DOWN TO THE SEVEN LAKES - robmellors

BARILOCHE AND BEYOND

A little snow at Christmas time can be rather a jolly thing. But here in the Southern Hemispere, Christmas coincides with mid-Summer so finding yourself driving on an earthen road, high in the hills with snow battering against your windscreen can be a little disconcerting. We've had all sorts of weather on this trip; blazing sunshine, drenching downpours, biting winds, and gales that literally stop you in your tracks whilst walking down the street. We've had to dive into shop doorways just to stop being blown backwards by the strength of it. But that's Argentina for you - unpredictable.

After having a great time in the mountains around El Chalten we headed northwest to the Rio Negro area, famed for its mountains and lakes. So much so that they call it Little Switzerland. Our first stop off was in Bariloche which is the gateway for the Seven Lakes drive and reputed to be a lovely town set beside Lago Nahuel Huapi . Except that getting down to the lake is no easy feat as the powers that be decided to build a 2 lane expressway right by the water, effectively cutting off the town centre from its most glorious asset - the lake. But that's planners for you.

Unfortunately, comparisons with Switzerland don't stand up for Bariloche. It's not exactly a chocolate-box, pretty place; although, it so happens that almost every other shop in the main street displays a massive variety of chocolate products. Bariloche is the chocolate capital of Argentina and you could see hordes of people in these emporiums (sorry, emporia for the sticklers amongst you) buying huge boxfuls. Now, I know some of you will be going yum-yum and I hope they're going to bring back some for us, especially as it's Christmas. Well, I'll whisper something most Argentines won't thank me for; the chocolate isn't really that good. I doubt if it's more than 30 or 40% cacao (they don't tell you on the label) and it's over-sweet and cloying. Give me Green and Blacks anyday. So, sorry, we won't be toiling around with half a suitcase full of sweeties, not even for you.

To add to the Swiss theme of the place there are some very strange goings on around the Civic centre. You will find some lovely looking St Bernard dogs, complete with faux brandy barrel around their necks (I kid you not). Apparently Argentinian tourists (and maybe other nationalities) pay to have their photos taken with said St Bernards. Why they should do this defeats me. Perhaps they wish to convince the folks back home that they were stuck 10,000 ft up a snowy mountain pass when this well groomed and slightly overfed St Bernard strolled up with it's vital cargo of firewater clanking on its chest.

Now, if I'm making Bariloche seem like a place you should avoid at all costs, it isn't all bad, of course. Whilst the centre is noisy, traffic filled and kitsch ridden, the town still sits on a lovely lake surrounded by some glorious mountain scenery with plenty of opportunity for walking, hiking and getting back in touch with nature. We weren't going to be spending more than a day in Bariloche so we took a bus west of the city and then took a chair lift up Cerro Campanario. From the top you get a 360 degree view and, as the weather was reasonably clear, we were able to see all of the surrounding mountains. We didn't have enough time to do any hikes in them so instead got back on the local bus and went out to the delightlfully named Llao Llao (pronounced, with a typically Argentinian marbles in the mouth voice, Sh-ow Sh-ow). This is where Bariloche's oldest and most revered 5 star + hotel stands (looking rather like a carbuncle, if I'm honest) and where you can board a boat to take you to Chile, should you so wish. There is also a small national park on the peninsula so we had a few hours strolling among the trees around the lake.

The classic 7 lakes tour takes you from Bariloche to San Martin de Los Andes in the north on route 40 (which runs the whole length of Argentina) visiting 7 lakes on the way; Lago Nahuel Huapi, L. Correntoso, L. Espejo, L. Villarino, L. Falkner, L. Machonico asnd L. Lacar. You can do the whole tour in a longish day trip from Bariloche and many people do but that just wouldn't be our way, now would it?

So, in a hired car we set out for Villa La Angostura, some 90 klms away but still on the same lake. It's a lovely scenic drive winding along the northern edge of the lake and we arrived in plenty of time to find a room. Except that, although Angostura is reasonably small and really quite a nice place, we just fancied something a little more rural. And so we pressed on towards Villa Traful.

Traful is also set on a lake, Lago Traful, but it isn't on one of the classic 7 lakes and its a 25 klms ride along a dirt road to get there. But it is well worth the effort because, for once, the lake laps virtually to your door and it is set amidst glorious mountain scenery. Somehow or other, the Argentinians seems to build their towns next to but not right on the shores of their lakes, which I don't quite understand. It's as though they expect some water demon or other to come charging out of the lake in the night and steal all their children. But Traful doesn't turn its back on the lake and instead embraces it. And a local told us today how the mood of the lake changes every day and that mood affects the whole village. And having been here a few days I can well appreciate that.

Although we branched off the main classic route in typical Mellors style, we knew that we just had to complete the complement of 7 lakes so the next day we drove off towards San Martin de Los Andes, taking in the rest of the lakes on the way. Although they are interesting in their own right the lakes need to be viewed set against the backdrop of the mountains that surround them. There are few settlements here, few Estancias even. Just mountains and lakes. We eventually reached San Martin, set at the 'thin' end of Lago Lacar and, again, rather turning its back on the water. But whereas Bariloche had been a bit of a disappointment as a town, San Martin was the opposite. The streets were wide and spacious, clean, well cared for, well kept pavements (the pavements in Argentina are for the most part a serious hazard to life and limb) and, finally, with a Swiss mountain resort air. OK, the chocolate here still isn't any good but the deli shops are amazing. Cured meats, tasty cheeses, a fine selection of nuts and pulses. An Epicurian dream.

And so we spent a happy few hours in San Martin before returning (through the aforementioned snow which, thankfully, didn't settle) to our little wooden bungalow beside Lago Traful. We stoked up the woodburning stove because it really is quite cold here (those of you in the UK will be pleased to know) and settled in for a lovely evening. Spending three days in this delightful spot has enabled us to explore the area around the lake more. There are several hikes to some lovely waterfalls and if you've the energy there's an 8 hour slog up to the top of Cerro Traful for some fantastic views - reputedly. We took the easy option and drove the car out to the local mirador for some good views of the lake.

We then drove on down the valley towards Confluencia. It's a beautiful wide valley with grass pastures, cows and horses. But the rock formations surrounding the valley are amazing. What look to be battlements are perched upon a conical hillside, there are fingers of God pointing to the sky, and any number of fanciful shapes which you can make into whatever takes your fancy. I swear I saw Elvis up there on the skyline!

On the way out of Traful we picked up Susana, a delightful hitch-hiker from Southern Spain who is back-packing around South America. Like us, she's done a lot of travelling so we spent the journey to Villa La Angostura swapping traveller's tales. It seemed a nice way to end our trip for tomorrow we fly back to Buenos Aires for two nights before boarding the 'plane home on Christmas day. It's been a great trip, with a few frustrations but also a lot of highlights; fantastic scenery, great hiking, wonderful wildlife. But, most of all, we've really enjoyed being with Argentinians. They are so warm and friendly, helpful and kind. They have really made our journey so much more enjoyable.

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