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San Carlos de Bariloche – to use its full and official name – is a city of about 113,000 in Argentina’s Lakes District on the east side of the Andes mountain range. Located on the south shore of Lago Nahuel Huapi, it is the administrative center of Argentina’s oldest national park. Travellers intent on an extended visit to the country will probably pass through it at some time during their journey.
I came to it on the plush but over-priced Cruce Andino from Puerto Varas in Region X (Región de Los Lagos) on the Chilean side, which also has the same combination of stunning lakes and mountain peaks to dazzle travellers.
The map above shows the more common trajectories – and the significant travel time involved to get there from Buenos Aires or Ushuaia, especially if you take the bus to save some pesos!
So – why go to Bariloche? The main reason is not for the town itself but for what it is close to. In the winter months (July-October) it becomes South America’s skiing and snowboarding capital, thanks to the trails – groomed and off – at nearby Cerro Catedral, twenty kilometers to the west. In the summer months (December-April) those same trails and a series of mountain huts – mostly owned and maintained by the Club Andino de Bariloche – become a mecca for hikers and rock climbers. During my visit, I spent about ten days hiking those trails. Before, between, and after my hikes, I got to know at least the downtown area of Bariloche. What follows is my list of things worth checking out in the time you spend in Bariloche –
- the Centro Civico (town square)
- Avenida Mitre (the pedestrian mall)
- the chocolate shops
- Catedral Nuestra Señora del Nahuel Huapi
- the Nahuel Huapi waterfront beaches
- the artisanal beer district
The Bariloche town square faces the Lago on its north side and is flanked by a museum, an arch gateway to Avenida Mitre, municipal government and police buildings and a hotel on the other sides. Noteworthy in its absence is the religious component – the church! The square is about seventy years old. It may be that by this time the hold of institutional religion was waning in Argentina. The cathedral was built around the same time but a few hundred meters away.
During the day a number of St. Bernard Mountain Dogs are on the square, ready for what seems to be an Argentinian custom of getting your photo taken with one of them! This custom – along with architecture and skiing and the obsession with chocolate and beer – is just one of the many reminders of the Swiss and German roots of the town.
As busy as the square is during the day, it takes on a more charming look at night thanks to the lit-up buildings and the buskers entertaining the tourists and passing their hats in hopes of a donation.
At the center of the square is a statue of a horse and rider. It is the hero of standard Argentine history – General Julio Roca, Minister of War and long-serving President of the country. 150 years ago he was responsible for dealing decisively with an uprising of the indigenous people known as the Mapuche whose area this was before the Europeans arrived. (The very name Nahuel Huapi apparently means “island of the tiger” in their language.) Roca’s strategy was summarized as “extinguish, subdue or expel”. On the front of the horse, I noticed some graffiti – someone has recently scrawled the term “genocide”.
From the town square, a walk through the arch below takes you east to the pedestrian mall made up of five or six blocks of Avenida Mitre. I must have strolled up or down this totally tourist stretch of shops a half-dozen times during my stay. Many of the major sports labels have a presence here; if it isn’t their own outlet then it is in the display windows of other shops. Patagonia, North Face, Salomon…you get the idea!
I was surprised to see that the city had decided that February – prime summer tourist season – was the best time to rip up two blocks of the street and do whatever it is that needs to be done. Then again, the same thing seems to happen in my hometown – so perhaps town bureaucrats the world over are just on the same wavelength!
Of all the towns I have visited in Patagonia – from Punta Arenas on up to San Martin de Los Andes – Bariloche is one of the largest ones. It is also the one most clearly dependent on the tourism industry with shop after shop selling stuff that is clearly not meant for locals.
There is a chocolate shop like Mamuschka on every block of Avenida Mitre. They all have enticing window displays and promise choco-fueled ecstasy to those who enter. As a strict vegetarian – i.e. vegan – I never did step inside though it would have been interesting to see if they bother catering to potential customers looking for non-dairy versions of their products!
The window display below – not chocolate – did catch my eye for another reason. It looks to me like Ojibwe dream catchers – a cultural artifact from the boreal forests of the Canadian Shield. I had also seen them in store windows in Puerto Varas and in the window of the kitchen hut at Refugio Frey. These were certainly more gaudy and tacky than the ones I have seen back home. Each time I was left wondering – What is this doing here? Perhaps the inherent poetry of the artifact helps explain why it has become a part of global culture? If you know what’s going on – a comment would be appreciated!
Stepping into a rather plain looking front entrance I had a WOW moment as I walked into the Galaria del Sol on Mitre. the atrium has an almost cathedral-like look; the wood beams and glass make for a striking combination. Shops surround the dramatic middle space on two levels.
On the east end of the downtown area and one street closer to the water – is the neogothic-style Catedral Nuestra Señora del Nahuel Huapi. Built in the early 1940’s, it is the powerful statement of the Catholic Church’s presence that I missed seeing on one of the sides of the Centro Civico.
While I did see a few petitioners during my visit, I wondered about the fervour of Argentinians for the Church and for traditional religion even with one of their own as the current Pope.
As is custom, the cathedral’s front door is on the west side and the altar and apse at the east end. It is the grandest church that I have seen in Patagonia on either the Argentine or Chilean side.
Bariloche is strangely cut off from the shore of Lago Nahuel Huapi. The very busy Avenida Bustillo/Roca/12 de Octubre goes right across town from west to east along the shore. I walked to the west end of Avenida San Martin, crossed the road and made my way to the water. Over the 45 minutes, I walked the 1.2 kilometers from the left side of the map to the swimming pool on the east side before heading up to the cathedral.
Stretches of the waterfront are fairly derelict and the swimming pool pictured below has definitely seen better years. It was summertime; the pool should have been packed with people in one stunning setting. Given the year-round tax dollars generated by tourism in the city, the pool should not look like this!
One street above Avenida Mitre is the main shopping street of the city. West of Morales it is named San Martin; to the east it becomes Moreno. This street has the banks, many hotels, and a number of restaurants. I had chosen my hostel on Juramento – Hostel 41 Below – because it offers a vegetarian/vegan supper. It is located one street above Avenida San Martin. On my first morning in Bariloche, I also discovered my first vegetarian restaurant in Patagonia! Between my hostel and Ren, all my food needs were (deliciously) met! East of Morales I later found another Ren restaurant! Perhaps the fact that Bariloche is not only a major tourist center but also a university town explains this openness to vegetarian food choices?
The presence of a woman who seemed to be the boss and who looked Chinese made me think of a possible explanation of the restaurant’s name. One of the Five Confucian Virtues is Ren (Jen). After my first visit, I googled Wikipedia for more info. The next afternoon I asked one of the servers why the restaurant was named as it is and she confirmed my guess by noting some of the points in the Wiki quote below! What a great name for a vegetarian restaurant!
Jen (pronounced “ren”) is translated into English as “humanity” or “humaneness.” It is the highest Confucian principle. People cultivated by it are humane individuals who exhibit benevolence and care toward others.
My hostel was a five-minute walk from Ren. It was also in el districto de cerveca artesanal. If you were to walk up Juramento during the day you would not know this! The pubs are closed and cars line the street. See below for the daytime look!
However, come back at dusk – and on the weekend – and it is a different scene! On the Sunday night that I arrived on Juramento, I stood at the bottom of the steps to my hostel and looked back down the street. It looks pretty deserted, right!
Here was the scene looking in the other direction! I had walked into a street party with customers of the three pubs on the street sitting at tables on the street or just standing and taking in the music. And what music! The amplified instruments put out a dreamy guitar-based rock sound – echoes of Pink Floyd guitar filtered through U2 and Coldplay. I became an instant fan! (Back home I downloaded their Campamento cd from iTunes.)
The band’s name – as Konna’s signboard says – is Dos Astronautas. I dropped off my duffel bag in my room, had some leftover supper that the staff put together for me, and headed back out to the street for the music and an incredible updated hippy vibe that reminded me evenings on Yorkville Avenue in Toronto in the late ’60’s!
Here is a Youtube sample of their sound. Appropriately the band is playing in the town square in Bariloche. All that is missing is some nighttime atmosphere.
Just beyond the Konna Bar and the Dublin Bar is Los Vikingos Pub and across the street is a Mexican restaurant. Around the corner were a couple more pubs and another band playing! I walked around the neighbourhood with my Fuji x20 on my first evening in Bariloche certain that I had stumbled into a little magical corner of the universe!
Well, there you have it! Bariloche through the eyes of a 65-year-old first-time visitor whose Spanish language skills are pretty basic! Maybe your Bariloche includes more beer and more hanging out at the various clubs that only open around ten or eleven? By then I was probably dreaming about the next morning’s bus ride to the trailhead of my next hike! Click on any of the following post links to see why I call it Base Camp Bariloche!
Base Camp Bariloche & The Hiking Trails of Northern Patagonia -planning advice
Day-By-Day On The Nahuel Huapi Traverse – Pix, Maps & Route Info