Thursday, April 12, 2012

Of the mountain towns of San Martin and Bariloche;

I spent one night in the town San Martin de los Andes, Argentina in a tiny guest room in the house of a man I met at the bus station. I guess when it isn't the height of tourist season, the local lodge owners look for anyway to bring in a few more bucks. The town lies in a low valley on the shore of an Andean lake with thick green pines along the shore and snowcapped hills in the background. I did a quick walk through the town, but I didn't have much time to see any real sites since I arrived late the night before and my bus to Bariloche was leaving that morning.

Looking up into the Andes from the shore of Lago Lacar in the town of San Martin.
To get to Bariloche there are two main routes from San Martin. I was hoping the "Camino de siete lagos (the road of seven lakes)" which passes through the middle of the Andes would be open, but it was closed for winter. That wasn't too much of a problem since I had had a good amount of busing over small Andean roads the day before. The route I took went south along the eastern Patagonian side of the Andes before heading back into the mountains to reach Bariloche.

Looking back those big Andes Mountains interrupting what would just be the flat expanse of Patagonia
The incredible rock formations at Confluencia on the way to Bariloche. The road beyond this was filled with amazing pillars of rock jutting out from the hill sides. Sadly taking pictures from a moving bus is not easy in low light.

On the way back into the mountains to get to Bariloche
My bus took a two hour scenic detour along the shores of Nahuel Huapi Lake in order to stop at the small town of Villa la Angostura. This town is actually only 25 miles from the Puyehue eruption which was still active. It was hard to tell because of all the snow that was coming down but there was volcanic ash all over the area. Nahuel Huapi Lake, a huge 45 mile long lake with arms that stretch into the valleys of the Andes, had areas covered with a thick sludge of ash left from the eruption. Many of the other lakes I saw had amazing light-blue colors from all the ash in the water.

The interesting hue of an ash filled lake.

 Nahuel Huapi Lake from the top of the Bariloche ski hill. The lake is so big that is has legends of sea monsters like Loch Ness. The island you see is the site of a 1950s laboratory and its failed nuclear experiments. I'm thinking that this sea monster known as Nahuelito is actually some radioactive mutant that got out.
That afternoon I made it to my destination: San Carlos de Bariloche, Argentina. I wanted to go to this city because it is known as one of the best ski resorts in Argentina and is well connected by bus to Buenos Aires. I had given up hope of skiing South America because it was a bad winter for snow and Cerro Catedral, the ski hill at Bariloche hadn't opened yet. When I get to Hostel 41 Below, an amazing ski hostel in Bariloche, they tell me that opening day skiing would be tomorrow. Turns out that all the snow I had gone through the day before gave the ski hill more than enough snow to open the lifts up. I couldn't pass up this day of skiing.

Trail map of Cerro Catedral
That next morning I managed to get myself out of bed early and a little hungover from a night of partying with the other skiers in the hostel. Hostel 41 Below was able to set me up with all the snow gear I needed and pointed me and the other skiers towards the ski bus to the resort. They were super helpful getting me a good rental price on a snowboard too. In Bariloche it had been dumping down snow, but by the time we got to the base of the mountain, about 30 minutes outside of town, the snow had stopped. Once I was on the chairlift, the clouds started breaking apart to reveal the amazing views of the Andes and blue skies.

On the way up the Cerro Catedral

A view looking off into the back side of ski resort. I hear it is a popular hiking spot in the summers.
By the time I got to the top of the mountain it was perfect skiing conditions. Sort of... There were incredible views looking across the ski resort, down towards the city, and across Nahuel Huapi Lake. There was also a  lot of fresh powder. About 3 feet of it. The only problem with that was that outside the groomed runs there was no base of snow under the powder. If I lost momentum and sank down into the powder I could feel my board scraping the rocks below.

A view of the main ski-able area of Cerro Catedral. You can also see the line of lodges and food shacks stretching up and down the hill.
Panoramic shot of the ski lift and the view from the top.
I had an awesome day of skiing. I met up with some travelers from the hostel on the hill and skied a number of runs with them. By the time I got back to the hostel it was nearly dark and I was exhausted from a full day of skiing so I sat back and watched some of the Copa America and cheered for Argentina's soccer team with the rest of the people in the hostel.

Click to see a google map with my route through the Andes!

Read Part 1: Of the perilous journey across the Andes; of Mamuil Malal Pass

Of the perilous journey across the Andes; of Mamuil Malal Pass

I left Chile a number of months ago in July, but I still have a large collection of my photos and stories from my journey across South America.

It was in early July, the middle of South America's winter, I finished my classes at the Universidad Austral de Chile. I left my host's house the day after classes at about five in the morning. Still a little bit drunk from saying all my farewells the previous night and working with only two hours of sleep, I grabbed my huge packs and gruelingly walked the two blocks in the pouring Valdivian rain to the bus station.

I was sad to leave the town of Valdivia, but still excited and somewhat nervous to start my the last leg of my trip towards Buenos Aires, Argentina. The previous week I had gone to the bus station to buy my ticket to Bariloche, a ski town just on the other side of the border, but I discovered that I could no longer cross to Argentina due to the current erupting state of the Puyehue-Cordón Caulle volcano. Using my Spanish skills which I had refined in my semester in Valdivia, I went around the many ticket booths at the bus station asking about alternate routes to Bariloche, Argentina. I've never been more proud of my Spanish skills than when I walked out of that bus station that day with a number of complicated bus passes and the satisfaction of knowing I throughly searched that bus terminal for the best prices and routes they had to offer.

A view of the eruption of  Puyehue-Cordón Caulle which I shot from just outside Valdivia. This was the first day of a several month long eruption which closed airports across Argentina, South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand.

Now, returning back to my early morning departure from Valdivia. I got on my first bus of the journey to take me to a small bus stop on the side of the highway two hours north. From there I nervously awaited my next bus across the Andes. My mom had given me the rule of no buses across the Andes in the middle of winter, but I didn't have much for other options. I'm sure not going to take a small prop-plane across the Andes (not just a because of the daunting stories of survival and cannibalism you hear about, but because volcanic ash was still closing local airports). I knew that the route between Valdivia and Bariloche was a perfectly safe mountain pass easily comparable to any highway going across my native Cascades Mountain Range, but that route was closed since it went along the base of an erupting volcano. I was hoping that the bus I was taking would be going over another major mountain pass. I was wrong.

This map shows the section of the Andes that I passed through to get to San Martin (bottom right).

As the bus made its way from the lover central valley of southern Chile into the Andes Mountains, the torrential rain which had been going for a few days turned to snow. And soon that snow was piled up two feet high along the sides of the road. The bus had to stop for an hour as we waited for the snow plows to open up the pass to traffic for the day. As the bus went higher into the mountains, more and more snow was piling up on the road. Eventually, it came to the point where the driver asked everyone to move to the back of the bus to give the rear tires more traction. By this point I could tell that this wouldn't be just a quick trip across the pass.

The road to the border crossings blanketed in snow.

As we got closer to the border crossing, our road became narrower. In most sections two cars, let alone one of them being a buss, could just barely pass by each other. There was a point where a Subaru trying to get past us had to back up a quarter mile before finding a pullout on the road. We made our way around a series of sharp switchbacks to finally peak at the top of Mamuil Malal Pass. From there the road flattens out at about 4000ft elevation through forests of snow-covered araucarias trees at the base of the 12,200ft perfect cone-shaped volcano Lanin.

Man, I love araucania trees. Also known as monkey puzzle trees.

So much of the bus ride was through forests of these prehistoric looking trees.

The Argentinian and Chilean border crossing stations are about a mile apart from each other on an incredible road which winds around the snow-capped trees. I can't even compare this road to one in the states. It is just the tiniest international pass tucked into the mountains. It would be like taking one of the logging roads in the heart of the cascades in the middle of winter with a narrow semi-plowed road. In the summer when this place isn't in the snow, it is still just a primitive dirt road connecting Chile and Argentina.

As we continued over the Andes the road improved. One minute there is snow all over out my window and then the next minute it is all gone. It was the start of Patagonia, the rain shadow of the Andes. It wasn't long before we were driving through semi-arid deserts looking back at the Andes.

In the Andes...

Out of the Andes

The town of San Martin de los Andes was the next stop on my route. To get there, the road, which now resembles a modern highway, skirts along the eastern side of the Andes before heading back into the Mountains. I originally planned to just pass through San Martin, but since what was supposed to be a 4 hour bus across the Andes turned into an all day journey through the snow and Andean forests, I had to stop for the night and continue towards Bariloche in the morning.

Click to see a google map with my route through the Andes!

Read Part 2: Of the mountain towns of San Martin and Bariloche;