Friday, January 15, 2010

Vacation Part III: Bariloche

Sorry for the delay and the length of this one. I just had to get it all out! I considered doing it in two different posts but it wasn't going to make the total reading any shorter so you'll just have to forge through or forgo it. I did include lots of pictures to keep you interested though.

Speaking of, note that vacation photos with detailed captions are available here on Picasa for the abridged version.

Special update: I have just this moment finished both this ridiculously long post AND finished the last of the Chex mix. I still have the taste of garlic powder and peanuts in my mouth. Mmmmm. Ok, back to the vacation.

Tuesday December 22: Welcome to Bariloche

We arrived in Bariloche from El Calafate in the evening and were met by a very amicable remis (private taxi) driver named Ernesto. He explained many local features, flora, and fauna on our way to the hotel. For instance, he pointed out the broom (non native and invasive, says Ernesto, but creates an amazing yellow landscape) and lupine blooming everywhere.

We also gave a ride to another couple we had done the Big Ice trek with, who happened to be on our flight, and who totally randomly had reservations at the same hotel. When you consider that 80% of the businesses in Bariloche are lodging-based this was a pretty big coincidence.

The hotel was nice enough, amazing views and our room opened right onto the lake and was a stone’s throw to the heated pool. The room itself was a bit dated and we suspect that the other half of the hotel was recently remodeled while our half was still waiting for an update, but it was right next to the lake and we fell asleep to the sound of waves hitting the shore. Here is the view from our room:
In order to get to the reception/restaurant area, we had to go outside. Since it poured rain and howled wind most of the time we were there, this was not always the most pleasant walk.

The service was pretty hit or miss but that was part of its charm… kind of. If you’ve ever seen the Seinfeld episode when he dates a woman who is either quite lovely or quite hideous, seemingly without explanation, then you have a decent idea about what we experienced service-wise. We were checked in by a very nice lady (who gave us and the couple adjoining rooms which apparently creeped out the Ice Princess – she was a bit cold – and they switched rooms right away) and once in the room had a variety of needs: massage appointments, extra pillows, TV didn’t work. All of these were resolved quickly and pleasantly. We got massages the very evening we arrived and then we wanted to go into town for dinner so the receptionist called us a remis. (We naively ate dinner at a Mexican restaurant called Dias de Zapata which was hands down the worst meal we had the entire trip. Will I ever learn to stop trying to eat Mexican food in the southern cone??)

By the time we got back to the hotel, Ugly Service had emerged. We turned down our beds to find that they were made with a single sheet, no blanket. I opened the closet and found just one blanket. The room was well heated but the wind was so strong it came in through the windows and a blanket was necessary. So I called reception and got a lot of attitude for such a simple request, including “there’s no one to bring it to you.” I gave some sass back and 15 minutes later a confused-looking boy knocked on the door handed Beth a blanket.

The rest of the trip was more or less back-and-forth service-wise, but we slept well that first night and all the nights after and overall really enjoyed our stay.

Wednesday, December 23: Rain, rain, here to stay

Any cab driver I asked about the weather was spot-on. Ernesto had told us that the next day would be windy and rainy, but by the evening it should clear and then be nice for two days. I got the same forecast from our driver Tuesday night, and that is exactly what happened. I asked almost every driver we had about the weather and they were always right. So, Wednesday was ugly.

We woke up around ten, headed to the restaurant for our free buffet breakfast which was almost entirely composed of sugary, bready items, and then caught a bus into town (the road is measured in kilometers from the Obelisk in the city center, I believe, and the hotel was on kilometer 7.8). We had to pay for our white water rafting trip and then planned on checking out the town and trying to book some other day tours. We arranged for a short tour that afternoon that included a quick hike to a waterfall, a paleontological museum, and a tour of a trout hatchery. Here's a shot of Bariloche's main square. It has a very Swiss chalet feel.

We also booked a boat trip for Christmas day (which ended up being a big fat lie and the sleazy tour guide didn’t refund us the correct amount) and then set to work finding the Perfect Restaurant. But what had once been a sprinkling turned into a dousing of rain and after unsuccessfully looking for a place that had been recommended to us we took refuge in the first decent place we found, called La Marca. It was almost entirely empty but the food was decent and the service was attentive. Beth ordered trout no doubt caught in the very lake we could hear from our room, and I ordered venison, a local specialty. Here's Beth walking into the restaurant; you have to imagine the rain but I promise you it was ever-present.

Our afternoon tour was shared with two women from Argentina and what we think were their husbands, one from Mexico and the other from Venezuela. Finally we had met people more ill-prepared for the weather than we were! But they were pleasant and our driver/tour guide was a gem of a man named Esteban, who was very enthusiastic about his job, his city, and life in general.

We drove into some higher kilometer marks and turned onto an unpaved road to access part of the ginormous park (2 million acres) that surrounds Bariloche, Parque Nacional Nahuel Huapi. The largest lake inside it (on which our hotel sat) is also named Nahuel Huapi, which means “Tiger Island” for some reason that I now forget.
Recreational motor boats are not allowed – the only motorized boats are those that leave Puerto Pañuelo for Isla Victoria, which I will explain when I get to Saturday – and all the water within the park is potable. The city draws all of its water from the lake and sewage is treated at a plant far removed from the shores. This results in the same fierce protectiveness of the natural resources that we saw in El Calafate and El Chalten, and there are signs everywhere shaming people into not polluting. ("Do you know how long it takes [fill in litter item here] to decompose? Respect our parks!")

We got out of the van and took a short walk through a forest that could have been plucked right from the Pacific Northwest. Honestly, Bariloche looks like the San Juan islands, and the rainy climate contributed to my feeling right at home.

We walked until we got to a small but sweet waterfall, dawdled for a bit, and then turned around. It was raining after all.

From there we went to the paleontology museum which was actually really cool. It was TINY yet somehow managed to house over 10,000 items: rocks and gems, a meteorite, taxidermied animals, fossils, and mixed in was the occasional plastic figurine or dinosaur poster.

The place had an eccentric personality, as did the awesome archeologist who runs it. We spent a lot of time in that tiny museum and then went next door for some hot chocolate and churros.

Now, at this point I was starting to feel sick and we were both frustrated that the café service was taking so long. Also, the sun had finally broken out of the clouds and yet we were stuck inside. It also seemed pretty obvious to both of us that the trout hatchery tour was now for some reason not going to happen, though I think Beth was more disappointed by this than I was. All this added up to us getting back into the van a bit grumpy, a bit tired, and in my case a bit sick, ready to get back to the hotel.

However, not long after we started someone asked if he would drive us up to Cerro Catedral, one of the largest mountains in the area and one of South America’s hottest ski resort destinations. This is not a very common ‘tour’ to take in the off season so there was no way we would have seen it otherwise, and Esteban amicably agreed as long as we promised not to tell anyone at the company he had done so.

Our moods changed. We climbed in altitude and started seeing obscenely expensive houses and hotels, many of which are under construction. And just as we got to the look-out point for the mountain itself the clouds cleared for a few seconds and we had a view of the top.

The snow on that mountain is from the day before when it was pouring rain! There was speculation the whole time that it would snow in the city itself. After this shot he drove us into the ski town itself, completely abandoned the other 8 months of the year. It was eerie but cool. Finally on the way back down we made a stop to take this photo. I will never forget hearing one of the Argentinean women say ‘what a privilege this view is.”

That night we were tired and knew we had rafting the next day, so we ordered room service (taking advantage of a loophole in which they won’t deliver normal items off the menu – there is a special room service menu that we weren’t interested in – unless those items are vegetarian. Bingo! We had soup, salad, and ravioli with tomato sauce.) We also watched Iron Man, what an awesome flick! I hope they make a sequel. Unfortunately by the end of the night I felt quite a bit worse - the cold that wouldn't go away - and one of my eyes was pretty swollen. I was afraid I would wake up with pink eye and not be able to go the next day.

Thursday, December 24: Christmas Eve on the River

Finally, some sun! Just in time for our big day of white water rafting. When I first saw that Bariloche offered this adventure I tentatively asked Beth if she’d be interested. Turns out she’s been rafting all over the world and was stoked on it. She was even more excited when she found out it would be my first time.

When we woke up the first thing Beth said was, "How's your eye??" I said, "I don't know, how does it look?" and she said "It looks normal, thank heavens." So no conjunctivitis and I felt OK so rafting was still on. We were picked up in the morning and quickly started talking with a young couple who lives in West Seattle. I mentioned that my sister lives there and about an hour later the girl said to me, "I'm sorry, but is your last name Archer?" Turns out she used to work with my sister Anne! Small world. (For those of us who don't know us by sight: my sister and I could almost be twins.)

The drive to the river is largely along unpaved roads, and though it is through beautiful country I had a hard time appreciating it because I was trying not to pee my pants. We arrived at the farm where we get our equipment and eat breakfast not a moment too soon, and after bolting for the facilities I was able to take in the surrounding beauty of the area. Check out the ever-present lupine:

Soon we were all clad in head-to-toe wetsuits and back in the van heading for Rio Manso. We got a quick but thorough training and were split into two boats.

My biggest fear was that we were uncoordinated as a boat since we had to use English as a common language among English, Spanish, and Israeli speakers, and Beth was the only one besides our guide who had done this before. But we pulled it together and ended up being ok.
The trip was advertised as up to class IV rapids which we were both stoked on. I was secretly hoping to get flung from the boat. And although I did my fair share of screaming, it was never really that scary and Beth thinks it topped out at III. Also, the ride was quite short. The river was high and fast which also contributed to reduced rapids and we were only on the water for about an hour and a half.

But it was a lot of fun, the price was very reasonable especially considering the equipment was in excellent condition, all transportation was included, plus they fed us an asado at the end.
Once we got off the river it didn't take long to peel our wetsuits off and stand in our bathing suits in the glorious sun before climbing back into the van to go back to the farm for our lunch. Afterward we looked at all the pictures (which you can see some of on Picasa) and lazed around in the sun before heading back to Bariloche.
Once back we went to "Argentina's best ice cream," Jauja, with Robin and Jake the West Seattle couple. It was good but it certainly wasn't the best I've ever had in Argentina so that has been debunked. Then Beth and I split up to buy Christmas gifts for each other, went back to the hotel an hour later, took a swim in the heated pool, had a nap, and then had plans to go out for a night on the town with the other locals celebrating Christmas Eve. This last part did not happen.

We woke up at 11 and called the front desk to see if they could call us a remis. "Umm.... I can try?" was his dubious response. Turns out we should have reserved our ride earlier in the day and much like New Year's Eve at 2 am there was no way we were getting one. We were stranded. Unfortunately we were also starving and they were only serving the special Christmas dinner at the hotel, which was for all intents and purposes over. We called the kitchen and begged them to feed us. "Ok, come into the restaurant" they said. Perfect.

So we wandered into the restaurant where everyone else was finishing their meal with a champagne toast and were immediately handed two glasses of champagne and kisses on the cheek by our two waiters. They then proceeded to serve us the full three-course menu with champagne, wine, and a dessert buffet. We seriously wanted a plate of pasta or something fast and easy but hey, we were at their mercy. And although the dinner really wasn't very good, it was a memorable hour.
Other than a few dawdling guests we were by far the last ones there and everything was cleaned up and ready for breakfast the next morning by the time we finished. Our waiters could not have been nicer, so attentive and patient, didn't rush us at all and seemed more than happy to chit chat with us. At one point one of them offered to arrange a ride into town for us with one of the staff, but we were over it by then.

Here's the real kicker: the whole dinner was supposed to be $200 pesos, or about $50, each. But since we came late and had a 'reduced quality of service and a lessened experience' (which we absolutely didn't agree with) they only charged us $70 pesos each! We tipped very well, went back to our room, and watched New Moon, the vampire movie that has captivated pre-teens across the world and was filmed in my neck of the woods. I have to admit I really, really liked it.

Friday, December 25: Strange Christmas
As soon as we woke up Beth said to me, "Want to open your present?" I have to give her all kinds of credit for Christmas. She's Jewish and doesn't celebrate, but was committed to making sure my day was as good as it could possibly be. I warned her that it was going to be weird for me - it was my first Christmas away from home - and from the very start she said we could do whatever I wanted. I was vaguely depressed that morning, so despite the fact that it was one of two sunny days we were granted in Bariloche and although many things were closed we could have gone on a hike up a local mountain, she did not say boo when I decided that what I wanted to do that morning was lay in bed and watch Sense and Sensibility.
Later that afternoon we caught a bus into town and sat at a cafe playing rummy, eating pizza and french fries, and drinking whiskey (me) and beer (her) for about 4 hours. At some point in those 4 hours I experienced what my brother unknowingly dubbed a "Christmas mugging." Turns out that one of the 3 or 4 groups of tourists that occupied the table behind us during our stint there reached into my purse (hanging on my chair, zipped up and covered by my coat), pulled out my wallet, emptied it of the cash, and put the wallet - complete with a copy of my passport that would have been mixed up with the cash and a credit card - back into my bag. I didn't notice for hours since Beth paid for the meal.

I've always wanted to go a church service in Spanish and Bariloche has a lovely cathedral.

I thought it might help me feel closer to my family so Beth very, VERY amicably agreed to go with me to the 7 pm service. Unfortunately it was pretty depressing. My favorite thing about Christmas mass is the music, and not only did they not sing Christmas songs (despite their presence in the songbook) but the "choir" was a raspy recording that no one sang along with. The priest was old and discombobulated, and his sermon was uninspired. I noticed I had been robbed of my 400 pesos - about $100 - when I opened my wallet to contribute an offering.
I grabbed 2 pesos out of Beth's purse instead and we bolted out of there before communion. At first we thought maybe I had accidentally left my cash in the room since I was sort of mopey and distracted when we left, but no. It was stolen. It was much more Christmas-y than the last one though, since 1) it was nonviolent, and 2) they ONLY took cash instead of the whole bag. I was a good egg about it. It's just money.

From church I called my family and spoke to everyone for at least a few minutes each in what should have been a much more awkward/painful call considering I made it in a very public and loud internet cafe. I tried my hardest not to cry and succeeded.
Then we went to the next logical place: the casino. We played blackjack and met two dudes who had just arrived and were starting a biking trip the next day. From there we went to an Irish bar and met two girls who were also travelling and who ended up on our flight to Buenos Aires a few days later. At midnight I officially gave up my rights to call the shots for the day and Beth graciously said nothing. (I had been making jokes the whole day about how Santa and Jesus were on my side.) We made plans with our 4 new friends to meet at the Irish bar the next day at 1o pm and all went our merry ways.

I will definitely be in Seattle for Christmas next year.

Saturday, December 26: Bambi’s Forest

My friend John, who had also spent a Christmas in Bariloche some years back, recommended we see "Bambi's forest." I thought he was crazy but it turns out he was right.
For Saturday, we signed up for a lake tour that stops at Isla Victoria and then goes to a peninsula where Bambi's forest can be found. (The same tour we thought we had arranged for Christmas day.) It was rainy but we were used to it by then. Here is a shot of me at the port, with hotel Llao Llao behind me (see Sunday.)

The boat was packed which would have been fine except they insisted that every person be in a seat for docking. There was an outdoor area which was fun for taking pictures and getting whipped up by the wind. I'm telling you, it was like being on a boat in the San Juan Islands.
The first stop was Isla Victoria. We were hungry so we had a bite in the cafe and then wandered through a stark but beautiful pine forest. I took a few minutes to be by myself there. It's been so long since I've had access to a full-on forest that I almost forgot just how tranquil and healing time with nature can be.
Then we all piled back onto the boat and it was time for the peninsula. The Arrayan tree is native only to Chile and Argentina and is usually very small and crowded out by other species. However, for some reason - they speculate it's because it gets so much rainfall - there is a forest on this peninsula with a high density of unusually large Arrayanes. They are a beautiful orange color with white spots where bark has peeled off. Rumor has it that Walt Disney came to this forest and designed the forest in Bambi after it.

I loved this tour! It was crowded but I was able to fall back and take it in on my own terms. (Despite a very obnoxious guide who kept urging us along before finally giving up and going on ahead. I mean, we had a set time to be back at the boat; I wanted to tell her, I'm an adult. Leave me alone.) The trees were beautiful and the simple walkways they constructed out of pine stained orange to match helped contribute to the experience. There were birds calling to each other and even some native orchids blooming under one of the trees. This was one of my favorite parts of the entire vacation.

That was our last night and we went back into town as promised to meet up with our friends from the night before. The girls bailed but the boys showed and the four of us went to El Boliche del Alberto, a famous (though in my opinion overrated) parrilla aka grill restaurant. We had to wait over an hour but once we sat down the food came quickly and we had a lot of fun just shooting the breeze. We briefly considered going dancing but, like all the other nights we had considered it ended up opting for a cab back to the hotel and some late-night TV watching instead.

Sunday, December 27: Classing it up before saying goodbye

We had made lunch reservations for our very last day of vacation at the fanciest place around, Hotel Llao Llao. It’s hundreds or thousands of dollars a night and is allegedly booked through 2012. My favorite part about that is that llao llao is the native word for a tree fungus. Awesome.
We checked out of our hotel (not a moment too soon - they were having plumbing issues and our bathroom had started to flood), left our baggage at the front desk, caught a remis and arrived at the hotel 20 minutes later.

The hotel sits on top of a hill and has amazing and varied views in all directions. We were immediately scolded, first for wandering on a patch of grass that apparently we weren’t supposed to be on, and then for video recording the lobby of the hotel. Clearly we did not fit in. Here is a view from the hotel:
Our lunch reservations ended up being at the less fancy of the two restaurants inside the hotel, but it was still a delightful meal. We had a beautiful view, the waiters were great, and we enjoyed observing the tourists around us. I ordered a lamb burger which came with real Heinz ketchup – Oh, the ecstasy! – and Beth had a delicious tomato soup and a decent salad.

The weather was iffy but we decided to risk it and trekked to the bottom of the hill en route to a local series of hikes along a small lake. It never started raining and we enjoyed a pleasant nature walk through bamboo groves.
We soon came to another, smaller Arrayan forest.

Then we made a quick stop at the lake to take photos of the hotel in the distance.

We started back for the hotel and tried to hitchhike for the third time during the trip. It may sound strange but my biggest disappointment was that in 3 attempts on 3 different days, not a single car stopped to pick us up. I think that says a lot about the culture of the area and the type of people that frequent it. To me, hitchhiking in a small city is a sign of the strength of the community, and it made me sad to see what a closed-off, snobby community Bariloche seems to breed.

Suffice to say we made it back to the hotel on foot and settled into a lobby table to play rummy, have our last hot chocolate of the trip, and wait for our ride. Although it took awhile to come it was worth the wait – the chocolate was thick and rich and the whipped cream was fresh and fluffy.
About halfway through we noticed two people dressed in what seemed to be Renaissance-era costumes parade through the lobby and up to a piano. We would be regaled with live music! Unfortunately, after the initial charm wore off it ended up being more distracting than anything. They were singing and playing very strange music and the man’s voice was doing very, very weird things. We tried not to laugh because all artists deserve respect even if you don’t like their particular brand of art.

We had arranged for Ernesto (our original remis driver) to pick us up at Llao Llao at 5 pm and take us back for our luggage and then to the airport. He was right on time, came into the lobby, and good naturedly watched the weird musicians while we finished paying our bill and ran to the bathroom. Once outside he proudly opened his trunk to display our luggage. Now, he does work with the hotel so it’s not like a stranger walked in and asked for our bags, but we still had to have one of those “that would never have happened in the U.S.!" moments.

He took us on a scenic route to the airport and explained more local flora and fauna and answered some last-minute questions we had about the place. We arrived pretty early and had lots of time to finish our rummy tournament. The flight was uneventful, our bags made it without a hitch, and we both caught cabs on the street outside the airport, refusing to wait in the ridiculously long taxi queue. One man waiting in the line who saw us bolt for the street called to us, “No, you can’t do that.” I called back, “It’s fine, we live here!” and he smiled and seemed placated, waving us on. It was good to be back “home.”


1 comment:

AmberAnda said...

I know you missed your family and a traditional Christmas, but you definitely had a unique and adventurous holiday! I think it's very serendipitious that you finished the chex mix just as you finished writing. I have to admit too, I recently read the first two Twilight books and watching the movies was a guilty pleasure. Ain't no shame! Now I am going to go drink some hot chocolate because you made it sound so tasty.