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Patagonian Lake Crossing - From Bariloche To Puerto Montt
Blindfold a Swiss, bundle him into a jet plane, fly him across the world and release him in the remote town of San Carlos de Bariloche in northern Patagonia, Argentina, and he will swear that he is back home again. Swiss-German alpine architecture, lakes, glaciers, snow-bright peaks, St Bernard dogs and even superb chocolates - these are also part of the quintessential Bariloche.
Even among the predominantly Latin faces thronging the streets of this popular and prosperous Andean town, our transposed Swiss would see clear evidence of home in the faces of the descendants of Swiss, German, Basque, Italian and French migrants who founded Bariloche in the latter years of the 19th century. It is no wonder that they stayed. For here, more than 1500 kilometers south of capital Buenos Aires and in the heart of Argentina's sprawling lakeland, they discovered a part of the world where their European nostalgia could be truly anchored. A home away from home - the "Switzerland of South America". Back in those days they could not have known that the small settlements established around the shores of 100 kilometer-long Lake Nahuel Huapi would become South America's most prestigious ski resort and base for a vast wilderness national park of 800,000 hectares.
Bariloche, today a chic center of about 100,000 inhabitants, has another claim to fame. It harboured, say locals, those notorious gringos adopted so glamorously by Hollywood - Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. These outlaws, in company with beautiful gun moll Etta, apparently holed up in Bariloche as they were heading north toward their final shoot-out in the Bolivian highlands.
According to the owner of a chocolate shop on Bariloche's main street, Butch, Sundance and Etta first arrived in Patagonia on the run from US authorities. "They bought a cattle ranch south of Bariloche in Welsh-settled Patagonia but quickly found that breeding cattle was a very dull way to make a living," he explained. "So they went back to robbing banks. They did a couple of holdups in southern Patagonia before going on the run again. It was during this period that they dropped into Bariloche."
These days, planeloads of gringos arrive in this town to enjoy its alpine and lakeland treasures. Bariloche is capitalizing on the region's largely undisturbed, underdeveloped and unpolluted environment of mountains, lakes, rivers and forests. "Although Argentina has gone through difficult economic periods, we really haven't been hurt too much down here in Bariloche," confessed the friendly chocolate-shop owner, adding stuffily, "You see, this is more a place for those who have plenty of money and are more discriminating."
I did not tell him how years ago, as broke as two Argentine pensioners, my late husband and I tramped the wild national park, pulled trout as long as my arm out of its misty lakes, dossed down on damp turf in thick forests of mossy-trunked cypress, saw red deer scamper across streams as sweetly salubrious as Perrier water and observed condors circling on thermals close to the flanks of the tri-peaked, 3554 meter Mt Tronador volcano, which sits majestically on the Argentine-Chilean-Andean border. And all on the cheap. The old pioneers would have understood how to do that. Snobbery was not in fashion in those days.
You do not really need big bucks today unless you want to travel limousine class. Naturally, if you arrive in the ski season, costs are higher than at any other time. But there are compensations, insisted Alfredo, a handsome local waiter who was a youthful Buenos Aires drop-out with a passion for mountain climbing. "In the ski season, there are more divorcees in Bariloche than anywhere else in South America," he said with delight. "I just love this town." For skiers, nearby Cerro Catedral, just a short bus ride from Bariloche, offers 67 kilometers of varying ski terrain. In winter, this 2358 meter mountain is transformed into an international ski resort. Outside winter there is much more to do, such as horse riding (you can cross the Andes on some itineraries), rafting, sailing, hunting, fishing, trekking and mountain climbing.
Bariloche is the key town on the Argentine-Chilean lake route linking Patagonia with the Pacific coast. This day-long journey from Bariloche's Lake Nahuel Huapi to Puerto Montt on Chile's Pacific coast - about 1000 kilometers south of the Chilean capital of Santiago - is undoubtedly one of the most spectacular Andean crossings on the continent. There are only two routes through the Andes from Bariloche to Puerto Montt. One is via a necklace of lakes, the other a day-long road trip. The picturesque bus trip skirts Lake Nahuel Huapi before traversing the Andes over a low pass and entering rich Chilean agricultural terrain, but it cannot emulate the picture-postcard beauty of the lake crossing.
Back in the days of Butch and Sundance, the lake trip reputedly took a little more than three days. Even two decades ago, when I first made this crossing, connections were irregular. But today you can breakfast in Bariloche and dine the same evening on plate-size crabs in Puerto Montt. Boats depart before sunrise from downtown Bariloche or from Puerto Pañuelo, about 30 kilometers from town in front of the unforgettably conspicuous Llao Llao Hotel and Resort. This five-star hotel is situated on a hillside with a backdrop of gaunt mountains. Anyone who cannot afford to spend a night there should at least savor a bottle of fine Argentine red in the cosy bar that overlooks the lake and the panorama of distant Andean peaks. If you can afford to splurge, then this is the perfect place to begin the Andean crossing via the lakes.
During my most recent crossing, I chose a windless morning when the lake surface was as smooth as a mirror, crisply reflecting the resplendent profiles of surrounding peaks. As the powerful catamaran sliced toward Puerto Blest in a far western finger of the lake, the sun rose behind banks of cloud, angling shafts of buttery light along the sheer granite walls encompassing the frigid waters. Mist streamed skywards like billows of smoke. Ninety minutes later we purred into Puerto Blest, a one-boat town where a couple of buses waited to ferry passengers a few kilometers to Puerto Alegre, the tiny port of the next lake. This is Lake Frias, a small, greenish lake cradled between heaving mountains that are a well known condor haven. We could see these huge birds cruising in the thin air high above. We boarded a ferry - a quaint old chugger from a forgotten era - that conveyed us across the lake to Puerto Frias. From here a powerful bus puffed 27 kilometers up and down a forested mountain to reach Peulla, where we went through Chilean Customs. The civilized but isolated hotel of Peulla, with its squadron of fussing waitresses, was waiting for the passengers with a fine lunch.
Those heading to Puerto Montt were then bussed a few hundred meters to Lake Todos los Santos for the two-hour boat trip to the port of Petrohue. This crossing is dominated by the presence of the 2600 meter Osomo volcano, which stands majestically on the northern littoral. From Petrohue, passengers clambered into buses for a smooth two-hour journey to Puerto Montt. The afternoon was by now well advanced and my brain was reeling from the feast of lake and alpine images. But there was more, for the bus driver stopped briefly at the whirling, snorting Petrohue rapids to allow travelers to witness the mighty shredding of a fast-flowing river by a spine of razor-sharp volcanic rocks. This, quipped the driver, was the ideal place for a murder.
We counted the passengers and got back on the road again. Passing farms and fertile green pastures, the bus roared around Lake Llanquihue, one of the country's most popular lakes. Much of this area was settled in the 19th century by Germans, which explains the many blond, blue-eyed German-speaking Chileans with names such as Wolfgang and Heidi. Many live in Puerto Varas, a charming lakeside town that stares defiantly across at the Osomo volcano.
Some travelers prefer to overnight in this tidy, friendly town rather than Puerto Montt. You can relax in a hotel room and become mesmerized by the splendid lake and volcano views. This was my late husband's and my intention during our first trip years ago. Disembarking from the Puerto Montt bus, we were staggered by the overwhelming reception - a beaming local German delegation and a brass band that burst into cheers and song as our Australian feet hit the soil. We savored every moment, only to discover that my husband had been mistaken for a long-awaited Lutheran minister from Germany, who had missed the bus.
Puerto Montt, only another 30 minutes away and the last stop on this memorable lake crossing, is a rather untidy city circling a wide bay. Its claim to fame is the abundant, diverse and cheap seafood available. Most people stay just long enough to wrestle with the huge crabs and giant, juicy oysters before heading back to Bariloche by bus next day or on to another destination in Chile or Argentina.