The holiday capital of the Argentine South, SAN CARLOS DE BARILOCHE is one of those places that Argentines always tell you not to miss, the kind of hype that can easily lead to disappointment. Europeans familiar with the Alps – or North Americans or New Zealanders used to similar scenery – are unlikely to travel thousands of miles to see a simulacrum of Switzerland. Yet the city, the capital of Río Negro state, is undeniably worth the trip because it is the main base for visiting the stunningly pristine landscapes that surround it.
Bariloche, as it is nearly always called, rests up against the slopes of Cerro Otto, behind which rear the spire-tipped crests of the Cerro Catedral massif. Everything in Bariloche faces the mesmerizing Lago Nahuel Huapi, one of the scores of lakes that give the region its name, but something went massively wrong with the urban planning – the main road artery was built along the shore, severing the centre from the town’s best feature. The Parque Nacional Nahuel Huapi, the prime reason for winging your way here, surrounds the town and you’ll want to head out to discover its many treasures as soon as possible. The town’s beach is narrow but pleasant enough and the views are predictably spectacular, but the water is cold even in summer.
The town’s lifeblood is tourism, with getting on for a million visitors arriving annually. This is a place of secular pilgrimage for the nation’s students, who flood here in January and February on their summer breaks, plus coachloads of young Israelis and Brazilians. None of these necessarily comes in search of the true mountain experience, but they often end up having one, pushed out of town by the inflated high-season prices of hotels and clubs. In winter, it’s specifically the nearby ski resort of Cerro Catedral that draws the crowds. At peak times, in particular, the excesses of commercialization and crowds of tourists may spoil your visit. Nevertheless, the place does offer remarkably painless access to many beautiful and genuinely wild sections of the Andean cordillera, and out of season (May–June or Sept–Nov) the town is still big enough to retain some life of its own.
Before the incursions of the Mapuche and Spanish, the area was the domain of indigenous tribes, whose livelihood largely depended on the lake and trade with their western, Mapuche, counterparts. The discovery of their mountain passes (the name Bariloche is derived from a native word meaning “people from beyond the mountains”) became an obsession of early Spanish explorers in Chile, many of whom were desperate to hunt down the wealth of the mythical City of the Caesars. Knowledge of the passes’ whereabouts was a closely guarded secret until the 1670s. The history of the non-autochthonous presence in the region really began when the Jesuit Nicolás Mascardi was dispatched by the Viceroy to found a mission around that time. The natives put paid to Mascardi and his successors and, in 1717, the mission was abandoned. The local indigenous groups took one Jesuit introduction more to their hearts than Christianity: the apple (manzana). Used for cider, wild apples became so popular that the region’s Mapuche tribes became known as Manzaneros.
Modern Bariloche has its roots in the arrival of German settlers from southern Chile in the early twentieth century, but was tiny until the creation of the national park in 1937. In recent decades, the population has skyrocketed, and the town is now a major urban centre, though the homogeneity of its original alpine-style architecture has sadly been swamped by a messy conglomerate of high-rise apartment blocks. In 2011, the eruption of volcano Pueyehue in Chile, just over 90km from Bariloche, carpeted the surrounding area in ash. There were severe disruptions to flights as far as Buenos Aires for some months and the mess took time to clear up, with some people shutting up shop altogether and leaving town. By 2013, however, the volcano was slumbering again and life had largely returned to normal.