The (Unplanned) Road North Part 1: Puerto Natales, El Calafate, Bariloche

After conquering The W and Salkantay within the span of a few weeks we were feeling pretty darn invincible. We were also ready to finally let go of planning for a bit and embrace spontaneity. The last few years we had seen our lives becoming more and more meticulously planned. From well-structured one-week vacations to dinner plans made with friends weeks in advance there was little room for unscripted adventure. A growing desire for more room to explore the world and ourselves was one of the major reasons we decided to take this trip, and so we decided now was as good a time as any to start throwing caution in the wind and see where it took us!

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Our final trek out of Patagonia — we did it!

We returned from our trek with no plans for the next 2 weeks. We dreamed of hopping a boat up through the glacier-filled lakes of Patagonia, grabbing an amazing last minute deal on a camper van through the Chilean Lakes district, and tasting wine at intimate family vineyards.

Not a single one of those scenarios happened. However, we did discover delicious micro-breweries, watched house-sized chunks of glacier crash down, biked Argentinian mountains, and watched an active volcano explode. Spontaneity for the win!

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Biking the mountains of Bariloche, Argentina.

Our first stop back from the W was another couple nights in Puerto Natales to do some much needed laundry and our sort out our next steps. While I was impatient to get on the road, I can’t say I was bummed that we got a little extra time in this outdoorsy town near the bottom of the world.

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One last sunset in Puerto Natales, Chile.

With help from a friendly Argentinian working at our hostel, The Singing Lamb, we decided our best bet for seeing more of the South (and not totally breaking the bank) would be to bus our way up through Argentina. We were a bit wary of so much bus time after our epic 52 hours through the northern part of the country, but our new friend promised that buses in Argentina would be a bit more luxe. Bussing up would also allow us to check out some awesome sites along the way. A bit of research and a few more recommendations and we quickly settled on El Calafate and Bariloche for our first two stops in Argentina.

And so, we bought our first ticket paid our online reciprocity fee (US passport holders, take note!), and set off the next day.

The bus ride was rather uneventful, and the boarder crossing in Argentina looked more like a forgotten ranch house than an entry point to South America’s second largest country.  Still, processing a full bus of people through customs does take awhile so we had plenty of time to admire the desert scenery. Amazing how hot and dry everything was, less than 100km from the snow-capped peaks of Torres del Paine where we were drenched in daily rain/snow/sleet storms!

Traffic jam at the border crossing.
Traffic jam at the border crossing.

 

We arrived at I Keu Ken hostel, just outside of El Calafate that evening. The views looking out over the lake were beautiful. This, combined with it’s proximity to

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The view from hostel I Keu Ken in El Calafate.

a major grocery store and free breakfast made up for the small-ish shared dorm rooms. After an expensive week on the W our budget needed the recovery as much as our sore muscles!

 

Our first task: currency exchange and booking a bus out to Perito Moreno glacier, the reason for our stopover in this town. Happily, our hostel was able to take care of both for us. Argentina was the first place where we didn’t just hit up an ATM for cash (our Schwab bank card reimburses all ATM fees, which means we usually just get cash directly from a local ATM).  However, currency controls have made it much more advantageous to exchange dollars for pesos at local businesses, a tip we received from other travelers that ended up saving us quite a bit.

Sunset over the lake in El Calafate, Argentina.
Sunset over the lake in El Calafate, Argentina.

With bus tickets and Argentinian pesos in hand we set off early the next morning to see our second glacier of the trip.

It was stunning.

The Perito Moreno glacier is one of only 3 in Patagonia that is growing (yes, it’s getting bigger!). Our first glimpse of Perito Moreno was a lookout point where we could see it spread all the way across Argentino Lake, essentially splitting the lake into two. Continuing on a bit further we were dropped off at the visitor center, and spent the next couple hours on the great network of walking trails that wrapped around for close-up views. It was an unusually warm fall day, and the heat from the sun was creating a pretty spectacular show: huge, house-sized chunks of glacier would sporadically come loose and crash down into the lake below with a dynamite-force “boom”! It was so incredible to see an entire side of the glacier just slip off, it’s power reinforced by the waves that raced in tsunami-fashion away from the spot where it hit.

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The next day we had a few hours to check out the town on our way to the bus. The town caters pretty exclusively to tourists with lots of souvenir shops, ski shops, and restaurants. We found a cute little cafe with a back patio where we sampled the local food and beer and enjoyed a bit of sunshine before the next leg of our journey.

The bus to our next stop, Bariloche, would be the longest since our epic Peru-Santiago trip. Thankfully, Argentina’s bus network is pretty well established and we were able to secure ourselves more luxurious “semi-cama” seats that reclined enough to almost resemble a bed for our 24-hours on the road.

Bariloche was another town recommended to us by the Argentinean host at our Puerto Natales hostel, and it did not disappoint. Described as Argentina’s ski vacation destination it immediately reminded us of one of our favorite local spots: Lake Tahoe. Because it was fall the mountains were not yet covered with snow, which for us meant low season prices and lots of outdoor fun!

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Bariloche’s gorgeous lake, surrounded by wooden houses and plenty of scenic lookouts.

We stayed at Green House Hostel a few miles outside of town. The house was cozy with a friendly house cat, and the lake was just a quick walk down the street. I happily took advantage of the lake-side trail for a morning run.

 

In addition to it’s winter-time fun, Bariloche is also known for it’s mountain biking trails, chocolate, and micro-breweries. Fueled with confidence from our hiking adventures earlier in the month we decided to tackle the much lauded 25 mile loop around Lago Moreno Oeste. The sweeping vistas were unparalleled…as were the hills we climbed to reach them! My perspective may be a bit skewed, though; my last time on a bicycle was a year and a half earlier during an adult learn how to ride class on the flat paved paths of Golden Gate Park, a far cry from the winding mountain roads in southern Argentina!

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Bariloche’s stunning cathedral.

The next day we opted for a bit less strenuous activities, and set off for a self-guided walking tour of the town which culminated in lots of chocolate tasting, a vegetarian lunch, and happy hour at La Cruz, our new favorite micro-brewery. While there are plenty of options for beer aficionados in this town we found ourselves coming back to La Cruz. The beer was excellent, the patio perfect for admiring Argentina’s brightly hued sunsets, and lots of friendly locals.

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Sorbet-colored sky, no filter needed.

Next up: back across the boarder to Chile as we continue our journey North.

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