Thursday, February 4, 2010

The Land of Chocolate

Bariloche, at the northern end of Argentine Patagonia, is a small town that looks like a postcard and is jam packed full of tourists. It's set against a backdrop of snow capped mountains and a large, sparkling lake that is constantly being whipped into a frenzy by the hyperactive wind. The town is a mecca for all sorts of hiking and biking in the surrounding mountains, so the droves of tourists are largely of the granola eating, trekking pole toting sort. I've never seen so many outdoor stores in one place. Nor so many chocolate shops. In addition to be inundated with grisled european hikers, Bariloche is swimming in chocolaterias. Remember that episode of the Simpsons where Homer daydreams about a land of chocolate? It's just like that. There is a supermarket sized speciality chocolate shop on every corner, adorned with chocolate fountains and bucketfulls of ice cream. Sounds like heaven? Indeed it is!

Barilochean steak is purported to be the best in Argentina. We tested this theory thoroughly. One night, we ate at one of four famous restaurants entitled Don Alberto's. Alberto certainly takes his steak seriously... nearly everything in the restaurant was derived from cow. We ordered off menus made from hairy cow hide, and ate off of leather menus. There were pictures of cows on the walls.

While the steak and wine at Alberto's was almost perfect, we found that we preferred a small restaurant called El Campestre. The decor was rustic gaucho; warm, wine colored walls, rough wooden trim and stuffed deer busts adorning each side of the bar, one still wearing his Santa hat from Christmas. The owner greeted us at the door and spent the evening talking with customers, picking up their babies and dancing them around the restaurant. The second night we were there, he treated the entire restaurant to a complimentary glass of champagne, just because. When we went to thank him and tell him how wonderful we thought his restaurant was, he said that he worked to make it a warm, family atmosphere and he told us that this was the real Patagonia - not the tourist version. The best part, though, was the old jolly gaucho who played the guitar and sang all throughout the evening. He looked exactly like Kris Kringle: rosy cheeks, constantly smiling and chuckling, a mane of white hair and beard.
Cutest moment: a young girl, probably around 5 or 6, lay down on her stomach in front of the small stage where he was singing, and watched him with her head cradled in her hands, smiling like everything in the world was perfect.

Check out his music on myspace:


In which I briefly masquerade as a granola eating, trekking pole toting hiker:

During our week long stay in Bariloche, I agreed to going on a two day trek with Yuval, who had been itching do to some sort of unnecessary physical extertion for a while. I'll be the first one to admit that walking at an incline for prolonged periods of time isn't quite my cup of tea (call me lazy!) but Yuval assured me that it was an easy hike. And admittedly, after all the time in the chocolaterias, some physical activity wasn't going to hurt.

However, by "easy" Yuval had meant "we're going to climb a mountain".

The three hour walk to the base camp was quite nice; the trees cut the wind and it was just cool enough to hike comfortably. We walked along the river's path through forest, and through expanses of bamboo-like trees that looked really out of place but are actually native to the region, called Colihue in Mapuche (indigenous language). The park is called Parque Llao Llao and is named after these orange spongey fungus spores that look like golf balls and were everywhere along the path. The fungus infects the trees which react by swelling up and creating a tumor on the branch. The tumor produces fruit: the orange spongy golf balls, which are called llao llao, or "Indian bread". The llao llao can be eaten raw, but the Mapuche typically add it to their homemade alcohol, chicha.

When we arrived at the base camp, which was already dotted with a few tents and hikers settling in for the night, I thought that we were nearly there. But, to my boundless delight, it was just the beginning of the ascent to the top of the mountain, where the point of this whole excursion lay, Lago Negro (Black Lake). After more time than I care to recall, I was just about at my breaking point: lactic acid was searing holes through my muscles and I was beginning to stumble over the rocks that littered the path. Now above the tree line, the wind howled ferociously and tried its darnest to knock us off the mountain. There was snow, which seemed to thrill Yuval and conjured in me thoughts of giving him a proper face washing. Even in my grieved state, however, I did appreciate the epic waterfall coursing down from the very top of the adjacent moutain, and the view of the cluster of mountains was impressive. And then. And THEN, we asked a lady on her way down how much longer we had to go. She said thirty minutes. I almost burst into tears. All I wanted was to collapse in a heap and be carried back to a comfy bed somewhere, with someone to bring me hot chocolate and put in a good movie. But I decided that I wouldn't let this stupid mountain make me cry, and I'd make it to the top.
Which I did.
Yuval, not for the first time, called me stubborn (why not just stop if you're miserable? he says). But, really, you can't go all that way and not make it to the top.

Lago Negro was small, dark and wind tossed, sitting like a puddle in the the navel of the top of the mountain. The wind was vicious. We ate huddled beside some tortured looking trees, and I stretched out my screaming muscles. And then we went back down the mountain to make camp, with me in a much better mood.

We tried to light a fire at camp, but the wind was coming in strong and from every angle. Not even paper would stay lit. So we scrapped that good-in-theory idea, made supper and climbed happily into the tent. Outside, the wind sounded like a massive waterfall crashing all around us.

I'd heard of the epic winds of Patagonia, and they certainly weren't underestimating. It became very clear that the wind was going to factor in as another travel partner through out Patagonia.

Surprisingly (mostly for your indolent narrator) this experiment in outdoorsiness has a sequel. Stay tuned.


The hippy studded road back to Chile:

From Bariloche, we stopped for a night in El Bolson: the town where hippies come to train and perfect their art. Everywhere you looked were dreadlocks, drumming circles and piles of hippy jewelry. We arrived on a Sunday and they were having a parade, huge and pulsing with brightly colored costumes, dancing its way through the streets. As far as I could tell it was a parade just for its own sake.

When night fell, the hippies all vanished. The drumming stopped and the stands of pipes and mate cups and bracelets were packed up. They had all gone to wherever it is that hippies go to at night. In their place, in the main square, all the Argentine families emerged and there was a concert of old gaucho music. White haired men in black rubber boots, jeans and button down shirts played the guitar, accordion and fiddle. To which costumed dancers danced the traditional courting dances. There was a crowd of both people and dogs around the mouthwatering chorizo asado (sausage barbecue). Kids and dogs chased each other through the dancers and around the square until scolded by adults.

Over the next couple of days we passed through small Argentine towns on our way back to Chile, to the start of the famously beautiful Carretera Austral highway.

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