If we were to do Patagonia again, we would seriously consider going with a hard-top camper. The Sportsmobile has a soft pop-up that is not the most stable in the wind. It is strong, but is supported by two cross-bars designed for front and back movement, not sideways. And as much as we can park the van along the wind direction, it is still loud and shaky and just a wee bit dangerous with us sleeping up top and a heavy roof-top box above us. The wind here in northern Patagonia is supposed to be mild too, relative to the south, where gusts will literally rip off a car door and blow a person down a mountain.
From Pichi Traful, we drove up and around to Rio Caleufu to meet Franck and Carole. We found them but the wind found us too. Without a good wind break at their spot, we decided to push on and check out the south side of Lago Traful and said goodbye to Franck and Carole one more time. When we left, they were stockpiling drinking water by boiling river water on the campfire and sawing firewood with a handsaw. These two are something – he is 70 years old! They remind us of the 80-year old couple we met in San Miguel de Allende, who traveled in their camper from the USA to Mexico for the umpteenth time, their first time being 50 years ago, with their 4 children. And the many cyclists who ride all the way from Alaska, some of them solo, some of them solo females, like a young woman that we just met who has traveled all over the world, including from Europe to Central Asia to Southeast Asia and now in South America, all by bicycle on her own. Or Jamie from UK, who ran from Canada to Argentina doing about 30 miles almost every day. You read that right – he ran over 10000 miles in one year. This world is full of crazy people and their stories are so interesting I wish we had made it a point to take pictures of all of them.
Anyway, we struck out at the first campground who wanted 450 pesos a night – what!? By the time we settled in the next campground (160 pesos, more beautiful), it was past seven. Normally, long days like this are meant to be forgotten. But Lago Traful was so beautiful, even on a stormy night, that we quickly cooked up a paella, cracked open the wine and settled in with a big fire.
The next day was still stormy. It was freezing cold, windy, rainy but the sun would peek out once in a while that made us think, okay, maybe tomorrow will be nice. Plus, the location was stunning and sometimes the views are worth being cold. The campground was at the mouth of an arroyo running into the lake. There were fishermen who stayed at the same spot for hours so Simon took up his position too thinking maybe there were some big ones. But it was too cold and windy. Not even one bite.
The third day, surprise, morning brought bird calls, blue sky and a mirrored lake. No wind! As the sun came up, gone were the down jackets, hats and gloves! The sun really made all the difference, bringing out not only warmth but the blue and green in the water, sparkle in the snowy mountains and calls of so many birds. We stayed for another night, more than we planned and emptied out all our supplies, even the last bread flour and canned beans. By the way there is nothing like the excitement of the kids over freshly baked bread. When some argentinians came over and gave us some flour and potatoes that they couldn’t bring with them on their way to chile, we could not be more excited and grateful over baked potatoes dinner and crepes breakfast.
And Simon got fish! It was a good fishing spot afterall at the mouth of the arroyo.
The last day was even more breathtaking, literally. Throughout the day, we looked up, out, left and right and could only say “wow.” It seems like southern Patagonia like Fitz Roy and Torres del Paine take all the glory. But to see this, it was “good” in the purest sense. Simon and I thought, how can people live here? What is it like to be surrounded by absolute beauty, like, all the time? For us, the beauty of Lake Traful and Pichi Traful was refreshing and restorative to our core. We have made no secret that this trip is not a walk in the park. Many long term travelers will tell you that traveling is not a vacation. It is real life and just like real life, there are ups and downs and often how we receive and react has more to do with perspective than what is actually going on. Perspective, though, is not something that can be forced. It is a long and slow simmer in the subconscious until one day very unceremoniously a new mind landscape emerges like simply waking up from a dream.
Leaving Lago Traful, the road to Bariloche through Villa Angostura was postcard gorgeous. Actually the entire drive from San Martin south had been just delicious and left us wanting to explore all the nooks and crannies. If we stopped everywhere that was worth stopping we would never make it past the Lake District.
We did make one irresistible stop at Lago Chico Espejo, and it was indeed like a blue mirror with a green river flowing into it. A gorgeous spot where many Argentinian families were enjoying a beach day in the early Patagonia summer. We love that in Argentina even if the gate is closed and the sign says closed, as long as it is not locked, you can just open the gate and drive on through.
Bariloche is the gateway city to this part of Argentina. And a CITY it is, much more bustling than we anticipated after being in the tranquil villages up north. But a city is convenient in many ways too, allowing us to stealth shop for Christmas and Ty’s upcoming birthday, and of course, the biggest thing about any city is the food – good brewery, empanadas (we love Argentinian empanadas), lamb, and fiambre or charcuterie plate served everywhere and often house-made.
We stayed in a village outside the city called Colonia Suiza. As the name implies, many Swiss immigrants settled here in the late 19th, early 20th century. At the time, immigrants would receive 6000 acres (!) from the government per household during a time that encouraged newcomers to the country. Can you imagine having 6000 acres of prime agricultural land in northern Patagonia now? Our campground, also a hostel, seemed to be a favorite for travelers and the proprietor, Ana, has long roots here. She kindly offered us not only choripan (chorizo on bread) right away for a snack but also popsicles for the kids. A truly kind and generous gesture even though she knew we were just passing through.
We spent over three weeks in the lake region north of Bariloche and felt we barely scratched the surface. Any one lake or river here would rival where people go for their annual vacation back home. This region is lush, natural and preserved, yet with good travel infrastructure always within an hour’s drive. It was a great introduction to ease into to the wilder Patagonia further south. Time was ticking though as the Patagonia summer season is only 3-4 months long and we still had a long way to go. Our goal now to drive past Bariloche to the southern lake district anchored by the Los Alerces National Park, then backtrack to Bariloche to prepare dog paperwork for the border crossing to Chilean northern Patagonia. To break up the drive, one night was spent on the windy Lago Puelo near El Bolson, and the kids were again spoiled by their marshmallow treats.
Los Alerces National Park borders Chile with the nearest towns being Esquel in the southeast and El Bolson in the north. We had heard that fishing was good in the park albeit tough to access without a guide and boat but we decided to try our luck anyway. After paying quite a hefty 120 pesos per person entrance fee, we passed Rio Rivadavia, a good fishing river, but kept going to Rio Arrayanes. On the bridge over Rio Arrayanes flowing out of Lago Verde we spotted some large trouts. So Simon suited up and I took the kids for a hike. After working the water for a couple hours a big one did come up for Simon’s fly and in his words, churned the water like a flushing toilet, but no it did not land. He fished as far from shore as he could wade and caught one fish but if he had a boat it would have been much better as there were a few guide boats further out and the anglers were hooking a lot of fish.
The pretty hike that I took the kids on was a two mile loop around a peninsula surrounded by the spectacular and pristine Lago Verde, Rio Arrayanes, Lago Menendez and Rio Menendez. A pretty hike that was only a bit scary walking with two little ones with a lot of “caution – puma, do not walk alone” signs. We are used to mountain lions on the trails back home too so we knew it was fine to keep going. Ty learned to act big and strong and pick himself right up when he fell.
Los Alerces National Park is so named after the Alerce tree, also known as the Patagonia cypress or the Fitzroya. These trees can be thousands of years old and are very slow growing. I believe they can be older than the sequoias and redwoods in northern California. The only alerce that we saw in the park was only 300 years old and did not have impressive size due to their slow growth. The oldest trees in the park, those that are 1000-3000 years old are in the western section of the park where there are no roads and require a boat ride and a hike to visit. It would have been cool to visit but we decided to focus on Simon’s fishing this time around.
We had originally planned to stay in the park for a few days but we didn’t know that they actually enforced their no dog anywhere policy. No dog inside the park, period. While we could have hidden her somehow, we left anyway. It just wouldn’t be fun to have to watch over our shoulders all the time. We knew when we got Luna that Chile and Argentina were going to present problems with the dog and so far we had been lucky. This was the only setback we encountered yet.
We headed over to Trevelin where reviews said there was a fantastic campground. Nant y Fall was very nice and built very much like an RV park in the States with nicely built grill station, sink and power at every site and very clean bathrooms! It was very – modern. We stayed a couple nights and cooked on the parrilla day and night – tenderloin, brisket, pork ribs, chorizos, and the ever present marshmallows shared by other camp kids and adults. A small river, the Nant y Fall, ran through the property and Simon caught dozens of little trouts. After a couple days of not leaving the comfortable campground at all, we headed east to find a quiet location to spend Christmas.