Bariloche – Argentina’s Outdoor Playground Capital

Previous Post: By Boat And Bus Through the Andes – The Cruce Andino

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 –

  1. the Centro Civico (town square)
  2. Avenida Mitre (the pedestrian mall)
  3. the chocolate shops
  4. Catedral Nuestra Señora del Nahuel Huapi
  5. the Nahuel Huapi waterfront beaches
  6. the artisanal beer district

downtown Bariloche – a compact area to explore

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.

Bariloche – panorama del Centro Civico

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.

St. Bernard Mountain Dog posing with turistas at El Centro Civico

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.

towards el Centro Civico at dusk

el Centro Civico de Bariloche at night

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!

the east end of Calle Mitre in Bariloche at dusk

street musicians at dusk on Mitre in Bariloche

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!

infrastructure work on Mitre, Bariloche’s pedestrian mall – not a pretty sight!

A Germanic touch on a not so charming part of Avenida Mitre in Bariloche

a block of Mitre in Bariloche

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!

Ojibwe dream catchers reinterpreted in Bariloche

street art on a wall off Avenida Moreno

another chocolate shop window

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.

Galeria del Sol on Mitre in Bariloche

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.

Bariloche catedral interior

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.

green marker in the map center is El Centro Civico

Bariloche properties lining the beachfront

vamos a la playa – Bariloche

wooden statues on the shore of the Lago

promenade – Bariloche lakefront

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!

the Bariloche swimming pool

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?

Ren on Avenida San Martin – la cocina vegetariana en Bariloche

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!

Avenida Juramento during the day

Hostel 41 Below on Avenida Juramento in Bariloche – view from across the street

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!

Calle Juramento looking west from my hostel front steps

dos astronautas coverHere 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.)

Dos Astronautas on Calle Juramento on my Sunday night arrival

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.

Dos Astronautas on Juramento in the Beer District Bariloche

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!

Los Vikingos Pub – Juramento/20 de Febrero

El Mexicano on Morales across from Juramento

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

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6 Responses to Bariloche – Argentina’s Outdoor Playground Capital

  1. Hermann Reisach says:

    Hallo, ramblin’ boy,

    Nice fotos from your walking trip in Bariloche mountains and your city walks. Did you realise all the wealth at Bariloche? It is not only tourism, but they also have space industries, a satelite production, an atomic resarch center and other decentralised industries out of Buenos Aires.

    • true_north says:

      Hermann, you ask –

      Did you realise all the wealth at Bariloche? It is not only tourism, but they also have space industries, a satelite production, an atomic resarch center and other decentralised industries out of Buenos Aires.

      I had a vague idea but saw little evidence of what you refer to!

      I did meet a physicist and his wife at the Refugio Lopez and we chatted quite some time thanks to his fluent English! They live in Bariloche and he teaches at the university. They offered to put me up for the night at their house – but I after I thanked them profusely for their kind offer I put up my tent near the refugio and spent the night there!

      You are right to point out this important other dimension of the city! To be honest, I was not even sure where the university is located – that is how narrow my focus on Bariloche was! It was just a place to be before, in between, and after my hikes! I just checked on Google Maps – my hostel was only 1.5 kilometers away from the university campus!

  2. Hermann Reisach says:

    I forgot to mention:

    Bariloche is not really the Tyrolian village in Patagonia, as it ought to be (in spite of the beautiful great scenery).


    • true_north says:

      That it is not. They really need a stricter building code! Such a mishmash of structures!

      By the way, Colonia Suiza is not so charming either! I was expecting a Swiss-style village! Not quite! I did find San Martin de los Andes to be a more cohesive kleines dorf – but then it has 1/5 of Bariloche’s population!

      BTW – I had to google mfg to find out what it meant!


  3. Hi, Peter, I loved your pictures and I traveled back to Bariloche with your post. Thanks for the ride. I’m surprised the street works on Mitre are not done yet, but I shouldn’t. Being from Brazil, I should have gotten used to that…
    About the St. Bernard Mountain dogs, did you know they were charging 120 pesos for a picture in the 2015 winter? My daughter was missing our dog and wanted a shot, and it was a good chance to teach her a lesson on consuming… but I didn’t resist to the chocolate stores! ahaha

    • true_north says:

      Maria, I usually travel with a heavy dslr and three or four lenses but this time I just took my Fuji x20, a much smaller camera. I had less to carry and less to worry about and the images are okay for what I do with them – that is, use them in my posts!

      That street work is a universal theme! Here is an article from today’s paper about a similar issue here in Toronto –

      120 pesos for a photo with that St. Bernard! Yikes! Here is one of my dog Viggo from yesterday in the dog park up the street -. He is the little dog looking up to Polar (a Samoyed)

      In fact, we need to go for our afternoon walk right now! See you out there!

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