink yerba mate, a strong herbal tea that he brewed to taste like tobacco water. He passed the carved bowl around the bus, threatening to expel anyone who touched the metal straw with a hand.
When we arrived, we warmed up with café con leche and pastries before slipping on wet suits and racing off on our rafts. The tame waters gave us a chance to explore purplish ferns and moss gathering on the stones. Sunlight broke through the coihue and ancient alerce trees, dappling the cool water with occasional bursts of light.
At the end of our three-hour excursion we landed in Chile, where the differences were immediately obvious. The green landscape gave way to warmer desert plains, where we dried off before heading back for a traditional Argentine meal of parilla — grilled meats.
The next day brought more challenges and yet another way to explore Bariloche. We had decided to test out canopying, which involved flying through the treetops hanging from harnesses. This time, none of us knew what to expect.
Our 30-minute drive took us 2,000 meters uphill. South American autumn was on full display: Rosa morado bushes showed off their red berries, dark green pine forests were accented with golden-hued groves, and trees were decorated with bursts of green, yellow and red. We glimpsed windmills and cottages topped with rooster weather vanes.
Next door to our starting point, horses milled around Colonia Suiza, a Swiss farming village stocked with orchards whose fruit is canned and sold. A pit started to form in my stomach as guides demonstrated canopying instructions in Spanish and English to our group made up of traveling Argentines and Americans.
It was too late to turn back. Besides, the inclusion of a handful of kids reassured me that canopying couldn’t possibly be too treacherous.
The first short glide quelled any doubt. This was actually fun. Pretty soon, I was whizzing through the ancient Argentine trees catching glimpses of the neighboring peaks. When it was over, I wanted to repeat the ride in the other direction, but my rumbling stomach meant it was time for a visit to the actual town of Bariloche.
Here, high tourist season was on full display. A casino anchors the main street, where numerous shops hawking trinkets and chocolate gave the town a weekend ski-retreat feel. After a sustaining lunch of ravioli our group splintered, with half heading back to Colonia Suiza for an afternoon of horseback riding. Another friend and I decided to check out the hiking, first taking a theme-parklike gondola to the top of Cerro Otto, about 4,600 feet above sea level.
At the top we reached an odd circular lodge imported from Austria by a nonprofit foundation. The tourist complex aimed to mimic Alpine ski canteens. On one side visitors browsed a museum with copies of Michelangelo statues. Hungry hikers ascended the stairs to a revolving restaurant that revealed the vast landscape. Two fluffy St. Bernards with barrels around their necks sat patiently waiting for the first snowfalls.
The shaded hike was pleasant without being strenuous. But unlike well-trodden U.S. hikers’ paths, this wild forest’s trail was trickier. Trunks grew sideways out of the bases, the trees covered with spiraled, wiry, hairlike moss, and some steep rocky inclines made us second-guess our direction. Soon the setting sun meant a return to our warm cabin.
That night we ventured into the city’s nightlife, which seamlessly wove European accents into Argentine customs. Our 11 p.m. dinner — not unusual in Argentina — kicked off with two types of calamari and a basket of mini biscuits and dark bread.
Starving, we made our way through plates of venison empanadas, grilled trout, wild boar and lamb. We washed down the mountain fare with lovely local malbec. We finished off with the waiter’s favorite dessert, a tiramisu and a Bavarian-style apple purée.
Not ready to turn in, we wandered into a chic beer bar with half a dozen brews stored in long silver tubes behind the bar. Our conversation inevitably turned to which of the Argentine guides, three of them named Juan, made the biggest impression.
The men of Bariloche carried themselves with a swagger that came from long days of helping tourists explore the outdoors rather than work at a computer. It’s an aura familiar to anyone who has visited a Colorado ski resort.
After the long night, our final day came to a late start, but we were determined to squeeze dry the remaining hours in Bariloche before our evening flight back to the city.
A friend and I settled on another steep hike, later joining our friends, who came back from a kayak ride caked with mud reported to have healing qualities.
As we soaked in our last Bariloche moments at the Regatta club, we mulled the dream of snapping up a local cottage so that we could return. With a full slate of winter sports just weeks away and dozens of activities left to explore, we knew that this wouldn’t be the last time we would get to compare Juans.
By Renuka Rayasam
SPECIAL TO THE AMERICAN-STATESMAN